As promised, I went to see 300 this weekend, and as previously implied, it's not quite the complete boys' movie-fest that the preview made it out to be. Which isn't to say that it's some sort of feminist tour de force (we are still talking about Frank Miller here), but it had its moments.
Basically, there are two women in 300. One turns up in several places, and she's the typical Frank Miller virgin-whore-rape victim, as identified over and over again in Sin City. Her first and most noteworthy appearance is as the writhing, nearly naked, barely pubescent Oracle early in the film, and she comes up again the form of various concubines and slaves in Xerxes' harem. There's nothing new to see here. These women aren't characters, they are vaguely disturbing eye candy with a thick gloss of sexualized violence. Barf.
The second woman, though, is not Miller's creation, but rather something that screenplay writers Zack Snyder(directed Dawn of the Dead), Kurt Johnstad , and Michael Gordon added, much to the film's betterment. She's Queen Gorgo, played by Lena Headley (remembered as one of the few non-sucky elements in the craptastic The Brothers Grimm), and my friends, she kicks some ass.
Gorgo is a strong character right from the beginning of the film. In one of the first scenes, a Persian messenger comes to Sparta to threaten King Leonidas (Gerard Butler, who can also be seen in Dracula 2000 and Tomb Raider II) and ask him to submit to rule by Xerxes. Gorgo is unafraid to speak her piece to the messenger, prompting him to ask how she, a woman, thinks she can speak among men. While Gorgo's answer, that only Spartan women give birth to real men, positions her power squarely as that of a mother (a traditional women's role), it's good to hear her speak all the same. Later, when Leonides waits for Gorgo's nod of approval before offing the offending messenger, we begin to see her as part of a relatively (in Spartan terms) egalitarian power couple, rather than solely as a baby-maker. This view of her is strengthened later, when Leonides asks her opinion on whether he should go to war without the permission of the Oracle, and she tells him to behave not as a husband, or as a king, but as a free man. Later, she shows a stainless steel spine when sending her husband off to a fight she knows he will lose, she tells him, memorably, to return either with his shield or on it.
It's none of this, however, that really sets Gorgo apart. What moves her from a decent supporting female character to a true heroine is when she is attacked and called a whore in front of the Spartan council by traitorous rapist Theron (played by an amazingly smarmy Dominic West). Not only does Gorgo have to be held back by two men, but she fights free of them, grabs one of their swords, and impales Theron, whispering to him the same words he said as he raped her: "This will not be over quickly. You will not enjoy this." It is all too rare that we get to see a woman confront her rapist at all on screen, much less stab him in front of a council, show him to be a traitor, and mock him with his own words as he's dying. It's certainly an unexpected moment in a film that is basically two hours of testosterone and male glory seeking. I actually raised my arms in a cheer in the theater during this scene. No matter what the rest of the movie holds (and it certainly has many, many moments of typical anti-woman Frank Miller annoyances), it would all be worth it for this.
All that being said, it wasn't really the gender issues in this film that caught my attention the most. Despite all that could be said about them (particularly because the invading Persian army wasn't a turbaned mass, for once, but was actually made of discernable groups from different parts of Asia), it wasn't the racial issues that I honed in on, either. Rather, I was shocked, horrified, and awed at the film's flirtation with an exploration of ableism.
The film's beginning scene shows the infant Leonides being examined for weakness or deformity, and states that had he been sick, small, or imperfect, he would have been discarded at that point (with the sickening visual of babies' skulls in a pile below the cliff they were presumably thrown off). The premise is established right from the beginning that if you aren't a perfect physical specimen, you are not a Spartan. It's a shock, then, when later in the film Leonides is beseeched by Ephialtes (played by Andrew Tiernan) to allow him to fight. Ephialtes is a grotesque looking hunchback, saved from death as an infant only because his parents fled Sparta, and Leonides is kind to him, but says he cannot fight because he can't lift his shield high enough to be of any use protecting them man next to him in the phalanx. Angry and humiliated, Ephialtes turns coat and leads Xerxes' forces to a trial that can cut off the Spartan back side and ultimately leads to their defeat. This is the age-old and always irritating twisted body=twisted soul thing, made all the more irritating by the fact that there is no evidence for the historical traitor Ephialtes having been in any way disabled--Miller invented that part.
The ableism thread runs deeper than just Ephialtes, however. Xerxes' forces are full of various kinds of "freaks," from a huge monster-man to the scarred and masked faces of The Immortals. When the film shows his harem, many of the concubines are disabled, including one with no legs and another without arms. I'm unsure what to make of this. At first, I wrote it off irritably as another association between Eastern people and mythical freaks, but I think there may have been more intended than that. It was almost as if the Persian armies were drawing some of their strength (while they were not the film's heroes, they did, after all, win) from their "freakiness" and their courting of Ephialtes, who was thrown away by his own people because of his differences. I may be reading too much into that, but it is something interesting to consider.
All in all, 300 is a better film than I expected it to be. It is, as was expected, hyper-masculine, but there's more to it than that. The cinematography and art direction are amazing (largely, I think, due to cinematographer Larry Fong, who also did Hero), and the mix of choreographed battle scenes (some of which look a lot like martial arts string work) and ultra-violence (lots of decapitations in this one) is fantastic. Watching it is an ethereal and fairly trippy experience, helped by an excellent score (original music by Tyler Bates). The script is pretty bad, and some of the acting is very, very cheesy, but the strong supporting characters of Gorgo and Theron and some of the Spartan soldiers (particularly the narrator,
- 300: A Fangirl's Rant by Laura Martin at Sequential Tart
- Frank Miller's "300″ and the Persistence of Accepted Racism by Jehanzeb Dar of Broken Mystic, also published on Racialicious
- Sarah Seltzer's Take Back The Screen at R H RealityCheck