Only the hard. Only the strong.

Warning: this post contains spoilers about the movie The 300.

It doesn’t take a hard-core feminist to recognize that women are generally portrayed poorly (if at all) in each of comic books, war movies, and movies set in Ancient Greece/Rome. The fact that The 300 is all three of those things didn’t bode well for my expectations in this regard. Boy, was I pleasantly surprised.

Granted, there is only one female character who speaks–the queen, who has the unfortunate name of Gorgo–but she is far from a typical, token wife, pining away helplessly for her warrior husband and his mutually recognized superiority. On the contrary, Leonidas looks to her, both literally and figuratively, for both strength and confirmation that he is doing the right thing. There is a great scene in their bedroom as he tries to figure out how to fight this war, and remind himself why it’s worth fighting, during which it becomes apparent that she represents to him all that is worth holding onto in life–strength, confidence, independence. He sees her as his equal, and uses the idea of “being her king” as a statement of his willingness to serve her. When he is on his way to battle with just 300 fighters, the voiceover tells us “Only the hard, only the strong can call themselves Spartan. Only the hard. Only the strong”, panning from Leonidas’ face on “only the hard” to Queen Gorgo’s, struggling with grief but locked in determination, on “only the strong”.

Women in the society portrayed have essentially no power, but Gorgo uses what aspects are available to her. She becomes the political voice of the warriors, trying to get the assembly to send help to the 300. She’s the one who makes the inspiring speech in the legislature about independence and hope. Her husband is the brawn, and while a capable military leader, he doesn’t have her brains in this regard–the simple, raw emotion of his battlefield speeches contrast with her eloquent, big picture analysis.

Recognizing the political expedience of her husband’s situation, she tries to negotiate one of the legislators onto her side. He rapes her. I was going to dance around the set up to that, but the reality is: he rapes her. She sees it coming, as he essentially extorts sex out of her with the promise that if she does it, he will arrange to send help to her husband–meaning the difference between his chance to live and certain death. She removes her own dress, but just in case the “power hungry rape” element were going to be lost in that, he says to her “This will not be over quickly. You will not enjoy this. I am not your king”. It’s chilling, and even he can see and highlight that her relationship with the king is one of mutual respect and service (it would seem to me that semantically speaking, being “king” over someone, including one’s wife, should be a sign of ultimate power, but that’s clearly not how it’s being used). Practically needless to say, he betrays her when it comes time to do what he promised, and calls her an adulterer, saying not only that she offered himself to her, but that he refused her disgusting sexual advances. In front of the entire assembly, she first breaks down in shock and shouts that he is lying, then, as she is being restrained by several guards, she pretends to submit, pretends that he has succeeded in erasing her will (mirroring her husband’s actions against Xerxes later), before grabbing a sword from one of the guards and running her rapist through. She leans into him and spits “This will not be over quickly. You will not enjoy this. I am not your queen”.

Hell yeah, says I. That’s what I’m talking about, right there. Only the hard. Only the strong.

Comments

  1. Jennifer Kesler says

    Interesting. You know, TV and film tropes have almost ruined the possibility of a good, believable plot involving rape (and I agree, sexual extortion is rape). It sounds like this might be something that doesn’t feel like the typical obligatory “now we must rape the heroine, because the target audience gets off on it” scene.

    The resolution, in which she takes his life, makes it clear the meta-message is that the society depicted is unfair to women. And that the natural, eventual response to imbalance is violence – if a peaceful solution is not allowed to be reached first. (ETA the “not”, which I left out first time – oops.)

    That message still applies today.

  2. Maartje says

    But there’s another message. I haven’t seen the movie, and I’ve never heard of the queen Gorgo. I have heard of Leonidas and Xerxes so their names at least are historically correct but Gorgo? The Gorgons were three sister (or in some stories there’s only one) with snakes on their heads who turned men into stone. Medusa was a Gorgo. A Gorgo is a monster.
    Maybe I’m reading too much into this, maybe they did use a person from the time period who had this unfortunate name but I think it’s a little more complicated than that. Simply put, by naming her Gorgo they’re sending the message that she’s not a woman, but a monster. Her strength is not a woman’s strength but a monster’s and like most mythological monsters, she will get slain.

  3. says

    I’m not gonna comment on Purtek’s take on the movie, since I haven’t seen it, but I did want to jump in and say that Gorgo was a real person, and that was her real name. There are lots of liberties with history in 300, from what I know, but that’s not one of them.

  4. Maartje says

    Ah well, I should’ve known better than to think misogyny was in the details. Thanks for the correction Revena.

  5. Purtek says

    Yeah, a historian friend of mine tells me that in Herodotus’ account of this, Queen Gorgo is barely mentioned, so her awesomeness is entirely the product of a point that Miller/the filmmakers wanted to make (I read the comic ages ago, but I have this plot-forgetting disease, so I can’t say how much is in there).

    To Betacandy: I’m really glad you brought out the meta-message here, because I felt like there was a lot more that could have been said and I couldnt’ have done it as succinctly as you have here. I liked a lot of things about the way that the rape was handled in this movie–there’s no question in my mind that extorting sex out of a woman and essentially using her husband’s life to do it is rape, but when she takes her own dress off, I would probably move into the minority…until he delivers those lines. I also think her reaction is completely in-character, and as you say, highlights that she really feels like she has no non-violent choice.

    In real life, I’m quite the pacifist, and I’m not much of a believer in violent revenge. Sometimes I feel like a hypocrite for liking a movie like this because of that, but it is part of a bigger social picture being presented. The whole theme of the movie is fighting, standing up for yourself when it looks hopeless, because there’s no honour in handing over control of yourself to another person/nation. It’s better to die fighting for your freedom than it is to live enslaved, emotionally, spiritually or otherwise. And she fits into this, battling the threat of from within Sparta on an individual scale while her husband and the 300 fight for the nation itself. Metaphorically speaking, I can absolutely appreciate that.

  6. Jennifer Kesler says

    I’m no fan of violence, either, but I think if you keep people artificially restrained long enough in life – through outright slavery or merely glass walls and ceilings – eventually the pressure tends to explode.

    Stories like this could sneak that message into the mind of someone who’s on the fence about becoming an activist and make him decide, “Yeah, I have to help find a peaceful solution before it’s too late, or else I’m part of the problem.”

  7. thisisendless says

    I have to say that I really liked this movie. When she turns and kills him in front of the assembly I literally jumped in my chair and actually exclaimed “yeah!”. Perhaps I felt a little over-vindicated there.

    I did think a lot about her character after seeing it. And I too appreciated how strong they made her, and in so many senses. I do think it was good that they did not indulge in a gratuitously graphic rape scene. That too was handled well.

    I also thought the visual aspects of the movie were stunning.

    I am so happy to see that you wrote about this because I was thinking all the same things you wrote about, and it is nice to see her character acknowledged in this way.

    I will probably go see it again because my mom wants to see it and her friends don’t generally like this kind of movie.

  8. Jennifer Kesler says

    Again, I haven’t seen this and shouldn’t be commenting. :D

    That said, it sounds like possibly this movie makes it very clear that sexual extortion IS rape. That just because the victim submits to the inevitable… submission IS NOT CONSENT.

    That’s another message an astonishingly large number of people don’t get, male and female. I would estimate, just from what I’ve heard from people, that the failure to distinguish between submitting to sex and consenting to it is a contributing cause to quite a lot of rape incidents, many of which may not even be recognized by a woman who doesn’t realize she has a choice.

  9. nick says

    the “point” of the queen gorgo rape was to illustrate the ancient greek belief that women have no honor, & that ultimately only men can have honor because only men can overcome their emotions with reason and ideals.

    in the beginning of the film, both the king and queen are shown as equals – both strong, noble, intelligent & brave. but as the odds turn against this couple, each reacts in contrasting ways. the woman, queen gorgo, does not accept that her husband must sacrifice his life, but instead consents to dishonor & degradation in order to “cheat” this fate. her sacrifice, though at first ostensibly noble, is ultimately shown as futile.

    in contrast, her husband the king does not try to avoid death by compromising his personal dignity. in the end of the film, he is offered not only the chance to live by Xerxes, but also more wealth & power than he has ever concieved. but instead of making the “realist” choice of his wife, he embraces death as an idealist.

  10. Jennifer Kesler says

    Interesting. I have to admit that read crossed my mind, but I hoped I was being cynical – filmmakers have a long history of preferring the tale of the woman who “allowed herself to be disgraced” over more true-to-life tales of sexual extortion. That’s why I typically avoid films and TV shows involving sexual extortion: I usually come away with the distinct feeling I’m supposed to think of the woman as a used tissue, not a human being facing a difficult choice. They always make sure there’s an “out” she could have chosen, but didn’t, as if to lecture us against the imprudence of believing women ever to be blameless in issues of sexual harassment.

  11. Purtek says

    nick, I disagree fundamentally with your analysis. As I said, I think his words to her make it clear that it is a violent, misogynistic act, not a willing trade–Betacandy’s comments on the difference between submission and consent are bang-on. If she had refused to submit, would he have raped her anyway, this time with no promise to help and with much more physical risk?

    As to the desire to get him help making her “weaker” than Leonidas, I don’t understand why the queen arguing that he doesn’t have to die represents that. Both she and her husband go into this battle knowing and accepting that it’s likely, but recognizing that it’s better to die fighting than to live enslaved…that doesn’t mean Leonidas doesn’t actually fight, even with some hope that they might actually win. Better to die fighting, sure, but best of all to live free. I can be cynical with the best of them, but the actions of both members of this couple represent hope to me. There’s no mention of “fate” in the movie, so I don’t see how she’s “cheating” it, since a lot of the themes are about self-determination, not inevitable and irreversible paths playing out, and see both Betacandy’s comments and my first paragraph here regarding the “consent” to degradation.

    She fails, ultimately, but I don’t think that’s a sign we’re supposed to see her as weak all of a sudden, as first of all she not only kills her rapist, but exposes him as the traitor and vindicates herself of the crap he was spewing in the process, and second, the way she is treated is much more damning of misogyny in general than it is of her as a human being, or of her propensity for hope.

  12. Jennifer Kesler says

    When she kills the rapist and exposes him as a traitor, is that what causes Xerxes to offer him a chance to live? If so, then she achieved her goal at the cost of her own life, regardless of whether her husband takes what he was offered.

    It’s always tough to guess where filmmakers are coming from or where they’re going with plots in which women have sex with other men in order to save the men they love and are committed to. I’ve seen such plots end with the husband saying, “Thanks, but I just can’t look at you anymore, you hussy.” I’ve seen them end with the husband blaming himself for failing to protect his wife from the man with the unconscionable demands.

    What I’ve never seen is a story where the woman refused to boink the man who says, “If you don’t screw me, I’ll kill your husband” or whatever. Never once seen that bluff called by a woman. And THAT is what leaves me feeling that there could still be some underlying misogyny here.

    I wrote a while back about an episode of Briscoe County, Jr. in which an evil guy took over a town and coerced this woman into being his lover by threatening to kill her husband (who he had working in a mine). One day, the evil guy took her out somewhere and made sure she and the husband ran into one another. To the husband it looked like she was willingly with the man. He killed himself.

    Later, the first time an opportunity arose, she killed the evil guy in cold blood, and I liked that.

    Looking back, I can’t recall if she’d likely had opportunities to kill him before that. I need to check on that, because if he didn’t have a whole posse of people who would have taken their revenge on the town’s populace had she done such a thing, then I’m going to have to like her less for not killing him the first time he fell asleep after sex.

    It’s a complex type of story that I consider almost impossible to get right.

  13. SunlessNick says

    What I’ve never seen is a story where the woman refused to boink the man who says, “If you don’t screw me, I’ll kill your husband” or whatever. Never once seen that bluff called by a woman. - BetaCandy

    But I be surprised if the first plot to feature such a call doesn’t paint her as the selfish one unwilling to suffer for her SO’s sake.

  14. Jennifer Kesler says

    I agree. But at least then they would show their hand: that there is no solution to the extorted sex conundrum they will accept from a woman. The woman is going to be wrong and bad and failed, no matter how she chooses to resolve it. And therefore, the only reason to tell such a story is to bash women.

    Mind you, I DO think there’s a way for such a story to be told properly. I recall a detective show – can’t recall which one – where an episode featured a professor who demanded sexual favors from his female students as soon as the students were *this close* to getting their doctoral degrees. There wasn’t time for the students to seek recourse, even if the university had offered any, which it didn’t. Either they did the sex, or they didn’t get the degree.

    Some had given into the sexual demands to keep their hard work from going to waste. Others had refused the sexual demands and lost their degrees and gone onto less stellar careers than they should have had. As it was presented, I found it impossible to judge any of them for their responses. The best answer anyone had come up with was to kill the swine, which was how the case had come about.

    IMO, demanding sex from someone in return for something you owe them but are in a position to withhold unfairly should be rape/attempted rape. And yes, this would be available to male employees being squeezed for sexual favors from an authority figure of either gender.

  15. Mecha says

    What I’ve never seen is a story where the woman refused to boink the man who says, “If you don’t screw me, I’ll kill your husband” or whatever. Never once seen that bluff called by a woman.

    I’m currently trying to think of specific examples of that too. Blackmail is the most likely case where that happens. The ‘killing the one who would blackmail you’ idea _does_ come to mind, and I’m pretty positive it’s happened in the situation we’re talking about with respect to rape blackmail.

    However, as ugly as rape is, it’s worth considering that in the vast, vast, VAST majority of cases, the hostage bluff isn’t called in fiction. Not unless someone has an immediate out (Speed the first time, True Lies, etc.), or (feigns) not caring. It is exceedingly uncommon for someone to take a hostage of any sort, in any way, and have the protagonist say, ‘Nope, sorry, that won’t work on me,’ and then have the protagonist suffer the consequences of that action. The ‘good gal/guy’ will always do anything to save the hostage.

    See: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/PutDownYourGunAndStepAway
    and the subversions listed there: generally they’re immediate outs to take the hostage out of the equation, as it were.

    -Mecha

  16. Jennifer Kesler says

    You’re right there, Mecha.

    Which makes me wonder… even though nick’s thoughts *that the filmmakers are going for “dishonored woman” as would have been the trope of the times way back then) don’t sound implausible to me… can they reasonably expect a modern viewer not to see trading sex for someone’s life as the right and heroic thing to do? As you said, heroes of both genders (on the rare occasions they aren’t male) almost always do whatever the hostage-taker/extorter demands.

    The only differences are: rarely does anyone attempt to extort sex from men, and when that demand is made upon women, it seems to me a lot of filmmakers go out of their way to show that she HAD another “immediate out”, but she opted for sex because it was the easy way out (the meta-message “women use sex to get their way with men” frequently underlies rape scenes, which is why I have so much trouble watching most of them).

    I’ve never seen a storyline where a woman extorts sex from a man that is NOT played as erotic – like this is just a big role-playing game between them. I think you’d have to have a story where a man extorts sex from another man – not out of lust, but merely to degrade him – to get any sort of realism or honesty out of most filmmakers. They just aren’t interested in getting it right when women are involved.

  17. Mecha says

    I would, in fact, think that people would see it as heroic nowadays, hence the interpretation that started this discussion.

    As to nobody extorting sex from men, I think you are correct that it doesn’t happen in a traumatizing way ever (although my first mental example that I thought of was Data in the Borg Start Trek TNG movie, where Borg Queen very much tries to seduce Data/have ‘sex’ with him against his will, but I don’t remember enough of the movie to be certain) and this ties into the general belief that men don’t turn down sex/can’t get raped non-penetratively/men’s sexual activity isn’t precious/property/protected because don’t all men want to have sex?

    I think part of that meta-message you identify can be further explored with the standard three options: killing someone is criminal, reporting it to the police is right (but always iffy), and having sex with them is ‘easy/degrading’. In something where killing is an absolute evil, the woman will never report it to the police (otherwise, where does the drama get created?), either killing or submitting to the rape (sometimes both, in last-to-first order.) The ‘there’s an out’ thing also is presented that way because of the standard ‘Why didn’t you just turn down your boss/blackmailer?’ victim-blaming that is universal in both the real world and media. Although it happens in all sorts of coercing/blackmails, it is particularly pervasive and nasty in the case of rape. Finally, my last thought along those lines comes to the flip-side concept that blackmailing men would also be rapists. In media, if you’re a blackmailer, and you’re blackmailing a woman, sex and rape more or less comes into play immediately (because isn’t that what men _really_ want?.) A blackmailer blackmailing a woman for _just_ money, doesn’t much happen that I can think of. If it is for money, there’s often a hint that ‘when the money runs out… well, you know where he’ll get the money after that.’

    I doubt that a man extorting sex from another man will happen much of ever in pop culture, at least onscreen. There’s too many taboos. Mind you, in the modern day heteronormative society, that’d be one way to really make someone look evil, but it’d also be _gay_ evil, which likely wouldn’t be handled very well.

    -Mecha

  18. Jennifer Kesler says

    *makes note to incorporate a heterosexual man extorting sex from another heterosexual man, just to degrade him, into my online novel* ;)

    I totally agree with what you’ve said here, and have nothing to add but further examples of sex extorted from men by women, without the trauma a real life man would be entitled to feel. As we’ve mentioned so much, Hathor’s rape of Daniel on SG-1 was a contender for “sexiest” sci-fi scene in someone’s poll, and that’s how a lot of people think of it (considering Jack’s flippancy at the end of the ep, it’s not like the filmmakers did their best to convey trauma).

    Probably the best scene of this type I recall comes from Farscape – I can’t remember her name, but there’s a woman with Super!Pheremones who extorts sex from Crichton not just with the pheremones but IIRC with a threat against someone. I remember thinking it was pretty clear he did not want this, that even if she was attractive he was repulsed by what she was doing, and he was only submitting because he felt he had no choice.

  19. Mecha says

    Well, when you put it like that, I can’t say I _haven’t_ seen it, or the concepts behind it. I just can’t say I have seen it on mainstream media. Anyay.

    Doing the m-m thing for power without actual sexual preference, however, does key into one environment: prisons. I think I can leave that at that for now, although in another place discussing it would make more sense.

    I did get to see ‘Hathor’ relatively recently, as my friend is getting Stargate and we’re watching it at a relatively slow clip, which means I can actually understand what you’re talking about with regards to that (finally), and agree that ‘how that missed being a rape’ is a true mystery. It wasn’t even even vaguely sexy if it had been consensual, so how that got to be a ‘sexy’ scene… yeah. What gives, people? Ahem.

    -Mecha

  20. MaggieCat says

    Probably the best scene of this type I recall comes from Farscape – I can’t remember her name, but there’s a woman with Super!Pheremones who extorts sex from Crichton not just with the pheremones but IIRC with a threat against someone. I remember thinking it was pretty clear he did not want this, that even if she was attractive he was repulsed by what she was doing, and he was only submitting because he felt he had no choice.

    Commandant Mele-On Grayza, and she was fabulous in her extremely twisted way. They just ran that episode last weekend, and yes it was made extremely clear that after Crichton got away from her influence the first time he didn’t even want to go anywhere near her again. D’Argo had to talk him into it, since Grayza had Chiana, Jool, and Sikozu as prisoners and was after a weapon that could render an entire planet uninhabitable. To quote D’Argo he had to take one for the team, and actually ended up drugging himself to get through it/get away from her. Extremely disturbing, but excellent episode.

    Farscape was one of the few shows I’ve ever seen that had no problem showing anyone as a victim or a villain, regardless of gender.

  21. Jennifer Kesler says

    Mecha, during the scene leading up to the rape in Hathor, it was very clear Daniel was doing his absolute best to resist the influence of the drug-like stuff. Later came a scene where he was catatonic from trauma. Then later came Jack going, “Ew” and everyone blowing it off like it was no big deal. Serious WTF combination. And I don’t know what was sexy about it either. Maybe anything where the female actor is attractive translates as “sexy” to some people…?

    Thanks for the details, Maggie. Farscape really did manage some bold steps in the gender department.

  22. scarlett says

    Later came a scene where he was catatonic from trauma.

    Just to be a pain in the ass (especially since I wrote one of those Hathor articles) I didn’t seee it as catatonic from trauma, more like a drug-induced haze. Which is about as worse.

  23. Jennifer Kesler says

    I’ll buy that. My way, the catatonia represents trauma. Your way, it represents helplessness. Either way, we’re still talking rape.

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