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.

What if you accidentally shoot yourself with your own gun?

The story “Man accidentally shoots himself while trying to show his girlfriend how to handle a pistol” makes me wonder again about all those arguments where people legitimize gun ownership as ‘safe’ or argue owning a gun makes one safer. The article reads:

“ALEXANDRIA, La. (Associated Press) — An Alexandria man was recovering after accidentally shooting himself while showing his girlfriend how to handle a pistol on Saturday in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant.

Police said the 21-year-old man told investigators he forgot he had just reloaded the gun, and squeezed the trigger while putting the gun into the driver’s door panel. The bullet went through his inner left thigh.

Police said the man repeatedly told investigators he was ex-military and knows how to handle a gun, and was very embarrassed by the incident.”

Now, the curious angel on my shoulder asks me why he was showing his girlfriend how to handle a pistol (and in the parking lot of a fast food station no less!)

The cynic angel pipes up that if this guy is ex-military and “knows how to handle a gun” we had better be pretty damn concerned if this is what you learn in military gun-handling 101.

The anti-patriarchal angel keeps pointing out what a hyper-masculine ass this man seems to be—he is “very embarrassed” that he shot himself in the leg (no ‘real man’ would do this, let alone a military man – what a wuss!) and NOT by the fact that he

1. had a gun in his driver’s door panel in the first place

2. is showing his girlfriend how to use it in a fast food parking lot!

This story makes me think of the old adage “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Yeah, I never said adages were smart. People can kill people a whole heck of a lot faster with guns.

Sorry, but I can’t buy the pro-gun argument. Sure, there are times I have felt like a gun would serve as good ‘protection,’ as when, say, the secret police come barreling through my door pointing oozies at me because I have been found to support 911 truth and question US imperialism… Or, say when the zombie disease from 28 Days Later hits San Diego and I have to take to the streets, channeling Sarah Connor… Or, I might need a gun if some of the scarier scenarios from Prison Planet came to pass and lock down USA went into effect…

However, in any of these cases, I don’t know how much a gun would actually help. I might be able to survive a bit longer (and would likely have to kill others in the process to do so), but someone is bound to have a bigger weapon or more force and take me out sooner or later anyhow.

Now, in the case of someone breaking into my home Panic Room style, well, I only hope I could channel Jodie Foster. She is one rockin tough broad. But, as for the brand of vengeance she carries out in The Brave One, well, I don’t know if I could stomach it. Seems to me that guns (and the vengeance code they are linked to) only bring about more violence and death – and never any justice. Vengeance is not justice in my book, but a ‘you done me wrong’ selfishness that only serves to perpetuate violence (as in, for example, the ‘war on terror’).

To return the embarrassed ex-military man who shot himself in the leg – will, that’s what guns do, they shoot people. And, if you own/use one, sooner or later you very well may get shot. I’d much rather take my chances living gun free, thank you very much.