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Ever Felt Backlash For Being An Assertive Woman?

Jessica Chastain as CIA agent May,a in Zero Dark Thirty.

Just saw the Zero Dark Thirty movie again on cable. It is a movie about the decade long hunt and killing of Osama Bin Laden.

Exciting movie! I loved the main character of Maya, the CIA agent who was supposedly behind this capture. Her role was of a very  strong female. This is rare for Hollywood.  Although the movie is supposed to be fictional, some of the storyline matched the true narrative  in the Navy Seals memoir, “No Easy Day” by Mark Owen. Therefore, I give parts of this characterization  some credibility. In addition,  an internet search about the real CIA agent  behind this story revealed several credentialed journalists espousing that this female CIA agent really exists.

There is much about Maya’s characterization to admire. In the movie, Maya is a smart woman who did not let her co-workers eschew her successes. As an example, there was a tense conference room scene where the head of the CIA comes in to talk about Osama’s secret hideout. Maya is at first ignored and relegated to a back seat, not even allowed to sit with the other men at the conference table. At one point, the CIA Director looks around and asks who the girl is. Without hesitation she quips:

“I’m the motherf###er who found this place!”

Maya isn’t gracious and she doesn’t let her boss get the snaps for all her hard work. No, “Excuse me, I am Maya…” Blah, blah, blah. Or, “We are all a team here, guys.” Instead, she  claims her space and her accomplishments boldly. She toots her own horn and does it loudly. This is not something women are socialized  or encouraged to do. In fact, we are strongly encouraged to do the opposite.

I am fascinated with Maya throughout the movie because she never acts in a stereotypically feminine way.

Backlash for Masculine Behavior

Sadly, there is copious research about the backlash for women who don’t walk this aggressive/passive line delicately. I enjoyed reading this Stanford study that talked about how women who are more masculine are more successful but ONLY if they are able to self monitor and change back and forth into more passive, feminine behavior like a “chameleon”. Hmm…

The other reason I enjoyed the movie was because Maya was successful despite being blocked and stymied at every juncture. We all know how frustrating that is. I appreciated her resilience in never giving up. In doing so, she made many enemies but didn’t care. Maya’s sole focus was on getting the job done. It felt good to see her overcome the  myriad attempts to  block her, doubt her and reject her ideas.

We have all experienced  this kind of resistance  and it  was fun to see her so aggressively confront this pushback. I am not saying that Maya’s way  is the best way to play  politics. In fact, it is definitively not the way for women to play this game successfully, and, this is exactly why her behavior is so enjoyable to watch. We all  feel crazy frustrated at times and we might experience the urge to resolve problems aggressively. Maya does this and gets away with it.

The Real CIA Agent Now

I did a little research on this woman and found out more. Interestingly, an article at The Wire says she has not been doing well at the agency since the finding of Osama Bin Laden achievement. She has been passed up for promotions, etc. That doesn’t surprise me in the least. (Back to the backlash…)

Kathryn Bigelow- director

Interestingly, Kathleen Bigelow directed this movie. Before she won her first Academy Award, I read this quote from her about trying to be a movie director as a female in Hollywood.( I can’t find this quote now.) But, it went something like this, “When I tried to make a movie, as a woman, they tried to take parts of it away. Like a dog, I held onto my bone. I would not let them take it away. You gotta’ hold onto your bone.”

Call To Action

Have you seen this movie? What do you think about the Maya character? Any feedback on your own experience with backlash? Share with us.

And, as always, if you have private thoughts you want to share that you don’t want published,  you can contact me directly at [email protected]

cherilynnvelandSMTake care,


Cherilynn Veland is a therapist living in Chicago. She also blogs about home, work, life and love at Could you  kindly follow me/Cherilynn on Twitter? Connect on Facebook too? I would really appreciate the support! 


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Pics by Wikipedia.

Ever Felt Backlash For Being An Assertive Woman?

Cherilynn Veland, LCSW, MSW

Cherilynn Veland, MSW, LCSW, is a counselor and coach based in Chicago. She has been helping individuals, couples and families for more than 20 years. She is author of Stop Giving It Away, a book about developing healthier relationships with yourself and others. The Stop Giving It Away movement aims to stop the detrimental level of self-sacrifice in which many women live and work. Winner of the 2015 National Indie Excellence Book Award in the Women's Issues category - Stop Giving It Away.

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APA Reference
, . (2014). Ever Felt Backlash For Being An Assertive Woman?. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 6, 2020, from


Last updated: 2 Sep 2014
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