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Kennedy School Review

Topic / International Relations and Security

Existential Heroines: Zero Dark Thirty and Homeland


Much has been made this year about Zero Dark Thirty, Hollywood’s first stab at dramatizing the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) hunt for Osama bin Laden. Even Graham Allison, professor of government and founding dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, has written about the Oscar-nominated film. A distinguished national security expert, Allison addresses the moral obligation filmmakers have to respect and present facts when narrating true events that have far-reaching political implications.

In the weeks following Zero Dark Thirty’s release, journalists and bloggers drew parallels between Zero Dark Thirty’s female protagonist, Maya (portrayed by Jessica Chastain), and another contemporary heroine of the post-9/11 spy genre: Homeland’s Carrie Mathison (portrayed by Claire Danes). Some suspect that Carrie and Maya are in fact based on the same woman—a CIA agent (pseudonym Jen) who worked extensively on the final mission to capture bin Laden. Since research for the two productions involved similar data sets, this conjecture may be reasonable. If so, Maya and Carrie have separately evolved into rather different characters. They share an impassioned core but diverge sharply in personality and personal life.

Countless articles have critiqued and commended how Homeland and Zero Dark Thirty portray their female leads. Both are brilliant agents in their own right, and both join a rare collection of female geniuses in film and television history. Leading parts for women remain few and far between in Hollywood; female roles that achieve critical acclaim during awards season tend to emerge from those few scripts every year that attempt to write women with any complexity and presence. Needless to say, thousands of qualified actresses compete for a handful of truly substantial parts—even fewer of which subvert mainstream narratives about women. That Carrie and Maya should enter mainstream representation in a post–bin Laden world is significant not only for women, but also for how our culture frames terrorism and how we might envision the work that lies ahead in dismantling its forces.


Maya and Carrie: A Tale of Two Devices

Zero Dark Thirty’s Maya is a singular force to be reckoned with and, as the film suggests, is something of a lone wolf—twisting the arms of superiors to keep the hunt moving, baring her teeth at a conference table to get an operation approved, forever eating lunch alone since the death of her one friend in the CIA (also a woman). To invent Maya, Zero Dark Thirty’s research team interviewed several protected female operatives, most prominently the aforementioned Jen. Maya is equal parts prototype and device. As prototype, she embodies—singularly—the combined contribution that women may claim in the bin Laden mission. As device, she drives the plot to its known destination and—dare we say—makes it a nail-biting affair. Hers is an underdog’s tale and a winning one at that: one female maverick caught in a cage fight with all of male bureaucracy, her pending success synonymous with our nation’s victory. The poetic image is compelling.

Yet Zero Dark Thirty is, perhaps unfortunately, bound to reach an ending we already know. This binding commitment, combined with the time restraints of film, prioritizes Maya’s functionality as a device over her richness as a character. Not only a lone wolf, Maya is also an existential subject. She seems to come from nowhere, as we know so little about her—only that she was recruited into the CIA straight out of high school and that she has no personal life to speak of. This framing deliberately serves the film’s plot. We need Maya as an entry point into the story: she humanizes the stakes and gives us someone to root for. We might even need a woman to soften the tactics of war and investigation, to lend controversy a feminine morality. But too much focus on Maya’s person would be indulgent; the film carries a weightier agenda, one that would suffer from extended periods of fictionalized perspective. What results is a measured lead character who serves her narrative purpose but doesn’t overshadow what is being narrated. Maya is, quintessentially, an existential heroine. We admire the idea of who she is; our love affair with her requires no depth, and it ends when credits roll. Mission accomplished.

Homeland’s Carrie Mathison is equally singular and headstrong, though not quite the island of solitude that Maya represents. Her family members and one friend, CIA Middle East Division Chief Saul Berenson, make regular appearances in her life. But Carrie, too, twists arms and breaks rules to follow her instincts, and no personal relationship ranks above her work. Early on, Carrie betrays Saul’s trust to spy on U.S. Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody, a returning prisoner of war (POW) that she (and she alone) suspects for colluding with Al-Qaeda. While Saul and Carrie’s family provide a structural familiarity that allows us to access and identify with Carrie, she herself stands at arm’s distance, more connected to her work than to the closest people in her life. Unlike Maya, she has a paper trail and the trappings of history and context. But she, too, lives a detached life, replacing who she is with what she does. If Maya is the existential heroine, then Carrie aspires to be one.

Like Maya, Carrie is a device, but one that functions differently. Maya exists to carry her story to its foregone conclusion; Carrie exists to embody the ambiguity of that conclusion. Her brashness is a staple conflict in Homeland: how much can she get away with, and how often is she right to push those boundaries? Unlike Zero Dark Thirty, Homeland plays with our allegiances. Sometimes we support Carrie fervently, infuriated on her behalf as male superiors rebuff her requests for action; other times we bite our knuckles, all but reaching across the screen to stop her often self-destructive behavior.

Much like the ambiguity of our times—where notions of security are illusory, where heroes and villains blend and blur, where neighbors become nemeses at the drop of a hat—Carrie, too, is ambiguous. She is also bipolar. Her ambiguity and her mental disorder make us question: What is perceptive and what is paranoid? How can we know? In a post-9/11 world,  we’ve defined security along these very lines. Intelligence work and controversial methods of extracting information, for instance, can be guided by perceptiveness or by paranoia. It matters deeply whether our leaders are perceptive or paranoid, and it is profoundly troubling if we cannot know the border between the two.

Thus, if Maya represents foregone conclusion and a mission accomplished, Carrie represents the debunking of that conclusion. Her ambiguity forces us to question our mission and doubt our method and suggests that we are a long way off from resolute accomplishment.


Female Representation: Thematic Versus Social Narrative

How do these characters map onto familiar stories about women in positions of influence? Conflict often arises between thematic and social narratives. Writers want to tell a particular story or send a specific message; to do so, they create characters that carry these ideas to fruition. Characters usually begin as devices, serving plot, serving theme, but rarely serving their own existence. Yet, the audience receives far more than just a thematic overture. We absorb the characters on television and in film, thinking of them not as devices but as humans. We are compelled to consider how characters representing marginalized social narratives—women and minorities—appear on our screens. Those with invested perspectives ask: Are they three-dimensional? Do they fall prey to stereotype? Are these representations fair?

On the one hand, the fact that Maya and Carrie exist at all should be a point of pride. The creators of Homeland went out of their way to write Carrie into existence. The show is based on Hatufim (Prisoners of War), an Israeli television show that did not have a Carrie-type figure as its lead. The writers of Homeland insisted that the American version include and center on one woman’s perspective. In early drafts of the pilot, Carrie was brilliant but not bipolar. The creators eventually decided that mental illness would complicate tensions and grant Carrie an ambiguity similar to that of Sergeant Brody. While his is a moral ambiguity, hers is a mental one.

That complexity in a female character might immediately imply psychological instability is an association worth examining. After all, Carrie could also have been written as a double agent, possessing moral ambiguity to match Brody’s. Historically, it is par for the course to portray intelligent women as plagued with mental illness; Shakespeare did as much with Ophelia, and Tennessee Williams with several iconic females. In recent decades of film, we rarely honor substantial women except those that also meet their mental demise: Iris (2001), Sylvia (2003), The Iron Lady (2011), to name a few. Television has adopted a simplistic view of intelligent women as “hot messes.” Smart women are portrayed as complex only because they are all somewhat unstable. Perhaps it’s time for a new story.

Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar (and only the fourth to be nominated), sits at the helm of Zero Dark Thirty—a fact to inspire our confidence in the progressiveness of her female lead. And Bigelow does not condescend. Her Maya is capable, forceful, and reliable. Still, Maya also confirms that powerful women cannot have it all. In the last shot of Zero Dark Thirty, Maya boards a transport plane by herself, and the camera offers us a close-up as she weeps in solitude on the fading screen. What is she weeping about? I believe she is weeping for the loss of the only adult life she ever knew, a life dedicated to one pursuit that has finally ended. Perhaps she is even wondering, “Who am I, except for what I do?” Different viewers will subscribe to different conjectures about her melancholy. In truth, what do we know about her that would give us any insight to hazard a guess? Who we think Maya is has everything to do with what we believe and who we are. At the end of the day, she is but a vessel for our own convictions.

For the sake of intrigue, Carrie cannot have a stable mind to accompany her professional prowess and messy personal life. For the sake of plot, Maya cannot have a personal life to go along with her professional one. We see them kick down doors and chew their way through red tape to become effective leaders, but the cost of that achievement almost makes their success seem empty. Such is the danger of weaving thematic narrative through representatives of marginalization; when push comes to shove, creative minds choose story over social progress.


Representation of Terror and Islam

Carrie’s ambiguity forces us to question assumptions about rights and wrongs in the act of war. On a broader level, Zero Dark Thirty and Homeland’s explorations of terrorism and Islam create similar ambiguities. Much of the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty focuses on the waterboarding scenes, which have since been dismissed by chairs of two U.S. Senate committees as false portrayals. For so long, our country focused its political narrative as a single, unidirectional story about triumph over evil: terror as an unfathomable “Other,” alien in its philosophy and in direct opposition to all we stand for as Americans.

Homeland begins to tear that notion down. It gives us Nick Brody, a White soldier and perceived American hero whose alliance with Abu Nazir—Homeland’s fictional version of bin Laden—is rooted in fatherly love for Nazir’s son Issa. (Brody bonded with Issa during his years in captivity as a POW.) Brody loves America, but he abhors the terrors committed by his own country; Issa was killed in a drone strike ordered by the vice president of the United States. Brody complicates our notion of terror. By aligning himself with Nazir and by doing his bidding, he is a terrorist. But how can terror have a human face and a human motivation? How can terror be perpetrated by “one of us”?

The safest way to complicate our understanding of terrorism is to pair it with what we already know. We know the Brody prototype, the commercial image of an American soldier. Homeland bestows us this image, then turns it on its head. Brody anchors us as we come to grips with the psyche of terror, no longer as alien as we once assumed. He delivers a deeply unsettling reality about terror: that it makes perfect sense in the mind of its perpetrators and that its perpetrators are as human as any of us.

Every society produces iterations of the “Other.” How that looks might vary across regions, within communities, and among individuals, but Other-ing is a shared practice. We are complex, multifaceted, distinguished from one another, and rich in our stories; Others are simple, uncomplicated in how alike they are to each other, absolute in how different all of them are to us. We have endless stories; they only have one.

The familiar terrorist in Homeland—White American Brody—is permitted complexity and may merit our understanding. But this complexity is not extended to his Other, as represented by Abu Nazir. We spend two seasons chasing Nazir, yet it is Brody who mourns for Issa. Nazir, at most, may be summed up by a wall of color-coded, classified documents. Nazir’s final moments don’t force us to reckon with a man; rather, they confirm his monstrosity, his terrifying Other-ness. Not all terrorism may be held equal. Nazir remains a diabolical cartoon, too foreign to be understood in our language.

Homeland makes another bold attempt: to dissolve Islamaphobia by portraying Brody as an Islamic convert. But again, our culture sterilizes perceived danger and exoticism by pairing them with the familiar. Only Brody can make Islam palatable, and only Brody can make terrorism complex. Is this brave storytelling, or is it feeding us only what we can digest? In the end, probably a lot of both.


The Danger of a Single Story


“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”

—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Half of a Yellow Sun


The trouble with Zero Dark Thirty and Homeland is not that they attempt to write about heroines, nor that they hope to deepen our understanding of terrorist psyche and Islamic faith. The trouble is that they attempt these progressive models while seducing the audience with familiar tropes, hoping that a spoonful of sugar will help new medicine go down. But that muddles the message. Yes, Maya and Carrie are important narrative devices, soliciting our allegiance with their missions and even forcing us to consider the risk of staking our lives and our country’s character on choices made by ambiguous leaders. Maya and Carrie serve essential, thematic functions; they are the very pillars upon which their stories rest. But viewers don’t think of them as mere device; viewers want to see them as people, as women representative of other women. With still so few images of influential women, Maya and Carrie shoulder the legacy of single stories, made in the spirit of progress, yet drawn from a fountain of stereotypes. These characters have never been seen before. Yet somehow, they are more of the same.

The single story plagues our politics, where every war is remembered as the final countdown between hero and villain; where social progress remembers history in the past tense, disowning how it lives on in present tense. Poverty is the picture of a Black child, the future is a poster of Apple cofounder Steve Jobs holding an iPad, and evil is the face of terrors committed against us. Poverty, the future, and evil. We reserve the single story for that which we do not fully understand: in the case of Homeland and Zero Dark Thirty, it is the unknowable face of evil. It forever stands on the other side, conveniently opposing all that we stand for.

We often criticize cultural mediums for telling single stories. Inevitably, most who challenge a single story are implicated by that story, feeling beholden to and trapped by an image that does not summarize who they are and what they can be. As Adichie says, these single stories may be true—for some. The travesty is not that they are represented; the travesty is that only they are represented. Third-wave feminism emerged from the ashes of the second, with transnational women at the helm, determined to paint a picture different from women’s rights activist Betty Friedan’s White, middle-class housewife. Their second, third, and nth story does not negate the first. Instead, these “new” stories add to a canvas that, in theory, has room for each and every story.

So what is the ethical and artistic path to take? Should Zero Dark Thirty have done more with Maya, eschewing her functionality as a device for her significance as a woman in power? Should Homeland have given us a Carrie without mental illness, trading a convenient form of ambiguity for something truly new? Should Homeland have gone one step further to humanize Abu Nazir, to feed us new medicine without the sugar? Was there a way to dismantle Islamaphobia without pairing it to Brody’s apple-pie American-ness? Arguably, an American audience would simply turn away from these “radical” images, refusing to consider them. Stories like these might not sell, seeming too progressive. But shouldn’t art force us out of our comfort zones? Isn’t that the ethical thing to do?

In theory, yes. Except, of course, that film and television are not perfect examples of art. They come to our screens because someone believed they might be marketable, and they stay relevant in our lives when we embrace the message they deliver. The question isn’t should we move the needle, but how far? How radical can art and entertainment be—in their representations of women, of terrorism, and of Islam—and still be heard? As an American audience, what are we ready to accept? Zero Dark Thirty and Homeland certainly moved the needle, but only enough to surprise and still keep their audience. Perhaps that’s just not far enough.


Irene Shih is a Master in Public Policy candidate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Prior to graduate school, she worked as a Teach for America corps member and contract playwright.


Photo source here.