Since its release, the controversial Zero Dark Thirty has been an ongoing source of contention. The film’s depiction of torture in the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden has provoked a multitude of responses, largely inconsistent with party politics that have often framed discourse on the War on Terror. It is arguably Zero Dark Thirty’s precarious blend of fictional narrative with historical fact that allows for such a wide range of contradictory interpretations of the film’s stance on torture and its effectiveness.
Compared with these heated debates, there has been little analysis of the effects of dramatic license on the depiction of gender in Zero Dark Thirty – despite the fact that the lead character is a woman. Maya, the CIA agent who ultimately finds bin Laden, is empowered, tenacious, smart, and based on reality. Though she faces some adversity in a male-dominated field, the story of Maya and the other female characters presents a romanticized understanding of gender dynamics in the US War on Terror. The stories that have surfaced about female guards at Abu Ghraib prison and the detention center at Guantánamo reveal a more complex and far less comforting version of reality.
The makers of Zero Dark Thirty should not be held accountable for excluding these stories, but the film’s controversial reception indicates that American society nonetheless relies heavily on popular culture for the transmission of difficult issues. Effective, productive social engagement requires a greater commitment to historical accuracy, the inclusion of diverse perspectives, and critical examinations of issues that often take a back seat to blockbuster-worthy narratives of retaliation and war. Thousands of women lived and worked at GTMO before 9/11, but these stories have also been overshadowed by popular associations of the base with masculinity: power, empire, military, intervention. Within this patriarchal framework, women often play supporting and powerless roles.
The Guantánamo Public Memory Project’s collections contain an abundance of resources that shed light on underrepresented gender perspectives: oral histories, photographs, primary documents, and academic scholarship tell the stories of women who were born or employed at GTMO, left their families in Cuba to work on the base, or endured hardship in refugee camps as children and as parents. These materials will soon be available to the public through three of our Project platforms: GPMP’s resource database; the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC); and Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library, through its Center for Human Rights Documentation & Research. The recent student-collaborated exhibit panels and digital contributions also highlight the active role of women at GTMO from the Spanish-American War to today.
Nonetheless, there is much more to learn outside existing resources, and research on gender at GTMO is limited in comparison with other sociopolitical issues. Rather than disheartening, this is an exciting opportunity for scholarship and outreach. We invite you to share your stories and to explore those of others. Developing these areas of research is critical to public awareness and engagement with the past, present, and possible futures of GTMO.