Odds and Ends: Zero Dark Thirty and Gender Politics

A big thanks to Jillian McKeown and Stacy Sandow for being such swell movie-going pals and conversationalists. This post was largely inspired by a post-screening discussion with them.


One of the most disheartening aspects of the “torture controversy” surrounding Zero Dark Thirty is that, while the torture scenes obviously do play an important role in the movie, they are also only one small part of an ambitious film that ends up saying and doing a lot of other very interesting things. The torture-talk has unfortunately been so dominant in the media discourse surrounding the movie (including, I’m sorry to say, on this blog) that it has ended up overshadowing a lot of Kathryn Bigelow’s other considerable achievements. Fortunately, critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky has perceptively analyzed the film as a fascinating portrait of 21st century warfare as an “elaborate technocracy” – where strategic moves are made only after data has been analyzed and probability calculated. But I would argue it isn’t just the content that makes Zero Dark Thirty a distinctly 21st-century work of art, it’s also the form: does this mark the first instance of the aesthetics of “Google Earth” being incorporated into a film’s visual design?

Even more surprisingly absent has been any discussion of the movie’s gender politics. What seems increasingly obvious with repeated viewings is the extent to which Zero Dark Thirty must have been highly personal for its female director, and it is tempting to read it as something like a personal testament. Jessica Chastain’s tenacious Maya (“Washington says she’s a killer”) and her position within the “boys’ club” of the CIA can be seen as analogous to Bigelow and her position within male-dominated Hollywood. There is a great moment early on, so subtle I didn’t catch it on first viewing, when “enhanced interrogation”-expert Dan (Jason Clark), a character whose fratboy mannerisms I described in an earlier post, first introduces Maya to their superior, Joseph (Kyle Chandler). Maya is visible to both men through a large glass window but remains out of earshot. Dan nudges Joseph and says, “Was I lyin’ or what?” Maya then emerges from the room and greets both men before Joseph can answer the question or Dan can elaborate on what exactly he means. We can only surmise that Dan means he wasn’t lying about Maya being, you know, hot. I couldn’t help but wonder how many times a similar phrase must have been uttered either just before or after – or, heaven forbid, during – a meeting between Bigelow and Hollywood studio executives.

Joseph, with his Donald Trump-hair and steely demeanor, is in many ways the real “villain” of Zero Dark Thirty because he is such a concrete obstacle in Maya’s path – unlike the Al Qaeda terrorists who remain an abstract, largely faceless blob and thus come across more like some mythological force. If, next month, Jessica Chastain wins the Best Actress Oscar that she so richly deserves, it will likely be because of the hallway screaming match scene between Maya and Joseph – the most dramatic moment in the film. The relationship between Dan and Joseph is also intriguing; there’s a sense that, as archetypal characters, Joseph-the-successful-suit is who Dan-the-fratboy is destined to become – and this is even before we see Dan’s physical transformation from tattooed, wavy-haired beardo to clean-shaven executive-type. We are left to wonder if Maya will ever rise to a comparably lofty position in the CIA or if there’s a glass ceiling in her way. The fact that this thirty-something woman is referred to as “the girl,” even as the agency expert who identifies Osama bin Laden’s corpse at the end, and the manner in which she’s banished from the main table during a meeting with James Gandolfini’s Leon Panetta (who, to carry my Hollywood analogy to its logical conclusion, can be seen as representing a studio mogul), suggests the latter.

But perhaps a silver lining can be found in the dialogue scene between Maya and Debbie, an even younger female agent who makes the crucial discovery that the courier they’ve been looking for was in their files under a different name all along. (This scene, plus several more between Maya and a character played by Jennifer Ehle, make Zero Dark Thirty one of the few American films in recent years to pass the Bechdel test with flying colors.) Debbie clearly looks up to Maya as a role model just as surely as up-and-coming female filmmakers look up to Kathryn Bigelow, who may be unfairly shut out of this year’s Best Director race at the Oscars but who will forever be known as the motherfucker who directed this masterpiece. Sir.


About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

10 responses to “Odds and Ends: Zero Dark Thirty and Gender Politics

  • Susan Doll

    Thanks so much for writing this piece. I am frustrated at the discourse on this film and the way Bigelow’s shut-out from a Best Director’s nomination is not being addressed as a symptom of the boy’s club mentality of Hollywood. I think the film is about this, and that make’s it Bigelow’s story, too. Despite the astounding statistics regarding the lack of women directors, and the dismal nominations for best actress this year, my attempts to discuss this have been met with contrary remarks from male cinephiles who attempt to explain it away with logic. “Well, she just won one, so therefore her shut-out wasn’t because she was a woman,” or “Haneke’s nomination will bring attention to foreign films so that’s good.” I find it more frustrating now that I teach film history to filmmaking students—half of whom are female. I know what they are up against.

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  • petya kaloferova

    I have wanted to see Zero Dark Thirty ever since it came out but for one reason or another I never got the chance to watch it until we saw it in class. I was so excited to finally watch that movie, and it not only met my expectations but also exceeded them. The movie is just phenomenal!!!
    While some critics belie that Kathryn Bigelow created an amazingly powerful film, others argue that the movie reveals too much torture. Sure the torture scenes are hard to watch, they make you close your eyes and ears at times, they give you nightmares days after you have seen the film but also these scenes reveal reality. Torture was used in order to get information out of the enemy and the movie is showing it. These horrific scenes of torture might be hard to watch but play a huge role in the movie. They make the film feel more realistic, more powerful, and more suspenseful.
    Also Kathryn Bigelow is an artist. She should have the right to freely express her vision and create her piece of art.

  • Yev Stambula

    For me this was the most exciting movie that we watch so far in the class and i was really happy when I say it on the syllabus. I think you can view this movie in two different ways: first one is just like an action/documentary and second way is to watch this movie as art piece and look for more detail. When I watch this movie for the first time I didn’t know too much about this movie so I was expecting more like an action type movie (shooting, blood, a lot of dead people, etc) so I was really disappointed at the end because movie sort of anticlimactic in my opinion. If you like me and you were waiting for some huge action to happen you will be disappointed like I did. But when I watch this movie for the second and third time I changed my expectation and started to pay attention to details. When I watched this movie for the first time I was thinking about Jessica Chastain more of a secondary character and Jason Clarke and other men as main characters. That’s probably the reason why I didn’t like the movie the first time. Once i change my focus of the main character movie started to make so much more sense and became way more interesting and more informative. Now this movie shows this lonely female agent at this “boys club” where everyone under mains every move she makes. Director did a great job showing the real struggle of the agent and how until the very end of the movie she still was treated as secondary character. Kathryn Bigelow did a great job to represent struggle for the respect and struggle that agent had to prove something to herself.

  • Sophia Almeroth

    I think, generally, for viewers watching Zero Dark Thirty for the first time, it is almost easy to look past and miss the subtle (and not so subtle) gender stereotypes and prejudices experienced specifically by the female characters in this film.
    Now, I cannot say 100% why this is, but in my opinion it is easy for these “bits” to go unnoticed, because of the big picture- which is, of course, their/her quest to find and kill Osama Bin Laden. On top of the obvious gender stereotyping done by all of the males in the movie (viewing her physically immediately upon meeting her, Dan telling Maya should leave by assuming she won’t be able to handle seeing it, being told by Kyle that she should stand away from all the men in the meeting), I also wanted to point out something else about gender roles within ZDT, specifically within the two main female roles.
    When Maya and the other female CIA agent, Jessica, first meet, they don’t exactly hit it off. In fact, multiple years go by before the even begin their friendship. There is this element of competition between them, up until they become friends. This is not all that surprising within females specifically, especially when they are the only two in a highly male-dominated field.
    I recently watched an informative documentary titled Miss Representation, written and directed by Jennifer Niebel Newsom. According to Wikipedia, the film explores how mainstream media contribute to the under-representation of women in influential positions by circulating limited and often disparaging portrayals of women.
    Something the film talked about, which I found not only interesting but extremely true, is that women in these positions of power and/or who hold positions in male-dominating fields is that the women involved often turn on each other, instead of coming together to work together. This is similar to Maya and Jessica’s relationship for about the first half of the movie. Specifically in the scene where they are both in the kitchen at night making coffee, the almost rivalry-like relationship is so prevalent in this scene.
    I found it quite interesting that the director, Kathryn Bigelow, decided to invest time in developing their relationship in such a way. Is it true that when girls first meet another girl, especially in a situation like Maya’s, they immediately and off-the-bat don’t like each other? Well, it actually kind of seems like it, and the fact that Bigelow created this tension between Maya and Jessica proves how amazing of a director she is- creating inner-rivalry within the “big picture” rivalry.

    • Charles "Pete" McCarthy

      Sophia, I was a friend of your father, Dave, many years ago when we served together in the Army at Ft. Benning and later in life when we we visited each others homes and kept in phone contact. I think of him often and we would like to contact you about his death and the plan to place his ashes at Arlington. I don’t want to be intrusive but would appreciate a response. Thank you, Pete McCarthy

  • M Zavos

    In addition to being an allegory for Bigelow’s experience in the film industry, Maya’s position in the CIA also demonstrates the difficulties many women have to face in male-dominated careers. During her first interrogation, Dan tells Maya that she “might want to wait outside” and that there’s “no shame” in that. But the way he states this makes it clear that there is quite a bit of shame in that – and Maya knows this. She knows that if she doesn’t go in with Dan and see the torture with her own eyes, then she will never be viewed as an equal among the men. Women are often forced to work twice as hard or be twice as persuasive to prove their competency, when men don’t have to. In order to prove that she is just as able as her male peers, Maya must behave as them. Additionally, the men in the CIA are constantly questioning Maya’s intelligence and ability. She must prove she knows what she is talking about, that her experience makes her just as wise as her peers, and yet they still doubt her enough to banish her from the main table during the meeting with Leon.

    By the end of the film, Maya had proved that she could “hang with the boys” but I was disappointed in the way she did so. She was clearly uncomfortable with the brutal torture she sees during her first interrogation, and even goes as far as to suggest different tactics (such as lying) for interrogations that take place later. However, as the film goes on and Maya becomes increasingly more obsessed with capturing Osama Bin-Laden, her discomfort with torture fades. Maya had the opportunity to show that her ideas worked and were more humane than the current practices – she could have proved them wrong. Instead of challenging the behavior of this so-called “boys club,” she assimilated into it, accepting their ideas as better than her own. Which, ultimately, will not help future women who want to challenge male dominance get through the door.

  • Han Na

    I think that the movie tells something about importance of men and women working together. Men and women are different in ways that how brains function and in physical strength. In torture scenes, the camera catches the emotional state of Maya. With the use of her male co-workers’ strength, Maya tries to be strong, but such interrogations are tough for her.

    As time goes by, emotional development of Maya is portrayed. Everything seems strange to her when she is first introduced. However, she becomes obsessed with catching Osams bin Laden. After all, she is a human who works towards a goal in men’s world. Instead of happiness, the mix of her feelings of emptiness and fear for future is shown through her expression at the end. It is probably how the director Kathryn Biglow felt after receiving an Oscar.

    Maya devotes her life catching Osama bin Laden, and yet, she is still referred to as the girl. Discrimination is being made without our awareness, more frequently in boy’s club.

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