‘HEAVILY FICTIONALISED’: THE SADISTIC TREATMENT OF ARTEMISIA IN 300, RISE OF AN EMPIRE

When I saw Zack Snyder’s 300 (2006), based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller, I knew at once that was a film I would write about –infuriating but original, ridiculous but deliciously camp, dangerous in its exaltation of laddism but key to understand today’s patriarchal backlash.

I did write about it, criticising its failure to produce a dignified model of masculinity for the hero and its blatant homophobia. You may see the results at my own web (https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/content/chapters-books). I also included it in the syllabus of the sessions I teach on heroism for the Cultural Studies module in UAB’s MA in Literary and Cultural Studies. It never fails to stir debate, particularly as regards its wild departures from historical evidence.

Sooner or later, then, I was bound to see the sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire, directed by Noam Murro, but scripted, like 300, by Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad, and also based on a graphic novel by Miller, Xerxes. I’m now horrified –not just in an intellectual sense, meaning that I abhor the film for its low quality. I’m horrified in a very physical sense, for I am worried sick about the (possible) reactions of male audiences when seeing what is done to Artemisia, played by Eva Green. Let me explain. (I’m actually writing this to keep a clear memory of my dread for future reference, as I need to teach 300 again in the MA and in my new BA course on ‘Gender Studies’).

300 takes the story of Leonidas’s defeat by Xerxes at the Battle of Thermopylae and turns it into a celebration of the male body in military action. A handful of almost naked Spartans sporting awesome six-pack abs maim in slow motion, displaying plenty of blood and guts, the heavily-clad, ineffectual ‘Immortals.’ The Persian forces are led, to cap this widely distorted version of History, by an orientalised Xerxes styled as a barbarian drag queen. The whole concept depends on the by now famous scenes of carnage and on the unwitting camp subtext contributed by Rodrigo Montoro’s bejewelled Xerxes and, to a great extent, by Gerard Butler’s tongue-in-cheek performance as Leonidas. If anyone on that set understood how preposterous the whole film was, that was Butler.

If you check IMDB you will see that the tide in favour of 300, by now a cult film, has not abated in eight years. The film still has a remarkable 7’8 rating despite the many protests from Iranians outraged at Hollywood’s mistreatment of the glories of the Persian Empire (the Americans were then occupying Iraq). 300: Rise of an Empire (which empire? even the title is confused) has a much more modest 6’5 rating, absolutely too high in view of the trash this film is.

What has changed is the amount of resistance from those misrepresented. Many non-American spectators, including many from Iran and Greece, have raised their voices against this atrocity for its total disregard of the History books (a matter that begs the question of why historians work at all). Among the very negative reviews only one, though, complained that Eva Green’s Artemisia is an ‘obscene’ rendering of the Strong Female Character. In contrast, and this is scary, her Artemisia is often praised among the most positive opinions about the film (mainly by American men).

The point I want to raise here is not so much a complaint against this Queen’s misrepresentation on the screen but in particular about the end that Green’s Artemisia receives. The historical character was, though Greek, a wily ally of Xerxes. She did command five ships in the battle of Salamis, which she survived with a little bit of trickery. And, well, she was an aristocrat, daughter, wife and mother of kings and a queen herself. Instead, Miller, Snyder and Johnstad imagine her as an orphan raised by Xerxes’ father Darius, saved from a miserable life of sexual abuse after her whole family is massacred by the Greeks. The girl is raised to be, basically, a psychopathic killing machine enmeshed in an obsessive game of revenge. She participates with the same glee as the Athenians in killing and maiming her enemies.

What scared me is that the whole point of this movie is raising a justification to (spoilers!!) kill Artemisia. Queen Gorgo, Leonidas’s widow, is given the narrator’s voice and the final battle scene as a way to maintain a certain political correctness, if that makes any sense at all. Yet, the whole concept behind this sequel is justifying the scene in which Athenian general Themistocles (played by a totally useless Australian actor) stabs Artemisia in the belly (the womb?), draws the corresponding explosion of blood and watches her die. What you see –forget about the characters– is a heavily muscled man doing his ‘duty’: killing a woman, who, well, was asking for it.

In a previous scene, said Themistocles is, predictably, seduced by beautiful Artemisia in an extremely ugly and vulgar scene, which is anything but subtle. The whole point in that scene is that Themistocles gets to fuck (excuse me) Artemisia but refuses her tempting offer to side with her in battle –thus humiliating her. I forgot to say that Xerxes, who respected the real Artemisia very much, slaps this one hard as soon as he has the chance.

Strong Female Characters, about whom I wrote a post last September, reach with Artemisia a sad climax. Male screen writers routinely present them in isolation from other women, as signs of how freakish female empowerment is, and, what is more worrying in 300: Rise of an Empire, as embodiments of pure misogyny disguised as something else (justified enemy hatred in battle). You might argue that Miller, Snyder and Johnstad’s Artemisia is the very incarnation of Judith Halbertsam’s questioned ‘female masculinity’ and, thus, a step beyond femininity.

The physical prowess she displays, though, which is simply impossible in real life in which even a small gang of brutal men can overpower any woman, is by no means intended to cheer women up but to give a further justification for Artemisia’s murder –for, after all, she shows herself quite capable of attacking Themistocles. Her choice to die as an honourable enemy rather than live captive (again) makes sense in the patriarchal script. Still, no matter, I see a man kill a woman callously and brutally for ‘justified’ reasons.

What made my hair stand on end was the realization that lads all over America, and possibly in other countries, must have cheered on at this climax. Green/Artemisia’s screen death is, of course, just one more among many thousands cinema has depicted, both male and female. Yet, what makes it particularly galling for me is that Artemisia is initially presented as a victim of patriarchal violence as a child and a young woman. The victim grows revengeful by embracing the very violence that turned against her family and for that she is victimised again –not raped, as she becomes too powerful for that, but killed.

So much for (anti-patriarchal) justice.

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