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Is 'Zero Dark Thirty' a Feminist Manifesto Or a Picture Of American Imperialism?

Zero Dark Thirty was nothing if not controversial: The film sparked impassioned debate about every facet of its depiction of the CIA’s decades-long search for Osama Bin Laden, including its potential access to classified information, portrayal of torture, Pakistan, and even health workers

In spite of the heated debate, director Kathryn Bigelow and star Jessica Chastain, who plays the obsessive CIA agent Maya hell-bent on finding Osama Bin Laden, have received numerous accolades for the film, Chastain up for an Academy Award and already honored with a Golden Globe. 

The filmmakers are not blind to the uniqueness of putting a strong female character at the center of a military oriented film: Bigelow is part of a social media campaign tying Zero Dark Thirty to the recent end of the ban on women in combat and screenwriter Mark Boal recently told Salon that Bin Laden was in part defeated by “a liberated Western woman." 

Others have already noted the concerning implications of viewing Zero Dark Thirty as a feminist text. Zillah Eisenstein sees Maya as an imperial feminist. Rania Khalek takes this a step further, contending, “The only thing Zero Dark Thirty does differently [from other military films] is it puts a female on the face of imperialism."

As Andrew Ohehir asks, “Is torture justified if the torturer is a university-educated woman, and the tortured a bigoted Muslim fundamentalist?” Playing on Glenn Greenwald’s characterization of the film as “overarching, suffocating jingoism,” I think you can take Ohehir’s question a step further and ask: are we as Americans more comfortable with celebration of U.S. militarism when it comes from a woman? 

Based on Maya’s behavior in the film, it seems that that the answer is a resounding yes.  Maya does things that, coming from a muscle-bound male CIA agent, or even Chastain’s foil Joel Edgerton, would seem boorish and out of place. 

When Leon Panetta asks her who she is in a high level meeting, she responds with, “I'm the motherf—er who found this place, sir."  Yet it’s hard not to root for her as she fights to seek Osama Bin Laden finally killed and captured as vengeance for 9/11, invoked ominously in the first few minutes of the film. Her dedication to the cause, willing to blackmail and threaten other CIA agents, as well as torture and waterboard prisoners, seems just and strong coming from Chastain’s slight frame when it might seem aggressive and macho from a male character. Maya’s coercive tactics, it’s clear to the audience, are demonstrative of her being a “strong woman” not of the CIA’s militant power or dehumanization in dealing with suspected terrorists.

Reports of the CIA agent who Maya is potentially based on reveal that Bigelow and Chastain’s characterization of Maya as aggressive, obsessive, and antagonistic is not far from the truth. However, the character traits that make her a compelling character might seem more concerning in reality. Author Jane Mayer writes of a “redheaded hard-driving” operative connected to whom Maya was based on, who, at government expense, flew to see a particular detainee waterboarded simply because it would be “cool.”

As the film opened roughly around the time that the European Court of Human Rights issued a groundbreaking ruling that held the CIA accountable for the unjust torture and capture of car salesman Khaled El-Masri, who the same agent may have kept imprisoned longer than necessary, it brings up questions about the real world implications of Maya’s single-minded pursuit, and what it says about American conceptions of feminism, that we are so enamored with it onscreen. 

Maya’s status as a strong woman fighting against the odds is the embodiment of a classic film narrative, but it allows the audience to be distracted from the implications of her actions: It doesn’t matter if a man or a woman gives the order to torture, and our bloated military spending, championed in Maya’s ultimate victory through the Marine action at Bin Laden’s compound, is bloated no matter the gender equity within the institution. 

Maya’s petite but resilient character not only cloaks the real problems with our national security policies in a veil of feminism, but also justifies them through her nonthreatening femininity. In order to truly engage with our understandings of the problems in our national defense, as well as what makes a feminist hero, we have to look beyond the veil and critically examine the United States’ role on the global stage, men and woman alike.  

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