Tonight, I went to the theater to see the movie “300,” a glorified account of the conflict between the Spartan city-state (in modern-day Greece) and Persian invaders, led by the Persian king Xerxes. The movie is about the battle of Thermopylae in 450 BC, in which 300 Spartans held off millions of invading Persian armies.
The movie depicts the harsh warrior culture of Sparta in glowing, glorified terms. Children are trained in combat “from the time they could stand,” and the movie depicts their fathers striking them with closed fists during intense bouts of training. No one seems reluctant to endure this suffering; ALL maddeningly embrace it. Boys are sent out into the wilderness in rags, armed with a spear, braving the ice and snow bear-chested and without so much as a shoe on their feet. I suppose to wear warm clothing would be a sign of shame, culturally-imposed by the glorious warrior culture.
Of course, the subtext behind this whole movie is that all this harsh living is necessary for the survival of the state against foreign invaders. Those who would demur in the face of such a threat would surely be called cowards, whether their motivation was cowardice or not. As the movie unfolds, it becomes immediately obvious that there is no room for tenderness, no longing for a life of peace, no enjoyment of one’s existence. There is only self-sacrifice, of boys and men, who must constantly prepare to pay the ultimate price in order to defend this culture of self-annihilation. But in the movie “300,” the headlong rush toward violent conflict is not depicted as a necessary evil, or even an evil at all. Death is depicted as glorious, so much so that the truly brave lust for death. This is not a movie that promotes bravery, but rather bravado. The value of each Spartan soldier is measured in terms of his lust for danger and death, for his willingness to pay for the country’s “freedom” through willing self-sacrifice. This is how men are portrayed: valuable if they hope for, run toward, and drink deeply of death.
The wife of the brave Spartan king is portrayed much differently. While he is off fighting a desperate struggle, she remains behind. Her burden is the sorrow she feels that her husband is away. Her parting words to him – as he departed from her for a hopeless battle – were, “Come back with your shield, or with your head on it.” Moviegoers are intended to respond to this display with stupefied admiration.
Our warrior hero is Sparta’s King Leonidas, now on the battlefield in a desperate struggle against overwhelming odds. His wife is Queen Gorgo. Left behind, Queen Gorgo is left with the task of summoning the country’s political leaders to send the full army to reinforce her husband’s tiny force of 300. The leader of this council is named Theron, a corrupt politician. He intimidates her with veiled threats to kill her son, then comes at night with a promise to lend her political support if she will submit to being raped by him. He tries to shame her by pointing out that her husband is defying Spartan law by deploying troops without authorization. He tries to shame her by comparing her comparatively comfortable existence with the gore her husband is swimming in. Taunting her, he asks her, “What do YOU have to offer?” She drops her clothes in response, turns around, and as he begins the rape, he tells her the encounter will “not be short, and it will not be pleasant.”
The next time we see Queen Gorgo and Theron together is in the presence of Sparta’s council. She makes a plea for the deployment of troops to assist her husband, a speech laced with platitudes about bravery and freedom. Theron, convinced that he “owns” the council (“I created it with my bare hands”), unexpectedly denounces the plan to save Queen Gorgo’s husband. In a spiteful tirade, he belittles and mocks her. Some in the council speak against him (“how dare you” insult the Queen), but he shames them into silence by pointing out their own corruption in the acceptance of bribes. Even the queen’s defenders lack moral value. As Theron’s tirade against the queen reaches a crescendo, he insults her honor by calling her a whore. The queen turns away, defeated, insulted, her honor in disarray. Suddenly she turns the tables and stabs Theron with a sword, the picture of female empowerment – saving her own hide despite the good intentions of her would-be saviors, the corrupt male politicians who were too impotent to defend her. As I watched this scene come to this climax, women sitting throughout the theater erupted into spontaneous applause. The queen’s honor had been avenged, and by the only one competent enough to avenge it: the queen.
Back on the battlefield, a disfigured and weak Spartan (who was rejected by King Leonidas as unfit for battle) lends his support to the Persian enemy in a display of revenge. The Persians take tactical advantage, and soon the 300 brave Spartan warriors are surrounded, then annihilated – including King Leonidas. The parting shot of our hero is of a man beaten, but brave – pinned to the ground with scores of arrows dug into his flesh. He dies in agony, but he dies bravely – a martyr – the epitome of what all Spartan men should aspire to become. A volley of thousands more arrows are launched at his twisted body as the camera fades out.
The lesson to be learned from this movie is subtle. Men are portrayed as valuable and noble not when they lust for life, but when they lust for death. The most honorable men are indeed the ones who die. Contrast this with the portrayal of Queen Gorgo. Her worth was her dignity, not her compulsion with self-sacrifice. Her worth was shown in her desire to live – despite the specter of rape, child molestation, and public humiliation. Her worth was shown in her empowerment to exact revenge against her male oppressor, despite having no one capable enough to risk themselves to save her. Her departing camera shot has standing in a majestic field, gazing off into the distance as her young son runs to her side. She is the mother, the nurturer, and the intact survivor. She has braved this battle, and despite her pain has prevailed. Not only this, but she has saved all of Sparta by convincing the male politicians that they are well-served in deciding to defend themselves.
The final shot of the movie is of a sea of tens of thousands of Spartan warriors, yelling battle cries in willing anticipation of the coming military threat. King Leonidas’ death, along with the deaths of the 300, had been the catalyst to convince the warrior culture to defend itself. This was, however, only possible when his wife made a speech.
If you can’t see the cheapening of human life in this movie – especially that of boys and men – and the glorification of males only in their embrace of self-demise, you are truly a part of the misandry generation.