I love Dexter, so I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt in almost any situation. In the past, I’ve been uncomfortable with portrayals of specific female characters, but I burned those red flags, or I suppose just buried them.
Today, I’m digging them up.
For those of you who don’t know, Dexter is a Showtime series about homicide cops in Miami. Title character Dexter (Michael C. Hall) is a blood splatter analyst by day and vigilante serial killer by night. (And sometimes by day.) Dexter’s sister Debra is a cop too, and she was recently promoted to Lieutenant. In the same episode that Deb accepts her promotion, she breaks up with her boyfriend, the interminably dull Detective Quinn. As Deb ascends the podium at a public celebration of her promotion, Dexter says to Quinn, “She’s made her choice, but it’s not you or me.”
Woman Trades Personal Life For Career. It’s a trite, reductionist formula, sure, but it derives from the real struggles of women, no? And Deb’s character is so specific that her struggles are never clichéd. But let’s look at this within the larger Dexter universe. I present to you the female characters of Dexter:
Rita Bennett: Dexter’s wife. She’s a sweet, naïve victim and the consummate housewife, even though she works at a hotel. When she becomes pregnant with Dexter’s baby, she tells Dexter he doesn’t have to help out, as any submissive woman would do. At one point, she believes Dexter is a heroin addict in a truly unfathomable plot twist that was only a teensy bit believable because of the chronic treatment of Rita as sub-humanly stupid.
Laura Moser: Dexter’s biological mother. Single mom, adulterous drug addict.
Gail Brandon: Rita’s mom. Devoted school teacher, mean bitch.
Lila West: Dexter cheats on Rita with Lila, who is a sex object, a sociopath, and the symbolic antithesis to Rita. She frames Dexter’s friend for rape, kidnaps and tries to kill Rita’s children, kills Detective Doakes, and is eventually killed by Dexter.
Sylvia Prado: Miguel Prado’s wife. Portrayed as a housewife-y real estate agent. She and Rita were friends, and they were both super nice and supportive of one another.
Ellen Wolf: Powerful defense attorney. Calculating and manipulative. Close friend to LaGuerta. Murdered by Miguel Prado.
Barbara Gianna: Detective and once-girlfriend of Batista. Chronically single and uncomfortable with intimacy and commitment. She and Batista break up.
Cira Manzon:: Rookie police officer who helps with the Santa Muerte murders investigation. Deb is mean to her at first (seeming to mirror LaGuerta’s initial treatment of Deb) but warms up when Cira proves her competence. LaGuerta plans to frame Cira for a botched sting operation; after Deb opposes this plan, Cira in turn betrays Deb, and both Cira and LaGuerta frame Deb instead.
Yuki Amado: Super mean Internal Affairs officer who tells Deb bad stuff about Quinn.
Christine Hill: Dogged journalist. Double-crosser who seduces Quinn in order to get information. She murders Lundy, shoots Deb, and eventually kills herself.
Wife and daughter of Trinity: Pathetic, downtrodden, abused people who are basically only there to show us that Trinity is a monster.
Lumen Pierce: Victim of torture and rape. Lumen was a conventional good girl who decided to break up with her fiancé. Soon after, she is kidnapped and held in a dungeon for an unknown period of time. This good girl is thirsty for vengeance and becomes a killer. After the guilty parties are all dead, she tells Dexter she doesn’t want to kill any more, and leaves the show.
Maria LaGuerta: Ambitious Captain. Does anything to advance her career. Falls in love with and marries Angel, but later divorces him for her career. She is competitive with Deb.
Ryan, Masuka’s New Intern: Ambitious sex object who double-crosses Masuka and steals evidence.
Let’s face it: Dexter doesn’t do women many favors. “Career women” are not sympathetic characters, “housewives” are vapid, and on the whole, women with power are conniving, dangerous seductresses. And as far as we know, none of the women with “career”-type jobs have children, except for Rita’s mom, because these women have sacrificed everything for their jobs (this is not the case for the male characters on the show). Importantly, even the male serial killers on Dexter (Trinity, Miguel Prado) are portrayed with sensitive depth when compared with many of the female characters. Within this universe, Deb is an anomaly by simple virtue of the fact that she’s treated as a complete character. (As often happens when females are complete characters, she’s a “one of the guys” type.) Deb’s conversations with other women—excluding Rita—tend to be hostile.
The stories of Dexter are told from the male perspective. The life struggles of Dexter, Angel, and Dexter’s homicidal friends are typical “male” struggles, and with the exception of Deb, believable character arcs are reserved for the men. (I didn’t find Lumen believable, but I know there’s something of a divide there.) The male co-workers are chummy, while female co-workers are sparse and competitive. Women with power are perceived as threats, usually by virtue of their sexuality.
All that being said, the character of Deb is written with incredible insight, and Jennifer Carpenter’s acting is some of the best on TV. (If the Emmy’s were based on talent rather than popularity, five awards would retroactively be sent to her.) So I’m hoping this Quinn vs. Career plot will resolve itself in a nuanced fashion, and I’m willing to bury my concerns again—for now—to see what happens.