Thursday, July 17, 2014

'The Killing' is Kinda Killing Me

SPOILERS for True Detective, Twin Peaks, and The Killing

I haven't finished it yet, but  there are two things in The Killing  that led to me  thinking it is just... Reeeeeally problematic. Okay, so if there's one trope I'm really tired of, it's the "whore gets killed" one in film and on TV (and yeah, I'm sure in books). One version is the Disposable Sex Worker trope, wherein the drama in the piece of pop culture in question centers on the quest to search for the murderer of at least one prostitute. A recent example that garnered much critical acclaim is True Detective. Now, don't get me wrong- I thought it was a fantastic piece of television, and it did a fabulous job of raising some poignant questions. It was well-acted, well-directed, and well-filmed. But the entire plot rested on the objectification of women's bodies, and not a single damn woman in the series had an existence that didn't depend on a man's. Because even the prostitutes at the brothel the detectives visit at one point, their whole schtick and reason to exist in the series is to service men and to be interviewed by the male detectives (or saved, too- another tired trope) (of course, SPOILER, dude ends up sleeping with her later... ugh). Anyway, my point is, I enjoyed the miniseries, but there was no humanity given to any of the victims, not even the main one whose murder the detectives were trying to solve. She's described basically as a whore and a junkie, useless and trashy.

Another and related trope, one I wish had an entry on TV Tropes but doesn't, is what I'm going to call the "Good Girl Has Secret Sex Life (That Kills Her)" trope. I started to really put my finger on this one when watching through Twin Peaks with my roommie in the fall. As Agent Cooper looks into the murder of Laura Palmer, we discover she wasn't the sweet, angelic highschooler all the adults in town thought she was- rather, she was a promiscuous drug addict that knew all sorts of shady dudes that could have potentially been the one(s) to rape and murder her. There's even this really disturbing subplot that she was having sex with her psychologist and left him sexy recordings of her voice. And so as Cooper discovers more and more about her, she's changed from a vivacious homecoming queen to a secret fille fatale that goes after adults instead of "silly highschool boys."

So this brings me to The Killing. In this one, the victim is another highschooler, like Laura Palmer, that supposedly everybody liked and was a good girl and all that kinda jazz. Her name is Rosie. But we quickly learn there's a dude she's been having sex with for at least a year; when a video made the night she was killed is found of that guy and one of his friends raping her (or at least it sure looks like rape), and the two highschool boys are shown it, they both smirk and laugh and dismiss it, one of them flat-out saying, "You ain't got shit." And later in that same episode, the police show Rosie's parents some huge high heels and costume jewelry that they don't recognize as being Rosie's, but those detectives are pretty sure it is. And finally, at the end of the episode, it's heavily implied that Rosie was sleeping with one of her teachers. The thing with the teacher is dragged on and on through the season, and is never fully resolved (I mean, we find out he had been trying to save a Muslim girl at his mosque from an arranged marriage, but it's still never completely proven Rosie and the teacher didn't have inappropriate relations). And toward the end of the season, we find out that she was sneaking around with a fake license to do things like go to casinos. And in the end, it turns out she was basically pulling a Laura Palmer and was taking part in an "introduction service" (read: prostitution/call-girl service) and it was through this that she met her killer.

I should point out, the marketing was strikingly similar between Twin Peaks and The Killing, too. The question of, "Who killed Laura Palmer?" was one of the taglines for the show; "Who killed Rosie Larsen?" is one for The Killing

Yet much of both of these shows emphasizes the sex life of the girl whose murder is being solved, not her killer. Seems a little disingenuine, and the tagline should really read, "Who did [character name] sleep with?" or, "How trashy was [character name]?"

SIDENOTE: There's also some backstory with the main character, Detective Linden, involving a former case that drove her a little over the edge. Said case involved a "dead hooker" (direct quote) that had been "slashed in her apartment" and dead for two weeks- with her six-year-old son trapped in there with her. It's not directly related, but still of note because it's framed as a defining thing for Linden, and it involved a "dead hooker." Literally the only description this victim gets, aside from the word victim, is the aforementioned "dead hooker" line. Her only purpose for being  brought up is as a plot device for angst and mental instability on Linden's part.

And it's important to note that while some time in the first couple episodes of S2, when the sorta-boyfriend gets interrogated again, he claims he and Rosie never slept together because  she'd cry  whenever he tried, we were certainly led to believe for nigh a whole season she had been having regular sex with him, or at least used to- and that this fact somehow contributed to her death. So, you know, teenaged girls can't have sex without being raped and murdered. 

And why does this bother me so? Well, for a few reasons.

I feel like both versions, the out-right prostitute, or the "whoring good girl," so to speak, put the victims on trial. Their backstory and history comes under scrutiny, their humanity is diminished, and they become less of a homicide (and usually rape) victim, and more of a Bad Woman/Girl that got what she deserved or, not-quite-literally dug her own grave. The investigation becomes an attack on the character as a person, under the ruse of tracking down the killer.

And I know prostitutes do get killed, etc. But that's not the point. These overused tropes are easy ways to build up edgy suspense. When the viewers are thinking, "What shady business was that girl into that got her killed?" rather than, "What sick asshole would do that?", we're emphasizing the wrong thing. Because no woman "deserves" or "asks for" being raped, let alone raped and murdered. It's just like how in real life, when a rape victim comes forward, she gets asked how revealing her clothing was, did she guard her drink, why was she out that late in the first place, etc. From a cultural standpoint, it's problematic, because it reinforces notions that a woman is somehow at fault or responsible for whatever violence a man inflicts on her*.

And also, the idea that if a teenager has consensual sex with a boy  her own age, she's a whore that deserves to die... it's just... I mean God. I get that perhaps underaged sex is problematic, but to send the message that it's going to get the girl killed (and, note, the boy doesn't even go to jail for anything, despite being caught drinking more than once). That just says sex is scary and leads to lack of information which leads to more teen pregnancies and just... (And no, I'm not saying that teen pregnancies are going to rise now that The Killing has aired, I'm just saying, teens are gonna bone, it doesn't have to always be about jealousy and murder.)

And when it comes to writing in general... it's lazy. Can you not come up with anything more original?

Really, when it comes to Rosie's backstory, the writers are just throwing tropes against the wall like they were spaghetti: Shady past, alleged teen seductress, the "who's the daddy" game (there's drahmah about that in S2, too), the best friend that's jealous because she's Hollywood homely and Rosie is the one all the boys paid attention to (turns out it was her in the video that looked like a rape)... I'm sure there are more, I just can't think of them. Except with respect to the Native Americans in S2

Which brings me to the second big problem  I'm having with the show. 

In the S2 opener, Rosie's bloody backpack turns up on her parents' front porch. This is like two weeks after she was found, and after the D.A. filed charges on a member of the Seattle city counsel that was running for Mayor (it comes out that the current mayor faked some pictures to frame him). So this is shit-tastic scary- if the killer is out of commission (the city councilman got shot in the S1 finale), why would her backpack show up out of nowhere?

Enter the local natives: So the casino that Rosie was going to in order to presumably meet men through that service was at an Indian casino on tribal lands, property of the fictional Kulamish tribe. And in Season 2, the detectives dig deeper into the casino, and they come across Chief Jackson, a hardass gal that runs the casino and the tribe. In our introduction to her, she goes on about Sacred Mother Earth and some other vague hippie stuff people always assume  is associated with indigenous culture. 
In the first couple episodes of the season, the writers bait the audience into thinking maybe Chief Jackson is in on the murder: She uses thuggish scare tactics with her minions, going so far as to having Linden's partner ASSAULTED by a group of tribal men, she keeps a special room that our detectives are certain has evidence off-limits, she tries to cover up the fact that one of her tribe's members was the person that found Rosie's backpack, and she and her thugs all make claims of trespassing on the part of the Seattle police (she even says it to the councilman running for mayor)- and, importantly, us that as justification for said beating of Linden's partner (when it's really because of the cover-up aspects). And most of the Native adults speak in that kind of forced high, slow, overly-careful, Shatner-esque way that the dudes in this video fake when the white people enter their store (and Chief Jackson does it too, but only sometimes- she has the "accent" during her little storytelling session, but it's gone when she has her meeting with the politicians):

And why does this bother me so? While we do find out that (WHEW!) Rosie was just a maid and waitress at the casino, not a prostitute, it's at the expense of indigenous culture. And this fictional tribe is portrayed as basically a mafia, with a ruthless, bloodthirsty mob boss (Jackson- what an ironic name) as their leader. It's so hard to find representations of Native Americans in pop culture, and when they occur, they usually suck. I know I'm young, but I'm already bloody tired of Noble Savages and Tonto Talk, and now this? What, now tribes are actually just the Sopranos, but with casinos (read: tribal-run brothels) instead of strip clubs?

It's problematic because stereotypes are all the vast majority of white people know. And when that's all they know, they think they're legit. That's why there are still people that think Washington D.C.'s team name shouldn't be changed, that Tonto is "accurate" and (shudder) "culturally sensitive," that wearing a Pocahottie costume is a "tribute," why a lot of people genuinely assume every Native American just gets a "free check" every year for no reason, other than their being  Native American. 

So what is The Killing doing by turning its chief Jackson into a mafioso-type? Adding new, negative stereotypes to the mix of all of the preexisting ones- that tribal casinos are actually sex trafficking rackets that are run as rough and tumble as the Bada Bing, and that any white person that sets foot on tribal lands without the intent to spend money (or, you know, buy a whore) will get put in the hospital. What the fuck, writers?

And I know I'm drawing at straws, here, but while they spend at least the first half of S2 setting Chief Jackson up as yet another potential killer, or at least facilitator of the murder, she doesn't have her own entry on the Wiki page for the show's characters. Which says to me they really don't give a damn about her or the other indigenous people,  really, but rather are just using the Kulamish tribe to set up future plot stuff,  like  the potential for the falsely-accused councilman to eventually become corrupt or something, or to demonstrate how corrupt the current mayor already is- as in, for the development of the white dudes.  Which, like with all of the tropes surrounding Rosie and  her  backstory, is just lazy writing. AN ENTIRE GROUP OF PEOPLE ARE A PLOT DEVICE. Could they not think of something better for the tribe to do? How about Chief Jackson giving a damn about the dead girl? Or at least show us more as to why she's such a hardass. 

I'm like halfway through Season 2. I'll finish it, make no mistake- if only because I want to know who the frak actually did it. I mean, I'll give the writers this, they're definitely doing all they can to toss red herrings and confuse the audience. But I wish they could do it in ways that weren't reductive of women and indigenous people (and that weren't just overdone in general). Maybe the next curveball will be better- I'm hoping so, at least. But it just kinda  kills me- it's obvious the writers are good. And there are lots of great things about the show- I think my favorite plotline involves how Rosie's dad is affected (her mom, though, ugh...). He breaks my heart. So do her brothers, and her aunt. Rosie's family is the best thing about this show. And I also really like the councilman and his story- his backstory is pretty good (although it DOES rely heavily on the death of his wife, ugh), his relationships with both of his campaign advisers are very different but both very emotional and touching, and his scenes are some of my favorite. So yeah, I'll keep going, and I'm rooting for some characters. And these writers, too- that they break out of some of these overdone plot elements and come up with some new stuff. And I'm hoping we figure out more about the fictional Kulamish people (although again, if Chief Jackson doesn't have her own character entry, I'm guessing  she's only going to show up one or two more times at this point).

Here's hoping, at least.

*Yes, I know violence happens  to men, but these tropes only really occur in pop culture with women being killed by men, and the stereotypes perpetuated IRL are the same.