My students recently asked me which movie I thought passed the Bechdel test, and without thinking, I named the only one that came to mind: Zero Dark Thirty. It’s the only movie I’ve seen that centers on a female protagonist who moves the story forward with her intelligence, resilience, courage, and strength– and not her sex.
In Zero Dark Thirty, Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a true heroine. Today’s heroine. She’s a CIA operative who spends ten years following a lead to Osama Bin Ladin’s location that no one believes is viable enough to pursue. She is determined, refusing to give up on her instincts even while her male supervisors chastise and threaten her to surrender and move on. She persists to the point of making herself a nuisance, going so far as to yell at her supervisor when he tells her he’s going to shut down her search. He caves in.
She stands up for herself when she needs to, holds herself together even when witnessing hard-core brutality, and uses common sense and logic to persuade the men she works with and for to listen to her. Her confidence and refusal to give up offers Navy Seals and other male CIA agents the boost they need to follow her — not the other way around. Some say she’s obsessed, but had it not been for her dogmatic pursuit — her keen insights, determination, and intelligence — Bin Ladin would not have been discovered. And her character is based on a real CIA operative, as New York Times Op-Ed columnist Roger Cohen points out:
(The film has much to say about female single-mindedness and good sense as contrasted with male huffiness and volatility.) Maya is based on a real-life agent. But she is clearly a fictionalized creation who serves an essential narrative purpose — the conflation in one attractive, patriotic woman of all the practical, police-work determination to find Bin Laden from which her country, the United States, had found myriad distractions at the mall.
What I loved even more about this film is that this female protagonist is not sexualized at all. She is at no point in the movie reduced to a sexual object. There are no tight shirts revealing large breasts, which most war movies like to throw in there to appeal to the predominantly male audience. There are no shots of her rear end, her breasts, or any other part of her body. She doesn’t wear skirts or tight dresses, and her hair is never impeccably brushed or curled. She is the embodiment of a female protagonist who forces us to focus on attributes that remind us that she is brilliant and in control.
Her power — her ability to make the men in her unit listen to her and follow her — rests in her ability to lead, her confidence, and her inimitable persistence. It has nothing to do with her sex, her femininity, or her sexual relationships. As a matter of fact, it is made perfectly clear at the beginning of the film that she is not the kind of girl to have casual relationships — so we do not see her in any sex scenes whatsoever. This movie is all about the search, her will, and the goals of catching the man who was responsible for over 3,000 lives when he orchestrated the destruction that ensued on 9/11.
There should be more films like these, wherein women are portrayed with strength and courage without being sold to the public as sexual objects. It is a film I can appreciate and love and want to share with my daughter when she is older — or even with my son. It is a movie that shows us all that women don’t need to sell out by undressing in films, engaging in overtly sexual scenes, dressing provocatively, or being reduced to sexualized body parts for the sake of fame. We can tell a story on the screen without resorting to sensationalism and lewdness, and the fact that this film had numerous nominations for best film, best actress, and best director says it all.
And this has a lot to do with the fact that the director is a woman: Kathryn Bigelow. While we find very few women in the director’s seat, here is one unique and important woman who shows us what we can accomplish when we throw ourselves into our work, determined to leave our mark. She left her mark when she directed The Hurt Locker, another war film set in Iraq. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that a woman had directed that film, and I was ecstatic when I found out that she also directed Zero Dark Thirty. She is the first woman recipient of the Film Critics award for Best Director — for both movies.
Thank you, Kathryn Bigelow, for telling a story that doesn’t threaten the power of women by reducing the protagonist to a sexualized entity. Thank you for providing us with a positive and intelligent heroine. Thank you for being an inspiration and a role model as a female director and story-teller that captures the essence of real women.
One thought on “Feminist Gaze: Female Agency in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’”
Excellent perspective on Zero Dark Thirty. Our 7-year-old boy loves Zootopia, and I think many of the same points apply to the cartoon character of Judy (Ginnifer Goodwin). We definitely need more films that feature strong, non-sexualized, female protagonists.