A Politicizing Eye
By: Surita Parmar
I can’t count the number of times my friends have told me that Homeland is “the best show on television”, and that I absolutely “have” to get into it. A few weeks ago, I finally caved and watched the first three episodes. I’d read that its depiction of Muslims is controversial, but I was too distracted to form my own conclusions. What stood out to me—to the point of obliterating everything else—was the character Jessica Brody. A mother of two children, living an apple pie, middle-class existence. (That is, asides from being the wife of a political prisoner recovering from years of brainwashing and torture.)
Jessica Brody is played by Morena Baccarin. She’s one of the most beautiful actresses I’ve ever seen. And, according to Wikipedia, she was born in 1979.
Toronto—my hometown—is typical of many North American cities in that it’s cram jammed with thirty-something Peter Pans who seem more preoccupied with playing Candy Crush than paying off mortgages and having babies. (Myself included.) We’re the polar opposites of our baby boomer parents, and perhaps not the best measuring stick for adulthood. Still, the fact that actresses our age continue to be relegated to “mom” roles is perplexing.
If Homeland began airing in 2011, Baccarin was at least thirty-one when the show was in production. One of her on-screen children is portrayed as fourteen or fifteen years old. Maybe viewers can suspend belief and buy that a woman who looks like a living incarnation of a fashion editorial spread is a typical mother and wife. But I draw the line at accepting that she married and had her first child during her mid-teens. The show doesn’t try to explain why Baccarin’s character looks like her kids’ older sister—her situation is presented as run-of-the-mill. Conversely, her on-screen husband (played by Damian Lewis) is nearly ten years older than her. It’s a shame. Homeland has received a lot of hype for its female protagonist (Claire Danes), and amazing writing. But, Jessica Brody is all I see.
I’m not quite sure if the blame falls on the creators of Homeland, or cultural norms that condition us to gauge women’s worth on the basis of their youth and sex appeal. Particularly actresses, who seem to disappear from the limelight once they grow a few gray hairs.
Homeland certainly isn’t
an anomaly. How many movies and television shows center around schlubby men with youthful, svelte, sexy wives? From The Honeymooners, to The Simpsons and Family Guy (granted, they lampoon the trope), to According to
Jim, to Judd
Apatow movies. Now that I think about it, even Breaking Bad—a show universally acknowledged as genius and groundbreaking—is arguably guilty. At first glance, the character Skyler seems rather young and glamorous to be the mother of a teenager, and the wife of a man in his fifties. Online discussions about the show have touched on how “shrill, “annoying”, and “hypocritical” she is, and (to their credit) have noted that many of the show’s villains are psychopathic Hispanic men. But nobody questions why intelligent, stunning Skyler is married to geeky, angry (albeit brilliant) Walter White. If their genders were reversed, it would be a different story.
Once you start scanning television shows and movies with a political eye, it consumes your entire viewing experience. You try to enjoy a lazy Sunday watching a charming indie movie you loved when you were in your mid twenties…and realize it’s a beacon of ingrained, systemic “isms”. The manic pixie dream
girl character you once swore was your clone now comes off as underwritten and trite. You’re irritated because the director—an auteur with relative creative autonomy and liberal tendencies—limited the cast to Caucasian actors. (Except for the Indian cab driver.) And wow—how did you not see how homophobic that “gay best friend” character really is? You chide your younger self for believing the movie represented you, when the reality is you don’t belong in its universe. And if you think indie films are bad, don’t even try watching Christopher Nolan and Martin Scorsese movies. You’ll no longer be dazzled by their cerebral plot twists, snappy dialogue, and Steadicam shots after contemplating their poorly written, miscast female characters. As interesting are their films are, you’ll end up wondering why they tend to be so, well, “bro”-ey.
In desperation, you turn to award shows like the Oscars for entertainment. Surely you can still turn off your brain and enjoy mindless red carpet fluff? Not a chance. You see that beneath the glister of couture gowns and borrowed Harry Winston jewels, actresses’ faces radiate a waxy, preternatural glow. No exfoliating cleanser or light refracting bronzing powder cultivated that smooth incandescence – it’s the unmistakable hallmark of the cosmetic surgeon’s knife and/or botox needle. (Can you blame women in Hollywood, when they’re expected to play moms once they hit thirty?). You also bemoan how few female filmmakers are on the red carpet. And while it’s great to see visible minorities nominated for acting awards, you wish they weren’t being celebrated for playing slaves and pirates. The pièce de résistance is when you finally throw an askance eye at all the pomp and splendour…and mull over how many starving children could have been fed instead..
your remote aside in disgust.
Not so fast. It’s disheartening that mainstream media continues to perpetuate power imbalances and double standards in society. But, to quote Bob Dylan, “the times, they are a-changin”. Sure, film and television trade publications keep publish reviews criticizing the casting of “chubby” Jennifer Lawrence as starving Katniss in The Hunger Games—while ignoring that the muscular physiques of similarly malnourished male characters are far more improbable. Or op-eds questioning whether Lupita Nyong’o is too “dark skinned” for mainstream audiences. (Which is depressing. There should be no debate whether a lovely, talented, award-winning actress has a future in film). But there are also many articles that lament the lack of diverse and well-rounded characters in media, and urge industry power players to shake things up. Networks like NBC and CBS are listening—they’ve kick-started initiatives aimed to bring in more diverse
I admit that I’m forgetting that ten to fifteen years ago, it was enough to have women, visible minorities, and members of the LGBT community featured on screen, let alone cast as leads. The demand to see them realized as fully fleshed human beings is a sign of positive change. So what are we to do until mainstream movies and TV shows quit casting women as generic moms, Indians as cab drivers, and Arabs as terrorists? Boycott them? Figure out a way to turn off our politicizing eye? Or we could do neither. It takes some digging, but it’s possible to find media that’s more forward thinking than regressive. If you don’t feel like scouring Netflix for obscure foreign art-house movies, you can watch the television show Brooklyn Nine-Nine. It features a lot of diverse characters whose ethnicity and sexual orientation are incidental instead of defining personality traits. And it’s hilarious—it isn’t sanctimonious or obvious in its attempt to appease all audiences
in the slightest.
We can also compromise our politicizing eye. Just a little. For example, while watching an action movie, we can appreciate that its protagonist is a POC, while recognizing that it would be way better if his female love interest was the same age as him instead of fifteen years younger—and if the protagonist was female as well. It’s important that we continue discussing how media should reflect our changing culture. Who knows? Maybe years from now, films, television shows, and attitudes about how demographics are portrayed will have shifted so drastically that people will write articles outlining why Brooklyn Nine-Nine is problematic.