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.