What if Dexter is Killer Feminism? A Review of Showtime’s Dexter, Season Five

Dexter’s eye for an eye vigilantism came to a gripping season finale this week with Jordan Chase, serial rapist and murderer, brought to a bloody end by Lumen. (If you are not familiar with the show, go here and here for two good feminist overviews of the series or see this series of posts here.)

Season five had much to offer feminist viewers.

For example, Dexter’s single dad status led to one episode with a mommy and me play date that revealed the ruthless world of toddler/parent interaction. As the lone dad, Dexter was the outcast amongst a sea of women – many who viewed him with extreme suspicion. The episode avoided demonizing the moms though, and instead suggested just how gendered the parenting realm is and how dads, when they walk amongst this “female world,” are outsiders in many regards.

And, the rape revenge fantasy at the heart of the season involving Dexter and Lumen allowed for a insightful exploration of sexual assault and violence against women. Lumen (played by Julia Stiles), one of two survivors of a murderous gang that raped, tortured, and murdered 12 women, joins forces with Dexter to bring the male perpetrators to justice. That justice in Lumen’s and Dexter’s book is vigilante murder may not seem in keeping with feminist aims for a less violent world.

So, why was this season good viewing for feminists? Yes, the violence is visceral and the blood excessive. The administered justice is very harsh – with murder on the agenda for those serial killer Dexter decides “don’t deserve to live.” But, underneath its brutal exterior, the show also presents us with deeper moral questions about a legal system that consistently fails to catch or punish serial killers, rapists, and child abusers – and, deeper still, about what type of society breeds such violence and, if indeed our legal system creates just as many criminals as it attempts to apprehend.

The depiction of Lumen  – a female raped, tortured and nearly murdered who realizes that the violence done to her cannot be denied and will forever change her view of the world and her place in it – was extremely powerful and expertly played by Stiles. As noted at Feminists For Choice, “the show does an above-average job of accurately depicting the agony of rape trauma syndrome and PTSD.” Moreover, by suggesting the boy-gang formed at summer camp that ultimately became a group of male serial killers is related to the equating of masculinity with violence (and particularly violent sexuality), the show functions as a scathing critique of guyland and its codes.

Ironically Dexter, the serial killer at the show’s center, is one of the best models of masculinity in the series – he is a good father, partner, and brother struggling in a world that often rewards the wrong people. Jordan Chase, leader of the murderous gang is a prime example of this – as a successful self-help celebrity, he is rewarded with admiration and wealth. Yet, beneath his shiny exterior, he is the mastermind behind the torture and rape of at least 14 women.

Men such as Jordan impel Dexter’s “dark passenger” to dole out punishment in order to partially make up for the brutal murder of his mother, which he witnessed as a young child. Yet Dexter suffers with his compulsion, feeling more monster than human. Here too, the show grapples with the complexity of morality and justice, showing that, as Deb reiterated again and again in this season’s finale, things are never simple. This message was also emphasized in the recent episode when Aster, Dexter’s tween daughter, showed up drunk. At first viewers were encouraged to see her as selfish and immature, to view her drinking and shoplifting as sign of a girl gone wrong. Yet, along with Dexter, viewers slowly realize Aster’s behavior was spurred by her attempts to help her friend, who was being abused by her stepfather. Such storylines reveal that often the “crime” committed (in this case, tween drinking and stealing) has much deeper roots than an individual’s “badness.” Indeed, the show turns the entire “a few bad apples” idea, where society is harmed by a handful of “evil people,” on its head. Instead, we see that our society is pervaded with rot – from tip to top – and that this rot is intricately linked to the violence done to girls and women by males raised on an excessively violent code of masculinity.

The show also explores how the competitive model of dog-eat-dog individualism leads to workplace backstabbing, especially among the few women who have had to claw and fight their way to the top.

This was exemplified this season via the storyline in which Lt. Laguerta (Lauren Velez) betrays Deb (Jennifer Carpenter). For me, this was the most problematic narrative arc – not only because it smacked of the “see what happens when you give women power” meme, but also because of its racialized undertones with a lying Latina throwing a wrench in the career of white female detective. However, given the racial diversity of the cast, the series avoids demonizing any one racial group, just as it avoids suggesting only men are violent or only women are victims. To the contrary, the show reveals that no one is safe from the violence that pervades our world and this viewer, like the Feminist Spectator, “can’t help celebrating Dexter’s queer victories, and looking forward to more”  – not only because the show transgresses boundaries and challenges a social system organized around a decidedly unfair system of power and privilege, but more simply because, as foul-mouthed Deb would say, I fucking love it.

4 thoughts on “What if Dexter is Killer Feminism? A Review of Showtime’s Dexter, Season Five”

  1. Great insights into the show this season. I was also very impressed that they chose to take on this particular subject of violence against women and was glad to see that it was handled with complexity and nuance. I also thought they did a good job in demonstrating the lasting impacts of these acts in the way Deb was forced to confront and reclaim her past. Thanks for the post!

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