Friday, January 7

Boy Genius, Interrupted: A Psychological Profile of Dexter

Dexter. A two foot tall, 9-year-old American boy genius with an inexplicable Russian accent, glasses, and his own secret laboratory behind a bookcase in his bedroom. What else is there to know? 

A lot, in fact. 

With my bounty of free time over the holidays, Dexter’s Lab re-runs and the Season 1 DVD, and 4/5ths of a Psychology degree, I decided to put him under my lens to see just what makes our favorite animated boy genius tick.
"...Oh Boy."
Dexter exemplifies the experience of isolation and social awkwardness that many children face as they try to discern their place in the world. The maturation process doesn’t end in adulthood; it is a life-long journey that culminates in, what humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow called, “self-actualization:” 

"What a man can be - he must be, this need we may call self-actualization. It refers to the desire of self-fulfillment, namely to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming."

Maslow created a pyramid-shaped diagram of human needs broken down by their priority and urgency to which they must be addressed in one’s life. This diagram is referred to as Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” and it has 5 distinct levels:

The needs at the bottom of the pyramid naturally take up the most space because you can’t build a stable pyramid without a solid foundation. Although they are the most primal and basic, they are integral to survival and ultimately transcendence to the next level of self-actualization.

Fact: You can’t find out who you are and the value of your existence if you starve to death or get eaten by bears first.

The theory is that once the more fundamental physiological and safety needs are fulfilled, you can then focus on fulfilling the needs of love and belonging, self-esteem, and ultimately, the satisfaction that comes from realizing your potential and existing with a sense of purpose, authenticity, and vitality. 
If we skip a step, whether out of ignorance, arrogance, or impatience, our pyramid will topple and we’ll have to continually rebuild from the ground up. 

Although Genndy Tartakovsky most likely didn’t consult Maslow’s pyramid when creating Dexter’s Lab, I find it interesting that most of the episodes end with the destruction of his lab, sometimes by Dee Dee’s hand but more often resulting from some misstep of his own. Usually Dexter overestimates his ability, ignores advice, or miscalculates at some point in the episode, which sets the stage for his downfall each and every time. Every journey experiences some turbulence here and there, but when strife occurs as frequently as it does in Dexter’s life, Maslow would probably say he needs to re-evaluate how he’s going about his actualization process and make sure he's not trying to go out of order.

"I pity the fool who don't understand that it's called a hierarchy for a reason."
Dexter is financially provided for and lives in a safe middle class neighborhood in Suburbia so his Physical and Safety needs are taken care of which puts him higher on the ladder of actualization than many. The search for true love and acceptance from other human beings however, poses one of life’s greatest challenges whether you’re a 9-year-old science geek with a weird accent, or a senile cat lady named Dorris.

What makes this stage such a challenge is that we can’t force others to love us, like us, or even tolerate us. There are so many external factors that can dictate our acceptance or rejection from the pack: weight, color, class, acne, unconventional hobbies, an aversion to showering, etc. As Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry once said, “That which makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which will also make you lonely.” 
"I love how you just get me, Lorraine."
Dexter is lonely. How much of his loneliness is based on external rejection and how much of it is self-imposed is another story entirely. To some extent, Dexter embodies Dr. Carol Pearson’s “Orphan archetype” which rebels against the world and says “Who needs ‘em? I can do this on my own.” Dexter does not actively seek friendships and instead isolates himself in his lab all day to perfect his experiments. I think he somehow fantasizes that once he uses his genius to distinguish himself from the hoi polloi, he will suddenly gain acceptance or at least admiration from the world. 

He has created an unhealthy cycle wherein he ignores his need for human intimacy to instead focus on building esteem, but his self-esteem is almost entirely based on the opinions and accolades of the very people with which he had no desire to build relationships in the first place. Oy.

In the episode Average Joe, Dexter gets the wrong IQ test results and completely loses his sense of self when he is labeled simply “average.” He forces himself to adopt a new social circle, new habits, and new style of dress because he no longer has a grasp of who he is. His identity is directly linked to his status as a boy genius. Outside of that, he is a very insecure and confused individual who craves simultaneously belonging to a community and standing apart from the crowd yet can only seem to do one or the other.

Much to his chagrin, the closest social bond he has in his life to someone who isn’t his beloved computer, would be with his annoying older sister, Dee Dee. Although he has countless security measures to keep out intruders, Dee Dee – whose brain capacity is about on par with that of marmalade-- always finds a way to infiltrate his lair and mess with his experiments. He knows his sister is not a source of intellectual competition for him yet she is always able to push his buttons (often literally). When Dee Dee needles him about his short stature, faulty vision, physical weakness, and sense of style, Dex is rattled to his core.

"What's wrong with his sense of style? Well, aside from his glaring lack of a color coordinated fez and bow tie, that is."
Like most children, he is extremely sensitive regarding his shortcomings (no pun intended…okay maybe a little bit) and often tries to overcompensate. His sole mission in several episodes is to create a machine that will turn him into an adult with dashing good looks, broad shoulders, and a stature that commands respect from his parents, his peers, and his cute baby-sitter. He idolizes TV hero Action Hank because Hank is the archetype of machismo, the epitome of everything Dexter -- with his cumbersome intellect, distaste for the outdoors, and muscles with the consistency of fettuccini-- will probably never be.

Insecurity dictates nearly all of Dexter’s interactions with his intellectual peers. He resents his nemesis, Mandark, for lording his superior laboratory facilities over him and constantly reminding the vertically-challenged redhead that he is merely a second rate version of himself. When Dexter finds his genius doppelganger family at the grocery store, he is eager to experience life with like-minded science-centric parents whose idea of fun is mandatory pamphlet reading time and measuring the scientific properties of fruit but he realizes he can’t stand out in a family of geniuses. When he transforms his sister into a fellow braniac to serve as his lab assistant, his insecurities run rampant because she is not a subservient source of accolades, but a threat to his intellectual status. 

He thinks he craves empathetic companions who would truly appreciate his scientific prowess but in each confrontation with a fellow genius he soon realizes that he lacks the stamina and self-assurance to survive amongst people like himself. By consistently disturbing the Needs Hierarchy and prioritizing Esteem over Belonging, Dexter now approaches relationships in an unhealthy manner where he sees people as merely a means to an end.  Since building himself up is all that matters, when it comes to companionship he simply wants someone who can reflect his genius back to him, not necessarily someone to challenge him or help him grow. 

In his world, there’s only room for one Dexter.

Okay, scrap that theory.
Ultimately it would seem as though his insecurities cause him to isolate himself so he is really only competing against himself yet, as we all know, we can be our own worst critics and our fiercest competition. Psychoanalyst Karen Horney listed 10 “Neurotic Needs” that motivate different types of people and would probably infer that Dexter’s neurosis is the “Need for Personal Achievement.” Writer Kendra Cherry explains:

“According to Horney, people push themselves to achieve greater and greater things as a result of basic insecurity. These individuals fear failure and feel a constant need to accomplish more than other people and to top even their own earlier successes."

The need for him to constantly build bigger and better experiments is of an internal nature so there is no external litmus test to measure his success or failure, therefore he can keep competing with himself indefinitely and never satisfy his achievement quota.

His need for creation may also be a means to distract from and suppress his destructive tendencies. On several occasions, we see beneath his unfeeling, analytic demeanor and get a glimpse of his almost demonic lust for power and domination. For him, scientific creation serves as a socially acceptable outlet into which he can channel his manic and borderline-sociopathic energy. Note that although not necessarily the original intent, many of his creations have the capacity to harm and cause mayhem and nearly all of them come equipped with self-destruct buttons.

Flawless Victory. Dexter Wins.
As psychoanalyst and crack-addict Sigmund Freud would say, Dexter’s primal subconscious, or Id, is constantly battling his morally upright Superego for dominance in his psyche. When the Id is allowed to dominate, level-headed analytical Dexter is consumed by the Dexter that just wants to conquer civilization while laughing maniacally and setting things on fire. When his Superego is dominant, the Id is suppressed and his inner megalomaniac is relegated to the backseat. For the time being.

In The Way of the Dee Dee, we see Dexter drop his stoic facade on his path to emotional freedom with Dee Dee as his guru. At first he only reluctantly adheres to his sister’s loose, care-free lifestyle. Within minutes however, the student surpasses the teacher and Dee Dee realizes too late that by taking away his structure and inhibitions she’s unleashed his inner monster. “No longer the quiet creator but a mad destroyer,” she laments as she surveys her brother sadistically laying waste to his once-prized laboratory in an Id-riddled frenzy. Dexter’s primal urges are so much more pronounced because a) he was drawn that way and b) he doesn’t process his deeper, darker emotions so they fester and swell in the bowels of his subconscious until the Id finally comes out to play and wreak havoc.

Dexter is still young, and although he is extremely intellectually precocious, he has a lot to learn about life, love, and happiness. Until he learns that self-actualization is not a race but a process, and cutting corners or skipping steps only sabotages his efforts, he will be doomed to continue his cycle of insecurity and arrogance, creation and destruction, craving the world and a rejecting it. Once he stops viewing others as usable objects and learns the value of true companionship, thereby accepting the human need for love and other people, he will finally be able to give love and be loved.
When you're animated, Jazz hands are always appropriate.