The Impossible Problem of Forcing Diversity in Art

By  · Published on June 29th, 2015

Does True Detective owe its audience diversity? Does any show, if it compromises the artistic vision?

This is the core question of an article from Phil Nobile, Jr. at Birth Movies Death – a thousand eloquent words which grapple with two unnamed, too-familiar catch-22s in popular art. The first is that demanding change (as fans did after True Detective’s electric, disturbing first season) can have a delegitimizing effect. No one wants to be a quota hire, no one wants to “function as a target for agenda-driven detractors,” as Nobile puts it). However, in order to bring about change, you have to demand it. Purposeful action has to be taken.

If you don’t believe that second part, consider how far diversity has come in the century that movies have been around. For those interested in seeing a greater diversity of stories and personnel, waiting simply hasn’t worked.

Nobile notes that Marty and Rust (Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey) from the first season are flawed creatures, dissected as commentary on the depravity that the male mind can summon, mirrored by the serial killer they chase. They are broken, and they break the things around them, finding redemption solely in their tenacity to stop a murderer. No one walks away from the show wishing genuinely they were Rust and Marty.

Well, some might, but complicated art is always going to be interpreted in opposing ways. Some people will recognize Travis Bickle and Tyler Durden as villains and tragic figures, some will think they’re heroic icons of Cool to emulate, some will see them as the flawed, angry things who live somewhere in the murky middle. When you write complex characters, you run the risk of complex interpretations.

It’s especially true of film noir – a genre steeped in worlds where no one is the hero, not even the main character. His (and it’s almost always “his”) cause may seem noble in the microcosm, but his past and his methods paint him as an outsider for a reason. Some will see the pain or dispensability inflicted on women in True Detective season one and wince at the volume of misery that sweats through the button-up shirts of our “heroes.” Some will see it as another element to their devil may care power and prowess, aching to reach out and grab that sort of bullying pulpit for themselves. People are fucking complicated.

We sometimes have trouble if a story doesn’t have a single good character. We’re willing to reach out to the closest facsimile, or the character who closest fits into the role within the narrative pattern. Take Blade Runner.

Deckard isn’t the villain of the movie, even though he forces sex on an android and exists purely as a hunting machine with little thought for the consequences of his actions. Even though we spend most of our time with him, hero-style, he’s a villain of the movie. Roy Batty, dove-carrying life saver that he is, is still a violent child who destroys while running down a futile path that can’t possibly lead to survival or salvation. None of that keeps us from cheering for and, sometimes, identifying with them.

The truth is, though, we’re all capable of siding with the bad guys. We’re human. So when Rust and Marty look up at the night sky, praising themselves with poetry about how they done good, we mentally evade all the ugly stuff for a moment and revere them. We’re happy they survived, happy they triumphed, happy we aren’t married to them and that they aren’t our fathers. Ultimately, they achieve one goal that operates for the greater good (arguably years too late for it even to matter much), and the rest of their lives are unenviable shit piles of their own creation. Yes, we see brutality, but we aren’t supposed to find it appealing. We’re supposed to be disgusted by it, to feel uneasy about enjoying Rust and Marty’s relatively Hollywood ending.

Recognizing the moral complexity and beauty of the show’s buried ethical message, Nobile continues:

“The counter-argument might be that we’ve had plenty of stories about troubled white men, that a sympathetic portrayal of corrupt cops is culturally tone-deaf. Those arguments are pushing a non-artistic agenda, a well-meaning tail trying to wag a dog, and it will most likely never result in quality content. Change is needed in the form of giving new voices an equal platform and by allowing for truly diverse representation, not by breaking into an ice cream shop and demanding the manager start making necklaces. That’s to say nothing of the fact that the ugly misanthropy in True Detective is kind of the point, in a number of ways. It’s maybe not just about the men in the story, but also the man telling the story. There’s an anthropological value to mining what middle-aged white guy Nic Pizzolatto is saying about middle-aged white guys, and forcing his hand to write about something else feels destructive.”

HBO

Nobile’s article is a smart articulation in the abstract, but as for True Detective itself, it also jumps the gun in a young second season. We have no idea yet whether or not Rachel McAdams’ Detective Bezzerides will be a beautifully rendered, rounded character or not, so there’s little point in asking specifically whether her inclusion – ostensibly coerced by a forceful public – will pay off or not. Whether openly asking our artists for greater diversity (or, an even lower bar, to stop shoving women into refrigerators) can achieve an act of social awareness and great art simultaneously.We have to wait until the final episode for that.

The article, however, tacitly suggests that Bezzerides can be nothing more than a living peace offering, that she’s destined to have an asterisk by her name, and I don’t know that that’s the case. I don’t recognize that non-artistic parameters and quality content are mutually exclusive. (Just as artistic freedom and quality content aren’t mutually inclusive.)

If Bezzerides (and the other female figures we meet) are a triumph in the vein of the first season, all except the most cynical – with our tiny attention spans – will either forget or ignore the reason why we believe they came to exist, allowing it to be overshadowed by our appreciation that they do.

The article also seems to assume that Nic Pizzolatto – whose singular artistic vision the question gets begged for – isn’t capable of writing interesting women, and that’s also not the case. I wasn’t as bowled over by “Galveston” as others were, but I was still impressed by Raquel “Rocky” Arceneaux and Tiffany, Rocky’s sister – two young, abused damsels who develop their own intelligence and personality in spite of being side characters in the story of their redemptive, male protector. They do bad things, they do good things, they survive. They are also far more interesting than almost all the female characters of True Detective season one, flat as they are. Pizzolatto’s skill has always been in playing in a sandbox with hand-me-down toys while managing to build an intriguing, ugly castle.

We’re living during a time of greater cultural awareness where we’re simultaneously told that diversity won’t organically find its way into stories, and that we can’t call for it to be added. That intransigence leaves us too-conveniently with more of the same. But consumer demand and art have gone hand in hand since throwing rotten fruit was invented.

It’s just that we’ve shifted that judgement (in some ways) to the other side of artistic creation. With social media and an increased interest in how art gets made at the highest level, we’ve simply flipped the equation. We’re making demands before we get to see the product, and the creators can either ignore or accept those demands. The savviest will know when to do which.

The second catch-22 evoked by Nobile’s article is the real issue at the heart of trying both to protect artistic integrity and to demand that art stretch its wingspan beyond troubled, middle-aged, white psyches. It’s one thing to call broadly for diversity, but if you dismiss it on a case by case basis, it withers on the vine. Every creator and studio can pass the missive off on their neighbor, discussing diversity as a great concept while hiring another white male showrunner. Again, there is no impetus to increase diversity except for the one audiences create. We get the world we deserve.

At the end of the day, Pizzolatto and HBO could have ignored calls for treating female characters with better care than to make them all prostitutes, insubstantial home-wreckers and cheated-on housewives. They could have crafted another blistering, laser-focused exploration of great, sweaty men that paid little attention to the role women play in the story. They could have reshot season one and had another strong season. But I’m glad they didn’t. Least of all because of the cliche.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.