Frank Miller’s “300″ and the Persistence of Accepted Racism

by Guest Contributor Jehanzeb Dar, originally published at Broken Mystic

When Frank Miller’s “300″ film was released, I was absolutely outraged by the racist content of the film and more so at the insensitivity of movie-goers who simply argued “it’s just a movie.” Later on, I would hear these same individuals say, “The movie makes you want to slice up some Persians.” I wrote an article about the film almost immediately after it was released, and now that I’m still noticing people quoting the movie or listing it as their “favorite movies,” I’ve decided to update my original post and discuss some points that will hopefully shed some new light.

“300” not only represents the ever-growing trend of accepted racism towards Middle-Easterners in mainstream media and society, but also the reinforcement of Samuel P. Huntington’s overly clichéd, yet persisting, theory of “The Clash of Civilizations,” which proposes that cultural and religious differences are the primary sources for war and conflict rather than political, ideological, and/or economic differences. The fact that “300” grossed nearly $500 million worldwide in the box office may not be enough to suggest that movie-goers share the film’s racist and jingoistic views, but it is enough to indicate how successful such a film can be without many people noticing its relentless racist content. As Osagie K. Obasogie wrote in a brilliant critique of the film, “300” is “arguably the most racially charged film since D. W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’” – the latter being a 1915 silent film that celebrated the Ku Klux Klan’s rise to defend the South against liberated African-Americans. Oddly enough, both films were immensely successful despite protests and charges of racism.

Media imagery is very important to study. Without analyzing and critiquing images in pop culture, especially controversial and reoccurring images, we are ignoring the most powerful medium in which people receive their information from. A novel, for example, may appeal to a large demographic, but a film appeals to a much wider audience not only because of recent video-sharing websites and other internet advancements, but also because the information is so much easier to process and absorb.

According to the Cultivation Theory, a social theory developed by George Gerbner and Larry Gross, television is the most powerful storyteller in culture – it repeats the myths, ideologies, and facts and patterns of standardized roles and behaviors that define social order. Music videos, for example, cultivate a pattern of images that establish socialized norms about gender. In a typical western music video, you may see female singers like Brittany Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Beyonce wearing the scantiest of clothing and dancing in erotic and provocative ways that merely cater to their heterosexual male audiences. These images of women appear so frequently and repetitively that they develop an expectation for women in the music industry, i.e. in order to be successful, a woman needs to have a certain body type, fit society’s ideal for beauty, and dance half-nakedly. Stereotypical images of men in music videos, on the other hand, include violent-related imagery, “pimping” with multiple women, and showing off luxury. Such images make violence and promiscuous sexual behavior “cool” and more acceptable for males. As we can see from two studies by Greeson & Williams (1986) and Kalof (1999), exposure to stereotypical images of gender and sexual content in music videos increase older adolescents’ acceptance of non-marital sexual behavior and interpersonal violence.

Cognitive Social Learning Theory is another social theory which posits, in respect to media, that television presents us with attractive and relatable models for us to shape our experiences from. In other words, a person may learn particular behaviors and knowledge through observing the images displayed on television. A person may also emulate the behavior of a particular character in a film or television show, especially if a close-identification is established between the viewer and the character. Both theories – Cultivation Theory and Cognitive Social Learning Theory – apply in my following analysis of “300.”

In order to deconstruct “300,” I will start by (1) discussing its distortion of history, then (2) contrast the film’s representation of Persians and Spartans, (3) correlate Frank Miller’s Islamophobic remarks on NPR with the messages conveyed in “300,” and (4) conclude with the importance of confronting stereotypical images in mainstream media and acknowledging the contributions of all societies and civilizations.

Distortion of History

Initially a graphic novel written and drawn by Frank Miller, who is best known in the comic book industry for reinventing Batman in his critically acclaimed “The Dark Knight Returns,” the inspiration for “300” stems from true historic events, although Mr. Miller states that it was never intended to be a historically accurate account of the Battle for Thermopylae. In any case, the information we have about the Battle for Thermopylae comes from the classical Greek author, Herodotus, who lived in the Persian city of Halicarnassus. His book, “The Histories,” became part of Western folklore in 1850, when America embraced it as the leading authority on Persian history. Interesting enough, and many people may not know this, is that prior to 1850, the West had a very favorable impression of the Persian Empire, particularly because its main source for Persian history was rooted in the Bible and the “Cyropaedia,” which was written by another Greek author named Xenophon. The “Cyropaedia” glorifies the rule of Cyrus the Great, a benevolent Persian king who will be discussed later. In respect to the Battle of Thermopylae, the events may have occurred, but it was far different than the famous myth explains: 300 Spartans held Thermopylae for three days against over a million Persian soldiers.

This version of history is portrayed in the Hollywood adaptation of “300” in heavily stylized fashion that remains faithful to the comic book. The film’s director, Zack Snyder, said during an MTV interview, “[t]he events are 90 percent accurate. It’s just in the visualization that it’s crazy.” And yet, the film hardly mentions that the 300 Spartans were allied with over 4,000 Greeks on the first two days of the battle, and over 1,500 on the final day (other sources mention that there were 7,000 to 10,000 Greek allies). The battle was fought in a narrow mountain pass of Thermopylae where not even two chariots could pass through side by side; the choice of using this terrain benefited the Spartans and their Greek allies immensely against the Persians. Many historians agree that the massive Persian army would have obliterated the Spartan/Greek forces without much difficulty if the battle were fought on an open battlefield. Also worth mentioning is the fact that the Spartans were heavily armored and wore armor that weighed 30-40 kg, while the Persians were lightly armored.

Ephraim Lytle, assistant professor of Hellenistic History at the University of Toronto, states that “300” selectively idealizes Spartan society in a “problematic and disturbing” fashion, which would have seemed “as bizarre to ancient Greeks as it does to modern historians.” Touraj Daryaee, Baskerville Professor of Iranian History at the University of California, Irvine, criticizes the film’s use of classic sources:

Some passages from the Classical authors Aeschylus, Diodorus, Herodotus and Plutarch are spilt over the movie to give it an authentic flavor. Aeschylus becomes a major source when the battle with the “monstrous human herd” of the Persians is narrated in the film. Diodorus’ statement about Greek valor to preserve their liberty is inserted in the film, but his mention of Persian valor is omitted. Herodotus’ fanciful numbers are used to populate the Persian army, and Plutarch’s discussion of Greek women, specifically Spartan women, is inserted wrongly in the dialogue between the “misogynist” Persian ambassador and the Spartan king. Classical sources are certainly used, but exactly in all the wrong places, or quite naively.

As I wrote in my post on “The Truth About Thanksgiving: Brainwashing of the American History Textbook,” omitting and ignoring an entire race of people in historical accounts is a form of racism because it negates the achievements and stories of the “Other.” In the film, Persians constantly threaten Spartans with slavery, and yet, any honest historian knows that the Persian Empire, particularly the Achaemenid Empire, was built on a model of tolerance and respect for other cultures and religions. According to the documentary, “Persepolis Recreated,” the Persian Empire is the first known civilization in the history of humankind to practice international religious freedom. Images carved on the walls of Persepolis testify how Persians interacted and conversed with nobleman of other nations respectfully and without enmity. Denying another civilization its own accomplishments and contributions to the world is like blotting them out from history altogether and rewriting one’s own prejudice version. As we will learn later, any mentioning of Persian valor, compassion, and sophistication, would have resulted in a potential backfiring to the film’s agenda.

At one point in the film, the Spartan protagonist, King Leonidas, describes the Athenians as “boy lovers,” which, according to Paul Cartledge, professor of Greek History at Cambridge University, is ironic, since “the Spartans themselves incorporated institutional pederasty [erotic relationships between adolescents and adult men] into their educational system.”

The fact that Frank Miller and Zack Snyder stripped the Spartans of homosexual relations and, instead, made them accuse the Athenians of being “boy lovers” in order to reinforce their masculinity, shows us a distortion of history that favors a heavily masculinized and homophobic take on the Spartans. In modern society, homosexual males are frowned upon the most because society discourages men to behave in ways that are contrary to their expected gender traits, i.e. a man must be strong, emotionless, and courageous – and of course, these play into stereotypes about homosexuals since it suggests they cannot possess any of those traits. Therefore, if a man is a “boy lover,” he can never be as great of a fighter as a heterosexual Spartan. It’s obvious that mentioning the facts about Sparta’s institutional pederasty would not have made a connection with the film’s directed heterosexual male audience. This is evident from Oliver Stone’s “Alexander” film, where many expressed their outrage of Alexander engaging in homosexual relations, therefore never developing a close-identification with the character.

Distorting the history in “300” merely fulfills one component in glorifying the Spartans and vilifying the Persians. In the next section, we will see how the film’s visual representation of Spartans and Persians accompany its biased history for the sake of reinforcing the divide between West and East.

Spartans and Persians: Glorification, Demonization, and Tokenism

Perhaps the most noticeable offense in the film is how the Persians are horrifically depicted as monsters. It is not hard to notice the punctuated differences in skin color: the white-skinned Spartans versus the dark-skinned Persians. The Persian King, Xerxes, is shown as an abnormally tall, dark-skinned, and half-naked madman with facial piercings, kohl-enhanced eyes and, as Dana Stevens from Slate writes, “[has] a disturbing predilection for making people kneel before him.” The rest of the Persians are faceless savages and demonically deformed. This demonization of the Persian race extends to malformed characters, including Persian women, who are depicted as Lesbians and concubines. Even the elephants and rhinoceroses look like hell spawns. Stevens also adds:

Here are just a few of the categories that are not-so-vaguely conflated with the “bad” (i.e., Persian) side in the movie: black people. Brown people. Disfigured people. Gay men… Lesbians. Disfigured lesbians. Ten-foot-tall giants with filed teeth and lobster claws…

Also noticeable is how the Spartans wear no body armor; instead they are bare-chested and wear only a helmet, cape, and underwear. This is common in comic books where physical attributes of male characters such as muscles are magnified and exaggerated to symbolize strength, power, and heroism. In sheer contrast, the Persians are dressed in typical Middle-Eastern attire in pure Orientalist fashion, which only degrade them into invisible and insignificant characters without stories. We have seen these contrasting images of West and East cultivated before, and we still see them today. Whenever a crisis in the Middle-East is covered by the mainstream Western media, we tend to see the images of garbed Middle-Eastern men burning flags and shouting like barbarians, but rarely ever see scholarly and intellectual Middle-Easterners who are treated with respect and credibility. As Jack G. Shaheen discusses in his book, “Reel Bad Arabs,” Hollywood is guilty of vilifying Arabs and Muslims; repeating images of light-skinned and attractive Western (mostly American) counter-terrorist heroes blowing away dark-skinned, unattractive, and “rag-headed” Middle-Easterners. These images have been repeated so much in the mainstream media that they become the socialized norm: Arab/Muslim = Evil, oppressive, terrorist, and uncivilized, etc. Although the ancient Persians in “300” are neither Arab nor Muslim, they are confined into the same group through modern-day Orientalism.

Throughout the film, for instance, the constant emphasis on “The Clash of Civilizations” is not just limited to the manner of visual representations, but rather extends to what the Spartans and Persians stand for. Early in the film, we see the Spartan King, Leonidas, resist against the Persian call for “submission” by bellowing about freedom and liberty. Just like the visual depictions of Persians in “300” are no different than Hollywood’s stereotypical and insulting representation of Arabs and Muslims, neither are the themes. As adolescents and fans alike eccentrically shout the film’s most memorable quote, “This is Sparta!” – a line that Leonidas says right before kicking an African man down a well – they knowingly or unknowingly establish a close-identification with the Spartan characters and, subsequently, the heroism they are meant to epitomize. As a result, Persians get perceived, in modern terms, as “terrorists” – monstrous beings that are mysteriously driven by an innate desire to conquer, slaughter, and oppress.

These differences between Spartans and Persians ring eerily similar to modern-day tensions between the West and the Middle-East. As Obasagie writes, “this racialized depiction of freedom, nation, and democracy becomes central to “300’s” take home message,” but what remains even more unnoticed is the film’s “unapologetic glorification of eugenics.” In the very beginning of the film, for example, we see the newborn Spartans being inspected for “health, strength, and vigor,” while the weak and disabled are hurled off a cliff onto a large pile of dead babies. Obasogie further elaborates:

The film suggests that this rather crude form of eugenics is put in place for military reasons: every Spartan child should either be able to become a soldier or give birth to one… Initially shocked, audiences are quickly reassured that this is all for the greater good: nation, freedom, and the Spartan family. How else can Sparta defend itself – and inspire modern democracies – unless it reserves scarce resources for the strongest?

Strongest men, that is, which brings me to my next point: the exploitation of female characters. A blog post written at FirstShowing.net explains “Why Women Should Go See ‘300.’” The list, which is not even written by a woman, reads: 1. Gerard Butler, 2. Gerard Butler Naked, 3. Empowered Women, 4. Strong Relationships, and 5. 300 Nearly Naked Men with 8-Pack Abs. The author apparently thinks that male eye-candy, romantic relationships, and a dash of “feminism” constitute a “good film” for all women.

At first glance, the Spartan Queen Gorgo may look like an empowered woman, but she is a token character, at best. In a predominately White male film, she serves as the only central female character and assumes a pseudo-feminist role of flaunting her femininity for the sake of reinforcing the film’s racism and singular image of masculinity. For instance, early in the film, the Persian messenger angrily responds to her, “What makes this woman think she can speak among men?” She responds proudly, “Because only Spartan women give birth to real men.” Yes, real men, i.e. the one-sided view of masculinity: aggressive, violent, dominating, muscular, etc. It seems that any man who doesn’t meet these characteristics is not a “real man.” It also seems that Spartan women are treated as merely “manufacturers” of these “real men.”

The mentioning of women occurs enough times in the film to establish that Spartans treat their women “better” than the Persians. The only Persian women we see are sex slaves and disfigured lesbians. In actuality, there were Persian Empresses such as Azarmidokht, who ruled Persia under the Sassanid Empire. Ancient Persian women not only engaged in political matters, but also served as military commanders and warriors. One of the great commanders of The Immortals was a Persian woman named Pantea (pictured left), and during the Achaemenid dynasty, the grand admiral and commander-in-chief for the Persian navy was a woman named Artemisia. Persian women also owned property and ran businesses. Unfortunately, we do not see any such representation in “300.”

A counter-argument may state that Queen Gorgo actually plays a pivotal role in the film since she convinces the council to send more soldiers to aid the Spartans. But her success could never have been accomplished if she did not do what stereotypical female characters usually do: use her body to get what she wants. Queen Gorgo initially tries to convince a corrupt Spartan politician, Theron, but then realizes that she has no choice but to submit herself sexually to him.

As we have seen in this section, the glorified violence, racism, and erotic imagery of the Spartans, as well as the use of women, accentuates their superiority over the Persians, but perhaps nothing can drive the point home more than Frank Miller in his own words.

Frank Miller and Islamophobia

It should be in the interest of those who may disagree with my analysis of “300” to listen to Frank Miller’s interview on National Public Radio (NPR) on January 24th, 2007 (or read the transcript). The interview followed former President Bush’s State of the Union address and is pasted below (emphases added):

NPR: […] Frank, what’s the state of the union?

Frank Miller: Well, I don’t really find myself worrying about the state of the union as I do the state of the home-front. It seems to me quite obvious that our country and the entire Western World is up against an existential foe that knows exactly what it wants … and we’re behaving like a collapsing empire. Mighty cultures are almost never conquered, they crumble from within. And frankly, I think that a lot of Americans are acting like spoiled brats because of everything that isn’t working out perfectly every time.

NPR: Um, and when you say we don’t know what we want, what’s the cause of that do you think?

FM: Well, I think part of that is how we’re educated. We’re constantly told all cultures are equal, and every belief system is as good as the next. And generally that America was to be known for its flaws rather than its virtues. When you think about what Americans accomplished, building these amazing cities, and all the good its done in the world, it’s kind of disheartening to hear so much hatred of America, not just from abroad, but internally.

NPR: A lot of people would say what America has done abroad has led to the doubts and even the hatred of its own citizens.

FM: Well, okay, then let’s finally talk about the enemy. For some reason, nobody seems to be talking about who we’re up against, and the sixth century barbarism that they actually represent. These people saw people’s heads off. They enslave women, they genitally mutilate their daughters, they do not behave by any cultural norms that are sensible to us. I’m speaking into a microphone that never could have been a product of their culture, and I’m living in a city where three thousand of my neighbors were killed by thieves of airplanes they never could have built.

NPR: As you look at people around you, though, why do you think they’re so, as you would put it, self-absorbed, even whiny?

FM: Well, I’d say it’s for the same reason the Athenians and Romans were. We’ve got it a little good right now. Where I would fault President Bush the most, was that in the wake of 9/11, he motivated our military, but he didn’t call the nation into a state of war. He didn’t explain that this would take a communal effort against a common foe. So we’ve been kind of fighting a war on the side, and sitting off like a bunch of Romans complaining about it. Also, I think that George Bush has an uncanny knack of being someone people hate. I thought Clinton inspired more hatred than any President I had ever seen, but I’ve never seen anything like Bush-hatred. It’s completely mad.

NPR: And as you talk to people in the streets, the people you meet at work, socially, how do you explain this to them?

FM: Mainly in historical terms, mainly saying that the country that fought Okinawa and Iwo Jima is now spilling precious blood, but so little by comparison, it’s almost ridiculous. And the stakes are as high as they were then. Mostly I hear people say, ‘Why did we attack Iraq?’ for instance. Well, we’re taking on an idea. Nobody questions why after Pearl Harbor we attacked Nazi Germany. It was because we were taking on a form of global fascism, we’re doing the same thing now.

NPR: Well, they did declare war on us, but…

FM: Well, so did Iraq.

Iraq declared war on the United States? Not only are Frank Miller’s words filled with incredible absurdity and ignorance, they’re also plagued by disgusting prejudice that should raise questions about his underlying messages in “300” and other recent works of his. One of the things I found really disturbing in Miller’s interview was how he suggested that “teaching all cultures are equal” and “every belief system is as good as the next” is a bad thing! What is he implicating here? Are we to teach that certain cultures and belief systems are better than others?

In his next response, he essentially calls Islam “sixth century barbarism,” and then lumps the entire Muslim world into one stereotype. Then he says “I’m speaking into a microphone that never could have been a product of their culture, and I’m living in a city where three thousand of my neighbors were killed by thieves of airplanes they never could have built.” Perhaps someone should educate Mr. Miller that the Islamic empires preserved the beloved Greek philosophical texts by Plato, Socrates, Pythagoras, Ptolemy, Aristotle, and many others. He should also be informed that algebra was invented by a Persian Muslim, Mohammad Al-Khwarizmi. The word English word for “algorithm” actually comes from “Al-Khwarizmi” and the significance of algorithms in computers, programming, engineering, and software design is immensely critical. As stated by Michael H. Morgan, author of “Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers, and Artists,” Al-Khwarizmi’s new ways of calculating “enable the building of a 100 story towers and mile-long buildings, calculating the point at which a space probe will intersect with the orbits of one of Jupiter’s moons, the reactions of nuclear physics… intelligence of software, and the confidentiality of a mobile phone conversation.” Ironically, the Western achievements that Frank Miller boasts about could not have been possible without the collaboration of civilizations.

Conclusion

As I have written many times in my previous essays, racism is most dangerous when it has been made more acceptable in society. When the Nazis dehumanized the Jews, they did so in cartoons and propaganda films so that the rest of the country didn’t feel sorry about killing them. When early American cartoons and cinema depicted African-Americans, they drew them with ugly features and had White actors wear blackface makeup, respectively. At the time, these obviously racist acts were acceptable. In modern times, when the insulting Danish cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, were released, many non-Muslims were too shocked at the Muslim world’s reaction than actually taking the time to realize that the cartoons were drawn out of hate and sheer Islamophobia. Rather than seeing the cartoons as racist or prejudice, many defended it as “freedom of expression.” The manner in which certain people in the Muslim world reacted to the Danish cartoons is another subject altogether, but it’s worth mentioning that their response represents a sensitivity that the West has made very little efforts to understand. For Islamophobes, demonizing the Prophet of Islam wouldn’t be such a bad idea since dehumanizing the enemy is an essential process of war. Vilifying the “Other” makes racial slurs acceptable – slurs like “rag heads,” “camel jockeys,” “towel heads,” “dune coons” among much worse things.

Although the Persians in “300” are not Muslim (the movie takes place in the Pre-Islamic and Pre-Christian era), the visualization of Persians are identical to the stereotypical images we see of Muslims in other media representations. Demonizing the Persians during a time when Middle-Easterners and Muslims are already being vilified simply makes dehumanization of the “Other” acceptable and more recognizable. I remember having one odd conversation with a young man who started his argument by saying, “Xerxes and his Muslim army were a bunch of tyrants.” I stopped him immediately and told him that his ignorant comments are precisely the reason why I raise awareness and accuse “300” of being a propaganda film. Xerxes and his Persian army were not Muslim, yet I saw many people correlating the film with present-day tensions between the United States and Iran. Joseph Shahadi recently informed me, the right-wing party of Italy even uses images of “300” in their campaign posters! It’s sad how many don’t seem to realize that dehumanization of certain groups has dangerous consequences; after all, before the Holocaust, Jews were dehumanized.

“300” may look like a visual breakthrough in cinema “art”, but that doesn’t make up for its blood-spattering jingoism or its racist content. Counter-arguments in the film’s defense are often weak with excuses like, “it’s just a movie,” or “it’s based on a comic book” or “it’s simply meant to entertain.” The counter-arguments are short and weak because the film is unapologetic and doesn’t contain anything sympathetic or appreciative about Persians, their culture, and their history. It would benefit Frank Miller and Zack Snyder if they saw Ridley Scott’s brilliant film, “Kingdom of Heaven,” which explores the complexity of war and celebrates dialogue between great civilizations. Such films are beneficiary to society because they convey much-needed messages of coexistence, respect, and understanding that reach wide audiences.

On a personal note, it is discouraging that so many people, including academics, doctors, and scholars, are either not bothered or don’t see the racism in “300.” And every once in a while, another one of my friends will do the Spartan “Ha-oooh!” chant around me and not realize how offensive it is. The fact that so many people cite the movie and enjoy watching it provides enough support for the cognitive social learning theory, where people find the Spartan characters likable and admirable. It is likely that this may be the reason why so many are defensive of the film – simply because they like the movie so much. But we, as a progressive society, need to be bold enough to stamp our foot down and say we will not tolerate racism, just like we would never tolerate watching or promoting films that glorify the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis. As Dana Stevens writes, “If “300” had been made in Germany in the mid-1930s, it would be studied today alongside “The Eternal Jew” as a textbook example of how race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth can serve as an incitement to total war.”

My personal hope is that people will appreciate this analysis and realize the immense impact media has on shaping our thoughts, perspectives, and views of each other. I would also hope that people are inspired to study ancient Persian history and learn about the countless contributions of the Persians, who were among the greatest philosophers, thinkers, poets, artists, physicians, mathematicians, astronomers, and innovators in the history of the world – before and after the Islamic era. I must point out that almost 90% of the paintings I post on my blog are Persian paintings (compare them with Frank Miller’s horrific depiction of Persians in “300″ and you will understand how upset and offended one can be).

The Arab, Iranian, and/or Muslim communities need to make their mark in the film industry and I cannot stress that enough. The release of “300” angered, but also frustrated me because I felt like I could not respond with a film about Persians due to my low-budget. It is a personal dream of mine to make a “Cyrus the Great” film someday, and I’m sure many of us have dreams of certain films we’d like to see about our communities, but they cannot remain dreams. They must be manifested and brought to life, and only through perseverance, sheer dedication, and passion can we achieve our dreams. As evident in “300,” there are people making a living out of vilifying our cultures, histories, and religions while many of us stand by and watch the propaganda machine do its dirty work. I understand that not all of us are aspiring filmmakers, but to those of you who are: the longer we remain the silent, the less people will know about our beautiful stories.

I believe very firmly that Truth prevails in the end and I have faith that the new generation of progressive-thinkers, Middle-Easterners, South Asians, and Muslims alike are on their way in making a profound difference in our world. Someday, the Middle-East and Muslim world will no longer be demonized and feared, but appreciated and respected. The media has the power to turn tables around in such a way.

Someday…