Unethical Comment of the Month: Homeland Co-Creator Alex Gansa


“We wish we’d caught these images before they made it to air. However, as ‘Homeland’ always strives to be subversive in its own right and a stimulus for conversation, we can’t help but admire this act of artistic sabotage.”

—-Alex Gansa, co-creator of Showtime’s hit series “Homeland,” discussing a recent episode in which the Arabic street artists the show hired to paint  graffiti on walls used as a backdrop to a scene spray-painted messages that translated into “ ‘Homeland’ is racist,” “There is no ‘Homeland’, ”  ‘Homeland is a joke,’and “ ‘Homeland’ is not a show.”

It might be (generously)  called an act of artistic sabotage if the artists snuck onto the set and changed the Arabic graffiti on their own time and dime. That was not what they did, however. They accepted money under false pretenses, and did not deliver the services promised. This is not merely sabotage, but fraud, dishonesty and a breach of trust. Rather than engage in civil disobedience and accept the consequences, which would be a principled and courageous act (however misguided)  Egyptian artist, Heba Y. Amin, decided to profit from it as well.

If they at least had the integrity to return their fees, they could win back some ethics points.

Gansa’s politically correct “admiration” for this unprofessional swindle indicates to me that he lacks the ethical knowledge and sophistication to be the creative force behind a show dealing with complex ethics issues. Theft is never admirable, except, apparently in Hollywood. I wouldn’t trust a guy whose ethical reasoning is flawed as Alex Gansa to handle any responsibility, unless, of course, he was pandering to his Islamic critics by articulating a rotten ethical standard that he doesn’t believe, in which case he’s even less trustworthy.

In a related note, the New York Times’ James Poniewozik faults the “Homeland” producers, not the frauds:

“Arguably, this kind of small detail is the greater problem with “Homeland” and other American dramas set in the region: the tendency to use the signifiers of a culture — clothes, music, street urchins, unfamiliar writing — as a kind of spicy Orientalist soup of otherness. Even in a well-intended drama, if you approach another culture as set decoration, in which the alien appearance matters more than the content, you risk sending a subtle but strong message: this is a terrifying, unknowable land where everything goes squibbly.”

A better example of dishonest cultural equivalence it would be difficult to find. The Middle East is not a terrifying, unknowable land? That’s funny: why are so many people from there trying to relocate to Europe? Why is the region in constant turmoil? Why it successfully exporting its terror around the world?

It is a close call whether it is more dishonest to protest the portrayal of the chaos in the region portrayed by “Homeland,” or to praise the tactics of the protesters.


Pointer: Fred

Sources: New York Times 1, 2

23 thoughts on “Unethical Comment of the Month: Homeland Co-Creator Alex Gansa

  1. Ignoring the ethics for a second; that’s a brilliant photograph! From the 4th season promos. The Times thinks its racist.

  2. ” the signifiers of a culture — clothes, music, street urchins, unfamiliar writing — as a kind of spicy Orientalist soup of otherness”

    No, the program is supposed to be in the Middle East…should there be McDonald’s and Outback Steakhouse billboards and English road signs? Making the set of a program set in the Middle East look like the Middle East is racist? My head hurts…

    • I think your statement is part of the point. The Middle East, of course, actually has McDonalds and Outbacks, road signs are often in English along with the Arabic. There’s a lot of straining to make it look more “exotic” than it really is. Most of the industrialized world, for better or worse, has become homogenized.

      • As a director, I’d never want to confuse the audience by making the Middle East look like a strip mall, unless that was the point. There are too many predators in Jurassic Park, but it makes a better movie.They used the Himalayas to stand in for the Rockies in Cliffhanger. John Ford had the OK Corral near Monument Valley.This isn’t a documentary; it’s obviously a TV drama. And “exotic” isn’t racist. Right?

        • I think the point, and I can see both sides here, is that giving the audience a “shorthand” for where something is located, shows often rely heavily on stereotypes. African nation=jungle/safari for example, even though most countries in Africa are pretty modernized, with large cities that could be plucked from any large city in America. South America =Carnivale or the rainforest or drug dealer villas.

          I think the problem with the visual shorthand, in the aggregate, is that it ends up distorting people’s ideas of what those places are like in real life. The visual shorthand then begins to subversively translate into real ideas and actions that affect real people.

          • You’re pretty good at seeing both sides, I think.

            Stereotypes are useful and benign in story-telling, and people who choose to misconstrue such techniques of drama to claim sinister motives should stick to National Geographic. The simple answer is that’s its a movie, and that it is not bound to be accurate. When the purpose is to mislead, as in, say, “Truth,” that’s a different problem The Nazis in “Raiders” and the Indians in “Temple of Doom” were equally stereotyped villains, and anyone with half a brain could figure it out. What is despicable is having enough brain and making accusations of racism anyway.

        • I understand your point but your not confusing them, your presenting the setting as it actually is. I mean you would know that’s correct if you saw it on a show so why assume your audience isn’t as intelligent as you are?

          The whole show has been crap from day one anyway. Damian Lewis was way too old to play the character, a 32 year old Staff Sgt in the snipers?? At 14 years in service he would at least be a Gunny by then maybe a First Sgt.

          • I wouldn’t CARE if it was correct, just like I know that Monument Valley is set dressing, not geographically accurate.Same with Lewis. I’m not sure why you care. It’s superfluous to the drama.

            • I like accuracy and detail. I always have. Its very easier to say, oh one will notice that, oh no one will notice that over and over until you have a big mistake glaring you in the face.

              I didn’t say you would care but you WOULD notice it.

              As much as I love John Ford I cant watch My Darling Clementine . Ive read every book on the Earps, Tombstone and the shootout and that movie draws me nuts, even more so then the rest.

  3. “There’s a lot of straining to make it look more “exotic” than it really is.”

    You’re right! I was just thinking that having regional clothing or graffiti in Arabic wasn’t overly ‘orientalist’. I don’t think ‘orientalism’ or racism is at the core, just that the producers want it to look authentic. Never having been to the region, I have no idea at all of what to expect, so I haven’t ever thought that the sets were overdone. My whole image of the region is, unfortunately, just what I see on the news and in that respect the settings of Homeland don’t differ from that much. We don’t see much of Afghanistan or Iraq, or Syria outside of the war zones, places that are destroyed, where life is far from easy or normal.

    It’s the same with many places I expect, the gap between the image in media and the actuality. First time visitors to Japan invariably say that they didn’t expect so many skyscrapers, and so few people wearing kimono. It’s the unusual that attracts people’s attention.

  4. If – if – the commission was simply “do something in Arabic and don’t bother me with the details”, how is there an ethics failure in making that sort of statement while carrying out the commission? As I see it, the whole point of the commission would then have been unconcerned with the actual content resulting. It’s on a par with someone I once saw a few years ago who had “saab” as an Arabic tattoo because he thought it meant “tough” (it actually means “hard” in the sense of “difficult”, which is why the Swedish car manufacturer of the same name faced sales resistance in Arab countries).

    • It IS on par with that. A man walks into a tattoo shop and wants the word ‘tough’ in Arabic tattooed on his bicep. The artist knows what he wants, but puts ‘saab’ on it instead. He did what he was asked to do, he just didn’t do what he knew he was supposed to do.

      • No, it was my understanding that the tattooed man had himself specified the pattern used. The analogy that spares the tattooist is that, even if he had the smattering of Arabic that I have that told me what it really meant, the tattooist would have been ethically exonerated. That’s because of that “don’t bother me” part; without that, it’s part of the professional’s obligations to make sure that there is a full understanding of the commission.

        • No, my point was that what the artst on Homeland did was analogous to the scenario I presented.

          The homeland artist really did worse, however. His actions were more like a tattoo artist who writes ‘swipe card here’ or ‘asshole’ on someone’s lower back when they say they want something cool tattooed in Kanji.

  5. I am on the fence on this one. If the directors specifically wanted to commission concrete ideas in the graffiti, and the set designers took advantage of the directors’ lack of knowledge, then their conduct is unethical. If, however, the directors simply wanted something in Arabic without much guidance, then it is a harder call. If the set designers did to poke fun at the directors’ lack of knowledge, then it was unethical. If, however, they did it to see who would catch it, then I would say it was borderline ethical, especially within the context of “Homeland”, which features the Arab world as a huge component of the story’s plot line. Maybe texagg04 is correct that it is a Golden Rule violation.

    The directors’ responses have been ridiculous, bordering on laughable. Either they got hosed (and they should admit it) or they were in on the joke (in which case, the whole story is merely link bait to generate attention to the show). Mandy Patinkin is terrific, and Claire Danes has fully embraced the lunacy in her character – my wife, who never curses, says Danes’ character is ‘bat shit crazy’.

    Art and set directors always take license with their work all the time, though. They hide things in the scenery all the time, some for the fun of it and some because they don’t care or they are lazy (such as not being careful with accuracy of military uniforms). Is there any difference between writing Arabic messages critical of the show and putting a colonel’s uniform on a Captain or General? What about anachronisms in era-related movies? In “Back to the Future”, the main character plays a Gibson ES-345 with a Bigsby tailpiece, which didn’t exist at that time. How about “The Green Mile”, where Louisiana executes prisoners in the 1930s with the electric but Louisiana didn’t start using the chair until the 1940s.

    I wonder if this is different from, say, product placements in movies or TV shows (“Wayne’s World” had a great spoof on product placement – I’ll bet you never thought you would get a “Wayne’s World” reference in your ethics blogs, no?). Movie viewers don’t necessarily go to the movie theaters to see cell phone ads, or soda ads, or car ads, but all the movies have them. That, to me, is the bigger ethical issue. For instance, “Gone Girl” (awful) is one rolling Volvo advertisement. “The Lego Movie”, obviously was a huge advertisement for their products, too.

    So, on balance, I am going to sit on my ethical fence on this one.


    PS: As an aside, I didn’t get the point of “The Lego Movie”. It criticized conformity (“Everything is awesome. Everything is cool when you’re part of a team”) and celebrates individuality, but the sets, complete with detailed building instructions, saved the company from financial ruin in the 1980s. But, I digress. I still love Legos.

  6. I think it’s all a golden rule breach within the realm of professional ethics. A professional has been asked to do something, and though the client has said “just do something and don’t bother me”, that isn’t an implied license to do something harmful to the client…

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