An Abstract Concept

Earlier today, Susan Elizabeth Shepard and Anne Helen Peterson posted a conversation about the women on True Detective. As Shepard indicates, there have been a number of posts over the past week or so about the women on True Detective. Shepard and Peterson try to answer the question “What does it all mean?”

The part of their post (and please read the entire exchange) that stood out for me was the following quote from Shepard:

Or maybe only women think that, and men are able to see it as so much aesthetics and storytelling, which is a distinct and bleak possibility, and I suppose that’s the most depressing conclusion I could come to; that it’s maybe too close to a reality where a certain amount of suffering is a tangible reality for women and an abstract concept to occasion shows of bravado for men.

It was one of the those moments when you read something that is undeniably true and obvious and it had never occurred to you before. It made me feel small and a little ashamed, but also hopeful that maybe things could change.

I have written before about how difficult it is to see things that we are used to filtering out. In those cases I was talking primarily about race. Growing up in Vermont with three sisters and relatively progressive parents (at least with regard to traditional gender roles), I have always been self-conscious about how little experience I have with other races but not about interacting with women. That I may not understand what it’s like to be a woman was logical but I never felt as much distance from women as from, say, black people.

As a white, straight male I have enjoyed the luxury of not only having plenty of representation in popular culture but also the luxury of being treated well in general. I have rarely assumed that my opinion would be discounted because of whom I am. I have spent minimal time in my life looking for evidence of discriminatory behavior. As a white, straight man of above-average height and intelligence, I have lived with the expectation that I will almost always be treated fairly. And I understood that non-white people would not have that expectation. As for women, I saw that the world was changing (the failure of the ERA notwithstanding) and I assumed equality was nigh. (That we have a black president and have not had a woman president is not something I expected.)

My wife is not a white, straight male. My wife is keenly aware of the many ways that diminutive women of color can be mistreated. It was surprising to me one day when my wife asked me during an argument to sit down. She told me that the size difference between us (almost a foot and eighty pounds) meant that I was physically intimidating when we were arguing. My defense, of course, was that I was in no way threatening physical harm, but I had been unable to see the point. In my mind, my wife was giving as good as she got. We were equals arguing passionately. But there is an implied physical threat, not because I’m prone to violent behavior but because I’m a man and because my wife may feel like I’m looming over her and it’s not my place to say that she’s being absurd, just as it’s not my place to defend someone my wife thinks is being racist.

Physical violence between my wife and I is an abstract concept. It’s the type of idea that I can evaluate from a distance. My wife is not allowed that possibility. She has lived in a world in which she must always be vigilant, always consider the possibility. To men this may sound like my wife is paranoid but you can’t be paranoid if the (general) threat is real.

This is all my long way of saying that the violence on television for me is also abstract. I can separate myself from what is happening on the screen, and it’s easier the more fanciful or stylized the violence is. (I am generally not bothered by what is depicted on Hannibal, for example.) And if I was writing for a television series then it would be easy for me to take a mundane situation (a man arguing with his wife) and take it to a violent extreme. It would be a mental exercise, a flexing of creative muscle. (Of course the metaphor has to be stereotypically masculine, right?)

And my wife would probably be bothered by what I wrote, assuming there is some small part of me for which the exercise was wish-fulfillment. I have always taken my wife’s capacity for empathy (and my corresponding lack of it) to be based on factors other than our genders. But reading Shepard’s quote, it makes me consider that gender is a major reason. Maybe living in a world in which the possibility of violence is greater makes the depiction of violence more tangible, less abstract.

It’s strange because my wife and I watch almost all the same shows and generally have similar critical thoughts about them. It occurs to me now, however, that my wife and I have probably never watched the same show, at least to this point. I hope that after reading the post by Shepard and Peterson (and the posts by Emily Nussbaum, Molly Lambert, Alyssa Rosenberg and Willa Paskin) and thinking about this that maybe my wife and I will watch the same shows in the future.

Tell me what you think. Thanks.