Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Overt Racism in the Movie 300: Dehumanization, Violence & Political Agenda

On the Left: Gerard Butler as King Leonidas. On the Right: Xerex played by Rodrigo Santoro

The media are a potent force in communicating, constructing, altering and elaborating notions about race (Hall, 1995).  In particular, visual media “have become major transmitters of society’s cultural standards, myths, values, roles, and images” (Henry, Tator, Mattis & Rees, 2000, p. 296).  Today, Hollywood movies that deliberately and unashamedly degrade minority groups are more often than not huge successes (Berg, 2002).  This is because these blockbusters films have, embedded in them, ideological and dominant narratives of white superiority and minority inferiority.  These lingering hegemonic beliefs embrace Western traditions of thoughts and ideals; while viewing and treating Easterners as inferior, barbaric, and second-class citizens.  An example of such a blatantly racist movies is 300 which I will use as a case study in this paper to illustrate some of these prevailing and continuing patterns of stereotyped representations of the Other which, in this case, are Persians. 
By relying and drawing upon examples from the movie, I will illustrate how 300 embraces and emphasizes notions of the “Orient”, “Occident” and “Orientalism,” as coined by Edward Said (1978).  Said (1978) defined Orientalism as “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction between ‘the Orient’ [Persians] and ... ’the Occident [Spartans]’” (p. 2).  The Orient and Occident are fabricated terms that represent a relationship that can be characterized by an imbalance of power, control and domination.  In addition, a thorough exploration of the two main techniques, dehumanization and violence, adopted by the writer and director, Frank Miller and Zac Snyder, will also be provided in order to explain how the movie constructs and maintains a recurring central theme of “us versus them” (Kunucen & Gungor, 2008).  Moreover, throughout the text, economic reasons for why we continue to see racist and chauvinistic representations of Persians, as well as, other minority groups in the mainstream media will be afforded, followed by the primary political agenda of the movie 300 to propagate the myth that Middle Easterners are innately antidemocratic and incapable of appreciating civil rights and freedom – the principle discourse that feeds Western apathy towards the Orient.


According to Henry et al. (2000) “the media set norms, create stereotypes, build leaders, set priorities, and educate the public in matters of national interest and concern” (p. 296).  This agenda-setting process is apparent both explicitly and implicitly in the movie, 300.  Based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller, the film 300, directed by Zac Snyder, is a fictionalized retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae (Kunucen & Gungor, 2008, p. 188). A basic storyline is as follows:

The film begins with “Spartan King Leonidas’... refusal to bow down to Persian God‐King
Xerxes...and his army of over one million soldiers.” Leonidas and the “300 Spartans, who
know no other life than defending their Sparta, fight to the last man against Xerxes in order to keep Sparta free from Xerxes’ massive attack and his willing to take control of Sparta” (Kunucen & Gungor, 2008, p. 188-189).

Besides some of the inaccurate historical events presented in this movie which have been largely exaggerated, distorted, and falsified, my intention in this essay is not to conduct a fact-finding inquiry on what is represented but rather how it is presented which is where the broader racist ideologies lie. 

Dehumanization & Violence

There are two major techniques which are employed in the movie 300 that are often used in Hollywood films to reinforce ideologies of white superiority, as well as, to reveal and embody dichotomies between the West (Spartans) and the East (Persians).  One of such methods is the dehumanization of minority characters.  Dehumanization is the “process of depriving a [group of people] of human qualities, attributes and rights such as individuality, compassion, or civility” (Hairston, 2008, p. 66).  Consequently, infrahumanization can be summarized, in psychological terms, as the act of viewing and treating out-groups as inferior and undeserving of humane consideration, treatment and respect.  This denigration process also occurs in the motion picture 300, where the Persian characters are degraded in more than one way. 
Firstly, whereas the archetype (the white protagonist), Spartan warrior King Leonidas and his followers, all exhibit heroic, attractive qualities such as charisma, courage, intelligence and fidelity; the Persians in the film are depicted as cowards, feeble, treacherous, and imprudent (Berg, 2002).  Secondly, there are blatant physical features that are further used to differentiate the two groups.  On the one hand, the Spartan warriors are all good-looking and possess the Western “ideal” body type in that they are built, tanned, toned and athletic.  The Persians, on the other hand, are literally faceless monsters who are weak and unfit.  Thirdly, while the Spartans are nearly naked, throughout the entire movie, accompanying only minimal pieces of clothing including metallic face shields, red cloaks, brown boots, and tight briefs; the Persians are depicted “dressed in typical Middle-Eastern [attires] in pure Orientalist fashion, which only degrade them into invisible and insignificant characters without stories” (Jehanzeb, 2009). 
The salacious, suggestive, and erotic Spartan costumes that are rich in sexual innuendo, pose a sharp contrast to the Persians’ long, dull shaped and coloured garments.  In addition, the inclusion of turbans and veils, worn purposely and for particular effects  by the Persian warriors, represent clich├ęs of a fantasized East where people are “fashionably challenged,” conservative, backwards and restricted.  Furthermore, the Persian costume presented in the film also denotes additional dominant ideologies of “us versus them.”  This is because a cross is to Christianity what hijab is to Islam (Manal, 2010).  In other words, turbans, veils, and burqas have come to symbolize and trigger a Western versus Eastern dichotomy in mainstream society.  These points of divergence predominantly prevail in the domains of religion, politics and philosophy.  To the white status quo, Muslim hijab, which is the process of veiling one’s body and hair, with long restrained clothing, signifies an opposition, hatred, threat and resistance to democratic ideals, such as gender equality and freedom, as well as to Western values and citizenship (Kay, 2009; Manal, 2010).  
While turbans, veils and long loose apparels are incorporated to characterize Persians in a negatively connotative way to the wider audience, the utilization of images of well-built, nude bodies to represent the “white man,” also has its own specific implications that are worth noting and exploring.  In particular, the bare legs and chests of the Spartan warriors are deeply embedded with different hegemonic layers.  For instance, in his book, White, Richard Dyer (1997) argues that the presence of the white man’s semi-naked body in films is a fairly recent phenomenon.  The reasons being, that clothes have always been an indication of wealth, power, and status.  In addition, a bare body is susceptible to many dangers, both in social and literal senses (Dyer, 1997).  This may then leave one to wonder why it is that the movie 300 features partially-naked white men, almost the entire time.  The basis for this decision is that there are also numerous advantages in displaying and exposing the white male body, which was not known or understood until the latter half of the 21st Century.   
First of all, the body shape, size, and appearance can help support and/or refute some pre-existing notions about “the white man”.  On one end of the spectrum, it can aid in reinforcing hegemonic views about the “bodily superiority” of the white Aryan race (Dyer, 1997).  At the same time, it is intended to serve as a counter-argument to alternative claims that “perhaps non-whites have better bodies, run faster, reproduce more easily, [and] have bigger muscles” (Dyer, 1997, p. 263).  Thus, the “near-perfect” body figures of the Spartans in 300 serves as both a confirmation of some dominant, lingering perceptions; while, also challenging and marginalizing unconventional expressions of thoughts that endanger widespread beliefs of white superiority (Adam & Savran, 2002).  This authentication process, which is achieved through exhibiting the bare chests and legs of the Spartan warriors, vastly outweighs the pitfalls of displaying the vulnerable body of a Caucasian man.
Another benefit of exhibiting toned and athletic Spartans in the movie 300 is that notions of “bodybuilding in popular culture articulates white masculinity,” and white traditions (p. 264).  Among these are the ancient references to Greek and Roman art that this depiction of the built body makes.  Thus, the image of the Spartans in 300 represents a mythical past where the white man conquered and dominated all other uncivilized lands and cultures.  Additionally, the Spartans’ fit bodies also denote other existing ideologies, such as what it means to be a true American which, at its best and purest form, entails adhering to a “fortiori Californian lifestyle.” This standard of living can be characterized by an individual who is affluent, successful and makes health-conscious choices in life (Adams & Savran, 2002, p. 264; Dyer, 1997).  
Furthermore, the toned and athletic appearance of the Spartans has religious connections and significations as well.  The presence of bodybuilding in Hollywood films “draws on Christian imagery [as] the activity itself involves pain, bodily suffering, and with it the idea of the value of pain” (Adams & Savran, 2002, p. 265).  These religious overtones help in broadening the appeal of movies like 300 to include a wide white Christian audience.  In addition, the physical aesthetic features possessed by the Spartans, display and emphasize signifiers of whiteness as the epitome of power, wealth, accomplishment, beauty and naturalness. 
Last and most importantly, while the Spartans are white, pure and willing to sacrifice everything they have to defend their land in the name of honour and freedom; the Persians are dark-skinned (sometimes even black) barbarians threatening to invade and kill the “civilized” Europeans.  In dominant discourse, blackness has, and continues to be a prime attribute of the perception of the Other.  This stems from long-held beliefs that associate blacks with “the dark side, evil, and villains [and Whites as] the good side, truth and heroes” (Kunucen & Gungor, 2008, p. 192).  This parallelization of skin color to other abstract meanings has been termed the “possessive investment in whiteness” by George Lipsitz (2006).  In other words, by using one’s skin colour to signify either conformity (black) or freedom (white), movies like 300 firmly contrast two races and cultures from each other.  In addition, these distorted views serve to enable the “Occident” to “gain in strength and identity by setting [themselves] off against the Orient” (Said, 1978, p. 3).  
These harsh and aggressive models of comparison based on irrelevant relationships between one’s skin colour and character are amongst some of the naive and racist narratives that have occurred repeatedly in Hollywood films.  One of the main reasons why such prejudiced discourses have continued to reverberate is because they demand limited or no justifications and explanations.  Essentially then, as Berg (2002) puts it, “stereotypes are an extremely cheap and cost-effective means of telling a movie story.”  Additionally, the evolving white audience tastes have also played a role in the progressively intolerant rejection of movies that depict minorities in a positive light or that consist of casts that whites cannot identify with (Gray, 2005).  Therefore, in order for a movie to be a “blockbuster hit,” it needs to always incorporate a white cast, alongside foreign and un-relatable characters.
The oppositional representations between the Persians and the Spartans in 300 only intensify the “us versus them” dichotomy that has prevailed in mainstream media and, in particular, in blockbuster movies. Notions of Orientalism are evident in the way this film portrays Persians as subservient, pathetic, and feeble-minded creatures that are barbaric and uncivilized.  In Said’s (1978) view these imagined stories about the East serve as a “corporate institution for dealing with the making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it,...teaching it, settling it, [and] ruling over it” (p. 3).  In addition, the persistent and highly destructive demonization and tantalization of Middle-Easterners in Hollywood has led to stereotypical views of the Other as cruel, vicious, merciless, heartless, brutal and primitive (Shaheen, 2001).  Lastly, these leading binary constructions allow for the sustaining of a racial power hierarchy that privileges whites.   
Another purpose dehumanization serves is that it eliminates “any dissonance that may be aroused by [one’s] cruelty towards [his or her] enemy” and, importantly, legitimizes violence (Aronson & Pratkanis, 2002, p. 47).  In other words, when audience members are exposed to the extremely violent-natured movie of 300¸ they may begin feeling uncomfortable and even sympathetic towards the Orient (Persians), given the film’s gruesome battle scenes.  This is a risk that mainstream Hollywood directors and producers want to avoid at all costs.  Again economic reasons factor into these decisions and views as whites continue to be the “ideal subjects of consumerism and representation; while people of color are simply political subjects [whose] cultural traditions and identities...must be transformed” in order to attract white audiences (Gray, 2005, p. 95).  Thus, the mainstream movie industry merely cannot afford to jeopardize, alienate or insult these highly profitable and sought-after audience segments of population.  Hence, to prevent offending and confusing White audiences, and in order to cater and appease to their changing tastes, the practice of the dehumanization of Persians is adopted.  Through dehumanization, ruthless acts of violence are justified in the audiences’ minds as they are led and encouraged to believe that the “victim somehow deserve” the treatment they received (Aronson & Pratkanis, 2002, p. 46).  This minimization of humanity and maximization of the culpability of the victim is seen in 300 through the depiction of Persians as malformed giants covered in facial and body piercings whose sole mission is to destroy the White civilization.
Henry Giroux (1996) argues that representations of violence and race are interconnected events rather than isolated ones.  In fact, through a strategic process of exclusion and inclusion, these depictions strongly reinforce one another.  By portraying Persians as the common enemy, excessive violence is used and rationalized by the Spartans in order to defeat them.  The impact of violence in movies and television shows on audience behaviours has been extensively studied in fields of psychology, sociology and communication (Anderson & Bushman, 2001; Pratkanis, 1997; Schneider, 1987).  Albert Bandura was one of the first researchers whose influential findings brought light to the issue of the effects of aggressive mass media models on behaviour. 
Through an extensive experiment, Bandura was able to confirm that children tend to imitate violent models seen in TV shows and films (Aronson & Pratkanis, 2002).  In his now famous 1960s experiment, Bandura first showed half of the participating children a brief film of a woman beating up a Bobo doll and then offered them an opportunity to play with a variety of toys, including the exhibited plastic doll.  Those who had just watched the adult figure harm the Bobo doll, were more likely to smack, strike, and punch the Bobo doll, once they were offered a chance to play with this toy, which illustrates that aggressive models can have negative impacts on viewers’ behaviours (Aronson & Pratkanis, 2002).  Other studies such as those conducted by Atkin, Greenberg, Korzenny and McDermott (1979) and Murray (1994) have also reached similar conclusions in their experiments, providing support that exposure to aggressive models is positively correlated with a range of antisocial behaviours among audience members including verbal and physical abuse towards complete strangers.
As nearly five decades of research have shown: there is a cause and effect relationship between aggressive models and viewers’ behaviours (Aronson & Pratkanis, 2002; Atkin et al., 1979; Murray, 1994).  There is now no denying the fact that media violence can have ensuing negative effect on children’s’ and adult’s actions; regardless of whether the act is a segregated one or part of a more complex scenario (Aronson & Pratkanis, 2002).  This is why the welcomed and accepted use of outright violence in 300 sends the wrong message to viewers.  The highly aggressive depictions in this film not only normalize—but even glamorize harsh and volatile relationships with and towards minority groups.  Thus, it can be argued that movies like 300, which display highly aggressive models, can impact Caucasian spectators by instilling and reinforcing in them attitudes of dominance, control and strict authority over the Other (Said, 1979). 
In addition, it is important to keep in mind that everyday acts of violence stem from somewhere; they are “neither...innocent nor [do they] emerge outside of existing historical contexts and social relationships” (Giroux, 1996, p. 220).  Motion pictures are one way in which people learn how to interact with members of other races.  Hence, through repeated exposures to films like 300, it becomes increasingly tolerable to marginalize individuals belonging to an identified out-group through force and violence.  This dangerous message disseminated can also contribute to an increase or promotion of “hate crimes” in society.  Hate crimes are defined as serious criminal acts that are almost always motivated and fuelled by racial and ethnic differences (CBC News, 2004). 
The Political Agenda of the Movie
While a chauvinistic discourse prevails in 300, some supporters of the film still insist that the movie is not racist for the following reasons: firstly, they claim that Frank Miller and Zac Snyder had no motives or objectives in creating a Hollywood production that would be racially prejudiced towards Persians. Secondly, that free speech is a sacred American right which allows, welcomes, and protects diverse expressions and points of views; and lastly, that motion pictures are mere entertainment and thus should not be taken seriously (Kirby, 2005).  These types of statements and rationalizations are unequivocally false, naive, and dangerous as they do not take into account the contexts and conditions under which most of these movies, including 300, are released or the highly negative social and political impacts they can have. 
For instance, 300 was released in 2006, post 9/11, a historical period marked by a series of highly traumatic Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks in America (Nazemroaya, 2006).  The years after 9/11 also saw the launching of a “War on Terror,” an international-scale conflict between the United States and two Middle Eastern countries: Iraq and Afghanistan.  The September 11th events can be attributed with drastically changing the representations of Middle Easterners in the media and particularly, in Hollywood movies (Nazemroaya, 2006).  One of the main dynamics that has emerged since the onset of 9/11 is that Hollywood producers and writers have continuously and increasingly tried to cash in on this devastating phenomenon by creating and disseminating movies that reinforce and reinstate audience’s lingering fears and anxieties of the Other.  As Lipsitz rightfully (2006), argues “blockbusters profit from exploiting white fears and provoking them into panic selling” (p. 14).  This is primarily achieved through biased portrayals of Middle Eastern countries and peoplesas is the case with Persians in 300which strategically appear in emotionally-charged times of instability and chaos. 
It is also worth noting that it was during the same time span that the American people were beginning to have doubts about the War on Middle East, given the tremendous amounts of time, money, and innocent lives this on-going conflict was claiming (National Priorities Project, 2010).  Consequently, the American people were beginning to express these opposing views while, at the same time, withdrawing their support and resources for this war (Shah, 2007).  This state of transition, characterized by a swinging political support, posed a significant threat to the status quo, which needed media vehicles to lead the wider citizenry back to their state of compliance and loyalty (McNair, 2007).  Thus, in a sense, Zac Snyder’s and Frank Miller’s film, 300, can be seen as an agenda-setting project aimed at regaining the confidence, trust, and assistance of the public by portraying a segment of Middle Eastern population, the Persians, in a degrading and demeaning manner.  In addition, due to their timely production and circulation, Hollywood movies like 300 can be accredited for re-legitimizing the war by sustaining hostile relationships between the East and the West and maximizing the degree of popular consent (McNair, 2007).   
The circumstances listed above serve as the underlying and hidden political motives of of the movie’s director and writer.  In addition, the agenda-setting function of this film is further evident through an explicit interview that Frank Miller gave with National Public Radio (NPR), following the release of 300 on January 24th, 2007.  In this revealing dialogue, when the 300 graphic novelist, Frank Miller, is asked about his opinion on President George W. Bush’s annual state of the union address, he responds the following:

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…. Mighty cultures are almost never conquered, 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 (National Public Radio, 2010).

In this passage alone, Frank Miller’s bigoted opinions about the East are ludicrously clear.  His referring of Middle East as “an existential foe” provides an understanding of his portrayals of Persians in his book 300.  As well, his superiority views of the Western World as “mighty cultures” are yet another distorted element that is incorporated in the fiction of 300.  In addition, his perceptions of Americans as “spoiled brats,” suggests that one of the main intentions of the movie was to regain support for the war by reclaiming the trust and confidence of the public through a fictionalized defeat of the inferior East.  Here are some of the other important excerpts from the telling and self-explanatory interview derived from the NPR Web site (2010):   

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

Frank Miller: 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....

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.

Frank Miller: 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?

Frank Miller: ...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.

As evident through this candid interview, Frank Miller’s rhetoric and ways of thinking are both racist and ignorant.  By using loaded words like “enemy” and “common foe,” Miller is tapping into widespread Western anxiety, fears, and views of the East as a global threat to safety, peace, stability and security.  In particular, his demonization of the Other only reinforce Orientalist binary constrictions of race while rationalizing and promoting maltreatments of scapegoated groups.  Perhaps the most disturbing part of this dialogue is his critiques of the then president, George W. Bush, for not calling “the nation into a state of war” immediately following 9/11, and the education system for teaching that “all cultures are equal, and every belief system is as good as the next.”  These chauvinistic attitudes suggest that, like many other white supremacists, Frank Miller also believes that the only appropriate form of interaction with other races is through the use of overt violence, terrorization, and dominance.   Additionally, why accepting and perceiving everyone as virtuous and as of equal status is problematic is beyond insulting, ignorant, and fathomable.  
Through his xenophobic and distorted perceptions of Middle Easterners as barbaric, violent people, Miller’s political agenda, in 300, is revealed through this on air discussion, which was heard by millions of people nationwide (National Public Radio, 2010).  Specifically, in order to protect political interests, this graphic novelist legitimizes existing hierarchies and asymmetrical power relations between marginalized and mainstream groups.  Ultimately, the words and phrases Frank Miller utilizes in this broadcast interview provide valuable clues to the significant role his subconscious and deep-rooted stereotypes could have played in his prejudiced depictions of Persians in 300.  As one Persian audience member has framed it, Miller’s stereotyped portrayals and ways of thinking attribute shared global values of peace, solidarity, and justice to the “monopoly of a ‘select’ [white] race while [undermining] the countless achievements and contributions of other races to human civilization” (Rezaeiyazdi, 2005).  
            The mainstream media are a significant mechanism for sustaining hegemony (McNair, 2007).  Through reinforcing pre-existing ideas of race and white supremacy, Hollywood movies today, manufacture and maintain support for Western dominance over Middle East by replicating and distributing knowledge that favours and caters to white interests and status quo (Ericson, Baranek, & Chan, 1991, p. 12).  In particular, the distorted representations of Persians in the blockbuster movie 300, serves as an ego-boosting of white, middle and upper class racial identity by reaffirming doctrines of superiority.  This is achieved primarily through techniques of dehumanization, inferiorization, and violence, as well as, contrasting images between the two races. 
The “us versus them” dichotomy appears in many forms, some blatant and others more subtle.  Firstly, while the Spartan warriors possess heroic and attractive traits, the Persians are depicted in the exact opposite manner, as cowards and treacherous individuals.  In addition, overt distinctions are exposed through the physical characteristics attributed to each racial group.  Whereas the Persians are disfigured, faceless creatures; the European counterparts are all good-looking, fit, built and athletic.  Finally, in order to highlight and reinforce negative stereotypical beliefs about skin colour, the Persians in the movie are dark-skinned and sometimes even black, while the Spartans are white symbolizing purity and freedom.  Such naive, arbitrary and bigoted differences employed in this film contribute to supporting white chauvinism. 
Excessive violence directed at the Persians in the movie 300 also raises wider racial issues of discrimination.  As discussed above, numerous studies have shown that aggressive mass media models can have profound harmful impacts on viewers’ behaviours and actions.  Thus, through the use of welcomed and accepted use of outright violence, these highly problematic depictions not only normalize but even glamorize harsh and volatile relationships with and towards minority groups (Aronson & Pratkanis, 2002; Atkin et al., 1979; Murray, 1994).
It is time for Hollywood producers and directors to start accepting some degree of responsibility and accountability for the social and political messages their movies convey and disseminate.  As long as profit-oriented motives are the driving force for the construction and circulation of mainstream films, then we will continue to see racist ideologies prevail.  If change is to ever occur, the existing economic equation needs to be replaced with more socially conscious ones.  In addition, greater opportunities and spaces need to be afforded to minority voices so that they can also build, encourage, and promote more diverse and positive representations of their cultures and peoples.        

Movie Trailer: 

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