An Alternative to True Detective: Feminism & Atheism in Top of the Lake

WARNING: Contains spoilers of Top of the Lake and True Detective. You’ve been warned, yo! Let your Netflix binge-watch commence.

I loved True Detective. I gorged on it. But it wasn’t perfect and, as Alabama’s pointed out, the women in it were either strippers or whores, with the exception of wife Michelle Monaghan, who spent most of the film painted as some sort of frigid vanilla homemaker. These poles of representation of women are cliché, sure, but standard fare, and for every strong female lead we’re given, we have to sit through 8 hours of television in which we visit strip clubs, I can only assume because a pair of perfect orb-like tits bouncing in the backdrop can help us digest dialogue better?

Still there were a million things True Detective did right: the scenery, the music, the undercurrent of horror film, the cult-like religious aspect, the duality of Woody Harrelson’s god-fearing-fuck-up vs McConaughey’s brinkmanship-atheist. But that ending? Spoilers-aside, was the show really suggesting the universe had some sort of grand design or that, god forbid, there’s an afterlife or just meaning to anything at all?

Top of the Lake is in some ways a tonic to True Detective, and not only for the fact the lead’s a woman. A super fucked up woman, to be clear: no pant suits or Jimmy Choos here. Our detective, Robin, played by Elisabeth Moss, wears hoodies and denim shorts, and exercises as much questionable behaviour as TD’s leads: she drinks too much, lets her personal life interfere with her work, and fraternises with a host of really just weird people. And she’s unexpectedly violent, anger bubbling so far beneath the surface it’s truly shocking when she unleashes her wrath. Though these outbursts are almost always deserved.

Returning to her hometown to spend time with her mother who has cancer, Robin gets asked to help out in an unusual case: a 12 year old girl has tried to kill herself, while 5 months pregnant, and no-one knows who the father is. The girl, Tui, subsequently goes missing, drawing Robin into a complicated case of missing persons, trying to unravel the mystery of this close-knit community whilst not losing her own mind, by way of a myriad of personal issues she makes McConaughey’s detective like he’s just having a case of the Mondays.

Top of the Lake has absolutely considered its representation of women, and has created a cast of completely complicated and, at times, plain awful women, who have made terrible mistakes and will continue making them, as is their right. What sets these women apart from those in TD is that they aren’t background fodder, stripping for camera, or mutilated corpses. Robin, our lead, is ripe with personal dilemmas: she’s been given an ultimatum by her longstanding fiancé, and is stuck in a fog cloud akin to Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia. She feels like she /should/ take the next step and settle down, but can’t shake the feeling she’s shoving herself into a box she doesn’t fit. Her mother is dying, and her dad is dead, and she’s returning to a hometown she left following immense personal trauma over a decade ago. And the hometown is not ghost free: her old boyfriend is back. She’s a woman making difficult choices, clear in the knowledge that perhaps there is no right choice, just messy guess-work.

Co-written and directed by Jane Campion, and co-starring Holly Hunter, Top of the Lake is constantly interested in where women fit in society, not only where they’re supposed to sit, but the lines they straddle and the boundaries they cross in trying to express themselves and be authentic. Where TD had a brothel of women living in a trailer park, all supporting each other to earn a living, TOTL has a commune of women living on a piece of land called Paradise. They each have their own shipping container which they make home, for which they pay rent because nothing is free, supporting each other by sharing chores and partaking in a form of spiritual guidance from head-honcho Holly Hunter, at her ethereal best. Paradise increasingly becomes a safe haven, refuge from the overly-masculine island, run in equal measure by the predominantly male police force, and vigilante landowner Matt, who is quite literally everyone’s patriarch. Interesting that this show carves out a portion of the landscape for women, and where TD’s religious beliefs always dangerously reverted to the question of redemption by means of an all-encompassing creator, TOTL revels in its atheism, with Holly Hunter’s matriarch providing a clarity migraine-sharp. Her character has supposedly survived death, or been brought back to life: she sees everything and nothing. And she presents no illusions that redemption is a gift to be bestowed, or that the afterlife’s a thang, y’all.

And these women of Paradise, they’re complicated. They’re destructive and damaged and miserable. They don’t know how to fix themselves, but being in this place, that’s their stab at betterment, at trying to carve a new life path. And above all, these women are feminists through and through. Several of them have escaped relationships that were either abusive or disappointing, and refuse to be defined by other people anymore. They’re on a self-exploratory mission. But they’re so deeply flawed, they continue their patterns of self-destructive behaviour, never asking for forgiveness. They don’t fall on their knees and pray for better or ask someone else to fix their messes. They have support from the other women at Paradise, but ultimately they get up of their own volition. They begin again. They don’t need permission of validation to do so.

One of the women from the camp creates a new rule for herself – she won’t spend longer than seven minutes with a man, the time she has concluded it takes for her to develop strong feelings for somebody. She pays a man at the local bar for sex and sets a stop watch. She instructs him what to do, and there’s no promise of dinner after. And there’s something incredibly empowering about that.

These women repeatedly get called lesbians and feminists like the words are insults or slurs. The women at Paradise bathe naked and are often shown walking around in the backdrop without clothes on (in sharp contrast to the women in the background of TD, who are almost always disrobing for men’s eyes or money). There’s something totally liberating in this cast of women being naked for reasons other than exhibitionism or sexual gratification. Not that there’s anything wrong with either under some circumstances, but here, these women feel real, unashamed, and relatable. Nothing fake or photoshopped. And this haranguing of an old stereotype, that women who don’t want or need men must be lesbians, are thrown that word like it’s a negative label, is consistently challenged. In what turns into a bar brawl, Elisabeth Moss asks a group of men what would be so wrong with being a lesbian or a feminist. They have no retort but sniggers. The women know that labels assigned by other people mean about as much as Heat magazine exclusives. And why not be both, anyway?

Perhaps even more fittingly, the victims of True Detective and Top of the Lake worship at very different alters. In TD, it’s a string of evangelical church schools under investigation for abuse, and a travelling ministry. In TOTL, there’s little in the way of education in such a small community, apart from the barista training all the young people undertake, almost like the show’s saying that Starbucks is the new religion here, the thing we indoctrinate our kids with before they have a choice. More important than any old Jesus.

TOTL still utilises bountiful religious references. Not only do the show’s women live in Paradise, but the island’s patriarch is called Matt, 3 of his sons being Mark, Luke and Johnno. Matt is a religious, if inherently corrupt, character who flagellates himself at his mothers grave, a continuation I guess of abuse she projected on him while she was alive. There’s something so Catholic about it too, though, in praying to her as a saint, and promising change on her behalf. But these references seem to be there in the way England considers itself a Christian country: historically. In actuality, we’re no more tied to one religion, or any religion for that matter, than Katy Perry is to a hair shade. Religion is the undercurrent, the currency of stability, a throwback to a time we refuse to let go of, because something exists inside our bones or DNA, and even if our brains have relinquished belief, there’s a primal drive to gap fill. TOTL is very much about human beings and their sticky, messy humanity, severed from any pre-existing higher power.

Top of the Lake is interested in romantic relationships, and does a “who will she end up with” of sorts for our protagonist. However, in a plethora of stories with a female lead, we’re used to seeing her be fought over, and having to make a super important choice between two difficult to distinguish between men. Not so, here. There are a host of men vying for the attentions of this beautiful basket case of a woman Elisabeth Moss, but whether any of them are prospects is an important question. And what interests me most is the borderline sexual harassment at work she endures from her boss, Al, head of the police force. Sure, it’s painted as romantic, the moments he breaks from boss-mode to bestow a stellar line on her, that under different circumstances, might seem romantic: he says she’s his angel, proposes, invites her out repeatedly. But when do romantic intentions cross the line into stalking and/or harassment. And being her work superior, should he be calling her his angel, and asking her personal questions about her sex life? Moss handles these advances professionally and never seems uncomfortable. She ignores him for the most part, keeping the relationship fairly professional, though his ‘charms’ work on her on a couple of occasions, when she has dinner with him, or they take a trip alone on his boat. This idea that there’s no such thing as a romantic lead in real life, is an interesting shift, especially when you take dialogue which in a romantic comedy would be considered cute, but here seems staid, creepy and a cause for concern.

The sexism at work pervades, and Moss finds colleagues gossiping about her, spreading rumours, with people leaving meetings she’s chairing before she’s finished. Ultimately, she uses this difficult situation to her advantage: no-one really expects Moss to solve the case, as they expect so little of her. This underestimation means that she’s operating on the outskirts, in her own time; weaker people would’ve quit sooner. Her drive runs deep, inexplicably tied to her own past, but she doesn’t give up.

Examining feminism and atheism barely scratches the surface in a show that is unafraid of subject matter such as incest and abuse and child pregnancy and grievous misuses of power. But True Detective season 2 should take note: it’s possible to break with cliché and maintain beautiful cinematography and style touches true to genre. Time we made our female characters as fierce and fucked-up and multi-faceted as their male counterparts, instead of relegating them to the pieces-of-meat-in-the-background territory they’ve become way too accustomed to.



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