300

The film 300 comes at a time when it cannot help but generate controversy. The film, like the graphic novel and historical event upon which it is based, is excessively violent. The film has numerous scenes of nudity. It has grotesquely exaggerated characters. Its portrayal of Eastern and African cultures is racist and slanted. It is markedly homophobic, and like most such films also intensely homoerotic. It is slightly less than historically accurate, with alterations made to the story to promote drama and suspense. Many of these things are merely products of historical fact: the Spartans were a ruthless and brazen people. A lot of it, too, is a product of cultural fact: the film is targeted at young men who enjoy video games and comic books.

Racism

The film portrays Persians as ruthless hordes of ill-trained fools who come like cattle to the slaughter. While it is true that at the Battle of Thermopylae the Persian forces under King Xerxes suffered asymmetrically high losses against the Spartans, the ease at which the Spartans are depicted as slaughtering the enemy is clearly exaggerated. The film makes heavy mention that only 300 Spartan men stood against millions of Persians. It neglects to mention that there were over 700 other Greek soldiers there as well. Historical estimates of the Persian forces do vary from between tens of thousands to millions, so the bravery involved is not undercut. The film seems to go to excessive length to embolden what was already an impressive feat.

The portrayal of the Persians ranges widely, as the Persian army consisted of units from many regions of the empire. Several speaking characters are depicted as fat, arrogant African males. Others are predictably portrayed as slightly North-African or Arab looking men in appropriate garb who are killed with little effort. This reduces these soldiers to little more than action figures and dehumanizes them in the process. The Immortals, the elite Persian guard who in some senses still serve the nation of Iran, are shown to have hideous metal face masks that resemble the scowl of a Chinese dragon. Underneath the mask we find that their grotesque visage is twisted and inhuman. Their skin is gnarled and their teeth rotten. This presents the non-white forces as being subhuman monsters, a common device used in fantasy literature.

A markedly racist portrayal comes from the Persian King Xerxes. In the film he is excessively tall, perhaps a racist stereotype of African men, though the actor who portrays him is a white man of Hispanic ethnicity. Despite his height, he is adorned with jewelry, completely hairless, and perches himself on his gilded throne like a drag queen on a stage. He is totally non-threatening and in contrast to the character Leonidas, he is far more effeminate. Though this film is a remediation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel, this portrayal varies greatly from traditional images of Xerxes from history. In most surviving paintings and engravings, he is bearded and has no facial adornments. This passes because it is historical fiction, but it continues to recast Xerxes as a queer figure, clearly arrogant, prissy, cowardly, and self-assured.

Man-o-centric Maleocracy

This film is hyper-masculine. The main character Leonidas and his troops are all headstrong and highly aggressive and their exposed bodies are chiseled and overtly muscular. The Spartan culture is made out to be an insane exercise in survival where young boys are pitted against nature itself in a contest of wits. While this is, for the most part, true, it distorts the widely accepted understanding of Spartan culture. Most of the rituals involved were made more brutal, more intense, and more unrealistic than were actually practiced. The film shows the agoge, a ritual in which a boy is separated from his family at a young age and begins his rigorous training as a warrior. This much is true, but the boy is not sent out into the wilderness alone as depicted in the film. These trips into the wild did occur, but were usually done by slightly older boys and usually in groups. More to the point of the film’s homophobia, the famous Spartan practice of institutional pederasty was removed from the story. Though given current cultural values, it would be exceedingly difficult to include pederasty in the film without getting the film banned in a dozen states.

Though the film is dripping with testosterone, women are not presented in this film to be the doting matrons as seen in similar films. The main female character, Gorgo the wife of King Leonidas, is a brazen woman who is strong and thoughtful. She is not cowering or submissive. While this is not unusual in a warrior culture, it was refreshing to see. Had Gorgo been depicted as the opposite– a passive female, it would’ve been difficult to stomach.

Homophobia & the Hot Gates

Any film about ancient Greece is going to carry a homoerotic undertone. The Greeks were famous for pederasty and what today would be called homosexual practices. Since this took place long, long before modern notions of gender identity were formed, this was not considered unusual or abnormal. Parts of Greek society, Spartan in particular, encouraged love bonding between persons of the same sex to discourage over population. Though this is somewhat disputed, it has been a generally accepted idea of Spartan and Greek societies for many thousands of years.

Perhaps because of that hanging over it, the film goes to excessive length to cast aside the thought that it might be at all homoerotic. This is done primarily through the films unrelenting masculine charge. As previously stated, the unyielding machismo does a lot of the deflecting. Also, there are numerous dialogue references made as well. Leonidas refers to the Athenians as “philosophers and boy-lovers.” This is an interesting quote coming from a Spartan, a people known to be pederasts. Other characters chides another by saying he has offered his backside to the Thespians, a group of timid Greeks who joined the Spartans. In the end, like Fight Club before it, the film goes so far to convince its insecure young male audience that it isn’t a homoerotic film, that it winds up reinforcing those same themes.

This film is sexually charged. The entire plot seems to be a sexual allegory. Leonidas and his men are defending a narrow passage which they call the “Hot Gates” from penetration from outsiders. Quite literally, they are trying to prevent their homeland and their women from being raped by external forces. Furthermore, since a majority of the battles in the film use swords and arrows, the theme of constant “penetration” recurs throughout the film. In the final scene, as Leonidas is dying, he thinks of his wife Gorgo and looks towards the Hot Gates. Light pours through them and he stands before it, as if looking into her vagina itself. He then falls dead, penetrated by many Persian arrows.

The Politics of East vs. West

Many reviewers have taken this film to be a commentary on the current situation in Iraq. Some people have placed George W. Bush in either the role of Xerxes, a failing incompetent ruler who throws wave after wave of his own vaunted but bumbling soldiers against an inferior yet victorious foe, or as Leonidas, a brave and honored king who defends his people against a brutal and subhuman enemy who fancy themselves to be divine. Either discussion is valid, they both have some points to make. However, this reminds me of similar comparisons made between Bush and Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. Despite that, both comparisons render varying racist and politically motivated views which are not appropriate given the film is based on a book which is based on a historical event. A more apt comparison is to show how the film discusses the now nearly three centuries old dispute between the people of the East and the people of the West. Greece was the first great fortress of the West– ushering in the ideals upon which Rome, Europe, and ultimately the United States were built upon. It is even said in the film that the men there battled to free the world from “mysticism and tyranny.” These two things could easily stand in for any variety of modern constructs like extremist religions or Communism.

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