How the Case of Zero Dark Thirty Reflects on Hollywood's Treatment of Women

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by Melissa Silverstein
February 22, 2013 1:00 PM
9 Comments
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I was a happy person a couple of months ago.  I walked out of seeing Zero Dark Thirty very much liking the film, but also sighing a bit in relief that Kathryn Bigelow had hit another one out of the park.  I was convinced she would make history with her second best director nomination and that the film would be a strong contender for best picture.

Things were going very well for the film at the end of 2012.  It was on many top 10 lists, won numerous critics awards and Bigelow became the first woman to win two best director awards from the NY Film Critics Circle.  It looked like Zero Dark Thirty was the film to beat come Oscar night.

Then the shit hit the fan.  I gotta give a heap of blame to Senator Dianne Feinstein who took to the media and basically declared that the film lied about enhanced interrogations AKA torture.  Even though others like Leon Panetta and former Congresswoman Jane Harmon disagreed, sadly, the film was never able to recover from that moment.  As a recent LA Times article mentions, the filmmakers wanted to fight back when the controversy started but were told by the studio and awards consultants to wait until the national release date of January 11 as not to compromise the box office.  While that was a good money strategy since the box office is at $88 million domestic and over $100 million total, that strategy severely compromised the film in awards land. 

It just seems so typically Hollywood to me that this film produced, starring, directed and released by strong women -- Megan Ellison, Jessica Chastain, Kathryn Bigelow and Amy Pascal is going to come up short on Oscar night.   The women involved with this film have been highly scrutinized and you would be kidding yourself if you think that gender doesn't play a role. 

Let's look at Megan Ellison.  She is the young woman who financed the whole film.  She's not even thirty and she wrote a check for the whole thing.  She even got Jessica Chastain to take the part.  It takes some serious guts to do what she does.  She could have taken her money form her dad and gone off and do anything or have other people spend it for her and she can just show up on awards night.  But she's different and that's what makes people crazy.  She's not your typical Prada wearing female producer in Hollywood.  And now since Hollywood is so hurting for money, she's gone to the top of everyone's list. 

Here's how Vanity Fair described her in a recent profile:

Pretty but a bit overweight, with hunched shoulders, she has a slacker vibe. She drives a gray ’89 Aston Martin or rides one of her motorcycles, often has a Camel cigarette in hand, and rarely wears makeup. Partial to butch, grunge chic, she usually wears a uniform of army boots, denim jeans, and a hoodie pulled over the T-shirt of an old-school rock band, like Led Zeppelin or AC/DC. She can come across as well read and shy, but then might say something strangely blunt and uncomfortable and laugh at it.

Aside from the snark on her weight (boo on you Vanessa Grigoriadis) I find the description of this woman very liberating.  How cool is it that she plays by her own rules.  Her money buys her freedom from having to look the part.  Male investors like Stephen Bing can go around in t-shirts and sneakers, yet when a woman doesn't look the part it warrants a description in a profile. 

She's now entered the big leagues with multiple Oscar nominations and I'm sure the scrutiny will only grow especially if she continues to shroud herself in mystery and not do interviews.  I like the fact that she is not known.  I like the fact that she plays by her own rules.  But Hollywood doesn't like that at all.  She's unique, there are not many, if any female producers like her, as Amy Pascal says: “And you know what? Sometimes when you’re a woman, people judge you a little more harshly. I think that if Megan was a guy people wouldn’t be jumping on her as much.”

Jessica Chastain gave the performance of her career in Zero Dark Thirty and yet probably sealed the deal on not getting her Oscar when she stood up and defended her director at the Golden Globes in an incredibly feminist burst of appreciation.  It's interesting to watch the difference between Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence.  I am a fan of Lawrence's in general.  But she's been playing up her youth and lack of substance way too much in these last weeks.  She's everywhere acting all goofy.  While that might endear her to Academy voters, it just confirms for others that she is quite young and maybe its too soon to give her an Oscar.  Whereas Jessica Chastain has behaved like the adult that she is.  While people might think she was an overnight sensation with her breakout part in The Help, the woman has been working and working for years.  There's nothing overnight about her. 

And let's also remember that Kathryn Bigelow refuses to talk about being a female director and refuses to discuss anything related to gender at all.  But we all know that she's taken many hits because she is a woman.  She stuck to Mark Boal in the beginning of the press tour for the film seeming really unsure of her voice, but as the controversy grew, her presence and gravitas in the media grew.  And then she started going on TV by herself and she was great and it made me wish that she had been talking by herself the whole time.  But the kicker for me is that for all her desire to be accepted into the most boys club of boys clubs, the world of directors, we know that she's still a girl and they are pushing back which was evidenced by her not being nominated.  

When I talk about women directors not being included in top tier film festivals or not getting honors the response is usually that there are not enough women operating at that level to be noticed.  That it's not the fault of the festivals or the awards because women are just not there or they make films that are just not good enough.  What this year's Oscar race illustrated to me is that all those lines about women directors are bullshit because when a woman does get to the top of the heap she still can't get the recognition she deserves and has earned.  I am so sick and tired of hearing about Ben Affleck not getting nominated for best director.  That movie has used his snub as a strategy to get that film the top honor - best picture.  There has only been minimal outrage about the Kathryn Bigelow snub.  That's what I am going to remember about this year- that a woman should have been nominated and she wasn't.  There are not many years when women can get into the top tier and that she was left out still makes me deeply angry.

Happy Oscar watching.

'Zero Dark Thirty's' sharp turn from Oscar glory (LA Times)

Caution: Heiress at Work (Vanity Fair)

All the rest from Women and Hollywood

She Who Will Not Be Ignored

Sexism Pushes Its Way Into the Oscar Campaign

Critics and Film Lovers Respond to Kathryn Bigelow Snub

Michael Moore: Zero Dark Thirty is a Movie About 'How We Don't Listen to Women.'

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9 Comments

  • David | April 17, 2013 2:17 AMReply

    The following is an excerpt from an article released on 4-16 - Authors and source noted below:

    An independent task force issued a damning review of Bush-era interrogation practices on Tuesday, saying the highest U.S. officials bore ultimate responsibility for the "indisputable" use of torture, and it urged President Barack Obama to close the Guantanamo detention camp by the end of 2014.

    In one of the most comprehensive studies of U.S. treatment of terrorism suspects, the panel concluded that never before had there been "the kind of considered and detailed discussions that occurred after 9/11 directly involving a president and his top advisers on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in our custody."

    "It is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture," the 11-member task force, assembled by the nonpartisan Constitution Project think tank, said in their 577-page report.

    By Matt Spetalnick and Jane Sutton, Reuters

    My reading of the film was that it was never meant to be a factual, incident specific retelling, but rather an opportunity to take a look at what it cost us to find UBL, as a society, and as individuals. Ultimately, the truth that we were willing to sacrifice our own defining values and ideals based on the justification that such a sacrifice would save innocent lives, I think this is a painful, difficult, and possibly still too fresh reminder that we willfully and rationally let evil beget even more evil, that we failed to live up to what is best in us, because we became consumed by fear.

  • Shaun | March 12, 2013 3:06 AMReply

    I have to completely disagree. The problem with ZD30 is that it does fudge the entire issue of torture. Whatever the intention of Bigelow and the others around her, the fact is that the film leaves torture in a grey area where it, factually, does not belong. And many members of the public are getting this idea. My friend saw this movie in a cinema with a bunch of soldiers who started their customary chant (hoo-ah? Something like that) at the end of the film. If they had any deeper thoughts about what the US did to get Bin Laden, it certainly did not show.

    It does not help that Bigelow apparently had extraordinary access to the CIA in making this film. Nor does it help that Hollywood's long reputation and function as an American propaganda machine leaves this film open to special scrutiny and criticism. This was Hollywood's first serious take on the issue of torture and it is also how many Americans, many of whom get their history through Hollywood, are going to understand the issue.

  • MTS | March 4, 2013 8:09 PMReply

    More bothered by the fact that there aren't MORE WOMEN DIRECTORS in the game for consideration than I am by Kathryn Bigelow not being nominated a second time. Both situations are absurd here in 1913... oops, I mean 2013.

  • Carter | March 1, 2013 2:53 AMReply

    I found it reprehensible that Kathryn Bigelow wasn't even NOMINATED for Director- and in the end that the film only won a single Academy Award (for Sound Editing). Hollywood has egg on its face for failing to recognize Bigelow's achievement and snubbing a major director.

  • Martha | February 23, 2013 12:02 PMReply

    Saw Melissa's post as Ms.'s blog and came over to check out this site after that. I left a comment at Ms. that I'm going to copy and paste here because it's on ZDT. One thing, though. The torture critique of the film rests on a lie. Early on The New Yorker -- in an article, a 'critique' and its review -- ran with an event that wasn't in the film. This allowed others -- who didn't see the film but launched campaigns against it like Glenn Greenwald -- to repeat the falsehood (the film does not have anyone confess from water boarding). Ava and C.I. at Third Estate Sunday Review caught that falsehood and also back it by quoting the film's script. Anyway, here's the comment I left at Ms.:

    I saw Zero Dark Thirty. I was surprised to find out that the false claim that a name is produced by water boarding is not in the film. As Ava and C.I. have pointed out, it’s not even in the script:
    http://thirdestatesundayreview.blogspot.com/2013/02/media-never-ending-sexism.html
    The criticism of that film was uniformed and sexist. Bret Easton Ellis and David Bromwitch (see the link) talking about what women can direct and can’t. But I felt those two with their sexist remarks were more honest than a lot of the attackers of the film because what really got under the attackers skin was that a woman directed it. It’s not a pro-torture film. But it shows torture and they’ve looked the other way while male directors have (even when male directors glorified torture). I rarely go to the movies anymore. I ended up seeing Zero Dark Thirty three times. I was so excited about movies again that I went and saw Side Effects. And all of its anti-women attitude killed off any enthusiasm I might have for movies. It’s amazing to me that there was a pile on by various ‘activists’ on Bigelow and her film (with some griping about ‘the girl’ and how they were sick of all these movies about ‘the girl’ — where are all those movies because I haven’t seen them) but the same ‘activists’ never call out sexism. If they did, Side Effects would have had a pile on — for its portrayal of women, for its use of the ‘devious’ and ‘disturbed’ lesbian, etc.

  • Person | February 23, 2013 6:00 PM

    How is making a movie with a female antagonist sexism? *spoiler* The fact that she was a lesbian kept us from guessing that she was behind it all. They could have just used another heterosexual male but instead they went and gave two women character arcs where they tried to ingeniously screw a man who had wronged them.

  • BOO HOO | February 23, 2013 10:45 AMReply

    Katheryn Bigelow already has Oscar gold for directing, yeah she should of been nominated for best director as should of Ben Affleck but I"m not going to cry foul for someone who already won. Jessica Chastian will most likely win for Best actress so why are you so pissed?

  • NB | February 23, 2013 8:10 AMReply

    I have to disagree. While I thought "Hurt Locker" was an amazing, amazing film, I was hugely disappointed in ZDT. Not because of the torture--there's more violence in a Stallone flick. This was just a poorly constructed film that couldn't decide whether it wanted to be a doc or a narrative. There was no story construct-really, the Chastain character and the CIA chief go from not talking to each other to talking about baking, how? Chastain wasn't very good either, not that she really had much to go with. Bigelow is better than this...

  • No | February 22, 2013 1:35 PMReply

    Well, you're right. Kathryn Bigelow not being nominated is the scandal of this Oscar cycle. I saw "Argo" and liked it, but "Zero Thirty Dark" is a much better film by any of Hollywood's own dramatic standards. ZDT has at leased generated debate about torture and its use in the counterterrorism. Ms. Bigelow has bested the boys but the girl still can't a basic "Well played, madame!"

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