Mar 4, 2009

Free and Righteous: Ethnocentrism In a Modern Historical Theater Piece

Dialogue, plot, and form all play their part in building meaningful narratives. Frequently the goal of such a narrative, whether or not it succeeds, is to explore some perceived deeper facet of the human experience that is deeply understood to bind us deeply together... deeper. Or in the case of 300 the narrative serves as a simplified ideological commentary on the clash of Eastern Islamism with Westernism and the West’s ultimate superiority.

In this case the West is symbolized specifically by 300’s noble protagonists, the Spartans. The Spartans are a noble people, just minding their own freedom, when the insatiable appetite of the Persian Empire befalls them. The Spartan King Leonidas is forced by archaic law to take nothing but a small detachment of three-hundred men to hold off the overwhelming Persian invasion force which lies snarling at the gates of all Greece. Despite this, Leonidas and his soldiers fight valiantly (and successfully) against overwhelming odds until they are betrayed by Ephialtes, a fellow Greek who betrays them in favor of Emperor Xerxes’ of Persia.

300 utilizes several narratives to demonstrate the relief between the protagonist Greeks and its opposing Eastern medley. The most striking element is probably a dichotomy, repeatedly exhibited but never explained, between Slavery and Freedom. In one of the first scenes King Leonidas tells a Persian messenger asking for the symbolic capitulation of Sparta that, “You threaten my people with slavery and death!” Later the same narrative is propelled to stature of concrete metaphor when, at the defense of Thermopylae, we see an emissary of Xerxes driving slaves onward with a literal whip. He shouts them onward, “Keep moving you dogs!” In the ensuing conflict the Spartan Stelios cuts off the emissary’s arm and tells him to, “Run along... and tell your Xerxes he faces free men here. Not slaves.” The Persian emissary is shown to revel in the practice of enslavement, as he is all too eager to respond; “No, not slaves. Your women will be slaves. Your sons, your daughters, your elders will be slaves. But... you will be dead men.” Such unapologetic hostility towards freedom by the Persians is probably the most consistent narrative weaved throughout 300.

This narrative characterization breeds a form of organic contrast. The Greeks, being the opposite of the Persians, love freedom with inverse proportion to the Persian disdain for it. Besides Stelios’ comment, the Spartan queen herself when asked about her political conviction states that, “Freedom isn’t free at all”, which is eerily close to if not an exact restatement of the American conservative rhetorical idiom, ‘Freedom isn’t free.’ This love of freedom, which in modern a context can be seen as a stand-in for ‘democracy’.

The Persian enmity for virtue knows no limitations, and besides these more heavily narrated themes, the Persians are also offhandedly shown to covet virtually everything modern Westernness could possibly deplore: Misogyny, “What makes this woman think she can speak among men?” demands Xerxes’ messenger of Leonidas when the Spartan queen addresses him. Sexual deviance; as shown in the harem of Xerxes court, in this case wretched and disfigured to express the East’s perversion even of beauty itself.

But the film addresses sexuality in another way as well. Throughout weakness and doubt are equated with defeatism and homosexuality. The narrator speaks, “Goodbye my love. He doesn’t say it. There’s no room for softness, not in Sparta. No place for weakness. Only the hard and strong may call themselves Spartans.” As for what we might interpret as weak, luckily the Sparta’s nearby neighbors provide an example when Leonidas, our hero and the epitome of a good man, derides them; “[Submission.] Now that’s a bit of a problem. See rumor has it the Athenians have already turned you [Persia] down, and if those philosophers and boy-lovers have found that kind of nerve... [surely we can]”.1 In this sense higher thinking is frowned upon, and linked to homosexuality as a set of dual vices that contrast with the noble life of a Spartan warrior.

Later, Xerxes would attempt to woo Leonidas with the same vices in a clearly gay overtone. For one thing, the Persians are shown to be on the verge of unseemliness when it comes to their preference for body piercing and jewelry. In modern-dominant Western culture, piercings and jewelry are by and large still considered a mostly feminine marker, and thus ‘un-masculine’ or ‘gay’. Being the Persian emperor, Xerxes represents this to the fullest degree, with at least five piercings mostly in positions considered very queer in America (pun intended to some extent).2 In a bit of unbelievably transparent staging between Leonidas and the homosexualized Xerxes, Leonidas turns his back to Xerxes who stands behind him and gently places his hands on Leonidas’ shoulders while uttering, “Your Athenian rivals will kneel at your feet... if you will but kneel at mine.” In this case the metaphor of submission, loss of freedom and masculinity is expressed by its coupling to the image of Xerxes penetrating Leonidas from the rear in stereotypically gay fashion, while simultaneously receiving the verbal description (no-less sexual) of ‘one man kneeling in submission at another’s feet’.

Leonidas however, being the strong masculine figure of freedom, naturally refuses Xerxes offer of perverse submission. The same cannot be said of Ephialtes, the hunchback who is unfit to stand alongside Spartan warriors. In his crippling inadequacy, Ephialtes betrays Greece by revealing a goat path to Xerxes which can be used to flank Leonidas. This aspect of the narrative is an articulation being traitors and those who would sympathize with the enemy; Ephialtes does not have a powerful moral critique of the Spartan class system. Rather, he is seduced by the riches and sensuous depravity that Persia offers him, and blinded from the long-term consequence of his actions forsakes his own noble heritage. Being the hunchback again represents a disfiguration of the strong, male Sparta, and it also represents the only way such a strong, noble nation as America—er, Sparta—could be defeated by such an inferior one: By doubting itself, by allowing insider dissent, by in any way casting aside its righteous history.

Except if it’s interfering with the defense of Sparta, in which case it is corrupt and isn’t righteous at all and therefore can be ignored, as we might surmise from Leonidas who continually parses his words and actions to circumvent Spartan law. He says to his queen the night before setting off against the Persians, “Then what must a king do to save his world when the very laws he is sworn to protect force him to do nothing?” His queen comforts him in the statement that, “It is not a question of what [a king] should do... instead ask yourself, ‘What should a free man do?’” Here we see the narrative validate the circumvention of law, the “remnants of a senseless tradition”, if it comes to the safeguard of ‘freedom’.

Interwoven with all of these themes is one of the East’s irrationality. Xerxes is continually referred to as a God-king,3 and states that, “You Greeks take pride in your logic”, implying that Persians consider themselves fine to do without it. In the film’s climax, Leonidas stands against Xerxes, strong and defiant even in the face of certain death, and hurls a spear that cuts Xerxes along the cheek, showing that he is not a god at all. And if Xerxes the Emperor of all Persia is not a god, then every belief and practice of the Persian Empire is built upon a foundation of sand, nothing more than an enormous artifice of insurmountable fallacies built one on top of the other.

But if the East is so fallacy-ridden and inferior, how can the noble Spartans be defeated by them? And Leonidas does in fact he die in a hail of arrows, one that leaves him in a position on his back, arms outstretched, suspiciously reminiscent of the crucifixion. Like the resurrection, Leonidas’ ultimate vindication comes only later, at the Battle of Plataea, shown at the end of the movie. Having heard of the sacrifice of Leonidas and his three hundred solders, all of Greece rises against the evil Persian empire in what we are expected to assume is a valorous victory.4

With every added offense embodied by the Persian threat, the West’s commitment to holding their ground becomes more heroic. Thermopylae is the perfect metaphor for a conservative perspective on the ideological clash, as it portrays the the Spartans solely as noble victims. After all it was Leonidas who initially showed polite restraint for Xerxes’ messenger, and not not the other way around. It is the Spartans who are defending their homes from the Persian onslaught, and not not the other way around. And it is the Persians who sanctify nothing except for everything that is unworthy of noble Sparta. Even tactically speaking there is no intention of striking back at Thermopylae. It is devoid of provocation, not even exhibiting a counter-offensive, and exists wholly free of guilt.


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