Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Hello, Howard Wolowitz (Big Bang Theory, Dexter)

Last night while watching television, I saw reruns of the Big Bang Theory episode “The Gorilla Experiment” and the Dexter episode “Hello, Dexter Morgan”. These are two quite different shows, but they are both examples of contemporary media. Both of these episodes deal with the same issue of women being treated as property by their significant others, yet this issue is handled radically differently by the separate shows. Big Bang Theory takes the more progressive route of portraying men who treat women as possessions like huge jerks, while Dexter keeps with sexist memes in the portrayal of male aggression and possessive nature as evidence of love.
The plot of Big Bang Theory’s “The Gorilla Experiment” involves Wolowitz becoming jealous that his girlfriend Bernadette shows interest in Leonard’s quantum experiments. When Leonard offers to take Bernadette to his lab to show her what he’s working on, Wolowitz confronts him and tells him that Leonard should have asked Wolowitz’s permission to invite Bernadette to check out his experiment. Later when Wolowitz and Bernadette are getting intimate, she gets a text from Leonard disinviting her because it would make her boyfriend uncomfortable. She confronts Wolowitz, who comes off as a huge jerk when he tries to explain his position, and she walks out. He then meets up with her at Leonard’s experiment to apologize, he admits that he was acting like a jerk and it was because of his own insecurities, and they make up. Considering that Big Bang Theory is a light-hearted sitcom, I think this is a pretty good handling of sexist male jealousy, in contrast to Dexter.
The plot of Dexter’s “Hello, Dexter Morgan” involves the aftermath of Rita’s brief cheating on Dexter in “Hungry Man”. As Dexter is about to skip marriage counseling to head to a crime scene for his job, she confesses that the guy next door kissed her. Dexter is too concerned with other things (work, serial killing, maintaining false friendships, etc.) to focus on Rita, and he says it’s no big deal, which confuses and worries her. Later, satisfied after a successful frame job, Dexter comes home and, seeing the neighbor, confronts him about coming onto his wife. Dexter punches the guy and tells him in no uncertain terms that he’s not to try anything again. Rita saw the whole thing through the window and is touched that Dexter cares about her that much, and she gets ice ready to put on Dexter’s hand, which he noticeably hurt from punching the guy. This is pretty sexist, enforcing the idea that women are to be treated as the property of their husbands, and that this is to be considered romantic and healthy.
Dexter is fairly complicated, so I will clarify a few things about my interpretation of it. First, Dexter is not entirely consistent. The handling of the characters in the first season is different from the handling of the characters in the fourth season, evolving from the initial adaptation of Darkly Dreaming Dexter into something else entirely. While Dexter began as a cold-hearted sociopath who fakes all empathy, recent seasons seem to be taking the route of having him learn how to be a good person who cares about the people close to him. This is an unrealistic plotline – sociopaths don’t just un-sociopath – but I suppose the whole show is unrealistic, and this sure is better than having Dexter turn out to be possessed by an evil god as in the third novel Dexter in the Dark, so whatever.
So, Dexter is starting to care and become empathetic. He’s still imperfect and many of his steps forward are kludges more than anything. The show often has Dexter finding some way to enhance his relationship with Rita using specialized techniques that reach his sociopathic understanding of the world. The implication is that this makes their relationship healthier, the end goal often dictated by a character in the role of helpful advisor, everything else more or less irrelevant. In “Hello, Dexter Morgan” the goal is to show Rita that Dexter cares about her enough for her infidelity to illicit a strong negative emotional response. Dexter eventually responds in a classic sociopathic way, feeling upset that someone encroached on his territory by trying to steal away a person of his possession, and he acts out with aggression. That Rita appreciates this and that we as an audience are supposed to appreciate this as a step toward Dexter’s humanification is unsettling considering where our society is supposed to be in terms of repelling sexist memes.
I initially interpreted it as intentional on the part of the writers, showing us a mistake made by Rita because of her past history with sociopathic husbands. Though we never met her first husband, her second husband Paul was most certainly an abusive controlling jerk, and Rita does later describe him as a sociopath. The ongoing joke is that she thinks Dexter is so wonderful in contrast to her previous love interests, and she knows he could never hurt anyone, etc. I can imagine her being attracted to antiquated, which is to say sexist, notions of romance given her history of abusive husbands. At this point, however, I think that’s giving the writers too much credit.
So, here we have two shows: Big Bang Theory and Dexter. One’s a silly sitcom aired on CBS, and the other is a serious drama aired on Showtime. I’m not quite sure what I thought, but it seems strange to see that the goofy sitcom has better, more equal relationship dynamics than a cable drama. Big Bang Theory, while it may not be the most progressive show ever, has shown to be less sexist than dangerously dehumanizing Dexter in the case of these two episodes.


xmarisolx said...

I've seen both episodes (I saw the TBBT ep a few days ago), and I don't think your asessment is fair to the program Dexter. While I will concede that you defended your thesis well, I think you are missing two key points: Dexter forgave Rita almost immediately because he generally felt that he was not worthy of her (even if she didn't feel that way) and could never really get angry at her, regardless of her behavior. He was busy with work, but that was only relevant to why he wouldn't stay for the counseling session, not for his feelings towards Rita. Also, while the show definitely celebrated his violence towards Elliot, it was to show that he actually cared about Rita. I can see how that might be seen as possession, since Rita has the right to decide who she will be in a relationship with, and punching Elliot does not address her concerns, but only removes Dexter's competition. That said, I think Dexter just punched Elliot because Elliot betrayed him, and Dexter is violent, not because he believed that Rita was his property. He was more protective of Rita that possessive. IMHO.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if the recent developments in Dexter are supposed to show that he is being cured of sociopathy so much as question whether he was ever a sociopath at all. He seems to have always cared for Deb and Harry, and whether he realizes it or not, seems to crave connection with Rita and the kids. The journey of the show seems to be him coming to grips with these emotions and realizing that perhaps he does feel after all, rather than suddenly becoming human when he never was before. And, while I do think that there's a fine line between "protecting" women who never asked for protection an treating them as possessions, I agree with xmarisolx that Dexter tends to deal with crises violently. Even if he's not a sociopath, it doesn't make him an ideal character. I don't think that it's intended for him to model ideal behavior, nor that Rita can be trusted to make healthy decisions about men. When she is murdered and Dexter copes with the guilt of responsibility for not preventing it (again positioning her as a possession, in a way) and of never having been honest with her, I think that it becomes abundantly clear that the writers are deliberately portraying their relationship as unhealthy and tragically flawed. Dexter has never treated Rita as an equal partner, if for no other reason than the simple fact that he can't let her in and keeps a HUGE part of his life a secret from her. In the next season, his relationship with Lumen seems to address some of these issues and take Dexter to the next level of human connection, as he shares who he really is with a romantic partner and actually manages to make an honest connection.

Anonymous said...

Also, it may be worth pointing out that the incident in The Big Bang Theory is unwarranted jealousy, whereas the episode in Dexter involved actual infidelity. This doesn't justify Dexter's actions, but certainly illustrates that he is reacting to a different situation than Sheldon is. Also, Sheldon's girlfriend protests his possessive treatment, whereas Rita encourages Dexter's.

Anonymous said...

And by Sheldon, I meant Howard. >_<