Friday, February 8, 2013

Homeland's Carrie Mathison: A Powerful Woman To Trivialize Powerful Women

I give writers the benefit of the doubt. When I see a flawed female character, I assume the writer intended not to impugn all women, but to create a flawed character who happens to be female. So I usually disagree with articles like the one Kathleen J. McInnis wrote for the Atlantic: "How 'Homeland' Undercuts Real Women in Government".

In the case of "Homeland", however, I'm on the feminist side. I agree with McInnis and disagree with the nasty comments on her article: not because Carrie, the lead character, is a flawed woman, but because those flaws, considered both in relation to one another and to a broader context, have troubling implications.

Carrie is assertive, successful and powerful. I have no problem with female characters who are assertive, successful and powerful. I'd like to see a lot more of them.

Carrie is psychotic, volatile and implusive. I have no problem with female characters who are psychotic, volatile and impulsive. Psychotic, volatile and impulsive people of both genders exist.

Carrie depends on deception and secret support in order to function. I have no problem with female characters who depend on deception and secret support in order to function. Such flawed people of both genders exist.

Carrie is sexually aggressive and irresponsible. I have no problem with female characters who are sexually aggressive and irresponsible. Humans have a strong sex drive, and follow it fecklessly.

I have no problem with any one of the traits above. But to combine them all in one character is to strain suspension of disbelief, and for that sin any writer must be held accountable. Why do the creators want us to believe that Carrie could function at such a high level despite her behavior, and why did they give her other particular traits? The answers to those two questions are connected, and that's what bothers me so deeply about "Homeland".

Imagine what would happen if you acted toward your boss the way Carrie acts toward Saul. Forget for a moment all her other uncontrolled impulses and consider just that one aspect of her behavior. Do you think that if you behaved that way, you would keep your job?

Now think about the very worst that could happen if you had a meltdown at work, and then consider that Carrie is entrusted with national security.

That Carrie retains a position of such responsibility and power despite her outbursts is a bolus of conceit. Looking for ways to swallow it, I find no better explanation than that she's a pretty, passionate woman whose father figure indulges her. He stands between her and her peers, blocking their view of her worst behavior.

The mere fact of Carrie's conduct, managed and indulged by those around her, strains suspension of disbelief. Yet it's nothing when you consider that her behavior would be vastly worse were she not getting secret support from her sister in the form of antipsychotic drugs!

It's not in my nature to see The Patriarchy lurking in every literary shadow. Yet when I see a female character who looks like nothing so much as a matryoshka doll formed from successive strata of implausibility, and when I see no male characters so constructed, I call bullshit.

Some humans aren't comfortable seeing a female in a position of power. When humans get uncomfortable, they seek explanations that discredit the source of that discomfort. To see that same matryoshka of implausibility beneath every successful woman is comforting.

Carrie is the worst kind of cipher: one that allows us to remain in our comfort zone. Why take a powerful woman at face value when one can imagine an unseen support network of pills and protectors? Why deal with the tension of a woman in power when one can assume she sustains that power only through indulgence and deception? Why see such a woman as anything more than an enabled homewrecker who, having obtained power by playing upon the tender sympathies of a man, now uses that power to elevate her hysterics? Why do all that work?

Do you think this is all overdrawn? Do you think I've drunk the feminist Kool-Aid?

You're wrong.

I'm not that guy. I'm the guy who usually rolls his eyes at articles claiming that this character objectifies women, or that character reveals the misogyny of the writer. I'm the guy who usually defends a writer's prerogative to create flawed characters of any gender. And that guy is telling you that the character of Carrie Mathison stinks to high heaven.

Still don't agree? OK. Tell ya what. I'll take it all back.

...If you can name one male television or movie lead who has all four of the traits listed at the beginning of this article. Here, I'll make it easy for you.
  1. He must be assertive, successful and powerful.
  2. He must be psychotic, volatile and implusive.
  3. He must depend on deception and secret support in order to function.
  4. He must be sexually aggressive and irresponsible.
Go on. I'll wait.


Robin Welch said...

Charlie Sheen's character in 2.5 Men?

(from Robin)

Hugh Yeman said...

Never saw it.