Next season on Homeland, Carrie Mathison will no longer be working in the CIA. Who is happiest to hear this news? Apparently, the real CIA:
Good Riddance, Carrie Mathison http://t.co/6zNSBK89Eo
— CIA (@CIA) April 5, 2015
The CIA tweet references a Sunday New York Times op-ed by Maureen Dowd which declared that Carrie’s “real-life counterparts” were thrilled that Claire Danes’ character would be their counterpart no more:
The C.I.A. sisterhood is fed up with the flock of fictional C.I.A. women in movies and on TV who guzzle alcohol as they bed hop and drone drop, acting crazed and emotional, sleeping with terrorists and seducing assets.
Dowd quotes a number of women in the CIA, including Gina Bennett, who has been an analyst in the Counterterrorism Center for 25 years. Characters like Carrie “can leave a very distinct understanding of women at the agency — how we function, how we relate to men, how we engage in national security — that is pretty off.”
The agents’ personal anecdotes are fascinating: they describe briefing Condolezza Rice while in labor (“I’d tell her about the global jihad and then I would turn away and breathe”) and balancing post-9/11 anti-terror operations with parenting a teenager. But a central complaint about the lack of realism in a character like Carrie misses the point of a show like Homeland, even though this is a drama that prides itself on some degree of verisimilitude.
The issue raised here — that Carrie Mathison is trouble because she does not accurately portray a female CIA agent and she is especially bad because this portrayal is demeaning or otherwise unflattering — is the wrong one.
Carrie Mathison is bipolar, compulsively sexual, occasionally predatory. She had a brief, horrifying fantasy about drowning her own baby in a bathtub. She should get to be all of these complicated, unlikeable, screwed-up things. The problem for Carrie, and female characters on television more broadly, isn’t just misrepresentation. It’s under-representation.
If there were as many shows on TV right now about female CIA agents as there are about, say, male police officers, it wouldn’t matter so much that Carrie is an outlier. She wouldn’t be making everyone look bad; she would just be one story, in a sea of stories, about all different kinds of women.Carrie Mathison is held accountable in this disproportionate way because she’s standing in for everyone.
This is why you don’t hear male high school science teachers fuming about how Walter White is a meth-cooking sociopath. This is why male homicide detectives didn’t get themselves into a tizzy over the drunk, dishonest practices of Rust and Marty on True Detective. This is why men who worked in advertising in the 1960s aren’t up in arms about Don Draper’s adulterous, alcoholic ways. Even President Obama signed off on Frank Underwood, House of Cards’ psycho-killing Commander-in-Chief.
There have been female characters on television who represent their real-life counterparts in a way those real life women can admire and adore, like Friday Night Lights’s guidance counselor and principal, Tami Taylor, and Parks and Recreation’s civil servant, Leslie Knope. Then there are the women who are fantasy-fulfillers, uber-competent problem solvers who possess a power onscreen we can only dream of attaining in our lives: Empire’s Cookie Lyon clawing her way back to the throne, flexing muscle through lavish, designer wares; Scandal’s Olivia Pope fixing the unfixable with a cool “It’s handled.”
But set these exceptions aside and look at the bulk of professional women portrayed in film. You would be hard-pressed to find a single real woman who thinks her profession is depicted accurately or fairly in Hollywood.
Do female doctors like the way their on-screen counterparts behave, spending as much of their time on Grey’s Anatomy concerned with romantic, instead of medical, matters of the heart? Do CIA agents think female journalists are fond of the way we’re depicted on TV? Many were loudly displeased at the way Zoe Barnes and even her older, supposedly more legit colleague Janine Skorsky, swapped sex for scoops on House of Cards. (Surely women in politics have plenty to complain about regarding the way House of Cards makes nearly everyone in government look salacious, monstrous, or both.) The many, many crimes against female reporters committed by The Newsroom, including the inability of a supposedly brilliant war correspondent to understand the function of a “reply all” button in an email, did not go unnoticed, either.
This, all before we even get into the ubiquity of some female professionals all over the prestige drama dial — the countless strippers-as-window-dressing, escorts-as-plot-devices, aspiring actresses, waitresses — who, of course, show up only to be naked and/or have sex with our dark, troubled male protagonist.
Maybe a better question than “why are so many female characters sexualized when so many male characters aren’t?” is “why do we focus on the portrayal of women?” Why do we rarely, if ever, hear criticism of this variety when we talk about male characters on TV?
This outcry always seems to center on female characters in part because, when changing a real woman into a ready-for-prime-time lady, it’s her sexuality that gets heightened. Instant female character: just add sex! This is also the case for male characters, though the usual double standards concerning nudity and repercussions apply.
The bigger issue, though, is that the stakes are higher for women. Men are already given the benefit of the doubt that they are complicated, three-dimensional people who do not exist in public solely for the benefit of others. There is no danger that a person will go through life hearing only one man’s story. Academic life, easily through the twelfth grade and possibly forever, is just a bunch of men’s stories. But women are so rarely given that storytelling platform, and women are fighting against preconceived notions that hypersexualized characters only reinforce.
Still, it’s just a mistake to want professionals on TV, male or female, to be some idealized-yet-accurate portrayal of who you know you and your colleagues are. One agent told Dowd, “I wish they wouldn’t use centerfold models in tight clothes” to play women in the CIA. Yes, it’s frustrating that female characters, even those who are ostensibly gearing up to do active, dangerous jobs, get the high-heels-catsuit treatment. But it actually makes no sense here, if we’re talking about Carrie Mathison, who wears a utilitarian pantsuit in almost every single scene.
There are real consequences to the actions of these fake people: as The New Republic wrote around the time of the House of Cards first season: “the reporter-seductress stereotype persists, in part because some men in Washington refuse to relinquish it.” But this problem, wherein real men presume to know things about real women due to how fictional women behave, is much bigger than Homeland.