Dexter: Learning Not to Trust (Part 1)

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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.

Posts in this Series

  1. Dexter: Learning Not to Trust (Part 1)
  2. Dexter: Learning Not to Trust (Part 2)
  3. Dexter: Learning Not to Trust (Part 3)

Comments

  1. says

    That sounds awesome, because it could break down one of the ugliest social myths we have: that women can afford to be trusting as long as they’re “good girls”.

    If a man has trouble trusting women – the gender statistically responsible for the vast minority of crimes committed – that’s understandable. Poor dear, he’s hurt and needs time to heal. But if a woman has a rational response of caution to learning (either first- or secondhand) that the gender to which society expects her to defer contains a helluva lot of criminals and crazies alongside the decent men, it’s deemed mean-spirited of her. She’s looking for the negative. She’s painting all men with the same brush.

    Because the solution, of course, is that if she would simply behave precisely as society tells her “good girls” do, she would be bulletproof because “good girls don’t get raped/abused/stalked/etc.” Yeeeah, you remember in childhood when you were afraid there were monsters in the dark, you’d make up rules which, if you followed them properly, would protect you from the monsters? I guess most of us never outgrow that phase.

  2. Ide Cyan says

    I really liked that they addressed Deb’s trauma, and also Rita’s relationship concerns after her abusive marriage to Paul.

    But they really undercut things with LaGuerta’s backstabbing tactics (…having given her an actual feminist line about prejudices against women in the episode before the one where they revealed the anti-feminist twist, for crying out loud), and with Lila’s seriously unhealthy fixation on Dexter and showing her getting turned on when he got violent with her. (And setting her up as an over the top bunny boiler, playing up Rita’s comparative innocence against Lila’s overt sexuality, which even disgusts Deb.) They’re making Lila look more unhinged than the ITK, and petty, childish, and reckless of her own safety.

    ETA: …it’s the corollary to what you brought up about good girls, BetaCandy: that bad girls must deserve what they get!

  3. SunlessNick says

    But if a woman has a rational response of caution to learning (either first- or secondhand) that the gender to which society expects her to defer contains a helluva lot of criminals and crazies alongside the decent men, it’s deemed mean-spirited of her. She’s looking for the negative. She’s painting all men with the same brush. - BetaCandy

    And typically portrayed as having no evidence for her caution at all (even if the same story has provided an ample supply).

  4. says

    Ide Cyan–Rita is the subject of the second part of this, because I think she’s a bit different from Deb.

    I haven’t actually watched past this episode that I liked, but I’m disappointed by what you talk about as ‘the anti-feminist twist’, especially in light of the comparison between Rita and Lila. Maybe there will be more for you to comment on in that light in my post about Rita.

    And Betacandy–

    Yeeeah, you remember in childhood when you were afraid there were monsters in the dark, you’d make up rules which, if you followed them properly, would protect you from the monsters? I guess most of us never outgrow that phase.

    Exactly. And we still tell everybody else that they need to have these rules, too, which is an extremely effective silencing tactic.

  5. says

    I <3 you so much for writing this. (And the Dexter writers for writing such a great show.)

    I have the first season on dvd and got to see the first episode of season 2 during Showtime’s preview week and I just loved loved loved the scene where she decks the guy who not only won’t take ignoring as an answer to “don’t I know you?” – but feels that it’s ok to touch the person ignoring him to get her attention, even as his friend is reminding him where he knows her from. Especially as the same episode has the almost equally awesome scene where Deb is heckled by onlookers who recognize her as the “Ice Truck Killer’s girlfriend” and not only try to get her to turn around so they can take pictures, but ask her to “look scared for the camera.”

    Love love love.

    Must have more TV like this. Less of the “women look sexy when they are being cut up by serial killers.”

    (sigh – and my brother says he can’t watch Dexter bc it’s too violent. really, Braveheart fan? really?)

    (also – in denial about Lila)

  6. SunlessNick says

    I’ve season seasons 1 and 2 of this show now – so sorry for the necromancy – especially in this case, since all I can really say is to word the whole post.

    I liked how the relationship with Lundy was parallel to her healing process, not central to it. And I liked how in the end, her example became a kind of comfort to the rest of the department with what they thought they’d learned about Doakes (and a comfort to her too I guess, since she’s no longer [i]the[/i] one who didn’t see a killer under her nose; it’d be nice if she voiced such a dark kind of comfort out loud).

    Especially as the same episode has the almost equally awesome scene where Deb is heckled by onlookers who recognize her as the “Ice Truck Killer’s girlfriend” and not only try to get her to turn around so they can take pictures, but ask her to “look scared for the camera.”

    I like this scene not just on Deb’s account – and the acknowledgement of just how appallingly publicly a woman’s trauma can be treated – but also on LaGuerta’s. She’s expressed concern that Deb isn’t ready to come back (and isn’t really proved right or wrong, which is cool), but when this happens, her concern shifts from whether Deb will be up to the job to whether Deb will be further hurt.

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