Dexter: Bloody Good

Posted: March 1, 2010 by RA in Race, Television
Tags: ,

Originally posted at Racialicious in May 2008


As much as we clamor, beg, and plead for minority representation in the mainstream media, when we get it, it seldom seems to work out as we’d hoped. Many people of color can attest to squirming uncomfortably in front of their televisions, praying for that character of color to finish up and skulk offscreen, so we can return to the idyllic white utopia we enjoyed only minutes before.

Do not adjust your monitors – I really did just say that. While I appreciate the need for children and teens still defining their identities to have (at least) the occasional protagonist who looks the least bit like them, I never quite bought that argument as applied to adults. I (like many consumers of U.S. media) have never had a problem consuming all-white narratives for three reasons:

    * It’s a fucking story. Any fully-formed adult mind should be able to identify with a properly written protagonist. (Hear that, white folks who “can’t identify” with predominantly POC casts?)
    * As we all know, white is presented as the norm in all media forms and general discourse in the U.S.
    * With the disgraceful way Hollywood depicts people of color, the all-white cast offers the least-painful viewing experience.

It was with all this in mind that I began to feel some apprehension when I noticed the first traces of melanin in the first episode of Dexter. I had just gotten Showtime and I wanted reassurance that cheating on HBO was the right thing to do. While I’d heard good things about The Tudors and Weeds, the premise behind Dexter was more than I could resist.

So with the show shaping up to be my post-Sopranos indulgence, I was understandably troubled at the possibility of some racist douchery messing up the whole thing – I find I can’t get reinvested in a show after that. (Please pass that on to Larry David. We aren’t on speaking terms.)

Early on in the first episode, things aren’t looking too good. The first non-white character we’re introduced to is Vince Masuka (C.S. Lee), a short, bespectacled APIA horndog who drools over Dexter’s sister (an undercover cop on the scene) while conducting a preliminary forensic analysis on a crime scene. Next, we see Lt. Laguerta (Lauren Vélez), a Latina higher-up who, despite being known for her media-savvy, gives Dex a spine-chilling, creepy-old-man wink in the middle of a press conference. In front of cameras. And a dead hooker. At a crime scene.

So, less than ten minutes in, we’ve already got a spicy Latina lusting after white-guy Dexter and an East-Asian geek lusting after white-girl Debra. Not looking good, kids. Or at least, it wouldn’t, if that were the end of the story. I remember one of my Media Studies college professors once pointing out how the contemporary male protagonist seems to emit pheromones so incredibly potent that all women he encounters are rendered helpless. It’s certainly true in most cases – and this seems to be yet another. Fair play, then. Still pathetically stereotypical, but at least it’s just sexist (rather than racist + sexist) in nature.

As the narrative evolves, we see Laguerta as a bitch on wheels to Debra, a devoted friend to Doakes and Angel (more on them later), and yes, still soft on Dexter. It turns out she doesn’t play well with another high-ranking female officer, either. Although I’ve heard complaints from some quarters that this was a sexist, “catty female” depiction, I beg to differ. She didn’t play well with someone whose very presence was effectuated to make her life difficult – not very nice, but perfectly normal. A few years ago, I watched a superb interview in which Diahann Caroll recalled insisting that the Dynasty writing staff treat her character no differently than a white male. She wanted ‘Dominique Deveraux’ to be as manipulative, sexed up, and downright evil as anyone else in the Carrington/Colby universe.

That has always been a point I’ve tried (and often failed) to get across in my rants against questionable depictions of minority characters in the media. People of color don’t all have to be rocket scientists or saintly teachers (two roles traditionally reserved for white folks on film). Just make them people, and we’ll be fine.

Laguerta is a vindictive, mean-spirited politicker. She’s a protective, fiercely loyal friend. She’s a sexually aware (and dead-sexy) woman. But these are only facets of Lt. Maria Laguerta, the person, so you’ll find no complaints here.

When we left off, Vinny Masuka was the little APIA lab tech who drooled over the ‘hot’ white chick in the short shorts through his geeky glasses, right? Wrong. Masuka wasn’t eye-humping Debra in her undercover-as-hooker gear because he was the stereotypical East-Asian male character who never gets any play. Turns out Vince gets love. A lot. He just makes those inappropriate comments because he’s a sleazebag. In fact, he and Angel seem to have the most active social lives in the department.

What I especially enjoy about the way Vince is portrayed is that his Lewd Asian Dude-ness is neither handled in a back-patting “we’re so progressive” manner, nor is it played for laughs in the “look, the Asian guy’s the one saying this” way most often seen in teen sex-romp comedies like American Pie. Vince is just a guy who works hard, parties hard, and wouldn’t be above taking this ‘hard’ reference to filthy, filthy places, were he the one writing this. We all know that guy. I work with that guy. I am that guy. (But I’m in advertising, so we’re pretty-much all that guy where I work – men and women alike.)

Angel Batista (superbly played by David Zayas) is a Latino officer whose mere presence on the show breaks a bunch of rules clearly outlined in the Representing Melanin in Mainstream Media handbook. First of all, the cast as a whole breaks the rule of tokenism by not dotting the all-white cast with a single minority – perhaps two, if we’re lucky. But having a second Latino primary character definitely breaks the “minority salad bar” representation rule. And wait… the two Latino characters aren’t dating? What the hell is going on here? Add to that the fact that Batista is a deeply endearing Latino male character who is attractive, cop-macho, and three-dimensionally sensitive, and you begin to wonder how they got away with this clusterfuckery.

Even Dexter, in a low moment, tells Batista that he (Angel) is the one person he wishes he could be. The kicker is, this wasn’t uttered after a selflessly devoted Batista saved his life/taught him to dance/helped him find soul/his rhythm/his swing/insert additional Magical Negro objective here. In fact, Batista was so engrossed in his own troubles that he wasn’t really moved by Dexter’s rare display of man-love.

But if you thought Angel was a tough crowd for Dexter, don’t get me started on Sergeant Doakes (well, I thought it was a pretty good segue), a hardass former marine and special-operative who suspects all is not right with Dexter, and intends to prove it. I heard some groans about the one-dimensional nature of this Angry Black Man character. As a sometimes-angry black man, I would like to be able to comment on that one way or the other, but I can’t get around Erik King’s horrendous acting long enough to ever really analyze the character he’s meant to be playing. Seriously, people. It’s like the director’s notes said, “Doakes: Think Sgt. Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman, as played by Mr. T.” Subtlety doesn’t seem to even exist in King’s world.

Finally, we’ve got Lt. Esme Pasquale (Judith Scott) – the Haitian-American top cop brought in to make Maria squirm. Pasquale is introduced as Maria’s steely nemesis, bent on putting her in her place. But she soon reveals an intention for the two to work hand in hand, boys upstairs be damned. However, by the time the season runs out, she’s been reduced to a raving madwoman, breaking all rules professional decorum to catch a fiancé she swears is cheating.

I was a little iffy about this at first. A powerful black female professional reduced to a pitiful “brotha dun’ done me wrong” cliché? Not good. But I let those concerns go pretty quickly. While again, many may argue sexism in the way she’s basically unable to function just because her man got to creeping on her, I must (again) disagree. Without spoiling it too much for those who haven’t seen it yet, I’ll just say that anyone –black, white, Puerto Rican (™ Prince) – is liable to act crazy when someone has made it her goal to make you crazy.

The characters are indeed a joy to watch, but the city of Miami hosts the viewer in a way I don’t think I’ve seen before on TV. The words “sexy locale” are used to describe every TV city that isn’t Boise, Idaho (no offense folks – you just need a better publicist), but few actually even bother to mean it like Dexter does. There’s a hot, sweaty, humid-like-a-Brooklyn-summer sort of Miami sultriness that the often overly art-directed Nip/Tuck totally misses. This neon-soaked, palm-tree-dotted tableau of seaports, Santería shrines, and open air nightspots is unglamorously sexy without trying to be. Best of all, Dexter’s Miami isn’t stripped of its ethnicity – the Latin music on the show isn’t used as a sound effect (to signal the entrance of a particularly caliente woman, as you would expect from the MSM). Rather, the sultry, decades-old Cubano music is woven into the everyday tapestry of the narrative.

The same can be said for the city’s inhabitants – this isn’t like Seinfeld’s (or those six brats’, or those four slags’) New York. It’s a Miami in which Haitians and Cubans and APIAs and African Americans (and yes, Prince, Puerto Ricans) walk the streets with impunity, alongside their Caucasian brethren. Sure, some of them may be criminals. But in a setting that allows them to just be people, it doesn’t feel half bad.


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