War in a Woman’s World: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

During a recent Q&A, following a screening of Zero Dark Thirty, actress Jessica Chastain commented how one of the things that made her fall for this screenplay was discovering that a woman had played such a key role in the hunt and eventual assassination of Osama Bin Laden. She praised her character Maya, as being a woman who is not defined by her relationship with a man and thought that she was a perfect representation of the women of this generation.

This eloquent moment was preceded by a very telling Freudian slip which had the moderator compare her to Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City and not Carrie Mathison of Homeland confirming the sad notion that in a very male-centric world it’s still not easy for some to grasp the concept of a female lead becoming a real heroine, free of stereotype.

Women have rarely played a part in any war movies, other than when they are wives (Mrs. Miniver) or temptresses (From Here to Eternity) who remain peripheral to the “big boys” doing the hard work. In 2009 when she directed The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow proved that a woman behind the camera could deliver action sequences as thrilling as any man and one of the saddest things that kept coming up review after review, was that no one could overlook this. Few reviews failed to obviate the filmmaker’s gender and instead of celebrating the film’s achievements as a cerebral dissection of war and as a flawless action movie, what was celebrated was a woman’s ability to overcome her “femininity” in order to enter the tough world of men.

At first glance it would have seemed as if Zero Dark Thirty was Bigelow’s way of proving to the guys that she had balls just as big as theirs; however the real joy of this movie is how matter of fact she is about establishing the differences between men and women, without being condescending to either sex. “[Kathryn is] the only filmmaker who could tell that story” said Chastain and now as she is in serious contention of becoming the first woman to win two directing Oscars, Bigelow should be taken more seriously not because she is “a woman doing a man’s work” but because she is one helluva filmmaker, who in fact has proved she is more efficient at tapping the male psyche than some of her more famous male counterparts.

Few portraits of masculinity have been as searing and incisive as The Hurt Locker and few movies will detail the complex nature of female obsession as Zero Dark Thirty. In a nutshell, she can do it all. Claiming that her achievements are more impressive because of her gender is truly paying a disservice to her and to every important woman changing the world through politics, science and art.