Written two days after the nation-wide launch of ZERO
DARK THIRTY; and One day after the Golden Globe Awards
By Zillah Eisenstein, Distinguished Scholar, Ithaca
January 14, 2013 zillaheisenstein.wordpress.com
The film starts with a black blank screen and the
voices from people stuck in the trade towers on that
fateful day, September 11, 2001. I thought to myself:
this is a set up to make sure we are lost to the
saddened memory of that day, and the stance that we
were wronged - and that this film will right this
This trope did not work for me so the film did not
work. I thought the story and its telling was corrupt.
I thought it exposed U.S. thuggery with no critique of
it. I thought it screamed the revenge narrative of
post- 9/11/2001 with no regret, or hesitation, or
Much of the controversy about the film has centered on
the illegality of torture and the U.S. government and
CIA complicity in it. Film Director Kathryn Bigelow
says the film merely sets out the record and does not
condone or condemn. But this is not as it seemed to me.
Critics like Jane Mayer of the "New Yorker" who has
tracked torture memos for forever begs to differ as
well. She says the film normalizes and naturalizes the
use of terror in American culture. Others have argued
that the film misrepresents the success of getting
information from the practice.
I agree with Mayer but my take is also a bit different.
I actually think that the film presents torture but
does so in very careful and limited fashion. I had
prepared myself for the scenes and was ready to divert
my eyes when I could bare no more. But I never had to
divert my eyes. The audience was treated too kindly.
We were not made to see the horrors of torture. There
were glimpses and the rest was left for us to imagine,
or not. We did not see the destruction of the human
soul nor the horror of a broken human being. Torture
leaves one no space to breathe. The fear is
unrelenting. The humiliation is uncontrolled. If the
film had been brave enough to really show us torture
and its aftermath there would be no condoning or
So, for me, the real problem with ZDT is that it lets
the audience and the American public think that
terrible things are allowable because they are doable.
A courageous telling of the U.S. anti-terror narrative
would demand critique and defiance.
Do not confuse imperial arrogance for courage. The
U.S. does what it wants with impudence. It single
handedly invaded Pakistan in order to kill Osama bin
Laden. Even though it was no longer clear whether bin
Laden was still a player of any sort, or if Al Qaeda
remained viably intact or a threat, the need for
revenge, and to kill Osama had its own justifiability.
Enter Maya. I wrote at the start of the Iraq and
Afghan wars that Bush's war room should not use women's
rights rhetoric to wrap the bombs in. Do not justify
these wars and killing in the name of Afghan women's
rights against the Taliban. You do not drop bombs on
the women you are supposedly trying to save. Do not now
cleanse the wars of/on terror with the face of a white
blonde female. Do not detract from the heinous aspects
of the terror war by making it look gender neutral.
My point: do not justify or explain U.S. war revenge
with a pretty blond white woman with an "obsession" to
catch the mastermind of 9/11. This film is not to be
made seemingly progressive or feminist because it
presents a female CIA agent as central to the demise of
Osama. Nor should any of us think that it is "good"
that Maya is female, or that several females had an
important hand in the murder of Osama. There is
nothing feminist in revenge. We can learn from the
Indian feminists just now who say that they do not seek
the death penalty for the men responsible for the
brutal death and rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey. Kavita
Krishman says: "Gender justice needs to be brought and
kept in the centre stage of the debate, not the death
Maya is not believable to me. She is an awful
stereotype: a driven, obsessive woman, alone with no
friends. She has no depth. She is all surface. She
says she prefers to drop a bomb rather than use the
Seal team. She says she knows 100 percent that Osama
is in the building. She says she is the
"mother-fucker" who found the safe house in the first
place. She assures the men of the Seal team that Osama
is there and that they must kill him for her.
I was thinking through the film--if they hate us they
do so because we are hateful. I am sad to know that
this film will be seen across the globe. It will be
read as another story of imperial empire with a (white)
female twist.. How unfair to all the people in the
U.S. who do not choose revenge and murder. How unfair
to my Pakistani friends who are also U.S. citizens.
How unfair to most of us across the globe.
I was hoping that maybe no nods would be given to
Jessica Chastain for her role as Maya at the Golden
Globes. I was hoping that no one would give a feminist
nod to Kathryn Bigelow for directing ZDT. I was just
hoping that maybe feminism would not get mucked up in
the conversation about torture and the murder of Osama.
But that was not to happen.
Chastain calls Maya an "unsung hero" and I think this
is deeply troubling. But it got worse for me when
Chastain accepted the Golden Globe Award for best
actress and thanks Bigelow for putting forward
"powerful, fearless women" who disobey and make a
I do not like the film or the way that Bigelow and
Chastain choose to depict it. Given both, and the way
each bleeds into the other, there is no neutral ground
here. I think it is important to reject the imperial
feminism that is embedded here.
It would be good to remember that there is no worthy
feminism without justice and if there is NO JUSTICE,
there is NO PEACE.
[Zillah Eisenstein has been Professor of Politics at
Ithaca College in New York for the last 35 years and is
presently a Distinguished Scholar in Residence. Her
books have tracked the rise of neoliberalism both
within the U.S. and across the globe. She has
documented the demise of liberal democracy and
scrutinized the growth of imperial and militarist
globalization. She has also critically written about
the attack on affirmative action in the U.S., the
masculinist bias of law, the crisis of breast cancer
and AIDS, the racism of patriarchy and the patriarchal
structuring of race, the new nationalisms, corporatist
multiculturalism, and the newest gendered and classed
formations of the planet.
Besides her recently published The Audacity of Races
and Genders, A Personal and Global Story of the Obama
Campaign (2009, Zed Press, London; Palgrave, U.S.), her
most current books include: Sexual Decoys, Gender, Race
and War in Imperial Democracy (London, Zed Press; New
York, Palgrave, 2007); Against Empire, Ibid.; Hatreds,
Racialised and Sexualized Conflicts in the 21St
Century, (Routledge, 1996); Global Obscenities:
Patriarchy, Capitalism and the Lure of Cyberfantasy
(NYU PRESS, 1996); and Manmade Breast Cancers, (Cornell
Univ. Press, 2001).]
[Thanks to the author for sending her review article to
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