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Homeland

Presidents Better than Trump

The man has been voted out of office and we are breathing a sigh of relief. In fact, we’re ready to have the last laugh That’s why we’re imagining the fictional (actual or would-be) Presidents who would have done a better job the last four years. This is definitely not a list of best TV and movie presidents (there are many of those). No one played by Harrison Ford, Geena Davis, or Dennis Haysbert appears on it. There’s no President Bartlett or his equally improbable and impressive peers. We’re not talking the greats here. No, this is a list of presidential villains, traitors, and idiots. A list of fictional ne’er-do-wells who would all make better Presidents than the 45th person who actually held the office. Shall we?

House of Cards (2013–2018)

There are three Presidents on House of Cards per my count and they’re all better than one Donald Trump! There’s Garrett Walker, who’s kind-hearted but easily influenced. There’s Frank Underwood, who’s an evil murderer and master manipulator (or what you might call a skilled politician). And there’s my favorite, Claire Underwood, who is cold, calculating, and ruthless but actually interested in governing. See how they all have an upside?

Wag the Dog (1997)

To distract from a sex scandal, the President in this film fakes a war, distracting the American people and hoping to look like a hero. He’s clearly ok with lying but at least appears to know the difference between fact and fiction. Plus, the idea that a sex scandal is embarrassing (rather than something to be proud of) and the military is myth-making magic (rather than comprised of “losers”) undergirds Wag the Dog and reminds us of simpler times.

Veep (2012–2019)

We’re going to focus on the titular Selina Meyer here since she does become President and we never see President Hughes anyway. Like someone else we know, she’s an incompetent narcissist who lacks basic human abilities but at least is genuinely funny. Plus, while she may be racist, her brand of prejudice is more the microaggression kind and less the refuses-to-condemn-white-supremacy, separates-you-from-your-kids kind.

Dave (1993)

In Dave, a random guy who does Presidential impersonations ends up taking the office after the actual President falls into a coma during a love affair gone wrong. Titular everyman Dave turns out to be a good person, more driven by doing what’s right than seeking power, fame, or fortune. I’d take a Trump impersonator who cares about things like the homeless and full employment instead of what we had any day.

SCANDAL – “Transfer of Power” – In the final days of his presidency, Fitz uses his power to make some unexpected changes, on “Scandal,” airing THURSDAY, MAY 18 (10:00-11:00 p.m. EDT), on The ABC Television Network. (ABC/Richard Cartwright) TONY GOLDWYN, BELLAMY YOUNG

Scandal (2012–2018)

Scandal’s Fitzgerald “Fitz” Thomas Grant III is not a great guy. He cheats on his wife, abuses his mistress, and you know, undermines democracy. Sure, he doesn’t know his team steals the election for him but he does know about the secret, extra-governmental force B613 and is cool with it. Yet, I’d rather have him (or his (ex)wife Millie) as President than Donald — at least you’d know that hyper-competent if morally-questionable Olivia Pope would really be at the helm.

The Manchurian Candidate (2004 and 1962)

Yes, the would-be-President in question here is brainwashed and mind-controlled, but he fights the powers that would see such a comprised figure in office, resisting his programming to the point of turning his gun on himself. Manchurian Candidate Raymond Shaw is a tragic figure, but ultimately a hero unlike, say, someone who willingly collaborates with a foreign power for personal gain…

Homeland (2011–2020)

Our (white) girl Carrie Mathison makes it through several US Presidents and while none of them make the best choices, we’d still take any of them over the Donald. There’s Elizabeth Keane, a stand-in for the actual 2016 favorite Hilary Clinton. Keane survives an assassination attempt only to turn on the entire intelligence community and endanger American ideals (like innocent until proven guilty). She’s a complicated figure but she does the right thing in the end, resigning so as to heal the country. A Biden-like centrist takes over but is quickly dispatched (helicopter goes bye-bye) and replaced with the most Trump-like character on this list, President Benjamin Hayes. He’s an idiot who’s quick to be influenced by other idiots and sees what he wants to see. But! He eventually learns, believes, and responds appropriately to the truth. Sounds pretty good, huh?

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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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