How 'Homeland' Undercuts Real Women in Government

Homeland, Veep, and other programs cast women in politics as vacuous, unprofessional, and overambitious.

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Showtime

I'm probably one of the few people who can't stand the show Homeland. It's one of President Obama's favorite shows, after all. And sure, the central plot is gripping. Brody, the villain, is a U.S. marine and former prisoner-of-war-secretly-turned-terrorist-now-working-for-the-CIA. In the first season, the only person who suspected that Brody was a bad guy was CIA Operative Carrie Mathison. So what does our heroine do? Sleep with Brody, fall in love with him, tell him the CIA is onto him—then have a nervous breakdown. Oh, and she puts her team in danger on a regular basis and makes passes at her boss.

Watching the debacle unfold, I went from enjoying the show to being completely and utterly annoyed with it. I'm a woman who has worked in and around the US national security establishment for some time—from military bases in Community Support Centers to the halls of the Pentagon to the battlefields of Afghanistan. I was therefore appalled that the scriptwriters made such amateur-hour mistakes. Making passes at the boss is a bad idea, no matter what your profession. Taking classified materials home and displaying them on your wall is also surely up there on any "top ten" don't-do list in the intelligence community. And no woman I know (as a matter of fact, no one I know) in the national security community would ever intentionally compromise state secrets. Especially not to someone being investigated for orchestrating a terrorist plot in the United States. Not only is it illegal and immoral, it is fundamentally unprofessional.

What's made worse by these faux pas: the screenwriters made these moves deliberately. Howard Gordon, commenting to Newsweek about how they approached developing their heroine, said, "Who's a character no one believes, like Chicken Little?' And because the CIA has been a boys' club for such a long time, part of that was her gender. We exploited the sexism." Exploited—or exacerbated? She's a Chicken Little that digs herself into deeper holes. I'm not sure anyone who makes the stupid mistakes Carrie does would be a trusted authority.

Further: This is an age where we have extremely powerful women in international politics and national security: Hillary Clinton, Christine Lagarde, Condoleezza Rice are but a few examples. Women not being taken seriously? I think anyone who has worked with these women would beg to differ.

All of this makes the critical acclaim for the series that much more interesting. Hank Steuver of the Washington Post notes in his review, "What makes Homeland rise above other post-9/11 dramas is Danes' stellar performance as Carrie—easily this season's strongest female character." But Carrie is an unprofessional lunatic (not, by the way, due to her bipolarity) that puts peoples' lives in danger. If that's the bar for being a strong female character, it's set pretty low.

By contrast, men in similar roles are either superhuman, or their flaws contribute to their overall likeability. Or both. On the one end, we have Harrison Ford's Jack Ryan: Tom Clancy's political version of Superman, who overcomes national security challenges with his beautiful family by his side. Towards the middle of the spectrum we have Bob Russell, the Vice President in The West Wing couldn't be more different than Selena Meyer in Veep. Rather than clawing for any opportunity for notoriety, he proves himself a savvy member of the Executive Branch. On the other end of the spectrum we have Jack Bauer in 24. He tortures people. Yet he's still a likeable character. To my knowledge, none of them hit on the boss.

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Kathleen J. McInnis served as a Pentagon strategist from 2006 to 2009.

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