Rejecting home for homeland: Carrie Madison and gender roles in TV’s Homeland

Homeland is a US television series based on an Israeli show, Prisoners of War. It centres on CIA agent Carrie Maddison, played by Claire Danes, who in dramatic opening scenes is told by a source that a US marine has been ‘turned’. When a few days later US marine Nicholas Brody, played by Damien Lewis, is rescued after eight years in captivity, Carrie is convinced he’s the marine in question. Alongside Brody’s heroic homecoming we follow Carrie’s increasingly obsessive attempts to prove him a traitor. Carrie’s an unusual female character so in this post we begin a conversation about her which we plan to continue as events unfold each Sunday night. We hope you’ll join in. The show is full of twists and turns so don’t read this unless you’re up to date with the latest episode shown on the UK’s Channel 4 (or you don’t mind knowing what happens in advance). If you’ve seen ahead of this and you add comments please alert us to any spoilers.

Sunday 22 April daytime

Heather: I’m looking forward to the new episode of Homeland tonight. Last week’s [series 1, episode 9 – ‘Crossfire’] which filled in Brody’s backstory, showing his personal experience of US brutality and hypocrisy which led him to turn against his own country, was my favourite so far. When they revealed early on in the series that Brody had converted to Islam I reckoned that he couldn’t be a ‘traitor’ because that would be too obvious and line up too easily with the idea that all Muslims are bad. But the writers found a way to do it that makes it almost impossible to be reductive about the characters and their motivations and very difficult to match their identities to dominant discourses about the civilised West vs the uncivilised East. But leaving that aside and turning to gender, what stands out for me is Carrie. She’s not an unusual character for US television – highly professionally driven, not great at interpersonal relationships, with mental health issues – she reminds me of Gregory House. But it’s very unusual to see a female character like this. I can’t think of any others. When Brody and Carrie become involved in a sexual relationship and escape to a woodland cabin together the scenes between them are great. Carrie gives away that she’s had him under surveillance and instead of trying to cover, she admits that she thinks he’s working for the enemy and questions him. By prioritising her work over their beginning relationship, Carrie seems remarkably un-invested in romantic love and being in a couple. In this and other scenes, she could come across as a freak but she’s at the centre of the show and we see things so much from her point of view (her words not Brody’s dominate the title sequence) that we can’t help but empathise with her at least some of the time.


Sunday 22 April late night time

Claire: I think at some points the show does ‘fall’ into the trap of suggesting that Carrie needs another person in her life – see tonight’s episode [series 1, episode 10 – ‘Representative Brody’] where she is very upset when Brody has clearly decided to end their liaison and focus on his family.  And I found myself a little sad that they wouldn’t be together (despite really liking the character of Jess – Brody’s wife).  But that just demonstrates how strongly we have come to expect and some of us – yearn – for ‘romance’ in our consumption of films / television.  Yet, it does this alongside showing how Saul is lonely and mourns the loss of his personal life, which he has scarified for the calling of the job (and/or the thrill of it?).  After tonight, it will be interesting to see
what, beyond ‘getting the bad guys’, the show has in store for Carrie – will her personal / emotional life continue to be explored? I can’t imagine they will return to the Brody / Carrie intimacy connection as it would jeopardise too much for Brody’s new-found political career.  I hope they continue to work her character and deepen it.

But do these stand-out female characters need to be so ‘dysfunctional’ in terms of their personal lives?  Carrie Madison in Homeland, Sarah Lund in The Killing, and just this weekend – Saga Norén (pictured) in The Bridge… is it something about women in law enforcement that calls for them to either have Asperger’s syndrome (as it has been claimed Saga’s character does in The Bridge), or be committed to the cause beyond their families (as Sarah Lund and Carrie Madison)?  But it was a classic and excellent moment in Saturday’s The Bridge (episode 2) on UK’s BBC4 when Saga, it seems almost as if as an after-thought, masturbates after coming out from the shower and then decides to go out and pick someone up for sex, have sex in her apartment and then get out her laptop and continue her work to find the killer!  Thinking of other lead female characters of late which I love – Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife and Birgitte Nyborg in Borgenin a way these women represent more ‘real life’ ideas of women with whom I, at least, can identify a little more and yet are extremely interesting and impressive.


Monday 23 April afternoon

Heather: I agree that there’s an undercurrent in Homeland of Carrie’s desire to be in a couple (last night as you point out and in last week’s episode when she expressed regret at realising she’s going to spend her life alone). But I don’t think this is gendered in the usual way because, as you say, you also have Saul struggling with the same issues. Although Carrie feels desire for some kind of relationship with Brody this desire is complicated by being mixed up with her experience of watching him in his home on surveillance cameras for weeks – in her own personal version of Big Brother – and implicated in her professional need to find out whether or not he’s working for ‘the other side’.

I watched The Killing but not the other shows you mention but there’s also Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect to add to the list of driven crime solving women who struggle with their personal lives (though none of these ‘difficult’ women are in US shows except Carrie). My favourite strong female characters are younger than yours – Buffy Summers (pictured) in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the eponymous Veronica Mars. Both spend much of the time in heterosexual couples, if difficult ones – especially Buffy whose two most significant sexual relationships are with vampires.

The Saga masturbation/hook-up plotline reminds me how very, very rare female masturbation is in TV and cinema despite male masturbation being a staple of mainstream films like American Pie. I think this relates to how female characters are very rarely allowed an autonomous sexuality – being in a couple seems to function as a substitute for this. In Canadian TV series Being Erica, there’s a whole episode devoted to the difficulties Erica has in dealing with the fact that her live-in boyfriend wanks. In that sense Carrie has more in common with the femme fatale than with ‘nice’ female characters, in that she has an active sexuality that she uses to manipulate others. Interestingly the moments where Buffy has an active sexuality largely divorced from any desire to be in a couple are linked in the show to an inner darkness that’s part of her slayer nature.

Claire Maxwell, Institute of Education, and Heather Mendick, Brunel University, UK

5 thoughts on “Rejecting home for homeland: Carrie Madison and gender roles in TV’s Homeland

  1. Brilliant conversation – more please. I’ve watched most of the series mentioned and shall turn on to Homeland next episode with even greater interest – if that’s possible.

  2. I downloaded this show last week and watched them all…Great TV. I felt initiallybthat the writers had lost their way a little with the Carrie/ Brody relationship – that she seemed to despise him, particularly in the scenes where she was watching him and his wife attempt intimate relations, she seemed disgusted by him – as was I. I also wondered if Brody’s rejection of his wife sexually was a clue about his adoption of Islamic extremism. So it came as rather a surprise when Carrie & Brody ‘got together’, although the scenes between them made me like him, and her, more. I also think that, as the series continues to unfold, their relationship is used as a clever tool to illustrate Carrie’s psychological state and is the beginning of a downward spiral caused by her bi-polar disorder (no major spoiler alert there). Brody and Carrie were also able to connect as war veterans, and this acted as a nice contrast, in terms of gender, to Brody’s inability to connect with his wife.

    I agree with Heather’s comments that one of the strengths of the show is their refusal to slip into the ‘good Americans versus bad Middle Easterns’ cliche, and brings into question the nature of a war crime and those who escape justice, time & time again.

    Great thread!

  3. Heather: My brother emailed me a funny comment about our blog, “I’m suprised Claire wanted Carrie and Brody to be together – that’s about as romantic as wanting Benjamin to end up with Mrs. Robinson.”

    Claire: Excellent….I like your brother’s way of looking at it; I hadn’t thought of that….uhm!

    Heather: I caught up with The Bridge last night and saw the direct pick-up scene you mentioned in our conversation last weekend. Realistically wouldn’t Saga (the female detective) just have masturbated rather than bothering to go out to a bar and pick a guy up?

    Claire: HaHa – too right! But maybe that wouldn’t have been obvious enough for some people? To get the idea that she can have sex without emotion and/or enjoys sex for the physical pleasure of it?

    Heather: Interesting – but the casual sex option positions men as necessary for female sexual satisfaction – I don’t really buy it for Saga because she’s so work-driven that I don’t think she’d take the more time-consuming (and less reliable) route to orgasm.

  4. Had a Homeland marathon yesterday with a hungover friend – Heather mentioned Buffy and the darker aspects of sexuality as being linked to Buffy’s special powers – Carrie’s I guess are linked to her experiences in Iraq, the nature of her job and her illness. It also struck me that Buffy and Carrie cross-over in terms of the father figures in their lives. Buffy’s father is absent because of divorce and Carrie’s because of his own struggle with bi-polar. Both characters have a father-daughter type connection to other men – Buffy to Giles and Carrie to Saul. Lisbeth Salander too has a father figure in her former guardian Palmgren (this is particularly evident in the novels) who seems to care for Salander in a similar paternal way to the way in which Giles cares for Buffy and Saul for Carrie. Like fathers, these figures do not necessarily have a deep understanding of the young women. I think it’s interesting that Buffy, Carrie and Salander are written, and therefore imagined, by men and that these ‘fathers’ somehow provide balance to the characters.

  5. The dialogue continues…

    Heather (one week ago): Loved episode 11, but it is mainly a set up for the season finale next week so let’s wait till after that to post again. I thought the Brody scenes were the most compelling – especially when he’s talking about Gettysburg. And Dana had some great moments – funny we hadn’t thought of writing about her before. It’s also not great to be writing about Carrie when she’s manic.

    Claire (yesterday): You are right about Dana – she’s been operating on the fringes of the show – as a young woman challenging parental authority, hanging out with friends; but in episode 11 and 12 we see her as a perceptive young woman, who, in my view, is also beautiful in an arguable non-stereotypical way. And Brody’s close relationship to his daughter – almost a more open relationship than with his wife – is interesting too; not sure why it is interesting, but something about a respect for his daughter which he does not necessarily have for his wife? The finale… great TV. Brody’s fight within himself after the suicide vest did not detonate was well done. And while I read a review in the paper suggesting it was a little simple to have Dana’s phone call be the one to stop him from trying for a second time – it did fit in with the conflict he was experiencing at leaving his family behind. I am also intrigued to know exactly how Brody will use his position to influence policy and how this will be more effective. While Carrie’s manic depression might be a sort of metaphor for what is real / what is not, who to trust / who not to trust; I feel in a way the reality of dealing with mental ill-health and how people assume you have little to contribute diminishes the strong female and complex character the show had set Carrie up as initially. I suspect, we will move on from Carrie’s manic depression in Season 2 having such a central focus and she might continue to surprise us? I hope so anyway. I hope the main male characters within the intelligence community will find a way to position themselves in relation to her in a new way – which isn’t – Carrie, girl, crazy! Her relationship with surveillance freelancer Virgil is one I would like to see developed – they seem to have an interesting dynamic, where initially she sees him as the hired help, but he obviously becomes more of a trusted confidante in the last episode, willing to support her.

    Heather (today): Yes – amazing, compelling TV. I found my response to it interesting – I’m a pacifist but I really wanted Brody to press the button and for the bomb to detonate. Though I’m also pleased that Brody’s survived into season two – and that his actions raise questions about the most effective forms of protest. Brody and Dana’s relationship continued to develop. An interesting scene for me was when he explains to her about his becoming Muslim and they agree not to share this information with his wife – as Dana said ‘she wouldn’t get it’. I guess there’s a subtext here that there’s more about Brody that Dana gets but she wouldn’t. I think this is partly about age. In US drama (and in wider culture) teenage years are constructed as a time when people are more open, questioning and challenging and perhaps this is where you need to be to get what Brody’s doing. Carrie’s story in the last couple of episodes – dominated by her descent into mania and then depression – is difficult to write about. Thinking about her mental health problems as a metaphor, it can be taken as representing how being a woman in that context plays out both professionally and personally. Her decision to have ECT at the end was disturbing – I wanted her to wait longer for the drugs to work – it seems like she’s rejecting her own mind at this moment – wanting to be someone else.

    Claire: Yes, thank you for remembering the scene where Dana and Brody decide to keep a secret. I think this is problematic – as it has connotations of this so-called special relationship between daddies and their daughters which could be read in all sorts of ways and I feel uncomfortable positioning the woman / mother as somehow less. Yet, at the same time, being the mother of a daughter – I hope she can feel she can develop a more ‘adult’ relationship with her parents as she gets older. I feel perhaps having Carrie gets so unwell in the last two episodes of the season was a shame – as somehow diminishes her; and while it is quite raw to see how Carrie becomes so desperate and loses faith in herself (when she was so sure of herself and strong in the first three-quarters of the show), I am still not sure it was the best way to go / story line for this character. I also like how the show does make you question the most effective forms of protest; but wonder whether the way in which Brody, it would appear, effortlessly kills Walker has made it too clear-cut that his ‘commitment to the cause’ is so strong. I felt what was so good was that he was wavering about how he felt and that in a way – the choice was his – he was not that strongly influenced by Abu Nasir. Fortunately, Channel 4 is going to bring us the second season of Homeland – hopefully before the end of this year? It starts showing in the US on 30 September. Too often Sky manages to buy up the good television shows and it means too many of us can’t get to follow them.

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