By Anne Champion
SPOILER! If you have not finished Season 3 of Homeland, stop reading now.
I just finished watching season 3 of Homeland, and all I could do was exhale a tremendous sigh of relief: thank god that’s over, because I couldn’t take much more of the show’s female protagonist, Carrie Mathison.
The show, detailing the return of a prisoner of war who suffers tremendous abuse at the hands of Al Qaeda operatives in Iraq and the CIA’s relentless pursuit of terrorist organizations at home and abroad, features Mathison as the CIA’s most valuable agent: a dedicated, overworked, obsessive spy who reeks of so much patriotism and love for protecting her country that it’s surprising that she doesn’t bleed in red, white, and blue.
When I first watched Homeland, I was thrilled. A woman? A smart woman? A working woman? Finally! A female hero!
You know, just like real life where women can achieve greatness too!
However, more time with this show has worn me out: as much as I love Claire Danes as an actress (You go girl! Love that cry face!), I just can’t shake that Homeland is yet another misogynistic representation of powerful women.
Unfortunately, Carrie Mathison represents a myriad of internalized negative stereotypes about women.
The first and most problematic stereotype about all women is one that I’ve heard parroted by men since I was a child: women are crazy. In real life, calling a woman “crazy” is simply a way of saying “noncompliant” or a woman who makes a man feel some sort of discontent (say, in exposing a lie, asking for a favor, or requesting a candid discussion of emotions).
In the case of Homeland, Mathison’s “crazy” is literal—she secretly suffers from bipolar disorder, which she treats on her own and hides from the CIA so that she can keep her high ranking position. In fact, Carrie’s disorder is her blessing as much as it is her curse. In the second season, a breakdown and a manic episode causes her to solve the mysterious timeline and whereabouts of infamous terrorist Abu Nazir.
In a mess of color coding of documents that she illegally obtains, she snaps the pieces together on her wall like a puzzle, much to the celebration of her mentor, Saul.
However, Carrie’s breakdowns generally end unfavorably for her; she frequently stops taking her medications and ends up throwing tantrums and acting irrational and paranoid (even though she’s generally not wrong in her paranoia). We ride the harsh waves as Carrie’s environment and mental state reaches a crescendo and bursts like an overfilled water balloon.
This is the most poised, vastly intelligent, and skillful woman on television, but her defining characteristic is that she just can’t manage to get her shit together, thus reinforcing the female gender’s stereotypical Achille’s heel: their minds.
Furthermore, even when Carrie is on her meds, she acts as the most irrational person on the show. For centuries, the idea of women’s irrationality has prevented us from being able to vote, to work in men’s fields, to pursue educations, and to be taken seriously. We are constantly mocked for being ‘hormonal’ for ‘PMSing,’ for ‘overanalyzing,’ and for being overwhelmingly reckless and impulsive if not reigned in by societal constraints about what it is to be a lady.
Carrie exhibits very limited lady-like qualities: she’s not polite, she’s assertive, she’s a quick thinker, and she’s generally an overall genius. I also can’t remember a single outfit of hers that bared any marks of stereotypical femininity. These things about her are kind of badass.
However, whenever Carrie is operating between a rock and a hard place, (which is often), she operates in an irrationally annoying manner. While her superiors constantly tell her to stand down, stay put, get on that plane and come home, Carrie, Do not interfere, she consistently, without fail, throws down her cell phone, runs into the line of fire, risks her life, the life of others, and the entire operation, based on whatever whim controls her.
That whim is usually love, which brings me to another negative myth: we operate based on love and not on logic. A major plot point of the story revolves around Carrie’s love interest for Marine turned Al Qaeda terrorist turned CIA asset, Nicholas Brody.
Despite the knowledge that Brody strapped a suicide vest on his chest and plotted to kill the Vice President and a room full of other politicians, and despite the fact that this man embodies everything Carrie spends her entire life fighting against, she falls inexplicably in love with him. (Because girls always want what’s bad for them, right ladies? Because we can definitely change him, right?)
And from that point forward, Carrie doesn’t really work for her country anymore: she works for Brody. In many pivotal scenes, the action that would serve the mission best is crystal clear for viewers, but Carrie can’t follow it, because she either must save Brody, must clear Brody’s name, must stop Brody from doing something terrible, etc. In every action scene in which lives are endangered, Carrie’s decisions are always made based on emotion, never reason.
This stereotype restricts women from easily attaining roles of leadership, and reasserts the problematic notion that a woman must always ‘stand by her man.’
And what to do when a woman’s emotions cause her to get too out of hand? Put her in her place! More specifically, have a man put her in her place. This happens to Carrie throughout the series, as she gets chastised, punished, loses her job, gets committed (repeatedly) and receives electric shock treatments.
However, this idea is most clearly represented in season three when her CIA colleague, Peter Quinn, actually shoots her in the line of duty during a mission. SHOOTS HER! WITH A GUN! She was so out of line that they just up and shot her in the arm and wheeled her away on a gurney and told her not to be so uppity next time. If that’s not a clear green light for the justification of domestic violence against women, I don’t know what is.
Furthermore, Homeland portrays Carrie as snagged in the barbed wire cage of a woman who wants to ‘have it all.’ In the end of season two, it becomes clear that if Carrie wants to pursue a relationship, she forfeits her hard won career. She battles back and forth between her debilitating loneliness and the personal fulfillment she gets from her value to the CIA.
Finally, Carrie makes a decision to run off with Brody and let romance whisk her off to happiness, but, at the last minute, just as they prepare to cross the U.S. border, Carrie realizes that it’s not possible for her to abandon her career, and she must sacrifice her love for Brody in order to continue her job. Here, we see the age old warning to women: get a career if you must, but, if you do, be prepared for a life of loneliness. You can’t have it all.
Season three also highlights another sad misrepresentation of smart, working women: we can’t be moms, because we just aren’t wired to be maternal. Carrie manifests zero interest in the knowledge that she’s pregnant with Brody’s child.
In fact, it’s a storyline we often forget about in season three were it not for the occasional morning sickness scene and hospital scene (you know, when she was shot!) She decides to have the child solely based on her love of Brody (like all her decisions—see above). She wants the child because she wants Brody, but when Brody’s gone, she breaks down (surprise! Female breakdown!) and says that it’s not possible for her to work and care for this child, because she feels nothing for it and is incapable of motherhood. This actually remains a tragic stereotype for working women: that we’re bad, neglectful mothers, that we’re too much like men with our ambition, thus it’s impossible to love and care for another human being.
In fact, working women are seen as frigid and not the slightest bit soft and tender, thus lacking all worth as caretakers. Sadly, Carrie’s plotline reinforces this idea. In reality, both men and women can be intelligent and can also be tender and loving parents, but society only affords that duality to men.
Don’t get me wrong: I mostly love the thrill of Homeland, and it’s a decent show that’s well worth watching. But Carrie’s character has been grossly mishandled: she tells viewers that a smart woman is mostly a pain in the ass.
She’ll be obsessive, she’ll throw tantrums, her world will revolve around her man, and she can’t raise a kid worth a damn. The whole plot kind of makes me agree with Saul’s famously misogynistic line: “Carrie, you’re the smartest and the dumbest fucking person I’ve ever known.”