Dexter: Looking Beyond the Racial Bechdel Test

Dexter is one of the few television shows I have watched in its entirety. It is not near the perfection of The Wire, notoriety of Madmen, completeness of Breaking Bad, cultural relevance of Empire or even the scope of Game of Thrones. But I love this show! Dexter‘s eight seasons are uneven, though not repetitious in plot or characterization. Dark and explicit, Dexter is often mislabeled as a crime drama; it is a psychological drama for its brilliant exploration of major and minor characters’ internal and external lives. Like The Wire, I always appreciate the writing and performances. Michael C Hall’s range is undeniable!

Recently, Showtime re-aired the series. As I re-watched the serial killer, Dexter Morgan, toggle between introspection and addiction I wondered why it was so difficult for shows (creators, writers and casting agency) to see people of color (POC) as complete and complex human beings. True Dexter does not treat its POC like scene fillers or props and it does a better job with representation than most shows, but the show’s treatment caucasian characters is still different.Dexter victimsIn the show’s eight seasons I don’t recall any of Dexter’s victims, much less killers with whom he formed relationships being people of color with the exception of ADA Miquel Prado (Jimmy Smits) and Brother Sam (Mos Def/Yasiin Bey). Every person of color was killed, except for Angel Batista, Vince Masuka, Anton Briggs last seen in season 4 and an insignificant Det. Angie Miller. Of course we expect a significant number of deaths on a show about a vigilante serial killer who researches, indicts and dissects the dredges of Miami, but the show’s inability to balance its portrayals of POC and others is troubling and mars the shows legacy. It is also interesting to note that LBQT and differently abled characters are not seen on the show. Of course this lack of diversity is not only seen on Dexter or Showtime. The most popular TV shows have a history of very few to no POC as is detailed in Buzzfeed’s 7 Shows That Have Too Many People Of Color.

racial becdel test

Like The Bechdel Test, The Racial Bechdel Test is an important tool in quantifying inequality in terms of representation. As many have noted, the tests are limited. Dexter would pass both tests, but there is a difference between representation and equality. Dexter had more than a handful of POC on the show, and it is important to note that they were not all one dimensional characters. However, is it enough to have major and minor POC characters if you kill most of them?

POC Killed on Dexter

  • James Doakes (Season 2)
  • Lt. Esme Pascal* (Season 2)
  • ADA Miguel Prado (Season 3)
  • Wendell Owens (Season 3)
  • Off. Cira Manzon (Season 5)
  • Professor James Gellar* (Season 6)
  • Brother Sam (Season 6)
  • Det. Mike Anderson
  • María LaGuerta (Season 7)

Another egregious misstep Dexter made was Doakes’ funeral. In season one we meet Doakes’ mother and his three sisters. However at his funeral his mother sits with another black woman who is presumably his sister. Though at this time in the series, everyone believes that Doakes was the Bay Harbor Butcher, it is unlikely that two of his sisters would not attend his funeral, especially since the scene lacks commentary. Even more disheartening is the fact that the actors from season one were not used to portray his grieving mother and sisters. The show could have eliminated this issue by addressing the emotional turmoil families experience when they lose loved ones who commit offensive acts. There were many ways to address Doakes’ death without offending POC.

Beyond the Bechdel testThe Representation Test is, “a media literacy tool meant to spark learning and conversation around representation in film, and to encourage more overall diversity on-screen and behind-the-scenes in Hollywood.” Dexter scores a B (9) on the Representation Test but it still has ‘structural issues of inequality’. This is test is inclusive and more comprehensive than Bechdel Tests, but it is still limited as it is most interested in representation. As viewers it is important that we push for a move beyond representation to equality. Here equality is the opportunity for meaningful roles based on skill.

The uneasiness with which creators and writers treat women, POC, LGBT and PWD is puzzling. Beyond diversifying the studio heads, creators and writer, we can use Geena Davis‘ two easy steps to increase female representation and expand it to POC: (1) Go through the projects you’re already working on and change a bunch of the characters’ first names to women’s names. (2)  When describing a crowd scene, write in the script, “A crowd gathers, which is half female.”

Maybe the goal is color-blind casting to achieve diversity which is representative of the global world in which we live. POC should not be relegated to roles that are consistently seen as less than, invisible, meaningless scene fillers  or plot devices to only magnify the protagonist or outdated ideas about a world order that subjugates POC. The hope is that POC do not remain the first victim in the horror movie or the entertainment industry. More importantly, I want to watch my favorite television and film shows without muting a part of my consciousness. I’ll always think of Dexter fondly, but it will always be sullied by its inability to move beyond representation to equality.

*Pascale was driven mad and Gellar was actually a hallucination of the Trinity Killer.

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