Dahmerism: The Highest Stage of Liberal Identitarianism

Evan Peters in “Dahmer: Monster—The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.” (Netflix)

The Monster’s Sympathetic Mask

In the penultimate episode of the Netflix series Monster: the Jeffrey Dahmer Story, the eponymous serial killer—who sexually abused the corpses of his victims before devouring them— receives a letter from a fan girl telling him he has become a Halloween costume. This Halloween,  about a month after Netflix has renewed interest in, and sympathy towards the serial killer, ebay had to take down Dahmer-themed costumes and a number of LGBTQ bars felt the need to prohibit their customers from dressing up as the notorious serial killer. It is indeed a curious phenomenon that many of the series’ viewers found themselves sympathizing with the Dahmer!

America’s love affair with mass murderers has a long history – whether it unfolds as empathizing with Ted Bundy or as the canonization of town destroyer George Washington as a founding father. This love affair is evidently not unrelated to the mass murder committed by the USA domestically and abroad, and the role that metaphorical and literal cannibalism played in founding this country. It is also telling in this context that one of the most extreme cases of Dahmer sympathy, wherein a woman tattooed the murderer’s face on her body, comes from Australia: another genocidal settler colony once famed for hunting aborigines for sport, and which continues to refuse to let go of this bloody hobby, especially when the US carnage in Afghanistan provided the Australian death machine with a new terrain for hunting natives.

In an article that predates the Netflix series, Vice Magazine attempted to explore this public sympathy, which was then (in 2017) rekindled by the publishing of a graphic novel dedicated to the serial killer (empathically titled My Friend Dahmer). Whereas some of the experts interviewed in the Vice article attempted to debunk the unfounded claims upon which audiences (including Dahmer’s own jury members) found ways to pity the serial killer, another litany of experts (including a psychologist and a psychiatrist who testified during Dahmer trials and a mental health specialist who supposedly studied the Dahmer case closely) paint a sympathetic picture of the murderer (the “mental health specialist explicitly states that she has “a bit of sympathy for Dahmer”); they insisted that Dahmer was not a bad person, he was not a sadist, he was “amiable” and “pleasant”,  “a bright young man” who only needed human company and longed for love, his crimes were a reaction formation to his anxiety, he “genuinely wanted love and closeness”; he “wanted connection and companionship so badly, and he was so unable to connect.” Some “experts” will stop at nothing to exonerate white sociopaths.

Other commentators, especially in the aftermath of the Netflix series, noted the implicitly racist and homophobic biases underlying such sympathy: The fact that the majority of Dahmer’s victim were neither white nor heterosexual—in other words that they were, at best, not constituted as normative, and, at worse, constituted as expendable—facilitated their murder and continues to facilitate sympathy with their murderer.

Some of the reasons for Dahmer sympathy, therefore, lie beyond the Netflix show and are deeply rooted in American culture. In the case of the most recent wave of Dahmer sympathy, nevertheless and in addition to all the reasons that drive America to identify with the perpetrators of mass murder (especially against minorities), there are reasons that lie within the Netflix series itself, and are connected to the misuse of the culture of liberal-identitarian political correctness which Netflix champions and stands for.

The Politically Correct Monster; the Politically Incorrect Victim

The Netflix show did not miss to satirize, in the politically correct fashion that characterizes the streaming service’s productions, the homophobia and the racism of the police officers who turned a deaf ear to Dahmer’s victims, their families, and his black neighbor who repeatedly tried to report him to the police. But this satire remained shallow and failed to make up for the ways it sympathetically staged Dahmer.

This is not to say that the series showed no sympathy whatsoever towards the victims; it did, especially in the final three episodes. Yet it shows more sympathy towards Dahmer than all of them combined. Even in the final episode, as we are allowed momentarily to feel the anguish of the (black) inmate who eventually kills Dahmer, this is contrasted to what seems like a genuine transformation of Dahmer. Ultimately his death comes as resolution and redemption.

The engagement with anti-blackness most of the time (perhaps with the exception of the eighth episode) lacked seriousness— is if written to achieve “political correctness” points rather than to address the phenomenon: for example in episode 5 anti-blackness is presented in the form of an officer refusing to take the word of a black claimant in the absence of other evidence: a shallow engagement that imagines racial grievance as a refusal of due process and which construes policing as a refuge for rather than a menace to black people. Similar situations are repeated ad nauseam as the only form of bigotry (like a student who just learned a new concept and wants to apply it indiscriminately), and in a manner that suggests that more policing or better policing could be the solution to the problem.

Yet, at many times Dahmer, as a homosexual and in the absence of any serious interrogation of the racialized parameters under which normative and deviant sexualities are produced, appeared as the victim of bigotry and of his own sexuality.

In episode 4, which presents a “case history” of sorts for Dahmer’s criminal path, it turns out that his first kill was undertaken after his victim rejected his (homo)sexual advances and called him faggot. This originary moment imputes Dahmer’s crimes to his homosexuality and to the homophobic bigotry—or rather to the political incorrectness— of his first victim. Added to the politically incorrect sin of firstly misrecognizing Dahmer’s desire and acting aggressively surprised when his assumption of heterosexuality is unmet, his victim also fails to use the politically correct terms to describe Dahmer’s unfolding sexuality.

All this is done in a manner that fails to expose the viewers’ own homophobia and racism as they abnegate Dahmer’s victims through their sympathy with him. The experience is unlike the unsettling experience of, for example, reading Lolita, wherein Nabokov sets a trap, through extended metaphors, for his readers to empathize with the predator: a disconcerting experience that causes the readers to question their own biases, moral frameworks, and affective economies (the author’s sadistic delight in disturbing his readers, and his famous right wing tendencies notwithstanding). Every reader of Lolita will walk into the trap of empathizing (in the literal sense of empathy as seeing oneself in the place of another) with Humbert Humbert and may pity him at the end of the novel, but no one who has read Lolita carefully can leave the novel feeling sympathy with its protagonist. The effect of watching Monster is the exact opposite. My problem with the Netflix show is therefore not that it is disturbing: Lolita is disturbing even though it leaves out the details of the rape scene and only relays other disturbing moments through metaphors; my problem with the Dahmer docuseries is that it is not disturbing, even though it gratuitously provides the gruesome details of Dahmer’s crimes. It is this lack of disturbing effect and affect that allows for the sympathy with Dahmer to reign supreme.

Episode 6, for example, leaves the spectators feeling that both Dahmer and his victim, Tony Hughes, were equally victimized—and on some level by the same forces. We see the background story of Tony but we see the anxiety and anguish of Dahmer who falls in love with his victim and fails to master his absence and in a fit of separation anxiety murders him.

Dahmer, who seems genuinely confused throughout the episode, and the entire show, remains  in oblivion and genuine denial towards the fact that he killed Tony (or at least the montage is stylized in such a way that makes the audience think so, even if the makers lack the courage to make their sinister retelling of the crimes explicit), makes a contribution for the efforts to find him, suffers a fit of anger when he starts realizing that he may have killed him, and ultimately cooks, eats, and savors him (in an explicit scene that fails to show any consideration for the families of the victims).

Whereas the episode manages to incite some sympathy for Tony Hughes, Dahmer comes off as the ultimate victim—especially as the episode’s final scene features Dahmer savoring the flesh of his victim with an unmistakable mix of delight and agony on his face.

Beyond Culpability: The Inner Truth of the Monster

The logic and language of identity politics (“born this way,” “hard-wired,” etc.) are extended to the nature of the crime: the production, at times sympathetic, of the criminal’s (homosexual and necrophiliac) desires as his inner truth, the conflation between his crimes and his deep seated desires—in other words the lapse from homosexuality to necrophilia, and from both to murder and cannibalism, presents the criminal as “born this way.”

We cannot miss here the backfiring of identity politics even in what it purports to achieve. Netflix’s centring of homosexuality and gay representation ends up engendering sympathy for the murderer of homosexuals – we must here remember the tradition in critical theory that, since Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, investigates how sexual identities, of both the hetero and homo varieties, emerged under regimes of surveillance and control, and heed Joseph Massad’s warning that the universalization of such identities without taking into account the regimes of power that create them will not lead to a universal distribution of rights but rather a universalization of the modes of power that prey on non-normative bodies. Clearly the context of the docuseries is different but the core of the lesson remains the same: facile identity politics create a universal gay identity that adjoins the victims to their murderer. Netflix put the farce to it all by billing the docuseries as an LGBTQ show; represent, Netflix, represent!

The Born Criminal and the Innocent Monster

The selling out of gay representation is only a symptom of the deeper rooted problem: the alliance of identity politics and pop criminal psychology to produce the crime as something beyond the will and intentions of the criminal. The reasons for Dahmer’s crimes appear, throughout the show, not only as something that is deep inside him, but also as something that is way beyond him (and in both cases out of his control).

Taking the lead from American criminal psychology, or, to be accurate, an outdated version thereof wherein blame is always laid on women, culpability is momentarily laid on his mother, not only for her alleged bad parenting but also for an irresponsible use of medications while pregnant. Netflix then remembers its political correctness, and thus the responsibility is once more deflected to his absent and misogynist father (before they both become victims towards the end when their son’s crimes are uncovered).

This continuous deferral of culpability multiplies Dahmer’s victimhood: he is the victim of circumstance, of his parents, of society which hasn’t understood him, of his homosexual and homophobic victims, of his uncontrollable love and longing for his victims, of his deep seated homosexual and necrophiliac desires, yet only marginally the criminal.

Throughout the performance, Dahmer, in the face of these forces, appears confused and genuinely oblivious. He recognizes the horrendousness of his crimes yet fails to recognize his guilt, until his resolution-redemption comes at the hands of his (black) murderer.

This staging of a criminal oblivious to his own criminality is not played to the chilling effect of exhibiting a sociopath who commits crimes with no reasons, remorse, or sense of guilt (like the one that we see, for example, with Patrick Bateman, both in Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho and in Mary Harron’s haunting film adaptation, which themselves can be read as an indictment of US consumerism, capitalism, and imperialism).

 Like American Psycho, the story of Dahmer is a very American story: the story of whiteness preying with no remorse on its others, before it casts itself as the victim (just like Frankie Boyle’s famous joke about Americans invading your country then coming back decades later to make a movie about how invading your country traumatized them). If Patrick Bateman allegorized whiteness committing its mass murder in tuxedos and behind a shield of money and a mask of glamorous consumerism, Dahmer is a fit personification for whiteness donning the masks of identity politics as it continues to commit its crimes: the figure of an era in which gays and lesbians can openly participate in imperial mass murder after the inclusive imperialist policies of Barack Obama, and in which the language of wokeness and intersectionality can be used as CIA recruitment tools.

Instead of any of this, all what comes across throughout the docuseries is a sad plea for sympathy, some of which goes to the victims, but most of which is reserved for the innocent murderer.

Ahmed Dardir holds a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies from Columbia University. His forthcoming book is titled Licentious Topographies: Global Counterrevolution and Bad Subjectivity in Modern Egypt. His personal blog can be found at https://textualtrimmings.blogspot.com/