Rick Altman’s “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre”

In 1984 Rick Altman set out to “scratch” an itch that he claimed no one working in the field of film genre criticism seemed to even feel (6).  In his essay “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre” he claims that the field is befuddled with uncertainty, confusion and contradiction because it lacks an adequate theory, an adequate means of reconciling the differing opinions which were then stalemating advancements in genre study.  Fortunately, Altman himself offers a solution, a unifying theory which he claims will, unlike the semiotic and structuralist approaches he critiques, diachronically consider historical context while reconciling the field’s contrasting opinions.  In his essay, Altman strategically shows his proposed semantic/syntactic theory, an inclusive, dualistic approach, to neatly solve the three sets of problematic contradictions that he explains are hindering genre studies, believing that such an approach will supplement “weaknesses of current notions of genre” while also productively raising “numerous questions for which other theories have created no space” (6, 17).

Altman’s essay is exceptionally well organized, straightforward and clear; he firmly establishes a lack in (what was then) current genre studies and then plainly shows the ways in which his proffered theory corrects that lack, all in a pleasantly conversational tone and with plenty of illustrative examples.  Altman initially outlines the three main “contradictions” which he claims plague genre criticism because of the way that their seemingly oppositional points of view have allowed no common ground or universally accepted definitions of genre; and since no rapprochement between the two sides has been yet established, the field has been left irreconcilably divided and bereft of a cohesive guiding theory (6).  Firstly, Altman explains that there is no single agreed-upon way of determining a genre’s corpus, which can be defined by either an inclusive or an exclusive means of selection, depending on your position.  The inclusive list, such as would be found in an encyclopedia, defines genre in a broad, tautological sense, while the exclusive canon is determined by more abstract qualifications.  In this latter category, a definition is given based on “attempts to arrive at the overall meaning or structure of a genre” and tends to encapsulate films that critics feel somehow “represent the genre more fully” (7).  These two types of definition ultimately correspond to Altman’s own dual semantic and syntactic approaches, respectively, and his proposed theory thus unites the two canons and two types of definition which he here shows to be contradictingly and competingly disparate.

Altman’s second contradiction pertains to genre history and theory and the apparent, or at least accepted, incompatability of the two schools.  Clearly favoring a diachronic, historical and developmental view of genre, Altman briefly explains the synchronic, ahistorical semiotic approach that has dominated genre studies from the 1960’s until the 1980’s when he is writing.  He posits that such thinking tends to conceive of genres in terms of timeless Platonic ideals and completely ignores their historical development as well as the very fact that they do develop and evolve.  This section of Altman’s argument becomes a little muddled in his eagerness to discount such a synchronic view while also trying not to bog down his relatively direct and concise essay with burdensome theory and history.  Still, the fact that genres do develop over time, as do genre theories themselves, as Altman illustrates, seems a simple enough truth upon which to accept his assertion that the theory of genre should consider history rather than exist in diametric separation from it, as he claims is currently the case with this second contradiction.

Thirdly, Altman compares the so-called ritual approach to genre with the ideological approach, explaining how they, like the inclusive and exclusive definitions and like genre theory and history, have been viewed as opposite, incompatible positions which then leaves the field of genre criticism with no clear course of study.  He writes that the ritual approach, stemming from Levi-Strauss’ examination of the role of myth in genre, essentially attributes ultimate agency to audiences, who pick the movies they want to see and thus compel Hollywood to accommodate their desires.  On the other hand, the ideological approach denies all audience agency and describes genre as merely a vehicle for the rhetoric of Hollywood, as their means of “luring” audiences in and then manipulating them for their own commercial motives (9).

After thus clearly establishing three sets of contradictions, three sets of theoretical binaries, Altman calls for a theory that will not only consider historical context, but will also, without denying any of these past positions, offer a “critical methodology which encompasses and indeed thrives on their inherent contradictions” (10).   His proposed semantic/syntactic theory here offers a “dual approach” whose “slash” component promises to resolve the seemingly insurmountable fissures he just established by combining their contradictory view points (12).  In categorizations that parallel those of the inclusive and exclusive canons of genre, Altman differentiates between genres defined by their semantic elements and those by their syntactic organization.  Semantic definitions, he explains, use “a list of common traits, attitudes, characters, shots, locations, sets,” i.e. the genre’s “building blocks themselves.”  Syntactic definitions, on the other hand, stress the “constitutive relationships between undesignated and variable placeholders,” or the “structures into which [the building blocks] are arranged” (10).

Altman’s entire semantic/syntactic argument is predicated upon his belief in a diachronic approach to the study of genre, or of any text.  Most clearly introduced in the context of his second stated contradiction, Altman directly asserts the need for such an approach throughout his essay while also indirectly confirming its validity and necessity through the inclusion of examples which reveal the historical developments of genre.  For instance, he outlines the development of the musical in which the original use of music to melodramatically convey sorrow later developed into associations with the joy and pleasure of “coupling, the community and entertainment” (13).  Also, in establishing the contradiction between genre theory and history, Altman indirectly describes the development of genre theories themselves, explaining the way in which previous citations of the industry’s own generic terms were suspiciously replaced by a “self-conscious critical vocabulary” after the work of semiotics rose to popularity (7).  Furthermore, aware of the change and evolution of not only genres but ideas of theory as well, Altman consciously avoids the trap of synchronicity by historically situating his own semantic/syntactic theory as a response to the dominating influence of semiotics over the twenty years before he is writing, as one more step in the history of genre theory.  By thus conveying that historical development does occur, in genres as well as in theories, Altman cleverly shows all of these single-theory approaches, each half of his three “contradictions,” to be inherently incapable of explaining a genre’s big picture.  The logical extension of this idea, which supports the rest of Altman’s argument, is that since theory alone cannot tell the whole truth of a genre without the insight gained from considering history, so too do his two other contradictions also fail to fully convey a genre when they do so from only one side.

To unequivocally prove not only that his two new categorizations of semantic and syntactic can successfully define a genre but also that the two elements need to be combined in order to optimally characterize genres, Altman uses the example of The Western.  He explains both the semantic and the syntactic elements of this familiar genre, thus concretely clarifying his two categories while also proving that they can sufficiently define a genre.  However, he then cites the problematic subcategory of the “Pennsylvania western” which has clear “affinities” with the western genre but lacks some of the established semantic requirements.  In a succinct affirmation of his dual theory, Altman neatly removes the “problem” of this exception by removing the mono-ideological approach; combining semantic and syntactic definitions means sacrificing neither wide applicability nor the identification of meaning and the “Pennsylvania” films can be thus unproblematically grouped within the Western genre where they belong (11).

From this rather convincing example, Altman clearly and systemically returns to his original three stated contradictions to show in each how the application of his semantic/syntactic theory adroitly solves the problems posed by a faithful adherence to just one ideology.  Thus, by neatly aligning his dual approach with the two means of defining a genre’s corpus and by making it clear that the use of only one such definition ignores the complexity, individuality and varying “levels of genericity” of each film text, Altman proves that his dual approach offers a “more accurate description” of genre.  Secondly, he forgoes the synchronic division between genre theory and history that he so clearly disapproves of and offers his own “working hypothesis” of the two paths of generic historical development, in relation to his chosen semantic and syntactic categories: “either a relatively stable set of semantic givens is developed through syntactic experimentation into a coherent and durable syntax, or an already existing syntax adopts a new set of semantic elements” (12).  This not only reaffirms the fact that genres change and proves the previous synchronic approach to be inadequate, but also confirms that his own chosen means of definition are capable of bridging the gap between theory and history and of accounting for a genre’s historical development.  Finally, Altman compares his “dual approach” to the space wrought between ritual and ideological approaches.  His justification here comes from his claim that genres need a “special bilingualism” to exist and thrive; they are comprised neither wholly of audience agency nor Hollywood rhetoric, but instead exist in the “common ground” between audience desire and Hollywood motivation that is arrived at through a genre’s “process of accommodation,” that is, its historical development (14).

Altman concludes his very convincing essay by returning to the beginning, so to speak.  Having proven the existence of a lack in genre studies and that his dual approach offers a successful means of ameliorating that lack and of reconciling those contradictions, he returns to the “general theory of textual signification” that provided the basis for his new genre theory in order to offer further corroborating support and explanation (15).  He cites the literary theory which differentiates between the “primary, linguistic parts of a text’s component parts,” his semantics, and the “secondary, textual meaning which those parts acquire through a structuring process internal to the text or to the genre,” his syntactic category (15).  Examples of the western, again, and the horror genre show that this original literary delineation is just as effective as his own semantic/syntactic approach and Altman confidently concludes that his selection of these two classifications is ideal “because the semantic/syntactic distinction is fundamental to a theory of how meaning of one kind contributes to and eventually establishes meaning of another” (16).

The essay, which was so clear, well organized and well proven, starts to get a little convoluted here at the end as Altman returns once more to trying to convey the historical development of genres, explains the ways in which genres become established.  After having stressed the importance of both semantic and syntactic categorizations and outlined two parallel ways in which genres develop, Altman here, in returning to this literary model, has to overtly privilege the syntactic as the primary way in which meaning is produced.  Because this literary theory stresses the idea that meaning is created through “internal” structuring, it ignores external factors like the commercial and ideological motivations of Hollywood and the agency and expectation of audiences themselves.  Altman tries to address this latter element, tries to recognize the “interpretive community” which he claims semiotic genre theorists ignored, by cursorily crediting these audiences with a level of determining agency not present in his original literary theory.  However, he cannot address this aspect at length, and so wraps up his essay by placing the majority of a genre’s meaning-creating power in the texts which preceded it, in the repeated application of a syntactical system to a set of semantics, which thus establishes the genre.

And though Altman’s essay is well structured and set up to succeed, though he uses convincing rhetoric and organization to prove his theory, there are a few issues which are missing from his compact argument.  First, though he does an amazing job of applying his semantic/syntactic theory to genres like the western, the musical and horror films, he does not adequately address the less clear-cut, more slippery genres of melodrama and film noir.  Much harder to define and to assign to a single set of identifying factors, these genres might simply have been harder to use as evidence in this short essay, but it stands to wonder whether Altman’s dualistic approach would have been able to accommodate these more amebic genres as well.  Secondly, though his proposed theory does a nice job of uniting the apparent chasms of genre study, they are slightly vague in and of themselves and would not necessarily generate useful definitions of specific genres.  As Altman shows, it neatly combines previously asserted definitions, both semantic and syntactic, such as Jean Mitry’s with Jim Kitses’ or Marc Vernet’s with John Cawelti’s for the western, but it doesn’t seem to define a genre on its own (10-11).

And finally, it must be reasserted that the theory which Altman has based his entire approach on is literary in nature, and thus, though obviously applicable to and useful in relation to cinema, still creates a slight issue of variable mediums.  And if Altman found such troubling insufficiencies with the application of semiotics to the study of genre from twenty years before he was writing, then his own use of a literary theory might also ultimately prove unsatisfactory, especially given his own stress on the importance of historical development.  Still, even if there are a few issues left unanswered, Altman has proved his proposed theory to be a productive addition to genre studies, if not solving every problem then at least “raising questions for which other theories have created no space” and making it potentially possible to answer those questions in the future (17).

 

 

Works Cited

Altman, Rick.  “A Semantic/Syntactic Theory of Genre.”  Film Theory and Criticism:

Introductory Readings.  7th ed.  Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“This is Sparta!”: The Spectacle of the Active, Muscled Male Body in 300

300 title image 1

Introduction

The intense box-office success of 300 proves that overt male spectacle sells.[i]  Both men and women came to see not only the comic book adaptation’s display of masculine fighting skill and stoic resolve, but also the spectacle of the male actors’ hard, sharply-defined ab and chest muscles which the film explicitly offered them via the heightened impact of CGI-enhanced definition and ancient Greece-justifying loincloths.  Because of its blatant positioning of the male body as spectacle and source of visual pleasure, 300 aligns with the work of Richard Dyer, Steve Neale, and Steven Cohan, [ii] who have all shown that it is not only women who are structured as passive objects of spectacle connoting “to-be-looked-at-ness,” as Laura Mulvey laid out in her deeply-influential essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” but that men occupy this position as well.  In claiming that men too inhabit this “female” position in Mulvey’s conception of gendered cinematic structures and the masculine spectator, all three scholars also imply that the male inhabitation of this passively-coded position creates instabilities and anxieties (11).  Thus, they claim, in consciously or unconsciously presenting the male as to-be-looked-at spectacle, the film texts must attempt to disavow or minimize the contradictions and threats such erotic contemplation of the male image poses to patriarchically hegemonic definitions of masculinity as active.

Zach Snyder’s 2007 film 300 is adapted from Frank Miller’s 1998 graphic novel about the historic Spartan battle of Thermopylae against Xerxes and his armies during the Greco-Persian Wars of 480 B.C.; it offers an interesting confirmation and subversion of Mulvey’s theory of active/passive gendered cinematic structures and of these three scholars’ claims for the need to disavow the presumably troubling display of male spectacle.  Clearly corroborating Dyer, Neale, and Cohan’s assertion of the existence of cinematic male spectacle, 300 overtly and consciously offers the male body as object of erotic contemplation and obvious spectacle in its (re)presentation of these hard-muscled, nearly nude Spartan warriors and their elaborate fight sequences, all stylized with extensive digital effects.  300 incorporates many of the devices which these scholars claim have been traditionally employed to disavow the anxiety such male spectacle presumably causes, and yet they seem rather to enhance the spectacle; for 300 remains wholly invested in the unexcused display of the spectacle of these men/these men as spectacle, which is further enhanced by its highlighting of the unnaturalness of these masculine constructions.  In addition to this implied lack of tension concerning the gaze at male spectacle, by both male and female audiences, 300 also importantly conflates the Mulveyan dichotomy between masculine action and the gazed-at objectification attributed to the feminine, showing that it is both which construct the male ego ideal.  Yet 300 ultimately seeks to validate its spectacular presentation of this idealized active masculinity, defining it in terms of national values, of which these spectacular bodies and the actions they perform serve as an extension.  Moreover, such masculine ideals are further privileged in relation to what the film constructs as “bad” masculinities, which are Othered, demonized, and contrastingly represented through physical deformity, moral and sexual corruption, and passivity.

Men as Visual Spectacle: 300’s Simultaneously “Active” and “Passive” Male Ego Ideal

300’s Spartan male characters are excessively positioned as ideal egos, to borrow Mulvey’s term; led by King Leonidas, these men perfectly embody Mulvey’s characterization of classically “active” male protagonists, who she says offer “more perfect, more complete, more powerful ideal egos” with which the male spectator narcissistically identifies (12).  As such an active male ideal, Leonidas controls the film’s epic war plot and its desiring gaze and thus exemplifies classic “narcissistic fantasies of power, omnipotence, mastery and control” (Neale 5).  Furthermore, the idealized Spartan masculinity which Leonidas (literally) embodies is seamlessly replicated in his identically well-muscled, identically costumed men, offering not just one but a camaraderie of 300 ideal egos for male spectators to identify with.  This extra level of “narcissistic fantasy” reinforces this Spartan masculine ideal and also recalls the exaggerated identification-with-the-ideal often associated with the presumably male readers of comic books and super hero narratives (Neale 5).

Additionally, Leonidas and his Spartan men also exhibit the same verbal and “emotional reticence” which marks masculine heroes like Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s Westerns; indeed, their status as classic active ideal egos is compounded by the fact that their actions take the place of agency-exhibiting, communicative speech (Neale 7).  Neale claims that such silence further engages narcissistic male identification for it implies the pure state which existed before the loss and lack associated with language.  Because 300 seems determined to mark not only its central male protagonist as the ego ideal of narcissistic identification and fantasy, but the whole Spartan masculinity he represents and leads, this verbal and emotional reserve becomes intricately tied to Spartan national values and characterizes all of its idealized citizens; regardless of gender, they display the restraint and austerity which have come to define “spartan” in everyday language.  These hard-bodied Spartan men say little, emote even less, and wear only a loincloth, shield, and cloak.  This Spartan reticence, along with the men’s impressive fighting skill, also additionally encourages the film’s focus on the spectacle of their male bodies, which come to stand as crucial nonverbal sites for the communication of active masculinity, both to each other and to audiences.

In addition to such idealized Spartan reticence and active characterization, this athletic, loin-cloth-wearing “virility [also] has its undeniable basis in the spectacle of muscular bodies,” just as Cohan describes was the case for the often-shirtless William Holden in Joshua Logan’s 1955 Picnic (210).  But though Leonidas and his 300 Spartans clearly exemplify the active position and idealized narcissistic identification that Mulvey outlines for men (characters and spectators) in mainstream cinema, they also sharply deflate her assertion that “a male movie star’s glamorous characteristics are thus not those of erotic contemplation,” consciously offering muscled male bodies as blatant visual spectacle (Mulvey 12).  On display for both the scopic pleasure of their muscled bodies as well as the spectacular actions they can do with those bodies, these masculine ego ideals are thus “encoded with the value of ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’” which Mulvey first attributed to passively-structured women in classical cinema (Cohan 210).

But as Dyer, Neale, and Cohan prove, and as 300 thus clearly shows, the male figure can embody both of Mulvey’s gendered filmic positions, can oscillate between the (masculine) active narcissistic ego ideal and the (feminine) scopic object of erotic contemplation, thus complicating such gendered divisions.  Beyond this though, 300 also shows that these two positions can be united, that they need not remain separate and distinct poles between which characters and spectatorial identification oscillate.  Rather, the active characterizations which make these Spartan protagonists narcissistic ego ideals are often also the basis for their erotic contemplation, and vice versa.  For despite the assertions begun in Mulvey and picked up by these three scholars, being (erotically) contemplated is actually a large part of what comprises many onscreen male ideals, and both the active and the static body facilitate this pleasurable contemplation.  Additionally, the passivity traditionally associated with being the object of the gaze needs to be complicated: as is especially clear in a film as blatant and self-aware as 300, there is also a very evident and enviable power to be had in being looked at, in being contemplated, and in setting oneself up as an ego ideal to be admired and emulated.  300 consciously offers these hard-bodied warriors to male and female audiences as well as to diegetic characters as objects of scopic pleasure to be gazed at for both the spectacle of display and the spectacle of action (which are intimately related).  Also, the men themselves continually offer up the image and the action of their bodies to the gaze of their countrymen, hoping to prove their own embodiment of the Spartan ideal and to inspire it others.

Muscles have always been a very important part of both male action and male spectacle, but they have also, according to Dyer, Neale, and Cohan, inspired anxieties and presumably troubling ambiguities between the discrepancy of the masculine action connoted by muscularity and the supposed passivity inherent in displaying the body.  Though muscles have often been displayed for their ability to connote phallic power and offer proof of the active constructions of these cinematic male heroes and hegemonic masculinity, Dyer, Neale, and Cohan all explain that such efforts inherently incriminate the masculine representations with the connotations of passivity they attribute to being gazed at and contemplated.  However, though three key moments of slow motion in 300 epitomize such a potentially unsettlingly ambiguating process, they also show the way in which it is both static, “passive” bodily display as well as the display of (bodily) action which create these Spartan male narcissistic ego ideals.  By now a cliché of so-called male action genres, these scenes involve a line of Spartans simply walking or running towards the camera, cropped above the head and below the knee for optimal muscle viewing and dramatically slowed down.  Importantly, in these moments of spectacle, it is still very much muscles and bodies in motion, enhanced rather than diminished by the slower speed, which provides increased visibility of the male spectacle and gives (male and female) audiences more time to gaze at and enjoy it.

Interestingly, slow motion actually aligns the men of 300 most conventionally with Mulvey’s characterization of the filmic positioning of the female, which she explains offers moments of pure spectacle which retard the development of the narrative and “freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation” (11).  Steve Neale shows that such narrative freezing often characterizes much of the fetishistic spectacle of men in “male genres,” which I will discuss further later, but here the erotic gaze at the male body not only pauses the narrative, it almost literally freezes the fighting action through the use of slow motion effects; these moments offer the most drastic combination of “passive” scopic objectification and powerful action into a unified male ego ideal.  Already slowed down to ensure optimal appreciation of and pleasure in these male bodies as well as their physical skill, the action of 300’s elaborately choreographed fight sequences very nearly halt mid-leap, mid-lunge, mid-thrust, recalling video game structures of pleasure in and power over the physical spectacle.  This intriguingly ambiguates the presumably passive frozen-in-time spectacle of women as originally laid out by Mulvey, aligning it with the similar effects used in games and movies aimed at male audiences, and importantly implicates physical action in the pleasure of (erotic) (male) spectacle.

For example, the most battle-hungry Spartan, Stelios, pulls his sword from the scabbard at his waist, a close-up frame highlighting his flexed abs and making explicit the connection between his muscles, his sword, and his phallic Spartan power; he growls fiercely and leaps into the air to attack the Persian emissary, mounted on a platform at least twenty feet high.  Slow motion renders his agile, athletic, impossible leap a glorious spectacle, highlighting his beautiful form; clothed in nothing but a loincloth, he flies horizontally towards his target, seemingly frozen in air.  The camera breaks up his body as he leaps, shooting his legs, stomach, and chest in different close-up segments, clearly aligning with Mulvey’s explanation of the objectifying fragmentation of the female body in cinema.  And yet, here too it becomes clear that though the narrative action literally stops to gaze at specific male body parts, objectifiedly decontextualized, the point remains that it is an action being frozen and gazed at: it is the physical actions of these men, along with their hard muscles, which comprises and adds to the erotic spectacle of their body as well as their positioning as an active ego ideal.  Even when frozen, theirs remain spectacular bodies in spectacular motion.

As such highly self-aware scenes make clear, 300 seems to find male spectacle justifiable in its own right and consciously presents the spectacularized male body as to-be-looked-at by male and female audiences without it detracting from the “active” characterizations of traditional narcissistic ego ideals.  Indeed, the bodily display enhances the active spectacle and idealization.  It is therefore important to also point out 300’s visual presentation of this male spectacle: the film overtly and consciously creates and codes its entire mise-en-scene to further highlight and enhance the contemplation of the spectacle that is these men’s muscular bodies, to heighten their beauty and perfection as well as their actions.  The shots’ framing reveals a preference for dramatic shafts of sunlight which pierce down through the clouds to illuminate the marble-like chests and abs of the 300 Spartans, making them visually stand out in golden illumination against the slate-colored ground and walls behind them and against the stormy sky overhead, while supplying additional connotations of the divinely blessed.  Moreover, their long red cloaks regally highlight the planes of their long muscled bodies and provide a dramatic backdrop to the presentation of their physiques, a bold yet graceful and mobile accent to their sword thrusts and twirls.  This further links them to connotations of powerful superheroes, themselves often defined by both idealized bodies and actions while also offering unabashed bodily spectacle to both men and women.

Disavowal of the Male Spectacle

As discussed by Dyer, Neale, and Cohan, the ambiguity created by such blending of Mulveyan notions of “feminine” passivity and “masculine” action has traditionally been described as troubling; they mention tensions which arise around the erotic contemplation of the spectacle-laden, objectified male body, tensions which the film texts have to work to disavow in order to be “kept in line with dominant ideas of masculinity-as-activity” (Dyer 66).  Similarly, the films must also, they write, work to disavow the apparently inherent “passivity” which exists not only being gazed at by viewers, but also in the conscious posing of an image constructed to provide visual pleasure.  Richard Dyer, in discussing male pin-ups, claims that the people constructing and posing such images attempt to downplay or conceal the passivity of the male model’s being gazed at by the camera and by both male and female viewers, for in hegemonic classical cinema, as Mulvey points out, men are bearers of the gaze and women objects of it; by doing so, they can reassert an “active” notion of masculinity.  Such active-enforcing impressions are achieved, he claims, in three main ways, with particular relevance for 300: posing the man to look directly at the spectator/ return the spectator’s gaze; photographing and staging the male object “doing something” or as poised for action; and by imposing the impression of naturalness on these representations of the masculine image (66).

Steve Neale, too, writes that the representation of action is used to conceal the contradictions of male spectacle on screen: since the main anxiety involves the male spectator viewing the male image with potentially erotic contemplation, this homosexual current, he claims, becomes “minimized” through the sado-masochistic fantasies and scenes which often characterize male genres like the Western or the gangster film (14).  Similarly, Cohan writes that Picnic, which foregrounds the diegetic and spectatorial female gaze at Hal’s semi-nude body, unlike the male genres Neale discusses, had to move outside of the text altogether to mobilize Holden’s star image in its attempt to “minimize” the “disturbing male spectacle” he and his bare chest presented (205).  However, though 300 incorporates many of the techniques of disavowal laid out by these three scholars, as might well be expected of this male-dominated Hollywood blockbuster aimed at primarily male audiences, ultimately its self-conscious and highly constructed presentation of excessive male spectacle, defined as both active and gazed-at in its idealization, extends beyond mere contradiction to imply that such a staging of male spectacle need not be disavowed at all.

Citing Mulvey’s description of the sadism associated with voyeuristic looking, Neale identifies similar narratives which “depend on making something happen,” on “a battle of will and strength, victory and defeat” in traditionally male genres, which often involve the “depiction of relations between men” or “the struggle between a hero and male villain,” as is the case in the almost-all-male 300 with the battle between Leonidas’ Spartans and the Persian army led by Xerxes (Mulvey 14, Neale 12).  In such films, Neale claims, conventions and rituals of combat and violence both “embody and allay” the anxieties involved in contemplating the male image (12).  Paul Willemen, he writes, sees director Anthony Mann as using such “narrative content marked by sado-masochistic fantasies and scenes” to repress any “explicit eroticism in the act of looking at the male” (12).  Neale further explains, however, that such scenes of “male struggle [can easily] become pure spectacle,” freezing the narrative in the way 300’s slow motion fight scenes do.  However, unlike 300, Neale claims that this potentially troubling fetishization and devolution into spectacle has traditionally been structured to, as in Mann’s and Leone’s films, “recognize the pleasures of display” while also “displacing [that pleasure] from the male body as such and [locating] it more generally in the overall components of a highly ritualized scene” (12).

Though 300 shares many similarities with these Westerns and other male genres, its highly ritualized combat scenes operate solely as “embodiment” within  Neale’s dual “embody and allay” description, and its presentation of male spectacle is so self-aware, excessive, and reflexive about its own constructedness that it ultimately sides with the exhibition of male spectacle over any need for disavowal.  300’s depiction of the Spartan fight against wave after wave of Persian foes is ritualistic, nearly fetishistic, like Neale’s Westerns, and draws heavily from the graphic novel and superhero tradition of epic, frame-by-frame depictions of physically competent fighting men.  However, it reflexively retains the emphasis on the male body which Neale saw as having to be completely displaced by such rituals of combat.  In one slow motion sequence of Leonidas’ choreographed fighting, the camera advances with him as he approaches each new enemy, aggressively thrusts his sword forward and hurls his spear; but it also halts his intense progress, slows him down so that audiences can focus on his body, his tautened muscles as he prepares for action, the grace of his body as he stands or pauses or readies for the next seamless attack.  Here, the spectacle of the male body in action usurps the fetishization of combat alone and forcibly reasserts its presence, implying that the spectacular, gazed-at, and supposedly passive depiction of cinematic men is not something that contradicts active definitions of masculinity, but in fact contributes to the construction of narcissistic ego ideals.  The context of the fight narrative and the ritual of combat here more fully enhance, not merely justify and excuse, male spectacle.

Neale goes on to say that traditionally, such explicit focus on the male body as is seen in 300 could not be contained outside of the biblical epic, which forced other male genres to focus on the spectacle of the fight rather than of the male bodies fighting.  As such, Rock Hudson’s functioning as a clear object of (female) desire in Sirk’s melodramas resulted in the male star having to be punishingly “feminized” in the narrative,  revealing, as Neale claims, the “strength of those conventions which dictate that only women can function as the objects of an explicitly erotic gaze” (14).  Cohan similarly describes the female “sex bomb” status attributed to the melodrama Picnic’s femininely-desired Hal/Holden, despite the “rippling muscles” which were so phallically coded to represent active masculinity (210).  Neale, Cohan, and Dyer all imply that the epic’s conventions of male exhibitionism and representations of the male body function, more so than the melodrama or even other “male genres,” to very strongly assimilate overt focus on the male body into dominant notions of masculinity, and it is within this presumably safer tradition that 300 confidently flaunts its use of the male body as spectacle.  However, the stylized CGI effects and conscious investment in male spectacle ultimately seem to indicate that the safe-making “sword and sandal” genre here serves as an additional self-aware excuse for male spectacle, an excuse as skimpy as the Spartans’ loincloths, another convention of male display (of both body and action) which further enhances the spectacle of these men rather than working to disavow it.

Male muscularity also functions as an important part of this generically epic tradition of blatant male spectacle, using its connotations of biological naturalness to counteract the supposed feminization of spectacle.  In discussing the male pin-up, Richard Dyer writes that every image of male spectacle promotes muscularity because “muscularity is the key term in appraising men’s bodies, …[and is viewed as] the sign of power – natural, achieved, phallic” (71).  Men’s muscles are seen as the natural indication of their physical superiority over women, the proof of their ability to dominate and control (women and weaker men).  By extension, well-defined muscles are “hard” and phallic in the symbolic sense of the phallus’ representation of “abstract paternal power” (Dyer 71).  Similarly, the hard muscles which eye-catchingly refract light and draw the spectator’s admiring gaze in almost every one of 300’s CGI-enhanced scenes prove these men’s innate phallic power and present “a more perfect” ego ideal to male viewers, while also offering very clear scopic pleasure, as was epitomized in the slow motion muscle-highlighting scenes discussed earlier.

But it is not only the display of the phallic-connoting muscles themselves, but also the posing of /their promise of action which has conventionally been used to excuse male display and reinforce traditional active definitions of masculinity as natural rather than constructed.  For example, as Dyer points out, the male model “tightens and tautens his body so that the muscles are emphasized, hence drawing attention to the body’s potential for action” and often “stands taut, ready for action” (67).  300 abounds with such posings of its nearly-nude men, most often immediately preceding or following a battle, to a level of excess which becomes self-referential.  The greatest example of such conscious posings involves a scene which opens on the completion of a defensive wall comprised entirely of Persian bodies.  Stelios, positioned in the immediate foreground of the frame, instantly commands the audience’s attention as he pauses, resting hand on hip in a model’s perfect display of his muscular body, his abs and chest facing the camera and his leg propped up alluringly on the pile of bodies he helped kill and assemble.  This scene begins with the action already completed, and the blatantly posed and displayed male body (-ies) benefits from this pretense of action and is enhanced by its connotations.  Flinging the last body up, the men, breathing heavily and muscles flexing, all gather in front of their human wall, a perfectly posed display of muscled male bodies, barely excused by this grotesque suggestion of physical action.  Yet this posing also highlights these bodies’ capacity for action in such a surreal, exaggerated way that it does not so much excuse the very potentially erotic spectacle as it consciously enhances it.

300 title image 2

Both Neale and Dyer discuss the artificiality and constructedness which underlie the filmic displays of male muscularity meant to convey innate phallic strength and action but which, in the Hollywood system of representation, ultimately expose the unnaturalness of these posed bodies and thus more firmly align the men with the feminine position of spectacle.  Dyer writes that the muscles on screen are not natural, as they attempt to appear, but are actually just as “achieved” as the makeup and other markers of female spectacle and masquerade which are thought of as being “done to” the women on screen; these muscles are demanded by Hollywood and achieved through hours of narcissistic body-building, a point which Neale also addresses (71).  Cohan writes that muscles and the filmic attention paid to them reveal the Hollywood star system’s deepest threat to “symbolic phallic support of male power: the extent to which an actor’s appearance, no less than his female counterpart’s, has to be artificially fashioned into an image of physical virility for the eyes of the camera” (221).  This is a presumably dangerous truth which, these scholars assert, must continually be denied if hegemonically active definitions of masculinity are to be upheld.

300 however, absolutely refuses to imply any notion of naturalness in relation to its men’s muscles and their masculinity as a whole, thus devoting itself to the explicit revelation of the constructedness of its male ego ideals.  Not only does it point to the “achieved” quality of these muscles through physical action, but it also reveals these male muscles as very clearly “done to” these male actors, digitally added and enhanced in post-production.  Of the three scholars, 300 comes closest to Cohan’s analysis of the masculine spectacle in Picnic which, in so explicitly exposing Hollywood’s investment in the spectacle of the male body for desiring gazes, reveals masculinity to be a performance and construction.  Hal masquerades his masculinity, constructing his phallic identity out of fakery and spectacle, and the fictional portrayal of him by a Hollywood actor compounds this destruction of any idea of “a natural man” or of a stable masculinity (221).  Similarly, 300, in its action-centered narrative, focuses on the masquerade-like performance of this masculine Spartan identity and portrays these men in such exaggerated ways, both narratively and visually, that their actions cannot seem natural, only pure affect.

This is further compounded by 300’s digital effects, which create not only the whole physical world but also the men themselves, making the Hollywood construction of and investment in the (muscled, male) image and its idealization explicit.  Such overt stylization renders these men visually unreal, and, by extension, their phallic muscles, their actions, and the active masculinity they represent.  This conscious artifice also calls attention to the actor beneath the visual styling, the man who cannot embody the Spartan ideal depicted unachievably onscreen; this exposes the absurd degree to which even the hard muscles and good looks of Hollywood stars are incapable of attaining such ego ideals and points to the doubly unreal male image (created by both actor and effects).  And though this ancient battle’s historicity provides the sheerest basis of truth to these warriors, theirs is a masculinity which remains almost wholly outside the realms of reality and naturalness, displayed spectacularly for audiences’ visual pleasure in a way that exposes and revels in that very constructedness.  Neale points out that narcissistic identification with ego ideals is often troubling for male viewers because these idealized “models” involve representations and abilities which are often impossible to achieve (7).  But perhaps what is so appealing about these muscled Spartans, to both male and female audiences, is that very unreality, the unachievable ideal traditionally offered by Hollywood, especially when presented in such a self-aware package.

Masculinity-Based Definitions of Sexual Difference: Active Masculinity and Othered Men

Beyond this overt acknowledgement and foregrounding of the construction of this male spectacle, 300 also diverges from Dyer, Neale, and Cohan by redefining sexual difference around masculinity.  The film does not offer techniques of disavowal as such, for it is fully devoted to both the traditionally categorized “passive” and “active” elements of its Spartan ideals, but in a similar function the film works to privilege and validate its idealized masculinity in relation to Othered, demonized ones.  These three scholars all imply that classical cinema works at constructing, maintaining, and reinforcing hegemonically active definitions of masculinity so as to enforce patriarchy’s gendered hierarchy of sexual difference between men and women, thus ultimately protecting the dominant structures of male power.  For example, Cohan explains that William Holden’s muscles, the “natural indication of [men’s] physical superiority over women,” as Dyer wrote, were used to counteract any effeminization incurred in presenting Hal as gazed-at spectacle and to define and reinforce sexual difference diegetically and in relation to female spectators.

300 maintains a similar structure of sexual difference defined in relation to the phallus, to male muscles specifically, yet it counteracts the dominant tradition of validating men by subjugating women; rather, sexual difference is here recentered exclusively around men.  For instance, Queen Gorgo is equal to her husband, no less powerful because of her female gender, and just as idealized.  Though there is a strictly sexual division of labor in Sparta, where bodies are such an important indication of identity, Gorgo’s traditionally-marginalized role in female reproduction is an intense source of pride for her, for all Spartan women, and for Sparta as a (masculine) nation.  However, that is also because it, like Gorgo herself, is still defined in terms of the (Spartan) masculine: “only Spartan women give birth to real men” she smugly tells a Persian ambassador.  Gorgo is idealized along with the strong phallic men because she is equally Spartan, characterized by the same definitions of Spartan masculinity: physical strength, emotional reserve, verbal reticence, and most importantly a perfectly-formed, hard, well-defined, albeit female, body.  Whereas Cohan explains that Picnic signified Hal as a phallic marker of sexual difference in order to combat the threatening agency of the films’ desiring female gazes, 300, in making all Spartans equally and ideally ‘masculine,’ sees no threat in the direct and desiring gaze of Spartan women like Gorgo.  Instead, it codes all Spartan masculinity, associated with national values and the idealized bodies of its men, as the “phallic marker of sexual difference” in relation to Othered men, both “bad” and non-Spartans, ultimately privileging traditional definitions of masculinity as active.

300’s idealized Spartan masculinity is most clearly embodied (literally) in Leonidas’ active, erotically-contemplated, hard-muscled body, and by extension his phalanx of uniformly bodied men.  Since the film seems less interested in upholding such traditional methods of disavowal as noted by Dyer, Neale, and Cohan, it uses different thematic techniques to reinforce and validate its constructions and definitions of ideal active masculinity.  The idealized Spartans are linked to national values and patriotism (of both ancient Greece and present-day America), their (muscled) bodies literally reflecting their good citizenship.  Though this serves to narratively characterize all who oppose the 300, in effect it privileges them over all other masculinities and men, with the Others demonized through the comparative depiction of un-ideal, deformed bodies.  300 begins by introducing a Spartan law which immediately establishes this equation of an idealized body with “good” masculinity and the very definition of Spartan national identity: the “inspection” to which all babies are subjected and the valley of skulls which awaits every child “discarded” for being born “small or puny or sickly or misshapen” in Sparta.

Ephialtes, who joins Leonidas’ fighting 300, is a hunchback whose mother fled Sparta to save him from the nation’s brutal discarding of such ill-bodied men.  He returns now, with his father’s Spartan shield, spear, and red cape, with a decent fighting technique and noble ambitions.  Despite this, his physical deformity, including wrinkled skin, broken overlarge teeth, one eye bulging larger than the other, and a crippled, stooped posture, renders him unable to lift his shield.  As such, he cannot join the Spartan phalanx, the “single impenetrable unit” which is the “source of their strength” and which relies on absolute uniformity of its men (bodies, actions, and masculine values).  Ephialtes’ physical imperfection, here cruelly visually contrasted to Leonidas’ perfect muscles and tall, upright stature, renders him incapable of achieving this Spartan masculinity, prevents him even from masquerading along beside his countrymen.  Denied access to this Spartan masculinity, Ephialtes betrays Leonidas by revealing to Xerxes the hidden path that will enable him to defeat the Spartans.  He is thus conclusively and condemnably aligned with weakness, betrayal, and corruption as extensions of his deformed body and his failure as a Spartan, giving in to Xerxes’ seductive promises in a way that Leonidas, in his ideal Spartan masculinity, never does.

A similar example of this differentiated masculinity, characterized in contrast to the ego ideal of the Spartan’s muscles and fighting abilities, are the Spartan ephors, enforcers of “the old religion.”  The film’s narrator Delios privileges the Spartan values of reason and logic over irrational belief and misplaced faith, and by extension action and fighting over inaction and talking, describing the ephors as “worthless remnants of a time before Sparta’s ascent from darkness.”  Their failed masculinity, as Delios sees it, is thus linked to a lack of alignment with Sparta’s current glorious and masculine national values, and they too are physically corrupted: stooped and diseased, with sores on their faces and, unlike the body-baring Spartan warriors, characterized by attempts to conceal their physical deformities under sickly grey robes.  Delios disgustedly describes them as “inbred swine; more creature than man …worthless, diseased, rotten, corrupt.”  These “bad” Spartans’ physical rot reflects their inactive masculinity and their failed patriotism as well as their moral corruption, which not only dramatically contrasts the Spartan ideal but directly threatens it: the ephors accept Leonidas’ payment, yet prevent him from taking the army to defend Sparta against the enslaving Persians, having also been bribed with Xerxes’ gold.

The final example of this failed Spartan masculinity, strikingly visually contrasted to the spectacle of Leonidas and his 300, is Congressman Theron who, unlike Ephialtes and the ephors, has the same well-muscled body as Leonidas.  However, he does not blatantly expose his like the idealized Spartans, but obscures it beneath a white robe, a sad comparison to the 300’s crimson capes, one which recalls those of the malignant ephors.  He is not a man of action, like the Spartan warriors, like Sparta’s definition of men, but instead is a schemer, a plotter, corrupt and slippery; he spies, lies, and whispers, he attacks nothing directly and compromises his own integrity and the good of his nation for personal gain.  It was he who facilitated the bribery between the ephors and Xerxes and he brutalized Gorgo before betraying and verbally impugning her in front of the council.  More of a Spartan man than Theron, Gorgo fights the politician’s lies with silent, direct (and violent) action: she phallically stabs him, proving his corruption by thus exposing his bag of Xerxes’ gold which further links him with the ephors’ venality and with non-Spartan immorality.

In addition to these failed Spartan masculinities, the 300 are also contrasted to Xerxes, and by extension, all the creatures of his army.  Here, with Xerxes already Othered by nationality and marked with the exotic Orientalism traditional of Western (Hollywood) representations of the East, he is also feminized and marked as sexually perverse in relation to active Spartan masculinity.  Though Xerxes’ body is similarly well-muscled and depicted as beautiful spectacle in the way of the 300, his body is not allowed to stand as representative of an ideal masculinity.  Xerxes’ costume of long cape, loincloth, and greaves is almost identical to Leonidas’, yet is marked not as national uniform of masculinity but as deliberate spectacle, personally chosen for its aesthetic impact and to make him stand out among his slave hordes.  Thus is he linked more securely to feminized notions of scopic objects than Leonidas ever is, this explicit affect of costume aligning him with the concept of women narcissistically constructing their appearance.  So though his clothing is no more body-baring than the 300’s and acts as a similar form of spectacle, the film seems to define the difference in Xerxes’ willing adoption of this spectacle, his desire to be noticeable within a group and to present himself as special rather than as a representative member of a nation, the opposite of spectacle-justifying Spartan national values.[iii]  Additionally, this visual difference between national military uniform and decorative costume also implies a difference in action: Spartans fight while Xerxes watches from afar on a throne carried on the backs of slaves.

Furthermore, all of Xerxes’ clothing is gold and vaguely iridescent, his greaves are not functional armor but made of delicate jewelry chains, and his long cape is attached to his shoulders by an oversized necklace, not muscle-accentuating leather straps.  This preference for appearance over action, for pure spectacle rather than action (as opposed to the Spartans’ combining of spectacle with action), is condemningly taken to the degree of overt effeminization and associations with marginalized queer masculinities: instead of a Spartan helmet Xerxes has gold face chains and gold hoops pierced through his lips and cheek bone; instead of angry smears of grease around his eyes, Xerxes has shimmery gold eye shadow and precisely-lined lids, framed by delicately plucked eyebrows.  Furthermore, this God-King, as he calls himself, has painted his entire body gold, rendering it unreal (and unmasculine) in a way quite different from the CGI effects on the Spartan’s bodies; he has aimed for the divine, the inhuman, achieving the otherworldly rather than the merely unreal, while the Spartans’ bodies are linked to the largely human (though equally unattainable) notions of narcissistic ego ideals.

Though it is conventional to render the enemy of a film’s protagonists as Other, this representation of Xerxes extends beyond the narrative justification of a visually- or even racially-Other enemy, coding him effeminately and perversely.  If Leonidas’ well-formed, well-muscled phalanx is an extension of his idealized masculinity, then Xerxes’ army too embodies his ‘failed’ masculinity: his is made up of ill-bodied “monsters,” mutant giants, even large creatures with blades surgically mounted to their arms, which all function as a clear definition of Xerxes’ Other, sexually demonized masculinity.  Xerxes’ harem too, like his mutated and monstrous armies, represents his sexual perversion in comparison to Leonidas and Gorgo’s strictly heterosexual relationship, which is further validated by the legitimating context of royal, i.e. national, marriage.  Xerxes’ harem, colored the same iridescent gold, includes an armless midget, two Indian women kissing, one of whom has a burned face, and an exotic topless African woman with an afro dancing seductively.  Such a conscious menagerie of racially-Other women comprises pure spectacle of the female image as Mulvey traditionally defined it, though it is here condemningly linked to Xerxes, his enslaving use of these women, and his own inferiorly passive masculinity.  Like the ephors who have “the most beautiful Spartan girls” brought to them, Xerxes is negatively associated with turning women into spectacle, into purely passive objects of erotic contemplation: his harem freezes the narrative for Ephialtes’ and the camera’s gaze at these explicitly exoticized female bodies and sexual oddities, fragmenting them into scopic close-ups of breasts, navels, and hips.  Additionally, in stark contrast to the admiring and pleasure-taking slow motion which gazed at and allowed audiences to gaze at the Spartan warriors, the slow motion spectacle inside Xerxes gold tent recalls the perverted or non-normative ogling at the freaks and oddities of a side show, put on display not for their idealized bodies but for their physical imperfection, and to someone else’s benefit.  In contrast to 300’s extensive spectacle of the exposed male body, which is linked to masculine agency as well as idealized masculinity, this dehumanizing Mulveyan use of cinematic spectacle against women here further condemns these ‘bad’ men.  Thus does 300 ultimately use a hierarchy of sexual difference defined by active notions of the phallus and linked to nationalized values to condemn these more traditionally “passive,” ill-bodied, and ill-moraled masculinities.

Conclusion

300 presents audiences, both male and female, with unabashed spectacle of the male body, seemingly conscious of the contradictions which this erotic presentation has traditionally had for masculinity in terms of Mulveyan notions of active male gazers versus passive, inactive female visual objects, an awareness enhanced by the extensive use of digital effects.  This at least opens up the possibility for less binary definitions and representations of masculinity in cinema.  Also, such an open acknowledgement of the erotic contemplation of the male image, along with the insistence on presenting male action as part of that erotic spectacle rather than safely distinct from it, seems particularly subversive considering the male audience which such a graphic novel franchise would have been expected to have.  Then, unlike Neale’s description of male genres, 300 seems to be largely unafraid of any potentially homosexual identification encouraged in these male audiences’ contemplation of the erotic spectacle of these male bodies.  And yet, the film ultimately fails in such direct acknowledgement of amorphous, ambiguous identifications with masculinity, backpedalling to privilege and naturalize this Spartan masculinity in comparison to Othered masculinities.  300 uses the codings of non-White races, non-Western cultures, and non-heterosexualities to demonize these other men in relation to the Spartan warriors, ultimately re-idealizing traditionally “active” definitions of masculine ideals, though from the vantage of self-aware male spectacle; problematic hierarchies of sexual difference are transferred to the world of men, at the expense, not of women, but of various non-dominant cultures, races, and sexualities.


300 made its entire $65 million budget back, plus more, with its opening weekend intake of $70,885,000.  It grossed a total of $210,615,000 and $244,500,00 internationally, and comprised the year’s largest box office hit for an R-rated movie, making it the eighth largest grossing R-rated film of all time (“300”).

ii  These three essays, which form the foundational set of theoretical investigations for this essay, are: Richard Dyer’s “Don’t Look Now;” Steve Neale’s “Masculinity as Spectacle: Reflections on Men and Mainstream Cinema;” and Steven Cohan’s “Masquerading as the American Male in the Fifties: Picnic, William Holden, and the Spectacle of Masculinity in Hollywood Film”.

iii  There appears to be a strong connection between such nationalized idealizations of these values of group homogeny and patriotic solidarity, united in proactive military action, as well the call to ideals of freedom, liberty, and the fight for justice, and post-9/11 America.  This issue would need to explored much further, but the idealization of the Spartan men so as to uphold the values of Western civilization in the face of a Middle Eastern oppressor, coupled by the rather vicarious, cathartic vigilante-style fight-for-what’s-right of the 300 seems to align very clearly with U.S. national sentiments in the years following the attack on 9/11.

 

Bibliography:

“300.”  Box Office Mojo.  Boxofficemojo.com.  Web.  Accessed May 1, 2012.

Cohan, Steve.  “Masquerading as the American Male in the Fifties: Picnic, William Holden and the

Spectacle of Masculinity in Hollywood Film.”  In Male Trouble, Eds. Penley, Constance and Sharon Willis.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.  203-34.

Dyer, Richard.  “Don’t Look Now.”  Screen 23.3/4 (1982): 61-73.

Mulvey, Laura.  “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”  Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18.

Neale, Steve.  “Masculinity as Spectacle: Reflections on men and Mainstream Cinema.”  Screen 24.6 (1983): 2-16.