True Detective Season 1 Complete Review — Can we quit tolerating blatant misogyny on TV?

True Detective Season 1 Complete Review — Can we quit tolerating blatant misogyny on TV?

This is a complete review of True Detective Season 1, which will be followed by reviews of season 2, 3 & 4 as well. We’ll analyse the themes, authorial intentions (as we always do) and structure of the story, making this a complete review of the entire HBO series.

As usual, on TOSRC, we analyse how fiction is born from the mind of the author, and what it tells us of that author. For more on that, have a look at this page explaining how authorial intentions work, and this one for how multiple authorial intentions work on TV and in shows.

The disrespectful male gaze

True Detective‘s first season opens up on raging disrespect towards women. Misogyny, as they call it, by plunging us into the psyche of presumably writer Nic Pizzolatto, who himself bitched and whined at the absence of sexism and conversely prominent feminist themes of True Detective‘s final season (seems like the ultimate identifier, to me). Unlike what he directed in earlier seasons, is what’s implied.

Since I never liked the word misogyny because I find it poorly defined, and I like specific and lengthy descriptions instead, that’s what this article will be: a lengthy description of the sexist themes and dynamics you’ll find in season 1 of True Detective, sparing us blanket words that don’t dig into the problem enough, and explaining them until you can’t do anything but agree, instead of bitching and arguing like my readers usually do.

Like in Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and so many other TV shows birthed by the male imaginarium, True Detective is a window into the disrespectful male gaze, showing us an amalgamation of female characters, that, like a formless sea, reflect the biased perspective they’re written from.

We have:

  • the side wife (occasionally disrespected, always sidelined)
  • the prostitutes (the non-professional ones)
  • the escorts (the professional ones)
  • the side shag/girlfriend
  • the female murder victim

That’s it.

Season 1 sets the tone by opening with one of these currents, the female murder victim. Then it continues by showing us battered and vulgar looking prostitutes—the series will later upgrade by showing us the glorified types of prostitutes, but equally as disrespected. This contrast is done in season 1 through one of the protagonist’s girlfriends, who fit the slot of the side girlfriend(s)/side shag. Female characters are always either sidelined, belittled, disrespected, put down, any and all attempt for them to behave normally is immediately re-routed towards them being put through some form of disrespect.

And apart from season 2, which we’ll analyse later that gives us a pretty nice break from that nonsense, that really is it. That’s True Detective in a nutshell: sexism. It’s a massively impoverished way of relating to women, with really low and negative feelings towards them, and some other sex issues the protagonists wrestles with. All in all, a Tuesday in sexist television.

And unlike average shows, something even Game of Thrones didn’t struggle with, True Detective truly has no female characters in season 1 that isn’t a skewed stereotype. Every female character from season 1 to season 3 (with a few exceptions in season 2) are a personality-less degrading archetype, more than often seen as vulgar by the mind of the author, and thus portrayed as such, whether that’s in their facial expressions or behaviours. These characters have no connection to how real life people are, and are nothing more than a skewed vision of how the mind of the author thinks and sees things.

Female characters either act the way the male protagonist:

  • imagines they’ll act (any of the disrespected female characters)


  • how he wants them to act (any of the sexualised female characters)

The soul of the story, ran by a singular male author, whose vision of the world we’re presented with across most of True Detective.

True Detective is essentially a witness to the sexist mind of the writer behind the scenes. When you’re watching True Detective, that’s what you’re watching: the skewed and biased understanding of what women are, as told from the perspective of a dysfunctional male writer.

There are way too many infuriating instances, where a female character has an “out of character” reaction, not just in the sense that it’s uncharacteristic for women to react this way, unless they’ve been deeply conditioned to—and even and especially then it would just be pretence to accommodate the external threat. But in the sense that this isn’t how a person would realistically respond in those situations. It’s not just a matter of “women wouldn’t react this way”, because in truth people, existing outside the realm of this warped vision, wouldn’t react this way. The way an actual human being, not a pile of projections, would react.

To understand this better, imagine that a man is placed were put in the shoes of any of the female characters of True Detective‘s first season (or second, or third…). If the results outrage you, shocks you or infuriate you, then you’ve correctly identified the problem.

Most female characters are not where they belong; instead of being either in a neutral or elevated position, they are deliberately in a place where they are belittled and lowered (entering the show with a female murder victim among other examples). Then, the supremest hypocrisy, the judgemental gaze of the show blames the very character for being lower than, as if it’s her fault, even though the culprit is the author’s perception. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, as they say, and the author does not think well of women enough to regard them positively, or write them positively. Keep that in mind.

The issue with it, however, is that it isn’t there to denounce this type of mindset. This distinctive misogynistic feel is supposedly about representing a location-specific time period where mindsets used to be like that (as some have pointed out,

This is not discussing excessive empowerment, such as what we’ll see in True Detective season 4, where disrespect is introduced as an element for the female protagonists to rise above. We’re discussing genuine misogyny, as it exists in the mind of a classic misogynist. It’s not there for any legit or justifiable reason, it’s just disrespect for the sake of it.

Some of you will either be delusional enough to think all this omnipresent sexism is there to denounce it. But there’s a massive difference between using a subject to denounce it (as season 4 does, for instance again, amd again we’ll explore that later), vs implementing elements of it because they are part of your psyche as an author. And some people will want to use this argument to dismiss the problem altogether. Except it’s there: it can’t be dismissed.

And the worst part perhaps, as we’ll explore in season 3’s review, is the level of bias the show has; True Detective is here to give us one man’s opinion, and yet that opinion shoves itself around, and tries to carve a spot for itself despite its obvious, glaring and annoying dysfunctions. In other words, this isn’t something that needs to be excessively featured. Rather, the author should head to a therapist and acknowledge his problems as problems, and fix them, instead of splattering the rest of the world with shit nobody asked to see.

This is yet another show where the male protagonist has a reduced, egocentric perspective. Everything is told from that point of view, and it colours and taints everything; from the characters (impoverished female characters), how the characters view each other (how the female characters are described by male characters), to how the characters act.

How the female characters act:

  • Betty Childress— she is yet another moment of disappointment, where, yet another female character is just an impoverished, vulgar, and in this instance, deranged, character.
  • Most of the prostitutes Hart and Cohle meet during the early stages of their investigation, or any of the prostitutes we meet throughout the series all seasons included.

How the male characters act towards them:

  • Hart towards his wife or either of his girlfriends
  • Cohle giving Maggie a “bros before hoes” attitude to her face in the finale, despite defending her to Hart

The issue is, there are not that many female characters that challenge that in parallel. It’s a significant amount of female characters that are written as vulgar or lowered, with nothing to compensate next to this. Not in season 1, at least.

From season 1:

  • Hart’s girlfriends (fetishisedd female characters)
  • Any of the prostitutes (vulgarity)

From season 2:

  • Ani’s witness, Vera Machiado
  • Any of the prostitutes (? not the escorts)

From season 3:

  • The children’s mother, Lucy Purcell

These impoverished authorial intentions have their tentacles extended right down to the casting decisions; many female actors were picked because they are ugly, in a specifically characteristic way that suits the vulgarity the author wants to stick on women. And the rest of the cast? Is pretty in a way that is easily fetishised by the author. Many of the women look sallow, tired and downtrodden. Their features are twisted, and smell like mistreatment. Every nasty consequence of male-centric women issues are splattered and reflected on their ugly features. And the rest are stereotypically pixie cute, sensual, and overall spamming you with sex appeal. With that aesthetic being characteristically pushed to noticeable extremes; it’s not just one cute girl here and there because good-looking girls exist: it’s the cute girl the protagonist is obviously banging and thus is obviously desirable (=preferable) to him, contrasted by a bunch of women that the soul of the show looks down in a way that is unmistakably sexist.

It is also a bit baffling that people need to be told and proved that this is true, when multiple people have recognised it as true in their own take of the series.

Want to share your thoughts?

Is it about art?

The thing is, there’s already so much media that doesn’t give a good image of women. By good, I mean an accurate image. A lot of female empowerement media are in response to excess sexism, and are often poorly done, with movies like Charlie’s Angels being perfect examples of missing the mark.

In the middle of all this, most people don’t know how to write a properly relatable female character, that isn’t defined by some kind of sexist pattern she has to fight against and rise above—usually presented as her defining trait or character arc—or, worse, that isn’t written through the eyes of someone with women issues.

There’s not enough different types of personalities available out there, diversity and representation, as the public eye and social justice warriors call it, to properly showcase what a woman is in their full picture. And yet, there goes another show, that just adds another layer to it.

People misunderstand going into a topic for the sake of denouncing it, versus coming up with it because it’s what dwells inside your mind. As I teach in my study of fiction, content you come up with is material and content that already exists in your mind. The series is focused on toxic masculinity, because that is what exists in the author’s mind. In this sense, True Detective‘s early seasons is not about explain toxic masculinity, and therefore not some sort of artistic expression of a subject meant to denounce it, but actually a personal rendition of something that exists in the author’s mind, and that is a witness to parts of how the author is as a person.

This is something else I argue about, that many people will think an author can be dissociated from the themes their stories contain, but that is simply untrue. An author’s work is always a reflection of the author, not in the sense that “they, too, are racist, they, too, are misogynistic”, but in the sense that if a work focuses on something specific, it’s because it’s what exists in the author.

To explain further, there is also a distinction to be made in the nature of the content itself: if it is done from a personal place, or if it’s there to denounce it. That is because it is impossible for an author to create something they do not care about on a personal level, and do not personally relate to. None of the great stories are impersonal, because every great story is a witness of the author’s mind, and we publicly designate what is great based on how elevated its substance is. For instance, J.K Rowling uses her world’s equivalent of social class discrimination, and racism, precisely to denounce real life dynamics. When we look at Rowling, we see that she is deeply involved in political activism, and that this type of discrimination is something she personally despises. It, therefore, makes an appearance in her story, as a witness to her distaste for it. It is clear then, that this is about denouncement, because it comes from a personal place of distaste and disapproval of that particular thing, and it is crafted into the story with intent to expose it as what it is and denounce it.

Pizzolatto’s True Detective contains sexist themes and make not just an appearance, but are a major part of the story, because they are a major part of him. They are not here because he dislikes it; these themes are here because he is, in part, those themes. True Detective is a witness of his mind. The intent behind it is “autobiographical,” so to speak, rather than impersonal.

Many people will argue that season 1 is about the exploration of toxic masculinity in the specific time capsule of 90s Lousianna. Which, as some claim, is what makes these topic tolerable, and worthy of being explored. But it is impossible to take it as such for this reason.

By saying “can we stop tolerating this”, it’s about saying, when is there going to be accurate depictions of women or girls that aren’t defined either by what guys think of women, or the clueless ideas that social standards have of women. “Can we stop tolerating this” means, can we quit overglorifying on television and in the media, upteenth works that continue to provide only disrespected portraits of womanhood and femininity that are only ever interacted with through biases. Can we quit polluting the airwaves with, not an expression of art meant to denounce a harmful real-life happenstance, but rather yet another expression of someone’s own internal sexist issues.

And for all the imbeciles who think the sexism should be tolerated for a reason or another… This stuff affects people. I was lucky enough that after posting this review, people came to me to tell me they appreciated the article because it helped them understand their own discomfort at the season.

Finally, while I would love to praise True Detective for its intricate plot, its dark atmosphere, or its impossibly depressed protagonist Rustin Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey). But alas, I can’t join the band of people who call this season, or even this show, the greatest ever, because its problems are too glaring for that. Focusing on these positive attributes, especially the intricacies of the plot which are the show’s strongest point, would be ignoring what’s in the back and between the lines: which is all.the.sexism. The good points are what the show would like to lead with, and through which it’d like to give itself a good image, that’s the main elements at the forefront. But the rest, that’s the show’s true essence, and its real substance.

Because of all the sexism, I can’t say either True Detective season 1 is better than season 2 (it isn’t!). Season 1 is certainly good in many ways, all things considered, but the show has definitely surpassed itself since. So in the next article, we’ll look over season 2, and answer why True Detective‘s second season is actually far superior to season 1. In True Detective‘s season 3’s review, we’ll explore those sexist themes again (since they make a major come back), and by season 4’s review, we’ll explain female empowerment done wrong, and finally rank which season of True Detective is the best, ranked from best to worst.

If you enjoyed or disliked this article, I invite you to discuss your thoughts in the comments. I enjoy every bit of discussion that come my way, and I always update my articles accordingly once more substance has come out of discussing the piece with my readers.

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