thread: 2007-03-19 : Tonight we dine
On 2007-03-20, Brand Robins wrote:
To folks like you and I it seems pretty obvious that the Persians are the Americans. The vast empire with vast resources cracking down to impose its rule on little nations that have no wealth to compare with its own? Yea.
But that isn’t the vision that a lot of Americans have of their own country. In the eyes of a large scale public vision, we were the victims. On 9-11 they (the Oriental they the very idea of whom was created during these wars) attacked us and tried to steal our democracy. They did so with cowardice. They are all weird other people who probably have slaves, and they want to take away our freedom with their vast oil money. They are Bad. They are From the East. They are the Evil Axis of Evil Empire.
At the same time, our Marines don’t even have body armor. They’re sent into combat situations without proper support. There was a period about a year ago in which every night on the New York news that I get from across the boarder there was a story about how some local father had to spend thousands of dollars to buy bullet proof jackets and such for his child, because the military would not supply them. We are bombarded by constant rhetoric about the values of freedom, rationality, and faith in our way of life. Our forces in the Middle East are vastly, vastly outnumbered—because we only have so many to send, and there are infinite numbers of brown people over there!
Then start adding the cultural movie/comic book tropes in. The US Marines are often played with a large degree of jar-head, college fraternity “thank you sir can I have another” adolescent male-power dynamic masturbation. That image matches up almost one to one with how the Spartans are portrayed in 300. Similarly, the orientalism and exoticification of the dark body that is done to the Persians in the cultural context of 2500 years of writing about the exotic orient very clearly places them as “not us” at the same time that the whiteness and habitual cultural appropriation of the Greeks as “the first America” places the Spartans as “us.” (Incidentally, my Greek friends tell me that most Greek movie critics hated the movie almost as much as the Iranian critics because the Greeks are sick and tired of us appropriating their culture.) The weight of cultural symbolism does pretty clearly point out that what the movie wants to say is Spartans = Marines. We don’t have to buy that, of course, and can deconstruct and reconstruct—but that is what the movie points towards.
I don’t know if anyone remembers anymore, but this same discussion came up during the Lord of the Rings movies. Iraq was Sauron, until Vigo said they weren’t and that America was. Then there was kerfuffle, and the story died out. But you’d still occasionally see the imperialist acquisition of the story by right-wing forces.
The whole thing comes down to something pretty simple: when you have a story about Good vs. Evil everyone will try to map themselves to Good. But when you have a massive weight of cultural baggage attached to one side or the other, the mapping becomes more and more difficult. I don’t, for example, see a lot of Iranians being able to easily say “Greece is Iran and America is Persia!” Nor do I have any doubt that in the minds of many who watch the movie without critical analysis the Spartans are, in fact, US Marines because they are played the way US Marines are played in so many other movies.
So sure, if you are a liberal American who is critically analyzing the movie and able to reconstruct the tropes it uses to create meaning into something other than they were fairly clearly intended to be—this can be a movie about America as the Evil Persians. But to most people it won’t be, because they won’t read it that way. And just because we can chose to read it that way doesn’t mean that the message that is trying to be conveyed is that which we are choosing to take away.
The question, in culture studies, is never “what can I take away if I chose to exert my will against it” it is “what will the average pop-corn munching escapist member of the audience who watches and believes the biased mass media believe at a gut level when they watch this movie.” And in that analysis, we lose. Because while we may be able to keep our own minds clean and clear, every brick in the wall against us just makes the gap that much bigger and wider.