Harpe: Appreciating the women of 'Zero Dark Thirty'

Harpe: Appreciating the women of 'Zero Dark Thirty'

January 27th, 2013 By Corin Harpe in Life Entertainment

Corin Harpe writes a "My Life" column for the Life section of the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

I have a great interest in the film industry, and every year I watch the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.

Prior to watching the Golden Globes two weeks ago, I saw the movie "Zero Dark Thirty," which was nominated for Best Picture-Drama, as well as Best Director and Best Screenplay. Unlike others who were concerned about the torture scenes or the accurate depiction of Osama bin Laden's takedown, I was more absorbed with the performance of Jessica Chastain, who won the Best Actress-Drama category at the Golden Globes.

As I was watching the movie -- for which Chastain is also nominated for a Best Actress Oscar -- I kept expecting the typical Hollywood scenario in which women are portrayed either as sex symbols or mother figures. These roles fulfill a cultural archetype. It is what audiences expect when they watch a movie.

In "Zero Dark Thirty," I was impressed with the honesty in which Chastain portrayed Maya, a CIA operative. Her character is solely focused on her mission of finding bin Laden and does not engage in any romantic subplot.

There is even a moment in the movie when Maya's cohort, Jessica, encourages a romance between Maya and her coworker Dan, but Maya frowns upon the ridiculousness of the suggestion, which brings a sense of shame and frivolity to the situation and to Jessica.

Of course, one reason for Maya's character portrayal is the nature of the subject. The movie is meant to be as historically accurate as possible, which is why we see a woman so focused on her work and mission without any thought or consideration of gender roles.

I was also impressed by the respect that the men in the movie had toward Maya. Not once was she belittled for being a woman, but instead was revered and sometimes even feared for her knowledge. She represented certainty in the face of uncertainty. One of the most memorable lines from the movie comes right before the troops go on their final mission. One soldier asks another what causes him to believe that bin Laden actually exists, and the solider replies "her confidence."

When Chastain accepted her Golden Globe, I was very moved by her speech because she made a point to recognize and thank her director and writers for creating such an independent, strong and capable woman, but she also thanked director Kathryn Bigelow for developing a character that "disobeyed the conventions of Hollywood." In portraying Maya in such a way, Bigelow has "done more for women in cinema than [she] takes credit for," Chastain said.

Bigelow herself exemplifies a woman who stands outside of gender expectations. Two of her films, "The Hurt Locker," which won Best Picture and Best Director Oscars in 2008, and "Zero Dark Thirty" are true-to-life and violent movies.

Her work allows women to see that there are no limits or rules as to what an individual, regardless of gender, can pursue. Bigelow has also mentioned that she doesn't see that many women directors and perhaps "there is not the awareness that it is really possible."

I have been inspired by Bigelow's bravery and accomplishments. It is challenging to pursue occupations outside of what is expected, but I hope that more women will see that it is possible.

Even though Bigelow was not considered for an Oscar this year, I hope people can look past the controversy of "Zero Dark Thirty" to see Chastain's honest and outstanding performance, and I hope that Chastain gets an Oscar for best actress.

Contact Corin Harpe at corinharpe@gmail.com.