18 September 2009

Because it was on TV: Masculinity and Gender Roles in Zack Snyder's 300


If any of you eager young readers out there own a television set I'd hope in the past week you've caught the 2007 movie 300 on TNT. I know I did during last weekend's Network Television Premiere and I was reminded about its brash stylistic display of man and muscle, as well as how cool, ridiculous and stupid every single scene is.

So I didn't give it much thought after that. I see a lot of movies on TV and I have no reason to blog about them. At work today however, I found that a pair of my co-workers also had the good fortune of watching this movie. For the first time. Thus as you may imagine I was treated to an entire morning of "THIS IS SPARTA!," "TONIGHT WE DINE IN HELL!" and "HOO! HOO! HOO!" I really thought we had moved past this like two years ago.

So I figure it's still somehow relevant and I can ramble for a second about all the huge problems I had with this movie, mostly about the gender roles it both confirms and disaffirms as well as the sorry state of modern day overcompensating for masculinity. Let's begin!

Every part of this movie is unsubtly crafted to suit the male ego. Every Spartan looks how a man should look. Perfect, rippling, glistening bodies, working in sun and war, sweating and taught. Kind of makes my dick soft, but that's just personal taste. More than physical appearance though, the Spartan attitude is ludicrous, really. Hubris, ironically considered one of the greatest sins in the Greek world (thanks) comes out the wazoo. Almost every character in this movie is prideful, lustful, arrogant and extremely cocky. It's much more American than Greek, every man wants to be the best but that's not enough. Spartans must be the greatest nation in the world with no one even close behind. The Persians feel about the same pride in their country and god-king yet King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) can never reconcile with Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) based solely on his pride in his nation. Certainly he is looking out for his independence and freedom of his people, but there is such a blatant disregard for civility and discourse (to which Leonidas highlights in half-joking "There's no reason we can't be civil," and to which the messenger famously states "This is madness!" Leonidas' oft-repeated catch-phrase, "THIS IS SPARTA!" essentially equates Sparta with madness very early on in the film, which should serve as a guide for interpreting the rest of Spartan custom).

Anyway, all of this arrogance and wish fulfillment fills in nicely with the desired male gender role. Spartans basically go, kill and fuck wherever and whoever they want, all the time looking like, for lack of a better word, Greek gods. It's the ultimate in a male-dominated world. There is a strong male desire to go out and soldier in the world, perhaps a more American desire to fight for what you believe in, especially when that belief is freedom and democracy. Spartans are the epitome of masculinity, they do everything men should do in the world. Thus, the American audience idolizes them.

To contrast against the manly glowing Greeks, the Persians appear foreign and effeminate. One of my previously mentioned co-workers this morning made an off-hand comment that he couldn't tell if Xerxes was male or female. This also ties into plot-changing androgyny of the South Park episode that takes inspiration from 300, "D-Yikes!" Even as Queen Gorgo (Lena "Gettin Sum" Headey) says, "...only Spartan women give birth to real men." It's a world based on absolutes and ultimatums, cut and dry stuff, unequivocally masculine.

Queen Gorgo presents a good counterpoint, though. While Sparta of 300 is composed of an ideal-male world, it is not necessarily an anti-feminist movie or anything like that. Ironically while the Persians appear effeminate, they treat their women as more objects than the ("good") men of Sparta who are willing to listen to their women and let them speak publicly, an act that at first perturbs the Persian messenger. King Leonidas takes much advice from his Queen, and without her indelible influence it is unlikely he would have gone to war in the first place. So while the male gender roles are extremely solid, the female gender roles tend to buckle, especially when Gorgo ends up really taking a stand for herself in murdering the traitorous rapist Theron (Dominic West).

One of the major irritations of overhearing my co-workers chat today was their adamant belief that this insane movie was completely historically accurate. I've heard this before from a few different people, including some who actually argued that giant monster warriors existed in ancient times to fight our ancestors. After exhaustively researching this topic, it seems pretty clear to me that Zack Snyder effectively captured some of the spirit of Sparta, but pretty much missed the big points and massively exaggerated and stylized all the details. Think of a Greek Pearl Harbor and I think you can get the idea. The basic fact that this thing is a movie inspired by a comic book inspired by another movie should pretty much point you right in the direction of historical accuracy you should end up.

This should lead us to that wonderful author, Frank Miller. I probably feel another post bubbling over concerning this gentleman's basic conservatism, jingoism, blatant attempts at American propaganda and general excessive indulgence in all his works that I think has become detrimental to this culture in recent years. Needless to say, his revolution of Batman in the 80s should give him a pass from nearly all criticism I can give out, but the xenophobic male-centric, Michael Bay-esque pursuit of the "Awesome" pollutes and protrudes from 300 like a boner showing through tightie-whities. There is never a moment of relief or reflection; the gung ho, male obsession with conquering, fucking and subscribing to an impossible set of morally ambiguous values and desires renders 300 one of the more shitfucked movies of this decade.

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