She Can’t Win: The ‘Emotional Woman’ Trope in Zero Dark Thirty
12:30 pm, February 5th | by Alison Vingiano
The movie theater was already packed when I found my seat on Sunday afternoon. When the lights dimmed, the screen stayed dark. Phone calls from September 11, 2001 echoed throughout the room. I don’t think anybody breathed for the first three minutes of the film.
Zero Dark Thirty was one of the best movies I saw this year. The protagonist, Maya, captivated me with her focus and passion. She’s a realistic, interesting character to follow, despite how little we learn about her life outside of her work in the film. At times she is overwhelmed, but she never collapses from emotion or passion. Maya is no Carrie Mathison. The following Monday, still thinking about the film, I read a TIME Magazine piece in which the author interviews Kathryn Bigelow about the movie’s deeply perplexing final shot. [Warning: spoilers ahead] She writes:
“You may be wondering why Maya — so stoic and static throughout her years of hunting — breaks down into sobs when the mission is over… All this comes after a decade of ruthless pursuit, in a career to which she has sacrificed her entire life and, for the audience, more than two hours of watching a character display no hint of an emotion other than vengefulness, dedication, patriotism or anger.”
Okay there, TIME Magazine, check yo’self. No emotion other than anger? Stoic and static throughout her years of hunting? Yes, Maya does not cry until the final shot. Calling her emotionless, however, narrows the complexity of her character. It assumes that a woman who does not cry does not feel. It is important to recognize Maya as an emotional character because doing so illustrates the depth of her strength. She is a textbook example of an emotional woman who is still competent, focused and determined.
Maya displays a wide emotional range. Had her character been a man, reviews would likely comment about his brave sensitivity. We would discuss his queasiness in the face of torture, for example, or his fear when being attacked by gunfire. Maya as a man would be seen as unusually emotive, but as a woman she is not nearly expressive enough.
Let’s look at a few more specific examples of Maya’s emotional reactions: when a colleague is killed, we see her curled up in her office, paralyzed by what I saw as sadness and shock. Later, we see that a picture of Maya with this now-dead friend is the background on her computer. When she witnesses the “enhanced interrogation” of detainees, she looks away. In fact, when she is left alone with a detainee and he asks for her help, it’s hard to predict whether she will acquiesce to his request. Finally, she gives a strong but difficult answer: “You can help yourself by telling the truth.”
When Maya is shot at by a group of young men, she is panicked. When Maya receives the call that US troops are raiding the mansion in Abbottabad, she hangs up the phone with such a fierce expression of fear and excitement on her face that I wanted to reach through the screen and hug her.
Maya is a stronger character because of these natural emotional responses; she lets herself have real feelings about the traumas she endures in the quest to find bin Laden. She responds like a human being, not as a stoic, cold-hearted robot. When she cries in the final shot, it represents a logical progression in her character’s growth. She has just achieved the greatest triumph in her career, while also changing the course of the war on terror. How could she not be overcome in that moment?
We should not assume that all female characters in film and television will have the same emotional reactions onscreen. Real women display their feelings in myriad ways, some of which include “not crying.” It is wrong to see a woman reacting to a high stress job without shedding tears and think “Wow, she is emotionless!” I doubt we would assume that about a powerful, career-oriented man. We would simply discuss how well he performed his job.
Strength derives from how one processes his or her feelings. Cinematic portraits of powerful women shouldn’t be so narrow that the spectrum is encompassed by Catwoman and GI Jane. Maya is angry, determined and combative for much of the movie, but she also feels fear, sadness and defeat. The beauty of Maya’s character is that she is written with the same complexity as any male character would be. And you know why? Because she’s based on a real-life, three-dimensional woman. Calling her emotionless couldn’t be further from the truth.
This post originally appeared on AGV Notes. It has been republished with permission.