My Own Private Guantanamo

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The Torturer as Feminist: From Abu Ghraib to Zero Dark Thirty

March 2, 2013

Updated below

Here, in these photos from Abu Ghraib, you have everything that the Islamic fundamentalists believe characterizes Western culture, all nicely arranged in one hideous image – imperial arrogance, sexual depravity … and gender equality.- Barbara Ehrenreich

Zero Dark Thirty is a badass movie about a badass chick who tracks down a terrorist…directed by a woman! Haha. Women: 1, patriarchy: 0!- Twitter comment

In August of 2012, the Hoover Institution’s Amy Zegart conducted a poll on American attitudes toward torture, and found that Americans had become more supportive of the use of torture in the previous half decade. Zegart reported that:

In an October 2007 Rasmussen poll, 27 percent of Americans surveyed said the United States should torture prisoners captured in the fight against terrorism, while 53 percent said it should not. In my YouGov poll, 41 percent said they would be willing to use torture — a gain of 14 points — while 34 percent would not, a decline of 19 points.

Additionally, Zegart found an increase in support for a number of specific tactics known to be used during the Bush era, including waterboarding, intimidation with military dogs and naked stress positions. Among the reasons for this shift in consensus, she cited the possible influence of spy movies and TV shows, which have increasingly depicted torture as heroic. According to her poll, so-called “spy TV watchers” were more likely to support a range of abusive tactics.

Zegart’s findings were predicted in 2008 by a Parent’s Television Council report which observed a significant spike in the depiction of torture on prime time television—and more critically a shift in which characters were using torture. Increasingly, it was the “good guys” carrying out the torture. We can observe what Zegart calls “torture drift” in the changing perception of women as practitioners of prisoner abuse. In 2004, when the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal made headlines, Americans were shocked to see photographs of female soldiers engaged in acts of torture and sexual humiliation. And yet, in 2012, the character of the CIA agent Maya in the film Zero Dark Thirty uses similar tactics and is praised as a hero and feminist role model.

This essay argues that since the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the subsequent Abu Ghraib prison scandal, popular American television and cinema have participated in the normalization and justification of state torture. I argue that one of the most prominent features of this phenomenon is the depiction of women who engage in torture as national and feminist heroes. In particular, I will analyze the depiction of the CIA agent Maya in the film Zero Dark Thirty, as well as the marketing of the film and its cultural reception as a feminist product. This essay will start by looking back at some of the feminist responses to the Abu Ghraib scandal to inform our present discussion of Zero Dark Thirty as a “feminist” text.

9/11 & Abu Ghraib As Sexual Violation

In her essay “TV and Torture,” Amy Laura Hall argues that 9/11 was “a mass spectacle of violation that continues to shape American conceptions of gender, sexuality, and safety,” and that the felled towers marked the symbolic castration of the West. Hall reads the subsequent popularity of the TV show 24 with its macho torturing hero Jack Bauer as “a kind of collective catharsis – a way many Americans sought manageably to endure violation and also to recalibrate a myth of afflicted, but yet still potent, masculinity.” Hall further suggests “that the gender politics of such shows may take their form from the same cultural impulse that led to the ritualized emasculation of Muslim prisoners in places like Abu Ghraib,” pointing out that sexual violation was a routine feature of torture at the facility.

Following from this analysis, we can interpret some of the tortures at Abu Ghraib as a form of gender-based revenge for the trauma of 9/11. The photos and subsequent reports do not simply depict emasculation, but in many cases, the feminization of male prisoners, as well. Some prisoners were forced to wear women’s underwear and to simulate so-called “homosexual” acts. There are reports of prisoners “sodomized” with a chemical light and a broomstick. In one of the most iconic photos, Lynndie England holds a naked prisoner on a dog leash. There are also reports that a prisoner was ordered to roll on the ground and kiss the boots of the guards.

In her article, “Sexualized Torture and Abuse at Abu Ghraib Prison: Feminist Psychological Analyses,” Eileen Zurbriggen notes that many of these scenarios “enact a stylized power imbalance, with a sexual overtone. As such, these practices align with the sexualized power imbalance that comprises the prototypical or traditional heterosexual relationship, with man in a dominant or active role and woman in a submissive or passive role.” To support this reading, Zurbriggen points to the testimony of Dhia al-Shweiri, a former prisoner at Abu Ghraib, who told the Associated Press that:

They were trying to humiliate us, break our pride. We are men. It’s okay if they beat me. Beatings don’t hurt us, it’s just a blow. But no one would want their manhood to be shattered. They wanted us to feel as though we were women, the way women feel, and this is the worst insult, to feel like a woman.

This testimony underscores how the tortures at Abu Ghraib reflected an assumed hierarchy with American men and women at the top and Iraqi men, occupying the subjugated, “feminine” role– a system of power relations conveyed most starkly in the photo of Charles Graner and Lynndie England giving a thumbs up to the camera while standing over a pyramid of naked and faceless Iraqi male prisoners.

Women Who Torture

If the male prisoners at Abu Ghraib were feminized, then how should we view the three women who participated in their torture? Were they imitating male behavior? Were they taking revenge on Muslim men for the violation of 9/11? How does their gender matter in an analysis of the scandal?

In response to Abu Ghraib, feminist theorist Barbara Ehrenreich writes that the photos of Megan Ambuhl, Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman participating in detainee abuse “broke my heart.” She also remarks with ironic horror that they constitute evidence of “gender equality,” proving that women can be just as sadistic as men. Ehrenreich’s prescription for change is for women to not simply assimilate into male institutions, but to “infiltrate and subvert them” by challenging authority. Though Ehrenreich also mentions the need for continued struggle “against imperialist and racist arrogance,” her prescriptions fall within a liberal reformist framework. The military can be fixed, the argument goes, if good men and women question and challenge authority.

This analysis does not allow for the possibility that the military cannot be reformed, and that both institutionally, and within the context of its broader mission, represents an ethos of masculinized violence and expansive colonialism. There is no reason to believe that the events at Abu Ghraib were an aberration, either during the Iraq War or in past military campaigns. Can an institution predicated on dehumanizing the enemy—on literally preparing soldiers to kill other people—be truly reformed? None of these problems are likely to change simply with the full and equal participation of women, or with modest reforms. Ehrenreich herself ruefully notes that the prison was overseen by a woman, Sgt. Janis Karpinski, while the occupation was managed by Condoleeza Rice.

Transnational feminist scholars, such as Basuli Deb and Melanie Richter-Montpetit have challenged Ehrenreich’s analysis of the events at Abu Ghraib. For instance, in “Transnational Feminism and Women Who Torture: Reimag(in)ing Abu Ghraib Prison Photography,” Deb notes the limitations of arguments based in equality, observing:

…in liberal feminist thought, premised on equality, the male remains normative, and patriarchy is undisturbed as the onus lies on women to enter structures of privilege. According to this theory, women who control male detainees have successfully reversed the power inequalities, at least for themselves. Exercising power violently consolidates their status within patriarchal structures into which they have assimilated.

This assimilation through the mastery of male violence is, as I will argue later, precisely the method by which the character Maya in Zero Dark Thirty is shown to become the equal of her male colleagues. Deb’s observation also underscores the problem with a liberal discourse which elevates individual achievement over institutional change. This analysis explains how real life figures as diverse as Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton and Condoleeza Rice could be praised as Western feminist role models despite the leading role they take in pushing occupation and imperialism.

Melanie Richter-Montpetit also challenges Ehrenreich’s focus on gender equality as overly reductive. Richter-Montpetit suggests that the phenomenon of women-identified soldiers torturing prisoners “should be located within colonial desires.” President Bush, she reminds us, claimed after 9/11, that “[w]e wage a war to save civilization, itself.” Language like this has characterized other colonial missions, which position the West as the civilized opposite of the savage Orient. This postcolonial analysis of American rhetoric complicates the feminist reading of Abu Ghraib and the larger project of the War on Terror.

One of the West’s key justifications in recent conflicts has been the need to rescue Muslim women from oppression by their own culture. In April of 2010, Wikileaks released an internal CIA report encouraging NATO allies to appeal to feminist concern for Afghan women’s rights to boost flagging public support for the war. It urged that “Afghan women could serve as ideal messengers in humanizing the ISAF role in combating the Taliban” and suggested “outreach initiatives that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their stories with French, German, and other European women could help to overcome pervasive skepticism among women in Western Europe toward the ISAF mission.” This document reveals the CIA’s intent to exploit feminist sympathies in the service of war propaganda.

In July of 2010, while American popular support for the war in Afghanistan was on the wane, Time magazine ran a cover story featuring a disturbing portrait of a young Afghan woman whose nose was cut off by Taliban militants. The headline accompanying the photo put the question starkly, “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan.” Writing for The Guardian, Priyamvada Gopal observed that the cover was a “cynical ploy” to manipulate concern for Afghan women to promote an unpopular war. Gopal argued:

Time is not alone in condensing Afghan reality into simplistic morality tales. A deplorable number of recent works habituate us to thinking about Afghanistan as what Liam Fox, Britain’s defence secretary, called a “broken 13th-century country,” defined solely by pathologically violent men and silently brutalised women.

Gopal underscores the pervasiveness of these gendered morality tales in the West’s war propaganda.

Drawing our attention back to Abu Ghraib, Basuli Deb argues that white female soldiers have a critical role to play in this narrative of liberation. Deb draws from Gargi Bhattacharya’s analysis of the Abu Ghraib photos and Lynndie England’s symbolic function in their staging. Bhattaacharya argues that while leaders like Condoleeza Rice and Laura Bush pitch the necessity of war, England represents “’the emancipated Western woman in the war zone itself.” Deb describes two images in detail:

England stands next to naked and hooded male detainees with a cigarette dangling from her lips, as she points her forefinger at a prisoner’s genitals while giving the thumbs-up sign. In another photograph two naked and hooded prisoners face the camera, their hands above their heads in a gesture of submission. One of them is made to sit on the shoulders of a third detainee, squatting on the floor, so that his buttocks and genitals touch the bare back of the other. England smiles at the camera as she points to the genitals of the man and shows the thumbs up sign again.

England represents the “liberated Western Woman showing her dominance” and triumph over “brown male bodies.” Deb further argues that white women serve a special function in the war effort. They must protect the “emancipated status of American womanhood from the ‘barbaric’ orientalism of Muslim men,” but they must also “become agents of a transnational sisterhood’ to lure Arab women into an alliance with the American enterprise.”  This special mission, Deb argues, is inscribed in the images from Abu Ghraib:

…the brutal torture and humiliation of Iraqi men at the hands of the empire’s white women is projected as a victory of Arab women over Arab men who impose Islamic cultural markers such as head scarves and veils on their women and it is also a victory for the American enterprise of messianic imperialism as well as for individual women in the enterprise who are comrades in torture with military men, and can be as tough as any of their male counterparts.

The white female torturer signifies the perceived victory of Western feminism over Muslim misogyny. She achieves equality with her male colleagues by inflicting violence on Muslim men.

Maya: The Torturer as Feminist

It is this last observation which informs my analysis of Zero Dark Thirty, which uses a heroic female protagonist to advance an apologia for torture. The film rehabilitates the degraded image of “leash girl” Lynndie England by re-imagining the female torturer as a careerist go-getter. Zero Dark Thirty maps the familiar feminist arc of films like Norma Rae and Working Girl onto the workplace of the CIA. One critic has dubbed it “Erin Brockovich for fascists.”

I will not analyze the entire film, which encompasses over a decade of the War on Terror, culminating in the killing of Osama bin Laden. Instead, I will focus on the staging of the film’s torture scenes, specifically the power relationships and the depiction of Maya, the film’s protagonist.

Zero Dark Thirty opens with a black screen and an audio montage of real 911 calls placed during the attacks on the World Trade Center. The most prominent voices are those of women in fear. This gendering of the trauma is significant, because it sets the stage for a female hero to gain vengeance on behalf of women, even though as Amy Laura Hall notes, “the victims of the 9/11 murder were overwhelmingly male.”

Two years later, the film transports us to the staging of that revenge, a CIA black site where Ammar, a beaten and bloodied terror suspect is surrounded by men in balaclavas. Dan, a handsome and imposing white male interrogator bursts into the room and speaks the first scripted words of the film, “I own you Ammar. You belong to me.” The masked men proceed to beat Ammar while Dan yells abuse. The other masked figure, Maya, who (in later scenes) the other agents derisively call “The Girl,” stands at the back of the room, silently watching. In sadomasochistic terms, Dan is the master, and this is dungeon. Dan’s claim of ownership, as the film soon shows us, applies equally to “The Girl” Maya and to the prisoner Ammar.

Dan and Maya step out of the cell and into the sunlight, to give Ammar time to contemplate his predicament. Maya takes off her mask. She appears to be in her late 20s, has pale white skin and long red hair. She’s slender and conventionally feminine in appearance. She unzips her overcoat, revealing a pantsuit, a kind of symbolic shortcut to signify a woman’s eagerness to be taken seriously in a man’s world. Dan mocks, “You’re rocking your best suit for your first interrogation.”

“Just so you know, this is gonna take awhile,” he says. “He has to learn how helpless he is.” Dan suggests they take a coffee break, but she insists that they continue with the interrogation. He says that she can watch from a TV monitor. Maya opts to return to the interrogation room, unmasked. She doesn’t want to be a spectator. She wants to be like Dan. Maya becomes in this moment both an audience surrogate and a symbol of women’s equality. When she passes the threshold again, she’ll also be a party to torture. By this strategy, we also become complicit.

What’s significant in the staging of the subsequent torture scenes is that Maya is not simply an audience surrogate. She is also a mirror for Ammar’s psychological and emotional distress—her actions and expressions matching his. In this way, though we are shown the brutality of torture, our focus is redirected from the suffering of the victim to that of the perpetrator. In his analysis of the film, Slavoj Zizek argues that this serves an ideological function, noting that “our awareness of the torturer’s hurt sensitivity as the (main) human cost of torture ensures that the film is not cheap rightwing propaganda: the psychological complexity is depicted so that liberals can enjoy the film without feeling guilty.” This observation is supported by the film’s widespread popularity with liberal film critics, who have praised the film’s moral nuance.

Zero Dark Thirty’s strategy is made all the more effective by giving the audience a female identification figure, because it takes advantage of the widespread cultural perception of women as more empathetic to the suffering of others. When Maya learns to master her feelings and accept the necessity of torture, she becomes more powerful and successful. In this way, the film explicitly links Maya’s increasing comfort with torture to her personal empowerment, and models this attitude for the viewer.

In the next scene, Dan submits the beaten and bound Ammar to a series of questions about his connection to Al Qaeda. Maya watches at a distance, arms folded. When Ammar refuses to give up information, Dan signals to one of the masked men to prepare Ammar for waterboarding. The camera cuts away to show us Maya’s distressed expression. She folds inward, shields her eyes and grimaces as Ammar is forced onto the ground and a rag placed over his face. Dan barks at her to grab a bucket and to fill it with water (fetching the water is perhaps coded here as “women’s work”). Frightened, she follows his commands. As Dan waterboards Ammar, Maya kneels nearby averting her gaze.

In a later scene, we see Maya passed out on a cramped sofa and rudely awakened at dawn by the Muslim call to prayer. The film immediately cuts to Ammar who is chained in a stress position while being bombarded with deafening heavy metal music. The comparison is subtly made here that Maya, like Ammar is suffering for her work. The parallel also offensively equates Maya’s cultural disorientation in a Muslim country with Ammar’s torture via the weaponized use of Western rock music.

Dan and Maya return to Ammar’s cell. She has traded her pantsuit for a pair of jeans and a plain top, signifying an increased willingness to get her hands dirty and a shift away from using masculinized clothing worn to earn male respect. Dan switches off the music and helps Ammar into a chair. In parallel action, Maya is shown taking a seat. Adopting a “good cop” approach, Dan offers a sobbing Ammar food and drink. Maya watches with pity. Dan proceeds with the interrogation, but Ammar tells him a lie. Maya, dreading what will come next, averts her eyes. Dan threatens to subject Ammar to another waterboarding and demands information. Ammar refuses and Dan explodes, kicking the chair out from under him. Mirroring this, Maya jumps out of her own chair.

Dan hoists Ammar to his feet, and grabs his head, directing his eyes at Maya. “You see how this works?” he asks rhetorically, a question directed equally at both Maya and Ammar. Then the gender dynamics implicit in Ammar’s torture are made explicit. Dan pulls down Ammar’s pants taunting “you don’t mind if my female colleague checks out your junk, do you?” Dan then humiliates Ammar by observing that he’s “shit his pants.” He suddenly leaves the cell, barking at Maya “you stay here!” The distinctly sexual nature of this scene recalls Zurbruggen’s observation that the incidents at Abu Ghraib depicted a “sexualized power imbalance” reflecting the “traditional heterosexual relationship, with man in a dominant or active role and woman in a submissive or passive role.” Here, both Maya and Ammar have been constructed as submissive, feminine subjects, in a hierarchy under Dan’s hyper-masculine authority.

With Dan gone, Ammar turns his head to Maya and begs her for mercy. “Your friend is an animal. Please help me.” An eerie calm settles in Maya’s face. She walks toward Ammar and tells him flatly, “You can help yourself by being truthful.” Maya’s empathetic connection to Ammar has been broken.  Dan returns with a dog collar, and places it around Ammar’s neck. While there is no evidence that dog collars were used in the CIA’s torture program, the image automatically recalls the infamous photo of Lynndie England holding a naked Iraqi prisoner on a dog leash. Though the film invokes this charged image of a woman holding a man on a leash, Maya never takes the lead. England’s apparent delight while participating in torture (though notably not in the leash photo) is a form of female transgression that would likely undermine our identification with Maya and make the sexually-charged nature of these scenes too explicit. It would also derail the film’s depiction of torture as a grim, but necessary tool in the CIA’s arsenal.

As Dan walks Ammar around the room, Maya shrinks into the darkness of the corner. Dan bombards the prisoner with questions about the date of a future attack. Ammar begins to babble random days of the week. Dan forces Ammar into a small wooden box and gives him a final chance to give up the information. The film cuts to a tight shot of Ammar’s face as he babbles. This time, rather than shrinking away in fear, Maya moves toward Ammar. Her face is utterly calm and focused, as Dan slams the door shut.

Maya is no longer the timid new girl. She survives this sadistic ordeal, inflicted as much on her as on Ammar. She has chosen to break her identification with Ammar and becomes more powerful, more mature, more masculine. It is significant that Dan’s torture scenario depends on Maya’s gender to complete its meaning. Maya’s ability to master her emotions and participate in the sexual humiliation of Ammar becomes a benchmark in her development as a feminist hero.

Laura Sjoberg’s comments on Abu Ghraib are instructive here:

…the sexual abuse of Iraqi men by American women communicates (whether it was intended to or not) a disdain for Iraqi masculinities so strong that subordinated American femininities are the appropriate tool for their humiliation. Sexual torture is certainly about power, but were it only about power, there are plenty of non-sexual ways to express power over people. Sexual torture is about comparative sexual power; here, the sexual power of American masculinities and militarized/masculinized femininities over their understanding of Iraqi masculinities.

Drawing from Sjoberg, I read Maya as an example of this militarized and masculinized femininity. Her role in Dan’s scenario demonstrates her power over Ammar by underscoring her submission to Dan. Ammar’s humiliation is derived from the message that he is less than a woman, at the very bottom of this hierarchy of power relations.

The film’s subsequent interrogation scenes depict Maya’s emergence as Dan’s equal. Zero Dark Thirty’s pivotal interrogation scene—the one that controversially suggests torture was critical to locating bin Laden—is the result of Maya’s cleverness. She proposes that they trick the sleep- deprived Ammar into believing he has already given up the names of his accomplices. Ammar is removed from his cell and presented with a meal. He’s shell-shocked from torture and sleep deprivation. They tell him he has already given up his accomplices in a past session and ask him to repeat the details. Ammar initially falls for the trick, revealing some information, but he stops short of naming names. Dan threatens to restart Ammar’s torture if he won’t comply. At this moment, Ammar surrenders the name of the Al Qaeda courier that will eventually lead to the discovery of Osama bin Laden. Though this scene is depicted as a traditional “good cop/bad cop” scenario, the most salient detail is that Maya succeeds by using her wits. The threat of torture is her prerogative, but it is carried out by men.

From this point forward, Maya is shown to be solely fixated on her goal and extremely resourceful at obtaining information through torture. She watches hours of brutal interrogations on videotape while her face registers no emotion. Maya conducts interrogations without Dan’s assistance. She speaks with commanding language. She threatens to send one prisoner to Israel unless he talks. He willingly cooperates, saying “I have no wish to be tortured again. Ask me a question and I will answer it.”

When torture is deemed necessary, she relies on male violence as an extension of her authority. In one scene, a detainee evades her question and she taps a guard on the arm, to command him to punch the prisoner. In another she orders and calmly supervises the waterboarding of a detainee. Curiously, her costuming also suggests a return to female signification. In some scenes, she wears a dark wig as a disguise. In others, she wears a headscarf, which could be read as a symbolic identification with the Muslim women for whom Maya and other militarized Western women are presumed to be seeking vengeance. Maya still suffers emotional exhaustion from her work, but she is able to hide it from others. After waterboarding a prisoner, she seeks out the privacy of the restroom, rips off her wig, stares into the mirror and hyperventilates while clutching the edges of the sink.

By contrast, her former superior Dan becomes impotent, unable to conceal the psychological toll the work has had on him. He informs Maya that he can no longer stand to look at naked men, and that he will be taking an office job in Washington DC. Maya has now surpassed Dan as an equal and has become a superior field agent, setting her on the path to the eventual location and killing of Osama bin Laden.  There is no trace of “The Girl” left in Maya. Basuli Deb, reflecting on Abu Ghraib argues “that the tortured body of the male detainee became the very territory on which militarized femininity negotiated with militarized masculinity for the recognition of military women as soldiers and not women soldiers.” If we apply this reading in relation to Zero Dark Thirty, Maya’s success as a feminist hero can be seen finally as predicated on her success as a torturer of Muslim men’s bodies.

Marketing Maya

Zero Dark Thirty’s director, Kathryn Bigelow, and the producer/screenwriter Mark Boal have both claimed that their film does not take a position on the efficacy of torture, and both claim to oppose the practice on moral grounds. In response to widespread criticism of the film, and a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into the filmmakers’ unusual level of access to classified information, Bigelow took to the pages of the LA Times to defend her film. She began by declaring herself a “pacifist” and arguing that the film’s depiction of torture is not an endorsement, implying that the movie is intended as a kind of Rorschach test for the audience’s moral and political sensibilities. In spite of these assertions, Bigelow finished her column by paying tribute to “the brave work” of “professionals in the military and intelligence communities” and reminded readers that bin Laden wasn’t defeated by superheroes, but “by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes (emphasis in the original) crossed moral lines…” We should note the inherent contradiction here. Bigelow asserts that her film does not take a position on torture, but continues to praise those who did the torture as heroes. Whether intentional or not, Bigelow is acknowledging the extent to which her film is an apologia for torture.

With the film mired in controversy and the Academy Awards approaching, the filmmakers began to advance another narrative—that Zero Dark Thirty was a story of female empowerment. Recalling his research for the film, Boal told an entertainment reporter that “the thing that surprised me the most was the role of women in this story … I think it’s ironic that … al-Qaeda was in some sense defeated by the spectre that they feared most … a liberated, Western woman.” Boal’s comment echoes Ehrenreich’s claim that the Abu Ghraib photos would most upset fundamentalist Muslims because they represent “gender equality.” In both cases, the Orientalist notion at work is that “liberated” and “Western” are the assumed opposites of “oppressed” and “Muslim.” Where President Bush once remarked of Islamic fundamentalists, “they hate our freedom,” this new, more liberal message can be summed up as “they hate our women’s freedom.”

Two days before the LA Times published her column, Bigelow and the film’s distributor Sony, sought out the services of a social media startup called Thunderclap, which crowdsources support for a cause by essentially spamming Twitter and Facebook with a single message. In this case, the message read, “Join me in saluting the crucial role women play in America’s national security #ZeroDarkThirty.” This unsubtle tactic sought to shift attention away from the torture debate while conflating Maya with actual women working in the fields of intelligence and defense. This first effort a success, Bigelow drafted a new message which more carefully underscored the narrative of gender and power the film advances. It read, “Women helped find the world’s most dangerous man. Are you surprised? #ZeroDarkThirty”

This strategic message got a boost on January 24, 2013 when the Pentagon announced that it would be repealing its ban on women in combat. During the same week, filmmaker Michael Moore declared Zero Dark Thirty “a ‘women’s film’ and a great achievement for women in general,” subsequently calling it a “21st century chick flick.” Moore’s coinage became a headline on the popular women’s blog Jezebel, which also published a defense of the film.

There is also an autobiographical dimension to the discussion of Zero Dark Thirty and feminism. Kathryn Bigelow is the first and only woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director (for The Hurt Locker), and her exclusion from 2012’s list of Best Director Oscar nominees was widely regarded as a snub. In his analysis of the film, David Bromwich notes:

The propaganda value of the female protagonist in a film like this should not be neglected. When Bigelow won her academy award, it was widely treated not only as a feminist triumph but as a special and “gendered” sort of vindication. After all, the director’s chosen subject was the male subject of war. She had beaten the men at their own game. And that is what Maya is seen to do in the hunt for Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty.

This conflation of Bigelow’s triumph in Hollywood with Maya’s triumph in the CIA redirects discussion of the film away from the morality of torture toward a more narrow discussion of gender equality.

Even the film’s admirers note the sophistication with which it uses feminism as cover for torture apologia. In an article chillingly headlined, “Is torture worth defending with feminism?” liberal film critic, Andrew O’Hehir uses the film as a launching pad to ask a pair of disturbing rhetorical questions.

Does a society that produces female CIA agents (and reelects a black president) gain the right to commit atrocities in its own defense? Is torture justified if the torturer is a university-educated woman, and the tortured a bigoted Muslim fundamentalist? I think those are excellent questions for us to ask ourselves, arguably defining questions of the age, and I think the longer you look at them the thornier they get.

O’Hehir doesn’t actually answer these questions, opting to reassure us of his left-libertarian credentials. He further admits to wanting some “wiggle room” on these questions and notes that “morality is always relative, and only available in shades of gray.” By surrendering moral clarity on an issue as basic as torture, O’Hehir shows how far the political consensus has shifted, and demonstrates the unusual role feminist narratives have played in that shift. O’Hehir’s emphasis on a “university-educated woman” suggests that Maya’s class status makes her a more persuasive symbol for the feminist torturer than Lynndie England who was a working class grunt. His remarks explicitly juxtapose the empowered, liberated Western woman against the stereotypical bigoted Muslim fundamentalist. These comments, horrifying though they may be, are perhaps the most honest assessment of the film’s appeal to liberal American audiences.

As if to solidify its reputation as a feminist movie, Zero Dark Thirty swept the annual EDA awards given by The Alliance of Women Film Journalists. In perhaps the most ironic turn of events, they also gave the film’s star Jessica Chastain, who plays Maya, a special honor “for Humanitarian Activism” reserved “for the portrayal of the ‘most positive female role model’” and “for putting forth the image of a woman who is heroic, accomplished, persistent, demands her rights and/or the rights of others.”

The rights of the Othered—the Arab Muslim men her character waterboards, beats and sexually humiliates– escaped consideration.

The New Consensus

What space is there in American discourse to push back against the normalization of torture? Though President Obama has banned many of the worst methods, he has impeded justice for torture victims, forgiven the CIA for destroying the videotapes of their crimes and allowed military prosecutors at Guantanamo to censor testimony about torture at detainee trials. The only CIA agent to be federally prosecuted in relation to the torture program is whistleblower John Kiriakou who was recently sentenced to 30 months in federal prison.

Obama has codified and expanded many of the abuses pioneered by his predecessor. In doing so, he has also shifted the consensus, on everything from indefinite detention and surveillance to drone warfare. In fact, our debates about Bush-era torture may very well seem quaint when judged against Obama’s even more radical practice of targeted assassinations without due process. The United States has found new ways to inflict violence on Muslim bodies through disembodied drone warfare. Drone technology combines the near-limitless powers of surveillance with borderless powers to kill. In a recent Der Spiegel interview, a former drone pilot confessed that when he was bored between kills, he would watch his targets’ most intimate moments. “I saw them having sex with their wives. It’s two infrared spots becoming one.” The drone’s gaze is not simply murderous, but sexually voyeuristic. This is not an improvement over Abu Ghraib.

Drones too, can be draped in liberal feminist rhetoric. In a recent interview with The Daily Show, MIT aeronautics professor Missy Cummings made the case for the necessity of drones. When Cummings told host Jon Stewart about her history as a military pilot, he praised her for “breaking barriers for women.”

With women’s right to serve alongside men in combat now secured, the American narrative of empowered, militarized Western women saving Muslim women from their culture will likely become more entrenched. For a possible way out of such cynical narratives, I offer Basuli Deb’s argument for a “transnational feminism of responsibility.” Deb proposes:

…that framing ethical transnational feminist responses to women who torture enemy men is an act of responsibility to the politics of feminism. It is an attempt to deter torture in the name of women’s emancipation, an attempt to stop imperialism from marching under the banner of women’s rights, and an attempt to intervene in a liberal feminist politics that advocates for the unconditional empowerment of individual women.

This essay has shown how liberal feminist politics have provided a discursive and narrative justification for the so-called “War on Terror,” and are now being used to legitimize the use of torture, shaping a new popular consensus. Where once the image of Lynndie England abusing naked Iraqi detainees inspired horror, Zero Dark Thirty has rehabilitated torture by dramatizing a feminist hero whose empowerment is linked to her domination of Muslim men’s bodies. This essay has shown the power of this narrative to persuade and misdirect the sympathies of liberal Americans. It has also renewed the immediacy of transnational feminist critiques of Abu Ghraib, which call into question liberal feminism’s narrow emphasis on equality.

This piece is a slightly modified version of an academic essay I recently wrote. If you’d like to see the original, please contact me. Thanks to Ron Blum, Andrea Luquetta, Maryam Griffin, Papagena Robbins and Mom for giving me valuable feedback on earlier drafts of this essay.



There are a few items I ran across in my research that did not fit into this already lengthy essay, so I’m including them below.

1) This essay focused on the sexualized torture and rape of men at Abu Ghraib, but there is another, mostly forgotten story about the rape and abuse of women at Abu Ghraib and other facilities in Iraq. The accounts covered in this Guardian piece suggest an equally important phenomenon that has mostly been lost in the discussion of the Abu Ghraib photos.

2) My analysis of Abu Ghraib explored women participating in masculinized violence toward prisoners. Accounts from Guantanamo, however, painted a different picture of women’s roles in interrogation. This Washington Post article reminds us that “…women rubbed their bodies against the men, wore skimpy clothes in front of them, made sexually explicit remarks and touched them provocatively.” Some detainees at Guantanamo complained of being visited by “prostitutes” in late night interrogation sessions.

3) There is some evidence that Mark Boal’s role in the making of Zero Dark Thirty was more significant than usual for a screenwriter and first time producer. This article in the Hollywood Reporter cites anonymous sources claiming Boal was a de facto co-director and reduced Chastain to tears on set. Though this may be industry gossip (not to mention a sexist rumor designed to undercut Bigelow’s achievement), it also suggests that the gendered power dynamics of the torture scenes may have been mirrored on the set itself.



  • special sunday edition — 03/03/13 — is realism real(ly any good)? | Stephanie Barbé Hammer @ Magically Real

    [...] read Matt Cornell’s essay on ZERO DARK THIRTY click here. Share this:EmailFacebookTwitterPinterestLike this:Like [...]

  • Sarah Enany

    As a Muslim (by birth) woman with an extensive human rights background (I translate anti-torture reports and briefs), and a decent grasp of postcolonial stereotyping of gay and women’s rights, I can’t tell you how – I can’t even find words – how wonderful, pardon the hyperbole, I find your article. It liberates me. I may comment later when I am more coherent, but could not leave the page without offering my deep, deep thanks to you for writing this.

  • Tantra Dad

    Thank you so much for reading it. I am glad that you connected with it. Also thank you for the work that you do.

  • The Desolationists » Counterpunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names

    [...] The AWFJ also gave awards to Zero Dark Thirty for best film, best director, best original screenplay, best actress, best editing and best woman director. One of the rare AWFJ awards that didn’t go to trashing Arabs went to trashing Persians — Argo won for best adapted screenplay. The only way you award Zero Dark Thirty so thoroughly is if you hate Muslims or see them as, say, three/fifths of a human being. For a deeper look at Zero Dark Thirty, Abu Ghraib and how “feminism” is used in service of the American empire, check out Matt Cornell’s excellent The Torturer as Feminist. [...]

  • I Think I Hear My Can Opening  Dark Politricks

    [...] If you want to see desolationists up close and despicable check out the Alliance of Women Film Journalists who presented actress Jessica Chastain with the award for “Humanitarian Activism — Female Icon Award” for her character of “Maya,” the CIA torturer and killer in the movie Zero Dark Thirty. No, really, this isn’t an Onion-like satire. The award is “presented to an actress for the portrayal of the most positive female role model a woman who is heroic, accomplished, persistent, demands her rights and/or the rights of others.” You know, the rights of others to be kidnapped and tortured to death as enshrined in the Geneva Conventions and the Nuremberg Principles, the right of a woman to assimilate, emulate and validate the absolute worst qualities of a white male racist — and undoubtedly sexist — goon for capitalism. The AWFJ also gave awards to Zero Dark Thirty for best film, best director, best original screenplay, best actress, best editing and best woman director. One of the rare AWFJ awards that didn’t go to trashing Arabs went to trashing Persians — Argo won for best adapted screenplay. The only way you award Zero Dark Thirty so thoroughly is if you hate Muslims or see them as, say, three/fifths of a human being. For a deeper look at Zero Dark Thirty, Abu Ghraib and how “feminism” is used in service of the American empire, check out Matt Cornell’s excellent “The Torturer as Feminist.” [...]

  • FuckFeminismFuckWhiteSupremacy

    Feminism – the women’s wing of white supremacy, Feminism only asks “Why should white men have all the fun killing, maiming, torturing and exploiting non-white people?”

    I wonder if whites would treat a film made by Iraqi freedom fighters, depicting the torture of a western chattering class moron by an Iraqi woman, as an opportunity to debate the pros and cons of Iraqi feminism.

    In other words – fuck all the phony analysis of this dumb piece of shit film, the only question this raises for me is how much more of the barbarity of these white animals will the non-white world tolerate before it commits itself to the destruction of white supremacy?

  • Heavy Armor

    I’m only offering a correction here:

    Janis Karpinski was a Brigadier General, not a Sergeant.

    Very good article.

  • A Plague of Desolationists on the “Left” » The Greanville Post —Vol. VII- 2013 | The Greanville Post —Vol. VII- 2013

    [...] The AWFJ also gave awards to Zero Dark Thirty for best film, best director, best original screenplay, best actress, best editing and best woman director. One of the rare AWFJ awards that didn’t go to trashing Arabs went to trashing Persians — Argo won for best adapted screenplay. The only way you award Zero Dark Thirty so thoroughly is if you hate Muslims or see them as, say, three/fifths of a human being. For a deeper look at Zero Dark Thirty, Abu Ghraib and how “feminism” is used in service of the American empire, check out Matt Cornell’s excellent The Torturer as Feminist [16]. [...]

  • Swaneagle Harijan

    So many women who are never heard, many white at that, fight continually
    for human rights. This article detailing the “feminism” of “Zero Dark
    Thirty” ignores the historical context of feminism that early on took up
    the struggles of all people for their right to dignity, justice and
    self determination. I have no choice but to do my best to fight the
    racism, misogyny, hatred, materialistic greed that is ruining all life, a
    liveable future for all the earth’s children and towards human
    liberation as never before realized.

    US Militarism is dreadful.
    Hitler would be proud. While most are distracted by the addiction to
    glamor inculcated in this dreadfully apathetic, violent, lazy and self
    indulgent unculture we inhabit, many continue addressing the scope of
    warape greed mongering ruining any chance of getting us out of this
    disgusting mess. Why is it that Hollywood gets to define feminism? Why
    is it that creeps like Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher and other
    betrayers to all deprived women and children get to be called feminists
    when they demean all the life threatening work done by true feminists of
    all colors, creeds and beliefs around the this fragile planet?

    What is that in a patriarchal, white supremacist, rape happy nightmare
    that threatens to spread with each depressing day as more and more
    fascistic policies are enacted by people whose only purpose is to
    continue to rape and pillage what is left to steal all over the earth?

    for glory, and it’s attendant perks knows no gender. But those who
    struggle daily, often at great cost to limb and life, go on unknown,
    unheeded, silenced and ignored. Nothing new here.

    As a mother who
    raised my children virtually alone in a very woman hating atmosphere, i
    am well acquainted with just how far from equality women continue to
    be. Mothers who do not fit the stereotype face certain poverty and
    exclusion. The sacrifices made to raise children in a hostile society is
    one of extremes that does not garner respect or even compassion. Hatred
    is a hallmark of amerikkka so deeply embedded by it’s well funded
    handlers that those who live in service to the most voiceless are
    thoroughly and completely gagged. Mothers who have been raped,
    battered, scorned and abandoned, yet succeed in raising good people who
    actually have conscience, enjoy no niche in the evil of now, nor would
    we want to.

    I find it of particular interest in this elevation of
    women in Hollywood to “feminism” in the context of military torture to
    be particularly negligent in addressing the stark reality of female
    soldiers in the US Military being raped by the thousands by their male
    How convenient to completely ignore this true
    assessment of how far “feminism” has gotten us. Personally, i have
    always considered women in combat or women in the military to be the
    ultimate oxymoron to feminism. It simply does not fit. Women striving to
    become what patriarchal white supremacists are is not in line with any
    notion whatsoever of feminism. This i know inside and out.

    All my
    adult life i have been doing what i can for the women, mostly very
    young, who fall thru the cracks of this totally dysfunctional society. I
    also have spent years working closely with traditional Dine (Navajo)
    Grandmothers standing for their sacred lands and life. Police are not to
    be trusted. Many men aren’t either. Their complicity in the
    degradation, rape, torture and killing of women, if not outright
    participation, is one of the travesties of human existence. Rape is
    epidemic and femicide is rapidly on the rise. Why not examine the spread
    of torture rape and femicide courtesy of the School of the Assassins in
    Fort Benning, Georgia? Oh, but that is of no interest to Hollywood it
    it? Why not examine the formation of the most notorious death squads in
    all of the amerikkkas, the Kaibiles of Guatemala, formed by US Navy
    Seals Special Forces whose methods of training pale beside Zero Dark
    Thirty. I mean, PALE. The Kaibiles’ hallmark action was the hacking open
    of pregnant women and pulling the babies out smashing them on rocks or
    slashing them with machetes. They were responsible for some of the most
    egregious human rights violations ever since the US Calvary massacre at
    Sand Creek, Wyoming or Kit Carson’s blood fest at Canyon De Chelly. But
    then we fail to include the many white male serial killers of women that
    happened nowhere on earth comparable to the scale that has occurred in
    the US from the Boston Strangler to Jeffrey Dahmer to the Green River
    Killer and many others. Until relatively recently, the US led the world
    in femicide (only coined after the sexualized mass rapes and killings of
    women in the Sudan in 2003) but thanks to the School of the Assassins,
    such sexualized killings spread thru out Mexico, Central America,
    Colombia, Afghanistan, Iraq,Haiti, anywhere US Military influence raises
    it’s beastly infestation and influence. What happens to all those death
    squads? Try drug cartels. Oh we are in for some bloody fun. Now John
    Negroponte, doctor of death, and his sidekick Eliot Abrams are back at
    forming more killing marauders in Honduras……

    It is
    interesting to note as well that no archeological precedent existed in
    Guatemalan Mayan culture for the disemboweling of pregnant women. The
    blood thirsty United Nations, longtime facilitator of US Military
    dictates, hired Kaibiles as UN Peacekeepers in the Congo, where, not
    long after this, massive mutilation and rapes of Congolese women
    occurred, including the disemboweling of pregnant women. But taking all
    this on might disrupt the powerful cartel of amerikkkan feminists.
    (White supremacists abhor feminists in case any do not know this. And
    no, Angelina Jolie, who recently denounced the rapes in the Congo, but
    oked the “war” in league with the UN, is no feminist.)

    I am so
    deeply disturbed by this article that i am shaking. I have done years of
    work in the trenches of human struggle in this country. I have resided
    in the margins and been witness to traditional Dine (Navajo) resisting
    forced relocation from their ancient lands so Peabody Coal could expand
    it’s massive strip mine. (Another largely ignored, longtime resistance.)
    I have been homeless as a mother and worked with other homeless
    mothers. I have supported refugees from Central America while US death
    squads were at the their peak. I have traveled to Chiapas on a human
    rights delegation 7 months after the infamous massacre of 45 Mayan
    Indians by US backed death squads, including Kaibiles who disemboweled 4
    pregnant women. I work with young women who have been raped and
    discarded. I continue doing all i can to bring justice to my facet of
    struggle. It is what i will be doing til my last breath. The scope of
    what is wrong staggers the hardiest of the most silenced among us, but
    to fail to act is a betrayal to all women, children, and yes, men; all

    I am deeply insulted by this sickening assessment of
    Zero Dark Thirty and the slapping of anything to do with feminism on
    such depraved behaviors.

    Hating and maligning feminists is one of amerikkka’s most noble pastimes.

  • Tortured Conscience: the Rise of the “Morally Ambiguous” Torture Film | Full Spectrum Cromulence

    [...] a piece on Zero Dark Thirty’s “torturer-as-feminist-icon” narrative, Matt Cornell breaks down the shift in public attitudes: In August of 2012, the Hoover Institution’s Amy Zegart conducted a poll on American attitudes [...]

  • No wonder it made $100m last weekend: “American Sniper” is a unique hybrid of right-wing and liberal pro-war movies | Full Spectrum Cromulence

    [...] where Zero Dark Thirty’s heroine was a pseudonymous CIA case officer—and a woman, for added feminism—Chris Kyle was a proud, even zealous racist murderer. To make a film that would appeal to [...]

  • Tortured Conscience: the Rise of the “Morally Ambiguous” Torture Film | Popaganda

    [...] a piece on Zero Dark Thirty’s “torturer-as-feminist-icon” narrative, Matt Cornell breaks down the shift in public attitudes: In August of 2012, the Hoover Institution’s Amy Zegart conducted a poll on American attitudes [...]

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