Girl with a Badge

So, I’m totally late to the game as always.  The third season of the Showtime original series Homeland starts airing in late September, and I’m just now watching Season 1. Don’t worry; at the rate I’m going, I’ll be completely caught up well before the third season premiere.

It’s a great, addicting show.  And it’s great for all of the reasons that great shows are great – writing that sounds like real people actually talking, characters who are flawed enough and interesting enough to make the idea of spending another hour with them enticing, actors who aren't afraid to embrace the flaws but still seem appealing, economical direction, and plot twists that keep piquing one’s interest. It’s a pretty good recipe. And yet there’s something a tad revolutionary about this show.

The basic rundown is this (no spoilers here, if you've seen even the first episode): A US Marine, long thought dead, is rescued from the Middle East after many years as a prisoner of war and is widely hailed upon his return as a war hero. A CIA operative has learned that an American POW has been “turned” and is convinced that the returning “hero” is actually plotting to do America harm. And so, without much support from the rest of the CIA, she goes rogue and begins a private investigation, hoping to bring him to justice before his nefarious plans are realized.

Did you catch the revolutionary word? I’ll give you a hint. It’s a pronoun.

It actually took me four or five episodes of this show to catch it myself. This is a spy thriller/pot-boiler/blood-pumper of a show, and our protagonist is a woman. And she’s not a woman in relation to a man. She’s a woman in relation to her job, and her job is “kick-ass spy.”

Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in "Homeland"
(Okay, some spoilers are about to show up for those who've never watched the show, but I've only seen the first eight episodes of a total of twenty-four, so I couldn't give away too much, even if I wanted to.)

I’d love to have heard the pitch meetings for Homeland, because I’m 99.9% sure that someone, at some point, asked if the audience wouldn't be more interested in a conspiracy theory has by a CIA operative with a penis. And really, so far in the show, there’s no reason why our spy couldn't have been male. Yes, there’s a situation where she uses her feminine wiles to get a little ahead in her investigation, but that’s a tactic. And, it’s worth noting, this is a tactic that a woman in her line of work might use; it’s not like they took a male protagonist template, put a woman in the role, and then just ignored the fact that she’s female.

I've heard a lot of people tell me that Homeland is a brilliant show. But I've heard very little discourse about the gender of its lead character, which is surprising. And I think it’s worth discussing. In an age when women make up 51% of society but only about 37% of prime-time TV characters, male TV characters (41%) were more likely to be shown “on the job” than female characters (28%), men were more likely to talk about work than women were (52% vs. 40%) and less likely to talk about romantic relationships (49% vs. 63%), it’s an important thing to take note of.

Our conventional wisdom states that only women want to see shows about women. And statistically there’s a lot to back that up; as most shows that feature women prominently have inordinately female audiences. But there’s a difference between a show about a woman and a show about being a woman. The latter will probably not appeal to men, but a show about an interesting individual – so interesting, that her vagina is one of the least interesting things about her – can have the kind of broad appeal usually reserved for programs where both the protagonist and the antagonist are vagina-free. And that’s kind of awesome.