GUEST POST: DARK-ZERO FEMINISM

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 College
http://zillaheisenstein.wordpress.com

(January 14, 2013 — Ithaca New York) 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 wrong.

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 ambiguity.


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 normalizing it.

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 penalty”.

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 difference.

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.


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  • JOSHUA KURZ says:

    I don’t disagree with Eisenstein’s latter point on the the problematic of women and feminism in her post, but I do vehemently disagree with the idea that the film presents torture in a “careful and limited fashion.”

    I’ve been mulling over my own response to the film, and this Eisenstein piece has prompted me to write some of it down (briefly). I went into the film wanting to agree with Salon.com’s Andrew O’Hehir (http://www.salon.com/2012/12/29/the_zero_dark_thirty_debate_isnt_really_about_torture/) that critics of the torture scenes (especially those who hadn’t yet seen the film) were missing the point of artistic expression and the ambiguity of visual representation. I left ZDT with no reservations that this film’s narrative absolutely constructs a story in which the assassination of Bin Laden was contingent upon information gleaned from torture – or what the film’s characters usually referred to as “the detainee program.”

    If Eisenstein focuses solely on the visual representation of torture, then I can’t but agree with her assessment of “careful and limited,” and I certainly didn’t turn away either. That doesn’t mean the torture scenes were not extremely difficult to watch, and I do think they at least begin to hint at the brutality and degradation of “enhanced interrogation” techniques. But yes, torture in Rambo II or even the violence of slavery in Django Unchained went further in terms of visuality. That does not mean that “torture” did not play the pivotal role in the narrative of ZDT.

    Torture and its efficacy was referred to again and again and again: there were the direct visual representations, there was Maya’s own journey from rookie to experienced interrogator (wherein she explicitly adopts the language and techniques of her mentor), there was a cooperating detainee who says “I do not wish to be tortured again, so I will answer your questions,” there was a CIA officer asking “just who are we supposed to ask, there is no detainee program anymore, all the ones at GITMO are all ‘lawyered up’.” And it cannot be inconsequential that the film moves from torture to the pursuit of Bin Laden’s courier in a way that compresses and elides all of the false starts, dead ends, misdirections, and false leads that occurred “in real life.” The entire narrative is predicated upon the initial bits of information gleaned in the opening scenes wherein torture was far and away the central protagonist (rather than Maya or her mentor or the detainees themselves).

    To return to Eisenstein’s critique, I can only reiterate that the film absolutely represents the hubris of American imperialism. At least Argo (Ben Afflek’s film on the Iranian Revolution) opened with a (brief, problematic) history of American intervention and domination in Iran. Argo’s driving action has a history; the stakes for the Americans in the film are made even higher in that the audience is given to understand that revolutionary rage was, perhaps, justified. ZDT is more akin to Spielberg’s Munich, then, in that the narrative opens with and privileges the “victims” of terrorism, as if Arab hatred for Jews or the events of 9/11 simply sprang from nowhere, providing righteous anger and justification for Israel or the US in seeking revenge. And this is what makes Bigelow/Boal’s narrative so unambiguously pro-torture – and where I agree with Eisenstein again – because torture is presented as a useful response, with righteous justification, that leads to the desired end of American style justice. Terrible things are allowable because they are doable.

    Whether Bigelow intended to create a narrative justifying torture is irrelevant. The film does this on its own. And its insistence on its own urgency, its own righteousness is only made ever more problematic in that ZDT ostensibly “represents” real events.

    Just some thoughts.

    joshua j. kurz
    PhD Candidate, Comparative Studies
    The Ohio State University

  • LAURA COSTAS says:

    As always, the question isn’t the details but rather the big picture. Why is torture such boffo box office all of sudden, why is there such a rush on this particular trope? Add that to all the zombie crap on cable–have you seen those shows? Why are people in such a big hurry to watch this shit?

    Here, even a white guy writing for a very establishment journal gets it. Below that article another by Jared Ball, http://www.voxunion.com

    Tarantino’s crusade to ennoble violence
    By Christopher Caldwell

    (Financial Times)

    The director uses slavery the way a porn film might use a nurses’ convention

    The most confusing moment in Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Django Unchained, comes in the final credits. The viewer sees an assurance from the American Humane Association that no animals were harmed in the film’s making. In this movie, set in the south before the US civil war, slaves get tied to trees and whipped. A naked black wrestler is ordered to bash another’s head in with a very big hammer. Dogs chew a runaway slave to pieces. This is to set the stage for an exuberant massacre of white men and women at the close. Mr Tarantino lingers over his victims as they writhe, gasp and scream in agony. One walks out of Django worried less about Mr Tarantino’s attitude towards animals than about his attitude towards people.

    A.O. Scott, The New York Times critic, calls it a “troubling and important movie about slavery and racism”. He is wrong. A German-born bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) liberates the slave Django (Jamie Foxx), hoping he can identify a murderous gang of overseers. The two try to free Django’s wife from the plantation where she has been brought by the sybaritic Monsieur Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). The period detail sometimes seems accurate (slaveholders may have flung the word “nigger” around as often as Mr Tarantino’s characters do), and sometimes does not (there never was any such thing as “Mandingo fighting”).

    Of course, we must not mistake a feature film for a public television documentary – Mr Tarantino’s purpose is to entertain, not to enlighten. But this is why the film is neither important nor troubling, except as a cultural symptom. Django uses slavery the way a pornographic film might use a nurses’ convention: as a pretext for what is really meant to entertain us. What is really meant to entertain us in Django is violence.

    Mr Scott writes that “vengeance in the American imagination has been the virtually exclusive prerogative of white men”. Cinematically, black people should get to partake in “regenerative violence” the way white people have for so long. He adds: “Think about that when the hand-wringing starts about Django Unchained and ask yourself why the violence in this movie will suddenly seem so much more problematic, so much more regrettable, than what passes without comment in Jack Reacher or Taken 2.” But this now-the-shoe’s-on-the-other-foot argument is disingenuous. In no major US film do white people exact racial vengeance of the sort Django does.

    And Mr Tarantino’s love of violence is not “suddenly” problematic. It is the sole pleasure anyone could possibly take in his first film, the appalling Reservoir Dogs. Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, for all their situational irony and madcap humour, also have memorable scenes of horrific violence. But Mr Tarantino’s last two films have taken a strange turn. He has not just shown cruelty but tried to politicise and ennoble it. Inglourious Basterds features a gang of American Jews who travel around Germany scalping Nazis and smashing their heads with baseball bats. It ends with a torture scene (one of our heroes carves a swastika into a Nazi’s head) that we are surely meant to enjoy.

    Nazis and slaveholders, of course, are stock villains of political correctness. Film-makers have been killing them off for decades. What is novel about Mr Tarantino is his fussy, lawyerly setting of ground rules to broaden the circumstances in which one can kill with joy and impunity. Scalping is OK because “a Nazi ain’t got no humanity”. Django can kneecap the plantation major-domo Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) because he has stipulated at the start of the film that there is “nothing lower than a head house-nigger”. Of course, Stephen is more the slave system’s victim than its representative. He is a slave. The indignities visited on various slaves (“After this we’ll see if you break eggs again!” hollers one brute as he gets ready to whip a young woman) serve to make us comfortable with the final racial retribution, even though Django’s vengeance claims white people (hillbillies and jailers) who have no more control over the system than Stephen.

    The film-maker Spike Lee has called this film “disrespectful to my ancestors”. The remark has puzzled people but it should not. Monsieur Candie reminisces, “surrounded by black faces, day in, day out, I had one question: Why don’t they kill us?” It is an excellent question.

    However you answer it, the fact is, they didn’t. In the eyes of history, antebellum blacks retain an honour that their white oppressors will forever be denied. Maybe Mr Lee objects to a failure to see that honour. Where Mr Tarantino sees a solidarity with the victims of the past, others might see a contemporary white American eager to believe that, given the opportunity, other peoples of yesteryear would have behaved as shabbily as his own people did.

    **********************
    5 Quick Points Against Django Unchained, Because It’s Not Worth 6.
    by Jared A. Ball

    1. Ishmael Reed is right. The first thing easily noticed is that the promotion of the film is largely false. The film does not star and is not about Black people. Jamie Foxx is at best a supporting player behind Waltz and probably also behind DiCaprio. The film is pure White-centered propaganda where the moral is that Black liberation and sovereignty are not possible, only a permanent subservience that is itself only granted to the extent White men with money are liberal. And Namibians, Tanzanians, Jews, Gypsies, Communists and poor Germans know better than the film’s promoted myth of humanist German saviors. Kerry Washington barely even speaks in this film despite being described in the film as one who does so well. In fact, her’s is the most “honest” depiction in the film in that she appears as only honorable Black women can – as a mirage or a silent memory (other then when she is crying out in pain from being tortured).

    2. Jelani Cobb is right. This film does to Africans and Black-led liberation struggles what Tarrentino’s Basterds did to Russian involvement in World War II. That is, in each case those most involved in the fighting are removed to tell a barely-loosely-based non-historical narrative. Just like Lincoln, Black leadership in the abolitionist movement is invisible. So the tremendous amounts of Black-led – and equally violent – rebellions that terrified those engaged in the “business” of enslaving Africans are replaced with Django, or in Tarantino’s words, the “exceptional nigger” who is only accidentally and ironically referred to as “non-exceptional” by DiCaprio. Rebellion among Africans was not rare, nor “exceptional,” and quite unlike the extras Africans lingering in the backgrounds of this film real life was replete with their heavy involvement – even the films’ maligned “house slaves” were in reality highly involved in supporting rebellion, even poisoning their “owners.” So for all the excitement at seeing a Black man kill Whites with impunity that many seem to use as an excuse to like this film the reality is that in real life there were many more Djangos/Harriets none of whom needed White men to give them license or sanction.

    3. I don’t care about cinematic traditions, most of which in this country are firmly grounded in severe anti-Black “antagonisms,” so I don’t like seeing any humor in a film about enslavement that includes violent beatings, lynchings, rape, dog attacks, branding of African people and the violent demonstration of this country’s foundational love of the violence of boxing, football and to a lesser extent basketball – in this film called “Mandingo fighting.” Jonah Hill is funny, no doubt, but in his silly White-boy movies. I don’t want to see his comedic talents applied to night-riding Klansmen (and never mind that the Klan didn’t even exist yet). Nothing about enslavement was/is funny, no matter how many Africans found ways to find humor during their suffering and no matter how many times Whites could be themselves the butt of the joke. And since we see no films telling these histories from the perspective of the enslaved and from the perspective of total overthrow, and since the effects of enslavement – or better, its persistence through mass incarceration, political imprisonment and wild inequalities of life – I don’t want to see or hear about people laughing at all for any reason associated with this history.

    4. I’ve heard some speak of “catharsis” in seeing Django exact revenge. But his isn’t even the noble total liberating revenge against the institution of slavery as would be the case if the real story of Harriet Tubman or Nat Turner were ever told honestly (as opposed to making a Styron film about the latter or a Tarantino film about anyone). The cathartic moment for Django is carried out on Sam Jackson, a house slave (and not even a radical one as did exist), nor is it against the ruling southern plantocracy (Waltz gets to kill DiCaprio) or the northern capitalist bank-rollers. And the film is so horrible in its delivery of the history of enslavement that even White southern journalists have called seeing the film a “liberating experience.” Catharsis for whom?

    Awwww, bump this, I’m leaving it at 4, the film doesn’t even deserve the promised 5. Spike Lee may have been wrong in his making of Malcolm X but he is damn right here (or at least excused) for dismissing this film without seeing it and knowing it would be what it is, disrespectful to our ancestors.

  • MICHAEL MOORE says:

    In Defense of Zero Dark Thirty
    By Michael Moore

    25 January 13

    There comes a point about two-thirds of the way through Zero Dark Thirty where it is clear something, or someone, on high has changed. The mood at the CIA has shifted, become subdued. It appears that the torture-approving guy who’s been president for the past eight years seems to be, well, gone. And, just as a fish rots from the head down, the stench also seems to be gone. Word then comes down that – get this! – we can’t torture any more! The CIA agents seem a bit disgruntled and dumbfounded. I mean, torture has worked soooo well these past eight years! Why can’t we torture any more???

    The answer is provided on a TV screen in the background where you see a black man (who apparently is the new president) and he’s saying, in plain English, that America’s torturing days are over, done, finished. There’s an “aw, shit” look on their faces and then some new boss comes into the meeting room, slams his fist on the table and says, essentially, you’ve had eight years to find bin Laden – and all you’ve got to show for it are a bunch of photos of naked Arab men peeing on themselves and wearing dog collars and black hoods. Well, he shouts, those days are over! There’s no secret group up on the top floor looking for bin Laden, you’re it, and goddammit do your job and find him.

    He is there to put the fear of God in them, probably because his boss, the new president, has (as we can presume) on his first day in office, ordered that bin Laden be found and killed. Unlike his frat boy predecessor who had little interest in finding bin Laden (even to the point of joking that “I really just don’t spend that much time on him”), this new president was not an imbecile and all about business. Go find bin Laden – and don’t use torture. Torture is morally wrong. Torture is the coward’s way. C’mon – we’re smart, we’re the USA, and you’re telling me we can’t find a six-and-a-half-foot tall Saudi who’s got a $25 million bounty on his head? Use your brains (like I do) and, goddammit, get to work!

    And then, as the movie shows, the CIA abruptly shifts from torture porn to – are you sitting down? – detective work. Like cops do to find killers. Bin Laden was a killer – a mass killer – not a general of an army of soldiers, or the head of a country call Terrorstan. He was a crazed religious fanatic, a multi-millionaire, and a punk who was part of the anti-Soviet mujahideen whom we trained, armed and funded in Afghanistan back in the ’80s. But he was a godsend and a very useful tool to the Dick Cheneys and Don Rumsfields of the world. They could hold him up to a frightened American public and scare the bejesus out of everyone – and everyone (well, most everyone) would then get behind the effort to declare war on, um … well … Who exactly do we declare war against? Oh, right – terrorism! The War on Terrorism! So skilled were the men from Halliburton, et al. that they convinced the Congress and the public to go to war against a noun. Terrorism. People fell for it, and these rich men and their friends made billions of dollars from “contracting” and armaments and a Burger King on every Iraqi base. Billions more were made creating a massive internal spying apparatus called “Homeland Security.” Business was very, very good, and as long as the bogeyman (Osama) was alive, the citizenry would not complain one bit.

    I think you know what happens next. In the final third of Zero Dark Thirty, the agents switch from torture to detective work – and guess what happens? We find bin Laden! Eight years of torture – no bin Laden. Two years of detective work – boom! Bin Laden!

    And that really should be the main takeaway from Zero Dark Thirty: That good detective work can bring fruitful results – and that torture is wrong.

    Much of the discussion and controversy around the film has centered on the belief that the movie shows, or is trying to say, that torture works. They torture a guy for years and finally, while having a friendly lunch with him one day, they ask him if he would tell them the name of bin Laden’s courier. Either that, or go back and be tortured some more. He says he doesn’t know the guy but he knows his fake name and he gives them that name. The name turns out to be correct. Torture works!

    But then we learn a piece of news: The CIA has had the name of this guy all along! For ten years! And how did they get this name ten years ago? From “a tip.” A random tip! No torture involved. But, as was the rule during those years of incompetency and no desire to find bin Laden, the tip was filed away somewhere in some room – and not discovered until 2010. So, instead of torturing hundreds for eight years to find this important morsel of intelligence, they could have found it in their own CIA file cabinet in about eight minutes. Yeah, torture works.

    In the movie, after they have the name of the courier, they then believe if they find him, they find bin Laden. So how do they find him? They bribe a Kuwaiti informant with a new car. That’s right, they find the number of the courier’s family by giving the guy a Lamborghini. And what do they do when they find the courier’s mother? Do they kidnap and torture her to find out where her son is? Nope, they just listen in on his weekly call home to Mom, and through that, they trace him to Pakistan and then hire a bunch of undercover Pakistani Joe Fridays to follow this guy’s every move – which, then, leads them to the infamous compound in Abbottabad where the Saudi punk has holed up.

    Nice police work, boys!

    Oh – and girl. ‘Zero Dark Thirty – a movie made by a woman (Kathryn Bigelow), produced by a woman (Megan Ellison), distributed by a woman (Amy Pascal, the co-chairman of Sony Pictures), and starring a woman (Jessica Chastain) is really about how an agency of mostly men are dismissive of a woman who is on the right path to finding bin Laden. Yes, guys, this is a movie about how we don’t listen to women, how hard it is for them to have their voice heard even in these enlightened times. You could say this is a 21st century chick flick – and it would do you well to see it.

    But back to the controversy and the torture. I guess where I part with most of my friends who are upset at this film is that they are allowing the wrong debate to take place. You should NEVER engage in a debate where the other side defines the terms of the debate – namely, in this case, to debate “whether torture works.” You should refuse to participate in that discussion because the real question should be, simply, “is torture wrong?” And, after watching the brutal behavior of CIA agents for the first 45 minutes of the film, I can’t believe anyone of conscience would conclude anything other than that this is morally NOT right. You will be repulsed by these torture scenes because, make no mistake about it, this has been done in your name and mine and with our tax dollars. We funded this.

    If you allow the question to be “did torture work?” then you’ll lose because yes, if you torture someone who actually has the information, they will eventually give it to you. The problem is, the other 99 who don’t know anything will also tell you anything to get you to stop torturing – but their information is wrong. How do you know which one of the 100 is the man with the goods? You don’t.

    But let’s grant the other side that maybe, occasionally, torture “works.” Here’s what else will work: castrating pedophiles. Why don’t we do that? Probably because we think it’s morally wrong. The death penalty sure works. Put a murderer in a gas chamber and I can guarantee you he’ll never murder again. But is it right? Do we accomplish the ends we seek by becoming the murderers ourselves? That should be our only question.

    After I saw Zero Dark Thirty, a friend asked me, “During the torture scenes, who did you feel empathy for the most – the American torturer or the Arab suspect?” That was easy to answer. “Oh, God, the poor guy being waterboarded. The torturer was a sadist.”

    “Yes, that’s the answer everyone gives me afterward. The movie actually makes you care for the tortured guys who may have, in fact, been part of 9/11. Like rooting for the Germans on the submarine to make it back to port in Das Boot, that’s the sign of some great filmmaking when the writer and director are able to get you to empathize with the person you’ve been told everywhere else to hate.”

    Zero Dark Thirty is a disturbing, fantastically-made movie. It will make you hate torture. And it will make you happy you voted for a man who stopped all that barbarity – and who asked that the people over at Langley, like him, use their brains.

    And that’s what worked.

    P.S. One final thought. I’ve heard fellow lefties say that even if the filmmakers didn’t intend to endorse torture (Bigelow called torture “reprehensible” on Colbert the other night), the average person watching the movie is going to take it the wrong way. I believe it is the responsibility of the filmmaker attempting to communicate something that they do so clearly and skillfully (and you can decide for yourself if Bigelow and Boal did so. For me, they did.). But I never blame the artist for failing to dumb down their work so that the lesser minds among us “get it.” Should Springsteen not have named his album Born in the USA because some took it to be as a salute to patriotism (Reagan wanted to use it in his 1984 reelection campaign but Bruce said no)?

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