"Zero Dark Thirty" and the New Female Face of the CIA

BlogHer Original Post

The film Zero Dark Thirty, which just received a total of five Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), tells the saga of the search for Osama bin Laden while shining a spotlight on the increasing role of women in the American espionage game. Although she was overlooked for directing honors this year, Kathryn Bigelow builds the film around Maya, played with understated skill by Best Actress nominee Jessica Chastain, a CIA analyst unerringly focused on the hunt for bin Laden.

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Maya bears a striking resemblance to a CIA analyst identified only as “Jen” in the unauthorized book No Easy Day by a Navy SEAL, “Mark Owen,” who participated in the raid on the Abbottabad, Pakistan compound where bin Laden was hiding. According to multiple reports by journalists and national security experts, such as CNN’s Peter Bergen, author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden -- from 9/11 to Abbottabad, Jen was just one of many women involved in the hunt for bin Laden and other members of al-Qaeda after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 -- and even in the decade before. 

Descendants of the handful of womenwho worked within the CIA's old boys' club for decades, these modern women are more accepted than ever. They're also analytical professionals who bring a set of skills to the table that can equal, and sometimes surpass the men. And, like their male counterparts, some have died in service to their country.

CIA case officer Lindsay Moran Kegley gave a speech at the University of Virginia in March of 1994 which served as a window on women in the CIA, their training, and why they make such good agents.

As little girls, we can identify who are the most popular or important other little girls in the classroom and on the playground. Whose parents let them stay up late, whose backyard has a pool, who has a cute older brother? By the time we’re teenagers, girls usually know how to endear themselves to these important people, how to infiltrate the popular cliques, how to appear and act in a certain way, how to say one thing and mean another, and most importantly, how to read people.

In 2005, she published a book about her experiences, Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy.

But it’s only now that Hollywood is catching up to the reality of the trend. That Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman to win a Best Director Academy Award, directed this film can’t be coincidental to the decision to build the film around a female CIA analyst. And while it makes perfect sense that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal would do so, it’s also possible Bigelow and her film’s backers may have been influenced by Showtime’s Emmy Award-winning espionage thriller, Homeland, and its tough and tenacious CIA analyst Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes.  

There are even reports that Bigelow and Boal met with the real-life Jen while researching the movie. CIA secrecy protocols prohibit Jen from speaking publicly, but all the attention she’s received because of the movie may have hurt, not helped her career.

That’s still a long way from nearly a decade ago, when CIA operative Valerie Plame was publicly outed by an insider in the Bush administration in retaliation for comments by her husband about Iraq that contradicted the White House. At the time, some in the administration dismissed the leak by implying that as a woman in the CIA, Plame's outing couldn’t possibly have been damaging to national security.

Flash forward several years, and shows like Homeland and films like Zero Dark Thirty, and the courageous real women they represent, are hopefully helping to change that attitude.

Christal Roberts is a BlogHer contributing editor. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristalRoberts.

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