Film Depictions of Women in War Conform to Western BiasesEssay

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Women Suicide Bombers

Film Portrayals of Conflict Women

The movie by Julie Loktev, Day Night, portrays a would-be woman suicide bomber (WSB) in New York City. Although audience members are kept in suspense regarding the moral of the movie until the very end, after the first hour it becomes clear that the planning of the terrorist organization was not perfect. First the WSB pees her pants when she tries to prepare herself to push the button, which sends her careening through the streets to find a restroom where she can clean herself up and hide her embarrassment (1:04:00). The possibility of a remote trigger man as a backup plan was not incorporated into the plot of the movie. She returns to the same spot and pushes the trigger, only to discover the triggering mechanism was broken. Repeated attempts to trigger the bomb, even by slamming the backpack against a light pole and sidewalk (1:23:10), resulted in failure as well.

The closing scene of the movie captures the WSB sitting dejectedly next to a construction site on top of the backpack containing the bomb, weeping quietly for several minutes (Day Night 1:26:00). The young lady then asks God "Why don't you want me?" A few seconds later she asks God to please send her a sign, which is the moment the audience learns that the failure of the bomb to explode, despite all her efforts, is in fact a sign from God; however, the WSB never seems to recognize her failure is a sign from God. This ending seems to suggest WSBs are obtuse, because they were so intent on fulfilling their mission that the events taking place around them went unnoticed, altered her outlook, or caused her to rethink the purpose of the task at hand.

Such a portrayal of WSBs would be consistent with Western values, which tend to present WSBs as women falling prey to a male-dominated terrorist group (Rajan 3). In fact, all of her handlers were male and the only other terrorist female in the movie was an older, more mature bomb maker (Day Night 44:40). The WSB in the movie was very young, probably under 20-years of age, demure, polite to a fault, diminutive, a bit clumsy, naive, waif-like, obedient, and submissive. The only time the WSB challenged her handlers was when she questioned the logic of setting off the bomb if no one else was around, should she began to suspect that someone has noticed her. The three male handlers responded with sudden silence, bugged out eyes behind ski masks, and stood up in a dominating way, which had the effect of cowing the WSB. This female typology was further propagated in the movie when in a moment of desperation, after repeated failed attempts to detonate the bomb, the WSB calls her parents long distance collect (1:22:30). Her parents sound loving, concerned, and very American. Based on the content of the parents' words they were oblivious to their daughter's intentions and whereabouts and would be horrified if she were to carry out her mission to detonate a bomb at a busy intersection in Times Square.

This portrayal of WSBs is consistent with Rajan's argument that Western governments and Western media depict these women as victims of male-dominated terrorist organizations (3). From Loktev's perspective, the WSB in the movie is a victim of ideology. Her question to God at the end of the movie, "why don't you want me," seems to suggest her ideology advocates the killing dozens of people in Times Square, along with herself, as proof of God's love for her. The reality of WSBs is far different from the depiction offered in Day Night. Rajan cites research revealing that WSBs tend to be more involved in local conflicts, rather than becoming embroiled in international terrorist acts directed against imperialist powers (6-7). WSBs also tend to have higher body counts, are more successful, and preferentially kill high-value targets, when compared to their male counterparts. For example, Rajan cites evidence showing that Chechen WSBs were responsible for 14 bombings between 1980 and 2003, which represented 60% of all suicide bombings by Chechens during this period (6-7). This percentage increased to 70% between 2000 and 2006 and 50% of these were executed without the involvement of men. In addition, the average body count for Chechen WSBs has been 21, compared to just 13 for men.

These statistics reveal WSB portrayals by Western governments are far from accurate, as Rajan contends. This also suggests the portrayal of WSBs in Day Night is misleading because it conforms to the Western WSB 'victimology.' At no point does the WSB present the reasons why she is willing to set off a bomb in Times Square, although moments of self-doubt pop up throughout the movie. The WSB is also portrayed as inept and someone who cares little about the fact that she will indiscriminately kill low-value targets. The ideology behind the WSB in Day Night is simple, 'if you love God then you should perform this horrific act.' In other words, the WSB narrative portrayed in the movie is pure fiction and does not pose a threat to the American narrative of terrorist identities and the post-911 era.

The depiction of the CIA agent responsible for tracking down Osama bin Laden in the film Zero Dark Thirty is more in line with the reality of WSBs. This portrayal was based on actual accounts of the investigation that eventually led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2011. The movie opens with a black screen, but the soundtrack contains actual recordings of the victims in the World Trade Center twin towers after the planes struck the buildings on September 11, 2001. The opening scene ends with a women pleading to the 911 operator for help, while expressing the belief that she will not survive. The connection is then lost and the 911 operator says "oh my God!" In the silence that follows. The next visual is of a CIA black site where a captured terrorist is being subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques, including water boarding. The close temporal association of the horrific 9/11 audio recordings and CIA torture chambers is consistent with the early post-9/11 American narrative that extraordinary measures were needed to confront this threat.

The central character of the movie, Maya, is portrayed as a gritty, abrasive, obsessive, and determined agent in pursuit of the mastermind behind the 911 attacks; an agent not afraid to get her hands dirty engaging in torture to get actionable intelligence (Zero Dark Thirty). The Maya character is the opposite of the WSB depicted in Day Night. The WSB is a victim of a male-dominated terrorist organization, incompetent, and a failure, while the CIA agent is hard-nosed, competent, and ultimately successful in her task. This contrast also reveals that American filmmakers are not afraid of depicting powerful and resourceful women, which in turn implies that the WSB depiction in Day Night was specific to WSBs and not to women generally. Fate or God also enters the narrative when Maya tells a fellow agent that "a lot of my friends have died trying to do this. I believe I was spared so I could finish the job" (1:17:05). In Day Night, the WSB was rejected by God when the bomb failed repeatedly to detonate and in Zero Dark Thirty Maya is rewarded by God when she eventually locates and kills bin Laden. Both narratives seem to suggest God is backing America, but not the terrorists.

The narratives from both movies diverge, however, when it comes to the use of violence. In Day Night, the movie ends without anyone ever being harmed. As discussed above, the moral of the story seems to be that God's will is that no one should be the victim of a suicide bombing, not even the bomber; therefore, the movie is anti-violence. By contrast, violence is portrayed as critical to the War on Terror in Zero Dark Thirty. Actionable intelligence is culled from detainees using torture or the threat of torture and the final scenes of the movie depict the assault on the bin Laden compound by American Special Forces and the killing of all males and two females residing in the compound. Violence also leads to the capture of a treasure trove of Al-Qaeda videos, files, and hard drives, which is whisked away in the helicopters.

Summary

The portrayals of women in American films conform to Western narratives of WSBs as victims and CIA agents as successful. Neither is probably as accurate as the filmmakers might like us to believe, especially in light of the WSB statistics discussed by Rajan. As Rajan mentions, however, there is always the danger of rendering WSBs in a favorable light and thereby legitimizing the act, which would explain why Western governments and sympathetic media outlets would frame WSBs as victims rather than self-determined militants with a vested interest in the outcome of conflicts.

Works Cited

Day Night Day Night. Dir. Julia Loktev. Perf.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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