Laura Mike received her bachelor degree in English Studies from Szeged University in 2017. She is currently enrolled in the MA program of the Szeged University, specializing in Interdisciplinary Cultural Studies. Her research interests include early modern theatre and violence, adaptations, trauma theory, war of images, commodification of violence in early modern and post-modern culture. Email:
Abstract: The purpose of this essay is to show how the trauma of 9/11 and the “war on terror” launched in its wake registers itself in popular culture, through the award-winning Showtime series, Homeland. The two most important aspects I am going to investigate are: 1. the character of the bipolar female protagonist and 2. the debunking of the Islam equals to terrorism myth. In the character of Carrie Matthison the show subverts the stereotypical figure of the invincible white male CIA agent. Additionally, her bipolar disorders render her vulnerable in the most acute situations, thus creating extra suspense in the film. Carrie’s person is the perfect metaphor for after 9/11 US society; the other controversial issue is the alleged Islamophobia of the show. The analysis shows how Homeland represents Muslim religion in a sensitive way, not lending itself to easy stereotyping but allowing for a diversity of representation, thus challenging prejudiced thinking. All these insights are received by understanding the workings of the National Security State within the theoretical frameworks of Jacques Derrida’s hospitality and Slavoj Žižek’s different modes of violence.
Keywords: Islamophobia, film, war on terror, bipolarity, female CIA agent, subjective violence, objective violence, hospitality, symbolic suicide
The purpose of this paper is to reflect on the popular media response to 9/11 through the lens of the award-winning Showtime series, Homeland (2011-2018, dir. Alex Gansa). I have chosen this production for analysis because of the relatively novel handling of the topic, because of the intriguing bipolar female protagonist who blots out every earlier stereotype of the invincible white male CIA agent but also because of the peculiar fact that it was reportedly Barack Obama’s favourite TV show—something that invited much scholarly speculation on the intertwined nature of the National Security State and the popular representations of its methods.
The different modes of violence elucidated by Slavoj Žižek are central to the show as they sustain and extend each other’s effect throughout all the seven seasons. Jacques Derrida’s concepts of “symbolic suicide” (Borradori) as well as his notion of “hospitality” (Derrida 2000) can be also effortlessly pointed out in the episodes. Reflecting on James Castonguay’s criticism (Castonguay) of the show as a promoter of the security state with all its violations on civil rights is an important additional feature in the paper. Together with the theoretical underpinning of the ambivalent issues taken up by Homeland, two outstanding topics are worth examining in the narrative: the alleged Islamophobia (Rosenberg) of the series which will be refuted by examples, and the mental disorder of Matthison, the main protagonist, raising the eyebrows of actual CIA agents (Swaine 2013) that nevertheless constitute a very important layer of the deliberately built-in contradictions of the show.
First of all, one has to take a closer look into the critiques claiming that Homeland “rearticulates, reinforces, and ultimately amplifies the familiar representation of the militant Muslim terrorist” (Castonguay 143). Even Castonguay allows that not all the Muslims are terrorists in the series, but he fails to see beyond his assertion. First of all, there are Muslim characters, helping the CIA’s work risking their own lives, such as in season four, the man in the shop who aids Saul when he manages to flee from the Talibans, or the wife of the Hezbollah leader who gives intel on Abu Nazir in season two, or Colonel Aasar Khan, ISI’s counterterrorism chief, who helped Carrie when she was poisoned by the Pakistani intelligence, or Aayan’s ex-girlfriend in season four, who helps Quinn although it puts her into serious danger. And the list is not exhaustive. There are many more Muslim characters in the show who are not only anti-terrorists, but outright victims of the radical wing of Islam, thus facilitating alternative readings and acknowledging the variation within the Muslim community. What Castonguay could not have known was, that in the last season the focus shifts from Muslim terrorists to the arch-enemy of the United States, Russians.
Besides depicting non-radical Muslims in Homeland, the filmmakers also paid attention to the sensitive representation of religion. Brody’s conversion to Islam could be explained with the Stockholm syndrome; nevertheless, it does not exclusively mean the prerequisite of him being a terrorist as Castonguey oversimplifies it. His prayers are depicted with dignity and earnestness, and he keeps on practicing the morning prayer in the last CIA mission as well, when there is no doubt any more, whose side he is on. The filmmakers possibly have tried to suggest the importance of religion in processing trauma, its spiritual hold on believers, the loss of which completely disintegrates the individual. This is a phenomenon hardly understood by today’s secular intellectual (Pocock qtd. in Péter). Another excellent example on the distinction of terrorism and Islam is when Brody is in Venezuela and he tries to reach out for the local Muslim community. He is warmly welcome by the local Imam, up until the point when they find out that he is a terrorist. On learning this fact, they immediately intend to give him over to the police. (Actually, Brody becomes a heroin addict after his betrayal by the local Imam). For the audience, in this context, it becomes clear that Islam cannot be perceived as equal with terrorism. Another dignified depiction of the Islam is Abu Nazir’s funeral, who is buried at sea after his rites of funeral were performed by a US army Muslim chaplain. As Yair Rosenberg puts it in The Guardian: “the drama challenges, rather than affirms, religious and ethnic stereotypes” (Rosenberg).
Another interesting topic worth discussing is the unfolding of different modes of violence in the series. Žižek in his seminal work distinguishes two types of violence: subjective violence, that is experienced against a non-violent “0” level, such as torture, war, aggression and objective violence, that is invisible, but it ensures the smooth going of our politico-economic system. In a TV show on counterterrorism it is not at all surprising that subjective violence is present, but the forms of objective violence are not less intense in Homeland. By placing a bipolar, female protagonist in the crosshairs, the producers unsettle the main character’s position, deliberately showing her vulnerable, thus creating intensified suspense in the drama. Her mental illness renders her helpless, at the mercies of the objective violence of the health care system and her colleagues. By forcefully removing her from her office at the end of the first season, and putting her into a mental institution, his boss and family are keeping up the “order” of the world by objective violence. But watching Carrie undergoing shock therapy the images suggest coercion and trauma, even if we know, that the treatment is necessary in her case. The fact of Matthison’s illness is later repeatedly used against her in the form of symbolic violence, through the workings of language, with the purpose of humiliation or discrediting. The other forms of objective violence, the hierarchical and clandestine working manoeuvres of the Agency, or the Security State in the later seasons can be understood as somewhere in-between the two violence of Žižek, because with the emergence of the “security state” more and more democratic rights are violated, slowly sliding into a constant state of subjective violence. A very good example for the symbolic violence in language is the character of Brett O’Keefe, the right-wing media personality in season seven. He is waging a verbal war against the newly elected president in his program, but it turns into real when his overtly exhausted followers, equipped with guns, are caught in a gunfight with the FBI. Once the FBI agent is gunned down by the farmers, revenge replaces negotiation. This scene is one excellent example of how easily symbolic violence can be turned into physical violence. Season seven as such brings the war on terror very close to the homeland, with the imminent danger of a civil war.
As for Matthison’s bipolarity, those from the real agency watching Homeland expressed their disappointment with the main hero’s weakness. “Why are they allowing someone with a severe mental illness to handle top-secret information and take a lead on such a sensitive case?” (Swaine). While the objection is understandable from a professional point of view, it clearly misses one important point. Homeland is the artistic representation of the war on terror, and as such, it has a complex web of meanings. As “One of Homeland’s director, Michael Cuesta makes the point succinctly, claiming that Carrie’s bipolar disorder is nothing less than a metaphor for the U.S. …” (Lacey and Page 3). Carrie’s behaviour alternates between fits of aggression and frightened, paranoid withdrawal, both conditions describing the after 9/11 American psyche (Lacey and Page 3). Carrie’s instability is also designated, in my view, to create justification for her for persistently falling in the pitfalls of sleeping with the enemy, an otherwise forgivable method in male heroes (just think of the earliest versions of James Bond). She is repeatedly “caught in the act” or under surveillance and these affairs are shown in the production as humiliating accidents, seriously damaging her professional reputation and career. As a matter of fact, Saul commits the very same mistake in season seven, when she gets entangled in a love relationship with a Russian double agent, and he is deeply concerned and resentful about it. Thus, the distribution of sexual transgressions committed by the main characters becomes somewhat balanced in the latest seasons. Nevertheless, Carrie’s extreme investigation methods always yield their results and the agent in her “superpower disorder” (Castonguay) has hunches that help in eliminating the terrorist threat in most cases.
Another very important trajectory in Homeland is the central question of “hospitability” (Derrida quoted in Borradori). True hospitality as such is impossible, in Derrida’s system of thought, because in order to practice perfect altruism, one must give his/her own interests and claim of ownership up, and at the very moment when the guests take over the house, the host loses his control and privileges, thus becoming unable to practice hospitability (Derrida). In this sense, hospitality exists at the intersection of practices of tolerance and practices of control or exclusion. The dual workings of this Derridean concept can be found everywhere in Homeland both at state level and at the interpersonal level as well. The most salient example can be found in season five, when the Düring Foundation comes into the focus of attention, with its most aggressive activist, Laura Sutton. The Foundation is an organization working for the rights of the refugees/immigrants in Berlin, but also undertaking foreign missions, for example when Düring decides to visit a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon. The Foundation’s activity entails acts of tolerance and support towards the Muslim groups living in Berlin. Sutton goes at great lengths to protect a suspect, who allegedly knows about the upcoming terrorist attack on Berlin. The CIA, joining forces with the German Intelligence, on the other hand represents the other side of hospitality, meting out the limitations of this good will, exercising control and power over those in question. (Saul detains the suspect, who commits suicide in his despair.) The other good example of the two-foldedness of “hospitality” would be in the sixth season where Carrie runs a foundation, aiding Muslims living in the United States. It is a benevolent humanitarian effort, probably supported by applicable US laws, but it has to face the contradictory behaviour of its clients (the young Muslim boy does not find it problematic if he posts photos of dead US soldiers online) and it turns out that behind the scenes the FBI has hostile (as opposed to hospitable) operations, deliberately trying to frame members of the Muslim community, thus unofficially controlling them, and manipulating truth. Hospitality cannot exist without control and exclusion. The other great example is Carrie and the way she conducts her problematic love-affairs. Carrie’s relationship with Brody is very ambiguous: she seemingly loves him and supports him, but without forgetting her commitment to her country and the Agency: She readily sends Brody into sure death with the mission of dethroning a dictator, with no actual extraction plans. The case of Aayan is even worse, because the affair with the young boy is pure manipulation, for the benefits of the mission, and Matthison knows all the way that Aayan will possibly become a “collateral damage” sooner or later. Her relationships are clearly those of hostile-hospitability cases, and it only aggravates through each seasons. Dante, who turns out to be a double agent, in one minute enjoys the benefits of Carrie’s sexual desire, and in the next one gets almost lethally poisoned by the CIA. The oscillation between acceptance and exclusion (hospitability-hostility) is a fundamental feature of the show, creating an atmosphere of secrecy and tension. As for secrecy—as Melley puts it—the cinematic melodrama has become the space, where public debate on the contradictions of democratic security state could gain ground. In the aftermath of 9/11 “The US Security State generates 10 trillion pages of secret documents per year …a matter that … many members of the intelligence community have repeatedly called dysfunctional and profoundly worrying.” (Melley 63).
The notion that there are “the expendable lives” seems so natural and unquestionable in Homeland that it really makes one think if the series is not a “complicit validation of these post 9/11 insecurities that in turn contributes to the public acceptance of … increasing homeland security at the expense of individual rights”, the way some critiques of the show see it (Castonguay 140). In this vein, the concept of “symbolic suicide” (Derrida) is emphatically represented in the production, where the paranoid fear of an inside enemy (who even wants to depose the president, season six and seven) forces the security state to resort to the brutal violation of civil and human rights of its own citizens to eliminate danger (real or imagined). It is enough to think of the unauthorized surveillance systems, not to mention the manipulation of the news, a subject matter widely researched in media and political studies, to see the relevance of “symbolic suicide.”
In conclusion, while participating in the public debate of security state versus civil rights, Homeland challenges earlier stereotypes of the Muslim community’s intertwined nature with terrorism. By holding up “regular” people, unconnected or even victimized by the radical Islam, the production attempts to contribute to a more nuanced view of the much contested picture of the Muslim after 9/11. The religious representations of the Islam are not tainted with direct references to acts of terrorism, although one of the main characters is a white man, converted to Islam, who later turns out to be a terrorist. By unsettling the main female hero’s mental condition, Homeland not only creates extra tension in the drama, but also provides justification for her morally questionable decisions, those ones that usually go without questioning in the case of male agents (e.g. ‘sleeping with the enemy’). The most ardent critics of the show are seemingly some of the real CIA agents, who found it preposterous to depict the Agency as such by allowing someone with mental illness to handle sensitive cases. But they surely forget about the peculiar representational space of art as such: art is a possible world and not reality. Nevertheless, Carrie’s bipolarity serves as a powerful metaphor of the paranoia of the American society after 9/11. The TV series can also be viewed as an advertisement for the gargantuan military budget of the United States, but at the same time its questions to the dangers of the security state are valid and universal. The series enjoys increasing popularity both in Europe and the United States and the reason is simple, as one Hungarian blogger puts it: “Paranoia is good business” (Nuus).
- Castonguay, James. 2015. “Fictions of Terror: Complexity, Complicity and Insecurity in Homeland.” Cinema Journal. 54.2: 139-145.
- Borradori, Giovanna. 2003. “Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides. A Dialogue with Jacques Derrida.” In Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Derrida, Jacques. “Hospitality.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://www.iep.utm.edu/derrida/#SH7b
- Gansa, Alex. dir. 2011-2018. Homeland. Based on Prisoners of War by Gideon Raff. Showtime.
- Lacey, Stephen and Page Derek, eds. 2015. “The ‘War on Terror’: Post-9/11 Television Drama, Docudrama and Documentary.” Cardiff: University of Wales Press.
- Melley, Timothy. 2014. “Covert Spectacles and the Contradictions of the Democratic Security State.” Storyworlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies 6.1
- Nuus. 2018. „A Homeland az a sorozat, ami évadról-évadra egyre csak jobb lesz.” https://nuus.hu/tv/sorozatok/0124/homeland-az-sorozat-ami-evadrol-evadra-egyre-csak-jobb-lesz/
- Péter, Róbert. 2010. “The Enlightenment(s) and Christianity/ies: Foe(s) or Fellow(s)?” In Tibor Porció, Ed. The Study of Religion at Szeged. Szeged: JatePress, 75-85.
- Rosenberg, Yair. “Homeland is not Islamophobic despite of what some critics claim.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/dec/24/homeland-not-islamophobic
- Swaine, John. “Homeland is nothing like real intelligence work say CIA employees.” TheTelegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/10357816/Homeland-nothing-like-real-intelligence-work-say-CIA-employees.html
- Žižek, Slavoj. 2008. Violence. Six Sideway Reflections. New York: Picador.