When CIA systems analyst Maya (Jessica Chastain) stumbles onto weird leads in Kathryn Bigelow's ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012) her first obstacle is to convince the higher ups that she's not just grasping straws so the ten years of her life to hunting Bin Laden won't go to waste. It's her confidence and hotness that pardoxically wears down male inertia, inspiring them to roll the dice, as if subconsciously trying to impress her. And of course her hunch is correct. If it wasn't, the mission would have been a disaster and the movie wouldn't be made. As it is, she's a heroine, yet her name can never be known - she's a CIA agent after all, and still under cover, still vulnerable to attack. Thus a woman's work is never recognized unless another woman is around to tell the story.
The way Chastain plays Maya it's like this girl is existing in a single powerful inhale of iron will. It's not until the deed is done, and Osama brought to her like a trophy on a tray, that she can finally exhale and realize she has nothing to go back to, nowhere to go, no friends, no family, no nothing. Kathryn Bigelow's directed other movies about war and masculine violence of course--STRANGE DAYS, HURT LOCKER, NEAR DARK--this is the first one really since BLUE STEEL to focus on a woman as the major protagonist, and while STEEL was about a rookie cop (Jamie Lee Curtis) whose .357 magnum gets stolen by a crazy Jewish white collar schemer (Ron Silver), ZERO DARK is much more favorable in its depiction of female strength. In a land where violence can erupt at any time, bombings taking out hotels and decimating her limited stock of drinking buddies, excuse our heroine if she doesn't wince over the waterboarding.
That the attack on the compound is finally ordered reflects how the rhetoric of the upper echelon males in the CIA and White House staff is more for their own benefit, to screw their courage to the sticking place, while crimson-haired Lady Maya Macbeth dwells with complete confidence in her mix of female intuition, pit-bull tenacity, and hard data crunching. She needs no courage screws to go for the jugular instead of nipping at the prey's heels. Maya's youth, beauty, and balls, create an inescapably maternal drag the men have no choice but to surrender to. It's something about that Chastain jawline (1), that shockingly red hair that always falls perfectly in the Pakistani sunlight, that sends ripples of terror through me. As I wrote in my review of TREE OF LIFE, in Chastain close-ups you can see the 'signature' stamps of alien DNA in her Celtic pale skin, that fair-haired mossy coastline fairness that if you look closely reveals blue webs of capillaries just below the translucent skin, flushing with blood when hot emotions come across her face, making her glistening red gums that much redder when they flash into view beneath her canines. Bigelow never misses a chance to frame that stunning head against desert vistas; wrapped in scarves her pale bonny redness is like a Joan of Arc torch against which no man or group of men can stay unmoved, unassailed, unwilling to follow its blood orange reflection like a glimmering red flag into the minotaur maze.
Ariel in THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989) is of course a little different, but I kept thinking of her while watching ZDT, probably because of the red hair and the idea of an obstinate father-defying girl following her instincts to the surface, making deals with devils (substitute a Lamborghini for her voice, waterboarding for her legs, and there you are) and triumphing over prejudice with the help of her (male) animal coterie. As with ZERO DARK the heroine's refusal to bow to the edicts of the patriarchy, her shrugging off whatever prejudices her towering father tries on her, leads to progress and the inevitable re-drawing of the boundaries. Sebastian the Crab's comment "Someone's gotta nail dat girl's fins to de floor" sounds, in this context, like the most patriarchal and oppressive of edicts --isn't this, after all, the exact methodology of the Taliban? To nail their women's fins to de floor and thus halt their culture's progress dead in its tracks?
Another redhead, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is actually blonde in Homeland --but those of us who know her from other things know her real color. Like Maya in ZERO DARK, Carrie's brilliance carries the CIA almost single handedly into victory, with her mentor the fatherly (bearded) Mandy Patinkin's belief in her aiding in the drive to move the CIA chiefs unwillingly towards the notion Sgt. Brody is a double agent, brainwashed by Osama stand-in Abu Nazir. It begs the question, in the world of spies and agent-flipping, isn't someone suffering from bi-polar paranoia the ideal analyst? Time and again we see in the series how men believe whatever narrative will make them look like they're in charge, that nothing can slip by them; they fall in love with caution, the ritual of work, the process, the secret handshakes. Women threaten this slow steady safety not only by diluting the male bonding epoxy with their estrogen and logic but by their incessant pointing out of the men's blind spots. The men don't want to think outside the box, but if needed for her own success, women will drag them out, breaking the bones and resetting them correctly like a patient but resolute (and possibly sadistic) mother. In the black-and-white era such heroines were few and far between, but one thrived through a whole mystery series.
By 1938 the Torchy Blaine series was so well established that BLONDES AT WORK could devote less time to the mystery and more time to the dynamic of ace reporter Torchy (Glenda Farrell) scooping other papers, betraying police naivete, and sparking gender warfare by outfoxing her stoic blustery police lieutenant fiancee Steve McBride (Barton MacLane). While the men follow obvious clues and make pedestrian snap judgments, blind to the limitations of official procedure, Torchy draws a bead and zeroes in, even dropping false leads to rival papers to advance her own rep for scooping.
The women in all these films aren't necessarily smarter than the men, it's just that the men don't want to think outside the box; natural laziness compels them to lean on protocol rather than hunches. In the opening of BLONDES AT WORK, for example, the top guy on the police force is tired of hearing complaints from other newspapers about Torchy's engagement to Barton granting her insider access. There had to be laws invented just to stop this snoop and scooping, apparently, as in the big final court scene, when the judge learns of the guilty verdict from the shouting newsboy before the jury even re-enters the courtroom. And in the end, Torchy's scooping is a continual setback to the police department, revealing police-classified information through snookering Barton's dimwit driver. Compare this kind of case-jeopardizing, sanctity of law-mocking behavior to, say, Kate Hepburn in ADAM'S RIB, or Ariel ignoring her father's laws and going where she may, heedless of how she almost lost the entire kingdom just for some boy, or Maya, the torch-red torturer in ZERO DARK THIRTY, insisting and demanding and fighting through the maze of males all busy playing war, so she can.... well, knock the board over, so to speak -- Torchy, Ariel, Maya, Carrie, they all knock the board over if there's a chance they might lose.
In ZERO DARK, when Maya demands time and attention be paid to following seemingly unimportant leads we naturally side with her in the film because we already know how what's coming, but what is fascinating is how eventually, even factoring the risks, the men all decide to roll the dice and bet on her confidence. They conquer their natural inclination to rebel against the maternal quicksand tug. They surrender to the apron string tentacle in the name of a holy target. The same goes for the CIA of Carrie Mathison in Homeland. Her manner of pitching her hunches is so wild-eyed and hysterical only a fool would trust her. That they do anyway transcends feminism and becomes more like blind allegiance. Her madness is like Cassandra's prophecies, given as inescapable fact, for her madness matches like a Cinderella shoe the gnarled foot of the terrorist world.
But not all female characters in these examples are Kali goddess board knocker-overs. Two classic example of the polar opposite of the outside the box woman can be found also on Homeland: Brody's wife, whose main role in the show is being angry if Brody stays out saving the world or trying to blow it up rather than being home at a reasonable hour so he can fawn over her, and a daughter who is such a tiresome nail-biting do-goody drag that she nearly knocks the board over just from her obsessive compulsion to keep it from falling. But that's where the show reveals its ancestry to network prime time stuff like 24 and Lost, rather than forward-thinking stuff like Zero Dark Thirty or Blondes at Work where there's no time for such Betty Draper / Loretta Young rulebook inside-the-box normality.
Recently on TCM: MEN MUST FIGHT (1933) has a relevant scene wherein futuristic bi-planes are sailing over NYC while a rich matron and her son's wife gaze upwards from the flower-bedecked miranda, waving at the son as he flies overhead to war, discussing how one day they, the women, will be in charge of the governments of the world and all this dumb man bloodshed stuff will be abolished forever. It's a pretty wild if didactic film, depicting versions of TV, Skype, and and WW2 as far back as 1933, and showing something very rare and terrifying, New York City being bombed from the air, the Empire State building shattering like so much balsa wood. I mention all this horror only for the last lines, stating that when the women run things, things will be done right (I paraphrase). Until then, men must fight. Yes, men must. But women are better at something else -- winning, ending the game.
When analyzing the roots of war it always pays to study the Australian aboriginals. Like many other indigenous groups their men are often at a loss of what to do with how to give their lives meaning once the food is stocked and the women are all busy with the kids. So they fight wars between the tribes, using only blunt arrows and slender branches as non-lethal weapons. Welts are the mark of a man rather than bullet holes. Somewhere along the line, this non-lethal aspect of war is always forgotten. But we can imagine a similar 'reason' for the Bush war in Afghanistan and Iraq-- Osama bin Laden being alive and allegedly in an Afghanistan cave provided the his administration with ample incentive to keep building up troops and firing high calibre weapons. Naturally it would be a woman who just slides in there and finds him in Pakistan instead and wastes him. Sorry boys, war's over, now take out the trash and eat your spinach, mom's got to see the sea witch about getting you some goddamn nutz.
1. For what it's worth, I tripped a lot with a similarly freckled redhead my sophomore-senior years of college, and wrote in my journal entries of how her strange jaw /mouth darted crazily when she laughed or raised her voice, to resemble the mandibles of a terrifying spider (if you've ever watched a spider dismember its prey, well, it was pretty similar.)