Women, mental illness, and technology

24 Nov

The most obvious difference between 24 and Homeland is its hero and the way they are represented. In addition to the fact that Jack Bauer was a man and Carrie Mathison is a woman, there’s also the issue of how each is represented, and what that means for our interpretation of gender relations, mental illness, and the current political climate. In a November 2011 New Yorker article which argues that Homeland acts as a kind of apology for 24, Emily Nussbaum posits 24 as a carrier for the idea that “invulnerability is the mark of heroism.” (The article has other interesting tidbits, like the fact that 24 and Homeland share the same writers, and the fact that Homeland is based on an Israeli TV show, but beware of major Homeland spoilers starting in the fourth paragraph).

The vulnerability of Carrie represents the country’s vulnerability, as well. Whereas directly post-9/11 policies could be characterized as aggressive and oversimplified, our current stance in the War on Terror is one in which we’re unsure about the actions we’ve taken, the efficacy of our policies, and what the road out of Iraq and Afghanistan will look like. Because Homeland is coming from a similar psychology as 24, the shows may not be as different as they seem, but actually put forward different characterizations because of the difference in historical perception rather than an overall different perception.

Could a character like Carrie Mathison have made for a popular anti-terrorism show in the early aughts? Probably not. However, to what extent does this mean that Homeland is a more “progressive” show than 24? While its characters are certainly more nuanced than those in 24, women have long been associated with mental illness. From diagnoses of hysteria to popular characterizations of women as “emotional” and “crazy”, women are overwhelmingly more associated with mental illness than men are. To a large extent, then, the most interesting and seemingly new aspect of the show actually comes from a long-established trope.

However, the representation of Carrie Mathison as a hero, albeit a vulnerable one, shows that Homeland’s writers have grown up a bit since their work on 24. While her character is not terribly original, the use of her character in the show, and the way in which her illness and brilliance are brought up is what makes Homeland interesting. Especially interesting in the relationship of Carrie’s illness and brilliance is how this tension is visualized. This frequently happens through the use of technology.

Her interactions with media (at least in the form of televisions) either undo or redeem her; they act as extensions of her own actions and her own shortcomings. They are, in a way, her illness and brilliance made manifest. In the pilot episode, Carrie’s illegal surveillance, her visualized suspicion of Sergeant Brody, get her in trouble with her colleague and friend Saul Berenson. However, in the episode’s ending scenes, Carrie has an epiphany in a bar after watching news footage of Sergeant Brody, as well as a performing jazz quartet. Just as the television surveillance screens in her apartment both represented her illness and nearly landed her in prison, her interaction with a different set of television screens redeemed her, and also represented the brilliance at odds with her more difficult traits.

Contrary to 24, technology doesn’t take the place of characters in propelling the plot, but rather helps us visualize the psychology of Homeland’s characters. Carrie’s character allows for more complicated representations and more complicated uses of technology in the show.

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