Zero Dark Thirty and celebrating ‘Imperial Feminism’
I still haven’t seen Zero Dark Thirty, which is why I’ve hesitated to write about it. That being said, I already have my biases based on the movie’s synopsis and several analyses I’ve read (Jane Mayor’s critique at the New Yorker is a must read). The movie has rightly stirred controversy because it depicts torture as having led to finding Osama bin Ladin.
I was even more disturbed by the film when I noticed several feminists celebrating it simply because its director (Kathryn Bigelow) and main character (Jessica Chastain as Maya) are both women.
Dana Stephens at Slate called Bigelow a “feminist folk hero” for having directed both Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker in 2008. Many feminists on twitter were elated to see Chastain win a Golden Globe for her role as “Maya”. They cheered on Chastain when she praised Bigelow for “do[ing] more for women in cinema that you take credit for.” During the awards, many feminists on twitter even accused the film’s critics of being sexist.
Yes it’s true that Bigelow has received prestigious awards in an industry dominated by male writers, directors and producers. But this alone doesn’t automatically make her films a symbol of female progress. How can her movies promote gender equality when they honor the most destructive characteristics of American patriarchy? The glorification of war, imperialism, empire, torture and hatred of brown people are themes of some of America’s most popular films. The only thing Zero Dark Thirty does differently is it puts a female on the face of imperialism.
Then there’s the fact that those calling the film feminist are speaking from a place of (typically white) privilege where their version of gender equality means little more than a few select women joining the ranks of the powerful to facilitate a system of oppression. Meanwhile, poor women and women of color remain invisible. The female heroine in Zero Dark Thirty is a part of that very system. We’re supposed to see her as the embodiment of feminism because she proves that women, just like men, are capable of hatred, vengeance and war crimes. Indeed, women can murder scores of brown people, some of whom might be women as well (but who cares, they poor and brown and dress weird), just as chauvinistically as men.
Feminist theorist Zillah Eisenstein details everything that is wrong with this picture, writing:
I wrote at the start of the Iraq and Afghan wars that Bush’s war room should not use women’s rights rhetoric to wrap the bombs in. Do not justify these wars and killing in the name of Afghan women’s rights against the Taliban. You do not drop bombs on the women you are supposedly trying to save. Do not now cleanse the wars of/on terror with the face of a white blonde female. Do not detract from the heinous aspects of the terror war by making it look gender neutral.
My point: do not justify or explain US war revenge with a pretty red-head white woman with an “obsession” to catch the mastermind of 9/11. This film is not to be made seemingly progressive or feminist because it presents a female CIA agent as central to the demise of Osama. Nor should any of us think that it is “good” that Maya is female, or that several females had an important hand in the murder of Osama. There is nothing feminist in revenge. We can learn from the Indian feminists just now who say that they do not seek the death penalty for the men responsible for the brutal death and rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey. Kavita Krishnan says: “Gender justice needs to be brought and kept in the centre stage of the debate, not the death penalty”.
Maya is not believable to me. She is an awful stereotype: a driven, obsessive woman, alone with no friends. She has no depth. She is all surface. She says she prefers to drop a bomb rather than use the Seal team. She says she knows 100 per cent that Osama is in the building. She says she is the “motherf—er” who found the safe house in the first place. She assures the men of the Seal team that Osama is there and that they must kill him for her.
I was thinking through the film – if they hate us, they do so because we are hateful. I am sad to know that this film will be seen across the globe. It will be read as another story of imperial empire with a (white) female twist. How unfair to all the people in the US who do not choose revenge and murder. How unfair to my Pakistani friends who are also US citizens. How unfair to most of us across the globe.
I was hoping that maybe no nods would be given to Jessica Chastain for her role as Maya at the Golden Globes. I was hoping that no one would give a feminist nod to Kathryn Bigelow for directing ZDT. I was just hoping that maybe feminism would not get mucked up in the conversation about torture and the murder of Osama. But that was not to happen.
Chastain calls Maya an “unsung hero” and I think this is deeply troubling. But it got worse for me when Chastain accepted the Golden Globe Award for best actress and thanks Bigelow for putting forward “powerful, fearless women” who disobey and make a difference.
I do not like the film or the way that Bigelow and Chastain choose to depict it. Given both, and the way each bleeds into the other, there is no neutral ground here. I think it is important to reject the imperial feminism that is embedded here.
It would be good to remember that there is no worthy feminism without justice and if there is no justice, there is no peace.