Women & War Games: A Feminist Eye on Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty
“A woman with opinions had better develop a thick skin and a loud voice.” – Anya Seton, The Winthrop Woman.
With the weight of The Hurt Locker Oscar win hanging under her belt, Kathryn Bigelow set out to tell the (mostly) true events of torturing detainees for information regarding the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty.
A twofold effort on the front of both the war on women and the war on terror, Zero Dark Thirty tells the story of an undercover CIA operative allegedly responsible for the successful disposal of the infamous terrorist.
Maya, the operative in question, is a smart, authoritative, no-nonsense woman the CIA recruited “right out of high school”. Her capable, if obsessive nature is belied by an emotional resonance that reads as both believable and relatable. It is, however, a stretch from the truth as Bigelow walks the fine line between reality and dramatization.
Bigelow was enticed by the concept of a go-getter “lone wolf” female in the undisclosed CIA agent’s repertoire of character traits. Portrayed by Jessica Chastain, “Maya” (not the operative’s real name) upholds the ideals of a cookie-cutter “strong female character”: she tries to be “one of the boys” (her use of rough language right off the bat, which sounds slightly off-putting when spoken via Chastain’s thin tones), she is the aforementioned “lone wolf” trying to do everything and anything herself, and she is described by characters on multiple occasions as “killer” for her carpe jugulum tactics in taking down any and everyone who stands in her way. Or even those whom she thinks are standing in her way.
Despite this, Mark Boald and Kathryn Bigelow were able to craft some humanity into Maya’s character by portraying her as (gradually) emotional. Forced to harden for the brutality of her job, she does grieve the loss of her friends; fears for her life, and in the quintessential ending scene, the dam of strength finally cracks and she breaks down into tears from the entire culmination of her journey through a Middle-Eastern (and personal) Hell.
During a panel of Q&A at the film’s release, Jessica Chastain made note of being surprised by Maya’s involvement with the fall of Osama Bin Laden. “Why would I assume a woman wouldn’t be involved in this kind of research? The wonderful thing about working on this film is, historically in movies, lead characters are played by women who are defined by men, whether it’s a love interest, or they’re the victim of a man, and Maya’s not like that.”
This critical element is one of the driving points of the film: the fact that Maya is simply a character, and not “just” a female character (a.k.a. “plot device”) to further a male character’s story, is crucial. Chastain goes on to add, “I don’t know that Kathryn Bigelow would make a movie like that, because…she stands on her own . . . she’s capable and intelligent, and I think she represents this generation of woman, and that was really exciting for me to discover on the page in the script, and to discover about our history.”
One could make the argument that Chastain refers to both American and feminist history. In lieu of feminism’s third wave, media is moving further and further away from the misogynistic overtones of females-as-plot-devices. But while media follows “trends”, reality is less keen to do the same.
For example, the unnamed operative was denied for promotion that, according to the Washington Post, “would have raised her civil service rank from GS-13 to GS-14, bringing an additional $16,000 in annual pay.” The reason for this denial was undisclosed, but hints are dropped: either due to her sex or to her temper (she sent a cold email out to her fellow officers saying only she deserved the award for service and had a “reputation for clashing with colleagues”), she is likely under investigation for leaking sensitive information for the sake of the film.
Said film is also under investigation as a post-feminist and not outright feminist piece. One article makes a comparison to the breakout hit show Homeland in saying that “Zero Dark Thirty’s Maya (Jessica Chastain) and Homeland’s Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) are certainly cut from the same cotton-polyester blend cloth. They’re both young, willowy, fair-haired women hell-bent on finding a man:Maya is after bin Laden and Carrie after Abu Nazir, OBL’s fictional counterpart.”
This paints a frustrating picture of a whole-new batch of cookie-cutter characters. “Strong independent females”, or, as the article puts it, “no-nonsense women with passion and indignation to spare, and more often than not, the smartest person in the room. They’re frequently the only women in a man’s world, but they’re not the type to make a big deal about it. Their hunches are usually ignored by exasperated higher-ups, but that has less to do with their gender than political convenience and grandstanding.”
Throughout the film, Maya is at odds with every single one of her male opposites—save for perhaps one who does what she wants right off the bat (Jack, who gets her a phone that can tap into an alleged terrorist’s phone). Her higher-ups are constantly being undermined by what could be skewed as “women’s intuition” gone full throttle: Maya trusts her gut alongside her brain and is just as driven by the task as any other operative—if every other operative were also powered by jet fuel and ten 5-Hour Energies.
Her relentlessness and ruthlessness are the only things that offset her character’s believability factors: but one could also make the argument that Maya has more pitted against her than most of her other operatives. The tally of females in the film is low, with about two or three other women with speaking parts. English speaking parts, I should say: there are women who don’t speak English also featured, but in small doses.
While on the subject, the film, shockingly enough, does not manage to pass the Bechdel Test. For those who don’t know, the Bechdel Test “asks if a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man”. This is usually a critical indicator on whether or not a film can fall into a feminist category, or if the women are simply there to further a man’s story.
In a restaurant scene with Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), Jessica asks Maya whether or not she has a boyfriend, and discusses other men they know. While this may seem like a minor detail, all it truly did was serve the purpose of painting Maya as a lonelier and lonelier lone wolf…which the audience already knew. This could’ve been done just as easily by having her restrict herself to the topic of work: the unnecessary addition of an allegedly-married woman (Jessica was said to be a “mother of three”) asking a younger woman whether or not she’s found someone is at best a miss in terms of hit-or-miss when it comes to characterizing Maya. It also doesn’t make conversational sense in context.
Aspects of Mark Boald’s script already cover Maya’s isolation and focus in the action lines alone:
- “I’m fine.” She’s not (2). Maya internalizes her struggles to appear less vulnerable.
- Maya is still by herself (51). Maya puts herself in isolation when she feels particularly weak.
- Maya is eating lunch by herself when she is startled to see the CIA Director standing by her table (89). She prefers doing things alone and is caught off-guard when people offer assistance or collaboration.
Another important issue to consider is that the women are pitted against one another in this film. Jessica and Maya have a “rivalry” that comes from both of them being women in a very demanding job.
Rather than working together collaboratively as would be expected in the CIA program, Maya and Jessica subtly butt heads over assignments and hunches. This goes against the idea of modern feminism wherein women are not one another’s enemies. They do not need to be in competition for best looks—or in this case, best busts (referring to terrorist busts). Were it not for Maya’s cutthroat demeanor and Jessica’s clashing habit of jumping the gun, it’s possible these two could have gone a lot further both in reality and on the page.
But that brings us back to the issue of whether or not the majority of these events were dramatized for either political purposes or even the purpose of fanning feminist flames.