Season one of True Detective may be finished, but questions over its depiction of women remain

Last night's season finale of True Detective wrapped up another huge hit for HBO, but there's more than just one piece of the puzzle missing...
  • @max_benwell

Now the first season of True Detective is over, I’m launching an investigation of my own. Just like the case that Marty Hart and Rust Cohle take on, it involves missing persons, and looks into something that has been going on for decades. Many have tried to solve it, but only with limited success. It’s a case that still remains to be cracked.

Who are these missing people? Not children, but strong female characters. Where are they in the show? It’s not just Hart and Rust  - all the cops are male, as well as the criminals they chase (and occasionally shoot in the head). The only important roles women fill in True Detective are the betrayed wife, the prostitute, and the mistress.  

The main suspect in this case  has already been identified, although it wasn’t hard to find him - he had the gall to put his name in the opening credits. He’s Nico Pizzolatto, True Detective’s creator and writer.

The HBO crime show - the season finale of which aired on Sky Atlantic on Sunday night – has been hailed as the best thing on television. Last week The Daily Telegraph suggested that it is leading to an “undumbing” of American TV.

But is Pizzolatto really that smart? There’s not much you can say against True Detective when it comes to the way it is shot, or the gripping performances Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson give. But for all its cleverness, True Detective completely fails when it comes to women.

It may be held up as a complex crime mystery, but as Emily Nussbaum,The New Yorker’s TV critic, writes: “You might take a close look at the show’s opening credits, which suggest a simpler tale: one about heroic male outlines and closeups of female asses.”

Unfortunately, this problem persists beyond the opening credits. Among the show’s great strengths, its depiction of women consistently hits a bum-note. Which is fitting, as the show seems to have a bit of a fixation on bums. The first important (and living) female character we are introduced to is Marty’s wife. Although it’s not much of an introduction: we are greeted by a lingering shot of her well-toned glutes first, and her one-dimensional character later.


Midway through the season, Cohle manages to get a girlfriend, although we barely hear her talk. And throughout the season’s first few episodes, the two detectives solicit a number of prostitutes. It may be for information, not sex, but the women’s singular role as suppliers is only ever challenged once in passing by a brothel madam. She tells Hart and Cohle that their job is actually empowering ("“Suddenly you don't own it the way you thought you did,” she says). But neither the two men nor Pizzolatto seem to listen or care, and the show goes on.

During one sex scene between Hart and his mistress, the camera lingers on two ceramic angel and devil dolls. The suggestion is that Hart is giving in to temptation, but it also serves as a useful image of the show’s treatment of women. They are either sexy angels, dangerous devils or both, as Maggie proves when she decides to avenge Hart for his infidelity.

Girls and Game of Thrones both continue to prove that HBO is capable of producing great female characters. So it’s a shame that Pizzolatto didn’t feel the need to continue the trend. He was forced to defend himself recently when one viewer tweeted: “If True Detective looked at feminine characters with the same lens as masculine, it would be PERFECT & MIND-BLOWING”.  In a (now deleted) tweet, he responded: “One of the detriments of only having two POV characters, both men (a structural necessity). Next season…”

But why should we have to wait until next season? Hannah Horvarth and Daenerys Targaryen aren't being created out of nowhere. They’re all part of a wider demand from the public for believable, three-dimensional women on TV, and have been greeted with huge acclaim.

In his tweet, Pizzolatto may have left us some clues, but until the next season of True Detective airs, the mystery of the missing women in the show remains an open case.