Multiple of my friends suggested that I watch the show Dexter. And so I did, hoping that for once a thriller wouldn’t romanticize mental illness. Obviously, I was disappointed.
Dexter is a thriller TV show that narrates the life of a serial killer. Dexter only kills people that were acquitted on murder charges even though they were guilty and “can’t feel emotion”. Throughout the show, it is suggested that he is a sociopath with psychopathic tendencies.
The major missteps are virtually all the choices of Dexter’s father, Harry. Instead of seeking treatment for Dexter when he first learns of his “impulses to kill” and lack of emotion, he teaches him how to get away with murder and use his “impulses” for good. This not only encourages the mentally ill to internalize their feelings and not seek help, but it also furthers the stereotype that the mentally ill are superheroes. Later, Dexter suggests that the public would be grateful for all the murderers he kills, which further hypes the idea of his illness making him a superhero.
The mentally ill are further discouraged to seek help when a psychologist in Season one is actually encouraging his patients to commit suicide and getting them addicted to medications. This negative view of both psychologists and medication is another reason why the mentally ill and parents of the mentally ill both hesitate to seek treatment.
Also, Harry encourages him to hide his identity, and act normal. So, he’s already made Dexter believe that he is a monster, but he’s also telling him that this monster identity must be hidden. Later in Season 1, Dexter truly believes that his real self is a murderer, and nearly kills his own sister in response in order to embrace his inner murderer with another character. Once again, this adds to the stereotype that the mentally ill, or specifically psychopaths or people with sociopathic tendencies, are monsters, and can only gain freedom from “releasing” this beast.
You can tell as you watch that the show is attempting to portray Harry in a positive light. He was only trying to “protect” his son when he didn’t tell him the truth about his biological father, and he has instilled this “code” in Dexter. The show suggests that this code is better than getting actual psychological care when in reality this code only served to fulfill Harry’s agenda to be a savior, the cop that protects all innocent people. This code doesn’t allow Dexter to develop his own needs or have his own morals; instead, he’s constantly trying to please and emulate his father. In fact, his killings really have little to do with his mental illnes, but are more about the influence of his father.
The worst part is, every time he encounters a murderer, Dexter’s voiceover suggests that the killer is “like him.” For the whole of season one, he feels a personal connection to his “favorite” murderer. It’s important to note that you don’t have to be mentally ill to be a murderer. Anyone can kill, but psychopaths don’t feel guilty about killing. However, being a psychopath or a sociopath doesn’t automatically mean you’re a killer.
Not only does Dexter advance the negative stereotypes in society for the mentally ill, but it also gives negative ways of self-treating mental illnesses. The fact is, so many crimes due to mental illness could be prevented if neurotypicals stopped assuming the mentally ill are criminals and actually got them the help they deserved. Start today by not encouraging shows to misconstrue the mentally ill to entertain.