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At one point during next week’s Zero Dark Thirty, Jessica Chastain’s Maya sits down with a friend for a chat. Her friend asks her whether there’s anything going on with a colleague. It’s an understandable question. Maya’s been working with Dan (Jason Clarke) – one of those all-in-one guys with piercing blue eyes, who’s highly intelligent, overflowing with tough masculinity, and has a softer, nurturing side. If he was in a rom-com rather than a Kathryn Bigelow feature, hordes of women would be professing their love in every frame. Not Maya. Turned off from the idea, she responds:
“I’m not that girl that f**ks. It’s unbecoming.”
If life were a Monty Python movie, this is the moment that a large hand would appear in the air, holding a trumpet to commemorate the occasion. One seemingly innocuous comment becomes one of the film’s most passionate rallying cries. Maya is a woman whose working life isn’t at the whim of her hormones. There is no powerful phallus to penetrate her professionalism, no man who easily distracts her from her duty. And because she gets to focus on her work, and not let stereotypical treatments of female hormones weaken the affair, she becomes a hero. As The Daily Beast explains: “It is Maya, more than the kill mission, who makes us proud to be Americans.”
Maya brings to mind another 2012 heroine, Haywire’s Mallory Kane. After fiercely battling a number of men, she’s sent on a dinner mission. “I don’t wear the dress; make Paul wear the dress,” she complains. We know that he won’t, and that she will look stunning, but if Hollywood has taught us anything it’s that the big, fancy reveal will show a lot of skin and a lot of cleavage. This is, after all, the world where Natasha Romanov just cannot bear to zip her bodysuit up all the way. Instead, however, Mallory’s dress is sexy without being revealing, formfitting but free of cleavage and impracticality. One easy rip and she’s ready to fight and kill.
But for every Maya and Mallory, there are women whose professional ethics and abilities fly out the window. Decades ago, it was understandable. Professional women were infused into the sexy status quo, without an unlikely full-scale flip of the system. Hollywood struggled with how to combine power and sex, a battle aptly encapsulated in Network. Faye Dunaway’s Diana Christensen was not only a professional, but a network head. Work mixes with sex as she gets involved with her boss Max Schumacher, but it isn’t Diana who struggles with the relationship. Work is her primary focus and though he leaves his wife for her, he ultimately returns home because Christensen is “television incarnate” – “indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy.”
Over 30 years later, the struggle between men, women, sex and work continues. The Christensen figure has evolved into the uptight female professional. In her place, we’ve got Sandra Bullock kneeling to her male subordinate to keep her job in The Proposal, and Katherine Heigl learning to loosen up from her womanizing colleague. These are romantic comedies, but their audaciousness also allows them to be easily chastised, unlike the many more subtle manifestations.
Last year, for example, we watched Anna Kendrick counsel a cancer-stricken Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in 50/50. She was the new professional, and her slowly evolving attempts to offer the appropriate support to her patient allowed for some good humor… until she began struggling with her growing feelings. Though it doesn’t take a therapist to know that she shouldn’t become involved with her patients, and that starting a relationship with someone going through such serious life tumult is asking for trouble, Kendrick’s Katherine can’t help herself. The movie doesn’t end with Adam’s survival or their friendship, but with their romance. It’s the happy ending we’d wish for our hero, but one that comes at the expense of her professional ethics.
The same happens with this year’s The Sessions. As a sex therapist, Helen Hunt’s Cheryl must handle romantic feelings that arise in her work, but when John Hawkes’ Mark develops feelings for her, they’re not one-sided. Cheryl struggles with her growing feelings for her client, and her work interferes with her marriage. She digs poems out of the trash and must stop their sessions as the sex starts leading to romance. (It must, however, be noted that the real Cheryl’s husband was once a client.)
Katherine and Cheryl’s feelings aren’t added maliciously, but they’re a monotonous current of female inability. A woman finds success, until a powerful penis undermines her, or at worst – teaches her (Ugly “Truth”). Neither of these stories required romance. Life is the payoff for Adam, and Mark was positioned as a lothario of sorts already, one that can’t overcome his disability, but does have a profound romantic impact on numerous women. The fascinating aspect of this story – that is underplayed – isn’t the idea that Cheryl got romantically confused, but how Mark dealt with a door that opened to a world he had no chance of entering.
These trends happen with such regularity that it isn’t until they’re absent that these habits are often noticed. (Unless, as previously mentioned, we’re talking about the romantic comedy’s often audacious approach.) In Gus Van Sant’s upcoming Promised Land, Frances McDormand’s Sue seems almost alien as she plays the straightforward colleague to Matt Damon’s Steve, a woman who fully understands and accepts her role, and doesn’t fall into an emotional whirlwind. In fact, the absence of a distinct sexual storyline becomes a character attribute itself, rather than merely a plot choice or irrelevant and unconsidered aspect.
It speaks volumes that Chastain’s Maya in Zero Dark Thirty led another Daily Beast writer to consider the character “more or less asexual” because of her powerful statement about sex in the workplace. Because Maya is never seen having sex, the assumption is that she’s not interested in it. Female sexuality is so ubiquitous in cinema that its removal leads to assumptions that a woman must be free of sexual impulse. Diana Christensen was once considered insensitive for her professional drive, and Maya is now asexual. Perhaps Maya’s character was too busy for sexual interludes, but in a story that boils many years down to a few hours, it’s just as likely that any sex she may or may not be having is simply offscreen, with people who aren’t a part of her work environment.
On the one hand, it’s inspiring to see women finally given meaty characterizations not shackled to stringent notions of sex and womanhood. On the other, the films of 2012 that show women thriving at work without questionable romantic entanglements and sexualization are indie features that garner praise and buzz, but are far from box office whirlwinds. Mainstream cinema still needs to get Maya’s message. Perhaps then it won’t be so surprising when a woman simply kicks ass on-screen without being sexually compromised.