Dahmer was Gay, but 'Dahmer' is a Case of Pink Washing

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday October 5, 2022

As I binge watched the newest Ryan Murphy/Ian Brennan Netflix limited series, "Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story," two thoughts kept popping up. One: The 10-episode show, like its title, is overly long and repetitive. This story could have been told in seven, maybe eight, hour-long installments.

Two — and more to the point: Viewers were right in demanding that Netflix take the "LGBTQ" label off this series. The fact that the title character is gay feels like a footnote. This is much more a story of systemic racism in the policing of communities of color, and "Dahmer" isn't subtle about it.

Being gay wasn't Dahmer's pathology, just as sexual orientation or gender identity is not a pathology for anyone who is LGBTQ+. If Dahmer had a sexual sickness, it was an erotic triggering centered around the sight of glistening viscera — a condition that, in one scene, a psychiatrist suggests is a dysfunction rooted in a hard-wired male desire for wet genitalia. A deeper psychosis, the series suggests, was Dahmer's fear of abandonment: He'd rather take a hammer to a lover and be certain of holding onto him than risk the guy slipping out of his life. The series also hints at internalized homophobia, but that, too, feels beside the point, because seriously: Wouldn't the cultural fascination with Dahmer be just as intense, and his crimes just as terrifying, if he had been straight?

The series seeks, and finds, its horror quotient in how Dahmer had so many brushes with the law, and somehow that didn't stop his rampage. The show's writers make a case that law enforcement failed to protect and serve the public, in large part because Dahmer was white and many of his victims were men of color.

It's also suggested that Dahmer knew how to turn homophobia among the police to his advantage; at one juncture, he bluffs a pair of cops that one underage victim is a drunk boyfriend, and he excuses grisly Polaroids the cops find in his apartment as "gay stuff," at which point the cops hastily retreat, grumbling about a need to get "de-loused." But while systematic homophobia is fleetingly acknowledged, the series returns again and again — not unjustly — to the theme of institutionalized racism as a major enabler of Dahmer's crimes.

It's left unclear whether Dahmer himself was motivated by either racial animus or fetishization. His crimes are implied to have been opportunistic. The failings of law enforcement, on the other hand, are portrayed as systemic.

Consider how the series begins: With Dahmer's neighbor Glenda (Niecy Nash-Betts, "Scream Queens") watching a news report on how a traffic stop led to a Black undercover police officer being brutalized at the hands of multiple white fellow officers. This is in 1991, decades before George Floyd's murder in front of multiple witnesses in Minneapolis. It's also just before Dahmer is apprehended, when police arrive to investigate the claims of a victim who narrowly escaped his clutches.

When the cops do show up, Glenda thrusts herself into the action, bawling the officers out for all the times she called to report suspicious noises (scream, thuds, power tools whirring) and foul odors coming from Dahmer's apartment (this, along with other details, is something the writers invented; the real Glenda lived at a different address, not right next door in the same building). The cops, she thunders, never took her — a woman of color — seriously.

After Dahmer's arrest the series cuts back and forth in time, tracing his development from a fetus supposedly subjected to too many chemicals in utero by his pill-popping mother (Molly Ringwald) to early-life lessons in taxidermy by his father (a stellar Richard Jenkins), who shares his son's passion for roadkill only because, he says, it's the one thing his son seems interested in.

As a teen, unstimulated by heterosexual porn, Dahmer realizes that he gets off on thoughts of glistening organs, and a serial killer is born (his cooking habits seem to have evolved from the necessity to get rid of the bodies). His predations span years, changes of address, and career paths. Dahmer is discharged from the Army, and there's a suggestion that this was for giving attractive fellow troops roofies. He lives at his grandmother's house, and granny, played by Michael Learned of "The Waltons" fame, is appalled at what she finds in his bed. He even deals a hideous double tragedy to a family of Laotian immigrants.

But no outrage, however extreme, derails his putrid progress. Blind luck, shabby lies told in a listless monotone, and the indifference of the authorities seem to be the only reasons Dahmer skates from one impossibly grotesque situation to the next, repeatedly dodging consequences for his atrocities. Anyone not willfully blind could have, and should have, put a stop to Dahmer, and yet he plowed on, unchecked. You could argue that he's the Donald Trump of serial killers.

The series is so emotionally attenuated that even the grisly nature of Dahmer's crimes fail to evoke much more than quickly-fading suspense or a quick jolt of shock. The series only achieves resonance with a pair of affecting episodes from its latter half that focus not on Dahmer, but on Glenda and on one of Dahmer's victims — characters with an inner life we can relate to, who are written with more dimensionality than Dahmer or his parents, and who are depicted with a sense of vitality. Janet Mock co-writes these episodes, and she brings painful poignancy to them, because the rest of the series is grim, hectoring, and sterile. Dahmer himself is presented as a tragic, sometimes sympathetic character, but numb and lacking agency. He's in the grip of infernal compulsions he cannot control. He's what the police are here to save us from... unless the police don't do their jobs.

Murphy has said the series is meant to "recenter" the place of Dahmer's victims in the story, but the series feels like valid contemporary concerns being reset into flinty horrors from the past. Racist policing is a perennially urgent topic, and it's valid to address its long, constant history in America in any historical setting. That's the story we're told here, and it needs telling — but the victims, sadly, remain shock-value window dressing.

The real question is one of audience manipulation. It feels as though Ryan and co. decided that people who won't pay attention to truisms like "Black Lives Matter" might take notice when a series synopsis mentions a gay, serial killing cannibal. This is disturbing for any number of reasons, but among them is the prospect that the series risks getting lost, in the longer term, in the crack between what it's implied to be and what it actually is.

Still, if an odd sort of pink washing was the intention, it seems to have worked; three weeks after its initial 2019 release on Netflix, Ava DuVernay's "When They See Us," about the railroading and eventual exoneration of the Central Park Five (all of them teenage males of color), had drawn 23 million viewers, according to The Hollywood Reporter. By contrast, Forbes recently noted, after two weeks (and despite Netflix's sharp decline in subscribers), "Dahmer" has commanded more than twice that viewership, with an estimated 56 million tuning in.

By all means, sit through this too-often numbing exposé (or screed, depending who you ask) about the racial disparities around law enforcement and the tragic consequences that they inflict on our society. It has valuable things to say, even if it takes too long to say them. Just don't mistake "Dahmer" for a meaningfully gay story, despite Ryan Murphy's involvement.

"Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story" is streaming now on Netflix.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.