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Claire Danes

What ‘Homeland’ Has to Say About White Womanhood

There’s no missing Carrie Mathison’s whiteness. It’s not just that she’s played by Claire Danes in Showtime’s critically acclaimed and recently concluded Homeland. Or that Carrie’s blond hair and blue eyes so often fill the frame. It’s that the character and show itself play with, question, and subvert notions of white womanhood, putting our ideas about who Carrie should be in conflict with who she actually is again and again.

Let’s start with fragility: white women are to be protected or so stories have told us. We see this everywhere from the damsel-in-distress narrative to America’s rationale for lynching to how white women’s tears function in the office. One could argue, Carrie does need to be protected. Her mental illness, for one, makes her susceptible to all sorts of dangers — she needs medicine, therapy, and care. And there is the aesthetic — this slight blond person, standing next to men in perceived and literal battlefields. Her body is so small and vulnerable in comparison. But Carrie’s not injured when surrounded by GI’s — the show simply uses the contrast in bodies to build suspense, to make you acutely aware of the danger of being a small woman in a sea of masculine vibrato. Yes, when she is taken prisoner by the Russians, Saul literally has to rescue her, using his political clout to arrange for her release. But the truth is it was Carrie who bravely created and executed the plan that got her in that Russian prison. She is a hero, not a victim.

You see, both the character and the show toy with ideas around Carrie’s supposed vulnerability. My favorite example is when Carrie’s computer gets hacked in season seven. She calls in her buddy Max to try to help with the technical side but there’s nothing he can do. So when the hacker makes contact, Carrie begins to trade on her sexuality to bargain for her files. After some sexy video time, she meets him in person and instead of offering him sex, nearly beats him to death, declaring “I’m CIA motherfucker!” It’s both an empowering and troubling moment as Carrie triumphs over her would-be-victimizer but also loses control, unleashing a dangerous, dark side of herself. And it’s captivating precisely because of the assumptions our culture makes about white women and their inherent vulnerability.

Part of white women’s supposed helplessness comes from their role as passive, pure objects onto which white men can write their desires, ambitions, and faults. Think of all the times you’ve watched a male character learn something because of the violence done to a woman in his life. Or the whole and on-going conversation about objectification. Generally, men get to be agents and women objects. Now as a white woman, Carrie has more access to agency than her BIPOC sisters. She exists on screen for one, rather than being largely ignored or erased.

But even for a white woman, Carrie stands out as does Homeland. Instead of female bodies serving as sacrificial lambs, the men around Carrie die so she can learn. First Brody, then Quinn, then Max — Homeland is a veritable parade of dead men and poor sexual decision making. And while these deaths build Carrie’s character, the central loss and tragedy in her journey is the drone strike she authorized, killing hundreds of innocent, brown children. It’s that action that got her sent home from the field and mixed up with Brody to begin with, it’s that headline we see in one of her final scenes at her home with Yevgeny. And while the show’s terrorism-as-a-Muslim-plot beginning was rightfully decried, the show makes efforts in the later seasons to define the problems with America more broadly and get away from an us-vs-them mentality. In this redefinition, Carrie gets to be more than the relationships she has with the men around her, more than a white woman holding back what the colonist sees as a sea of brown bodies.

She even gets to be more than a mother, the third tenet of white womanhood. White women are the June Cleavers, the virtuous women in aprons and pearls, the ones who effortlessly nurture and who’s families come first. Now by these (and really all) standards, Carrie fails as a mother. She does not make Frannie her top priority — she doesn’t even manage to keep her safe, the bare minimum of parenthood. In fact, she does such a poor job protecting Frannie that her daughter has multiple encounters with SWAT teams before reaching middle school! It’s bad and part of Carrie’s astounding ability to make the worst possible decisions, picking options a normal person wouldn’t even consider (leaving your child alone with PTSD-rattled veteran, taking her to stay with someone you suspect of double-crossing you).

But Carrie gets away with it. Yes, she battles both the state and her sister for custody of Frannie, eventually giving up and recognizing the girl is better off without her. Normally, this sort of ending would serve as a cautionary tale — don’t dream too big or you’ll lose what matters most — but Frannie isn’t what matters most to Carrie, she’s not even the most important relationship in Carrie’s life. And Homeland lets that truth be, acknowledging the sadness around Carrie’s failed attempt at motherhood without letting it fully define her. Take that final scene where Saul is opening the book Carrie sent, her memoir. It may be dedicated to Frannie but it’s Carrie’s communication with Saul the show focuses on. It’s his forgiveness she’s trying to earn. Homeland defies norms around white womanhood by making Carrie a hero and a bad mother, a woman not defined by her child.

In the end, it is not her daughter, not the deaths, the acts of violence, or even her relationships that define Carrie — it’s her decision making. As Saul says, close to the end, “Everything she does, everything is because she never loses sight of what’s important and honestly, she’s the only person I ever known I can say that of.” It’s high praise even when it means that Carrie will betray Saul, her closest friend, to complete their mission of stopping a war between the US and Pakistan. And it both fits in line with the image of the patriotic, duty-bound white woman and rewrites it, showing just how toxic unwavering fidelity can be.

That’s the thing about the cult of white womanhood — it’s inherently flawed. It grants power even as it restricts. It proposes a norm that we all know to be false but still fall prey to at times. It’s destructive and creative, changing and static. It’s a worthy subject of art and the anchor that grounded Homeland for eight seasons, giving it its grit, surprise, and greater meaning.

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