Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Analysis: 300

What Is The Purpose Of "300" As A Concept

Broadly speaking, there's a huge number of battles in history. There's a smaller, but still sizable, number of famous battles. There's a smaller-than-that number of famous last stands. So why Thermopylae, in particular? Why Spartans (and only Spartans, excluding/marginalizing their allies) versus Persians? And why, specifically, do we root for the Spartans, other than the fact that they're underdogs? Why did all of these things happen in the movie "300", based on the comic by Frank Miller? Why did this happen? Why did this story need to be told?

The answer is threefold. Firstly, because the Spartans are white, despite being olive-skinned, dark-haired Greeks. Secondly, because they're politically similar to us, despite being slave-owning (and frequently slave-murdering) semi-pedophilic pagans. Thirdly, because they're ideal masculine figures of strength and courage, despite that strength and courage coming from a horrifyingly brutal lifelong training regimen.

Let's take it from the top.

Part 1: The Whiteness

The Battle of Thermopylae took place in 480 BC - which is to say, almost 2500 years ago, 500 years before Christ, 1000 years before Muhammad, and 2000 years before the concept of "whiteness" existed. It's strange, then, that we feel naturally compelled to ally ourselves with one group of Aegean pagans against another. Maybe there's a little bit more going on than that. Let's take a look.

Firstly, let's note that in the traditional schema of Western History, Greece is considered an essential forebear, along with Rome. While the Angles and the Saxons and the Normans and the Franks and the Germanic Tribes might all get attention, Western Culture generally thinks of itself as being descended from the Greco-Roman world. The reasons for this are kind of complex, but to sum up a lot of things in a pretty quick way, the Romans admired the Greeks, and Christian Europe admired the Romans. Though Europe was descended from the tribes and peoples who had torn Rome apart, there was still a great deal of admiration and respect for Roman culture. Rome itself was the capital of the Catholic faith, and was considered an absolutely holy city. The Church declared many Romans to be "virtuous pagans", worthy of emulation despite not being part of a Judeo-Christian faith system. Catholic priests did most of their writings and sermons in Latin, and worked to preserve writing and art from the Roman era. The rule of most European rulers was fashioned after Rome, the most notable being the Holy Roman Emperor, but also worth noting are the Czars (Caesars) of Russia.

So that's a lot about Rome. Catholics admired Rome, and Rome itself had admired Greece, fashioning many aspects of their art, architecture and culture around Greek concepts. So through this two-step process we get the modern idea that the Greeks and Romans are our "true" forbears. This reached its peak with Neoclassicism, wherein the prestigious peoples of Europe saw themselves as Greece Reborn, emulating their fashions, artwork and sculpture. As late as the Napoleonic Wars, soldiers would ride into battle with helmets designed in Greek styles. Despite being two thousand years away, and not even being really "white", the idea that Greece = Europe became ingrained in Western culture. Conversely, the descendants of the Persians were the Turks (although that's also much more complex), who were hostile infidels (also more complex) who threatened the unity and stability of the Christian world (see previous).

So with all that said, do you really think it's a coincidence that there are no actual Greeks in 300? Let's go down the list. Leonidas is played by Gerard Butler, not even pretending to hide his Scottish accent. British actress Lena Headey plays his wife, Queen Gorgo. Australian David Wenham plays the film's narrator, Dilios. English actor Dominic West plays that one smug guy who turns out to be a traitor and a rapist.

Huh! How about that. Nobody Greek. Nobody with olive skin and dark, curly hair to distract us from this story about the foundation of European culture. Oh, and they got a Brazilian to play Xerxes, because, you know, whatever, brown skin. And nobody on the Persian side is developed as anything but a lacky to an insane, gibbering emperor, there to be killed by brave, white Spartan warriors. Well, let's move on.

Part 2: The Values

Okay, so maybe it's kind of weird that the Spartans are being used to represent White People in a battle against Brown People. But surely we must empathize with the Spartans - after all, the Greeks are the fathers of democracy! Of republics! Of representation by the people, for the people!

"A new age has begun. An age...of freedom! And all will know that three hundred Spartans gave their LAST! BREATH! to defend it." - Leonidas

But see, then we run into trouble again. The Spartans had a society based on all men becoming warriors, without exception (which makes it hard to explain the totally-fictional skeevy senator dude, as an aside). But naturally they still needed people around to make weapons and harvest crops and stuff - they weren't going to have their women do all that. So they needed slaves. Lots of slaves. Lots and lots and lots of slaves. As in "seven times as many slaves as Free Spartans", according to Herodotus. Yes. Seven times as many slaves as Spartans. Seriously.

Maybe you're thinking, well, slavery back then wasn't like slavery now. It wasn't as bad, and it wasn't drawn along racial lines. And in some regards that's true, but on the other hand you got stuff like the Crypteia. Let's explain the Crypteia a bit: it was both a method of control and a way to train their young boy-warriors and make them into man-warriors. Every Autumn, the Helots became free game, and the boy-warriors were sent among them to kill and steal at their pleasure. In this method, children were introduced to the concept of killing human beings, and the slaves themselves got the pleasure of being constantly spied upon by their murderous masters.

So yeah. Not doing too great on the whole "freedom" front. Oh well, a little slavery and ritual abuse never stopped the American founding fathers. Let's keep going.

"If those philosophers and, uh, BOY-lovers have found that kind of nerve..." - Leonidas

Now this one is kind of nuanced. Most Greek societies practiced pederasty openly, and wouldn't have really seen "boy-lovers" as an insult. The Spartans actually formalized the man-boy relationship into a one-on-one mentorship; where this gets murky is whether or not this, too, was pedophilic in nature. Some writers of the period suggest that while an adult Spartan was definitely meant to have a relationship with a boy, the idea of it being carnal was outright frowned-upon. Worth noting is that Aristotle in particular thought it was part of the reason why Spartan women had an inordinate (in his view) amount of power. So this one actually gets a pass, although for obvious reasons the PLATONIC man-boy relationship is never established in 300 either. Even that would be too close to "oh right the Greeks are pedophiles", a fact that many scholars actively refused to engage until the 1970s, because it was so harmful to their idea of the Greeks being a superior and enlightened culture.

"Immortals... they fail our king's test. And a man who fancies himself a god feels a very human chill crawl up his spine." - Dilios

So, on to the Persians. The Persian Empire at the time of Thermopylae was pretty well-established, coming off the reign of Darius The Great, who expanded the Empire, organized its linguistics and monetary system, codified systems of law, and developed a bureaucracy to manage its many peoples. A bit before Darius was Cyrus the Great, praised by historians for his respect for religious tolerance and his views on human rights, as well as his contributions to the infrastructure of the Empire as a whole. Of course this is not to say that the Persian Empire was perfect or anything - they were still an empire, after all - but they were at least comparable to Rome in terms of morality, and Cyrus especially was studied by the American founding fathers. They were a bureaucratically organized state with a goodly amount of freedoms for their citizens, based around the dualist Zoroastrian faith but with tolerance for other religions and traditions.

So in 300 they make Xerxes a megalomaniac with delusions of godhood standing at the head of a slave-army forced to revere his own divine personage above all, who cannot even conceive of the idea of failure because he is so invested in his persona as a superhuman being. He brings with him an army not just of elephants and alchemists and exotic tactics but also of horrifying monster-people. His Immortal bodyguard, far from being treated as respected, loyal counterparts to the martial Spartans, are instead turned into monstrous orc-men who dual-wield swords and dress like Hollywood ninjas.

uh

"This day we rescue a world from mysticism and tyranny and usher in a future brighter than anything we can imagine." - Dilios

In general, 300 seems to have a major problem with religion overall - or at least the acceptable target of pagan religions. In addition to Xerxes and his whole schtick of religious domination over the free, enlightened Spartans, you also have the Ephors. The Ephors are creepy people who creep all over shit and accept bribes and do other terrible things. It is the Ephors who prevent the entire army from moving to meet Xerxes, not based on legitimate religious reasons but because they took money from the Persians and also so did that senator guy they totally made up.

The only good Spartans are warriors. Everyone else is a limp-dicked communist attempting to undermine our way of life because they're unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to ensure Spartan freedom and liberty and justice and apple pie and baseball and Do You See Where This Is Going

It's really kind of difficult to not see the movie's contempt for "people who would rather talk than fight", and its inference that these people are actively attempting to support our enemies and destroy our culture. Considering that it was made by and for Americans, aka "the people whose government spends half of the world's military budget by itself", who had been waging a War On Terror aimed exclusively at brown people, it's really really kind of difficult to miss the political implications of this movie.

Where this gets interesting is that the idea that 300 isn't political or racially-charged or whatever. If 300 had been about feminism or anti-war sentiment or something, everyone would realize that it was a political movie. Everyone! Every single person who watched that movie would know it was a Political Movie. On the other hand, most people who saw 300 just thought of it as an action flick. They never questioned the idea that we should root for the Spartans against the Persians. Spartans are badass, and Persians are crazy. I'm sure most of them realized something was amiss historically when the monster-men rolled up, but how many of them do you think went home and learned about the history of the Spartans and the Persians and looked at the whole "white people versus brown people" thing and so on and so forth. How many.

Well, I'm sure a few did.

Part 3: The Manliness

The real reason we root for the Spartans is that despite all the awful shit they did, they are manly as fuck. They are badass. They kick ass. The idea of rooting for a violent person is considered "politically neutral" because "action" is such a common, yet low-key, genre. There's no political implications to Commando or Predator, right? We just want to watch a strong guy kill a bunch of other guys. That's what all guys want. It's universal. Look back on Beowulf or Achilles or Hercules - they were unambiguously heroic, right?

But we're not crazy, either. We don't just murder anyone for the hell of it. We, like the American Government, only want to kill people who threaten us. We want to be violent, but we want it to be morally justified, because murder is wrong and bad. We want to kill, but we want to do it in self-defense. So we dream of that moment when someone steps up to the plate so we can totally ruin them. At least 1464 people on the internet share this dream, according to the top comment on this post. The Spartans, in particular, are fighting for Our Freedoms. They're Our Troops, as it were. Their bloodshed is implicitly connected to your continued freedom-having status, despite any analysis that says otherwise. You can't stop the killing because if that happens then we're not free anymore. You monster.

It is made explicitly clear that the majority of Persians are slave-soldiers, fighting only because of the crack of whips on their back and fear of the retribution of their God-Emperor. Yet all this really means is that they're incompetent, a flailing army of cowards and conscripts driven towards the meat-grinder of the Spartan phalanx (and then later the Spartan freestyle murder competition) to die horrific and undignified deaths. No sympathy is garnered for them despite them being forced into this by a power far beyond their control. The Spartans never make offers to accept defection. The Persians are never humanized despite being the victims of the story. They exist to serve as a group of people that it is okay for the Spartans to kill, under the reasoning that the Spartans are outnumbered, and thus are allowed to resort to any measures.

I'd like to pause briefly and compare this to Metal Gear Rising. In MGR, the "non-lethal" options of previous MGS games have essentially been removed. Sure, you can cut off a person's arm or leg and eventually they'll leave rather than fight you to the death, but there's no "shock sword" or anything like that until you've already beaten the game once. Enemies will constantly taunt you and attack you; later, during a guilt-trip sequence, this is attributed to nanomachines. Inside they are human, afraid and vulnerable, and Raiden is made to feel bad for killing them. Rather than leading him to develop a method to take down enemies without killing them, Raiden simply activates his latent "super-asshole" mode, which gives him a hilarious growly voice.

In the hands of a capable player, it would be simple for Raiden to take down enemies without killing them. Attacking their weapons, for example. Using a weapon that isn't lethal, but makes it harder to take enemies down. Avoiding enemies altogether. So on and so forth. Raiden's power is great, and that's why it's supposed to be fun to play as him - but great power comes with great responsibility. Raiden is so overpowered compared to the enemies he fights that it would be child's play for him to take down enemies in a non-lethal fashion, but the game does not provide any apart from de-limbing them. Thus we are reassured that Raiden has to kill these guys, and because they're assholes, he's morally obligated to do so.

Okay.

Now think about how many people thought that Rorschach from Watchmen was a good and reasonable character.

Action movies and games and so on don't turn people into murderers. But on the other hand there is a latent culture of violence that really wants to be unleashed. It expresses itself through wars, air strikes, and "anti-terror" operations. It expresses itself through police brutality and the death penalty. It expresses itself through a huge military budget combined with constant complaints about far smaller programs like health care or food stamps. It expresses itself through an ongoing cultural fascination with vigilantes, even when they're entitled rich kids like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark. It expresses itself through the basic idea of "I want to do violence because violence is cool, but I need to find someone to do it against that's okay to hurt".

People don't think these things are political. They think the idea of challenging them is political. The status quo is normal, not political.

Politics, my friends, is everything. Everything you do is politics. The act of living your life is politics. Politics may mean the difference between whether or not you are capable of living your life. Racism is politics, even when it's academic for one group of people and unavoidable for another. Sexism is politics. LGBT affairs are politics. Violence is political. Jail is political. Budgets are political. Values are political.

Games aren't inherently political, of course. Neither are sports. But as soon as you throw a narrative over it, and establish a Good Guy and a Bad Guy, it becomes political. The Greeks would make dating sims where you find a young boy to fondle, and they wouldn't think of that as political - they'd think of it as normal. The Romans would make bawdy games about slave-rape and call each other Bottoms over their headsets (Romans accepted male homosexuality, but it was considered shameful to "take it" - Julius Caesar himself was dogged by accusations of the act). Culture is defined by normalcy; cultural relativity is defined by re-examining what "normal" means. The things that you think are Fine and Okay and Not Political are things that future generations may revile you for. Or they might think you're not hardcore enough. Who can tell with future generations.

The purpose of 300 is to tell a story that appeals to Americans. It does so by making its protagonists unrealistically white and freedom-driven, and it does so by making its antagonists weak, simpering, pagan, and Brown. It tells a story of violence that we are meant to agree with, because it is violence in defense of our Liberties and our Rights. And it kills a shitload of people, because that's fun, and cool, and we love it.

6 comments:

  1. Oh, I hated that movie. The fact that they went beyond getting the history wrong to almost perfectly getting it backwards, the "white guys vs brown weirdos" that was so obvious that it kills me that anyone could actually try to defend it as anything other than Frank Miller's thinly veiled racism - ugh.

    It wasn't just to tell a story to Americans, though - it was to tell a story that would sell to audiences around the world, and it did (300 sold more in box office revenue outside the US than in it). Apparently watching scantily clad white guys slaughter a bunch of freakish-looking brown people and monsters is something that sells even outside of white-dominated countries.

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  2. Sorry, one more post since I thought this bit was extra interesting-

    It expresses itself through an ongoing cultural fascination with vigilantes, even when they're entitled rich kids like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark.

    Worse, they're all wrapped up in repetitive self-actualization stories, with the vigilante fantasy being woven overall into a greater fantasy about Men Becoming Strong Men. It's virtually always men, too - as Alyssa Rosenberg pointed out over at her blog once, this type of self-actualization through violence and strength tends to make people in our society and others uncomfortable when it's a woman who is doing.

    Personally, I'd like to see someone take the Batman story and show it in a different light. Show how Batman's vigilantism isn't a good thing - he may punch some criminals and help the police stop them in the short run, but in the long run his activity contributes to a culture of lawlessness where it's acceptable to take revenge on self-defined criminals and "bad people" through violence and vigilantism. The Dark Knight briefly alluded to that with two fake Batmen that show up in the parking garage earlier on, who are little more than amateurish murderers with guns and cheap masks, but then it was left behind.


    It expresses itself through the basic idea of "I want to do violence because violence is cool, but I need to find someone to do it against that's okay to hurt".


    No doubt that's why the Nazis keep showing up in movies - they're Morally Acceptable Targets.

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    1. It's not totally dropped in the Dark Knight - one of the recurring themes is that if Batman hadn't existed, neither would the Joker. I guess it's not exactly what you described since it's more about escalation than lawlessness, but a big part about why the mob is afraid enough of Batman to turn to the Joker is the fact that Batman doesn't have to play by the rules.

      It's interesting that you bring up the Nazis because it seems like a lot of movies don't make the distinction between the Nazi party and the German military. While German soldiers were all nominally members of the Nazi party, they didn't necessarily share their beliefs, and very few people actually knew what was going on inside the concentration camps. Nazis are unquestionably evil, but a lot of the soldiers were just conscripts that weren't any more involved in the atrocities than an average German civilian. But moral complexity tends to go against the general message of "We only kill bad guys!", so it gets simplified to "All Germans are Nazis". They pretty much have to do this to sell any modern war at all, since it's completely impossible to actually have a "moral" war - you're ALWAYS going to be killing people who don't really want to be there, whether it's because of conscription or brainwashing or slavery or whatever. They can't use the ancient world rationale of "they are different from us and therefore bad" that fueled the Greeks and Romans and basically every other empire in history since modern morality is that being different isn't a good enough justification to go to war with someone, so they need to paint them as not only being different, but EVIL.

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  5. It's funny as a political reactionary to read this blog. In fact, the whole comic book exaggeration thing aside, I found myself sympathizing with both sides. The Spartans because, to paraphrase "the Marx of the Master Class" John Calhoun, they realize that the only way to sequester away social conflict is to bury it in a thousand false consciousnesses. The Persians because they realize what Dostoyevsky's Inquisitor teaches us, that ultimately it is bread, mystery, and authority that rules man, not reason. "So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship."

    In the end, the choice is between freedom for a master class and slavery for everybody (to History, to the Herd-State, to the despot that fills the social vacuum, take your pick). The whip invigorates.

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