"Afflicted Agents, Contested Spaces: Performance, Disability, and Female Protagonism in Homeland and The Bridge"

Curator's Note

For all of the accumulated praise (for high production value, narrative complexity, etc.), the loosely categorized programs often referred to as “quality television” have also drawn criticism for their regressive politics. Their preferences for white male antiheroes, static (under)representations of women and people of color, and their predilection for violence against such minorities have been increasingly observed. These critiques have adroitly focused on both text and context, teasing out the ongoing dialogues between representational regimes onscreen and the broader ideologies through which they become legible.

Disability and performance have maintained a spectral presence here, lingering in the background of scholarly and popular coverage of “quality television” but rarely warranting sustained attention. Examining performance and disability can raise new questions and further enhance our understanding of television programs and the landscapes upon which their meaning coheres.

Take, for example, Homeland (2011-) and The Bridge (2013-). Both upend the status quo by featuring female protagonists Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) and Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) in predominately-male environments. Homeland and The Bridge are also notable in that both female leads negotiate disability.

Carrie’s bipolar disorder has been an essential feature of both her character development and the overall narrative arc of Homeland’s first three seasons. It is one of the show’s primary catalysts, producing recurrent tension between Mathison’s intuition and the risks she simultaneously creates for herself and the CIA. Carrie’s disability is also highly performative. Her psychological state is etched across Danes’ face, which, rendered in close-up, makes no secret of the show’s investment in a particular equation of disability, narrative, and theatricality.

Though Sonya’s imputed Asperger Syndrome features in paratextual discourse surrounding The Bridge, it has not yet been explicitly identified within the show. Still, Kruger’s affected austerity—prominently featured in the accompany clip—sets her apart. Like Carrie, it renders her both exceptional and abject, essential to the resolution of conflict yet unreliable in the eyes of the patriarchal figures and institutions that discipline her. As with Danes, Kruger’s performativity is the ostensible key to the character’s disability and her uniqueness [distinction from those around her]. While Danes’ face performs the extremes intended to convey bipolar disorder, Kruger’s unaffectedness conflicts with the dramatic extremes surrounding her.

Further investigation of performance and disability can enhance our understandings of the nuances of representation and identity as they play out against broader ideological backdrops onscreen and off.


Justin - I think that this is a great piece and concerns a lot of key insights here. Highlighting gender and the ways that this and disablility are often combined also seems a useful thread for investigation. Though I haven't seen The Bridge yet, one of the elements I find compelling in Homeland is just how often the acting transcends the script pages. In particular, I'm thinking of the scene in season 1 where Carrie is thrown off the case and the sound basically goes out, but Danes is left screaming and 'acting'. I wonder if by analyzing these scenes against the final script pages, we might find the labor involved... I also appreciate your implication that disability and quality performances usually go hand in hand, and there is definitely something here that Kruger's and Danes' portrayals are harnessing here.

Well done, Justin, on your timely reminder of some of the predilections and biases of so-called Quality Television. It seems, however, that these particular emphases and tendencies are shared by good old "Regular TV" as well. One wonders, though, at the differences between the degrees of self-awareness that these different televisual traditions demonstrate towards these identity politics. And yet even a program as normative as GLEE can demonstrate a considerable level of self-awareness regarding its own representation of disability. The show certainly uses the conventions of musical fantasy adroitly to address the fact that Kevin McHale (who portrays paraplegic club member Artie Abrams) is "playing crip." While GLEE's homiletic impulses are often the subject of online derision, its self-conscious attempts to take a "progressive" approach to identity politics are not simply relegated to sermons on inclusivity in tolerance. Occasionally it presents the opportunity to consider the performativity of disability - something Quality TV might attend to more often, perhaps? All of this is to stay that you've provided a valuable reminder that the particularities of a given show - and the performance choices of its actors - can circumvent sweeping charges of representational insensitivity. Take the considerable discussion around the infamous "telephone scene" in BREAKING BAD - in which Bryan Cranston expertly shows the emotional cost to Walter White at playing the misogynist creep others assume him to be. Like Artie's fantasy sequences on GLEE, it is a moment in which the show, and its white, male antihero, "speaks back" to its critics through creatively deliberate and self-conscious play acting.

Thanks for your post, Colin. Yeah, the more I watch (and re-watch) Homeland, the more I find myself drawn to the ways in which disability is used to foreground what we often regard as the labor of the performer. For Danes in particular, I’d be keen to go back to a character like Temple Grandin and examine how Danes’ performative labor manifests in the representation of autism (as I recall it is distinctly more nuanced that Kruger’s performance). Of course, another facet that we cannot ignore is the problematic kind of “disability drag” (borrowing from Tobin Siebers here) at work that privileges the labor of differently abled performers for, in a sense, extending themselves into a kind of disabled “other” position (at the expense of, say, a performer who actually was bi-polar or had been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder). Thanks for your response!

Hi Aaron. Good points. I like that you are bringing genre into this conversation as well, because I think that certainly informs producers’, performers’, and audiences’ efforts to make sense of the acting. Your example made me think of the Dr. Romano storyline on ER, where a freak accident causes him to lose part of his arm and from that point forward becomes its own thread about performativity and body politics in a medical institution (before a helicopter crashes on him, which is another issue altogether). It would be really interesting to think about the intersections of television genre and performance that includes-but is not confined to-prevailing constructions of prestige television. And yes, I think you definitely raise a much need question about meta performances (like Artie’s or Walter’s) that demand further critical attention, particularly for the ways in which they exhibit the capacity of televisual performance to communicate meaning within both diegetic and intertextual spheres.

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