Dexter: Feminist Serial Killer?

(SPOILER ALERT: Proceed with caution if you’re not caught up!)

Dexter’s eye-for-an-eye vigilantism came to a gripping fifth-season finale this week with Jordan Chase (Jonny Lee Miller), serial rapist and murderer, brought to a bloody end by one of his victims, Lumen (Julia Stiles). If you are not familiar with the show, go here for a good feminist overview of the series, or see the series of posts here.

This season, the Showtime TV series had much to offer feminist viewers: blood-spatter analyst (and serial killer) Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) as single dad; female Lt. LaGuerta’s (Lauren Velez) betrayal of Dexter’s sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter); Deb’s mad detective skills and, at the heart of the season, a rape revenge fantasy involving Dexter and Lumen, who were bent on meting out punishment for a group of male rapists and murderers. This time around, Dexter’s partner in crime was an intelligent, articulate, tough woman–a female raped, tortured and nearly murdered who realizes that the violence done to her cannot be buried or denied and will forever change her view of the world and her place in it.

As noted at Feminists For Choice, “the show does an above-average  job of accurately depicting the agony of rape trauma syndrome and PTSD.” Why is this 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, rapist, 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.

Dexter’s “dark passenger” impels him to dole out retribution as an attempt to make up for the brutal murder of his mother, which he witnessed as a young child. Yet he 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 Astor, Dexter’s tween stepdaughter, showed up drunk. At first viewers were encouraged to see her as selfish and immature, to view her drinking and shoplifting as signs of a girl gone wrong. Yet, along with Dexter, viewers slowly realize Astor’s behavior was spurred by 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.

Dexter 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–exemplified this season by the storyline in which Lt. LaGuerta betrays Deb. 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 a 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 victims. To the contrary, the show reveals that no one is safe from the sexism and violence that pervades our world. 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.

Photo of Dexter poster from Flickr user watchwithkristin under license from Creative Commons 2.0


  1. i agree.. and i think next season Dex should go after all the child molesters.

  2. This article is great, but why is there no mention of Rita's murder being an act of violence against women?

  3. ohh i love Dexter, it´s my favourite series. I wouldn´t say the it´s especially feminist, but neither is it misogynist as so many other series. Definitely on the better side.

  4. beccamarcus says:

    I had a lot of mixed feelings watching this season. On the one hand, I think Julia Stiles did justice to portraying and communicating the horror and trauma of rape victims. On the other, we still see an enormous amount of violence against women (Lumen's flashbacks, being kidnapped again, dragged, beaten, tied, etc) as part of a show for entertainment. Lumen breaks all stereotypes of the survivor victim– she challenges her rapists, eagerly plotting and seeking them out to get revenge—she moves from being the passive victim to the active vigilante. But somehow with Lumen's character, just as Dexter's– we are able to forgive her violence. It poses the issue of strong female representations being linked to— violent women? Is violence the only *just* way to rehabilitate from such a traumatic experience? We're seeing a lot of this anti-victim violent heroine nowadays (I just read the Dragon Tattoo Series) and it seems that violent women are one of the few representations of strong women that thrive in media. What are feminist viewers to do when glorified violence, a patriarchal model of entertainment, is coated with serious feminist issues? Does it exploit sexual victims' emotional experiences or give them alternative texts to feel empowered? Watching season 5 of Dexter, both elements were very present and created quite a paradox for me.

    • We aren't shown Lumens torture scenes to be entertained. They are uncomfortable to watch and they made me feel sick, but it was necessary for the plot to be driven forward, we NEEDED to see the horrifc nature of what happened to be to be entiresly on her side.

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