Saturday, October 20, 2012

Homeland's Ambiguities.

Here's how Brian Williams introduced the topic of the car bomb inn Beirut in the NBC Evening news, last night: 
"As recently as yesterday the head of tourism in Lebanon was angry at this past sundae night's episode of the popular TV show 'Homeland' on the showtime network for portraying Beirut as a violent place. Then today, an extraordinary explosion of violence after what was a long peaceful run there - a massive car bomb that some fear the war in Syria is now spreading beyond its borders" (MSNBC Evening News)
Introducing real news by mentioning a fiction proves once again how fiction has become part of our everyday life in our world and the complaining of a foreign ministry about the depiction of its country also shows the globalization of television (American) series in today's world. 

Now of course, the recent turn of events in Beirut may make it more difficult for the Lebanon's tourism minister to sue the makers of 'Homeland' over the way Beirut is portrayed.
Residents expressed bafflement at the episode's description of modern day "Hamra Street". What in the programme is a shoddy quarter where gunmen leap from cars and harass terrified women is actually a busy commercial centre of top-brand Western clothing chains and boutiques.In the show, Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes, continuously dons the hair-covering hijab, but women in the part of Beirut where the scene is reportedly set are more often seen patrolling the street in skin-tight jeans, bouffant hair and Jimmy Choos. "The Lebanese are intelligent enough to use such a thing to our advantage," said Mr Abboud. "I am calling on youths to splice images of the war-torn Hamra of Homelandwith the real street. To add insult to injury for the Lebanese tourism ministry, Beirut is back is filmed in neighbouring Israel, a country with which Lebanon technically is still at war. (Telegraph)
It is true that one of the scenes in particular will probably not help tourism:
Militants carrying assault weapons clear the area around a street, shouting in Arabic for people to get out of the way. A jeep pulls up: The world's No. 1 jihadi has arrived for a meeting with top Hezbollah commanders. On rooftops, U.S. snipers crouch unseen, the kingpin in their crosshairs at last.  (USA Today)
The fact that the scene was shot in Jaffa, Israel (a popular mixed Jewish and Arab neighborhood of Tel Aviv, 250 kilometers/150 miles south of Beirut - DallasNews) is likely to anger even more the Lebanese who have a list of contentions with neighboring Isreal. And it is not like the Isreali are any happier. 
"This sort of diminishes Tel Aviv and Jaffa, which are more modern than Beirut," said Rubinstein, speaking for a generation of Tel Aviv residents who are aggressively proud of their city — a densely populated urban area of some 2.5 million people with a standard of living that rivals most places in Europe, a world-class tech industry and a raucous nightlife. (DallasNews)

Can we suspect the show of being biased against Arabs? 'Homeland', is after all based on an Israeli series ('Prisoners Of War'). The foreign affairs editor of the Observer, Peter Beaumont, blames the show for its "its ridiculous view of Arabs and Islam is a distortion of Middle Eastern realities":

As someone who has spent much time in the Middle East, I find the depictions not only crude and childish but offensive. There is more to it than the portrayal of individuals. For Homeland presents an odd and unbelievable image of relationships between countries and identities in the region, where Palestinians, Iraqis, Saudis all share an agenda regardless of background, culture and history.(The Guardian
But to be fair, most of us, who have not spent time in the Middle East cannot tell the difference. Only viewers who are familiar with the region may see some hints of Israel like "cars with blurred yellow Israeli license plates, red-and-white curbs that designate no-parking zones, an Israeli-style traffic circle, and a well-known minaret and clock tower in Jaffa. (USA Today)

Indeed, as you can see on this picture:  the supposedly Beirut open market shows a stall selling two Israeli T-shirts: one red with the white Coca-Cola logo in large Hebrew letters, the other a yellow jersey of a Jerusalem soccer team with the name in Hebrew, Beitar Yerushalayim, and a menorah. 

Besides, American shows have always been known for using stereotypes but it's easier to accept those when they are rather positive and when they encourage tourism, as it is usually the case with the rosy romantic view usually given of France and Paris. 
So does this all thing really matter? Fiction is supposed to be a bout "suspension of disbelief" after all, and not a faithful reflection of reality. Well, the impact of fiction on reality should not be dismissed so easily. Beaumont makes fair point about the influence of television fiction in shaping stereotypes of foreign places and people that we have never been exposed to : 
....television drama such as Homeland not only reflects cultural and social anxieties at any given time, it reflects back those anxieties, reinforcing and shaping them. Crucially there is strong evidence that counter-stereotypical fictional depictions in popular culture may have a positive impact, with some arguing that it can help turn around prejudicial attitudes. (The Guardian
That being said, the show is not mostly about Arabs or Muslims. It is not even about a credible story line. It is rather about paranoia, politics, treason and the fears of homegrown terrorism. At the same time, it gives a surprisingly nuanced view of terrorists. Unlike 24 and the likes, the show tries to get into the motivations for terrorism and it is not just religious fanaticism or brainwashing but also the injustices and the consequences of foreign affairs. The subtext may be a criticism of American foreign politics, such as the use of drones that kill innocent victims. (A similar idea was put forward in Law and Order SVU 'Acceptable Loss' two weeks ago). The intended target of the terrorist attack (the Vice-President) does not seem to be a particularly good innocent victim either.

What was neat in the first season was to make the audience doubt everything, along with the main characters (It was great idea to make the main character a bipolar CIA agent). What starts well with season 2 is that the audience grows ambiguous feelings for someone ready to commit a terrible act. The two main characters are well developed and extremely well written. They reflect the ambiguities and paranoia of the audience and society at large. This is the secret of all good TV series: the excellent writing of the characters and of their response to what happens, however improbable the situations may be. 
Despite its well-deserved criticism, it is one of the best shows on American television these days. 

1 comment:

pitulgi said...

A friend of mine sent me a link to your excellent article, and I'm glad to see other people concerned with how TV shows distort reality in some ways.

I actually just started a blog about this very problem, hope you find it interesting.