The second episode of the second season of Dexter includes a thematic thread connecting several of the female characters. I started trying to write just one post on it, but found that, even though I’m really only looking at one episode, the themes were rich enough that they deserved to be explored in a post addressing the way they affect each of the three female characters.
Generally speaking, movies and television shows about violence or violent characters (the eponymous Dexter himself is a sociopath, though he directs his urges toward serial killers who would otherwise have slipped through the cracks of the system) run the risk of romanticizing, if not outright glorifying, this kind of lifestyle. In my opinion, Dexter walks a fine line in that regard, but does use the character, his mental state, his perceptions and his relationships to illustrate larger social points.
The theme that I really liked here was the impact that a culture of violence (both gender-based and otherwise) and of generalized male privilege has on the ability of the female characters to trust other people (specifically men) and to trust their own instincts about any given situation. One thing I really liked was that this questioning was portrayed as a rational, learned reaction to having been betrayed, violated and attacked by individuals (yes, usually men) that they had previously trusted, rather than as a paranoid attitude with no basis in reality.
First, Deb. Deb is Dexter’s (adoptive) sister—I’ve heard a lot of people say that they find this character somewhat whiny or abrasive, but I find her quite complex and think she has some actual reasons to be “whining”. Last season, she ended up being targeted by the “Big Bad”, the “Ice Truck killer”. Since he was ultimately (in classically surreal television fashion) trying to get Dexter’s attention, he didn’t just kidnap and try to kill her—he courted her, made her think she had finally found the relationship of her dreams, presented a façade with which she fell head over heels in love and proposed marriage to her, and THEN prepared to kill her.
Many shows would have focused entirely on the relationship between the two male serial killers, forgetting to give Deb reactions and characterization outside of the context of her relationship to the male protagonist. But Deb (fictionally speaking, of course) is a real, complex human being who gets to have her own process in dealing with a major trauma that happened to her—the fact that she doesn’t actually know about Dexter’s real involvement is a plus (from a narrative perspective), because I think if she did (and if it were a lower quality show), she may defer to Dexter as the person who “really” matters in the story, she may accept the structure that says he’s the title character and she’s just peripheral ensemble, even though she’s the one who was manipulated, taped up and had a knife brought towards her.
At the beginning of the second season, Deb is showing signs of post-traumatic stress. She’s snappish when people try to talk to her. When anyone reaches out to ask, genuinely, if she’s okay, she gets angry. As a cop, she feels that she needs to project an image of strength, to go back to work as quickly as possible and to deny that she’s feeling damaged by her experience. She exemplifies, to me, a woman who has been victimized and who has internalized messages of how to be “strong”, “take it like a man”, and pull herself together in the face of that abuse. In the episode I noticed, a very attractive guy hits on her at the gym and initially, she’s inclined to be interested (though she’s hesitant). Then he pulls out some tape to wrap her hands (for boxing) and she has a flashback. She knows this guy isn’t the Ice Truck killer, but she’s not in a place to put that out of her mind.
Much as Deb would like to push aside the fear that another man might victimize her the way the Ice Truck killer did, she can’t. She trusted him, she believed he was a certain kind of person (obviously, not a murderer) and she was horrifyingly wrong. That’s why I’m using the above title for this series—it’s not just the event itself that’s part of her victimization. It’s that she’s learned that her instincts are messed up, especially when it comes to relationships, and she has no idea how to recognize genuine danger anymore. We don’t see this enough on tv, because this is what a culture that supports violence against women does—it teaches women not to trust.