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Shortchanging a Good Argument, Homeland Edition

By Taylor Marvin

This piece does NOT contain Homeland spoilers.

Columbia professor Joseph Massad has a long critique of Islamophobia and racism in the popular terrorism drama Homeland. Massad’s critique is blistering [Warning: Massad’s piece contains major unmarked Homeland spoilers. Seriously: if you want to watch the show don’t read it.]:

“If in the 1970s, American children were taught on the American children’s TV program ‘Sesame Street’ that the word ‘danger’ connotes ‘Arabs’ by showing a drawing of an Arab with a headdress next to the word, a more recent and very popular American program titled ‘Homeland’ hardly deviates from this formula.”

President Obama’s stated he enjoys the show. Massad also condemns this support, remarking “that American shows are now equal-opportunity offenders in their racism against internal and external others is hardly news, but that the first black American president is a fan of them should be.”

I haven’t seen Homeland, and won’t get into Massad’s critique of the show (though remarks highlighting Homeland’s ignorance of Arab culture seem to be widespread, as are attacks on the show’s understanding of counter-terrorism and foreign and military policy). But his general critique of America’s systematic Islamophobia and pop culture’s pervasive othering of characters of Middle Eastern descent is correct. “American media racism,” Massad writes, “is… just a branch of a larger American racism and racialism on which much of American culture, history, and national identity is based.” This is certainly true. Throughout American media characters of Middle Eastern descent are depicted as both fundamentally separate from the constructed American identity, and as a threat to it (though some shows, notably the comedy Community, challenge this perception).

This practice of media othering extends to other ethnicities. While the othering of ethically East Asian characters is typically presented as less threatening as those of Middle Eastern descent, it is pervasive.  As I argued last year, ethically East Asian characters are rarely presented as existing beyond their ethnicity: “Unlike African American or Hispanic characters, when TV shows feature Asian American actors their ethnicity usually plays an integral part in the way their character is presented.”

While I cannot judge his critique of Homeland, Massad is right to note that Islamophobia and racial othering of Middle Eastern characters remains pervasive in American media. But Massad’s piece does little to advance this argument, as it’s filled with exaggerated claims that significantly damage his credibility. Notably, Massad writes:

“While [Homeland’s] plot resembles that of the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate, and the anxiety about the enemy within, the drone attacks that kill hundreds of innocent children have been a real Obama specialty for years, extending from Pakistan to Afghanistan and Yemen. In that, perhaps Obama does see the show as something he can identify with personally.”

So, because the Obama administration utilizes drone strikes as a counterterrorism strategy he identifies with a 21st century retelling of The Manchurian Candidate? Laying aside Massad’s claim to know Obama’s mind, this hardly makes sense.

Worse is Massad’s discussion of Homeland actor Morena Baccarin:

“[Lead character Brody’s] wife is played by the Brazilian actress Morena Baccarin who looks suspiciously brown, but nonetheless is presented as white! Baccarin’s roles on previous TV shows have mostly been in science fiction, presumably due to her ‘alien’ looks.”

This is… silly, even leaving aside Massad’s bizarre assertion that Baccarin looks “suspiciously brown” in Homeland. Baccarin’s first big role was Firefly, the infamously cancelled sci fi Western created by Joss Whedon. Massad’s critique shows that he certainly hasn’t watched Firefly. First, Massad assumes that Baccarin was cast in Firefly because of her “alien” ethnicity, but fails to mention that Baccarin doesn’t play an alien character. Presuming that she was cast because of her Brazilian heritage is simply an invented argument. Arguing that Baccarin’s casting indicates she is viewed as an alien other by mainstream American society makes no sense. Secondly, if Massad wants to argue that non-whites are cast in science fiction because of their “alienness” Firefly is a uniquely bad show to highlight.With it strong Western themes and visual tropes Firefly is an almost jingoistic celebration of a quintessentially American identity  even five centuries in the future; notably, Whedon has remarked that the show was inspired by the experience of ex-Confederates in the post-Civil War American West. Casting Baccarin in such a narrative suggests the opposite of Massad’s argument.

America, in space. “Alien looks” on the left.

As the the love interest of the shows faux-Confederate lead, Baccarin’s character is deeply tied to Firefly’s implicit celebration of American libertarian and expansionistic mythology; despite her character’s othered profession (a socially respected prostitute), “alien” she’s certainly not. There are numerous reasons to criticize Firefly’s racial politics — I personally find the show racist, for describing a future society amicably dominated by American and Chinese descendants yet failing to cast a single ethnically East Asian character — but othering Baccarin as an alien isn’t one of them.

Similarly, in Baccarin’s other major pre-Homeland starring role, the science fiction remake V, she plays the role of an alien villain. However, the show gives Baccarin’s character a very short haircut uncommon among American women — clearly, the producers are not relying on Baccarin’s Brazilian heritage to other her character! Also: alien eyes.

Again, I do not have a problem with Massad’s overall argument, and am not in a position to remark on Homeland. But finding “‘alien’ looks” in Morena Baccarin is inventing a bias that just isn’t there, and is a lazy argument.

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