Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Review: Dexter (TV Series)


Dexter is a weekly TV series aired on Showtime. The series stars actor Michael C. Hall as Dexter, a serial killer who works for the Miami Police Department as a blood spatter analyst. Dexter has been taught to control and harness his murderous inclinations by his father, a police officer who adopted him after discovering him at a crime scene. The code his father taught him only allows him to kill in the pursuit of justice, and the conflict between Dexter’s higher ideals and darker impulses generates much of the show’s conflict. The series, now in its fifth season, depicts the trials and tribulations of his attempt to live a double life – during the day, he’s a family man providing for a wife and two (later three) children. At night, his more aggressive impulses are unleashed, and he takes obvious pleasure in indulging them. I have always found the show interesting in that it effective makes us empathize with a serial killer. Since beginning this course in Theories of Masculinity, I’ve found the ideas we’ve discussed about constructions of masculinity to be very pertinent to the themes of the show.

At the beginning of the series, human interaction and emotion is difficult for Dexter. He states that he does not actually feel emotion, but needs to fake it in order to get by in everyday life. He struggles to discover what is expected of him by his girlfriend, her children, his sister, and his coworkers. His father’s code not only instructs him on killing, but also on how to appear ‘normal’ (non-serial-killer) to others. Already, the basic premise evokes strong connections to the models of masculinity we have been studying and discussing. In everyday life, Dexter himself is a construction. He is hyper-aware of the way his actions affect others perceptions of him and this construction is consciously modeled on the societal expectations of masculinity. I’m reminded of Paul Kivel’s article “The Act-Like-a-Man Box,” which details a model of masculinity in which certain actions are ‘in the box,’ or acceptably masculine, and others ‘out of the box,’ or not masculine enough (Kimmel, Messner 83). Dexter cultivates a deliberately average persona; he marries his girlfriend, Rita, and must learn to adjust to being the perfect husband and father. He also creates a “nice guy” persona at work. The twist is that for Dexter, acting outside of the box does not risk being perceived as feminine, but psychopathic.

Dexter’s public persona may be calculatedly average, but his ‘true self’ is much more brutal. Dexter uses the information he can access as an employee of the police department to track down killers and rapists. He stalks his victims, often taking the time to speak to them days beforehand. He injects them with a powerful sedative (also accessed through his job) and brings them to a clean room (each individually constructed for the occasion) to kill them, saving some of their blood on a slide to commemorate the kill. Dexter’s darker side exhibits hyper-aggressive behavior and a need to dominate, qualities that we have discussed and read about as belonging to the masculine construction. Dexter feels a physical need to kill, and believes that the civilized and kind father, husband, brother, and scientist that he portrays himself as does not represent his true self. Instead, he believes that the violence he commits is the true Dexter, much like the subjects of Martha McCaughey’s article “Caveman Masculinity: Finding an Ethnicity in Evolutionary Science.” Much like the “cavemen” in the article, Dexter finds identification with others who share his insatiable need to kill (Kimmel, Messner 3).

In every season, however, Dexter finds himself forced to kill those that he has identified with and allowed to become close to his true self. So far, Dexter has killed everyone whom he has told about his ‘dark passenger.’ Each of them betrays him, reinforcing his aversion to intimacy and the experience of emotion. In some ways, Dexter can be seen as a true masculine ideal. He is able to embody (though not without some strife) conflicting expectations of masculinity: he is an idealization of both violence and civility, extremes of them each. Dexter does not have to hide expressions of emotion in order to appear masculine, he actually has to fake expressions of emotion in order to appear less masculine, more human. A major theme of the show is Dexter’s compartmentalization between the extremely disparate parts of his life, and it is this compartmentalization that allows him to exist so completely in both realms. He is a caricature of the ideal man, the principles of masculinity taken to their furthest logical extrapolations. What makes the show interesting are the ways in which Dexter’s dual identity is challenged, complicated, and endlessly negotiated in order to maintain that duality. The friction between Dexter the man and Dexter the killer creates a circumstance in which his identity is constantly under construction, and the extremes of that identity provide a fascinating lens through which to view the similar friction that defines and complicates the lives of real men and women.

Each semester is rife with examples that showcase the gender issues of the show. Recently, in the previous and current season, Rita has given birth to Dexter’s child, a boy named Harrison. After Rita’s death, Dexter is tasked with single fatherhood. We see him as the only man on the playground and at the PTA meetings, and the storyline introduces a lot of relevant issues about men and childrearing that we discussed in class. Being the primary caregiver for Harrison has seriously complicated Dexter’s life as a killer, and we even see him pausing while hunting his next victim to sing Harrison to sleep over the phone. Fatherhood has humanized Dexter in a way that previously seemed impossible. The introduction of a nanny for Harrison averts this particular crisis of identity for Dexter, but we also watch him struggle with the idea that his son may have inherited his bloodthirst. When a child psychologist tells him Harrison is most likely a normal, non-aggressive little boy, Dexter is visibly relieved. Dexter is aware of how alienating his identity has been for him, and hopes that Harrison will be able to live as a more complete adult, without the hyper-masculine tendencies of his father.

In the newest season, we see Dexter accidentally rescue a gang rape victim from imprisonment in her rapist’s basement. Dexter kills her rapist, and the most recent episode leads us to believe that he will help her track down and kill all the others who assaulted her as well. The show is full of male violence, but this storyline brings us closer than ever to directly addressing male sexual violence against women. I have a few issues with how the show has portrayed the rape victim herself (hysterical and incapable, mostly), but I do think the storyline is interesting in that it places Dexter as judge, jury, and executioner for a group of men who systematically raped and killed dozens of women. In this season, just as in the last four, we’re forced to weigh Dexter’s brutal actions against their just intentions, our own identification with Dexter as a father and human being against the knowledge that he is capable of such brutality, and our own expectations of masculinity against the unavoidable conflict of identity that those expectations produce.

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