“The New American Hero: Dexter, Serial Killer for the Masses”


This rather eye-catching title leads on to a readable, interesting article on the morality, popularity, and cultural suitability of Dexter. I liked it (though Donnelly doesn’t analyse Dexter so much as situate it in the context of serial killer fiction in America)…

Introducing Dexter, Donnelly points out that: “The critics love him: they feel the show is “thought-provoking” and “complex.” In June 2008 “a Peabody Award called it a ‘complex and ambiguous meditation on morality,’ ” and in July it earned five Emmy nominations, including for outstanding drama and lead actor in drama (Jensen). Audiences have embraced this loveable “serial killer as social worker” (Donaghy).” (p.15)

She goes on to note that “Some of the highest rated drama programs on broadcast TV in America center around crime, including NCIS, The Mentalist, The CSI franchise, the Law and Order franchise, and Criminal Minds. These crime dramas are simply the front-runners in an overabundance of similar, formulaic programing, of course. Nearly every station on television boasts a popular show that emphasizes law, order, and justice. In a time when traditional, franchised crime drama shows like CSI and Law and Order are more popular than ever, and the ubiquitous threat of the murdering Other is repeatedly and dependably eliminated every hour on the hour, why have we welcomed with rave reviews the presence of this anti-hero? When almost every network drama seeks to give us the affirmation we so obviously need that the scary Other will be successfully brought to justice, how can we so enthusiastically embrace Dexter and his monstrous nature? Some critics suggest that Dexter is simply one of many recent anti-heroes in favor with the American public. They compare Dexter with The Sopranos, The Shield, Rescue Me, Weeds, and even House, MD, suggesting that the loveable rogue theme is simply en vogue and that America enjoys morally complex lead characters that challenge our notions of right and wrong.

Dexter, however, is not the kind of anti-hero that challenges moral ideals. Dexter’s character actually reinforces conservative ideals of morality, offering a clear differential between “good” and “bad” violence to a culture that is struggling to rationalize key political and social actions that have occurred after September 11, 2001. Dexter’s system of vigilante justice mirrors America’s current fascination with its own ideals of vigilantism, and, while the serial killer anti-heroes of the mid 1980–1990s obscured the line between “normal” selves and deviant Others, Dexter’s character has helped to reestablish a clear line between normalcy and Otherness.” (p.16)

Donnelly concludes: “We’ve become fixated on rationalizing violence, violence that punishes the wicked and redeems the wronged, and Dexter has become our primetime hero. He’s marketable, attractive, witty, and absolute. He’s clearly Other, but we understand why. He threatens those that “deserve” it and poses no threat to those of us who are “normal.” He’s a hammer of justice with a heart of gold, and, in the words of New York Time’s writer Ginia Bellafante, “he’s great with kids.”” (p.25)

Ref: Ashley M. Donnelly (2012) “The New American Hero: Dexter, Serial Killer for the Masses” The Journal of Popular Culture 45(1), pp.15-26

Donnelly also refers to the following writings which caught my eye:

Byers, Michele. “Neoliberal Dexter?” Dexter: Investigating Cutting Edge Television. Ed. Douglas L. Howard. New York: I.B. Tauris and Co., 2010. 143–56.

Conrath, Robert. “Serial Heroes: A Sociocultural Probing into Excessive Consumption.” European Readings of American Popular Culture. Eds. John, Dean, Jean-Paul, Gabilliet, and Kroes Rob. Westport: Greenwood, 1996. 147–57.
Donaghy, James. “Sympathy for the Devil: Please allow Dexter to introduce himself.” The Guardian (London) 7 Jul. 2007: The Guide 4.
Hantke, Steffen. “Monstrosity Without a Body: Representational Strategies in the Popular Serial Killer Film.” Post Script 22 (2003): 34–55. [I went looking for this and found its reference more correctly to be:  Post Script – Essays in Film and the Humanities 22. 2 (Winter 2002): 34-54]
——. “Violence Incorporated: John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and the Uses of Gratuitous Violence in Popular Narrative.” College Literature 28 (2001): 29–42.

Helyer, Ruth. “Parodied to Death: The Postmodern Gothic of American Psycho.” Modern Fiction Studies 46 (Fall 2000): 725–46.

Schmid, David. Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005.
——. “The Devil You Know: Dexter and the “Goodness” of American Serial Killing.” Dexter: Investigating Cutting Edge Television. Ed. Douglas L. Howard. New York: I.B. Tauris and Co., 2010. 132-42.

Simpson, Philip. Psycho Paths: Tracking the Serial Killer Through Contemporary American Film and Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2000.


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