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White Womanhood

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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Racing the Enigma of Netflix’s “You”

A brown woman lays unconscious on the sidewalk. Blood pools beautifully from her head. In the corner of the shot, you can see the green foliage from the park she was running in. In the next season, a different, once beautiful woman lies on the ground. She’s surrounded by her own blood with a gash on her neck running from one side to the other. You see one close shot after another of this carnage.

What is the point of these visuals in Netflix’s You? What are they telling us about Joe Goldberg, the world he inhabits and our own? Does their beauty or cruelty help you excuse his behavior? Are you rooting for him? And if so, is it because or in spite of them? That’s the question at the center of Netflix’s You, the psychological thriller told from the stalker’s perspective.

Joe seems created to confuse. He is, after all, a certain type of female fantasy — the rare man who reads (and loves!) books portrayed by Penn Badgley of Gossip Girl fame. He’s the type of guy who’d do anything — and I do mean anything — for the girl.

The question is — do you want such a guy? After two seasons, the characters on You are split. Joe spends the first season in pursuit of one Guinevere Beck, a blond MFA student played by Elizabeth Lail. Beck, as she’s called, falls in love with Joe, unaware that he’s not only stalked her but he’s also killing the people in her life that could keep them apart. When she finds out, she wholly rejects him, to the point where he kills her for fear of getting caught.

In the second season, Joe meets his match in Love Quinn, a Los Angeles health-food heiress played by Victoria Pedretti. Love is a stalker/serial killer in her own right and doubles down on Joe when she finds out he has the same predilections. Her season ends with the two moving in together, with a baby on the way. Nevermind that the fantasy of a female serial killer sets up a false equivalency between the genders, pretending that men and women hurt their partners equally (when men do so more often and more severely).

What these white girls have in common is the shared understanding of the preciousness of their feminity. They both see themselves as something to be protected, particularly by the men in their lives. You see this in Beck’s rejection of her father — when his addiction made him unable to protect her, she pretends he’s dead. When Joe shows up in her life and all sorts of strange things start happening, she remains oblivious. Love is not so naive but she continues to use her femininity as a shield — both to avoid becoming a murder suspect as a teen and later to avoid Joe’s violence, thanks to the embryo growing inside her.

The women of color don’t enjoy any such delusions. Natalie Paul’s Karen Minty escapes her relationship with Joe unscathed but she knows something is up. She tells Beck “Turns out, you’re my ‘get out of Joe free’ card” and “maybe he’ll do whatever the hell he did to Candace” (he buried her alive). Karen doesn’t become an object of Joe’s violent obsession but she still knows that something’s wrong with him. Beck doesn’t or at least, not until it’s too late.

Likewise, Carmela Zumbado as Delilah Alves and Jenna Ortega as her sister Ellie turn out to be more reliable judges of character. Delilah starts out suspicious of Joe but eventually ignores her suspicions and sleeps with him. It’s not long though before she finds out the truth and dies for her trouble. Ellie, meanwhile, is the only one who even comes close to holding Joe accountable. It (at least) stings when she tells him “I hate you. You brought the Quinns into our lives, and you’re the reason Delilah’s gone. Dead, right? She’s dead… you ruined my life.”

There are multiple lenses to see Joe, the white girl way that says he’s desirable as the ultimate caring boyfriend and the WOC way that sees him as charming but ultimately knows something’s not right. So where do you fall and does the show invite you there? The thing is, You is told from Joe’s perspective, so you could argue that its white gaze (and the patriarchal, racist nonsense that comes with it) is purposefully problematic. Joe may think he’s feminist because he calls out “toxic masculinity” but stalking and killing women certainly disqualifies him, right?

If you take this view, you have to admit that Joe isn’t just sexist but racist too. Just compare how different the violence is presented depending upon the race of the woman. We never see Joe murder Beck, despite it being a major plot point. His violence against Candace is similarly hidden for a long time. However, we see the blood spill artistically out of Peach Salinger’s head after Joe attacks her. The camera zooms in on the brutally murdered body of Delilah more than once. Why do we need to see the gash on her neck, the blood around her body so many times? The white women are afforded more dignity because, in the land of You, theirs is the only womanhood that is to be sought after and protected.

It’s the typical treatment of black and brown bodies and it reveals Joe’s bias. The show’s white creators have said they’re interested in the way Joe’s whiteness gives him a pass. It allows him to go undetected and perhaps for white audiences to remain sympathetic. If you saw him brutally murder Beck could you stay on his side? If the camera panned slowly over her murdered body multiple times, would you still root for him? It’s hard to watch You as a Latina and not feel like the show, whether told from Joe’s point of view or not, is discounting my personhood. Like it doesn’t take the violence against the Candaces and Becks more seriously than the Delilahs and the Peaches. That it doesn’t believe that Love is more valuable than Karen.

In the end, inhabiting Joe’s mind and world view is not a useful exercise. We get too much media from the white devil’s perspective — we don’t need more. You’s been renewed for a third (and hopefully final) season. In it, I hope Ellie exacts some revenge on Joe and Love and all their glorious whiteness. Next, I hope the Ellies and Delilahs, the Karens and Peachs get the story told from their perspective. And then, we’ll get to see something truly transgressive.

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