Heroines to Emulate: From Homeland to Zero Dark Thirty


I’ve had a restful week of vacation — with family around and the dishwasher in constant rotation between meals and parties and teenagers sleeping over. In the moments I got out of the kitchen, I found myself immersed myself in two stories of war: a novel that landed on so many Best of 2012 lists that I had to read it (“The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers) and Katherine Bigelow’s Oscar-opus Zero Dark Thirty.

I didn’t intend to theme my end-of-year media diet with stories of war, but after a day of ruminating I realized where my obsession originated: I had spent 2012 absolutely besotted with Homeland.

Having missed the fuss when the Showtime hit premiered in the fall of 2011, I caught up with the first season this past spring and was on pins and needles until the second season began this fall. The tension of watching the show was exquisite –  just watching from the couch, however, proved unbearable. I’d wind up pacing around the room — and it reminded me of how I’d leave the room as a child when the Wicked Witch appeared in The Wizard of Oz.  My coping strategy for Homeland was to distract myself by doing the week’s ironing while watching Carrie and Brody act out their enduring cat and mouse game. And even if the show began to irritate me in the middle of the second season (did every character have to be lying to every one else ALL of the time?), I saved my Sunday nights for Homeland and admired how the writers kept twisting the tale in such satisfying knots.

The single minded determination of Carrie Mathison accounts for my Homeland fervor. It has been thrilling to watch an American woman obsessively focus on out-foxing a terrorist mastermind. Carrie’s mental illness allows the viewer some personal distance from her unerring sense of personal responsibility for global issues of terror. Yet, at the same time, given the war we are still fighting overseas and the changes in our lives since 9/11, her attention to details we’d rather forget is somehow reassuring. Audiences love her focus and gumption, even if we can’t imagine shouldering the world’s burdens as she does. (Surely, we also love Damian Lewis’s ability to change his expression so imperceptibility that we can’t definitively say whether he’s still beholden to Abu Nazir, or truly re-converted to the side of Uncle Sam. But he’s a topic for another blog post. For now, let’s concentrate on the girls).

It’s the job of superheroes to vanquish bad guys, yet Carrie  — with her healthy libido and multiple vulnerabilities — couldn’t be more human. More than a few articles have aptly pointed out the similarities between Homeland’s heroine and Zero Dark Thirty‘s Maya, played to perfection by the changeling Jessica Chastain. (Here’s a particularly good one from The Daily Beast’s Jace Lacob). Despite portraying water-boarding and other forms of “enhanced interrogation,” the film is actually less tense than an average episode of Homeland.  Director Katherine Bigelow elegantly chronicles the singular obsession of another woman determined to make right the horrible injustices of terrorism and the events of 9/11.  I’m simplifying the plot, but it is Maya who locates Osama Bin Laden, and she alone convinces the US to raid the compound where he was hiding.

Between Maya and Carrie, we can all sleep a little better at night, knowing that someone is staying up to worry about evil in our world.  Without carrying a gun, and without bullying their colleagues, both Maya and Carrie’s brains help them vanquish the worst bad guys in the world.  Terrorists aren’t fictional, even if Carrie’s story is. They’re as real as can be — and both Carrie and Maya have a moment where they stand over the dead bodies of men who are responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocents. It is because of the women’s intelligence and conviction that our military is able to vanquish these foes. (In fact, one could make the argument that the women succeed despite the institutions for which they work).

In the search for heroines on big and little screens, aren’t these our kind of girls?  Women who win over their co-workers, superiors and enemies with Brains — and not shouting.  With their Conviction, not multiple weapons.  Truly, these are heroines we should wish for our daughters (and sons) to emulate. Dare we think that these are the type of women that will be more frequently portrayed on screens in the next year(s)?

A few words about “The Yellow Birds”, which was one of the New York Times’ top 5 fiction titles for 2012. Kevin Powers tells a heartbreaking story with granular detail and I felt as though I were walking beside him on his terrifying tour in Iraq. It’s a book that echos “All Quiet on the Western Front” – the war is a futile effort and our soldiers are going to slaughter unnecessarily. Powers has elegantly combined his experience as a soldier with his training as a poet and his novel will surely be read by generations to come for the same reasons: a simple fictional tale that describes strong emotions allows the reader access to a truth that straight reportage doesn’t always accomplish.