• YEAR: 2006
  • DIRECTOR: Zack Snyder
  • KEY ACTORS: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey
  • CERTIFICATE: 15
  • IMDB SCORE: 7.6
  • ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 61%

SEX SCORE: 2/5

❌ This clearly fails the Bechdel Test – there is only one named female character!
✔️ But it is rewatchable! Even now when I can see how problematic it has become, it is still very enjoyable and very watchable!
✔️ And I would fuck the cast. I’m sure that they’re all absolutely insufferable but they are good to look at…
No fantasies though – I’d like to look at them but I don’t want to actually be in that world.
❌ And it’s not sex positive. There are too many problems, too much objectification and too much toxic masculinity!

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Netflix, Virgin TV Go (free with subscription), Amazon Prime (free with subscription). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

The poster for 300, showing Gerard Butler as Leonidas screaming in anger and brandishing a sword

[Content warning: rape, racism, ableism, homophobia]

I saw a tweet a while ago that I now cannot find that said something along the lines of ‘ah yes, it’s the strong female characters that makes 300 so popular with women.’ My immediate reaction was YES, we DO enjoy watching movies just to objectify men! And then I thought about it a bit more and realised that 300 is an unexpectedly fascinating movie when it comes to gender, masculinity, sexuality and the patriarchy.

(Hi, hello, I’m back! Did you miss me?)

300 is a brilliant and ridiculous movie by Zack Snyder that is an almost shot-for-shot remake of Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name, that itself retells the story of the Spartan army at Thermopylae in 480 BC, renamed The Hot Gates in the movie. At this famous battle of Ancient Greek history, 300 Spartan soldiers hole up in a narrow passage and fight the entire Persian army, sacrificing themselves but delaying the advance long enough to allow the rest of the Greek army to assemble. They all die but their story lives on and inspires the rest of Greece to fight back and destroy the invading hordes.

A comparison from a shot from the movie and an image from the comic, of Leonidas pushing the Persian messenger into a hole

Battle of Thermopylae is almost a case study in doomed heroism; in martyrdom for the greater good. My Dad is a classics scholar and I asked him about it, wondering if the battle was ever taught as a foolish act of bravado or if it was seen as a cunning act of military excellence, and he simply answered that they saved Greece. Whatever the truth, history and now Frank Miller and Zack Snyder have decided that Thermopylae and the Spartans are an example of military excellence and so they have become aspirational heroes.

Because 300 definitely plays up the idea that these soldiers are the perfect examples of what it means to be a man – heroic, masculine, muscular, morally just. So far so toxic, but it becomes even more problematic when you realise that they are also all white. Sarah Barson and Kelly Kauffman from the Bad Feminist Film Club spent a lot of their excellent podcast on 300 talking about the toxic masculinity in this movie and the unrealistic expectations of manhood that it presents – ‘it’s basically saying that if you aren’t physically perfect, you can’t be a hero or even a real man’ – and it is fascinating to think about the legacy of the movie from that perspective. Roger Ebert described the 300 as ‘lager louts’ but, to me, this simply made these ripped and muscular men even more of an ideal for the Men’s Health generation.

The 300...in Speedos and capes only

But, as the Bad Feminists went on to say, this form and level of toxic masculinity could also be considered the ‘backbone of white nationalism,’ and I am inclined to agree. Peter Bradshaw for the Guardian described 300 as having ‘the kind of tremulous fervour that only prepubescent boys can work up on the subject of war,’ and that now reminds me of the insurgency in Washington DC on January 6th 2021. I don’t know if any of those militants actively compared themselves to the 300 Spartans but I really wouldn’t be surprised – they were also a small group of white men, defying authority in a hopeless but glorious gesture in the name of their country. So where is the line between hero and vigilante? Patriot and terrorist? I was reminded of the exchange between John Mason and General Hummel in The Rock, my favourite movie that I will one day find an angle to write about here:

General Hummel: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Thomas Jefferson.
John Mason: “Patriotism is a virtue of the vicious,” according to Oscar Wilde.[Hummel strikes him, and he falls to his knees] 
John Mason: Thank you for making my point.

These questions are perhaps too morally deep for a blockbuster comic book movie but I do think they are relevant. Writing about the release of Fight Club in his excellent book on the movies of 1999, Brian Raftery described a generation of ‘disaffected dudes looking to reclaim their masculinity,’ and this is the mood that created 300 a few years later, propelling this bloody ancient period of history into something we seem to be encouraged to actively aspire to.

In the context of the events of 2000s, I’m really troubled by the frank racism and xenophobia in 300 and can’t help but make parallels between the movie and the Islamophobia that is still plaguing much of the western world. When it was released, 300 was described by Iranian officials as prompting ‘psychological warfare’ against them as the anti-Persian message was so strong, but it didn’t change how successful the movie was. Of course, 300 didn’t cause this Islamophobia or perhaps even contribute that much in the grand scheme of things, but it is so telling that this depiction of people from the Middle East could be released and celebrated without much apparent consequence. Because the Persians weren’t just depicted as the enemy; they were dark, ‘war-mongering, hedonistic savages‘ and the Spartans were just heroic, they are ‘free, and the Persians are slaves.’ To quote Bradshaw again, the 300 were fighting ‘for Athenian democracy – and by implication, all our inherited western values.’ Created during the War on Terror, complete with white heroes and dark villains, it’s too obvious and too much.

Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes

And it gets worse, or at least less possible to blame history. The actor playing Xerxes is Rodrigo Santoro, known to this blog for playing Karl, Laura Linney’s crush in Love Actually. He’s Brazilian and they don’t even try to disguise his Latino accent. But he’s not white so he’s exotic and that’s OK to play someone from the Middle East, right? They all look the same, don’t they?! Urgh…

Watching 300 again in 2021 also really revealed quite how ableist this movie is. It’s not simply that the heroic 300 are physically perfect; Bradshaw wrote that he’d ‘never seen a film go in quite so enthusiastically for the ugly-equals-wicked equation.’ Take the Ephors, wise men of sorts who consult the oracle to approve Leonidas’s plan. They’re powerful but they are also corrupt and deformed. It’s clear immediately that we’re supposed to be disgusted by them – they hide their pocked and warty faces under hoods; they’re hunched and they have broken and black teeth; they’re hideous, so we shouldn’t trust them.

Ephialtes from 300 with a spear

The character of Ephialtes emphasises the ableism even further. We, as the viewer, are told that he should have been killed at birth because he is disabled. He is too deformed to be allowed to live; not perfect enough to be allowed to be a Spartan. Cool, cool, cool. Obviously this is disgusting and literally eugenics, but could potentially be blamed on history as I’m sure this practice did occur in Sparta in the 4th century BC. Why they chose to perpetuate this historical nightmare is another question, but that does not forgive 300 from making Ephialtes also morally weak. For making him and his desires the key to the Spartan’s undoing. Xerxes seduces Ephialtes with the promise of women and riches and false titles and subservient glory, and so he betrays his people. And I was saddened that this wasn’t really portrayed as Leonidas’s mistake for not accepting his own. Instead, it was shown as a consequence of Ephialtes’s own weaknesses and disabilities. Again, cool cool cool.

1200 words and I haven’t even got to those strong female characters and the question of the female gaze!

So why would women love a movie when the screen is literally filled with intensely muscular men wearing only short shorts?!

A screenshot from 300 of the battle

I am constantly fascinated by the difference between male and female gaze in movies and in culture. Coined by Laura Mulvey in 1973, the male gaze refers to the perspective of a heterosexual male observer, seeing women as objects of their pleasure. In comparison, the female gaze is not thought to be as simple as objectifying men in the same way: ‘The female gaze is about presence, rather than simple gender reversal, about emboldening both film-makers and spectators to consider women as active protagonists, emotionally as well as sexually.’

And I agree with this. In the Cut was one of the sexiest movies I’ve ever seen, and that was because Campion understood female desire rather than just showing it. But it still surprises me that when movies or other forms of media that are full of men as sexual objects succeed, such as Magic Mike XXL, people are still kind of shocked. It may be a limitation of my research but I could only find one article that suggested women liked 300 because of the hot men, and that was written by a man who was trying to work out why there were so many women at the screening of this violent film. Firstly, thanks for the stereotype and, secondly, why is that so surprising?

Of course, the fact that there is such a strong female character is a good thing – especially in a war movie. And Queen Gorgo is kind of fabulous! She’s strong and seems to be superior to even Leonidas as he turns to her for confirmation before acting. But it’s not really enough. For a start, her declaration that she has a place among the men because ‘only Spartan women give birth to real men’ reveals that her superiority is ‘defined by her role as baby-maker,’ which is not exactly a victory. She is also raped, and it is suggested that this is the only way to gain a political advantage in a world of men. I think that we’re supposed to think more of her because she responds so powerfully to this assault but that really is a trope that should be cast aside immediately.

Lena Heady as Queen Gorgo

It’s also not enough that there is only one named female character, no matter who brilliant she is. Admittedly, this is a positive variation from Miller’s comic – Miller is apparently a misogynist who writes women as ‘either victims in need of saving, over-sexualised whores, or scheming she-bitches‘ – but, as the Bad Feminist Film Club point out, the fact that Snyder is able to write a good female characters makes the lack of others more striking. Because Snyder really does undermine his own positive point with how he chooses to show the other women in 300 – nameless, largely topless and often writhing for the pleasure of men. Their ‘sole purpose [is] to glamourise female sexual subordination.

This is why 300 absolutely fascinates me. I can’t decide if Snyder knew what he was doing when he created a movie that appealed to so many different factions of American society, or if it was accidental. Because 300 hits ‘the sweet spot in American culture, occupying the coveted space where straight dude-bros, neocons, and flagrant homosexual men meet.’ It is both homoerotic and homophobic, combining the ‘instinctive appeal of beefcake [that] once made gladiator movies a gay teenager’s passion’ with a gruff and laddish leader who is happy to denounce ‘the culture of Athens as “poets and boy-lovers!”’ but does so with a flare and style that means it essentially gets away with it. It objectifies both men and women, so there’s something for everyone here too, and it has a token feminist character to tick that box. It’s kind of extraordinary!

A shot from 300 of the Spartan army being shot at by innumerable arrows

But, despite all of its enormous flaws and its glamorisation of violence, I do enjoy watching 300. I enjoy Snyder’s style so much that I sat through 4 hours of Justice League without complaint, and I’ll happily watch this movie over and over again.

Which is why I wish it wasn’t so problematic because the messages that it perpetuates need to stop.

NEXT TIME…it’s Bond. James Bond.

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.