In April, New Hampshire State Representative Peter Hansen, a Republican, referred to a group of female colleagues as “vaginas” in an e-mail. He tried to defend himself by claiming that those offended by the e-mail should not be insulted by the “noun vagina.”
Such issues of sexism and gender inequality permeate our society today. Kathryn Bigelow perfectly captures these issues in government agencies in her Oscar-winning film, Zero Dark Thirty. Maya (Jessica Chastain), the protagonist and dedicated CIA agent who will stop at nothing to be heard, is one of few women in her field. As the minority, her situation is not far off from the women representatives referenced by Hansen.
As one of Maya’s male colleagues says, though mockingly, “It’s her against the world.”
Yet the headliner debate that Zero Dark Thirty has caused over the morality of “enhanced interrogation” techniques overshadows the film’s commentary on the struggle of women in the professional world.
Bigelow’s film touches on questions far beyond “‘What took us so long?’ and ‘Why are we waterboarding people?’” yet the only attention film critics paid to gender politics was a parenthetical aside from Roger Cohen alongside a description of the female protagonist as “attractive” and “patriotic.”
Much more than just a pretty face and loyal American, Maya not only exemplifies the model CIA agent, but also the lengths to which a female must go in the professional world in order to be taken seriously by the men in charge.
Maya’s coping mechanism is to disregard the very inequality that Bigelow makes so blatant. She embraces the challenge of her task and ignores the subtle jabs of her male colleagues. She does not flinch at being called “the girl,” and through this refusal to acknowledge her obstacles, Maya pushes herself to succeed.
Unlike the critics, Chastain recognizes the importance of Maya’s grit. In an interview, she spoke of her role: “I think it represents this generation of women who are independent and capable and strong and not the product of something else—the girlfriend or the victim of the villain of the piece.” Chastain’s point here is relevant to all women in the professional field.
In March, Dee Dee Myers, former White House Press Secretary for President Bill Clinton, argued that for too long women have been judged by a double standard and “expected to think like men and act like men if they wanted to succeed.” It seems that society is starting to catch on to this, or at least more women are stepping forward to challenge such standards. Notably, the 113th Congress is composed of an historic twenty female senators. However, the question of even representation is not what is at stake.
Zero Dark Thirty, Chastain’s role, and Myer’s comments all make a strong case not for even representation of women, but equal representation: referring to females as people instead of “girls,” or as women professionals instead of “vaginas.”
In other words, it is not about female qualities being better or worse than those of males. It is about how hard-working individuals with an idea, regardless of gender, deserve to be heard. Maya was one such individual who succeeded in being heard—and who just so happened to be a woman.
Granted, the film’s story is not a victorious one in which super-heroine Maya saves the day in a final battle or face off. Yes—spoiler alert—Osama bin Laden is killed in the last twenty minutes of the movie, but this proves to be less important than the fact that Maya was right. Her astuteness was finally rewarded in the end. Even so, we are left with the question: Will she ever receive credit equal to that of her male colleagues?
Although audiences may have been distracted by the in-your-face portrayal of torture in Bigelow’s film, Maya’s character reminds us of gender issues still prevalent in today’s work environment. She has kicked up dust on an important issue that has been neglected for far too long.
On torture, Bigelow does not answer questions about what is right and what is moral—she merely forces us to consider these crucial questions once again as memories of torture scandals begin to fade. It is the same with her commentary on women. Maya’s story does not offer a solution to the treatment of women in the professional world. Instead, Bigelow leaves that part to the viewers, to debate, reflect on, and ultimately consider opportunities to change.
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