About a month ago, Showtime released a new poster for the fourth season of Homeland, which premieres in October. I didn’t see the poster until a few nights ago displayed as a subway platform advertisement. The poster displays a red-hooded, distressed Carrie (Claire Danes) looking lost in a sea of grey, burqa-clad women. I’m shocked that culture commentary websites haven’t picked up on it.
The poster is eye-catching and visually impressive. There’s a fairytale aspect to it– the dazzled, naive Little Red Riding Hood trying to find her way through murky, dangerous forests. Carrie looks like an innocent and vulnerable player in a dark and shadowy game, and she has bitten off more than she can chew. Even though anyone who watches the show, or even saw the trailer, knows that Carrie is hardly an innocent player in the game of international intelligence, the ad is a thrilling and effective visual, especially for those who care about Carrie and her disrupted future.
Showtime’s marketing has never portrayed the show’s Middle Eastern dealings. Past season posters have focused more on the turbulent relationship between Carrie and Brody, the recovered veteran with shady ties to his captors. I don’t think the posters have ever portrayed a Middle Eastern character, even though the Middle East is central to the show’s plot. With Brody out of the picture at this point in the series, the marketing has clearly chosen to put its locale front and center, both in the poster and in the plot, as the trailer shows.
Given that so much of the show’s greatness (at least in the early seasons) has been in putting a human face on the effects of war, it’s a sad failure of this poster to dehumanize the women Carrie is surrounded with. True, Middle Eastern women wearing a burqa are consequentially faceless and covered in head to toe. But, each one of them looks exactly the same. They are just landscape to Carrie’s illuminating figure. They are not portrayed as distinct human beings but rather an obscure background. This has never been the way that past posters have portrayed their white, American characters. Carrie, Saul, Brody and even minor characters like other CIA agents and family members have always been distinct parts of their respective advertisements. They stand out from their background. The burqa-wearing women in this photo could easily be replaced by something non-human like trees or bazaar stands and have the same effect of making Carrie look lost and vulnerable in her surroundings.
Now, let’s take the implications of this dehumanizing aspect. First of all, burqas are usually the first thing people mention when discussing feminism/women’s rights in the third world. It used to be a divisive issue, but most feminist scholars with an interest in the third world would now say that it is unjust and naive to decry the evils of the burqa, which for Muslim women has great religious significance. Many of them freely wear it with pride, and to attack it as a sign of oppression is to approach it from a narrow Western, privileged frame of mind with no real knowledge of Middle Eastern practices or Middle Eastern women’s cultural notions. To look at a woman wearing a burqa and see her as an oppressed woman without knowing about her background and her choices is to ignorantly judge her based on your own cultural experiences and not hers. And to look at a woman wearing a burqa and see a frightening, mysterious, or threatening individual is racism on a whole ‘nuther level.
Unfortunately, this Homeland poster does both. It places these shadowy women in Carrie’s background perhaps as a sign that Carrie has come to help them. Bright, white, and illuminating Carrie looks like the Western savior, like the young beautiful white teacher about to set all her minority students straight with her compassion and lofty ideas. It’s dangerous when a minority group is presented as a group to be pitied or saved by a more civilized, knowledgeable party (often the very same civilized party that oppressed them in the first place).
That’s one interpretation. The other is that the shadowy women are there to set up a mysterious, threatening background to Carrie’s illuminating, heroic presence. They are like the dark woods to Carrie’s Little Red Riding Hood, the towering waves to George Clooney’s steamship, the blighted Mordor landscape to a determined Frodo and Sam. Isn’t great, though, that in those examples, the threats are things and in the Homeland poster, they’re the very people Carrie is supposed to protect? Can you imagine how it would feel to be a Muslim woman, with or without burqa, passing by this advertisement on a subway platform or a street corner? Can you feel the hostility and the fear rising from the poster? The sudden pit-in-your-stomach self-awareness it induces? The ignorant attack on your culture, your beliefs, your appearance?