Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Film as Rhetoric: Gender and "Zero Dark Thirty"

I was recently reading a text for my film theory class and I came across some content that I think applies to our class. Let me provide some context. I was reading a chapter on Sergei Eisenstein, a film theorist and filmmaker from Soviet Russia who believed the main purpose of film, and art in general, is to make rhetorical arguments. Film theorists are conflicted on this issue, some agree with Eisenstein but other theorists argue that films exists as an organic object that is "self-sustaining and self-sufficient." I tend to agree with Eisenstein that films coexist with the viewer to make rhetorical arguments. The author of this text (J. Dudley Andrew) defines rhetoric in terms of film-art as the "examination of discursive situations in which one party wants to convey something to someone else for the purpose of influencing him or at the very least enlightening him." (I particularly like that the term 'enlightening' is used in a definition of rhetoric). I like to think of the rhetoric-film relationship as an important part of our society. In other words, I believe the purpose of films ought to be to either reaffirm societal ideologies, or challenge societal ideologies. For example, classic populist films like "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" reaffirm societal ideologies by celebrating American ideals, and films like "Dr. Strangelove" challenge societal ideologies by attacking the American Cold War ideology. The rhetorical arguments in films, however, are not limited to American political theory. Today in class we watched a documentary that discussed gender in the media. The different ways that films treat gender is a rhetorical argument. Feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey has even argued that films typically juxtapose active male characters against passive female characters whom are primarily used as eye candy or voyeuristic objects for the viewer. This brings me to my main point. I recently saw the controversial film "Zero Dark Thirty" and the film's protagonist is a woman, whom is both aggressive and professional - qualities that are typically associated with masculinity. Therefore "Zero Dark Thirty" (which was also directed by a woman) not only challenged the American war on terrorism ideology, the film also challenged the ideology of women's roles in society.

What do you guys think about the film as rhetoric debate or women's role in films?


  1. When I found out what that film was about, I was (and still am) VERY opposed to it. I'm a firm believer that this is not a topic they should have made a film about. On a side note, when I found out that a female plays such a huge role in all of it, I will admit I was slightly interested in seeing how they portrayed her. It also brings me to question if her character was part of the real events. If so, that is quite admirable and I'd like to know more about this person. I also like that the woman who directed this film (Kathryn Bigelow) also directed the Oscar winning film The Hurt Locker. She won best director for this film (beating her ex-husband James Cameron for his little film Avatar) and is set to do the same this year with Zero Dark Thirty. So even though women are sorely underrepresented, women like Bigelow and the character in the ZDT show people that women CAN be successful and intelligent.

  2. I am working on a project regarding Zero Dark Thirty in one of my news classes, and I think that it can definitely be thought of as a representation of your argument that film causes rhetorical arguments and discussion. I think that it shows an independent and strong woman as the lead, played by Jessica Chastain, in a position of power not just for the sake of doing so, but rather to offer a sense that women can realistically take on the same goals and missions in life that men are more commonly portrayed as doing.

    Overall, more actresses in Hollywood need to find roles of complex characters, and less of the stigma of damsels in distress.

    I think film is a form of expression for people. It offers a way for directors, actors, etc to showcase not only how they feel about a topic, but to give a story that makes viewers agree or disagree, or at least understand the subject more clearly. I agree that film creates rhetorical debate. People want films to have a reaction - good or bad - they just want a reaction to their work.

  3. I saw Zero Dark Thirty a few weeks ago and was glad I saw it, though it was certainly difficult to watch at certain points. I really did appreciate Chastain's character (as well as her female co-worker) - she was stubborn, independent, intelligent, and cold when necessary. It was refreshing.

    Chastain's performance, as well as the fact that the film was directed by Kathryn Bigelow, are both important performances for our society to see in the film industry and just in adulthood in general. They are both creative women who are very intelligent and skilled, and I think people are noticing (or at least in reviews I have read of the film).

    As far as rhetoric goes, I think that Zero Dark Thirty seeks to enlighten and challenge. It depicts the years-long search for Bin Laden through his death (enlightens), but paints a rather neutral picture instead of a populist, rah-rah American one. As the film reached its climax and resolution (as well as in certain points earlier in the film), I felt uncomfortable and unsure of how I felt about what was going on. I think that, while the subject matter certainly is somewhat controversial and tough to swallow for some, films like Zero Dark Thirty are important because they challenge the audience to think about weighty subjects (and hopefully discuss them).

  4. I saw this movie when it first came out, and I definitely think it challenged the ideology of women in society. A specific scene comes to mind-when she is in the only woman in the room with all high political businessmen while reviewing the plan to invade the headquarters in Pakistan. During this scene, one of the men asks who came up with this plan, and she replies by saying something along the lines of,"I'm the motherfucker who came up with it." I think this scene specifically says a lot about the ideology of women in society in that they are not taken seriously to be considered intelligent enough to render such a plan. Also, for a woman to stand up to a man in the way she did is atypical of women in a professional setting. I think this whole movie challenged people to think about gender roles and the power women can have if given an opportunity to display it. With the director being a female too, I think this movie was a complete success with advocating women as equals. The film was also directed at a wide audience-I would say mostly males, which is great. Maybe men will consider a different perspective of women in power. If anything, this movie can be a step towards improvement!

  5. Much has been written about this post. I'm very glad because I think "Zero Dark Thirty" is one of the most important films of our culture. I agree with Tom that the film seeks to enlighten and challenge. In addition to challenging gender ideologies, the film forces us to think about what was cost and what we gave up and sacrificed in our pursuit for Bin Laden, issues that the media often ignores. Recently the screenwriter of the film, Mark Boal, gave a speech on the controversial film. In the speech he discusses the film's intent and states, "We wanted to transform the firsthand accounts we gathered into a firsthand experience for viewers, and share this important, history-changing story in the most compelling way we knew how." Later in the speech he brings up the controversial topic of torture and points out the necessity of incorporating the torture scenes into the film: "The United States tortured people as a matter of national policy, authorized by the White House, approved by the Department of Justice, and disclosed to the Congress. There was never a question of leaving these acts, as reprehensible as they are, out of the story of the hunt for bin Laden, or it wouldn’t be an honest story." For those that argue that the film glorifies torture, they are mistaken. The film forces the viewer to confront multiple viewpoints (something the news rarely accomplishes) of a significant event in our culture and decide for themselves how to interrupt it. To put it another way, "Zero Dark Thirty" is better public discourse than a lot of contemporary news.