So in previous posts about 300 I’ve discussed the problems with the way that 300 (2007, dir. Zack Snyder) depicts the battle of Thermopylae and Spartan society. In this post, I want to examine another, more disturbing, problem with the film, namely the way it treats everyone who’s not a hot straight white guy. While I have a lot of issues with this film, in many ways, this is the most problematic element of the film for me.
At its height, the Achaemenid Empire (the Persian Empire of this film) covered a very large portion of what we today call the Middle East: Egypt, Asia Minor, the Fertile Crescent, Iran, and modern Afghanistan and Pakistan. In that sense, it included a wide range of ethnic groups. Ethnically, its dominant group were the Persians, an Indo-European people who today are often called Iranians. Persians are Caucasians; they have ‘European’ features, but with dark brown to black hair, and somewhat swarthier skin tone, ranging from olive to light brown. Northern Persians often have skin as fair as Europeans, and reddish-blond hair, while uncommon, is not unheard of. (If you don’t believe me, google ‘red-haired Persian’ and see the results.) Persians are more closely related to Western Europeans than to, for example, Arabs, Jews, or Turks. Linguistically, Persian is closely related to Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, and modern English, and entirely unrelated to Semitic languages such as Arabic or Hebrew or to the Turkic language family, although it does naturally have loan-words from those languages. But while the Achaemenid Empire covered a lot of territory, one area it didn’t occupy was Sub-Saharan Africa. While there may have been a few Negros in the Persian Empire, they would have been a minuscule proportion of the population.
Greeks and Persians in 300
The good guys in this movie are pretty easy to spot. They’re the buff white guys in jockstraps. They are shown to be motivated by patriotism, by a love of liberty (despite the fact that most of them just do whatever Leonidas tells them, even when it gets them all killed senselessly), and, at least in the case of Leonidas, by a tender love of his wife. They’re white, they’re male, they’re straight, and they’re physically perfect. The only exception to this is Gorgo (Lena Headey), who is white, female, straight, and physically perfect. The actors playing the Greeks are all fair-skinned, and Dilios (David Wenham) has somewhere between blond and light brown hair, depending on the lighting. Contemporary Greeks are generally olive-complexioned, with dark brown or black hair, and thick eyelashes. While I don’t know for sure, my guess is that ancient Greeks probably were closer to modern Greeks than they are to the fair-skinned actors who play them in this movie. Normally, that would be a very minor point for me, but in this film, I think it’s important to point out that the actors playing the Greeks really don’t look very Greek (apart from Gerard Butler perhaps).
In contrast to these fair-skinned, gorgeous men (and woman) is pretty much everyone else. It is notable that very few of the Persian characters appear to be Caucasian. The first Persian we meet in this film is the Persian messenger, played by the extremely dark-skinned Ghanan actor Peter Mensah. Mostly the Persian soldiers are very dark-skinned, Negro, or perhaps Semitic. However, many of the soldiers, the Immortals, wear black clothing and gold face-masks, thus obscuring their race. Some of the women in Xerxes’ harem seem to be Caucasian, but none of them have given names, much less speaking roles. Xerxes is played by a Brazilian actor, Rodridgo Santoro, in very swarthy make-up; let’s just say he’s extremely tan. He’s bald, so we can’t really get a sense of what his hair is like, but aside from that, he’s passably Persian. (To judge from Santoro’s publicity stills, he’s got reasonably fair skin, so his swarthiness seems to be a conscious choice for his make-up). The only real exceptions to the pattern that evil characters are non-whites are Theron (Dominic West), the villainous Spartan; the disfigured Spartan Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan); and the creepy ephors, who only appear in one scene.
The bad guys are, by and large, physically mis-shapen. Ephialtes is a grotesque hunchback with terrible teeth. The pervy ephors are covered with boils. Xerxes’ court is populated by freaks, including characters identified in the credits as “Long neck woman”, “armless concubine”, and “transsexual 1, 2, and 3”. Xerxes himself is physically perfect, but roughly 8 feet tall, and therefore an oddity in a different way. The only significant bad guy who is doesn’t fall into this pattern is Theron, who just looks sort of average, which is pretty sad compared to all those strapping Spartans.
Finally, the bad guys appear to be sexual deviants. The ephors have a thing about licking sexy semi-conscious priestesses. Xerxes is vaguely effeminate; he wears eye liner, eye shadow, eyebrow pencil, and has long gold-painted nails. He sports multiple piercings, and in one scene he touches Leonidas’ shoulders in a rather suggestive fashion, as if he’s trying to seduce the Spartan (but given how hot Butler is, I suppose that’s understandable).
This stands in contrast to Leonidas’ demonstrable heterosexuality. He is shown lying in bed after sex with his wife, he thinks of her body in another scene, and he derides the Athenians as “boy-lovers”. The other Spartans in his army don’t have any explicit sexuality (unless you count cavorting in jockstraps with 300 of their closest friends and neighbors), but the film makes no suggestion that they are anything other than straight men. Theron is also clearly heterosexual; he forces Gorgo to have sex with him. But the film suggests that he’s a sadist, since he points out to Gorgo that their tryst is going to take a while and will not be very pleasant for her (a comment she throws back at him later when she stabs him to death).
So in the world of 300, physically perfect, heterosexual white men are good; just about everyone else is bad. In this film, the Persians function as the opposite of the Greeks, like a distorted mirror. Everything that is good about the Spartans and their society is absent from the Persians. The Spartans are associated with freedom and individuality, while the Persians are associated with submission, slavery, and loss of individual identity; Persian characters are either dominating (like Xerxes and some of this commanders), or servile (like his harem and most of the soldiers). White people are seen as the embodiment of liberty (although it’s mostly a liberty to do as they’re told, since they all implicitly trust Leonidas), while non-whites are presented as enemies of liberty and the embodiment of absolute monarchy.
And, since the Spartans are the characters the audience is intended to identify with, this says something about the audience’s presumed cultural values. It’s assumed that the fanboys, fratboys, and military types who will want to go see this film will find non-whites, homosexuals, and the handicapped to be acceptable bad guys. In this, Snyder is largely following Frank Miller’s graphic novel; Miller has occasionally been accused of having fascist leanings, and I think Snyder’s version of 300 channels that in significant ways.
The film celebrates whites and villainizes non-whites. It celebrates perfect physical bodies and demonizes imperfect bodies. It celebrates heterosexuality and denigrates sexual deviancy. It celebrates social unity and obedience to the leader, even when his choices are suicidal. The enemy is a nameless, faceless, submissive and yet predatory Negro and Semitic Other led by a totalitarian leader. The enemy threatens from without and corrupts from within (by bribing Theron to betray Leonidas). The quasi-democratic deliberative element in Spartan society (the council of elders) is shown to be ineffectual and worthless. All that’s missing from this film is a lot of Nazi swastikas on Spartan armbands.
That’s right. The Spartans in this film are ancient Nazis. And they’re the good guys.
In a previous post, I argued that historical accuracy in film matters because film shapes our understanding of the world we live in, where we come from, and who we are. If we accept 300’s claim that whiteness is, and always has been, good, that it has always been indelibly linked to freedom, and that it is also harnessed to physical perfection and heterosexuality, we are teaching ourselves that American society can only have room for white people, heterosexuals, and those with ideal bodies. 300’s skewed depiction of the past is, in many ways, appalling un-American, and deeply offensive to those of us who aren’t white, heterosexual, and physically ideal. 300‘s other historical errors make it a bad movie; but on this score, I’m inclined to see it as actually dangerous. It celebrates a sort of crypto-fascism that really isn’t even that crypto.
One might object that Snyder was simply being faithful to his source material. But it’s important to realize that everything that goes onto a movie screen is the result of conscious choices made at various steps in the film-making process. Snyder and his crew had ample opportunities to step away from the ugliness in Miller’s graphic novel, and instead he chose to embrace it and magnify its reach. He could have chosen actors who more closely resemble the historical Greeks. He could have chosen to explore the extent to which many Greeks and Persians look quite similar. He could have depicted Xerxes as looking like a normal human man with conventional sexual tastes. None of these would have required any real divergence with the plot of Miller’s graphic novel. Instead, Snyder chose to follow Miller’s lead. But as the world learned at Nuremberg, “I was just following orders” isn’t a legitimate defense.
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300 is available in multiple formats from Amazon.
Correction: In a previous version of this post, I mis-spelled Lena Headey’s last name. I regret the error.