From ‘Homeland’ to ‘Zero Dark Thirty’: A Look at Women Who Hunt Terrorists

Maggie Hennefeld


While strong female protagonists have been all but invisible in conventional war genre films (Jarhead, Hurt Locker, Black Hawk Down, Restrepo), a new sub-genre has cropped up that puts women at the center of military defense politics. From Alias and Salt to Homeland and the Oscar-nominated Zero Dark Thirty, we have witnessed the emergence of a contemporary screen obsession with watching ass-kicking female CIA agents hunting the world’s most elusive political terrorists.


With the public crisis of conscience precipitated by news coverage of waterboarding, drone strikes, and other brutal interrogation tactics, it is no wonder that patriotic dramas have enlisted strong, fair-haired female protagonists to make America's “War on Terror” look sexy again—and not just sexy, but human. The idea of a “war on terror”—a sovereign nation that literally takes up arms in defense against the circulation of an affect—already signals a troubling confusion between the politics of state violence and the global governance of human emotion. Homeland and Zero Dark Thirty, each in very different ways, respond to these paralyzing confusions between political sovereignty and ethical humanity, but then milk them for all that they are worth.


If Carrie Mathison’s (Claire Danes) complicated love life helps “enhance” her interrogation tactics in Homeland, Maya’s (Jessica Chastain) overt lack of personal or emotional development in Zero Dark Thirty often feels like a cover for her character’s implication in CIA brutality. While Bigelow’s film abstains from taking a decisive position about the politics of “enhanced interrogation,” its silence speaks volumes.


Protagonist Maya’s big lead on Bin Laden’s courier Ibrahim Sayeed (using the alias “Abu Ahmed”) materializes from repeated and humiliating sessions of CIA torture. In contrast, the one really disastrous item of intelligence that the CIA receives (which leads to the death of Maya’s close friend and female co-worker in Afghanistan) does not come from force or coercion but from an unsolicited videotape that turns out to be part of a fatal Qaeda ploy. After Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) announces that she is baking a cake to thank her Qaeda-insider informant for his intelligence right before their arranged meeting at Camp Chapman, no one in the theater seemed too astonished when her would-be stoolie blows her to bits with a car bomb.


Despite the delightful novelty of seeing stereotypical “lady issues” represented in a CIA spy thriller with a violent combat climax, unlike in Homeland, the relations between love and politics in Zero Dark Thirty seem more hostile than incestuous. For example, in one scene, Maya and Jessica meet at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad for dinner and drinks; Jessica probes Maya for information about her love life—a topic frequently suggested but never fleshed out during the film. Just as Maya, otherwise reserved and inscrutable, seems on the cusp of revealing some trace of romantic sentiment, a bomb explodes and the two women must duck for cover and quickly scramble for a fire exit.


One of very few female directors to produce popular narrative feature films about state violence, perhaps Bigelow felt responsible for making women more visible in an otherwise deeply patriarchal and often misogynist genre. Yet, Bigelow does not seem completely comfortable negotiating between women who like to bake cakes, drink rosé wine, and talk about boyfriends, and men who like to walk naked Muslim terrorists around on a dog leash in revenge for their possible implication in insurgent terrorist plots.


Briefly put, bombs interrupt love, while the suggestion of love makes the “enhanced” spy methods incited by bombs seem less sinister. The ends do not necessarily justify the means—but that is because a bomb probably erupted right before the film could really articulate its own “ends” (i.e., its politics and their confusing entanglement with the narrative’s “human” trajectory). However, the ends do soften and mystify our memories of outrage about the brutal means that this film all but legitimizes.



The differences between Zero Dark Thirty and Homeland are like night and day. The latter’s interweaving between protagonist Carrie Mathison’s tumultuous love life and her unorthodox spy work basically provides the central conflict of the series. A U.S. Marine, Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), returns from eight years of captivity and torture in Iraq. Through interwoven flashbacks to his imprisonment amid snippets of his painful attempts to readjust to civilian life, we learn that at some point Brody had been “turned,” after which point his days shifted from physical torture to jihadist indoctrination. Carrie’s attempts to bring Brody back to his senses hinge upon her powers of seduction. This is further complicated by the fact that Carrie is herself developing real feelings for Brody—as well as by the surveillant presence of all of her CIA co-workers while she repeatedly sleeps with a confessed terrorist.


Secretly medicated under-the-table for bipolar disorder by her doctor sister, Carrie struggles to stay ever one step ahead of her incipient mania. Her hunches are both unimpeachable and explicitly driven by either (or both) romantic confusion or clinical psychosis. Call it “feminine intuition,” but Carrie seems to understand a lot more about the psychology and strategy of international terrorism than anyone else at the CIA or in the Oval Office.


As for the show’s troubling confusion between Al Qaeda and Hezbollah, let’s just write that one off as collateral damage. If Carrie can live-feed sex recordings to her co-workers as spy work, then we can overlook the implausibility of the CIA hunting down fictional Al Qaeda leader Abu Nazir (David Negahban) in the streets of Beirut, Lebanon.


Whereas Homeland displaces haunting memories of Gitmo’s and Abu Ghraib’s

indefinite detainee abuses onto the dubious politics of inter-CIA-terrorist romance, Zero Dark Thirty abstains from going into too much detail about either of these entities. They are like carrots dangling at the end of a stick, just out of our reach. We see prisoners being tortured, but the film manages not to dirty its hands too much with these images. At several points, useful information is extracted (despite the litany of evidence that torture makes for bad intelligence), and we sympathize deeply with the positions of the torturers without gaining much insight into the plights of their victims. We are not necessarily persuaded to advocate torture, but we are induced to imagine entertaining such arguments at some point in the future.


Similarly, we admire Maya’s single-minded determination to catch Osama bin Laden, even though we relish the scraps of romantic distraction that we are fed as spectators. Maya’s absence of romance—or even much opportunity for character development in a role that often feels too thin—corroborates the film’s erasure of the political evidence that we remember all too well. We are willing to gloss over these recent histories of state atrocities in order to see Maya achieve an objective that we are used to finding elsewhere in the narrative (e.g., in the successful outcome of a romantic coupling).


When the Navy SEALs deliver Bin Laden in a body bag, Maya slowly unzips the front to ID its cadaver. Shortly afterward, she boards a private military plane, and in a rare display of emotion, Maya gently cries into the camera, nearly addressing the spectator head-on.


These final scenes summarize rather than resolve an entanglement between the film’s human and political narratives, both of which are always just on the cusp of articulation. CIA women bake cakes and talk about boys, which again is something of a novelty for the genre, but these gendered tidbits always seem to get cut off by a bomb explosion.


Author Bio:

Maggie Hennefeld is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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