Why do women love Dexter?

Posted by | March 9, 2014 | Television | No Comments

The area of interest is crime drama. Specifically looking at the American Showtime series “Dexter” and its female demographic aged between 18 and 30. Dexter is a critically acclaimed series about a blood-spatter expert with the Miami police force who moonlights as a serial killer. Dexter operates by a code given to him by his foster father and only kills other serial killers.

A relevant text is “TV Drama in Transition” by Robin Nelson. Nelson (1997, pp 156) suggests the very best TV drama makes you think. It stops viewers in their tracks and draws them away from the newspaper and the distractions of domesticity. If a drama is framed just off-centre it demands viewers to see something afresh and challenges their accounts of the world (Nelson, 1997, pp.156). Nelson believes characters that draw people in display “the complexity of a characters’ motivation; the sense conveyed between mind and body, decision and action.” Nelson values matters of ethics. Ethical issues must be acknowledged as well as the pleasures generated from TV Drama. This is relevant to Dexter because the show makes viewers question their own ethics. Dexter is a likeable character but how does it make the audience feel when he kills other people.  The fact that he has a code and only kills serial killers presents a real ethical dilemma.  Nelson (1997, pp 230) places greater value on TV drama’s that “set criteria of critical reflection on human life and its values in general.” These dramas tend to engage viewers and open up new ways of seeing. Nelson does not suggest some TV Dramas are better than others but simply some shows have more to offer.

Graeme Burton’s Talking Television (2000) explores the television audience. Burton (2000, pp. 215) believes the audience uses television to gratify inner needs to do with the social aself and with self-image. He highlights the need for identity and reveals how people use television, in particular personalities and enacted roles in order to check out our sense of self and our social behaviours. This could be tied to the audience’s viewing of Dexter.  They would view Dexter’s acts in order to check their own moral boundaries. Burton also looks at the effects of violent television. He describes effects such as catharsis in that violent television can get rid of violent feelings. Violent material can arouse people before the mood disappears. Other effects include imitation and desensitisation. The effects he discusses may provide some information on the appeal of a show like Dexter.  Why do people watch a show about a serial killer?  Burton suggests violence in real television can be more disturbing than violence in factual television. He also believes television may help in the understanding of violence in society. Burton suggests personal experience and context may have an effect on how the viewer perceives the narrative. He believes voice over work is used to naturalise the discourse. Dexter does use voice-overs by the main character to describe how he is feeling.

Patrick Barwise & Andrew Ehrenberg “Television and its Audience” is another appropriate text. Barwise & Ehrenberg (1998, pp. 25) highlights the fact that different programs are mostly watched by different people. Barwise & Ehrenberg (1998, pp. 26) suggest women spend more time watching television generally. Although the audience sizes for different programs can vary greatly, the make-up of these audiences tends to be broadly similar. There can however be exceptions for individual programs. Narrative programs, which have a continuing storyline benefit from developing plots, establishing characters over time and building audience appeal. This is an important point for Dexter.  The first season of Dexter told 1 story about an “ice truck serial killer” over 13 episodes. Barwise & Ehrenberg (1998, pp. 25) state that some programs take longer to build an audience.  Dexter more than doubled its audience from the pilot to the season finale. Barwise & Ehrenberg believe ongoing storylines or serials build a more loyal and habitual audience. They also assert that studies of audience appreciation show a strong link between how often people watch a given program and how much they like it. They also highlight a relationship between how much a program makes us think and how great an impact a show makes.  Dexter is a high impact show, which leaves viewers talking.

Another relevant text to the general topic is “Women Viewing Violence” by Schlesinger, Dobash & Weaver. Schlesinger (1992, pp. 2) highlights the often-held concern that violent fictional representations bring about a deadening of public sensibilities.  Schlesinger argues that factors such as age, sex, class background, and area of residence are all connected to the perceptions that audience members bring to bear upon their reading of crime and violence on television. Schelsinger (1992, pp. 9) suggests that for some members of the audience reactions to television violence involve an interaction with their experience of violence. Schelsinger (1992, pp. 164) also understands that for some women viewing televised violence may be seen as a depiction of a relatively abstract and distant act. Schelsinger determines that the viewing audience therefore becomes several viewing audiences. He points out that women are more afraid of violence, which distinguishes them from men. Excuses for the violence play a part, as well as the character and situations in which the violence occurs.  This is a key point in the violence depicted in Dexter. Although he is a serial killer he has a strict moral code and does not harm innocent people. This may affect women’s viewing or attraction to the program.

Barrie Gunter “Television and the Fear of Crime” also deals with crime on television.  Gunter (1997, pp. 1) asserts that the influence of television on public perceptions and fears of crime is not strong. Gunter also suggests people’s experience of crime effects how they view crime on television. He intimates that television drama can teach lessons about who wins and loses in conflicts and it may reveal an insight into the power structure of the world. Television can provide a symbolic environment to present a system of beliefs and values. Gunter (1997, pp. 8) believes television can change the outlook people have on the world. He also determines that violent crimes such as murder are actually over represented in US television. Typically crime shows tend to portray criminals as especially heinous. He concludes that crime drama shows are the most popular on television therefore mass audiences are regularly exposed to crime themes.  The way Dexter is portrayed is different to most violent criminals. He is in fact shown in a sympathetic light, which perhaps sets the show apart from many crime dramas. Gunter reveals how viewers perceive and interpret programmes is very important. Viewers do not always read the same meanings into television content.

In Wendy Dennis’ article “The thinking woman’s killer” she details how attractive Dexter is to females. She points out that he is a serial killer who kills other serial killers and he is a great listener, so what’s not to love? She highlights how both men and women are captivated by Dexter but women seem to have a special affection for the character.  Dennis reveals that half the show’s audience is in fact women. Dennis (2007, pp. 51) suggests Dexter is the thinking women’s serial killer who is kind to his co-workers; sweet to his girlfriend, great with her kids and supportive of his sister. Dennis emphasises that like all heroes Dexter lives by a code. He only targets the most violent criminals who slip through the judicial system. Other appealing characteristics for women are that he is very bright, he does very difficult work, and he is protective and a religious man. Dennis believes that for certain women serial killers have held a hypnotic fascination. Dennis (2007, pp. 52) believes most women don’t have it in themselves to kill so liking Dexter gives them license to go there. The fact that many people find themselves rooting for Dexter and hoping he doesn’t get caught is the appeal of the show. The fact that he kills such abhorrent people from pedophiles to those who dispose of immigrants allows the viewers to cut him some slack.

Great television drama presents ethical dilemmas. Television involving violence can have an impact on an audience and its own values and beliefs. Dexter manages to do this while appealing to a strong female demographic. My research question is what are females in the 18-30 age range fascination with Dexter and why are they watching the show?

 

References

Barwise, P. and A.Ehrenberg. 1988. Television and its Audience. London, California, New Delhi: Sage Publications

Burton, G. 2000. Talking Television. London: Arnold

Dennis, W. 2007. The Thinking Woman’s Killer. Maclean’s Vol. 120 Iss. 10. (March) :51-2

Gunter, B. 1987. Television and the Fear of Crime. London: John Libbey & Company.

Nelson, R. 1997. TV Drama in Transition: Forms, Values and Cultural Change. London, New York: Macmillan Press

Schlesinger, P., R.Dobash, R.E. Dobash and C. Weaver. 1992 Women Viewing Violence. London: BFI.

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