Kathryn Bigelow is what some people refer to as “a girl in the boys club.” She’s a woman who’s worked her way up by playing a man’s game better than men play it. She became the only woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director (for 2008’s The Hurt Locker) by specializing in a genre often thought to be uniquely male: action movies — about soldiers, cops, vampires, undercover FBI agents who learn the joys of surfing — that explode with graphic violence.
Bigelow herself tends to be uncomfortable with discussions of her gender and how it influences her work. But it’s hard not to see Bigelow’s latest film, Zero Dark Thirty, and its protagonist, CIA agent Maya (played by Jessica Chastain, who won a Golden Globe for the role), as Bigelow’s defense of the girl in the boys club.
Bigelow has claimed that Maya is wholly based on a composite of CIA agents, and that “I’m not in any way conflating this story with myself.” Maybe so. On the other hand, women who excel in male realms face great pressure to avoid identifying with other women. As Ariel Levy writes in Female Chauvinist Pigs, your success is less threatening to the men around you if you are the “exception that proves the rule, and the rule is that women are inferior.”
Whether the similarity is veiled, subconscious or simply coincidental, it’s hard not to see Bigelow in Maya. Here is a woman who’s neither interested in traditionally “female” concerns (just as you’ll never see Bigelow make a rom-com about an uptight CIA agent who falls for her handler) nor eager to be applauded as a feminist heroine (just as Bigelow herself conscientiously avoids discussing her gender or her feminism in relation to her work). Maya just wants to do what she does best: catch bad guys.
Maya is based on a real woman who remains undercover and has been described as “combative” and “headstrong.” (“She’s not Miss Congeniality,” one colleague told the Washington Post, “but that’s not going to find Osama bin Laden.”) That woman was denied a promotion, despite her central role in the bin Laden mission, and has reportedly clashed with the agency over getting too little credit for her work. Maya, the character, one man warned me before I saw the movie, is “an asshole.”
But I didn’t see an asshole. I saw a woman who operates by the same rules as any other action hero. She obsesses about her pet project. She fights — sometimes loudly — with the bosses and peers who try to divert her from her mission. She willingly gives up any semblance of a personal life, living at her desk and speaking only to co-workers, and describes herself, to her superiors, as “a motherfucker.” We’ve seen all of this before. But we’ve usually seen men doing it.
One scene, in which Maya has dinner with a female co-worker, seems like an intentional tweak of our expectations about women. Does Maya have a crush on her male co-worker, the woman asks? No. Does she have a boyfriend? No. Does she have any friends at all? No. The only boy who matters to Maya is bin Laden, and her entire emotional life — joy, rage, grief — is governed by the success or failure of one mission. Later, another female colleague approaches Maya to acclaim her as a feminist hero and role model. Maya blows her off with a single line, and gets back to work.
Ironically, that very single-mindedness earns Maya the antipathy of her coworkers, hindering her career. That’s realistic: A 2006 Columbia Business School study (oft cited by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg) found that career success and likeability are positively correlated for men, and negatively correlated for women. For a man, professional success and likability reinforce each other, working harmoniously to propel him up the ladder. For women the two are fundamentally at odds: Women often have to be tough to get ahead, and yet we hold that very toughness against them.
What that means is that in order to advance, women must strike a near-impossible balance between humility and ambition, professionalism and warmth. Bigelow seems, for the moment at least, to have found that elusive balance — but through Maya, she shows us that she knows how fragile it is. Watching Maya fight to be heard, I was reminded of another woman who played a central role in the bin Laden mission — Hillary Clinton, who, like Maya, has been called a “bitch.” Clinton is riding a wave of popularity at the moment. But before that, she spent decades as one of the women some Americans love to loathe.
The grimness of Zero Dark Thirty’s take on American foreign policy has been much noted. Yet the grimness of its gender politics message has not. The movie closes on a shot of Maya’s face after her mission has been completed. For the first time in the entire movie, she’s weeping. “Where do you want to go?” a pilot asks her. Like Bigelow, she’s played the game spectacularly, and accomplished something unequaled by any other woman (in one case, winning an Oscar for best director; in the other, orchestrating the death of Osama bin Laden). But for anyone who has heard the story of the real-life Maya, the scene has an especially dark edge. The viewer is left to wonder whether she’ll be given the respect due to a great player — as Bigelow apparently has, these days — or treated as a girl who’s stepped out of her proper place.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.