No Normal Monster: A Lecture on Dexter

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

“Dexter is our hero because of the violence he doesn’t engage in,” said Lisa Arellano, Assistant Professor of American Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Colby College. Faculty, students and guests gathered in the Scheuer Room on Wednesday afternoon for her lecture entitled, “The Heroic Monster: Dexter, Masculinity and Violence.”

Dexter is a popular Showtime series that follows the exploits of Dexter Morgan, blood spatter pattern analyst for the Miami Metro Police Department by day, serial killer by night. But here’s the catch that sets him apart—Dexter only kills bad guys, other serial killers, living by a code that ensures he never gets caught. The TV series was adapted from the Darkly Dreaming Dexter book series by Jeff Lindsay.

Arellano spoke about the relationship between narrative and violence. Arellano, who has been studying vigilantism for years, states that the stories told about vigilantes, and characters like Dexter, “makes their violence comprehensible and legitimate.” Even imagined violence, like Dexter’s, can “destabilize the real” and character narratives can shape real life expectations of masculinity.

Dexter is a show that makes us think about our attraction to violence, and the relationship between masculinity and violence, according to Arellano. When Arellano asserted that it is the violence he “doesn’t engage in” that makes him a hero, she is speaking to Dexter’s relative “goodness” on a series rife with men who are abusive and murderous.

As both a hero who tests our moral boundaries, and a murder who cannot make the leap all the way over to the dark side, Arellano says that Dexter is “no monster we know.” He is a character imagined differently because he can be neither “protector” nor “predator.” Arellano praises his character for this, claiming that both of these identities assert male dominance in ways that seek to undermine women.

“I thought the concept of predator/protector was really tightly crafted [within the context of the show],” said Anna Stitt ’13.

Arellano spoke about how both the narrative and dialogue patterns throughout the series set Dexter apart from the other serial killers he encounters and tries to befriend. The series does not only focus on Dexter, but also on the violence of these other men. But Dexter fails to have homosocial relationships with them because he fails to engage in the kind of non-structured violence that they do: he is not violent enough, says Arellano.

Not all of those who attended had seen the series, but the Scheuer Room was full. After the lecture, and a few illustrative clips from the series, the audience asked both fan and theory-based questions. Some asked questions based on other plot points of the series, others ventured to read the series in a larger context, equating the protector/predator complex to the United States’ involvement abroad.

For Arellano, there is possibility in a character like Dexter. Maybe, “we can let go of normative associations of heroes and monsters [through Dexter],” she said.

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