Watching the warriors: the female hero and the ‘logistics of perception’ in 'Zero Dark Thirty'

This source preferred by Christa Van Raalte

Authors: Van Raalte, C.

Editors: Gildersleeve, J. and Gehrmann, R.

Publisher: Palgrave McMillan

Place of Publication: Queensland, Australia

ISBN: 978-3-319-56976-5

Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow 2012) has given rise to much critical debate, focused primarily on its questionable historical accuracy, apparent political perspective and the extent to which its narrative condones torture as an instrument of intelligence gathering. These are indisputably important issues, however they have tended to crowd out of the critical agenda alternative approaches to the film, two of which I would like to address in this chapter.

From a feminist perspective, one of the most striking features of Zero Dark Thirty is the use of a female lead in such a consistently ‘masculine’ genre as the war film. Critical reaction has inevitably been mixed. Some commentators celebrate Maya as a new feminist icon, some position her as a post-feminist, gender-neutral figure, while others take a more sceptical stance, seeing her presence as providing a form of ideological camouflage for US militarism, ultimately reinforcing a patriarchal status quo. But there has been little by way of sustained analysis of her role in the film.

Another striking feature of this film is the extent to which it articulates the relationship between cinema and war proposed by Paul Virilio. The intradiegetic use of surveillance technology exemplifies the ‘logistics of perception’ discussed in The Vision Machine, while the appropriation of the ‘reality effect’ of mediated images for the purposes of a Hollywood film speaks to Virilio’s ‘aesthetics of disappearance’. I would like to address both these perspectives, arguing that there is in fact a close relationship between them. The gender of the protagonist is much more than an incidental detail within the film, having profound implications for the structure and dynamics of the narrative. Without a female protagonist, the central dramatic device of surveillance-as-action and the effective exclusion of the hero from direct engagement in the climatic “battle” (the moment for which the film is named) would be problematic, if not impossible. In effect the re-conceptualisation of the hero as female coincides with a re-conceptualisation of what constitutes ‘action’ for the purposes of the film. Maya, in her role as professional watcher, is the bearer of a paradoxical gaze. Her gaze is constructed primarily as controlling, authoritative and the source of knowledge – bearing more than a passing resemblance to the role of the film director. However it is also the source of misinformation, frustration and the feelings of impotence associated with witnessing. This paradox points on the one hand to the problematic relationship between the woman and the gaze articulated throughout feminist film criticism and on the other towards the ‘paradoxical logic’ whereby the image comes to dominate reality – a concept, Virilio associates with precisely the moral relativism which, for many, constitutes an ideological and aesthetic problem at the heart of Zero Dark Thirty.

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