Megan Leavey accomplishes its mission. Based on a true story, the movie explores the special bond between Marine Megan Leavey (Kate Mara) and Rex, the German Shepherd that works alongside her in Iraq sniffing out roadside bombs. Megan evolves from an irresponsible, hungover fledgling woman in a small town in New York to a confident, fear-facing Marine, thanks in part to her relationship with Rex. With an 82 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes at press time, critics and audiences are praising it as an “apolitical” and heartfelt love story about a woman and her dog. If you have a soft spot for pets, you’ll want to bring some tissues to this movie because you’ll need them. I begrudgingly did too.
I cried for all the wrong reasons: not for the 200,000 Iraqi civilian deaths that have occurred since the US-led invasion in 2003; or for the at least 4.4 million internally displaced Iraqis; and certainly not over the lies that the US government fed us to justify the war. None of that made it to the screen. Instead, after Megan and Rex are injured in battle, a helicopter airlifts Megan to a hospital, separating her and Rex for the first time in years. Rex becomes visibly distraught, barking and jumping uncontrollably. As the camera shows a close up of Megan starting to weep, I joined her, even though I knew doing so was problematic.
The film’s gendered Orientalist narrative uses Iraq, its people and the US-led war there as the backdrop for a story about a white woman soldier finding herself and learning to love through her combat canine. For one, this represents the contemporary phenomena that Americans care more about our pets than other human beings and that in the US and Europe, Muslims and Arabs are treated worse than dogs. It also perpetuates imperialist feminism, which stems from colonial feminism, defined by scholar Deepa Kumar as, “the appropriation of women’s rights in the service of empire. Birthed in the nineteenth century in the context of European colonialism, it rests on the construction of a barbaric, misogynistic ‘Muslim world’ that must be civilized by a liberal, enlightened West.” Imperialist feminism has gained steam, even among liberals, since 2001 when the US government used the plight of Afghan women to justify war in Afghanistan.
Imperialist feminist plotlines seem to be on the rise on the big and small screen, with more plot lines that combine sensationalizing the so-called “war on terror” and US-led wars in the Middle East as an incubator for lost American female protagonists on a journey toward personal enlightenment. This dangerous women’s empowerment narrative ends up being more important than any lives that might be sacrificed along the way. Megan Leavey is just one example.
Other films that perpetuate this imperialist feminist arc are Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot, also based on a true story. It follows rookie journalist Kim Barker (Tina Fey) through Afghanistan, where foreigners party hard with alcohol and drugs—even though both are illegal in the Islamic country—have romantic affairs, do some reporting to further their careers, and get high off the adrenaline of war while “finding” themselves. Zero Dark Thirty directed by Kathryn Bigelow in 2012, chronicles the CIA’s 10 year hunt for Osama Bin-Laden, which is led by a success-driven woman named Maya (Jessica Chastain). The film was criticized for glorifying torture, but was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. On the small screen, Homeland features a blonde, bipolar CIA agent (Claire Danes) who, particularly in the show’s fourth season, is shown as the unveiled and free liberator among a group of burqa-clad women.
When people of color are in the cast, it’s sometimes more nuanced, but the imperialism remains. ABC’s Quantico shows young, good-looking FBI recruits fighting “terrorism,” but has an unexpected twist: its sharp, ass-kicking lead, Alex Parrish (Priyanka Chopra), is a South Asian woman whose family is from India, so she’s both the show’s savior and a suspected terrorist. Miranda Shaw (Aunjanue Ellis), the highest ranked woman in Quantico’s FBI, is a Black woman. When people of color and poor people from the US are represented on screen it’s typically a good thing, but in these roles, they act as agents of the US—implementing the country’s imperialist interests.
Megan Leavey represents Iraqis as subhuman and “grunts.” The film only shows a few Iraqi women in line at a checkpoint, and only three Iraqis, two men and a boy, have speaking lines. We meet one of the men on Megan’s first mission. Her team suspect he’s smuggling arms, but he explains that he has numerous rugs in his home because he has a religious family. When Rex finds hundreds of automatic rifles hidden behind a rug hanging on the wall, the US Marines’ aggression is justified, while Islam, weaponry and lying are conflated into one. A Marine even tells Leavey not to trust Iraqi children because he’s seen them kill American soldiers. Thus, the audience is told we need to fear Muslim youth, even though a recent Human Rights Watch report declared that Iraq is “one of the most dangerous places in the world for children.”
These storylines are dangerous because audiences long to cheer for women protagonists, so we may miss, look past or accept the intentional messaging that justifies imperialism. As a result, we risk compromising our own integrity. Exploring Leavey’s growth within the framework of US imperialism suggests that war is empowering for women. In reality, war’s only function is to line the pockets of the 1 percent while disproportionately impacting women. Take Afghanistan, for example, where the US has been fighting for 16 years. While much lip service has been paid to America’s attempt to “liberate” Afghan women, they’ve really been used as pawns. In 2013, 10 years after the invasion, CNN reported that Iraqi women have fewer freedoms than ever before. What does it mean when we cheer for the women who are on the side of those dropping bombs without being exposed to the women who must live with the devastating aftermath?
This film also has women behind the camera, which furthers the women’s empowerment narrative while obfuscating the immorality of war. Megan Leavey was directed by a woman (Gabriela Cowperthwaite), written by two women and a guy (Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo and Tim Lovestedt), and is about a working-class woman, which is even more moving for audiences. It’s true that Cowperthwaite offered a refreshing reprieve from typical gender representations in mainstream films. For example, a love story develops between Megan and her fellow Marine Matt (Ramon Rodriguez), but it’s a minor thread. When Matt suggests they commit to “forever after,” Megan blows him off. It’s great to see her not become obsessed by romantic love or marriage. Also, there aren’t any solicitous sex scenes or sexual violence against women. When Megan’s body is shown, it’s more about her physical strength than her sex appeal.
That said, the film is disappointingly soft on the sexism in the Marines, a crisis so well documented that the Corps just released their first commercial ever featuring a woman in combat. Their strategy to end sexism seems to be to recruit more women, rather than to end the sexist culture. The only nod the film makes to sexism is when Leavey’s superior says that the last woman in her position “got her panties in a pretzel” because they forbid women from accompanying male Marines on missions. Leavey said she’d be fine with that, swallowing the gender discrimination without a problem. Currently only 7 percent of the force is female. As a result, the film barely passes the Bechdel test, as Megan seems to be the only female Marine on base and in the dog handling unit. Aside from a montage in boot camp with other women and a short scene in a bar where she’s seen getting drunk with two female colleagues, the only other woman Megan talks to is her mom. They have a tumultuous relationship, and often discuss three male figures: Megan’s father, stepfather, or Rex.
We’ve been fighting to get women in front and behind the camera, which is a righteous and much-needed effort. We’re starving for a different representation of women, as seen by the recent and unbelievable success of Wonder Woman. We need women’s perspectives, but what happens when those perspectives and stories are used to purify and justify war? That’s not what I mean by “equal representation.” You?