Bringing Up Baby: The Women of Dexter in the Workplace

Dexter's Deb, a white woman with brown hair, posing for the camera wearing casual clothesI love Dexter, so I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt in almost any situation. In the past, I've been uncomfortable with portrayals of specific female characters, but I burned those red flags, or I suppose just buried them.

Today, I'm digging them up.

For those of you who don't know, Dexter is a Showtime series about homicide cops in Miami. Title character Dexter (Michael C. Hall) is a blood splatter analyst by day and vigilante serial killer by night. (And sometimes by day.) Dexter's sister Debra is a cop too, and she was recently promoted to Lieutenant. In the same episode that Deb accepts her promotion, she breaks up with her boyfriend, the interminably dull Detective Quinn. As Deb ascends the podium at a public celebration of her promotion, Dexter says to Quinn, "She's made her choice, but it's not you or me."

Woman Trades Personal Life For Career. It's a trite, reductionist formula, sure, but it derives from the real struggles of women, no? And Deb's character is so specific that her struggles are never clichéd. But let's look at this within the larger Dexter universe. I present to you the female characters of Dexter:

Rita from Dexter, a white woman with blond hair, holding a babyRita Bennett: Dexter's wife. She's a sweet, naïve victim and the consummate housewife, even though she works at a hotel. When she becomes pregnant with Dexter's baby, she tells Dexter he doesn't have to help out, as any submissive woman would do. At one point, she believes Dexter is a heroin addict in a truly unfathomable plot twist that was only a teensy bit believable because of the chronic treatment of Rita as sub-humanly stupid.

Laura Moser: Dexter's biological mother. Single mom, adulterous drug addict.

Gail Brandon: Rita's mom. Devoted school teacher, mean bitch.

Lila West: Dexter cheats on Rita with Lila, who is a sex object, a sociopath, and the symbolic antithesis to Rita. She frames Dexter's friend for rape, kidnaps and tries to kill Rita's children, kills Detective Doakes, and is eventually killed by Dexter.

Sylvia Prado: Miguel Prado's wife. Portrayed as a housewife-y real estate agent. She and Rita were friends, and they were both super nice and supportive of one another.

Ellen Wolf: Powerful defense attorney. Calculating and manipulative. Close friend to LaGuerta. Murdered by Miguel Prado.

Barbara Gianna: Detective and once-girlfriend of Batista. Chronically single and uncomfortable with intimacy and commitment. She and Batista break up.

Cira Manzon:: Rookie police officer who helps with the Santa Muerte murders investigation. Deb is mean to her at first (seeming to mirror LaGuerta's initial treatment of Deb) but warms up when Cira proves her competence. LaGuerta plans to frame Cira for a botched sting operation; after Deb opposes this plan, Cira in turn betrays Deb, and both Cira and LaGuerta frame Deb instead.

Yuki Amado: Super mean Internal Affairs officer who tells Deb bad stuff about Quinn.

Christine Hill: Dogged journalist. Double-crosser who seduces Quinn in order to get information. She murders Lundy, shoots Deb, and eventually kills herself.

Wife and daughter of Trinity: Pathetic, downtrodden, abused people who are basically only there to show us that Trinity is a monster.

Lumen Pierce: Victim of torture and rape. Lumen was a conventional good girl who decided to break up with her fiancé. Soon after, she is kidnapped and held in a dungeon for an unknown period of time. This good girl is thirsty for vengeance and becomes a killer. After the guilty parties are all dead, she tells Dexter she doesn't want to kill any more, and leaves the show.

Maria LaGuerta: Ambitious Captain. Does anything to advance her career. Falls in love with and marries Angel, but later divorces him for her career. She is competitive with Deb.

Ryan, Masuka's New Intern: Ambitious sex object who double-crosses Masuka and steals evidence.

Maria LaGuerta, a Latina woman, looks frustratedLet's face it: Dexter doesn't do women many favors. "Career women" are not sympathetic characters, "housewives" are vapid, and on the whole, women with power are conniving, dangerous seductresses. And as far as we know, none of the women with "career"-type jobs have children, except for Rita's mom, because these women have sacrificed everything for their jobs (this is not the case for the male characters on the show). Importantly, even the male serial killers on Dexter (Trinity, Miguel Prado) are portrayed with sensitive depth when compared with many of the female characters. Within this universe, Deb is an anomaly by simple virtue of the fact that she's treated as a complete character. (As often happens when females are complete characters, she's a "one of the guys" type.) Deb's conversations with other women—excluding Rita—tend to be hostile.

The stories of Dexter are told from the male perspective. The life struggles of Dexter, Angel, and Dexter's homicidal friends are typical "male" struggles, and with the exception of Deb, believable character arcs are reserved for the men. (I didn't find Lumen believable, but I know there's something of a divide there.) The male co-workers are chummy, while female co-workers are sparse and competitive. Women with power are perceived as threats, usually by virtue of their sexuality.

All that being said, the character of Deb is written with incredible insight, and Jennifer Carpenter's acting is some of the best on TV. (If the Emmy's were based on talent rather than popularity, five awards would retroactively be sent to her.) So I'm hoping this Quinn vs. Career plot will resolve itself in a nuanced fashion, and I'm willing to bury my concerns again—for now—to see what happens.

Comments

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I never thought Deb turned

I never thought Deb turned Quinn down for her job. She turned him down because she didn't want anything serious and I didn't get the impression that it was because of her job. Quinn was something fun and easy, he wanted more and she didn't, so she said no. Had it been Lundy she totally would have said yes to both without a thought.

I actually agree

I agree with this point. I think we will discover later this season the "real reason" that Deb turned him down. For now it seems she just didn't want anything serious, but it's been implied several times that she has some kind of other reason. My point was that it's very clear that the show's creators intentionally presented the promotion/end of relationship in explicit juxtaposition. This show is written by people, and these people made the decision to present the plot in this particular manner. As of now, the 'real reason' is being held as a carrot for the watcher, but it's clear that the other characters on the show think Deb did it for her career. Even the fact that this is the go-to assumption in Dexter-verse is problematic. This is why I wanted to analyze this plot thread in the context of all the other female characters on the show -- female characters who consistently trade in their personal life for their careers. I don't think this will turn out to be the case for Deb, and I don't think there is a justification for them coyly linking the break-up to the promotion, only to later do an about-face.

Katherine Don

Most points are valid

I see your point on most of this post, but I have to disagree on the portion of Deb choosing her career over personal life. They made it pretty clear (aside from Dexter's comment) that she never had any intentions of marrying Quinn. It just so happens that he proposed right when she got promoted.

PS... I miss Rita.

This is an interesting post

This is an interesting post and I don't really have any well thought out comments right now, but I wanted to note that I read the Deb/Quinn situation somewhat differently. Deb has not actually given up her relationship for her career. Quinn thinks that, but the timing was totally coincidental and I doubt Deb would have married Quinn even if she hadn't been promoted. I think this story is more of a comment on Quinn than it is on Deb.

It seems coincidental, but

It seems coincidental, but because this is a fictional TV shows, we have to assume that the writers and producers placed Quinn's proposal, his breakup with Deb and her promotion close chronologically to create drama - the questions raised in this article, as in most analyses of gender representations in media, are based on what's show and the reasons for that. We, as an audience, may know that Deb didn't dump Quinn over her job but instead because of her fear of or disinterest in committment, but do we yet know why Deb can't commit to any man she's ever with as much as she can to her job? I don't think so - though I do think Deb is the most rounded and fully-fleshed female character on this show. I think this article is just asking us to think critically of the representation of the female characters and their motivations on this show.

I don't have Showtime, so I'm

I don't have Showtime, so I'm not up on the current season. I agree with most of what you've said here, but I kind of feel like nothing about this series is believable. I'm not sure I see that as a specifically gendered problem.

And I agree that this show doesn't do women any favors, but again, I think the show has flat characters in general. With the exception of Deb and possibly Trinity, it's basically the Michael C. Hall show. As an ensemble show, it's absolutely awful all around. And I think Black, Asian and Latin@ people in the cast are usually relegated to very flat roles, and often cast as caricatures.

Masuka is just there to provide a punchline, and Angel is just a hardworking, sincere dude who doesn't seem to be all that worldly or smart. There was a Black guy in an earlier season... I don't even remember his name, but he was a pretty simplistic career cop, before Dexter murdered him. He was clearly just a plot device, there so we could find out whether or not Dexter could be moved to kill a non-evil person.

I think Doakes is the guy you

I think Doakes is the guy you couldn't remember. That was actually an interesting storyline.

I like Angel. I wish they'd round him out a bit more.

Different take

I did get the impression that a big part of the reason Deb and Quinn split was Deb's promotion. Sure, Deb wasn't interested in marrying him, but they didn't break up until after she found out she was going to be Lieutenant, and I thought the show framed it in a way that suggested he wouldn't want her post-promotion anyway (since working women on Dexter have to be single). Also, Quinn is the worst.

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As I recall, Deb was

As I recall, Deb was confiding in Dexter and expressed her disinterest in marrying Quinn because she wanted to keep things simple and easy. This happened before she was offered the promotion.

I would agree that the writers likely created a juxtoposition between Deb's choices, but it seemed pretty clear to me that Deb didn't consider Quinn the marrying kind, regardless.

I agree with the assessment

I agree with the assessment of most of these characters. I don't think Dexter's writers ever intended it to show anything from the female perspective, though. I often wonder if all of this is being played out in Dexter's mind as opposed to just merely straightforward dramatics. And maybe that's the key: Dexter (the character) and his own view of women, not the view of the show's producers.

I digress.

I have to disagree with some extent on Lumen. I don't think she embodied all good or all bad. She doesn't seem to fit the theme of career driven or vapid. Quite honestly, I think that's why her storyline didn't play as well to a mass audience.

Deb's situation is questionable on both ends. I don't think she was really ever in love with Quinn, but used him for fun. I think Dexter sees it as a choice between career and love, but I don't think Deb does.

"And maybe that's the key:

"And maybe that's the key: Dexter (the character) and his own view of women, not the view of the show's producers."

Interesting perspective...

Cool analysis! I feel

Cool analysis! I feel similarly about Weeds now, too, so hopefully you will have a chance to analyze that show's female characters one of these days too.

i stopped watching because i

i stopped watching because i couldn't stand the (way) female characters (were treated) on the show. after more consideration i realized that none of the characters were very three-dimensional or sympathetic and i tried to convince myself that this was intentionally done in order to represent dexter's experience of other people/not quite fitting in. unfortunately, i think i give the writers too much credit. also, not to be harsh, but i can't stand the deb character and i'm not sure if it's the script, the acting or both. suffice it to say, i heartily disagree that she is deserving of any golden globes, much less five! the one caveat is that i gave up on dexter long ago, so perhaps things have changed...

Seriously!? At this point of

Seriously!? At this point of the show Debra is the most interesting and complex character on the show besides Dexter. She's practically the only supporting character that matters who actually has an impact on Dexter's character development. Perhaps if you'd see what the writer of the article and what most posters are talking about if you actually continued watching the show and see the progression in her character.

Season one Debra was horrid, I'll give you that, but she's gone through the most changes of any character on the show. I've seen the actress (Jennifer Carpenter) in other projects and if you're annoyed by anything about her it certainly isn't her acting. I agree with the article about her unjustified lack of awards recognition but I wouldn't say she's deserved it for the past five season, however Id the last 3.

Something that has been

Something that has been frustrating for me is that you know a woman is going to be evil if you see her breasts. It's saying, it's ok for us to expose her in this way because she's terrible. It's a predictable but also worse, slut-shaming device that at this point immediately ruins any hope that a more "complex" female character might actually be well developed. Lila actually started out as a cool character but then you saw her breasts and knew she was going to try to kill everyone.

Wow, I never thought about

Wow, I never thought about that. Reminds me of the trope in horror flicks that a woman will get killed if she has sex. Did we see Rita's breasts though? I remember there were some pretty full-on naked sex scenes with her, but I can't remember if they actually showed anything.

Katherine Don

And let's not forget the

And let's not forget the literal examples of the girl in the refrigerator trope with the Ice Truck Killer storyline.

All good points, but I'd

All good points, but I'd argue that pretty much all the characters on the show have pretty deep flaws—guys included.

Batista is probably the most lovable, but he *did* cheat on his wife—right?

Quinn has done majorly creepy and questionable things—supposedly in his past job, but also around tailing Dexter while sleeping with his sister!

Matsuda is gross and totally unprofessional.

LaGuerta's boss is a typical white dude with power douche.

Most of the other guys are killers or somehow involved with killing.

Brother Sam is pretty complex—but perhaps you could argue he's a stereotype of a born again?

I agree I'd like to see more complex female characters that aren't either victims or competing with other women, though.

Unrelated?

I didn't say anything about whether or not the characters on the show have flaws. (Though it's true, the flaws of the guys are variegated as compared to the flaws allowed the female characters, which indeed relates to what I wrote.) I was saying that the portrayals of women follow a specific pattern. Their flaws - and their not-flaws - are patterned and thus dehumanizing.

Katherine Don

Actually Brother Sam is the

Actually Brother Sam is the perfect example of the Magical Negro trope: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magical_Negro.

dexter

"For those of you who don’t know, Dexter is a Showtime series about homicide cops in Miami. Title character Dexter (Michael C. Hall) is a blood splatter analyst by day and vigilante serial killer by night. (And sometimes by day.)" - isn't this enough to know that this show will essentially be crap???

So you're judging the show

So you're judging the show based on the synopsis? Maybe you should try actually watching it. There's a reason why it's so critically acclaimed with a strong fan following.

"Let’s face it: Dexter

"Let’s face it: Dexter doesn't do women many favors." Is it supposed to? It doesn't do men any favors either. It isn't supposed to do that either. It's supposed to be attention grabbing, and holding. Dexter is silly and contrived.  It's a collage of bad stereotypes in ridiculous and unbelievable scenarios.  I don't think the women are portrayed any worse than the men.

Most of the men are portrayed as sex-obsessed cavemen.  I don't think I've seen a single male regular crack open some literature, go to a play, have a nuanced and intelligent conversation, etc.  What men are doing a great job of handling careers and family?  Dexter married into adolescent children and isn't exactly doing well as an absentee single father of an infant.  Angel obviously failed miserably, ending up divorced and turning to prostitutes.  Quinn is a boring sleaze (how about a boring, nice guy for a change?).  Lundy was an obsessed workaholic with apparently no children who left a great relationship with Deb for yet another case.  Doakes certainly wasn't capable of having a stable relationship.  Masuka and children?  If anything, characters like Ellen, Sylvia, Barbara and such have been more of a reasonable portrayal of secondary female characters than have been the male ones.  Lila was extreme, just as the Skinner, Liddy, Dexter himself, and many such characters are. Rita was vapid, but anyone who could have made it to that point with Dexter would have to be gullible and very accomodating or it would be completely unbelievable.  She isn't a random sample of women any more than Dexter is of men.  Of course the antagonists, as primary characters, are fleshed out more than "many of the female characters", just as they are most of the male characters.  But, I'd hardly call the treatment of Trinity, the Ice Truck Killer, Miguel, the Skinner, Chase, etc. to be sensitively exploring any real depth, but rather just giving more attention to monsters to show how monstrous they are so we can cheer more for Dexter, the less monstrous monster.  They are the main characters driving each season, and the show is no more complex than that.

Deb is the show's compass, and is portrayed as a better person than probably anyone else in the show.  She's also a better cop.  She dated a serial killer and was almost his victim and made it through in pretty good emotional shape.  How f*()^ng impressive is that (as Deb would say:)?  She also doesn't seem like someone who would want to change diapers and research pre-schools.  That's OK. 

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Good analysis, honestly I

Good analysis, honestly I really like this show because it's really entertaining, but I'm not so sure I can keep watching it now that you've shown how poorly it reflects on women. Maybe I should keep watching it but just stop my boyfriend from seeing it with me so he doesn't get any subconscious ideas. haha

All above observations

All above observations regarding female characters can be applied to the male characters....
Doakes, Masuka et al have no more depth to their character than any (female) protagonist who is not dexter.
its how Tv works (and theatre, novels ...)

I wouldnt disagree mainstream TV is sexist - it is, just as much as society is sexist. but,
as was said, any faults to be found probably derive from the fact that they go for realism.
males have it easier to combine work and family, not fair but true.

I just think every occurence on the show is viewed from the perspective of a man struggling with his and others' emotions.
in that light, I dont think Dexter as a show is the worst offender out there

Rita isn't weak!

I think Rita is an amazing portrayal of a woman who suffered the kind of abuse she did. Yes, she's timid and submissive sometimes, but there are a lot of occasions where she proves that she's more than that. For example, she had the bitchy neighbor with the dog that wouldn't stop barking. Initially, Rita doesn't want to say anything. She's non confrontational by nature, and she doesn't feel comfortable starting something. Dexter goes over to do the hard thing for her, and is ultimately unsuccessful. Not long after, Rita musters up some courage, goes over, and lays down the law about the dog. She's nervous and less than articulate but she doesn't back off. And when the door gets slammed in her face, she straight up takes the dog and gives it to a loving family because Rita is a badass and when it comes down to it, she will take care of things if she has to. When some drug addicted friend of her husband's shows up, Dexter tries to defend her but she tells him to back off because it's her business. The guy steals her car, and she obviously is upset (as any reasonable person would be), but when Dexter offers to give her rides to work she says she'll take the bus like millions of other people. She takes care of herself, she doesn't need a man's help. And when Rita dresses up as Lara Croft from Tomb Raider and finally has the guts to wear something so brazenly after what happened to her, she looks hot as hell and she knows it. She does things on her terms and even though she's quiet and shrinks away from confrontation, Rita is totally independent. I think she's an A+ female character.

But Rita

I think what does it in for me is Rita. Because not only is she a single mother balancing kids and custody hearings, but she actually gains independence and smarts as the show goes along. And Lila is a sympathetically psychopathic lady; what all she does, she does because Dexter essentially uses her as a therapist. Who wouldn't go crazy?
I will agree, i don't think this show is perfect, but I think given the fucked up nature of the theme, it does give women some credit (unlike shows like Breaking bad, where the woman does become a serious characterature and abuse object and holds it through the entire series, save MAYbe three episodes).