Monthly Archives: September 2014

What is “honorable” television? A review of The Honourable Woman (BBC)

The Honourable Woman, the BBC’s summer hit about a British family and their entanglements with Israeli and Palestinian politics, is supposed to be happening now, as in today. It is a contemporary show in all the key indicators: the technology, the fashion choices, the dialogue. The show hops between different time periods, but only in reference to our contemporary moment (for example, the opening shots of episodes will specify “seven years ago” or “one year later” but not give a date). But by definition, the world the characters inhabit cannot be happening now. Because now is September 2014, the end of one of the most brutal summers in living memory. Specifically, now, Gaza lies destroyed, bombed-out, nearly obliterated, with no clear sense of when the next horrific period of “mowing the lawn” may come to pass.

Needless to say, they picked a hell of a summer to run The Honourable Woman.

I am stuck on the dates and timelines of the show, the irony that it has been aired during this particular moment in time, because I think the discrepancy between the realities of today and the world of The Honourable Woman may contribute to what I perceive to be the show’s shortcomings. Who knows what it might have felt like to watch it before the carnage of Operation Protective Edge? Before the editorials and op-eds in Israeli press calling for rape, for ethnic cleansing, for mass murder? The Honourable Woman, in trying to call out the slippery nature of concepts like “reconciliation,” “justice” and “balance,” falls prey to its own cynical politics. It’s not just that “both sides” are presented as being equally at fault, a reliable piece of liberal fantasy. The Honourable Woman makes the viewer think it is smarter than that, by showing rather thoroughly how misguided the main characters who attempt to remain “neutral” truly are. But in the end this “everyone gets their hands dirty” ethos actually ends up accomplishing the same thing as the “both sides” fallacy: it glosses over Israeli atrocities and lets liberal onlookers off the hook when it comes to their own countries’ role in underwriting the occupation.

The main characters of The Honourable Woman exist in a sleek, elegant, utterly generic London, running around major cultural institutions and engaging in darkly witty exchanges in glassed-in government offices. There is a lot of overwrought music and there are many pregnant pauses. Nessa Stein, played by Maggie Gyllenhall, is the head of a world-renowned company, the Stein Group, trying to make a difference in “the Middle East,” a reversal of the vision of her father, a staunch Zionist, known as the “Sword of Israel,” whom we see die a gruesome death in the show’s first episode. Young Nessa witnesses the murder, as does her brother Ephra; fast-forward to today and the pair are running the company. There’s a whole cast of characters in addition to the Steins, including Atika (Ephra’s Palestinian housekeeper, and, we discover, Nessa’s confidante regarding her deepest secret), Israeli businessmen and government officials, British and American intelligence folks, etc. The variety could have made for a rich tapestry, but instead it falls flat, as if the creators of the show came up with too many potentially interesting threads and then never figured out how to weave them back together.

Ephra and Nessa’s relationship is more complex than one might expect, and as we are given glimpses into the past decade of these characters’ lives, some interesting dynamics come up: Nessa’s idealism, which puts other people in danger; Ephra’s willingness to compromise the company’s ideological purity and the tenuous idea of that very “purity”; the experience that Nessa and Atika had in prison in Gaza, etc. Unfortunately, the way the show ultimately handles these potentially fascinating relationships leaves a lot to be desired (also, the dialogue falters badly in some places – Atika and Ephra whispering “shalom” and “salaam” to each other in bed was vomit-inducing). You can find out more about the specific plot points over at the Guardian’s Culture page (needless to say, they loved the show).

I didn’t walk away from The Honourable Woman particularly caring about any one of the characters which, it should be said, is pretty troubling for a show that traffics in all sorts of images of suffering, betrayal, loss, etc. I didn’t care so much as I was abstractly disturbed, a different emotion altogether. And a lot of my being disturbed centers on the use of women’s bodies, especially Nessa’s, as vehicles for the political objectives of men. The Honourable Woman certainly depicts female bodies as especially vulnerable to rape and sexual assault – a perfectly valid point of view, but one that is not elaborated upon sufficiently, thereby making the scenes of sexual violence feel pointless and cheap.

Coming back to an earlier point, I emphasize that the show is about a British family as a way to counter the notion that it has anything to do with the Middle East. “That’s how things work in the Middle East” is one of the reliable refrains of The Honourable Woman. I want to take the “Middle East” ambitions of this show down a peg or two. Why can’t the characters ever say “in Israel?” or “in the West Bank” or “here” or “over there”? Why must the viewer be beaten over the head with the reminder that this show has important things to say about the region called “the Middle East” as opposed to specific places within that region, or within Britain itself? At first, The Honourable Woman seems like a thinking person’s Homeland, a much more realistic, intellectual, and generally British take on world affairs. But in the end, I see a similar exoticization of Arab/Muslim/Middle Eastern “others” and perhaps a more dangerous faux-intellectualism which reveals the show to be just as empty and dishonest as the Stein Group itself.

Early on in the story, Nessa is appointed to the House of Lords. She is shown having a phone interview with a journalist who questions her dual loyalties to Britain and Israel. We hear her voice over the radio as she debates others in the upper house of parliament about the situation in Israel and Palestine and is accused of sitting on the fence while others actually take a stand. The Honourable Woman might have been a lot more believable, and a lot more profound, if the writers had bothered to actually delve more deeply into these tensions between Nessa’s identity as a Jewish woman, a British public figure and the daughter of one of Israel’s most formidable businessmen. The Honourable Woman eschews the questions of British Jewishness brought up so memorably in Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question in favor of a slicker, sexier idea of some place called “the Middle East” where women don funky hipster eyewear one minute and headscarves the next; where Nessa Stein speaks not a word of Hebrew but the Palestinians all speak Arabic; and where drone strikes ordered by foreign governments heroically save the day.

The question of Britishness with regards to The Honourable Woman – that is, the show’s representation of the British government and the British media’s unbridled adoration for the show – is an important one. American militarism abroad does not render Britain a friendlier, gentler kind of imperialist, no more than American racism should make British xenophobia, anti-semitism and racism suddenly palatable. British foreign policy on a number of issues, including and perhaps especially in the Middle East, has been closely tailored to fit American objectives. So when The Honourable Woman suggests that the US government would for some reason support Palestinian statehood at the expense of their relationship with Israel, and when the loveable British intelligence agent who has discovered this American duplicity sends a drone to kill an American agent as well as dying Atika in a dramatic finale, I am left somewhat perplexed. Who is served by this fanciful imagining of nefarious US motives and British heroism? That the plot of The Honourable Woman turns on a totally unbelievable, unexplained bit of foreign policy is questionable enough. But the fact that this fictional foreign policy also works to sever ties between the British and American governments (and throws the Palestinian cause under the bus in the bargain, by associating it and not Israeli Zionism with American empire) is truly shocking in its mendacity and bad faith. No doubt this is why liberal publications like The Guardian can’t stop writing accolades for The Honourable Woman – it serves up a convenient view of Britain’s own role in the Middle East of today, right at a time when most British liberals can’t seem to reconcile their chafing at American policy with their own government’s support of the cruelty and slaughter in Gaza.

Perhaps I am being too hard on The Honourable Woman but it is difficult not to be when the program takes such an inflated view of its own importance and believes so wholeheartedly in its own sophistication. A truly groundbreaking show would have placed emphasis on British complicity in Palestinian suffering. It would have offended a lot more people, and it would have been much more honorable.