Zero Dark Thirty. Strong Female Character, But Dangerous Messages

by | January 14, 2013
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture


Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

by A. Lynn. Cross-posted from Nerdy Feminist with permission.

So I started writing this piece yesterday. I came home all amped up from having enjoyed Zero Dark Thirty and I wanted to blog about how awesome I felt the female character was in it. In the process of researching what other people were saying to bolster my views, I came across some very legitimate concerns of the film’s depictions of torture (details later.)

It changed how I felt about the film in general, and I decided to go back and think about things with this new found information. Below are my reworked thoughts. (What an important reminder that your own personal interpretation of things, while valid and important, can often be incomplete without interacting with others and listening to what’s out there.)

I’ll try to keep this relatively spoiler free, but no guarantees. But, let’s be honest…this one of those pre-spoiled movies. It’s called history.

Anyway, I had the chance to see Zero Dark Thirty last night at an advanced screening. I went in interested, but skeptical. I like Kathryn Bigelow. I liked The Hurt Locker. And I was excited when she became the first woman to win an Oscar for best director. But I wasn’t surprised that the honor went to woman who had just directed a film that was so deeply male centric. So when I heard that Bigelow’s next feature was another war film, I kind of rolled my eyes. But then I saw the trailer and I became really intrigued. It had something which The Hurt Locker lacked…a prominent female character.

Ok, Bigelow, you have my attention.

Before I go on, I want to be perfectly blunt about this: there’s nothing I like about the war film genre. It’s not my jam in a general way, but it also philosophically bothers me. I see it as just a bunch of hyper-masculine posturing and senseless violence which is glorified because of “patriotism” and “honor.” And this feeling goes beyond my movie preferences. For example, while I believe he was a deeply evil person, I didn’t cheer when Osama Bin Laden’s death was announced. (I don’t celebrate death in a general way.) And I similarly didn’t feel an urge to cheer when this occurred in the film.

I’m sure there are many people who will be drawn in by this war based, violent, proud-to-be-an-American subject matter, but I just want to make it crystal clear that’s not what *I* liked about it and I find it problematic content. But within this same film exists a story about a very strong woman, created by women.

Bigelow is a master of suspense. That is what she got right with The Hurt Locker and her eye for creating it carries on into Zero Dark Thirty. Beyond that, Bigelow and Jessica Chastain (who plays the lead, Maya) tell a story about a woman who is extremely compelling and quite strong. Maya is serious about her job. She pushes through even when it becomes too much for many of her male colleagues. Chastain recently shared some excellent insights about Maya:

When I read the script, from the very beginning I was shocked that there was a woman at the centre of it. Then I was disgusted with myself that I was shocked by it. Why would I be so shocked? Of course, a woman could have done this. You start looking at lead female characters in film, they’re usually defined by the men in their lives. They’re either the victim of the man or the love interest of the man. Maya is not. She’s not protected or mentored really…She’s intelligent, capable, and she can stand on her own.

I agree. I was really impressed with this character. She’s a leader. She’s disciplined. She’s determined and strong willed. Maya is really the central focus of the film, and that’s a tale that could have gone untold. We could have continued to hear the story involving a bunch of Navy Seal dudes, without any mention of a woman behind it all. But here Bigelow and Chastain bring to life a very real woman (who is still currently undercover.) Throughout the film Maya is mostly interacting with male colleagues and detainees, but there are a few other female characters and it does pass the Bechdel test. Bigelow herself made some very feminist comments recently, saying how Zero Dark Thirty is “a real tribute to three or four very, very strong women.”

I couldn’t help but like Maya and be appreciative that Bigelow’s first film post-Oscar win at least has somewhat of a feminist spin.

However, like I mentioned, in researching for this post, I came across so many concerns about the torture content in the film. Critics feel that the film depicts torture as a necessary evil instead of just evil. And the more I think about it, the more I feel that the criticism is well founded. While screenwriter Mark Boal’s narrative doesn’t explicitly say, “tortue gave us Bin Laden!” the story certainly does cloud the sequence of events and sends an inaccurate implication that torture led to raid on Bin Laden’s compound. AsAlex Gibney wrote:

Senators Carl Levin, Dianne Feinstein and John McCain wrote a letter to Michael Lynton, the Chairman of Sony Pictures, accusing the studio of misrepresenting the facts and “perpetuating the myth that torture is effective,” and asking for the studio to correct the false impression created by the film. The film conveys the unmistakable conclusion that torture led to the death of bin Laden. That’s wrong and dangerously so, precisely because the film is so well made.

The more I read on the subject the less excited I began to feel about the film. I mean, what I liked about it (rich suspense, captivating story line, and strong women) could have been maintained without creating the illusion that torture was effective (and therefore, perhaps, justified.) And the more I contemplated it, the more frustrated I became that this amazing female character (Maya) occurred within the context of all this violence.  Where are the characters like Maya in female centric settings and stories? It just rang true with my previous concerns of Bigelow winning the Oscar because she was appealing to stereotypically masculine audiences. And it made me think of what I wrote previously in regards to moms in the military: I feel strongly that you can’t achieve real equality through expecting women to behave and think like men in order to be seen as legitimate, to get ahead, and be successful.

So in taking a second look at the film, I’ve come to the ultimate conclusion that I can’t really call Zero Dark Thirty a “feminist film.” Yes, it contains a strong female character, but to me, a feminist film wouldn’t send such a potentially dangerous and flat out inaccurate message about torture and the justified use of violence. I’m not saying that it would sugar coat the realities of the world, but it certainly wouldn’t take liberties to re-tell the story in this manner.

All of this isn’t to say that Zero Dark Thirty isn’t a fantastic film. It is, from a cinematic/storytelling/entertainment perspective. But it is also one which can’t be taken as truth and and I hope that its viewers take this into consideration. I suppose that could be said about everything. As I often say, it’s so important to be a critical consumer of media, for these very reasons.

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