The torturer as feminist: from Abu Ghraib to Zero Dark Thirty

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:

In an October 2007 Rasmussen poll, 27 per cent 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 per cent said they would be willing to use torture – a gain of 14 points – while 34 per cent would not, a decline of 19 points.

Zegart also 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  that 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.

Since the terrorist attacks on September 11 and the subsequent Abu Ghraib prison scandal, popular American television and cinema have participated in the normalisation and justification of state torture. One of the most prominent features of this phenomenon is the depiction of women who engage in torture as national and feminist heroes, say, for example, 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.


September 11 & Abu Ghraib as Sexual Violation

In her essay ‘TV and Torture’, Amy Laura Hall argues that September 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 suggests ‘that the gender politics of such shows may take their form from the same cultural impulse that led to the ritualised emasculation of Muslim prisoners in places like Abu Ghraib’, pointing out that sexual violation was a routine feature of torture at the facility.

Some of the tortures at Abu Ghraib could be seen as a form of gender-based revenge for the trauma of September 11. The photos and subsequent reports do not simply depict emasculation, but in many cases, the feminisation 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 ‘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’. Zurbriggen points to the testimony of Dhia al-Shweiri, a former prisoner at Abu Ghraib:

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 feminised, then how should we view the three women who participated in their torture? Were they imitating male behaviour? Were they taking revenge on Muslim men for the violation of September 11? How does their gender matter in an analysis of the scandal?

Barbara Ehrenreich writes that the photos of Megan Ambuhl, Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman ‘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.

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

[I]n 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 precisely the method by which the character ‘Maya’, in Zero Dark Thirty, is shown to become the equal of her male colleagues.

Melanie Richter-Montpetit also challenges Ehrenreich’s focus on gender equality as overly reductive, suggesting that the phenomenon of women-identified soldiers torturing prisoners ‘should be located within colonial desires’. President Bush, she reminds us, claimed after September 11, that ‘[w]e wage a war to save civilization, itself’. Language like this has characterised other colonial missions, positioning the West as the civilised 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, for instance, outreach initiatives ‘that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their stories with French, German, and other European women’, to help ‘overcome pervasive skepticism among women in Western Europe toward the ISAF mission’.

Basuli Deb argues that white female soldiers have a critical role to play in this narrative of liberation, and 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’.


Maya: The Torturer as Feminist

Zero Dark Thirty 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 dubbed it ‘Erin Brockovich for fascists’.

Zero Dark Thirty opens with a black screen and an audio montage of real 911 calls placed during the attacks on the World Trade Centre. 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 September 11 murder were overwhelmingly male’.

Two years later, the film transports us to the staging of that revenge, a CIA black site where a beaten and bloodied terror suspect, Ammar, is surrounded by men in balaclavas. What’s significant in the staging of the film’s 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’.

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.

After some of the early torture scenes, ‘Dan’ (the main torturer) leaves. Ammar turns his head to Maya and begs for mercy: ‘Your friend is an animal. Please help me.’ An eerie calm settles on Maya’s face. She 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 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.

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. Though the 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 the actual torture is carried out by men.


Marketing Maya

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: ‘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’. Whereas President Bush once remarked that Islamic fundamentalists ‘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 the services of social media start-up 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.’ The tactic sought to shift attention away from the torture debate surrounding the film, while conflating Maya with actual women working in the fields of intelligence and defence. This first effort a success, Bigelow drafted a new message that more carefully underscored the narrative of gender and power the film advances: ‘Women helped find the world’s most dangerous man. Are you surprised? #ZeroDarkThirty’

This strategic message got a boost on 24 January, 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 defence of the film.

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 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, and further admits to wanting some ‘wiggle room’ on the questions, because ‘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 honour ‘for Humanitarian Activism’. The award is reserved for portraying 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’.


This is an edited version of a much longer essay available at My Own Private Guantanamo.

Matt Cornell

Matt Cornell is pursuing a PhD in cultural analysis at the University of Amsterdam. His research focuses on the emergence of infantile aesthetics and affects in precarious times. He also works as a film programmer in Amsterdam. Follow him on Twitter at @mattcornell. More by Matt Cornell ›

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  1. Personally I find the fact that films about so called “female empowerment” like this, Teeth and Hard Candy depict women as hateful, sadistic and sexist.

    Are we really so lacking that the only way we can feel “empowered” is through torture. humiliation and violence?

  2. I agree with LucyW. I just watched this film tonight, and at one point (the naked dog collar part) I had to walk out of the room. I found the torture scenes horrifying, and quite frankly I do not want to be aligned with any woman who needs to be empowered in this manner.

  3. Empowerment. Don’t fool yourself into thinking women can’t be as sadistic as men in the world. It makes a refreshing change as much as war hurts our guts, it’s realistic to think this can happen and will. I’m totally ok being aligned with the film and strong lead women, fiction it is after all.

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