Maya Vs. Carrie − Comparing The Feminism of 'Zero Dark Thirty' & 'Homeland'

Homeland Zero Dark Thirty

Do you remember when J.J. Abrams'  ABC series Alias was the greatest female spy story of its time? Premiering in 2001, just weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it starred an apple-cheeked newcomer with just the right combination of hardness and softness. For five seasons and through hundreds of costume changes — does the CIA really spend thousands of dollars on neon wigs? — Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) showed the world that a female spy could be just as clever, alluring, and badass as James Bond, even on a TV budget.

Since the premiere of Showtime’s spy thriller, Homeland, last year, however, Sydney has been retroactively exposed as Spy Barbie, a product of the girl-power fad of the 1990s. Homeland and the upcoming film, Zero Dark Thirty, which chronicles the decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden, make a more serious case for feminism — or a more serious kind of feminism — by pulling their female CIA-agent protagonists from the field and eschewing gold-lamé bikinis for sensible pantsuits.

The 'Zero Dark Thirty' 'Homeland' Comparison
Zero Dark Thirty’s Maya (Jessica Chastain) and Homeland’s Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) are certainly cut from the same cotton-polyester blend cloth. They’re both young, willowy, fair-haired women hell-bent on finding a man: Maya is after bin Laden and Carrie after Abu Nazir, OBL’s fictional counterpart. They’re no-nonsense women with passion and indignation to spare, and more often than not, the smartest person in the room. They’re frequently the only women in a man’s world, but they’re not the type to make a big deal about it. Their hunches are usually ignored by exasperated higher-ups, but that has less to do with their gender than political convenience and grandstanding.

Zero Dark Thirty and Homeland’s rejection of honeypots in favor of intelligence analysts is instrumental in the reception of the film and the TV show as feminist works. That rejection reflects changing demographics within the espionage community, where female superstar data-crunchers are quickly becoming the norm. Both Maya and Carrie are famously based on real-life women in CIA.. The head of the spy bureau’s Al-Qaeda tracking team recently stated, “If I could have put out a sign on the door [after 9/11] that said ‘No men need apply,’ I would have done it.” But what’s most interesting about the feminisms — that’s feminism with an 's' — of ZDT and Homeland are their different, but equally compelling, approaches to female heroism.

The feminism in ZDT follows the "anything a man can do, I can do better" school of thought. It’s impossible not to project that attitude onto ZDT director Kathryn Bigelow, whose filmography strongly suggests a “guys’ girl,” and who received the first-ever Best Director Oscar awarded to a woman for making a macho military movie, The Hurt Locker.

It's difficult not to see Bigelow's brand of feminism in Chastain's Maya. Girlish ponytail and pouty lips aside, Chastain’s Maya is essentially a gender-neutral character.  When she’s asked about her thoughts on office romance, her response is the closest she ever gets to femininity: “I’m not that girl that fucks.” In other words, the sexless, workaholic Maya briefly dons the mean-girl mask to define herself against all those other “girls” who men might see as sexual partners, instead of colleagues. In a later scene, she takes credit for her discovery of bin Laden’s hideout in a room full of military brass by declaring, “I’m the motherfucker that found this place.” With that short statement, Maya draws attention to her gender by pointedly not drawing attention to it. Anyone can be a motherfucker, man or woman — just like anyone can find bin Laden.

Like Zero Dark Thirty, Homeland is rarely about Carrie’s gender. But the character begs to be read as a fervent defense of female hysteria and hyper-emotionality. It’s not PMS that makes Carrie a puppet to her emotions, but her bipolar disorder, a condition that’s spottily and sporadically treated in the show’s first season. Even after a bout of electro-convulsive therapy and a regular regimen of lithium to stabilize her mood swings, Carrie isn’t balanced enough for spycraft. When she helps capture Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), the ex-P.O.W. she alone — and correctly — believed to be a terrorist (and whom she later has an affair with), she screams, “I LOVED YOU!” at him while her embarrassed colleagues handcuff and cart him away.

But the reason Homeland is a feminist — rather than misogynist — show, even with a caricature of female emotional instability at its center, is that it transforms a trait that has traditionally been used to denigrate women into a professional advantage. This isn't the kind of gender-neutral feminism that congratulates female CEOs for shattering the glass ceiling. Rather, it questions the value of gender-neutrality and asks why women should want things that men have designated as desirable. Why should a little girl crash toy trucks together, for example, when playing with dolls will improve her verbal and empathy skills more quickly? Or in the case of Homeland, why should Carrie's emotional instability be counted against her when it's her perilous leaps of logic and mania-induced zealotry that enables her to see what nobody else can ? Even her ill-advised affair with Brody, fueled by loneliness and uncontrollable desire, helps her collect evidence of his extremism.

The different approaches to feminism that Homeland and ZDT embody prove that there isn’t just one correct approach to gender equity: women (and progressive men) can have their feminism both ways. Now if only we could get a female CIA director, or even just a movie about one, already.

Bonus note: Do Homeland and Zero Dark Thirty pass the Bechdel test? Although the central cast of Homeland is basically Claire Danes and a bunch of dudes, it passes with flying colors. ZDT is a bit more complicated. Maya and a female colleague (Jennifer Ehle) discuss work a lot, but work for them is killing and torturing a bunch of men. It doesn’t pass on technical grounds, but it does in spirit. Whether the banner of feminism should be used to ignore, soften, or justify the brutality of torture, well, that’s a discussion for another day.

Inkoo Kang is a film critic and investigative journalist in Boston. She has been published in Salon, Indiewire, Boxoffice, Yahoo! Movies, Pop Matters, Screen Junkies, and MuckRock. Her great dream in life is to direct a remake of All About Eve with an all-dog cast."

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  • J. says:

    "Caricature of female emotional instability at its center." I don't see it that way. Bipolar disorder is a serious illness and it seems to me it adds a certain depth to the character and to the show. Instead of being ridiculous, she makes me feel pain and sympathy for her.
    That being said, I can't wait to see Zero Dark Thirty.