The Heroine’s Gaze: The Final Scene in Zero Dark Thirty and a Feminist War
Many portrayals of women in blockbuster action-thriller films tend to fall into two main categories: sex object or masculinized heroine. Laura Mulvey argues, “the spectator, both male and female, is invited to take pleasure in a particular configuration of the [male] gaze through which ‘the male hero acts’ while ‘women are seen and showed at the same time.’” In other words, film forces women into objectified roles of which the audience gazes. I would like to adapt Laura Mulvey’s argument about the filmic male gaze to suggest that the gaze of the thriller genre is not only male but also misogynistic. The female viewer has little chance to relate to a feminized, powerful heroine. Kathryn Bigelow, aware of this norm, provides an example that questions the male gaze and exposes the isolation women face in action film.
Released in December 2012, Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty informs its audience about the manhunt to kill bin Laden. Though most critics of the film deal with its historical accuracy and depiction of torture, I contend that Bigelow’s film draws a complex parallel between the war on terror and women’s war against misogyny when they find themselves in positions of power. The final scene of the film (Time 2:26:30), when Maya identifies the dead body, illustrates this comparison. Bigelow plays with the female gaze to shape a misogynistic spectacle into an image dictated by women. However, the sharp contrast between Maya, the soldiers, and the treatment she receives from her coworkers isolates her from a male-oriented space.
In the beginning of the scene, Maya stands out to her audience. It starts as Navy S.E.A.L. Team 6 celebrates their successful mission of killing bin Laden. The bulky, camouflage uniforms of men dominate most of the mise-en-scène as documents and weapons pile on tabletops. Then Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, enters the tent. The camera focuses sharply on her long, auburn hair, porcelain face, and black suit. Everything about Maya as the female spectacle strikes the audience’s (male) gaze. Though blurry heads and papers obscure her face intermittently, the handheld shot searches for her in the middle of its frame; it wants to focus on her. Like many thriller films, the scene gives a male perspective of Maya and of war through the male gaze. The comparison between the war on terror and on misogyny gets told through a male perspective.
But Bigelow, playing off Mulvey’s ideas, manipulates this gaze. The camera moves through the crowd, and a shot-reverse shot juxtaposes Maya and the body bag holding her enemy. She gets to complete her task when she identifies bin Laden. The camera cuts to a wide shot of Maya standing next to the body, in which she gazes down at it for a prolonged instant before unveiling his face. At this moment, Bigelow shifts from the male gaze at Maya to the protagonist’s female gaze at the male body. The camera cuts to a low angle looking up at Maya, putting her in a dominating role looking over the dead bin Laden. Maya must confirm his identity, putting her in charge. Breaking film standards, Bigelow highlights the authoritative gaze of a woman looking down at a man, thus giving a female perspective of war.
Even though the viewpoint shifts to the feminine, the film still accentuates the theme of powerful women trapped in a male-oriented world. As Maya walks through the tent, men’s voices dominate the soundtrack with phrases such as “Good job,” “third floor, ladies’ underwear [laughs],” and “Gentlemen, watch your backs.” The voices imply war is a man’s world, and femininity does not belong. In comparison, usually outspoken Maya never speaks in this scene. Barbara Johnson argues for muteness envy, where the “understanding of the power of reclaimed silence, a power that is not unrelated to the idealization of muteness found in the aesthetic tradition.” Therefore, the idealized, dignified woman must remain silent. Whether intending to empower or entrap Maya, Bigelow elicits a direct contrast between the protagonist’s silence and the male voices. Hence Maya’s appearance and quietness emphasize the underlying theme that she remains isolated and unwelcome, even though she leads the war mission.
Even ambient sound dictates Maya as the abnormal female in a male environment. As soon as she confirms bin Laden’s identity, a soldier tells the authority on the phone, “The agency expert gave visual confirmation, Yes sir, the girl [emphasis added].” In one phrase, the film captures the hyper-masculine identities of the soldiers by degrading her to the lowest degree. Whether the man or the “sir” on the phone line first calls Maya a girl is unclear, but the comment isolates her from everyone else. Not even assigned as “the woman,” she becomes a submissive, helpless child in the eyes of her teammates. Bigelow segregates Maya in her power; she holds a position of importance but struggles to fit her femininity into the misogynistic gaze.
Maya’s battle parallels the struggle to capture an invisible enemy, bin Laden. The last moments of the film involve Maya walking out of the tent, taking a deep breath, and getting on a plane to leave the Middle East. Again, she becomes the spectacle to the fixated camera. Except for the male pilot, Maya is alone in the last two minutes of the film; no one celebrates the victory with her. I assert that though the battle against bin Laden has been won, the war to challenge misogyny in war continues. Maya rides into the unknown in solitude, segregated from everyone else; she represents a woman in power, who cannot fit into the masculine environment. The plane takes off, and she lets out a single tear, collecting herself before the screen fades to black. Finally away from men, the woman releases her emotions. Bigelow leaves an ambiguous ending to symbolize the harsh truth of war as a horrific experience, but she also implies a dissatisfied and confused Maya, who now has nowhere to go except back to into the male gaze.
Though the film accounts of the mission to kill bin Laden, Kathryn Bigelow tries to depict the difficulty of a woman’s role in war and in society. She creates a protagonist who does not seem to fit the images in most commercial thriller film. However, in the film’s presentation, a misogynistic environment isolates Maya. As a potential role model, is Maya a heroine or is she just another woman struggling in a male-oriented world?
Johnson, Barbara. “Muteness Envy.” In The Feminist Difference: Literature, Psychoanalysis,
Race, and Gender. 129-53. Cambridge: Harvard MP, 2000.
Sassatelli, Roberta. “Interview with Laura Mulvey: Gender, Gaze and Technology in Film
Culture.” Theory Culture Society 28, no. 123 (2011): 123-43. Doi: 10,1177/026327641 1398278.
Stone, Alan A. “The Price of Vengeance.” Boston Review: On Film (2013): 76-9.
Zero Dark Thirty. DVD. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Culver City, CA: Sony Pictures Home
Entertainment Inc, 2012.
 Roberta Sassatelli, “Interview with Laura Mulvey: Gender, Gaze and Technology in Film Culture,” Theory Culture Society 28, no, 123 (2011): 124.
 “Chapter 16,” Zero Dark Thirty, directed by Kathryn Bigelow (2012; Culver City, CA, Sony Pictures), DVD.
 Barbara Johnson, “Muteness Envy,” in The Feminist Difference: Literature, Psychoanalysis, Race, and Gender (Cambridge, MA: Harvard MP, 2000), 150.