The Erasure of Women of Color in Superhero Gender Politics

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While this post will discuss the superhero genre in general, most of the attention will focus on the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). No spoilers below.

This may as well be a continuation of my recent post about Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, where I talked about how erasing Rey’s Whiteness subsequently erases women of color. As many women of color have already written and stated before, erasing women of color from mainstream feminism isn’t anything new. In the ever-rising popularity of western mainstream superhero films and TV shows, we see this erasure perpetuate.

I can’t remember where I saw this discussion on YouTube, but it involved the issue of racebending The Ancient One in Marvel’s upcoming Doctor Strange film. Originally an Asian character in the comic books, the film cast a White actress, Tilda Swinton, in the role instead. Someone on the panel criticized the casting as routine Hollywood whitewashing, while another person responded by saying, “Well, I think it’s a good thing they cast a woman because women aren’t getting enough opportunities in Hollywood either.” The former countered that argument and stated, “Why not have the best of both worlds and cast an Asian woman??

What was exposed in the counter argument was the erasure of women of color – Asian women in particular – from the conversation. It didn’t seem to cross the second person’s mind that, “Oh wow, yeah, a person can be Asian and a woman!” Unfortunately, the second person’s comments exemplify normalized attitudes and assumptions that we see far too often in society. That is, race and gender are seen as two separate categories. By extension, additional factors like class, sexual orientation, religion, and ability are also seen as separate categories. I remember reading a “scholarly” journal article once that said, “LGBTQ people experience more discrimination than ethnic minorities.” Aside from my aversion to the term “minorities,” my reaction was a sarcastic, “Oh right, because LGBTQ people of color don’t exist.” The prevailing assumption in society is that people are only “one thing,” as opposed to understanding that every person has intersecting social identities. The second person in the video talks about Tilda Swinton as being only a woman, not a White woman. This reflects how people are socialized to think of the “default man” or “default woman” as being White. There is no need to specify that Swinton is a White woman because we’ve been conditioned to believe “woman = White woman,” just as “man = White man,” or “person = White person.”

I saw something similar happen a couple of nights ago in a clip from Stephen Colbert’s late night show. Colbert commented on how male-dominated the MCU is, calling it “kind of a sausage fest.” While I agree it’s important that Colbert criticized Marvel’s lack of women characters and their sexist decision to gender swap characters that were originally written as women (on the basis that women villains don’t sell toys), his arguments were grounded in colorblind gender politics. Earlier in the segment, he listed some of the main characters in the MCU, emphasizing on the “Man” in their names: “Iron Man, Ant-Man, Spider-Man, and Black Panther Man.” We know Black Panther doesn’t have “Man” in his superhero name, but we get the point. However, what’s problematic, and quite sad, is how Colbert completely ignores the fact that, unlike the other male heroes in the MCU, T’Challa/Black Panther is an African man. Not only that, but Black Panther is also the first Black superhero in mainstream American comic books and will be the first Black character to lead an MCU film. Him finally showing up in a Marvel movie is actually a big deal. By grouping Black Panther with Marvel’s White male superheroes, his Blackness is erased and we are instructed to view him as not only being the “same” as the other men dominating the MCU, but also as being part of Marvel’s “male problem.”

I’m not denying that Marvel is male-dominated – it most definitely is. However, placing Black Panther in the same category as Iron Man, Ant-Man, and Spider-Man is an oversimplification that dismisses race and intersectionality in general. As bell hooks emphasized in her book, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, “men are not equals in white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal class structure.” Yes, all of the MCU films thus far are led by male protagonists, but they are White male protagonists specifically. Black Panther being an African man is significant and he disrupts the nauseating tradition of White male-centered superhero films. Sure, one can argue that T’Challa possesses more power and influence than Tony Stark because he is the king of an entire country, but let’s not ignore for a second the very real and violent anti-Black racism that exists in our world. Let’s not forget that opportunities for Black actors and filmmakers in Hollywood are still extremely limited, especially for Black women. There is a disproportionate number of films that are centered on White men compared to the number of films centered on Black men and other men of color. That number is even smaller when looking at films led by Black women protagonists.

What is also overlooked in Colbert’s segment is how the upcoming Black Panther film, which is to be directed by Ryan Coogler, will feature a cast that is “90% African or African American,” according to Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. This news sparked the hashtag #BlackPantherSoLit on Twitter, where fans expressed their excitement about seeing a superhero film with a Black-majority cast. Selma director Ava DuVernay and Twitter user ReignofApril, who started #OscarsSoWhite, also chimed in to share their enthusiasm. The news of a 90% Black cast also means more opportunities for Black actresses to play significant roles in a superhero film. In fact, Lupita Nyong’o has been reportedly cast to star alongside Chadwick Boseman. Additionally, Captain America: Civil War seems to have introduced us to a Black woman character who may play a major role in Black Panther. Played by Ugandan-born German actress Florence Kasumba, the character was seen as one of T’Challa’s security chiefs, possibly a member of the Dora Milaje. Though only appearing briefly in Captain America: Civil War, fans on social media have been praising the character and hoping to see more of her.

None of the above is to excuse the fact that women of color superheroes are hard to find in the recent influx of comic book movies. The last superhero film I remember with a woman of color lead was 2004’s Catwoman, starring Halle Berry (more on this later). In 2014, Marvel Studios announced plans to produce a Captain Marvel film (set for a 2019 release), which will feature a White woman as the title character. As exciting as this news is, we see the exclusion of women of color yet again in the commentary surrounding the film. While Black Panther is described as a “Black character,” Captain Marvel is referred to as a “female character” or “woman character.” The former mentions the character’s race, but not gender, while the latter mentions the character’s gender, but not race. When we hear “Black character,” it’s assumed we are talking about a Black man, whereas when we hear “female character,” it’s assumed we are talking about a White woman. As a result of these assumptions, women of color are erased. I believe what we see reflected here is what Kimberle Crenshaw addressed in her article (PDF) on intersectionality:

Feminist efforts to politicize experiences of women and antiracist efforts to politicize experiences of people of color have frequently proceeded as though the issues and experiences they each detail occur on mutually exclusive terrains. Although racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people, they seldom do in feminist and antiracist practices. And so, when the practices expound identity as woman or person of color as an either/or proposition, they relegate the identity of women of color to a location that resists telling.

Crenshaw wrote the above in 1991 and it’s sad that the marginalization of women of color and the either/or ways of thinking that she described is still so prevalent. When I think about the MCU films, it is difficult to find women of color characters in prominent roles, let alone portrayed as superheroes. However, I can name a lot of the White women characters: Black Widow, Pepper Potts, Peggy Carter, Sharon Carter, Maria Hill, Hope van Dyne, Janet van Dyne, Jane Foster, Darcy Lewis, Frigga, Irani Rael, and Scarlet Witch (who should have been played by a woman of color because the character is Romani, though nothing about her Romani Jewish heritage is mentioned in the films). Avengers: Age of Ultron has an Asian woman character, Helen Cho, and Guardians of the Galaxy features Zoe Saldana in a leading role, but her skin is colored green as her character is of a non-human species.

In the MCU TV shows, we see a couple of women characters leading their own shows, namely Jessica Jones and Agent Carter (though the latter was recently cancelled after two seasons). We do see more women of color in the TV shows than the films. There’s Claire Temple and Elektra, who are not relegated to small roles, thankfully. I don’t watch Agents of Shield (I couldn’t get beyond the first season), but I know there are women of color characters like Melinda May and Skye. I have heard there are more women of color characters in the show, but those are the two I remember off the top of my head. Outside the MCU, we do see more White women in leading roles in blockbuster films like Mad Max: Fury Road, The Hunger Games, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, DC’s forthcoming Wonder Woman film, and the upcoming Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One, which has a racially diverse cast of men of color, but again, where are the women of color? White women can be found playing superheroes in popular TV shows like Supergirl and Arrow as well

I remember when Jessica Jones and Supergirl were being released around the same time, there were some on social media who debated about which one would be better. A third group argued that it didn’t matter which one was “better” because what really mattered was how revolutionary it was to have two TV shows with women superheroes. I don’t downplay the significance of seeing more women superheroes. But again, which women are we talking about? It’s not Black women or Latina women or South Asian women or Arab women we’re seeing in these roles. We continue to see the trend of White men dominating roles in mainstream film and television, and now it seems that movies and TV shows with women main characters must also be White. As if only White women can challenge the White male-centered industry, while women of color play supporting or tertiary roles, or are excluded altogether. It’s the pattern of Whiteness that we are seeing with women characters in these blockbuster films and TV shows: Furiosa, Rey, Kara Zor-El/Supergirl, Jessica Jones, Agent Carter, Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, Jyn Erso, Black Widow, and Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel.

Women of color are not given the opportunity to lead superhero films and when they do, there are still restrictions. I mentioned Halle Berry’s Catwoman film earlier, which received terrible reviews and is considered one of the worst movies ever made. But the movie was doomed from the start because the film made every attempt to distance itself from the source material. For instance, there was no mentioning of Gotham City and Berry’s character wasn’t Selina Kyle, but a new character named Patience Phillips. There was no indication that Batman or anyone else in his universe existed in the film either. It was as if Halle Berry wasn’t allowed access to this character; as if the producers said, “Ok, we can make a Black Catwoman, but let’s not make her Selina Kyle. We don’t want people to think the real Catwoman is Black! This will be someone else!” Of course, much of the blame goes to the studio for the failure of Catwoman, but it’s hard not to overlook how a comic book film featuring a Black actress in the lead role was handled so irresponsibly.

The presence of women of color in superhero films can also lead to erasure of race. As much as I love CW’s The Flash, the way Iris is depicted has raised critiques about the show’s colorblindness. As Shannon Gibney writes in her article, “Color Blindness and the Black Girlfriend: The White Male Superhero’s Ability to Erase Race:”

I’ve gone and broken the unspoken rule for successfully creating interracial relationships on television and in pop culture: You can’t actually be Black, or have a Black consciousness in said union. Nope. You can be cute, in that hip Black way, but please don’t show your blackness, or God forbid, the often casual, everyday ways that race and racism affect your life and relationships. In this way, The Flash writers and producers have made a choice to embrace a color blindness narrative, for not only the Barry/Flash-Iris relationship, but also, for the Iris-Eddie, and Barry/Flash-Joe relationships.

[…]

One of the strongest things The Flash has going for it is its patient, layered character development, and complex storytelling. How might this be deepened even further if Barry/Flash and Iris had to truly reckon with how they move through the world very differently in their respective White male and Black female bodies?

The above is a great example of how visual diversity is not enough. In other words, improving the lack of women of color in film and television (both in front and behind the camera) isn’t simply, “Oh hey, let’s just fill up the screen with more women of color!” There are other issues involved, including colorismhow the characters are portrayed, the amount of screen time they have, how much creative license is granted to a woman of color director, etc. If Hollywood decides to make a film featuring a brown Muslim male or female character, but that character is used to reinforce an assimilationist, “U.S. versus immigrant,” or “Good Muslim vs. Bad Muslim” narrative, that doesn’t do anything to challenge Islamophobia. It merely reinforces the status quo and how the State wants Muslims to be.

To clarify, when I list all of the White women characters we see in comic book movies and TV shows, I’m not saying, “See, look, there’s no problem with sexism! There are plenty of women characters!” I’m not saying we shouldn’t have White women as lead characters either. My point is that liberal commentaries need to challenge simplistic understandings of social identity and center their advocacy on women of color in particular because not only do we see White women receive more opportunities to play heroic (and better paid) roles in sci-fi and comic book movies than women of color, but we also need to connect the media’s erasure of women of color to the racism, misogyny, and other oppressions they experience in the real world. Is it any surprise that Black women receive the least amount of opportunities in the entertainment industry when Black women and other women of color are over-represented in the low-wage workforce?

On this note, I find it concerning when I hear people defend the casting of Ghost in the Shell on the basis that Scarlett Johansson was needed to sell the movie because “an Asian actress wouldn’t be able to sell it.” These comments are paradoxical because on the one hand, they acknowledge the casting is wrong, but then they justify it by essentially saying, “Well, that’s how the industry works!” What I rarely hear from these defenses is outrage — outrage at how racist the film industry is. Instead, there is an acceptance of the status quo, that White people, whether man or woman, must be lead a film in order to be successful (and that success is measured by how much money it makes, of course). It is interesting that the very same people would rage against producers and say, “These people don’t know anything about adapting (insert comic book/video game/novel here)!” and go on about preserving the “source material,” but when they defend the casting of a White woman in a Japanese role, they suddenly side with the producers!

I don’t believe Ghost in the Shell would be a box office failure if a Japanese actress was cast in the lead role. The movie already has a strong fan base of the original Anime, it is bound to make money. What’s more concerning than how much the movie makes is the acceptability of studios and movie producers conveying the message that people of color, in this case, women of color, cannot play main characters, even if the original character was written as a woman of color. At the end of the day, it’s another White actress getting paid for a role that a woman of color actress should have played.

Hopefully, with the recent casting of Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarak and Rosario Dawson returning in Marvel’s Luke Cage, we’ll see producers of superhero movies and TV shows cast more women of color in prominent roles. I don’t expect anything radical from Marvel or Hollywood for that matter, but I think it’s important that we challenge conversations and commentaries that pit race and gender against each other as if they are “two separate categories.” Advocating for a “woman character” should not be synonymous with “White woman,” yet we see it reinforced in movie talk shows and websites that act as if women of color don’t exist. Indeed, it is great that mainstream films are featuring more women characters and integrating feminist themes, but when the vast majority of these women are White, it reflects an oppressive manifestation of white feminism that has long attempted to marginalize, silence, and erase women of color.

DC Comics Thinks Pakistanis Speak “Pakistanian”

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Image description: Two men are seen falling from high above – a bright sky in the background – and surrounded by rocky debris. One man is shouting, “<Father!*>” with the brackets denoting that a non-English language is being spoken. A note from the editor appears in a yellow box at the bottom of the page, reading: “All translated from Pakistanian — Ed.”

So, this happened.

The image above is a screenshot from DC comics’ recent Superman/Wonder Woman Annual #2 and was tweeted by fellow Pakistanian Pakistani writer, Khaver Siddiqi.

A friend sent me an article about this and my initial reaction was, “Seriously? They didn’t have time to run a Google search?” It doesn’t come as a surprise to me since I, like many Pakistanis, have heard non-Pakistanis use the term “Pakistanian.” I’ve heard from Palestinian friends that people often refer to them as “Pakistanian,” too.  For those who are un/misinformed, there is no such language, let alone nationality, as “Pakistanian.” It doesn’t exist.

I saw one comment that tried to justify DC’s error by saying, “So translating from Kryptonese, a fictional language, is okay; but translating from Pakistanian, a fictional language, is not okay.” Haha, but I’m like, even fictional languages have words! You could learn how to speak fictional languages like Huttese, Klingon, and even Na’vi — despite being made-up, there are online lessons for them! But “Pakistanian”? Forget about it. It’s non-existent.

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Image description: An additional panel shows an older adult, the father, falling and screaming, “Help us, Allah.” In the next panel, he is caught by a blonde-haired man (whose face is concealed by his hair), who says, “Why call out for a God,” presumably also in “Pakistanian.”

The other problem with this “rationalization” is that the comic book is specifically set in Pakistan, a real place in the world. Comic books have created fictional countries with fictional  languages in the past, but that’s not what the writers are doing here. They’re trying to depict Pakistanis, but fail miserably at it.

Judging by the unflattering and stereotypical images of the Pakistani characters in the rest of the panels, I don’t think the writers cared about getting anything right about Pakistanis. When people are already dehumanized, accuracy is the least of concerns. We aren’t important enough for writers to take five seconds to fact-check. Whether this was deliberate or not, the pattern of inaccurate and stereotypical depictions of Pakistanis has already been long established in western media.

There have been some hilarious reactions on Twitter, some of which can be viewed on Buzzfeed and The Guardian. Speaking to Buzzfeed, Siddiqi said: “My friend @Takhalus found it and shared it on a sci-fi geek Twitter group DM. I just had to buy the comic and read it myself to confirm. I’m not offended at being called Pakistanian — I’m just offended that nobody had the time to do one Google search. That’s all. Spoiled the story for me.”

Siddiqi’s tweet also said, “Here’s why @Marvel is winning over @DCComics – the latter thinks we speak Pakistanian.”

Hmm, I disagree with Siddiqi here because Marvel is not perfect at depicting Pakistanis and Muslims either, but that’s a topic for another blog post…

Dil hai Pakistanian. 

Gifs via my silences had not protected me.

Muslim Women in Comic Books

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Hey everyone!

I just wanted to announce that my Brass Crescent award-winning essay on Muslim women in comic books is being featured this week at AltMuslimah.com.  The essay, “Female, Muslim, and Mutant:  A Critique of Muslim Women in Comic Books,” is divided into three parts and focuses on several Muslim female characters appearing in both American and Middle-Eastern comic books (it was originally two parts, but broken into three for length purposes on AltMuslimah).  It’s been just over a year since I wrote these pieces for Muslimah Media Watch, but they’re still quite popular.  If you missed it before, you can follow these links to check it out:

Female, Muslim, and Mutant Part 1

Female Muslim, and Mutant Part 2

The final part will be posted on the site tomorrow (Friday, August 7th).  Part 1 focuses on Dust, a Muslim superheroine who appears in the X-Men comics, and part 2 takes a look at Naif Al-Mutawa’s “The 99,” which is considered the first comic book inspired by Islamic spirituality.  Here is a brief synopsis about “The 99” from one of my posts:

The concept of female Muslim super-heroines in the realm of mainstream comic books is very exciting, but considering the sexism and objectification that women often suffer in this medium, breaking away from stereotypes and misconceptions may seem nearly impossible. However, readers searching for realistic portrayals of Muslim women may find hope in Naif Al-Mutawa’s fascinating comic book series, “The 99.” Published by his own company, Teshkeel Comics, “The 99” shows us arguably the best depictions of Muslim female characters to have ever appeared in comic books.

Judging by the title, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to Muslim readers that Naif Al-Mutawa’s “The 99” is inspired by Islamic culture and religion. For those who are unfamiliar with Islam, the title of the comic refers to an Islamic teaching that God has 99 Beautiful Names or Attributes. Al-Mutawa draws from this tradition and produces remarkable superheroes – most of them teenagers who each embody one of the 99 Names of God via magical gem stones known as “Noor Stones.” For example, if the Noor stone possesses the Divine attribute of “Al-Rafi,” which means “The Lifter,” then the gem-bearer will take on the superpower of “lifting” objects, people, and even one’s own self through telepathic means.

Head on over to AltMuslimah.com to read more!

Frank Miller’s “300” and the Persistence of Accepted Racism

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When Frank Miller’s “300″ film was released, I was absolutely outraged by the racist content of the film and more so at the insensitivity of movie-goers who simply argued “it’s just a movie.” Later on, I would hear these same individuals say, “The movie makes you want to slice up some Persians.” I wrote an article about the film almost immediately after it was released, and now that I’m still noticing people quoting the movie or listing it as their “favorite movies,” I’ve decided to update my original post and discuss some points that will hopefully shed some new light.

“300” not only represents the ever-growing trend of accepted racism towards Middle-Easterners in mainstream media and society, but also the reinforcement of Samuel P. Huntington’s overly clichéd, yet persisting, theory of “The Clash of Civilizations,” which proposes that cultural and religious differences are the primary sources for war and conflict rather than political, ideological, and/or economic differences. The fact that “300” grossed nearly $500 million worldwide in the box office may not be enough to suggest that movie-goers share the film’s racist and jingoistic views, but it is enough to indicate how successful such a film can be without many people noticing its relentless racist content. As Osagie K. Obasogie wrote in a brilliant critique of the film, “300” is “arguably the most racially charged film since D. W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’” – the latter being a 1915 silent film that celebrated the Ku Klux Klan’s rise to defend the South against liberated African-Americans. Oddly enough, both films were immensely successful despite protests and charges of racism.

Media imagery is very important to study. Without analyzing and critiquing images in pop culture, especially controversial and reoccurring images, we are ignoring the most powerful medium in which people receive their information from. A novel, for example, may appeal to a large demographic, but a film appeals to a much wider audience not only because of recent video-sharing websites and other internet advancements, but also because the information is so much easier to process and absorb.

According to the Cultivation Theory, a social theory developed by George Gerbner and Larry Gross, television is the most powerful storyteller in culture – it repeats the myths, ideologies, and facts and patterns of standardized roles and behaviors that define social order. Music videos, for example, cultivate a pattern of images that establish socialized norms about gender. In a typical western music video, women are portrayed wearing the scantiest of clothing and dancing in erotic and provocative ways that merely cater to their heterosexual male audiences. These images of women appear so frequently and repetitively that they develop an expectation for women in the music industry, i.e. in order to be successful, a woman needs to have a certain body type, fit society’s ideal for beauty, and dance half-nakedly. Stereotypical images of men in music videos, on the other hand, include violent-related imagery, “pimping” with multiple women, and showing off luxury. Such images make violence and promiscuous sexual behavior “cool” and more acceptable for males. As we can see from two studies by Greeson & Williams (1986) and Kalof (1999), exposure to stereotypical images of gender and sexual content in music videos increase older adolescents’ acceptance of non-marital sexual behavior and interpersonal violence.

Cognitive Social Learning Theory is another social theory which posits, in respect to media, that television presents us with attractive and relatable models for us to shape our experiences from. In other words, a person may learn particular behaviors and knowledge through observing the images displayed on television. A person may also emulate the behavior of a particular character in a film or television show, especially if a close-identification is established between the viewer and the character. Both theories – Cultivation Theory and Cognitive Social Learning Theory – apply in my following analysis of “300.”

In order to deconstruct “300,” I will start by (1) discussing its distortion of history, then (2) contrast the film’s representation of Persians and Spartans, (3) correlate Frank Miller’s Islamophobic remarks on NPR with the messages conveyed in “300,” and (4) conclude with the importance of confronting stereotypical images in mainstream media and acknowledging the contributions of all societies and civilizations.

Distortion of History

Initially a graphic novel written and drawn by Frank Miller, who is best known in the comic book industry for reinventing Batman in his critically acclaimed “The Dark Knight Returns,” the inspiration for “300” stems from true historic events, although Mr. Miller states that it was never intended to be a historically accurate account of the Battle for Thermopylae. In any case, the information we have about the Battle for Thermopylae comes from the classical Greek author, Herodotus, who lived in the Persian city of Halicarnassus. His book, “The Histories,” became part of Western folklore in 1850, when America embraced it as the leading authority on Persian history. Interesting enough, and many people may not know this, is that prior to 1850, the West had a very favorable impression of the Persian Empire, particularly because its main source for Persian history was rooted in the Bible and the “Cyropaedia,” which was written by another Greek author named Xenophon. The “Cyropaedia” glorifies the rule of Cyrus the Great, a benevolent Persian king who will be discussed later. In respect to the Battle of Thermopylae, the events may have occurred, but it was far different than the famous myth explains: 300 Spartans held Thermopylae for three days against over a million Persian soldiers.

This version of history is portrayed in the Hollywood adaptation of “300” in heavily stylized fashion that remains faithful to the comic book. The film’s director, Zack Snyder, said during an MTV interview, “[t]he events are 90 percent accurate. It’s just in the visualization that it’s crazy.” And yet, the film hardly mentions that the 300 Spartans were allied with over 4,000 Greeks on the first two days of the battle, and over 1,500 on the final day (other sources mention that there were 7,000 to 10,000 Greek allies). The battle was fought in a narrow mountain pass of Thermopylae where not even two chariots could pass through side by side; the choice of using this terrain benefited the Spartans and their Greek allies immensely against the Persians. Many historians agree that the massive Persian army would have obliterated the Spartan/Greek forces without much difficulty if the battle were fought on an open battlefield. Also worth mentioning is the fact that the Spartans were heavily armored and wore armor that weighed 30-40 kg, while the Persians were lightly armored.

Ephraim Lytle, assistant professor of Hellenistic History at the University of Toronto, states that “300” selectively idealizes Spartan society in a “problematic and disturbing” fashion, which would have seemed “as bizarre to ancient Greeks as it does to modern historians.” Touraj Daryaee, Baskerville Professor of Iranian History at the University of California, Irvine, criticizes the film’s use of classic sources:

Some passages from the Classical authors Aeschylus, Diodorus, Herodotus and Plutarch are spilt over the movie to give it an authentic flavor. Aeschylus becomes a major source when the battle with the “monstrous human herd” of the Persians is narrated in the film. Diodorus’ statement about Greek valor to preserve their liberty is inserted in the film, but his mention of Persian valor is omitted. Herodotus’ fanciful numbers are used to populate the Persian army, and Plutarch’s discussion of Greek women, specifically Spartan women, is inserted wrongly in the dialogue between the “misogynist” Persian ambassador and the Spartan king. Classical sources are certainly used, but exactly in all the wrong places, or quite naively.

As I wrote in my post on “The Truth About Thanksgiving: Brainwashing of the American History Textbook,” omitting and ignoring an entire race of people in historical accounts is a form of racism because it negates the achievements and stories of the “Other.” In the film, Persians constantly threaten Spartans with slavery, and yet, any honest historian knows that the Persian Empire, particularly the Achaemenid Empire, was built on a model of tolerance and respect for other cultures and religions. According to the documentary, “Persepolis Recreated,” the Persian Empire is the first known civilization in the history of humankind to practice international religious freedom. Images carved on the walls of Persepolis testify how Persians interacted and conversed with nobleman of other nations respectfully and without enmity. Denying another civilization its own accomplishments and contributions to the world is like blotting them out from history altogether and rewriting one’s own prejudice version. As we will learn later, any mentioning of Persian valor, compassion, and sophistication, would have resulted in a potential backfiring to the film’s agenda.

At one point in the film, the Spartan protagonist, King Leonidas, describes the Athenians as “boy lovers,” which, according to Paul Cartledge, professor of Greek History at Cambridge University, is ironic, since “the Spartans themselves incorporated institutional pederasty [erotic relationships between adolescents and adult men] into their educational system.”

The fact that Frank Miller and Zack Snyder stripped the Spartans of homosexual relations and, instead, made them accuse the Athenians of being “boy lovers” in order to reinforce their masculinity, shows us a distortion of history that favors a heavily masculinized and homophobic take on the Spartans. In our society, gay men are frowned upon because society discourages men to behave in ways that are contrary to their expected gender traits, i.e. a man must be strong, emotionless, and courageous – and of course, these play into stereotypes about gay men since it suggests they cannot possess any of those traits. Therefore, if a man is a “boy lover,” he can never be as great of a fighter as a heterosexual Spartan. It’s obvious that mentioning the facts about Sparta’s institutional pederasty would not have made a connection with the film’s directed heterosexual male audience. This is evident from Oliver Stone’s “Alexander” film, where many expressed their outrage over Alexander engaging in homosexual relations, therefore never developing a close-identification with the character.

Distorting the history in “300” merely fulfills one component in glorifying the Spartans and vilifying the Persians. In the next section, we will see how the film’s visual representation of Spartans and Persians accompany its biased history for the sake of reinforcing the divide between West and East.

Spartans and Persians: Glorification, Demonization, and Tokenism

Perhaps the most noticeable offense in the film is how the Persians are horrifically depicted as monsters. It is not hard to notice the punctuated differences in skin color: the white-skinned Spartans versus the dark-skinned Persians. The Persian King, Xerxes, is shown as an abnormally tall, dark-skinned, and half-naked man with facial piercings, kohl-enhanced eyes and, as Dana Stevens from Slate writes, “[has] a disturbing predilection for making people kneel before him.” The rest of the Persians are faceless savages and demonically deformed. This demonization of the Persian race extends to malformed characters, including Persian women, who are depicted as lesbians and concubines – and, as established earlier, being gay or lesbian according to “300” is a “bad thing.” Even the elephants and rhinoceroses look like hell spawns. Stevens also adds:

Here are just a few of the categories that are not-so-vaguely conflated with the “bad” (i.e., Persian) side in the movie: black people. Brown people. Disfigured people. Gay men… Lesbians. Disfigured lesbians. Ten-foot-tall giants with filed teeth and lobster claws…

Also noticeable is how the Spartans wear no body armor; instead they are bare-chested and wear only a helmet, cape, and underwear. This is common in comic books where physical attributes of male characters such as muscles are magnified and exaggerated to symbolize strength, power, and heroism. In sheer contrast, the Persians are dressed in typical Middle-Eastern attire in pure Orientalist fashion, which only degrade them into invisible and insignificant characters without stories. We have seen these contrasting images of West and East cultivated before, and we still see them today. Whenever a crisis in the Middle-East is covered by the mainstream Western media, we tend to see the images of garbed Middle-Eastern men burning flags and shouting like barbarians, but rarely ever see scholarly and intellectual Middle-Easterners who are treated with respect and credibility. As Jack G. Shaheen discusses in his book, “Reel Bad Arabs,” Hollywood is guilty of vilifying Arabs and Muslims; repeating images of light-skinned and attractive Western (mostly American) counter-terrorist heroes blowing away dark-skinned, unattractive, and “rag-headed” Middle-Easterners. These images have been repeated so much in the mainstream media that they become the socialized norm: Arab/Muslim = Evil, oppressive, terrorist, and uncivilized, etc. Although the ancient Persians in “300” are neither Arab nor Muslim, they are confined into the same group through modern-day Orientalism.

Throughout the film, for instance, the constant emphasis on “The Clash of Civilizations” is not just limited to the manner of visual representations, but rather extends to what the Spartans and Persians stand for. Early in the film, we see the Spartan King, Leonidas, resist against the Persian call for “submission” by bellowing about freedom and liberty. Just like the visual depictions of Persians in “300” are no different than Hollywood’s stereotypical and insulting representation of Arabs and Muslims, neither are the themes. As adolescents and fans alike eccentrically shout the film’s most memorable quote, “This is Sparta!” – a line that Leonidas delivers right before kicking a black man down a well – they knowingly or unknowingly establish a close-identification with the Spartan characters and, subsequently, the heroism they are meant to epitomize. As a result, Persians get perceived, in modern terms, as “terrorists” – monstrous beings that are mysteriously driven by an innate desire to conquer, slaughter, and oppress.

These differences between Spartans and Persians ring eerily similar to modern-day tensions between the West and the Middle-East. As Obasagie writes, “this racialized depiction of freedom, nation, and democracy becomes central to “300’s” take home message,” but what remains even more unnoticed is the film’s “unapologetic glorification of eugenics.” In the very beginning of the film, for example, we see the newborn Spartans being inspected for “health, strength, and vigor,” while the weak and disabled are hurled off a cliff onto a large pile of dead babies. Obasogie further elaborates:

The film suggests that this rather crude form of eugenics is put in place for military reasons: every Spartan child should either be able to become a soldier or give birth to one… Initially shocked, audiences are quickly reassured that this is all for the greater good: nation, freedom, and the Spartan family. How else can Sparta defend itself – and inspire modern democracies – unless it reserves scarce resources for the strongest?

Strongest men, that is, which brings me to my next point: the exploitation of female characters. A blog post written at FirstShowing.net explains “Why Women Should Go See ‘300.’” The list, which is not even written by a woman, reads: 1. Gerard Butler, 2. Gerard Butler Naked, 3. Empowered Women, 4. Strong Relationships, and 5. 300 Nearly Naked Men with 8-Pack Abs. The author apparently thinks that male eye-candy, romantic relationships, and a dash of “feminism” constitute a “good film” for all women.

At first glance, the Spartan Queen Gorgo may look like an empowered woman, but she is a token character, at best. In a predominately White male film, she serves as the only central female character and assumes a pseudo-feminist role for the sake of reinforcing the film’s racism and singular image of masculinity. For instance, early in the film, the Persian messenger angrily responds to her, “What makes this woman think she can speak among men?” She responds proudly, “Because only Spartan women give birth to real men.” Yes, real men, i.e. the heteropatriarchal view of masculinity: aggressive, violent, dominating, muscular, etc. It seems that any man who doesn’t meet these characteristics is not a “real man.” It also seems that Spartan women are treated as merely “manufacturers” of these “real men.”

The mentioning of women occurs enough times in the film to establish that Spartans treat their women “better” than the Persians. The only Persian women we see are disfigured sex slaves.  In actuality, there were Persian Empresses such as Azarmidokht, who ruled Persia under the Sassanid Empire. Ancient Persian women not only engaged in political matters, but also served as military commanders and warriors. One of the great commanders of The Immortals was a Persian woman named Pantea (pictured left), and during the Achaemenid dynasty, the grand admiral and commander-in-chief for the Persian navy was a woman named Artemisia. Persian women also owned property and ran businesses. Unfortunately, we do not see any such representation in “300.”

A counter-argument may state that Queen Gorgo actually plays a pivotal role in the film since she convinces the council to send more soldiers to aid the Spartans. But her success could never have been accomplished if she did not do what stereotypical female characters usually do: use her body to get what she wants. Queen Gorgo realizes she has very little choice when the corrupt Spartan politician, Theron, says he wants sex in exchange for helping her.  After she drops her top, Theron forces her against the wall and rapes her.  Later on, Theron stands before the council and accuses Queen Gorgo of being an adulteress and a “whore Queen.”  Although Queen Gorgo stabs him in this scene, it’s nowhere near as disturbing as the rape scene.

As we have seen in this section, the glorified violence, racism, and erotic imagery of the Spartans, as well as the use of women, accentuates their superiority over the Persians, but perhaps nothing can drive the point home more than Frank Miller in his own words.

Frank Miller and Islamophobia

It should be in the interest of those who may disagree with my analysis of “300” to listen to Frank Miller’s interview on National Public Radio (NPR) on January 24th, 2007 (or read the transcript). The interview followed former President Bush’s State of the Union address and is pasted below (emphases added):

NPR: […] Frank, what’s the state of the union?

Frank Miller: Well, I don’t really find myself worrying about the state of the union as I do the state of the home-front. It seems to me quite obvious that our country and the entire Western World is up against an existential foe that knows exactly what it wants … and we’re behaving like a collapsing empire. Mighty cultures are almost never conquered, they crumble from within. And frankly, I think that a lot of Americans are acting like spoiled brats because of everything that isn’t working out perfectly every time.

NPR: Um, and when you say we don’t know what we want, what’s the cause of that do you think?

FM: Well, I think part of that is how we’re educated. We’re constantly told all cultures are equal, and every belief system is as good as the next. And generally that America was to be known for its flaws rather than its virtues. When you think about what Americans accomplished, building these amazing cities, and all the good its done in the world, it’s kind of disheartening to hear so much hatred of America, not just from abroad, but internally.

NPR: A lot of people would say what America has done abroad has led to the doubts and even the hatred of its own citizens.

FM: Well, okay, then let’s finally talk about the enemy. For some reason, nobody seems to be talking about who we’re up against, and the sixth century barbarism that they actually represent. These people saw people’s heads off. They enslave women, they genitally mutilate their daughters, they do not behave by any cultural norms that are sensible to us. I’m speaking into a microphone that never could have been a product of their culture, and I’m living in a city where three thousand of my neighbors were killed by thieves of airplanes they never could have built.

NPR: As you look at people around you, though, why do you think they’re so, as you would put it, self-absorbed, even whiny?

FM: Well, I’d say it’s for the same reason the Athenians and Romans were. We’ve got it a little good right now. Where I would fault President Bush the most, was that in the wake of 9/11, he motivated our military, but he didn’t call the nation into a state of war. He didn’t explain that this would take a communal effort against a common foe. So we’ve been kind of fighting a war on the side, and sitting off like a bunch of Romans complaining about it. Also, I think that George Bush has an uncanny knack of being someone people hate. I thought Clinton inspired more hatred than any President I had ever seen, but I’ve never seen anything like Bush-hatred. It’s completely mad.

NPR: And as you talk to people in the streets, the people you meet at work, socially, how do you explain this to them?

FM: Mainly in historical terms, mainly saying that the country that fought Okinawa and Iwo Jima is now spilling precious blood, but so little by comparison, it’s almost ridiculous. And the stakes are as high as they were then. Mostly I hear people say, ‘Why did we attack Iraq?’ for instance. Well, we’re taking on an idea. Nobody questions why after Pearl Harbor we attacked Nazi Germany. It was because we were taking on a form of global fascism, we’re doing the same thing now.

NPR: Well, they did declare war on us, but…

FM: Well, so did Iraq.

Iraq declared war on the United States? Not only are Frank Miller’s words filled with incredible absurdity and ignorance, they’re also plagued by disgusting prejudice that should raise questions about his underlying messages in “300” and other recent works of his. One of the things I found really disturbing in Miller’s interview was how he suggested that “teaching all cultures are equal” and “every belief system is as good as the next” is a bad thing! What is he implicating here? Are we to teach that certain cultures and belief systems are better than others?

Miller uses the phrase “sixth century barbarism” as a coded reference to Islam and lumps the entire Muslim world into one stereotype. Then he says “I’m speaking into a microphone that never could have been a product of their culture, and I’m living in a city where three thousand of my neighbors were killed by thieves of airplanes they never could have built.” Perhaps someone should educate Mr. Miller that the Islamic empires preserved the beloved Greek philosophical texts by Plato, Socrates, Pythagoras, Ptolemy, Aristotle, and many others. He should also be informed that algebra was invented by a Persian Muslim, Mohammad Al-Khwarizmi. The word English word for “algorithm” actually comes from “Al-Khwarizmi” and the significance of algorithms in computers, programming, engineering, and software design is immensely critical. As stated by Michael H. Morgan, author of “Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers, and Artists,” Al-Khwarizmi’s new ways of calculating “enable the building of a 100 story towers and mile-long buildings, calculating the point at which a space probe will intersect with the orbits of one of Jupiter’s moons, the reactions of nuclear physics… intelligence of software, and the confidentiality of a mobile phone conversation.” Ironically, the Western achievements that Frank Miller boasts about could not have been possible without the collaboration of civilizations.

Conclusion

As I have written many times in my previous essays, racism is most dangerous when it has been made more acceptable in society. When the Nazis dehumanized the Jews, they did so in cartoons and propaganda films so that the rest of the country didn’t feel sorry about killing them. When early American cartoons and cinema depicted African-Americans, they drew them with ugly features and had White actors wear blackface makeup, respectively (something that certainly continues to happen). At the time, these obviously racist acts were acceptable. In modern times, when the insulting Danish cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, were released, many non-Muslims were too shocked at the Muslim world’s reaction than actually taking the time to realize that the cartoons were drawn out of hate and sheer Islamophobia. Rather than seeing the cartoons as racist or dehumanizing, many defended it as “freedom of expression.” The manner in which certain people in the Muslim world reacted to the Danish cartoons is another subject altogether, but it’s worth mentioning that their response represents a sensitivity that the West has made very little efforts to understand, especially within the context of Islamophobia, western imperialism, colonialism, economic exploitation, etc. For Islamophobes, demonizing the Prophet of Islam wouldn’t be such a bad idea since dehumanizing the enemy is an essential process of war. Vilifying the “Other” makes racial slurs acceptable – slurs like “rag heads,” “camel jockeys,” “towel heads,” “dune coons” among much worse things.

Although the Persians in “300” are not Muslim (the movie takes place in the Pre-Islamic and Pre-Christian era), the visualization of Persians are identical to the stereotypical images we see of Muslims in other media representations. Demonizing the Persians during a time when Middle-Easterners and Muslims are already being vilified simply makes dehumanization of the “Other” acceptable and more recognizable. I remember having one odd conversation with a young man who started his argument by saying, “Xerxes and his Muslim army were a bunch of tyrants.” I stopped him immediately and told him that his ignorant comments are precisely the reason why I raise awareness and accuse “300” of being a propaganda film. Xerxes and his Persian army were not Muslim, yet I saw many people correlating the film with present-day tensions between the United States and Iran. Joseph Shahadi recently informed me that the right-wing party of Italy even uses images of “300” in their campaign posters! It’s sad how many don’t seem to realize that dehumanization of certain groups has dangerous consequences; after all, before the Holocaust, Jews were dehumanized.

“300” may look like a visual breakthrough in cinema “art”, but that doesn’t make up for its blood-spattering jingoism or its racist content. Counter-arguments in the film’s defense are often weak with excuses like, “it’s just a movie,” or “it’s based on a comic book” or “it’s simply meant to entertain.” The counter-arguments are short and weak because the film is unapologetic and doesn’t contain anything sympathetic or appreciative about Persians, their culture, and their history. It would benefit Frank Miller and Zack Snyder if they saw Ridley Scott’s brilliant film, “Kingdom of Heaven,” which explores the complexity of war and celebrates dialogue between great civilizations. Such films are beneficiary to society because they convey much-needed messages of coexistence, respect, and understanding that reach wide audiences.

On a personal note, it is discouraging that so many people, including academics, doctors, and scholars, are either not bothered or don’t see the racism in “300.” And every once in a while, another one of my friends will do the Spartan “Ha-oooh!” chant around me and not realize how offensive it is. The fact that so many people cite the movie and enjoy watching it provides enough support for the cognitive social learning theory, where people find the Spartan characters likable and admirable. It is likely that this may be the reason why so many are defensive of the film – simply because they like the movie so much. But society needs to be bold enough to stamp its foot down and say we will not tolerate racism, just like we would never tolerate watching or promoting films that glorify the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis. As Dana Stevens writes, “If “300” had been made in Germany in the mid-1930s, it would be studied today alongside “The Eternal Jew” as a textbook example of how race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth can serve as an incitement to total war.”

My personal hope is that people will appreciate this analysis and realize the immense impact media has on shaping our thoughts, perspectives, and views of each other. I would also hope that people are inspired to study ancient Persian history and learn about the countless contributions of the Persians, who were among the great philosophers, thinkers, poets, artists, physicians, mathematicians, astronomers, and innovators in human history – before and after the Islamic era. I must point out that almost 90% of the paintings I post on my blog are Persian paintings (compare them with Frank Miller’s horrific depiction of Persians in “300″ and you will understand how upset and offended one can be).

The release of “300” angered, but also frustrated me because of the film industry’s relentless demonization of not just Persians, but Arabs, South Asians (especially Pakistanis), and Muslims in general. As evident in “300,” there are people making a living out of vilifying our cultures, histories, and religions while aspiring Muslim filmmakers struggle to get their films funded and/or produced. Without a doubt, the Islamophobia and racism existing within Hollywood makes this challenge even more difficult.

I believe very firmly that truth prevails in the end and I have faith that Arabs, Iranians, South Asians, and Muslims alike are on their way in making a profound difference in our world. Someday, Muslim-majority countries will no longer be demonized and feared, but appreciated and respected. The media has the power to turn tables around in such a way.

Someday…