Friday, January 25, 2013

Durham County is made by women, but doesn't seem to like them very much

Durham County has been available on Netflix streaming for a while. I'm not sure exactly how long, but long enough that it was only like, #215 on my instant queue, which is at least double that length at this point.

With its easy accessibility, I'm shocked that I can find few people who have critically or in any way academically written about this show. It's a Canadian crime drama in the vein of gritty, American cable shows like Dexter or Boardwalk Empire, but its creators are all women. That seems like it would merit some discussion in and of itself, but then, even I didn't realize this until my twitter friend Eric pointed it out to me. And why would I notice? For a show written by women, it sure seems to have a really poor opinion of them.

pic source:
Like the saying goes, live fast, die young, and leave
a good-looking, scantily clad, severely brutalized corpse.
For the lolz. 
A part of me wants others to watch it so I can discuss it with them. Another part of me is like, "TURN BACK, SARAH!" The pilot episode of Durham County was so incredibly brutal that I got up out of bed and stood in the doorway, weighing whether or not I was actually going to throw up. There's a degree to which I appreciate the grotesqueness of the violence in this show. It's not sexy. When women are violated, your stomach turns, even when the violation is carried out by a good looking antagonist. In many television procedurals, the violence often, at best, places us as detached observers waiting for the next plot twist, and at worst, titillates us. All that glistening, sprayed-on sweat; the dangerously sexy villain gripping the woman's face and speaking in a low growl; the knives dragged sensually down handcuffed bodies. (Seriously, THIS is legitimately the cover of a movie called Sexual Predator) What should be sickening is exciting, sometimes even funny in the case of shows like Castle, Psych, or CSI. Even Dexter, everybody's favorite good guy serial killer, is appealing. His plastic covered homicide hut, his meticulous routine, and his macabre souvenirs are cool. Something you might do to your house on Halloween. Nobody would, in good taste, try to emulate Durham County for fun. It's horrific.

So perhaps that's a backhanded compliment to the show. It made me want to puke because of the way it portrayed brutality against women. Huzzah?

Knowing that it was made by women, I decided not to give up on the show based on the first episode. I figured I'd stick it out and see how they managed to empower the female characters. This never happened. [full disclosure: I only watched the first season. I think that's plenty of time to get its act together.]

Just about every female character they introduce into the show is subsequently killed shortly after we meet her. If she's not killed, she's beaten. If she's not beaten, she's emotionally abused or neglected. 

They function as either foils or motivators for men. For example, the teacher (Ms. Lacroix) is the morally upstanding, virginal love interest of the semi-morally bankrupt cop protagonist (Mike), as well as the sole advocate for the creeptastic antagonist's (Ray) abused son (Ray Jr.). And she gets killed because, um, Ray wants his son to be a plumber, I guess? 

Okay, but where's the "serial killer bait"
line? I always forget. 
Mike's daughter Sadie is the only female character who shows any real strength or common sense. She beats up the guy at school who tormented her and tried to organize her gang rape, getting herself expelled. When her mother offhandedly suggests that two murdered girls who might have been prostitutes were "asking for it" because of their outfits, Sadie rightly shoots back, "You think they DESERVED this?" She bravely (though perhaps unwisely) confronts Ray on several occasions, and is capable of sufficient quick-thinking to let him take advantage of her just long enough to gain the physical upper hand and take him down. But even with all that going for her, she still has this weird moment where she has sex with Ray Jr. at the scene of Ms. Lacroix's murder, basically just so she can then be like, "This is where she died! You should tattle on your dad!" Um... I think there are better ways of tackling the sensitive subject of your boyfriend's dad maybe being a literal ladykiller. Also, Sadie only spends about ten minutes of this show without a love interest and has no female friends. 

You could chalk it all up to moral ambiguity, I suppose. No one's heroic. No one's all good. In fact, they're all mostly bad. It's just that, aside from Sadie, the women in this show are disposable, doormats, and/or emotionally unstable and in hysterics all the time. Mike's wife Audrey, for example, is given lingerie by his rival, our homicidal sociopath Ray, and she freaks out at Mike for finding that weird and inappropriate. I don't care how much cancer (or it might have been AIDS) this lady had; there is no universe in which accepting sexy underwear from the one person in the world your husband hates (and hates because he slept with his ex-girlfriend) is a reasonable act.  

In another episode, Ray's estranged wife Traci, who left him because, duh, he's a horrible effing guy, is suddenly swayed toward sympathy and love for him simply because he puts on his best earnest face and asks her if she still thinks he's the attractive stud she married. Uh, buhscuse me? And then, surprise, surprise, he immediately turns on her, slamming her head into a wall and nearly strangling her before storming out of the house. Then and only then does she finally call the cops and report an assault. And okay, that is somewhat realistic and everything because cycles of abuse happen. Clearly, years of emotional and physical abuse don't happen because people love being degraded and feeling horrible about themselves, contrary to what Rihanna might have you think. But my thing is that she also knew the entire time they were separated that Ray was a suspect in the murder of all these women. And despite all that knowledge, she staunchly defended him. "He's got a temper, but he'd never do that." "And he never hurt you?" "No." HE IS KILLING PEOPLE! GROW A PAIR! (of ovaries, to be clear) The same goes for Audrey. Her husband tells her Ray's a person of interest in multiple murders and she's like, "zOMG, you like, so totes hate him and he'd never do that and I know 'cause I've known him for like, five minutes and he only tried to get in my pants for like, four of them." I get that the couple's having marital problems, but is this show trying to tell me that women are so desperate for affection that they'll ignore HOMICIDE? It's gonna take a lot more than a rose, some lingerie, and a pair of bedroom eyes to make me overlook serial killing as a personality flaw. I don't think I'm alone in that.

Save for the (faceless) topless chicks in the strip club Ray frequents and the one female police officer, there are pretty much zero females on this show who aren't mistreated by one or more men. I'm fairly certain there isn't a single scene that passes the Bechdel test

Serial Killer Man, y u no want play serial killer
games with me?
Don't get me wrong. There are things I like about this show. Ray's increasing frustration with his serial killer hero's refusal to take him seriously, for instance, is brilliant. It's the one chink in his narcissistic armor, and it's hard not to relish those little moments in which he feels as small as he's made everyone around him feel. And at the end of the day, does Durham County have any worse a woman problem than any other crime show on TV? Probably not, aside from the graphic and visceral nature of the violence. I guess it irks me so much because a) I can't seem to find anyone else that mentions this show's problematic view of women (does Canada perhaps not have as many aca-fans as we do?) and b) it was made by women. I just feel like this was a squandered opportunity. 

[day 1607]