Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Homeland, Domesticity and War: Core Post 1 - Emma Ben Ayoun

Reading Beatriz Colomina’s sharp assessment of the “new obscured condition of warfare” (10), written in 1991, I cannot help but be struck by the prescience of her article and the continuing relevance of the historical examples she uses to explore the reconfigurations of interiority and exteriority in America, the political implications of these shifting concepts, and their unique relationship to (the) television. In her investigation of archaic architectures and home appliances Colomina draws attention to the ways in which television “not only brings the...front line into our living rooms, it also sends the private into the public domain” (19).

Homeland, which was first broadcast on Showtime in 2011, in many ways literalizes the notion of “domesticity at war” - the war has been brought home twice over (perhaps even three times): it, like Carrie and Brody, has returned (from a Middle East painted in the broadest of strokes, kept at a safe distance even when it is being displayed onscreen)  to America, to the home front; surveillance is now in effect within the confines of Brody’s suburban family home, which is equally the site of a sort of twisted “war of the sexes”; and Carrie’s home is itself a kind of war zone, the site of her own self-destructive tendencies and inner conflicts, but most importantly a bunker, a space that she transforms into a center for covert operations (this does not, interestingly, increase the privacy or secrecy of her living space but instead seems to bring it into the realm of the public, as her colleagues appear to enter and exit at will, even when she is not home).

Colomina argues that “war today speaks about the difficulty of establishing the limits of domestic space” (4), and I would suggest that this is particularly true to Homeland, which goes beyond the simple tropes of a spy/traitor narrative and instead collapses the distinctions between inside and outside by making war deeply personal - that is, by making a directly causal and literal, rather than analogous or metaphoric, connection between personal behaviors in domestic space and the political/military activities of America.

Carrie’s own emotional instability, tucked away in her home (even though she lives alone, she hides her pills, already anticipating the investigation to come), has profound consequences, the show tells us, not only for Brody but for the fate of the country. She is reminded over and over throughout the episode that she has crossed a line, that she does not know how to respect boundaries; she cannot see where the personal ends and the political begins (or vice versa), and this will be the central conflict that spurs the rest of the season, as her spying on Brody gives way to sexual obsession. Equally, Brody’s own violent assault on his wife would appear, in the pilot episode, to be somehow predicated both on his trauma as a prisoner of war and on his own domestic spying: seeing in, through the picture window, and witnessing the exchange between his wife and her lover. Colomina writes that “the picture window speaks about control and transparency, but above all, at issue is the commodification of the visual field” (13). While she is referring in this instance to the construction of the view out, to the exterior, I would argue that where Homeland is concerned, it is the view in through so many screens - not just picture windows and surveillance cameras but even the broadcast news footage that gives Carrie the clue she needs to justify her invasion of Brody’s privacy - that is being controlled, monitored, and commodified. And in spite of the fact that Carrie in so many ways reinforces a very particular hegemony - she is white, she (the show would have us believe) is motivated by a love of America and of freedom so intense it has completely overtaken her - she is also a woman, a woman whose own image is intensely commodified in our viewing of her, so regularly in moments of intense privacy and vulnerability (as well as sexuality). And in doing so, I believe Homeland forecloses the possibility of any real critique of the surveillance state it sets up, diminishes and reduces it by enacting the same forms of control and commodification over Carrie as she, by extension, does to others. As a final case in point, here is the Season 4 poster for the show:

I, like many others, took offense to this image (as well as to the entire show, though I admit I have seen only the first season), but I think it is an interesting display of the series’ politics of seeing, domesticity and war: in spite of what it may want us to think, Homeland reveals itself here as guilty of using women as symbols, as bearers not only of the gaze but of war itself. I will stop here for now, but I would love to hear other people’s readings of this poster, which I think displays a number of things about the racial and gendered presumptions of this show as well as the way we see (our) war in America today.


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  2. Emma, I love your post! I was thinking about a lot of the same ideas of interior and exterior space in Homeland and how war was brought in from the public and professional arena into the intimate spaces of the characters' homes, even infiltrating their bedrooms and medicine cabinets. I wanted to ask more about your assessment of the show's "control and commodification" of Carrie -- did you see that as a function of the camera itself or a consequence of the storyline? Did you feel the camera's surveillance of Carrie crossed narrative boundaries? In those very personal moments that Carrie so often displays (Danes/Carrie has been sort of vilified in the media for her "ugly crying"), how does the camera take advantage of Carrie's image and identity as a woman? I totally agree that the show monitors and uses its characters in the exact way they use one another; however, since no one on the show is free from the camera's surveillance, how would you argue that our intimate look at Carrie is particularly problematic?

    The Season 4 poster is definitely interesting -- in the way it turns Homeland into a Gothic fairy tale, with Danes as Red Riding Hood, the way it marginalizes and homogenizes all other identities but the (white, blonde) main character's, and especially in the way no one else but Carrie has the power to look back at the camera. She is seen, but she also sees. This return of the gaze may afford Carrie some power, but the fact still remains that she's marked as a target and an object to be watched in the poster's scenario.