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The General and the Heroine

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
November 21, 2012
Folha de Sao Paulo


First published in Portuguese in Folha de Sao Paulo.

I will write about President Obama's second term in the coming months. But today, I have one general and one woman on my mind. The general is of course David Petraeus, the American war hero and media celebrity, whose cyber and carnal affair with his biographer forced him to step down as CIA director. The woman? Not Paula Broadwell, though I cringe that the public narrative has generally portrayed this very powerful man as the vulnerable victim of her sculpted arms, rather than of his own sloppiness and narcissism.

No, my woman of the moment is Carrie Mathison. Like Broadwell, she works in national security, for the CIA, in fact, to penetrate and prevent the gravest terrorist attacks against the United States since 9/11. Carrie's capacity for focus and hard work, even to the detriment of her own health, is legendary. Her obsessive intellect allows her to link seemingly disparate puzzle pieces and to thwart terrorist cells. Her emotional architecture and intuition give her unusual prowess in connecting with the human weaknesses of the assets she cultivates and runs. She has identified terrorists operating on American soil, even within American security agencies, even when her own colleagues thought she crazy, or maybe just boy crazy, and punished her for her persistence. Her colleagues are almost exclusively men: subordinates, mentors, and bosses, or terrorists she is spying on, manipulating or hunting down in Lebanon, Iraq or Washington DC. She's no moral saint, and once had some kind of personal relationship with the man who is now deputy director of the CIA.

Carrie Mathison, a pseudonym? No: she's the heroine of the TV show Homeland and the most important female character on television today. Flawed, damaged, yet still able to muster her powers of intellect, emotion, physical bravery, intuition, and yes, sexuality, in the service of national security. And boy, does she put actual skin in the game. I won't reveal the excruciating choices she will make in the next few episodes. And perhaps her handling of the American war hero turned terrorist mole Nicholas Brody can't really be seen as much of a choice, given her own feelings and duties. Whatever their field, women working in professions where mainly men write the rules of the game will no doubt relate to the frustration, persistence, grit and sheer stress that actress Claire Danes portrays in Carrie.

Back to the election. Five new women were elected to the United States Senate, where the total is now a record 20 out of 100 seats. And 19 new women won in the House of Representatives, where we now have a record 78 women out of 435 seats. It will take longer than a news cycle or a cable network season, but the new rules they write and the fights they fight will endure well beyond all the television dramas, fictional and real, of recent weeks.

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