300: The Straightening of the Spartans

Zack Snyder
Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West, Rodrigo Santoro

The movie 300 is getting a lot of attention for being a surprise runaway hit—and for an offhanded and seemingly unnecessary comment that disparages gays. And while certain corners are focusing on this comment and why it had to be made, it's important to keep in mind the larger question: Why did the film make all of its Spartans, historically understood to be homosexual, into devoted heterosexuals?


We open shortly after the birth of Leonidas, who gets his Roots/Lion King moment where he’s held toward the sky on one of those rock promontories seemingly designed precisely for such a purpose. Then we learn that his entire life is to be comprised of training to be a soldier / killing machine, and his greatest glory will be to die for Sparta. Then he goes off on his initiation, where he is taken away from his mother and goes off into the wilderness by himself. If this movie bore any relation to the real Greek tradition, he would be “kidnapped” by his uncle or Dad’s best friend, taken into the wilderness, and taught to hunt as well as take it up the ass, in addition to other virtues [including a reverence for erotic love between men] which will all result in him becoming a real man. In the movie here Leonidas is out in the wilderness by himself, and he faces a big fake-looking wolf that he kills, in a nod to those African rituals in which a boy has to go out and kill a big animal before he’s allowed to be a full member of the tribe.

Anyway so he grows up and marries a sssmokin’ wife, and has a son who he is seen playfully wrassling with. Whether this kid is in the Spartan warrior training program is assumed but not comfirmed. Maybe Leonidas was just visiting his wife, but it doesn’t seem like it—although in real Ancient Greece he would have spent the bulk of his time in the company and loving arms of his fellow soldiers, and perhaps sneaked out at night to visit his wife—although that behavior was frowned upon. And by the way, on a Spartan man’s wedding night, his wife would cut her hair short, like a boy, dress in boy’s clothes and darken the chamber.

Anyway, Leonidas is now a full-blown hunk in the form of a muscly Gerard Butler, best-known for his role in the Schumacher The Phantom of the Opera, and also Timeline. I had a bit of an attitude about him based on those two movies, but I really liked him here. He looked great and was completely convincing, pretty good when you consider that this whole thing was shot on a soundstage with no environments. He also seems to have been chosen based on his ability to look like an ancient bronze statue come to life, which he succeeds wildly at—especially the way they have made up his eyes and hair. So it’s kind of a gimmick a surely the most superficial view of what Greece was, seemingly based entirely upon Greek art and old movies, but you know what? it’s kind of fun that way. It’s like Jurassic Park, but with ancient Greeks instead of dinosaurs.

Okay, so the plot. One day this Persian messenger shows up in Sparta and asks Leonidas to surrender his city or face invasion and certain defeat. Leonidas kicks him and his men down this deep well, which is considered a bit hot-headed of him, since you just don’t kill the messenger. This scene is the notorious one in which Leonidas speaks disparagingly of the Athenians as “Boy-lovers,” which has caused outcry among some gay critics because here the movie really is going out of its way to criticize “boy lovers,” and, like, why do they need to? I think the answer is quite clear, but I’m going to leave that discussion until after we’ve covered the whole plot. I will, however, inform you that in reality, “boy-loving” in Sparta as well as Athens was in fact socially enforced, culturally idealized, and an integral part of daily life. So the real question is not why they had to go out of their way to make the mean-spirited “boy-lover” comment, but why they had to MAKE ALL THE SPARTANS STRAIGHT. But again, we’re going to save that for further along, once we’ve finished discussing the plot.

Speaking of straight, there is a relatively long sex scene in which Leonidas and his wife [whose part was said to be pumped up to appeal to potential female moviegoers] have sex before he leaves, which seems calculated to supply the audience with some female tits to balance out all the abundant pectorals on display. There is also, later on, a mystical dance by a woman in a thin veil that focuses on her breasts and considerably perky nipples. Anyway, as the Spartans make their way to Thermopylae, where they will array themselves in a narrow pass, they see that the Persians have been ahead of them, burning cities and making a grotesque tree out of dead bodies. It’s sort of like a big art project. So then they’re really peeved.

So the Spartans march in this overwhelming wall of developed chests and muscles, which is more than a little bizarre-looking. Incidentally, real Spartans insisted on fighting in the nude. Here they’re all in black leather Speedos, which I suppose is a reasonable compromise. By the way, an ancient Greek's power as a warrior was considered to spring precisely FROM his love and reverence of men, not primarily from his intense training and devotion to the woman he loves. Anyway, after a short scene with a deformed guy that I won’t even go into, they’re ready to face the enemy.

They do this by arraying themselves in a narrow mountain pass and forcing the Persians to come in after them. The film is good and building up to that first initial clash and expressing the power of it, although I was a little confused as to the importance of the pass if the Spartan’s are going to come running out of it first thing. We now have a balletic sequence of Leonidas charging forward, facing oncoming enemies and slaughtering them all. I guess now’s is good a time as any to mention the pointless and distracting voice-over that comes on unnecessarily and takes one out of the movie. On several occasions.

Then Xerxes, head of the Persians, shows up and has a chit-chat with Leonidas. Xerxes is a huge guy in makeup and extensive bling who seethes and huffs like any imperious queen you know. I believe that, despite what little we know of his sexuality, we are explicitly to understand that Xerxes represents all that is NOT masculine. He wants to win, sure, but what he really wants is Leonidas to kneel in submission before him. And it’s impossible not to notice that if Leonidas were to kneel, it would be before Xerxes’ rather bulbous crotch. So fight some more, fight fight, while we also cut away for some action as the Queen [not Xerxes] petitions the Spartan council to send reinforcements after Leonidas.

More battle, more battle, until we get to the end. Leonidas does kneel before Xerxes—from a great distance—and while he’s doing it he thinks of his wife. But it’s all a ruse to launch one shot of a phallic spear at the evil queen leader, which misses killing him, but is symbolic. For a second there, you really think it’s going to go right in his mouth. Then the 300 Spartans are defeated, with Leonidas, as he dies, calling out “My queen! My wife! My life!” Huh, I thought it was all about Sparta and glory, but whatever. This whole scene bears the faint odor of contrivance, as the Spartans were thus far portrayed as unstoppable warriors, but now seemingly just give up and let themselves be slaughtered. Well, I guess the movie had to end sometime. After a little wrap-up [the Spartan reinforcements, moved by Leonidas’ sacrifice, go to fight and win], we have an awesome animated credit sequence that’ll keep you happily in your seat for a while.


So let us turn to the question of the homosexuality, or lack thereof. This movie is an excellent example of the principle laid out in my essay The Function of the Fag, in that it purposely disowns homosexuality in order to retain its appeal to the widest possible audience.

When pondering why almost all traces of homosexuality in the notoriously homosexual Ancient Greeks, one can imagine sniveling studio executives twirling their mustaches as they nefariously craft an anti-gay agenda. But it seems more reasonable to consider straightforward business realities. This is a movie aimed primarily at boys aged 14-25. The bulk of this movie is made up of shots of muscled men wearing leather thongs. More than that, the primary theme of the movie is the glory and admiration of masculinity. And a lot of 14-25 year old boys can be made distinctly uncomfortable by spending two hours admiring muscle guys in leather thongs. Therefore, if the studios want this movie to succeed with its intended audience, they need to find a way to make it really, really NOT GAY.

From this perspective it’s easy to see the function the “boy-lover” comment serves—and why it has to be placed at the beginning of the movie. It’s important to establish for the audience right up front that they are not watching a bunch of gay muscle dudes. The comment addresses what the audience knows about the Greeks’ homosexual practice, but disowns it: “We, the Spartans, are not homosexual. They, the Athenians, are. And not only are we not like them, we don’t even like them.” Whew—I feel better already!

The movie then finds ways to reinforce the heterosexuality of its heroes, for the purpose of allaying any surge of gay panic that might overcome its audience’s ability to enjoy the movie, see it again, and recommend it to their friends. The multitude of narratively-unnecessary shots focused on admiring women’s breasts is an important part of this. So is the intense focus on the devotion the men have to their wives, with the overriding sense that this devotion comprises what is morally right. And surely it is no accident that in this film’s view, a fate worse than death is not, well, death, but to kneel in submission before another man—let alone a big queeny man in makeup and jewelry with a big stuffed crotch. So if you’re going to do that, you’d better be thinking of your wife the whole time. Looked at this way, it’s no surprise to see that Leonidas’ preferred method to defeat Xerxes is an attempt to shove his big spear right down the back of his throat.

Without apologizing for the movie, and leaving aside the question of how ‘right’ all of this straightening-out is, one has to consider that 300 handles its disowning of homosexuality in a less offensive way than other movies that also feature multiple admirable hunks, and thus also run the risk of gay panic ruining their box office. Both movies covered in The Function of the Fag; the Adam Sandler remake of The Longest Yard and Con Air, are good examples of movies that also center around the admiration of big, strong muscle guys. And they both use the same method to defuse potential gay discomfort in their audiences: place prominent, exaggeratedly effeminate gay characters front and center, and let them serve as objects of derision. This tells the boys in the audience “There’s nothing gay about you—THAT is what gays are like, and look how ridiculous they are.” If 300 accomplishes this disowning of homosexuality by focusing less on how ludicrous gays are, and more on how very much the Spartans love their wives [while quietly hoping we won't remember the fact that, historically, the vast majority of them would be more devoted to loving each other], that can, relatively speaking, be considered preferable.

Much as we like to retain the notion that movies are the result of unfettered creativity, the reality remains that for this creativity to be realized and released, movies need to be well-positioned to make money. And the perception, probably correct, is that throngs of young moviegoing males feeling uncomfortable about their admiration for scantily-clad men will probably have a direct effect on weekend grosses. Right or wrong, with movies like 300, disowning homosexuality is good box office.