Last night, when she accepted her Golden Globe for best actress in a drama, Jessica Chastain thanked her Zero Dark Thirty screenwriter, Mark Boal, “for writing a strong, capable, independent woman that stands on her own.” She also dedicated the award to the film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow, who made history three years ago when she became the first woman to win a best director Oscar.
I can’t help but compare my character of Maya to you. Two powerful, fearless women that allow their expert work to stand before them. You’ve said that filmmaking for you is not about breaking gender roles. But when you make a film that allows your character to disobey the conventions of Hollywood, you’ve done more for women in cinema than you take credit for.
It’s hard to say what exact conventions Chastain might be thinking of. It’s undoubtedly true that her character in Zero Dark Thirty — the based-on-firsthand-accounts film that follows the successful CIA investigation that led to finding Osama bin Laden — defies many of the assumed rules of passive leading ladies. Maya certainly isn’t obsessed with finding a boyfriend or shopping for shoes. She’s a very capable, compelling, mission-driven, active character. But Maya does interestingly oscillate between the stereotypes of masculinity and femininity so that she seems more like a chameleon of traditional masculinity than a trailblazer for femininity.
From the moment we first see CIA officer Maya, she punctuates an otherwise dingy, male atmosphere. Her fiery curls and crisp wardrobe set her aesthetically apart from both her grizzled fellow CIA agents and the more political-minded men who run the show. From the very first scenes, she insists on modeling her professional behavior after the men. When they’re in masks for interrogation, she’s in a mask. When they’re not, she’s not. Though she seems hesitant and queasy upon witnessing detainee torture at first, she never voices opposition and quickly comes into her own as an interrogator — a job that otherwise is dominated by male colleagues. When one of the men asks if she’s a little young for this kind of work, their boss responds that “Washington says she’s a killer.” (Watch the Zero Dark Thirty trailer from Sony Pictures on YouTube, below.)
All of this — Maya’s stoic demeanor, her resolve, her ruthlessness, her complete dedication to her work in absence of any semblance of a personal life — is atypical for women in cinema, but it’s par for the course for mysterious male heroes. Though movie spies, cowboys, and action heroes tend to have a love interest, that’s not always the case. And it’s certainly not usually central to his story in the way that romance is for women characters. Maya takes after these kinds of male heroes in her mystery and single-minded obsession with her mission. She embodies the male cinematic ideal and many professional traits associated with testosterone and displayed freely by her male colleagues — physical violence, screaming matches, and the colorful language that comes with bravado.
But there’s one important part of Zero Dark Thirty’s logic that prevents Maya’s quest from being solely associated with masculinity in film. Her deductive logic, though admittedly promising and eventually verified, looks a lot like women’s intuition. And throughout most of the movie, it’s dismissed as such in favor of more empirical but low-level targets. Reading her investigation as women’s intuition might be a stretch but for what comes of another woman colleague’s hunch on a bin Laden lead and for the constant reminder, building up to the raid, that there is no real evidence that bin Laden lives in the Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound that Maya finds through her leads. The men around her alternate between belief in her confidence, outright doubt, and tentative action. According to the movie, the lack of evidence was why Navy SEALs, who can make quick exits, were deployed. The whole world knows that Maya, and the woman CIA officer she was based on, was right. But it’s interesting how often we’re reminded that she could just as easily have been wrong.
Zero Dark Thirty is a nuanced, fascinating look at a story that we won’t be able to fully discover unless and until everything about the mission is declassified. Maya as a masculine figure isn’t a panacea for women’s representation in film any more than Katniss or Merida or any other woman characters who break those boundaries are. But Maya is a bellwether. And so is Bigelow.
Another winner from last night’s Golden Globes, Lena Dunham of Girls, said in her best actress in a TV comedy speech that “this award is for every woman who’s ever felt like there wasn’t a space for her. This show has made a space for me.” It’s no coincidence that the projects that end up carving out spaces for different kinds of women characters — ones like Maya, who rightly inspires much analysis — are films and shows that women are so deeply involved in behind the camera.