So my friend and I got together to watch the Dexter premiere on Sunday and we got talking about whether Dexter is a feminist show. Our consensus was that it’s definitely not all bad for women, but isn’t really feminist by any stretch of the imagination.
Don’t get me wrong, there are smart and tough women characters on Dexter, but the ones on the good side usually end up falling for Dexter’s deceptions, while the evil ones are punished. None of the women characters are especially original and some, like Season 2’s femme fatale Lila are downright archetypical. My friend pointed out what bothered him most was the storyline involving Lt. Esme Pasquale in Season 2, who goes pretty crazy about the possibility that her fiance is cheating on her, basically arguing we can’t trust women to keep personal and professional lives separate. As Valeri 365 points out, “It only took a handful of episodes before Pasquale’s paranoia over her fiance’s fidelity cost her a job and set women in the force back 20 years.”
So I was kind of surprised when I started doing research and found a ton of positive reviews on feminist and anti-racist blogs. Now none of them are actually arguing Dexter’s a beacon of feminist hope, but it seems like I’m not the only one with a bit of a love-hate relationship to the show.
Merq at Racialicious took issue with the first episode (“So, less than ten minutes in, we’ve already got a spicy Latina [LaGuerta] lusting after white-guy Dexter and an East-Asian geek lusting after white-girl Debra”) but noted that LaGuerta, Masuka, and the vast majority of the other characters of colour gain tons more depth as the series progresses, allowing them to surpass stereotypes. As stated earlier, the whole Lt. Pasquale thing was kind of a mess and I think her portrayal was both sexist and racist. And I’m not sure I’d agree about Masuka being a particularly non-stereotyped character, but overall I’d agree with Merq, especially when it comes to LaGuerta and Angel as positive, multi-faceted depictions of strong Latino cops.
Juliana at Bitch loves Jennifer Carpenter as Debra Morgan, saying she’s tough without being asexual, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind. All true, but I’d like it even more if character realized how tough she is, instead of always needing validation from men like Dexter, Lundy, and Quinn. She’s also constrained by the fact that, no matter what a crack detective she is, she’s always outsmarted by Dexter. I get that this is crucial to the plot, but it kinda sucks. Then there’s the way that practically every guy she dates ends up being killed or tortured. The whole thing with her and the ice truck killer? Yes, it was gripping, but it was also a pretty classic way to rein in the character. In Manhunting: The Female Detective in the Serial Killer Film, Philippa Gates argues “the most effective strategy to contain the agency of the female hero is to place her in the position of victim, or potential victim” so that she can be rescued by the hero, despite her strength (page 12). Debra is a cool character, so it’s disappointing when she ends up being little more than a typical damsel in distress.
Feminist bloggers seem pretty split on Rita’s character. Feminist Spectator thinks she’s great, while I’d tend to agree with Michelle at Bitch Magazine that her constant obliviousness is kinda irritating. By Season 2 I felt just like jtul at Pixie Lit who said, “I started getting uncomfortable here because I wanted Dexter to successfully deceive Rita so they could stay together…whilst also being disgusted that their whole relationship is based on a lie”. You could argue Rita became empowered by escaping her abusive ex-husband and that she got a lot better at voicing her own needs over four seasons, but in the end like everyone else she’s just another person who fell for Dexter’s lies and became (indirectly) one of his victims.
But now that Rita’s dead, it’ll be interesting to see if things change at all in that respect. Will Dexter’s lies start to unravel, and will it eventually be a woman (like Deb) who brings him down? Will they manage to make Julia Stiles’s character a more original female nemesis than Lila was? A recent NYT article indicates that’s likely how the show will end, even if it’s not going to be this season. No matter what, it’ll be exciting to watch and debate.