Tube Tied: I Love Dexter And I Don't Care

Michelle Dean
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The fourth season of Dexter premiered this Sunday, and I was rather more excited about it than I would like to admit.  I started watching back in the day because it was Michael C. Hall, and I was a Six Feet Under fan from waaaaayyy back, and I made it my business to ensure that the wonderful actors of that show continued to be employed for the forseeable future.  As it turns out, Dexter was about as different a role from David Fisher as one could hope for, and I still loved Hall anyway.  And then Dexter turned out to have a fallible narrator, which is a favorite literary device of mine.  And then, also, it turned out to be bloody.  And it had Julie Benz (Darla from Buffy and Angel)!  Also there were Latino actors who were not total background characters!  I've been hooked ever since.  It's camp, and camp can be thoroughly enjoyable when it's as well-written and acted as Dexter is.

But that aside, I tend to have a lot of difficulty justifying my love of Dexter to myself in feminist terms.  The macabre is not terribly woman-friendly, after all.  Horror movies tends to feed on the startling contrast between blood and really hot  blonde chicks, and there's more titillation in it (pun intended), one supposes, than anyone would like to admit.  I don't know what makes us morbid; I do notice, though, that the ratio of men to women of my acquaintance who hate horror, and don't like "dark" themes in their arts and entertainment, is roughly 1:1.  So perhaps it's an experience that's less gendered than I might otherwise be inclined to say.

The potential for misogyny on this show was pretty strong anyway, what with the whole serial killer of serial killers angle.  We all know who Hollywood serial killers like to target: nubile young women, preferably in torn clothing and artfully tousled hairdos.    But funnily enough, Dexter doesn't appear to pride himself on the saving of women and children at all.  His killers kill all kinds; sometimes women sure, but just as often not.  All in all there is very little sense of vigilantism in a show that is, more or less, about a vigilante.  Dexter is not presented to us as a hero, per se.  He's a protagonist, but his crusade - if one could even call it that, because it isn't animated by his own sense of justice - isn't one that gives the audience much satisfaction.  (A caveat: one thing I am afraid of, with John Lithgow's already-terrifying portrayal as this season's serial killer, is that this new killer appears to fetishize pretty young women and I fear a lot of gross wallowing in that is about to happen, so I may speak too soon.)

Even more puzzling is this is a camp show, a morbid show, a vigilante show that has... some great female characters.  In particular I'm obviously thinking of Jennifer Carpenter's Debra Morgan, who is a goofball tomboy the likes of which you won't see anywhere else on television these days.  Carpenter's female-jock speech patterns annoy some of my friends, but it's been a long time since I've seen someone inhabit a role as physically, totally, as she does.  Maria Laguerta, the lieutenant in change, gets to be not just as tough as her officemates, but a sex life too!  Of course then there's Benz's unbelievably oblivious Rita and the show's disastrous attempt at a female villain in the second season - Lila, who, crazy and catlike, embodied just about every "women will ruin your life" stereotype there is.

The show nevertheless deftly addresses the roots of Dexter's dysfunction: the childhood trauma of watching his mother murdered before him - without seeming to revel in gore or shock value.  And, moreover, without allowing the prior abuse to overshadow some of Dexter's more amoral adult practices.  There is something entirely pitiable about Dexter, and yet the solution his adoptive father came up with, these rules of conduct whereby Dexter cannot kill an innocent, are not presented as an ethical solution to the problem; just as a band-aid that keeps Dexter from slipping over the brink into pure evil.

I guess you could say that Dexter makes moral and political confusion a sort of artistic mission.  So it's not surprising that one's love of it would be a conflicted one.  And yet I never feel, as I do with Lost for example, like Jesus needs to take the show's wheel.  Somebody over there in the writer's room is extraordinarily bright.  Someone keeps gunning the accelerator on the drama and the camp and somehow it all hangs together.  I can believe that Dexter's married now, and has a child, and still manages to answer his primal call to kill.  (Of course, he sort of crashed the car this week with a body in it but that was just baby-induced sleeplessness, rather than the difficulties inherent to maintaining a ruse.)  So while I remain somewhat embarassed to say I love Dexter and I can't justify it on much feminist ground, I do.  Sometimes a girl just needs a little good camp, you know?

P.S. For those of you who are already Dexter watchers, am I the only one who really really wishes they had not killed off Doakes?

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14 Comments Have Been Posted

I loved Doakes...

I also really wish they hadn't killed Doakes. The moments between him and Dexter at the end of Season 2 were some of my favorite of the whole entire show, seasons 1-3 included.

I love Dexter, but I can't

I love Dexter, but I can't apply that love to season 2. Along with the "WOMEN WILL RUIN YOUR LIFE AND EVERYTHING" trope, it had Laguerta's replacement obsessing over her husband's affair, letting it take over her job and reduce her to a wreck. (In which one character will say when he gives Laguerta her job back "She put us back 20 years. It's up to you now")

..Only to find out it was Laguerta who was sleeping with her husband in the first place, to get her job back. Season 2 of Dexter could be summed as DEXTER SEASON 2: WOMEN SUCK.

Season 3 was a little better, but I'm not sure if it's ever going to rekindle the love I had for it at season 1.

Good call on Season 2 of Dex

Good call on the problems of Season 2: namely Lola (pretty much everything about her) and LaGuerta's ridiculous means of getting her job back. I actually really like her character and don't believe it's true to her...or at least how they've written her in other instances (her loyalty and moral compass are right on with respect to Doakes, managing Debra, and of course the lawyer in Season 3, Ellen).

You do have to give the writers credit for using the narcotics anonymous as a space for Dexter to vent and explore his problem/past. I loved that aspect of the season.

So far, Season 3, with Jimmy Smits has been my favorite. I love the exploration of the friendship between the two and what it means to share such heavy secrets.

I can't wait to see the next season, but am keeping my expectations in check. I mean, where can they go now?

Just can't do it

I appreciate your well-written analysis, Michelle, but I will leave Dexter to you (and the many other intelligent women who seem to enjoy it).

I tried the first couple of episodes way back when because I, too, was a Six Feet Under fanatic and could not say good-bye to Michael C. Hall (why couldn't Keith join him wherever he ended up?). But the blood and violence, as artfully filmed as it was, did not agree with me. I tried, but then I thought, why am I trying so hard? This is a show about a nice guy who kills people, where blood and violence are not just the obstacle to overcome but the method by which it is combatted. I am sure if I gave it another chance, I could be drawn in by the female characters, the well thought out moral confusion, and the colourful art direction, but I don't really want to. So you enjoy your guilty pleasure and I will remain close-minded. On this show, at least.

I love Dexter too

Let me start with saying I love Dexter and I’m not ashamed go admit it. Cinematography is gorgeous, it’s fair in representing minorities, and plot lines are riveting. Set that aside, and let’s talk about these characters through a feminist perspective.

I’ve never liked any of the female characters on the show because I always thought they were half-assed. Sure, the men on the show have their flaws too, but they’re forgivable. Angel finds solace in prostitutes because his wife won’t take him back, but he tried repeatedly to make things right with her. Masuka is a pervert, but he’s innocent and always gets his job done. And even though Doakes hated Dexter, we all want him back. I loved how frank he was, and how he always called Dexter out. I could keep going, but the point is, these men all have their redeeming qualities.

The women on the other hand make me cringe. Rita might be sweet and innocent, but she’s needy and always plays the damsel in distress. I understand her role is supposed to be naive to Dexter’s secret life, but damn if she can’t for once ask how Dexter’s day is going when she calls him. Rita can’t even go to the drugstore without Dexter. Laguerta’s character was so easy to dislike at first – she played favorites in a position where justice and fairness is the standard. Threw out sisterhood to get her job back from a woman who couldn’t keep her personal life out of the office. And then there’s Deb. I think I’m supposed to like Deb because she’s a foul-mouthed realist who keeps climbing up the ladder. But I don’t. I think she shoots from her hip too much, adhering to the ‘women act emotionally and not rationally’ stereotype.

Let’s look at Lila though. I hated her character like everyone else. But here’s the thing – up until that point, none of the women made Dexter question the very core of his being the way she did. Lila did portray the ‘women will ruin your life’ role, but Dexter’s ‘relationship’ with his father was never the same afterwards. He relied more on himself and his own judgments after Lila. Rita and Deb only placated Dexter’s need to seem ‘normal,’ but Lila catalyzed his emotional puberty. He questioned his father and his code because of her. Kind of reminds you of the Bible, doesn’t it?

Deb and Laguerta’s recent friendship has become a bit more interesting though. It seems like the writers on Dexter realized how they were portraying women, and tried to redeem themselves by adding a little sisterhood. I hope it works. I hope Rita can handle the family with or without Dex, I hope Deb starts making decisions after some thought, and I hope Laguerta stops fucking for success.

Agree and disagree

I don't think that the male characters' flaws are any more or less forgivable than the female characters' flaws. I didn't see Angel's resort to prostitution as justifiable in the least. I could do without Masuka's immature and often sexist commentary (although, I think there is some value to Masuka's character as a sexualized Asian male when Asian men are so often stereotyped as being non-sexual and are generally desexualized in the media). And yes, Doakes had flaws, too, - but, of course, we wish he hadn't been killed off! We want more Doakes!

Rita's saccharine sweetness gets on my nerves, too. However, as the series progresses, she takes more steps toward emotional independence by divorcing and protecting her children from her abusive (ex-)husband, physically defending herself when her (ex-)husband shows up at her house while drunk, and chooses happiness by doing what she wants regarding her relationship with Dexter and what she thinks is right regarding the wellbeing of her children. I have mixed feelings about Rita. But I also feel that, having victims/survivors of domestic abuse in my family, the initial portrayal of Rita as a woman with low self-confidence who didn't know how to stick up for herself in domestic abuse situations is accurate. When she gained confidence and moved on with her life, it was uplifting; she became a role model as opposed to starting out the series as an obvious role model. I still feel that Rita has some more character development to do, though. LaGuerta's actions are not always admirable, but she is in many ways a strong female lead. She is Latina, African-American, AND a main character, which I think is really rare to see on television, and I enjoy that she is a fully human and fully humanized character whose story isn't relegated to the sidelines. (It sounds like you agree regarding the relatively fair portrayal of people of color on Dexter, but while I'm adding up her good points....) Also, from what I understand, LaGuerta's character in the TV series differs greatly from her character in the book(s) on which Dexter is based. In the books, she is more of a stereotypical ruthless ladder-climber who eventually suffers a stereotypical bloody murder. In that case, I'm glad that the show chose to go with a different angle for LaGuerta, one that improved the role. I also like that LaGuerta is portrayed as being typically "feminine" in her manner of dress (lots of jewellery, feminine prints on her tops/jackets) instead of dressing in a more typically "male" way despite the pressure women often feel to "act like men" when working in positions of power that are historically reserved for men. She's her own person. However, I also like that we have characters like Deb who do conform more to "guy culture" and that the women of Dexter are by no means uniform. Deb is certainly a hard one to analyze. I agree that she can seen as playing into stereotypes for women, but also think that she plays into just as many stereotypes for guys. Her tomboyishness raises a lot of questions about how roles for women both in television and in the work place have progressed, but also how women often feel pressured to adopt, unconsciously develop, or naturally express what in other eras would have been typically "male" attitudes toward work, violence, and life in general. For instance, Deb often seems just as desensitized and/or thrilled to be solving violent, bloody crimes as her male colleagues. And I, too, would like to see Deb gain some more confidence and stop relying on her brother so much for advice; I think that will eventually happen as time goes on. None of these characters are ideal women role models, nor would I call the show feminist, but the characters are human and, I think, fairly real.

First of all, I really like the idea of Lila as a kind of Eve to Dexter's father-worshipping, emotionally-stunted Adam. Cool insight! However, I took major issue with the portrayal of Lila as a woman who pretends to be a victim of sexual assault, amongst other "crazy woman" myths. I was afraid that Lila would become another excuse to victim-blame in instances of rape, that less mature audience members would not understand that Lila's false accusation was pretty unrealistic/unlikely to happen in reality and that victims of rape in real life should be believed. I think that the presence of a character like Lila would have been so much more tolerable if the writers had only removed the false accusation of rape issue.

Also, I was disappointed when Ellen was killed off. Miguel's motives for her murder were true to his character at that point, and unfortunately, women are frequently murder victims due to sexism or misogyny. However, she seemed to have a lot of potential. I hoped that she would stay in the series for a while longer as a positive influence and friend to LaGuerta. It would be easier for me as a feminist to cheer for this series if Ellen had lived, or even just if LaGuerta had decided to expose Miguel as Ellen's murderer after his own murder instead of hiding his actions, thereby refusing Ellen even a posthumous justice.

One of the things that I enjoy about Dexter is that, in terms of morality, everyone is portrayed as being just human. There are more extreme characters who take drastic action to get what they want and who seem to wrestle with or indulge in their flaws, like Lila and Miguel, but those characters' respective genders seem to pretty much balance out so far. (Though with a third male serial killer in this fourth season, the female/male antagonist ratio is 1:3, something I hope the writers will either even out over time or not use as an excuse to show lots of violently murdered young women... as they seem to be doing now... Again, mixed feelings. I don't want to see that kind of stereotypical, sexist, "horror flick"-type gore. However, I guess that in a series about serial killings, a serial killer who preys exclusively on women as some serial killers do was almost bound to show up. I still don't see that as an excuse to show sexist horror flick gore, though. But I digress...) So far, I haven't seen any (main) character on Dexter, female or male, who isn't sympathetic to at least some degree, however small. I appreciate that the all of the characters as well as the moral questions of Dexter are not black and white.

Re: Sexualization of Asian men

Isn't it fairly common for Asian men to be sexualized as perverts though? I was watching Twilight w/RiffTracks today, and there's a joke at the expense of one of Bella's high school suitors which references tentacle hentai. And it's the Asian boy who's the subject of that joke. (Actually, a lot of the wacky-Japan nonsense seems to involve ritualized repetitions of OMG-can-you-believe-men-in-Japan-actually-get-off-to-this?)

There's a lack of Asian men who are presented as sexually desirable, not a lack of Asian men in fiction who are sexually desiring. Asian men like Ando from Heroes, Zaboo from The Guild, and Sanjay from Weeds, aren't depicted as being asexual. Their sexuality is characterized as creepy, obsessive, deviant, and/or evidence that they are not socially successful. Women don't seem to want them. Or, like book!Masuka and Sanjay, they don't want women- but even then, they don't seem to gain significant love interests. (Whereas when the white leads of romcoms and other media designed to teach women what to want are insufferable antifeminist "alpha male" douchebags, they are somehow successful and thus desirable because of all that.)


napthia9 - Thank you for enlightening me! I hadn't thought about it that way. I think that I tend to be more aware of the "sexless and/or sexually awkward geek" stereotypes than the "subversive and/or "weird" sexuality" stereotypes, and so I overlooked the latter stereotype while thinking about Masuka. From your references, you seem to know more about current Asian stereotypes than I do, so thanks for educating me. Also, I totally agree with your point regarding white "insufferable antifeminist "alpha male" douchebags" and their privilege over similar male characters of color! While I still think that the characters of Dexter are sympathetic to one degree or another, I certainly take issue with the fact that Masuka seems to be stuck between two stereotypes, and I'm going to revisit my thoughts about his character and what are the positive/negative points of his portrayal. I watch Dexter mainly to analyze, and the show certainly doesn't gain any points with the way they choose to portray Masuka.

RE: agree and disagree

R. -

i agree with you 100%. i intended to ask the question, 'am i being too hard on the women of dexter?' but it escaped me once i started writing. yet, you answered that question thoroughly! i think i'm always a little too hard on the women i see on television because i want to like them and see them succeed so much. i guess i'm tired of seeing female characters as 'human' and want to see some kind of super woman, flawless in all her glory.

and i agree with your criticism of lila. false accusations of rape are disgusting and inexcusable. as if rape victims in real life don't have to fight that battle in the court of law, it's really nerve wrecking to see a fictional character cementing this stereotype. it's a very serious accusation and shouldn't be taken lightly.

i don't know if you've been keeping up with this season, but if you notice in the last two episodes, deb and laguerta have become friends. kind of. they confide in each other about their relationships - a conversation that's very common among women everywhere. BUT THEY ALWAYS DO IT IN THE KITCHEN! i shit you not, they always have these little sisterhood chats in the kitchen at their office. i'm going to be keeping an eye on this because i want to see if the writers are trying to tell us something this very intentional placement. but again, i'm happy to see that the women are bonding and forming relationships.


I'm halfway through season 3

I'm halfway through season 3 right now. I complained about Lila through most of season 2 (I also didn't like how season 2 amped up the sex - it didn't offend me as much as it bored me). Talking with my boyfriend last night, he said he understood my criticisms of the character, but she was also supposed to be a sociopath, and so the stereotypes used building her character shouldn't cast a dark cloud on all women, because not all women are sociopaths. I said that mostly I think that the exotic, sexy, free-spirited "crazy bitch" is lazy and overused and it disappointed me that they couldn't come up with something more interesting. I also brought up how there's this societal idea of "women you fuck and women you marry" and that Lila seemed to personify that...and I was saying it I realized that obviously Rita is the woman you marry. He asked me, then, does that not make Rita's character just as problematic as Lila's? (and I did admit that I find Rita's character problematic, but I also <i>like</i> her) I also thought about how happy I was to finally see Lila's character be done with, but I also don't know how I feel about that set-up - I'm sure most viewers were thrilled to see "the crazy bitch" (who lies about rape) be gotten rid of, and I don't know how comfortable I am with that narrative. Also, in a show that requires a bit of suspension of disbelief, I just could not believe that she would be a NA sponsor.
Overall, though, I really enjoy the show and I'm glad I subscribed to Showtime On Demand for it (and the first season of Nurse Jackie which I loved). My favorite line from Debra" "What the fuck is scrapbooking?"

Layers and layers. Just not for the women.

My problem with the show (and I've only watched season 1) is the complete and utter dependence Deb and Rita have on Dexter. On any given episode, you might find Deb saying this:

"Dexter! Fix my problems!!! Please?" *whines*
*Then, sweet* "Wait so. You're gonna fix my problem, right?"

Yikes. Thank god Rita finally picked up that baseball bat.

In spite of this, I generally liked the show. I loved watching Dexter's journey, and enjoyed uncovering the layers surrounding the other (sadly, just male) characters. I especially love Dexter's isolation as a metaphor for all of our isolation. Perfect example: as a kid, he goes to the school dance and feels like everyone is having a good time, but he's just going through the motions. The trick, of course, is that we all felt that way. His isolation is just like our isolation. He just has to realize it.

Anyway. I think the show would be great if the writers gave the female characters the same amount of layering that they give to the males. But then, that could be said about a lot of shows, couldn't it?!

I love Dexter and I don't care either


While almost all of the female characters on that show make me cringe and I'm aware of all the implications that come with that, I am so drawn to the campy, dry, dark narration, that I am helpless to resist the show. I think it is as rich and well-written as "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under." Showtime was a lightweight until "Dexter" and I'm sure that the show's success has enabled SHO to make great series like "Nurse Nancy" and "Weeds."

Hey, I really enjoyed your

Hey, I really enjoyed your article! I guess I never really thought of how the women of Dexter were portrayed until reading this. I do disagree with you on a few points, though.

First of all, Deb, despite her emotional outbursts, I think is an incredibly strong female character. She's definitely my favorite on the whole show! I love how awkward and blunt she is, and how she always speaks her mind. Also, you didn't really mention anything about the struggles that Deb is going through now that she knows more about Harry-- and how she's trying to reconcile how he hurt her as a child, and how she now knows that he was far from perfect. I think it gives her character a lot more depth. It's also easy to see how she would become so tomboyish since she idolized her father and envied the time that Harry spent with Dexter.

LaGuerta I HATED at first, but I've grown to like her more as the series progressed. I was also incredibly shocked when they revealed that she was sabotaging her boss's relationship. I had gained more respect for her throughout the whole season until that point, and then it was sort of like, "well, some people never change." Her character seems overly-sexualized to me or something...

Rita IS kind of annoying, but I thought she was a lot more likable in the first and second seasons when she was finding herself. One positive quality about her is that she raised Aster and Cody basically single-handedly while maintaining a job. She was never really dependent on Dexter until the third season.

As for the men of the show, I agree with one poster that their flaws aren't really more easily overlooked than the flaws of the female characters.

What I like about Dexter is that all of the characters seem really real and believable to me. I don't think you should have any shame in loving an incredible show! It may not necessarily have a lot of great feminism going for it, but I don't think its horribly chauvinist, either. If you only watch shows where females are portrayed in the light that you want them to be portrayed in, you're probably missing out on a lot of great shows. Though, watching less TV is probably not such a bad thing... I digress. Awesome post!

I can't believe any normal

Just an FYI...Men get killed

Just an FYI...Men get killed on this show more often than women do, and a lot of people die regardless of gender, its obviously a violent show (which I think has a very creative twist if you like horror). And yeah..Deb is emotional..but lets break it down. Season 1: Ice truck killer for a boyfriend. Season 2: Getting over the ice truck killer thing just to meet Lundi who leaves her. Season 3: Becomes involved with a key witness in her case who just so happens to be a pot head. Season 4: Cheats on Anton with Lundi, Lundi dies and Anton leaves her. Granted she made her own choices but I don't know who wouldn't react to that badly, and throughout the show she's stayed driven and career minded. If anything I'd think that's feminism. We're women, not robots, its ok to feel things and not be depicted as a stereotype. JESUS. I just stumbled upon this website and I appreciate feminism...but I'm emotional, blonde, I cook, I clean, I cry, &etc. I also generally do whatever the hell I want. I've always assumed that's what feminism is about - the choice. But it seems like a lot of you are pretty picky about how a woman should present herself to the world, which I don't understand.

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