So 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 devoted solely to hunting Bin Laden won't be a waste. It's her confidence and hotness that paradoxically 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, and feminism wouldn't have to contend with this double bind. As it is, she's a heroine, yet her name can never be known. Thus a woman's work is never recognized unless another woman is around to tell the story and keep her real name anonymous.
Chastain plays Maya as a woman existing in a single powerful inhale of iron will. It's not until Osama brought to her literally on a tray, like John the Baptist, that she can finally exhale and realize her life no longer has a goal for that iron will to bind around. Kathryn Bigelow has directed other movies about war and masculine violence--STRANGE DAYS, HURT LOCKER, NEAR DARK--but 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 scuzzy yuppie thrill-seeker (the odious Ron Silver), ZERO DARK is much more favorable in its depiction of female strength. Maya is no rookie, and in a land where violence can erupt at any time, with bombings decimating her limited stock of drinking buddies, excuse our heroine if she doesn't wince over the waterboarding.
That the attack on the Osama 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 (a failure could end their career) while crimson-haired Lady Maya Macbeth dwells with complete confidence in her mix of female intuition, tenacity, and hard data-crunching. She needs no courage to go for the jugular. Her 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, sending in its firey splendor ripples of terror through us. As I wrote in my review of TREE OF LIFE, in Chastain's close-ups (on a big screen) you can see the 'signature' stamps of alien DNA on her Celtic pale skin, that bonny moss-swept 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. 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 yarn orb into the minotaur maze.
Ariel in THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989) is of course a little different, but I kept thinking of her while watching ZERO DARK THIRTY, 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 and triumphing over patriarchal prejudice with the help of her animal coterie. As with Maya, Ariel refuses to bow to the edicts of the patriarchy, shrugging off whatever prejudices her towering father tries on her to get her to marry a nice merman and settle down, leading in the end to progress and the inevitable re-drawing of boundaries. Sebastian the Crab's comment, "Someone's gotta nail dat girl's fins to de floor," sounds 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-ish 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) spook Saul's (Mandy Patinkin) belief in her aiding in the drive to move the CIA chiefs unwillingly towards the notion Sgt. Brody is a double agent. 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 let them feel 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 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, and her name, tellingly enough, was Torchy. She was a brassy, wiley reporter, played with wit and street-level verve by ace Warner Brothers gal sassy-smart-type Glenda Farrell. Her Torchy solves crimes so she can get the scoop, and regularly feeds her findings to her swell dolt of a fiancee homicide detective (Barton MacLane). The series was a hit, and the idea of a redhead reporter outsmarting the cops, crooks, and audience was taken in stride even with the code in effect.
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 scooping other papers, betraying police naivete, and sparking gender warfare; while the men follow obvious clues as to the murder suspect 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, fraternal loyalty, and respect for the chain of command compel them to lean on protocol rather than hunches, to relax and enjoy the dopey chase --it is, after all, their job, so may as well take their time and look busy when their boss is around but never when he's not. To this ethos, Torchy is a threat. In the opening of BLONDES AT WORK, for example, it's become clear Torchy needs to cool it. 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. In real life there had to be laws invented just to stop this obsession with scooping, apparently, the reason illustrated in one film's final court scene when the judge learns of the guilty verdict from the shouting newsboy before the jury even re-enters the courtroom. Compare such law-mocking behavior to, say, Kate Hepburn flustering stodgy Spencer Tracy in ADAM'S RIB, or Ariel ignoring her stern father's laws and going where she may, heedless of how her reckless behavior forces her dad to shrink to a wussy worm for devouring by the sea hag, or that of 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, just mow a path straight through, so to speak: Torchy, Ariel, Maya, Carrie, they all knock the board over if there's a chance they'll win by default. It might be effective strategy, but what's the point? Why disrupt man's game, which is all he has? Men need something to do, bottom line, to make up for their inability to give birth; we need to create something. We invented business and work and even wars as reasons to get out of the house, to get away from the suffocation and ceaseless belittlement of (first) our mother and then (second) our wife... and (third) mother-in-law.
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, based largely on her confidence. They surrender to the apron string tentacle in the name of a holy target, in a way transmuting the maternal nag lead into chivalrous joust gold through the weird alchemy which most men learn when they first fall in love and find their balls have not shrunk but grown like a lion shaking his new mane. 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 the French army's blind allegiance to schizophrenic Joan of Arc. It's that it makes no sense to follow someone so cracked that in doing so they transcend themselves and achieve victory. Carrie's madness is understood to be the fall-out of her Cassandra-like gift of prophecy. Her madness doesn't prevent the prophecy from being an inescapable fact, for her madness fits, like a Cinderella shoe, the deformed foot of the terrorist world.
But not all female characters in these examples are Kali goddess chess 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 suffer her alienating pangs; and his daughter, a tiresome nail-biting do-goody drag. But that's where the show reveals its ancestry to network prime time stuff like 24 and Lost, rather than forward-thinking feminist yarns like Zero Dark Thirty or Blondes at Work where there's no time for such Betty Draper / Loretta Young rulebook-clutching, inside-the-box normality. Smart girls know that whole 'normal family' thing is only for the weak. Realizing it doesn't really exist is the key to true 'professionalism.'
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 their son as he flies overhead to war, discussing how one day it will be they, the women, will be in charge of the governments of the world and all this dumb man bloodshed stuff will be abolished forever. How naive! The only reason there even is a government is because of men needed to get away from women. The world is full of men who create and run businesses while the women are at home, and the women who come along demanding they get to run a business too, like a pesky little sister crashing your football game. If women ran things men would just start their own things, and tell the women they were going off to bowl or golf or poker if they asked, which of course they would, and try to invite themselves along.
Still, Men must Fight is a p2retty wild if didactic film, predicting versions of TV, Skype, and and WW2, and showing New York City being bombed from the air, the Empire State building shattering like so much balsa wood. I mention 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, or at any rate ending the game.
When analyzing the roots of war it always pays to study the Australian aboriginals. Like many other indigenous groups with strong mothers, the men are often at a loss of what to do with their down time, or how to give their lives meaning once the food is stocked and the women are all busy nursing. So they fight wars, agree on some issue of contention to create conflict between the tribes, using only blunt arrows and slender branches as non-lethal weapons and spending time with elaborate strategies, councils, and sneak attack/retreats. Welts are bruises are the mark of a man being hit rather than bullet holes. He might get a welt or a cut but there's no need for a medic. Somewhere along the line, this non-lethal aspect of war is always forgotten, and we also forget why we fight in the first place, we fail to honor the warrior ethos and it comes back to bite us. 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 Bush administration with a reason to stay at work instead of being dragged to church and dinner with the pastor. Naturally it would be a woman who just slides in there and finds Bin Laden in Pakistan instead and wastes a perfectly good enemy. Sorry boys, war's over, now take out the trash and eat your spinach, mom's got to out and see the sea witch about getting you some goddamn new nutz. She just ate your last pair.
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.)