Saturday, January 14, 2012

Dexter Season 4: essential (post)modern man(hood)

Rita: Car pools and swimming pools? How much are we living the dream?
Dexter: So much.

Dexter Morgan is a performer. Michael C. Hall does justice to this aspect of his character -- Dexter is always saying the right thing, but only after searching for a moment, letting his bewilderment show in his eyes as he struggles to sync up with the people around him. His neighbors, his coworkers, his psychologist, his wife -- they're all the audience, and he's a magician, a Stephen Colbert, always in character.

How much truth is there in Dexter's performance? That question is no easier for Dexter to answer than it is for any of us. Because as far as Dexter is concerned, there's no truth whatsoever. Normalcy is the ultimate role he plays, and every time he switches from a smirk to a smile, it strains his composure. The rest of the world is comfortable with its mundane preoccupations and its rote conversations, and Dexter is aware that he's the outsider, faking it until he can get away from it.

But if Dexter is an outsider, why do you sympathize with him so strongly? Come on, I know you do. And this is what complicates the question... in Dexter's momentary lapses, in his little hesitations, his moments of confusion and alienation, he seems to be saying, "I'm supposed to care about this shit? This is what's on these peoples' minds?" And when you see that look in his eyes, it doesn't register as bizarre and unhinged -- instead, it rings with familiarity. Because we all feel like that outsider, looking into a gallery of normal lives. Whether we're at the water cooler or hosting a garden party, we all have those moments where we feel like phony play-actors trying not to be noticed and called out on it.

Just ask Chris Rock. He's a married man who hates married people.

I know this goes for all humans, but I'd wager that men (or the masculine-conditioned) have a stronger affinity with Dexter than the feminine-inclined. Traditional masculinity is constructed as a double-edged sword of independence and isolation, the keystones of the rugged individual. And the non-traditional male, the "nerd" as it were (Dexter gifts Harrison a shirt with the phrase "My Dad's a Geek") is doubly-bound by this outsider stigma: you are constantly faced with the standards of traditional masculinity (cars babes sports money) but you even place yourself outside of that. The greatest survival skill of the anti-social man is to fully embrace his outsider status, to love his own alienation, to take this isolation as a source of great pride.

So we all do that thing that Dexter does: "I can't believe you punched him!" "Yeah, me neither!" You own up to the little emasculations, you bend with the turbulence, admitting that fighting is out of character for you, preempting any true ridicule with gentle self-deprecation. It's a crutch, a self-defense mechanism... self-awareness and self-acceptance. It's a certain kind of honesty, though perhaps overstated.

Oh, right... except for the fact that it's not really honest. At least not for Dexter. With every humble remark Dexter makes, we're in on the joke: we know that he's not really that gentle nerdy science husband. He's actually a seasoned hunter, an expert in disguise and guerilla warfare and thievery and hand-to-hand combat. He can disarm thugs, intimidate bullies, and outmaneuver vicious killers. He's basically a superhero, and his little passing self-deprecations are steeped in irony, meant just for us, the audience that gets to travel around in Dexter's head.

And that's where Dexter becomes unrelatable, right? He's an outsider, like the rest of us, but unlike the rest of us, he's a superhero deep down? Isn't that where our sympathy ends?


Let's take a moment to listen to Neil Stephenson, speaking for all men. From his seminal novel Snow Crash:

"Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad."

This may sound like an adolescent boy's fantasy, but let's face it... all humans, and especially all men, carry that adolescent around with them their whole lives, and we all have a little bit of Hiro Protagonist within us. Dexter actualizes this fantasy. He doesn't just dream of being a superhero -- he IS a superhero, flipping from disguise to disguise, strong-arming thugs into going straight, out-maneuvering cops and murderers, and generally being a black-ops martial arts outlaw whenever it's convenient. Dexter turns the male fantasy into a reality, and it adds an extra dimension to that self-deprecating humor he's always using to protect himself.

Another of Dexter's key moments -- aside from his "how much are we living the dream?" response -- is when he impersonates a truck driver in episode 11, which I would definitely transcribe here, if I could find the quote online. More than any of the beat-downs or boat driving, this is the moment when Dexter becomes the man we all keep in our back pocket, the man who can do ANYTHING, provided he's driven to it by necessity. You need me to be a truck driver right now? Goddammit, I'll do it. I'm a man. This is what we do.

This isn't just cop-educated serial killers in Premium Channel TV shows. This is all men. Some part of us, however small, believes we're secretly a superhero. Hiro Protagonist thinks he could be the baddest motherfucker. Dicky Barrett's not a coward, he's just never been tested. AliasMission: ImpossibleCloverfield, your plumber, your neighbor -- every man is convinced that if it came down to it, they could do what's necessary to punish assholes, save their family, protect AMERICA.

And yet, it's tough for us to maintain this illusion, when we're struggling with illusions of control and the ominous shadow of inadequacy, when we're faking normalcy, and also embracing our outsider status so that we can feel it's legitimate. We're all Shrek and Donkey, onion parfaits, starting with "normalcy" on top, then proceeding to a fluffy layer of alienation, all stacked on top of an inner superhero who's forever kept in dire reserve.

This is what it means to perform masculinity. This is where "truth" gets lost in layers of projection, self-preservation, and constructed identity. This is the territory where nerdy men -- nay, all men -- nay, all people -- get lost in their own performances.

Arthur Mitchell: "Which are you?"
Dexter Morgan: "All of them."