UPDATE: This post appeared on Feministe on July 10, 2013. After you’re finished, read my follow up: The Link Between Media Violence and Real-Life Aggression.
Dexter is entering its final season and that means soon we’ll have to say goodbye to TV’s favorite serial killer. The show is such a hit because its plot is unique. Instead of recycling the standard detective-chases-bad guy trope, the show’s writers gave us the righteous anti-hero Dexter, a serial killer who only kills other serial killers and evildoers who deserve to die.
But if you’re wondering where you’ll get your weekly dose of gore when Dex finally goes off the air, never fear. You’ll still have your share of psychopaths to watch thanks to Fox’s The Following, NBC’s Hannibal, BBC’s The Fall and CBS’ The Mentalist. True, these follow the more traditional approach, but at least it’s something, right?
Serial killer dramas are popular for the same reason action films always earn a lot of money at the box office. They may give us the chills, but at the same time they also deliver a cathartic release. Men and women equally enjoy them, which tends to surprise researchers. I guess they think all the guts and gore would put women off, but I’m proof that’s not true. I grew up on gritty and frightening dramas like The X-Files. (the fact that Gillian Anderson plays the lead detective in The Fall excites me to no end!) And today I watch The Mentalist religiously.
The truth is, women watch these shows because, just like men, they want to feel like a badass. We live vicariously through the characters. Who among us would actually want to meet a serial killer in real life or watch them brutally slit the throat of an innocent person? Hopefully, none of us would. But for an hour each week, we can imagine that we have the guts necessary to hunt down the next Hannibal Lecter. Or – and this is everyone’s dirty little secret – we can imagine that we are him.
That’s really why serial killer dramas are so successful and why decades later, people still find the chilling murders of Jack the Ripper and the Zodiac Killer so fascinating. We struggle with minor but frustrating injustices daily. Some guy with road rage nearly drives us off the road, a boss or teacher criticizes us publicly, or we watch the news and see so many innocent people in the world getting screwed over by corporate greed and our racist and sexist society. While we would never physically pick up a knife and go to town with it, for an hour we get to imagine we too are pursuing a righteous cause just like Dexter. That we too have the courage and the insane drive to bring justice to the world in a way that really gives the bad guy exactly what he deserves. Or maybe, like Red John, Hannibal or Joe Carroll, we want to believe people can be afraid of us – that we have something inside of us so angry and wild that one day those jerks who piss off will cower in fear. Or maybe we just dream about having enough charisma to persuade dozens of followers to do our bidding.
Whatever our motivation, the point is many people in America glamorize serial killers – don’t deny it, that’s exactly what we do in these shows – because we secretly want to stick it to the man as well. No, we don’t necessarily want to kill innocent people (at least, I hope you don’t). But we like to imagine what it would be like to hold the power of life or death in our hands. We want to let our rage surge out of us with a devil-may-care attitude. We want to exert power and control over others and strike fear into the hearts of our enemies. Deep down, that’s everyone’s biggest fantasy, and, thankfully, most of us have enough sense to know living out that fantasy would be disastrous for all involved. So we are content to get our catharsis via the TV instead.
The problem is, that kind of catharsis comes easier for some than others, particularly men. What’s the one thing all the serial killer shows have in common? The killers are men and the victims are predominantly women. The first, fourth and fifth seasons of Dexter featured him hunting down serial killers who killed prostitutes and random women. Red John on The Mentalist prefers to slice up women; the men he kills are simply collateral damage. The Following starts off with Joe Carroll butchering the female victim who got away before he got locked up in jail. And The Fall is about a married father who, you guessed it, kills women in Belfast. That’s all these shows are ever about. Even when the killers have female devotees, like in The Mentalist and The Following, they still don’t seem to mind that their male idols have an unnatural hatred for women.
There are several reasons why women make up the majority of victims on these shows. For one, male serial killers are more prevalent in real life and they really do tend to target women more. Just look at Jack the Ripper, Son of Sam, The Hillside Strangler, The Dating Game Killer – the list goes on and on. Many of them also rape their victims, like Ted Bundy, Bobbie Joe Long and Michael Bruce Ross, which only goes to show there is a strong element of sexual domination and misogyny at the heart of these psychos’ attacks. But misogyny as a motivation is never truly discussed or analyzed in the media when a real-life killer is caught. Nor is it explored in the serial killers dramas that make up prime-time TV. American society takes the murder of women for granted, both in real life and on the screen, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.
Experts estimate that by age 18, the average American has watched some 19,000 hours of television and seen some 200,000 acts of violence and 40,000 murders on the small screen. And much of that violence is violence against women (Professor Sheida Shirvani, Ohio University. PowerPoint presentation on Gendered Media, 2013). This extends beyond the shows listed above and includes nearly every single cop drama that ever existed, such as Law and Order: SVU, Criminal Minds, NYPD Blue...the list goes on and on. The point is violence against women is just expected in America and is normalized even more by the media. Perhaps the producers and writers of these shows are oblivious to that reality. Maybe they too have been saturated with images of violence against women that they don’t even think twice about including it in their own shows. Or maybe they do so deliberately to live out and promote their own misogynistic fantasies. Regardless, the consequences are deadly. As Jackson Katz in his brilliant documentary about the media’s distortion of masculinity, Tough Guise, explains, the end result is teen boys who are socialized to believe violence against women is normal and it is how men prove they are tough and in charge:
The media’s unquestioning attitude toward violence against women is detrimental to female audiences, too. According to Julia T. Wood in her book about gendered socialization, Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, & Culture, it teaches us this is women’s fate in life – that violence against our sex is as American as apple pie and we just have to suck it up. But on a more basic level, it also prevents us from enjoying quality television. Women get no cathartic release from gory TV – we don’t get to relax and let our aggressive desires play out on the screen because we are constantly and continuously reminded TV shows aren’t being made for us. No, they’re being made for men. Men are the heroes, the antiheroes and the villains on prime-time TV and women exist to play usually one role and one role only: victim.
We also know those women being butchered on fictional TV could just as easily be us in real life. That’s why I had to stop watching Dexter after the first episode of the fourth season – I saw myself in the unsuspecting woman John Lithgow’s demented character picks to slice up naked in the bathtub (because, of course, he has to sexually humiliate her as well!). It’s also the reason why I have to take a break periodically from watching The Mentalist. All I ever see are women being raped and butchered on TV. So how can I possibly identify with any of the female characters on these shows? And where is my catharsis? I want to feel like a badass too, but the media makes clear that as a woman I don’t get to experience that luxury. I just get to live my life in fear.
Some media pundits are fed up with the gender imbalance and preponderance of dead women on TV. The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman, in his review of The Following, criticizes the show’s premise, what it says about media corporate interests and American society in general:
The Following, which premieres Jan. 21, was in production long before that. But Fox always has been keen on the fact that the shocking amount of blood and violence in The Following is earning the show — prematurely, lazily and incorrectly — comparisons to gritty cable fare. That means there’s tacit approval from Fox that slashing up women (and a few men along the way), carving their eyes out and letting the blood roll down into the gutter is acceptable. That’s where it might be misjudging the mood of the country.
He goes on to compare it with the CBS show Criminal Minds, which, he says, also relies far too much on brutalizing women:
…Criminal Minds is just a show that most people, including ex-star Mandy Patinkin, believe is ruinously violent, not some grand piece of art. As Patinkin told New York magazine: “The biggest public mistake I ever made was that I chose to do Criminal Minds in the first place. I thought it was something very different. I never thought they were going to kill and rape all these women every night, every day, week after week, year after year. It was very destructive to my soul and my personality.”
So how do we correct the situation? Personally, I think we need to stop showing women just as victims on TV and start developing well-rounded female antiheroes and villains instead. And with that I ask the question, where are all the female serial killers on TV? Seriously, why hasn’t Hollywood given us a recurring, female psychopath lead? One, say, who literally sticks it to the man every week?
Sure, men may outnumber women in the real-life serial killer department, but there are still plenty to get inspiration from. Like Aileen Wuornos, who went on a shooting spree, killing the men she claimed had tried to rape her. Or Phoolan Devi from India, who allegedly formed a gang to kill men who had brutalized women (maybe not so much a serial killer, but you get the picture). Need more inspiration? Here’s a whole website devoted to exposing the history of “misandry” by telling the sordid tales of female serial killers who targeted men, like Vera Renczi and Viktoria Foedi Rieger. (Don’t think the irony is lost on me that I am using a paranoid Men’s Rights site to make my case.)
By the way, before anyone accuses me of hating men, let me make this clear: I don’t hate men. I’m happily married to one. And I don’t think women should collectively revolt and kill men or that any man, innocent or not, deserves to die at the hands of a sadistic killer. I certainly don’t think serial killers (male or female) and vigilante justice are good for society. But I am pissed off that women bear the brunt of violence on TV. How is that empowering for us? How can I possibly enjoy TV when that’s all I see these days? Where is the gender balance?
I anticipate some readers may criticize me for the above statement. They may say the solution to balancing out the disproportionate amount of violence against women on TV is not by showing women committing murders or killing men, but by canceling all blood-and-guts dramas instead. I disagree. I don’t think violence will ever disappear from TV. And I don’t think it necessarily should. As I said, TV serves a purpose – it gives us a safe way to release all of our pent-up aggression. The problem is us women don’t ever get to release our aggression because we don’t get to lose ourselves in gritty programs that affirm the dark fantasies of its twisted female characters. Men certainly do, all the time. That’s why so many women get raped and butchered on TV. And nobody questions it or calls them out on their misogyny and sexism. But women getting raped and killed by men is just normal, right? It’s standard, expected and accepted. Heaven forbid if a woman should do the same, all hell would break loose.
Geena Davis, in an interview about her spy film The Long Kiss Goodnight that was recently reprinted in a Ms. Magazine blog post, said it best when she explained why women DO need to experience the adrenaline rush of seeing women behaving badly on the big screen:
Thelma and Louise had a big reaction, there was a huge thing at the time, that, ‘Oh my god, these women had guns and they actually killed a guy!’ … That movie made me realize—you can talk about it all you want, but watch it with an audience and talk to women who have seen this movie and they go, ‘YES!’ They feel so adrenalized and so powerful after seeing some women kick some ass and take control of their own fate. … Women go, ‘Yeah—fucking right!’ Women don’t get to have that experience in the movies. But hey, people go to action movies for a reason; they want to feel adrenalized and they want to identify with the hero, and if only guys get to do that then it’s crazy.
Unfortunately, such films are few and far between for women. The only female serial killer character I have come across in recent years is the one Mia Wasikowska played this year in Stoker. Other than that, there was Monster back in 2003, which told the story of Wournos. On TV, I guess Dexter’s girlfriend last season, Hannah McKay, is kind of cool, but she’s not as good as Dexter and seems kind of emotionally weak. Plus, she’s just a temporary romantic foil for the main character; who knows if she will even return for the last season. So I ask again, why can’t we have a female Dexter on TV? Like one who hunts down and makes misogynists pay for the rape and torture they commit? Let a woman stick it to the patriarchy for once!
Or make her the villain. Whatever. Just show me something different than men killing women all the time. (FYI, what I don’t want to see is women psychopaths just killing other women, because that defeats the entire purpose).
I posed that question to my best guy friend recently and he said, “I don’t think there’s a market for that sort of thing” and “you shouldn’t take these TV shows so personally.”
Well, sorry buddy, but you’re wrong. As I already said, women love thrillers just as much as men. They also purchase more than half of movie tickets. That’s right, women see more movies than the teenage boys industry execs are constantly trying to cater to. It’s also a lie that female-protagonist led movies and TV shows make less money than films with male main characters. In fact, when controlled for budget, female-led movies make just as much money. And movies with larger budgets make more money regardless of the sex of the main character (The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2012. Pg. 10).
So there certainly is a market for this type of thing, both on the little and big screens. And I have to take the plethora of male serial killer shows personally because they serve as constant reminders television execs couldn’t care less about women’s desires, and that male writers, producers and directors think of women as little more than corpses and body bag fillers. So Hollywood, it’s time to wake up and give women what we really want. Give us Dextress.
Carbone, Gina. The Most Popular TV Series Among Women Is…You May Be Surprised. Wetpaint.com. Feb. 26, 2013. http://www.wetpaint.com/walking-dead/articles/the-most-popular-tv-series-among-women-is-you-may-be-surprised
Derr, Holly. Where Have You Gone, Sarah Connor? MS. Magazine. June 11, 2013. http://msmagazine.com/blog/2013/06/11/where-have-you-gone-sarah-connor/
Goodman, Tim. The Following: TV Review. The Hollywood Reporter. Jan. 8, 2013. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/kevin-bacons-tv-review-409642
Katz, Jackson. Tough Guise. Media Education Foundation. 1999
Shirvani, Sheida. PowerPoint on Gendered Media for Coms 4200 class. Ohio University. June 2013. Cengage Learning. 2010. http://www.amazon.com/Gendered-Lives-Communication-Gender-Culture/dp/0495794163
Wood, Julia. Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender , & Culture.
Featured Image: Mia Wasikowska in Stoker. Photo courtesy of Nuvo.net.
Dexter Image: Courtesy of http://shpintv.com/dexter/
Learn more about female serial killers: http://www.lsu.edu/faculty/jpullia/femaleserialkillers.htm