My Feature in the Harvard Kennedy School Review


Here is an excerpt from my published feature with the Harvard Kennedy School Review, available in print and online:

The trouble with Zero Dark Thirty and Homeland is not that they attempt to write about heroines, nor that they hope to deepen our understanding of terrorist psyche and Islamic faith. The trouble is that they attempt these progressive models while seducing the audience with familiar tropes, hoping that a spoonful of sugar will help new medicine go down. But that muddles the message. Yes, Maya and Carrie are important narrative devices, soliciting our allegiance with their missions and even forcing us to consider the risk of staking our lives and our country’s character on choices made by ambiguous leaders. Maya and Carrie serve essential, thematic functions; they are the very pillars upon which their stories rest. But viewers don’t think of them as mere device; viewers want to see them as people, as women representative of other women. With still so few images of influential women, Maya and Carrie shoulder the legacy of single stories, made in the spirit of progress, yet drawn from a fountain of stereotypes. These characters have never been seen before. Yet somehow, they are more of the same.

The single story plagues our politics, where every war is remembered as the final countdown between hero and villain; where social progress remembers history in the past tense, disowning how it lives on in present tense. Poverty is the picture of a Black child, the future is a poster of Apple cofounder Steve Jobs holding an iPad, and evil is the face of terrors committed against us. Poverty, the future, and evil. We reserve the single story for that which we do not fully understand: in the case of Homeland and Zero Dark Thirty, it is the unknowable face of evil. It forever stands on the other side, conveniently opposing all that we stand for. Follow link to read more…


4 thoughts on “My Feature in the Harvard Kennedy School Review

  1. Have you seen Homeland? Like actually watched it, both seasons thus far? Your article claims it’s based on “stereotypes” but never offers up these “stereotypes” and other places we can find them. There is a whole episode in the first season dedicated to humanizing Abu Nazir. When he returns in the second, Nazir and Carrie have a conversation where Nazir’s logic actually makes some sense. That’s what makes everything so ambiguous: we see a perfectly reasonable reason why Brody and Nazir would want to attack the CIA and the Vice President. As for Carrie, you claim that bi-polar disorder isn’t a “new” way to show ambiguity yet offer no “new” way of your own. If you look to the other big drama’s on television, the majority of the heroes/heroines are ambiguous because of some trauma them to make a series of bad decisions (a la Don Draper, Walter White, etc.). Carrie’s is a mental illness, she physically can’t help her ambiguity because it was something she was born with. Homeland is so far from the single-story stereotypes you’ve placed on it, which is why it’s revered so highly from both audiences and critics alike. Does it have weaker moments? Of course, but all art does. The weak moments give way so that greater moments can be had. All story relies on some form of “stereotype”, the greats rely much less and I’d say Homeland is one of those. You’re article reads as an assumption based on your belief that the masses couldn’t possibly like something that doesn’t follow stereotypes.

  2. David, I did watch the entirety of Homeland – both seasons, and some episodes more than once. And I did indeed offer specific examples of stereotypes – you even critiqued one of them (mental instability as a stereotypical trait associated with powerful women). Further, I gave specific film and literary examples of women who were portrayed as mentally unstable. So I’m confused as to why you critique me for not writing what I HAVE written. Did you read my entire article?

    Mental instability – in Carrie’s case, bipolar disorder – is simply not a new trait to be associated with women. The ‘hysterical female’ trope is so overdone in Western literature. Bitches be crazy, as they say. You wonder aloud why I don’t offer better alternatives – well, frankly because I don’t write your show. (I couldn’t help but notice that you’re a writing PA on Homeland.) It’s not really my task to write a better show on your behalf. However, if you’re wondering, then I do have some alternatives in mind. For instance, why can’t Carrie – like Brody – be tortured by moral ambiguity? In fact, isn’t that more interesting? Having a cat-and-mouse game played by two people who are evenly matched and equally ambiguous in their intentions? That, to me, would be fascinating. And it would be a new way of thinking about women in power.

    It is exactly the fact that Carrie “can’t help” her particular brand of ambiguity (mental illness) that makes her such a stereotypical female character – the smart woman who just can’t seem to get herself together. I love anti-heroines (consider Sarah Manning on Orphan Black), but Carrie just isn’t an anti-heroine. She isn’t plagued by moral questions, she is plagued by a stereotypical female’s problem. While I appreciate the exploration of mental illness at large, I have to question why female characters are so often paired with mental illness. It’s a tired story.

    Walter White and Don Draper have experienced trauma, but that trauma lives on in their lives not as explicit illness, but as a complex. THAT’s interesting. If Carrie were written to have had a traumatic childhood, and some of that past haunted her present, I’d be riveted. But she doesn’t have a complex. She isn’t even particularly complex at all.

    I discussed Nazir’s finale appearance in some detail, and I disagree with your interpretation. I don’t find him portrayed with any complexity – rather, he is portrayed with singularity. He is singularly terrifying, singularly devoted, singularly unquestioning of his own methods. That, paired with the fact that we know so little about him (save for a color-coded wall) – we don’t see him interact much with his own son, we don’t see him as capable of true compassion or at least some human impulse – makes him a completely different animal than Nick Brody. Brody is tortured, is torn, is motivated by an explicit and deep love. Brody, for all his anti-heroism, is also very much a human. Nazir shares none of Brody’s complexity.

    My article is not at all based on the belief that people can’t enjoy something without stereotypes – quite the opposite, I think people can absolutely cultivate a taste for complex and diverse representations of ideas and humans. But I think networks and showrunners play it safer than is necessary. This is evidenced by your statement: “All story relies on some form of ‘stereotype’.” So I think you confused my bottom line with your own – in fact, you’re the one who seems to believe that stories without stereotypes just don’t exist.

  3. I think the morally ambiguity you’re looking for would be the fact that Carrie can’t balance her knowledge of Brody’s guilt and her romantic feelings for him based in their similarities as damaged people. She carries on a relationship with him while also investigating him for terrorism. At the end of season 2, Saul has that great scene where Carrie tells him she might leave the agency and he says “it’s plain and simple, you cannot be with him”. It’s not that simple for Carrie because Brody is one of the few people that can relate on a deep level to her, she’s never looked for a real relationship because she never thought anyone could love her. Does she give up her life’s work to be with one of the only people that might be as broken as she is?

    I don’t think in the typical western trope of “bitches be crazy” that the assumption is an actual mental illness. The idea there is that women COULD actually help themselves and not be “crazy” which makes them “bitches”. The idea is a choice, not a physical impairment. (this of course is just my analysis of the stereotype, not my opinion of women). Carrie is most definitely not an anti-herione/hero in the vein of Orphan Black, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Ray Donovan, Dexter etc. but as you can see from my long list, that idea isn’t very novel. I think it’s more novel in the current wave of post-Soprano anti-heriosm to have someone who makes choices and has no way to judge whether they’re right or wrong, not knowing if it’s based in some form of truth or whether it’s part of a mental illness compulsion.

    Carrie has faced trauma in the past ie. her mother leaving and living with her father who has the same illness she has. She was also stationed in Iraq for an extended period of time which is one thing that her and Brody bonded over the first time they met outside of Langley. And you know, the trauma of living every day in a state of mental chaos. Battling whether to take medication that dulls her senses but keeps her calm or stay off, feeling alive but not being in control. I don’t see how you couldn’t consider her story particularly complex.

    Nazir’s complexity comes from seeing him as a father living at peace with his family and seeing the terror side of him. He’s not a sadistic evil murderous person constantly hell bent on bringing America down. We see him in his home, we see him turn Brody and truly love him. We see that he feels he’s been wronged by the CIA and he wants to exact revenge. It’s not that he doesn’t have one singular goal, its that he’s not the archetype of a psychopath terrorist who blindly hates America based on his faith. He’s not a stereotype terrorist, he’s a relatable one. His motivations aren’t complex but our feelings as an audience towards him are.

    I 100% do believe all stories have stereotypes. I think all writers understand this as a basis for writing. Story is the combination of characters and plot. At some point in every story, one of the two will rely on some form of stereotype. I think my point was that I don’t feel that Homeland “relies” on them. It doesn’t depend heavily on tropes that we all understand, in fact, it flips a lot of those on it’s head. You’re entitled to you opinion that Carrie isn’t a complex character and relies on the “crazy bitch” stereotype. I just think that’s a pretty brash oversimplification of her, in the same way as saying Walter White’s a “egomaniacal dick” or Don Draper’s a “whiny asshole.” All three of those oversimplifications are true, but they are in fact, oversimplifications. That’s why I asked if you’d seen the show, because there’s a lot more to it than Carrie “Crazy Cry-Face” Mathison.

    Yes, I just got brought on to work for the Writers this season and I hope you continue to watch, they’ve got some great stuff cooking up! All of this was written as a fan, not as an employee. I would have written a similar rebuttal if your essay had been about how Don Draper is just a simple sex-obsessed male stereotype.

    • Carrie experiences conflict and turmoil, but not MORAL ambiguity. Moral ambiguity involves an awareness of self-perpetuated wrong – knowing that one’s actions are unethical and still persisting. Carrie’s heart is always in the right place (even if her mind isn’t). Does her relationship with Brody jeopardize her investigation? Absolutely. But Carrie’s conflict comes from the unknowable nature of Brody’s intentions. She doesn’t commit any knowable wrongs – she just makes questionable decisions that grant Brody too much benefit of the doubt. She acts on instinct, and sometimes these instincts lead her astray. But Carrie’s conflicts are not about her own morality at all.

      I think the “bitches be crazy” Western trope is based on the idea that all women behave irrationally. While no explicit links are made to a singular disorder, the trope assumes that most if not all women are unstable. Homeland hasn’t avoided the trope by giving Carrie’s instability a name and a prescription. Specifying her disorder doesn’t change the fact that, of the very few substantial female characters represented (on television, in film and literature), here is yet another one whose very narrative revolves around her own mental instability.

      Further, the “bitches be crazy” trope is almost always about how a woman behaves in her romantic life. Double strike for Homeland, because Carrie’s bipolar disorder is never more conveniently apparent than when she’s torn asunder by her love for Brody. Yawn. Can’t she at least be unstable about something else?

      Of the shows you mentioned with an anti-hero premise, only one (Orphan Black) features a true anti-heroine. All the other anti-heroes are male. While our post-Sopranos world may have tired of the anti-hero narrative, let’s not forget that women haven’t had a chance to really soak up that narrative. How can we when we’re still so enamored with tired female tropes? Orphan Black is a wonderful accident as far as television goes – a show revolving around several strong female characters (all played by one lead), and none that subscribe to any overt stereotypes. Here is a show that truly explores female dimensionality. Sarah Manning is fierce but level-headed, passionate but not driven by romance. Cosima is nerdy, quirky and capable of a rich sexual life. Allison is high-strung and self-sufficient, yet falling apart at the seams where order fails. Each one unique, none of them cardboard or tired.

      Carrie’s story would be complex if it weren’t used to buffer the idea that she’s interesting only insofar as Brody continues to elude her (and our) grasp. Think about it: Every instance that Carrie’s bipolar disorder comes into play is really about how she handles her feelings for and/or about Brody. That’s not complexity – that’s narrative subservience.

      It’s interesting that you think Homeland has created in Nazir a relatable terrorist. I disagree. In comparison to Nick Brody, Nazir is portrayed as absolutely monstrous. We experience him only through Brody, and never as a man in his own right. If there is anything human about Nazir, then he is only human through what Brody tells us. The portrayal privileges the white American soldier’s terrorism as complex, and denigrates Nazir’s terrorism as mostly foreign (and only complex insofar as he is associated with Brody).

      I 100% disagree that all stories must have stereotypes. I’m not surprised that people feel this way – it explains why so much of television and these supposed “art” forms retread the same tired stories over and over again. Story and plot do not imply a need for stereotype – they imply a need for narrative, and these narratives can indeed be rich, unusual and counter-intuitive. You believe that Homeland subverts the very stereotypes it presents, but I have yet to truly see how and where. I agree that to call Walter White an egomaniacal dick and Don Draper a whiny asshole would absolutely undersell their richness as characters. These anti-heroes have gone so far beyond stereotype, and arm-wrestled their autonomies into depressing (and fascinating) destinies. I wish Carrie Mathison was as complex, I really do. I wish she was much more than an unstable, capable woman. But she is mostly just that. Her complexity is mostly limited to how she navigates this romance with Brody. And I’m just not impressed.

      Here’s to hoping that Season 3 brings all the greatness you promise.

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