Carrie Mathison Is a Misogynist

Why Homeland, Zero Dark Thirty, and Hollywood’s sexed-up spies are bad for women.


The writers and producers of Homeland, or any other piece of pop culture for that matter, don’t owe it to anyone to create characters that positively or even accurately reflect members of the communities they represent. Creative license aside, however, this particular piece of fiction could hardly do a greater disservice to the women of the CIA, special operations forces, and the military in general than to portray its main character, the bipolar but inexplicably effective (and employed) case officer Carrie Mathison, as someone willing to
sleep with anyone and everyone to succeed.

The perpetuation of this negative and largely inaccurate stereotype about women in these fields makes it inordinately more difficult for them to do their jobs, get promoted, and ultimately hold positions of power in greater than token numbers. Even more troubling is the fact that, given the likely sociopolitical, ill-defined shape of its future conflicts, the United States is going to badly need more, not fewer, of these women joining and, more importantly, staying in these organizations.

Carrie Mathison is far from the only female lead when it comes to shows and movies about national security — State of Affairs, Madam Secretary, Zero Dark Thirty, the list goes on — and Hollywood is not the only place where women are increasingly moving into the spotlight. Women in the U.S. military have also received more attention from the policy community in recent years, most notably with regard to sexual assault. The light shed on this issue has been entirely necessary and, based on the subsequent changes to the military’s system for handling allegations of assault put in place by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, apparently successful in making the system more effective in combating a very real threat faced by women who serve in vital national security positions.

But sexual assault is far from the only problem these women confront when trying to build careers in what continues to be an extremely male-dominated area. And though sexual assault may not be related to perceived promiscuity (though it has been subtly implied to be a relevant factor in some circles), a good number of the other problems holding women back in these areas are derived from the widespread impression that many, if not all of them, will use sex to get what they want and/or generally sleep around.

This erroneous belief has, among others, been used in arguments against women serving in front-line combat-arms units like the infantry and certain special operations functions, which can have a major impact on prospects for promotion, particularly to senior officer and noncommissioned-officer positions, in addition to causing a number of first-order problems. (In many military communities, those promoted to senior positions overwhelmingly have combat-arms experience. Thus, even women who are qualified for certain senior roles rarely get them because they can’t serve in these units and, in turn, can’t make the important personal connections that come with serving in these units.)

Other issues, like physical competence, have of course been hotly debated; however, those are increasingly being addressed by the unflinching cross-gender application of universal physical standards for soldiers in positions in which a minimum physical ability is critical to the performance of essential duties. In short, in most of these communities, leaders and decision-makers are moving toward the conclusion that if you can meet the requirements, you can do the job.

But the oft-cited concern about increased social friction and disruptions to unit cohesion posed by putting women in combat situations (an argument that was also used in many objections to the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and that ultimately proved vastly overblown if not irrelevant) continues to fuel contention. There is little doubt that when men and women are in dangerous situations and under immense pressure, bad things occasionally happen. People fall in love, pair off, and certainly make mistakes, and rifts within the group and hurt feelings can have deadly consequences when the stakes are high. Historically, the U.S. military has addressed this possibility in a simple, if suboptimal way: When you get to the very pointy end of the spear, simply remove the women from the equation. Voilà! No more personal issues, petty jealousies, or drama to speak of.

Of course, all of these personal problems very much persist in all-male environments, and this seemingly easy fix has some very negative unintended consequences, some of which aren’t appreciated because it simply has never been otherwise. But given how women have contributed over the last 13 years to hard fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, often in situations that could not possibly look more like “combat” despite not being technically classified as such, there are very real reasons to think that, if allowed to persist, these consequences will ultimately degrade the United States’ ability to effectively prosecute future wars.

First, for every woman who has gotten involved with the wrong man in a war zone, become party to unhelpful drama, or behaved promiscuously, there are, by my entirely unscientific estimate, 100 who have done none of these things and have served professionally, honorably, and effectively in very male-heavy units and under extreme circumstances. It is not in any of the services’ interest to remove these extremely capable soldiers from their positions or discourage them from moving up in the ranks. Unfortunately, these women rarely figure into conversations about gender integration because they have not upset the apple cart. Instead, they have contributed to their missions and, in some cases I would argue, have done so disproportionately compared with their numbers and proscribed, noncombat roles.

The statistics on this are scarce, but it is worth noting that despite the ban on women serving in combat roles, nearly 150 have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Anecdotal evidence abounds, however; Greg Jacob, a 10-year Marine Corps veteran writing in Defense One in November stated, “In my experience, the women I commanded performed as well or better than their male counterparts when given the opportunity. And, despite what many think, they were held to the same standards as the men.” It’s hard to imagine a more reliable source.

I noticed a similar phenomenon during my own time deployed as a Defense Department civilian with various military units — namely, that many of the women I came across carried a very large burden in terms of workload and responsibility in their respective organizations, whether military or civilian. And after many months of wondering why this was, I came to the conclusion that it is the result of what is known in the medical-testing field as a “survivor effect” — namely, that individuals who survive in harsh environments (i.e., the struggle to get there in the first place) tend to be extremely high performers, so in this case, especially dedicated and extremely driven.

This is not to say that many men do not meet these same standards, which of course they do, in droves. But on the whole, it appears that the women who essentially push their way into what are not generally female-friendly environments do so because they are extraordinarily committed to the mission and the organization and are willing to work twice as hard if they have to, which at the moment it appears many of them do. Why would an organization agree to keep such personnel out of critical units?

Second, and perhaps more importantly, is the biological fact that, with the exception of the occasional same-sex relationship, for every one woman who fits the stereotype described earlier, there is at least one, if not several, men who have committed the identical offense (presumably they are fraternizing with someone, after all). It is clear, however, that the overall organizational disadvantages — namely, being kept out of certain jobs and units — disproportionately fall on these women. The effects of the combat ban alone keep a large number of women out of senior roles; there is also extensive anecdotal evidence of women leaving the military as a result of perceived lack of advancement opportunity.

Failing to punish men for the identical misdeeds does a disservice to the overall quality of the personnel pool from which these groups draw. If they have poor enough judgment to get involved in a disruptive relationship that causes discord within their unit, they should be removed from those units, just as a woman who does so should be, and for the exact same reason.

It is possible that integrating women into combat-arms units will cause all hell to break loose, with promiscuity and adultery running rampant on the front lines of America’s future wars. But like the integration of openly gay soldiers or the near-complete integration of women at the CIA (with the exception of a few very senior positions that have not yet been occupied by women), it is much more likely that allowing women to serve in combat-arms units will change very little with regard to unit cohesion, especially if the appropriate training, screening, and, most importantly, mentorship from both male and female soldiers, is included in the program. It is also likely that these women will bring different and useful skill sets to these organizations, ones that may be particularly well-suited to the less kinetic, more subtle form of warfare that the United States appears to be moving toward.

Whether nature or nurture, it is well-documented that men and women process information differently, a fact some argue has played an important role in critical missions like the tracking of Osama bin Laden and various other complex counterterrorism missions. In fact, it is CIA, the very same organization that employs the fictional Carrie Mathison, that has had the most success in integrating women into the greatest number of its core functions. According to media reports based on statements by senior agency officials, as of 2013, 50 percent of CIA employees were women.

According to some, though certainly not all, military analysts, America’s future wars are likely to look a lot like those the country has fought over the last 13 years: intelligence-oriented, population-centric, and largely covert or clandestine, all forms of warfare that rely heavily on analytic and social skills, in addition to kinetic force — skills that women certainly demonstrate as aptly as men, if not better in some cases. Unfortunately, Showtime has Carrie Mathison bringing exactly the wrong female attributes to her professional life, in turn amplifying stereotypes that, when assumed and broadly accepted, hold back the very women the United States needs to have in the fight.


About the Author

Whitney Kassel is a foreign policy analyst based in New York City. Kassel spent four years with the secretary of defense, where she focused on special operations, counterterrorism, and Pakistan. She also served as a senior director focused on strategic analysis and risk management at The Arkin Group, a private intelligence firm.

Whitney Kassel is a foreign policy analyst based in New York City. Kassel spent four years with the secretary of defense, where she focused on special operations, counterterrorism, and Pakistan. She also served as a senior director focused on strategic analysis and risk management at The Arkin Group, a private intelligence firm.

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