Homeland and the Case of ‘Cute Otherness’

Spoiler warning: This blog post reflects on some of the major narrative developments of Homeland’s first season.

I’ve recently finished watching the first season of Homeland (Showtime, 2011-), a series I’d been looking forward to for a good number of reasons. These include the excellent casting: I’ve been a fan of Claire Danes ever since the traumatically cancelled My So-Called Life. With Damian Lewis and David Harewood, the show has not one, but two British actors playing US characters in recent high-profile US drama, joining the likes of House, M.D. and Battlestar Galactica.  Of course, Damian Lewis had played the lead character in the HBO mini series Band of Brothers, so his presence in another US cable show concerned with war, but a very different, post-9/11 war, promised to be interesting.

And I wasn’t disappointed; based on Israeli drama Hatufim, Homeland deserves the praise and acclaim it has received, with strong performances all round – a special mention must go to Mandy Patinkin, whom I would have recognized from Chicago Hope had I watched that in the 1990s instead of ER – and a much more mature, intelligent engagement with the War on Terror, issues of foreign policy and personal trauma. I largely agree with The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum’s view that Homeland is a much-needed antidote to the ‘sleek right-wing dreamscape’ that was Fox’s 24 and its cartoon hero Jack ‘I can torture people with a towel and have impressive bladder control’ Bauer.

It is also interesting to consider Homeland in relation to Hollywood action cinema’s response to 9/11, and reading my colleague Lisa Purse’s reflections on this in the preceding blog post ‘Action Cinema After 9/11’, it’s clear that this contemporary television drama is marked by a sensitivity, a willingness to explicitly problematise notions of heroism and a ‘just war’, and indeed, a reversal of both the revenge narrative and the culminating violence found in the action movie’s generic conventions. On his return home after eight years as prisoner of war, Damian Lewis’ character, US Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody, not only noticeably struggles to come to terms with his life, but, it emerges slowly over the first season, is intent on violently avenging the death of Issa – the son of his former captor and terrorist Abu Nazir – until he is talked out of his suicide mission by his own teenage daughter.

But reflecting on the first season, there is something about Homeland’s reversal of the revenge trope that bugged me. And that is to do with the casting of the character Issa, Abu Nazir’s young son, killed in a drone strike secretly ordered and officially denied by the US Vice President. Cast with the actor Rohan Chand,  what bugs me is that this child character is very cute. And when I say ‘cute’, I mean cute as in neotenised cuteness.

Of course, I know that all children and child actors have neotenised features to some extent, just as I know that casting cute kids is nothing out of the ordinary for US film and television. But I was struck by just how much Chand’s features reminded me of the Kindchenschema, the ‘small child pattern’ described by Konrad Lorenz, that I learned about at school (probably roughly around the same time My So-Called Life got cancelled, but I digress). With his big eyes, round cheeks and softly tousled hair, Chand’s Issa is clearly meant to evoke a sympathetic response in the viewer, serving the flashbacks’ condensed explanation of the transformation Brody underwent during his captivity. First appearing dressed in a tunic and shown in Muslim prayer with Brody, Issa’s body is a site where racial/ethnic Otherness is negotiated through the aesthetic of the cute.

There is much more to be said about this concept of cuteness, that I lack the space to do here. Reflecting on cuteness as an aesthetic marked by class, race, gender and sexuality, Lorie Merish offers an interesting discussion of cuteness’s preoccupation with Otherness.* Her argument that

‘cuteness engenders an affectional dynamic through which the Other is domesticated and (re)contextualized within the human “family.” Cuteness aestheticizes the most primary social distinctions, regulating the (shifting) boundaries between Selves and Others, cultural “insiders” and cultural “outsiders,” “humans” and “freaks”’ (p. 188)

strikes me as particularly relevant for the representation strategies employed in Homeland that I’m concerned with here.

Watching this young Muslim boy’s first on-screen appearance, I found myself uttering a slight sigh of exasperation and resignation at the sight of the Cute Non-White Kid (who can be found in a range of texts, from films like Slumdog Millionaire to charity appeals). Of course, being a cute child in a narrative situation like the one in Homeland is akin to wearing a red shirt in Star Trek – you just know things aren’t going to end well for this character. I don’t really want to specifically single out Homeland in my criticism; I just wish that contemporary television drama will begin to trust that its audience understands the emotional significance of the death of a non-white child, where that child is allowed to look ‘average’ and where racial/ethnic Otherness is not inevitably framed by cuteness.

*Lorie Mesh, “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics: Tom Thumb and Shirley Temple” in Rosemarie Garland Thomson (ed.). Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. New York: New York University Press, 1996, pp. 185-203.

For an interesting discussion of the relationship between cuteness and monstrosity, see Maja Brzozowska-Brywczyńska, “Monstrous/Cute. Notes on the Ambivalent Nature of Cuteness” in Niall Scott (ed.). Monsters and the Monstrous: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil. Amsterdam; New York: Rodopi, 2007, pp. 213-228.

4 comments

  1. I find your observations interesting, you have a good point. Especially considering that Brody’s own children seems to represent average American children, both in their appearance and behavior (e.g. Brody’s daughter comments on her parents great looks compared to hers), and still probably gains a lot of sympathy from the viewer.

    • A most interesting blog! I haven’t yet seen the programme but questions that pop into my head first of all go: does ‘cuteness’ to any extent remove the character from our reality? Do we empathise with him at a few removes? Is he not only virtual and representation, but represented with the unrealness that comes with the aesthetic of cute? Is it the case that we don’t/aren’t permitted to understand his predicament as ‘real’ to the extent we might be more inclined to if he were presented more real-ly?

  2. Rolf, thanks for your response; that’s a good point you make about Brody’s daughter’s comments, which I’d somehow forgotten about. I didn’t have the space in my piece to really bring in Brody’s children, apart from mentioning that the daughter talks him out of his mission – she clearly makes some interesting and important points!

    What’s interesting for me is that, when I’ve mentioned to people that I’ve been doing some thinking about Homeland, representation and cuteness, everyone immediately knows which character I’m exploring (before I’ve had the chance to specify/say the name). This underlines my point about the *overt* cuteness of the character in question. But there’s certainly a comparison to be made between this character and Brody’s kids, and I must think about that some more.

  3. Becki, that’s a very interesting question (whether we’re permitted to understand his predicament as ‘real’) that I shall spend some time thinking about. Certainly, his representation is such that (I think) we know from the start what’s going to happen to him, and that kind of representational pressure has a bearing on our response to him, and it is a pressure that I found quite jarring and indeed took me away from understanding his predicament as ‘real’.

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