The Star as Film and Cultural History: A Historiography of Miriam Hansen and Gaylyn Studlar’s Scholarship on Rudolph Valentino

Valentino Sheik with Girl

The phenomenon of female fandom, usually characterized by screaming, hysteria, mobs, excessive emotional investment, and other such pejorative descriptions, seems to have inspired rather charged responses, puzzlement and anxiety, since the beginning of cinema.  It is within this context of excessive female fandom that early cinema star Rudolph Valentino, one of the first and therefore news-worthy figures to inspire such fervor in female fans, was and still is often discussed and remembered.  When Valentino died in 1926, every major newspaper ran first-page coverage of the Latin Lover’s funeral, all headlining the mostly-female “throngs” of more than 30,000 who stopped traffic and caused riots, hurting more than 100 people and smashing two large windows in their frenzy to catch a last, short glimpse of the body of “Film’s Greatest Lover” (“Endless Throng”; “Thousands Riot”; “Valentino Passes”).  These larger-than-life responses are just one anecdotal example of the many that make up the mythic legend that still persists as Rudolph’s Valentino’s star persona, the public image of the man who immigrated from Italy at eighteen and worked as a dancer before becoming one of early Hollywood’s biggest stars for masses of desiring female fans, idolized (by women) for the exotic sexuality that characterized his star vehicles and seemed also to exist in his “real life.”

Perhaps film historians felt the same discomfort over issues of feminine desire and fan excess which was evident in the sensationalized and somewhat condemnatory newspaper headlines of Valentino’s funeral and which was voiced by countless American men during the period of Valentino’s stardom, for the critical examination of stars and fans remained largely marginalized until the 1970s.  Scholars like Richard Dyer, who produced some of the first scholarly work on stars, have been incredibly influential in the world of film studies and beyond, revealing the ways in which fans, stars, and the star system serve as sources of complex concepts and theories; they provide productive points of intervention for the investigation of Hollywood’s industrial and economic practices, its various constructions of desire, and the cultivation of consumerist spectators, especially in this historical moment of on-rushing modernity and a flourishing star system, as well as the complex processes of spectatorial engagement and identification, with both stars and film texts.  Many feminist scholars of the 1970s and afterwards were deeply interested in female spectatorship and in reclaiming cinema and its histories for female practitioners and participants, and so, like Richard Dyer, have also taken up the study of fandom and stardom.  Involved in both of these trends of scholarship are Miriam Hansen and Gaylyn Studlar, cultural film historians who each published responsive and overlapping yet differently-oriented work on Rudolph Valentino in the 1980s and 1990s, investigating his star image as part of their cultural reexamination of and intervention into (film) history.

One of the clearest sources of influence on both Hansen and Studlar, evident across their careers and particularly visible in their scholarship on Valentino, was the development of feminist film studies in the 1970s.  According to film scholar and historian Patricia Erens, the development of feminist film studies was a product of Second-wave feminism, begun in the early 1960s, as well as of the inclusion of women’s studies in academia (xvi).  Initially sociologically-focused, feminist film studies began by investigating the representations of female characters in filmic narratives and genres and the repercussions such popular representations had for social stereotypes of women.  The movement then turned towards the semiotic, Marxist, and psychoanalytic (Freudian and then Lacanian and Althusserian) movements which were coming to dominate critical theories of the later 1970s.  These feminist scholars thus became more centrally concerned with and examined film texts’ production of meaning, their positioning of the viewer, and the ways in which cinema’s very mechanisms affected the representation of women (xvii).

Considering such thematic and theoretical trends, the historical patterns evident in the bibliography of Valentino scholarship are themselves very interesting and point to the various ways in which the Valentino figure has been cast or been seen as useful or interesting in different cultural and critical moments.  The 1970s witnessed not only the rise of feminism but also the publication of a plethora of biographies which focused on Valentino’s cult image and the sexualized, enigmatic legacy which persisted long after his untimely death in 1926 at the age of 31; examples include Norman Mackenzie’s The Magic of Valentino (1974) and Noel Botham and Peter Donnelley’s Valentino: The Love God (1976).  Miriam Hansen and Gaylyn Studlar provide the only significant scholarship on Rudolph Valentino between these biographies of the 1970s and the 2000s, when a new wave of publications emerged.  Returning after thirty years’ influence of feminist and gender studies, an increased interest in fandom, stardom, and spectatorship (additionally fueled by the recent explosion of internet- and reality TV-dominated celebrity culture), the upsurge in masculine studies since the 1990s, and the new vogue that silent cinema has been experiencing in the academy since the 1970s, these new biographies of the 2000s focused catalogue-like on “the first” male and female stars, looking to locate the film star and the phenomenon of fandom in early cinema history.  Some of these more recent works, which also seem more interested in the dark side of Hollywood than in Valentino’s sexual allure, include Noel Botham’s Valentino: The First Superstar (2002), David Menefee’s collection of the First Male Stars (2007), Allen Ellenberger’s The Valentino Mystique: Death and Afterlife of the Silent Film Idol (2005) and Emily Leider’s Dark Lover (2003).

Responding to the influence of feminist, gender, and star studies and seeking to answer large-scale cultural and historical questions, Hansen and Studlar, unlike many of these (largely gossip-mongering) biographies and rather cursory star anthologies, forgo attempts to document the life and personality of Valentino himself; rather, these cultural film historians use the star figure of Rudolph Valentino to investigate the broader, contextualizing culture and history in which he became a star, which made him a star, which offered his star image to desiring spectators.  They examine his constructed star image, the viewing strategies embedded in his films and their alignment of spectators and spectatorial identification, as well as the public reception (both male and female) of his star image during the 1920s.  But beyond their shared cultural scope and their overlapping feminist and psychoanalytic interests and backgrounds, these two scholars have different questions and different goals in relation to cinema history, which directly shape their use of and research into Rudolph Valentino.

Miriam Hansen published her essay “Ambivalence, Pleasure, Identification: Valentino and Female Spectatorship” in 1986, initiating the new trend of critical Rudolph Valentino scholarship after the 1970s’ proliferation of biographies.  Five years after this first essay, and after a published response from both Richard DeCordova and Gaylyn Studlar, Hansen published her book Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (1991); it expands upon the ideas begun in “Ambivalence” and represents a fuller rendering of her career-long investigation into (female) spectatorship and early cinema, especially as it pertains to the entirety of the cinematic experience and its relation to modernity, mass culture, and the public sphere.

As is clear from these broader research interests and her extensive resume of publications, Hansen is not only engaged with feminist studies but is also deeply influenced by the Frankfurt School, particularly Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Siegfried Kracauer, who, drawing on Marxist theories, produced works discussing the frenetic, newly-arriving modernity of the 20th century and investigating entrenched dominant ideologies.  The mass media of film was an important part of such study, seen as significant for the role it played in both the modern and ideological impacts on and interactions with the human sensorium at this time (and since then).  In much of her professional bibliography, Hansen engages with these three Frankfurt theorists and both utilizes and advances their ideas of modernity and mass culture to investigate the entirety of the cinematic experience, particularly at the time of its introduction into and solidification within society in early 1900s.  Hansen seeks to locate a/the historical space between American silent cinema and the so-called classical Hollywood cinema which dominated narrative filmmaking between the 1930s and the 1950s and whose legacy stretches through to today, registering the spectatorial and textual transitions that occurred in that shift towards the cementing of classical cinema and “the creation of this classical spectator,” especially in relation to this era’s transformation of the public sphere (Babel 16).  Thus, as is so clearly evident in her psychoanalytic textual work on Valentino, Hansen is interested in the creation of spectatorship as we know it, in tracing, as Gaylyn Studlar so succinctly explains, “Hollywood’s creation of film-viewer relations during an era that solidified the cinema’s place in public life,” examining both textual and spectatorial transformations (“Response” 39).

In considering both Hansen’s and Studlar’s scholarship, it becomes important to acknowledge Laura Mulvey’s seminal, deeply-influential essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), which was produced within the scope of influence of 1970s feminism as well as psychoanalytic- and Lacanian-influenced theories of film and feminism and considers the relation between gender and spectatorship; Hansen’s “Ambivalence” is a direct response to this essay.  In “Visual Pleasure,” Mulvey investigates the textual strategies and the pleasures involved in classical cinema’s spectatorial engagement, laying out a societally and cinematically systemic dichotomy of sexual difference and concluding that in such classical cinema women have traditionally been represented as scopic objects of (male) pleasure, as passive bearers of male characters’ and spectators’ active desiring gaze.  In Mulvey’s elucidation of what she calls the ‘masculinized’ spectatorship which emerges from such patriarchal structures, “masculinity as a ‘point of view’ is inscribed onto all spectatorial identification and pleasure in classical cinema (“Afterthoughts” 69).  Like the many feminist scholars who attempted to rescue the female spectator from this oblivion and secure a more active, productive place for women both on and in front of the screen, Hansen in “Ambivalence” seeks to locate a space of “potential resistance to be reappropriated” for women within mainstream narrative cinema, an “alternative conception of visual pleasure” for the female spectator of mainstream Hollywood cinema (261).  Additionally, Hansen also uses both Mulvey’s gendered structuring and the star figure of Rudolph Valentino to trace the emergence of that gendered, i.e. “structurally masculinized,” spectatorship in classical cinema, which she argues became institutionally and conventionally codified in the transition out of the silent era (Babel 5).

Because of this research focus, the main methodology of Hansen’s Valentino scholarship centers primarily on close textual analysis of his films’ viewing strategies and organizational systems and their impact on (female) spectators.  She is thus able to examine pre-classical placements of the (female) spectator as well as the types of visual pleasure such engagements were capable of providing beyond the theories of masculinized spectatorship outlined by Mulvey and others, expanding and adding to accepted notions of the female spectator and to film history in general.  And though Hansen does move beyond “the primacy of the film object” towards broader cultural considerations of “the cinema as an economic and social institution” in her follow-up, widely-researched book Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship and American Silent Film (1991), her main reading of the significance of the Valentino figure lies in the ambivalent spectatorial engagement his films offered women in the 1920s, a profitable ambivalence which she claims was also productively mirrored in his extratextual star image (Babel 5).  In his “ambivalent” films, Hansen locates both the “alternative conception of visual pleasure” and the point of potential female resistance she sought: here, the Valentino characters oscillate between and embody both of the two viewing positions polarized in the dichotomy with which Mulvey characterized classical cinema,  the active male controller of the gaze (and narrative) and exhibitor of the desirous look versus the passive female scopic object, the recipient of male voyeuristic and fetishistic looking (715-6).

This oscillation blurs Mulvey’s structure of sexual difference and opens up a space for female subjectivity in (patriarchically-dominated) mainstream cinema, specifically in this historical moment of early cinema, blooming modernity, and an emerging public sphere.  Hansen writes that Valentino’s films productively offered female spectators a positive engagement beyond mere narcissistic identification with the passive female on screen or masochistic identification with the active male, as would later become the case with the solidification of classical cinema.  By combining the “masculine control of the look with the feminine quality of ‘to-be-looked-at-ness,’” Valentino’s characters thereby created a space for the desiring female viewer and hence, importantly, female subjectivity in mainstream cinema (“Ambivalence” 263).  Additionally, his ambiguous positioning, both within the diegesis of his films and extratextually in his star image, inherently argues for an ambivalence in spectatorial identification and textual structuring, and “urges us to insist upon the ambivalent constitution of scopic pleasure” in cinema (264).

Though Valentino’s films might initially resemble classic examples of Mulveyan textual strategies of sexual difference, with their narratives ultimately condemning the “vamp” women who gaze desiringly at Valentino and rewarding with heterosexual coupling the “good” girls who receive but don’t reciprocate Valentino’s look, Hansen argues that these films actually subvert such a reinforcement of patriarchal power by contradictingly positioning him, along with the women, in the “feminine” position of erotic object.  Hansen writes that Valentino’s is “a gaze that fascinates precisely because it transcends the socially imposed subject/object hierarchy of sexual difference,” and because Valentino is not only the masculine looker but also, like the traditional “good” girl, looked at, is a scopic object of pleasure for the (female) spectator’s gaze; for women, she writes, the “erotic appeal of the Valentinian gaze… is one of reciprocity and ambivalence, rather than mastery and objectification” (“Ambivalence” 265).  This ambivalent filmic position opens up an avenue within classically masculine structures of cinema and spectatorship for an alternative system of male-female relationships and power as well as for a reciprocal female desire which is usually denied (266).

After using textual analysis and psychoanalytic frameworks of textual viewing strategies to prove this subversive, positively ambivalent structuring of Valentino’s films, Hansen then uses similar means to reclaims two additional “alternative” aspects of visual pleasure for his female spectators: the pleasure of sadomasochistic rituals and the pleasure of recognition (264).  This latter aspect of Valentino spectatorship rewards the (desiring) female spectator’s gaze both for recognizing the star onscreen and for successfully recognizing the Valentino figure, who often remained diegetically masked and disguised from the female characters in his many films which centered around narratives of costume, disguise, and deception.  All of Hansen’s detailed, well-argued psychoanalytic explanations and analyses offer interesting and potentially useful readings of Valentino’s films and paint a very intriguing picture for the existence of alternative pleasures of female spectatorship before the masculinized structure of classic cinema had been fully cemented.

However, such primarily psychoanalytic scholarship ultimately seems rather limited and disappointingly a-historical after the hindsight of thirty years.  Hansen attempts to remedy this in her wider-ranging book Babel and Babylon, where she explains that because “female identification within the dominant masculine structures is difficult, efforts to conceptualize a female viewer have gone beyond the psychoanalytic-semiotic framework to include culturally specific and historically variable aspects of reception” (5).  Hansen makes an effort to adopt this broader type of strategy in Babel, where her scope has expanded to include the entire “public dimension of cinematic spectatorship,” yet with Valentino, her final case study in the book, she returns to these psychoanalytic conclusions and textual break-downs (7).  Babel’s last chapter is an almost direct transcription of her 1986 “Ambivalence,” which effectively leaves such psychoanalytic explanations as her final word on Valentino, with lingering emphasis thus also given to her whole book on early spectatorship; this ultimately somewhat undercuts and diminishes the effectiveness of the extratextual, cultural work that she lays out as the project of the book and astutely explores elsewhere in it.

Regardless of such shortcomings, as well as an unfortunate overlooking of “the historical context of male film stardom,” Babel gave Hansen the extended space to more fully examine (female) spectatorship in relation to the public sphere, a topic which has marked most of the work of her career; she examines the ways in which “spectatorship is profoundly intertwined with the transformation of the public sphere, the gendered itineraries of everyday life” (Studlar “Babel” 40; Hansen Babel 2).  Thus, Hansen traces the historical emergence and construction of film spectators not merely as textually-imagined, passive entities but as real participants in a heterogeneous social audience; by addressing the cinema as a social and commercial institution, she is able to identify the spectator as a consumer as well as an assumed figure of textual address.  By extension, Hansen now also discerns female spectators as being constructed by desire, in relation to both film and star texts, both personal engagement and industrial production, which importantly nuances traditional conceptions of their fandom and filmic engagements and incorporates a larger awareness of the social and industrial structures at work around spectatorship.  Within this broader, extra-textual scope, in Babel’s first chapter on Valentino, Hansen productively investigates the star not only within the textual structures of his films, but also in relation to the Hollywood star system of which he was a part, as Richard DeCordova had originally suggested in his 1986 “response” to “Ambivalence.”  Thus Hansen complements her textual analysis with contextualizing cultural and historical research, locating Valentino as a visible “emblem of the simultaneous liberalization and commodification of sexuality that crucially defined the development of American consumer culture” at this time (2).

With such extratextual research, Hansen can also more fully explore the positive “ambivalences” of Valentino not only in relation to his films’ spectators but also to his fans, to the women of the “public sphere” of the culture in which he was a star; Hansen reads Valentino as “a figure and function of female spectatorship,” one who existed (or at least was seen to exist) to be looked at and desired by  women and who existed because women looked at and desired him, both as an actor/character within his films’ diegesis and as a “real” man/star.  This created an avenue for the expression of female desire not only in the relative privacy of the movie theater, which Hansen conceived of as a modern public space, but also in the public sphere at large.  Hansen also extends the ambivalences of female desire itself to this public sphere, explaining that Valentino’s stardom exposed female spectatorship’s “precarious status as both cult of consumption and manifestation of an alternative public sphere,” as both potential victim of manipulation by Hollywood’s commercial construction of desire and empowering means of expressing female desire and subjectivity where women had been traditionally unable to do so (253).  Thus, she writes, Rudolph Valentino “beckon[ed] with the promise of sexual – and ethnic-racial – mobility… appealed to those who most keenly felt the need, yet also the anxiety, of such mobility, who themselves were caught between the hopes fanned by the phantasmagoria of consumption and an awareness of the impossibility of realizing them within existing social and sexual structures” (268).

But despite these well-illustrated, detailed arguments about the creation of alternative pleasures and public spaces for women in this modern period of transition, and the usefulness of Valentino’s ambiguity in relation to their expression of desire and the possibilities of female spectatorship at this time, Hansen’s research and arguments have a few blind spots, which Studlar’s own critical focus allows her to address; male spectatorial response to Valentino and his ethnically-other background simply do not optimally fit into Hansen’s psychoanalytic models and her cultural research focus, and thus are less satisfactorily addressed in this scholarship.  Hansen’s historical project lies primarily with female spectatorship (Valentino as “a figure and function of female spectatorship”), in contrast to Gaylyn Studlar’s focus on male spectatorship and discourses of masculinity in this period, and thus she concludes that “racial and ethnic stereotypes are inseparable from inscriptions of gender and sexuality, especially female sexuality” (255).

Female subjectivity, the main focus of Hansen’s scholarship and historical inquiry, ultimately ends up making her arguments, especially as it concerns Valentino in particular, appear largely one-sided, for she traces much of this modern period’s cultural and historical discourses back to women and to sexuality, to Freud and Lacan.  For example, Hansen offers psychoanalytic analysis to explain Valentino’s ethnically-other yet clearly-desired identity in the sole terms of what she sees to be the fear and threat of female sexuality, which she links to the public emergence of the New Woman and a tradition of American fear and fascination with miscegenation.  The complicated historical and cultural currents and discourses of this 20th century society of “blatant xenophobia” become reduced to a mere “displacement, a defense against the threat of female sexuality,” subordinated to the workings of the unconscious (255; Masquerade 4).  As Studlar writes in her review of the book, it appears at times that “Hansen’s exploration of extratextual materials attached to Valentino’s stardom never seeks in a significant way to embrace a broader analysis of the cultural-historical moment” (40).  Though Hansen compellingly locates the female spectator within the experience of cinema as it moved into modernity’s new public sphere, a Freudian coping mechanism, interesting and initially enlightening and more intriguing when applied to Valentino’s films themselves, unfortunately seems insufficient to wholly explain the huge cultural phenomenon that was the ambivalent figure of Rudolph Valentino, nor to explain factors like the racially-charged elements of culture as revealed in and exacerbated by Valentino’s stardom.

Gaylyn Studlar began her own Valentino scholarship with an initial response to Hansen’s “Ambivalence,” and in the process of development from this preliminary “response” (1987) to her final book This Mad Masquerade: Stardom and Masculinity in the Jazz Age (1993), she published her initial investigations into Valentino in “Discourses of Gender and Sexuality” (1989).  In addition, Studlar also published a 1993 book review of Hansen’s Babel which, like her “Response” to the first essay, reveals her own specific research interests and the direction she would take with Valentino, outlining the differences of approach and inquiry between herself and Hansen in their joint exploration of the star figure Rudolph Valentino.

The title of her interim essay, “Discourses of Gender and Ethnicity,” like Hansen’s titles, reveals Studlar’s particular research focus and historic inquiry, which is culturally historic like Hansen’s but which centers around Jazz Age social discourses of gender (specifically masculinity) and ethnicity and the role of Hollywood stars rather than the specific positioning of 1920s (female) spectators and their emergence into a new public sphere.  Though Studlar’s professional bibliography reveals overlapping interests in both male and female stars, spectatorial engagement, and filmic representations, her approach to Valentino eschews much of the textual structural analysis that defines Hansen’s discussion of Valentino’s films.  Instead, she uses some textual narrative analysis to support her exploration of what are mostly the extra-textual elements of Valentino’s stardom and his star image, including publicity photos, newspaper and magazine interviews and articles, write-ins to the press from American men and women, and the gossipy facts and rumors which circulated about his ethnic identity, his background in dance, and his many and somewhat scandalous relationships with women.  In her book’s introduction, Studlar explains that in contrast to some of her previous theoretically-oriented scholarship, this work on male stars is premised primarily upon her interest in American culture and “grounded in the specific cultural history of the period,” rather than exact theoretical definitions of terms like masquerade, for example.  By looking towards these types of sources, in this moment when the star system was becoming a fully-fledged cultural phenomenon, Studlar is able to interrogate the various images of Valentino as they were constructed and perpetuated by the studios, by the press, by his films, by his “real life” biographical information, and even by himself on certain occasions, all for various commercial and professional motives and in complex interactions with the era’s social, cultural, and political discourses.  Her “analysis focuses on the circulation of meaning created around a selected group of male stars” as well as on “how culture literally and figuratively ‘set the stage’ for that star” (Masquerade 3, 6).  She also investigates male and female receptions of and reactions to that circulating star image, both textually and extra-textually, in order to more fully identify and engage with the dominant discourses of gender, ethnicity, and sexuality which were circulating in American society at this time of new modernity, of transition, of movement and change, and which became visible when voiced around the locus of Rudolph Valentino.

Studlar was clearly inspired by Hansen’s work on Valentino and appreciative of most of it; but where Hansen seems to be trying to explain culture through the figure of Valentino and his films (and psychoanalytic theory), Studlar appears more interested in the culture itself and the way it shapes and produces and becomes manifested in various forms, such as in Hollywood star figures.  Studlar attempts to read Jazz Age American culture and its prevailing discourses of masculinity, ethnicity, and sexuality through the construction and reception of Valentino’s star image, using him as a gauge of popular cultural discourses and national preoccupations.  Studlar finds a common link for her book’s four male star case studies in a unifying “paradigm of transformative masculinity” which was a product of the “the period’s extremely self-conscious negotiation of tradition and modernity, femininity and masculinity” and of its literary and cultural representations of gender as a performance, a process, a “mad masquerade” (4-5).  \            Within this larger framework of then-circulating preoccupations with transformation and change, Studlar investigates Valentino specifically in relation to the cultural concept of “dance madness” which was sweeping the nation at the time, focalizing Valentino through that era’s view of dance as a case study for identifying the dominant cultural trends of the time.  Noting the star’s dual positioning in relation to both the commercial film system and the realm of desiring/ identifying fans that Hansen too explored, Studlar explains that for Valentino, who had a background in dance and whose film career was characterized by his high degree of agile athleticism and a focus on his (dancer’s) body, dance was “the most important cultural influence on the meaning of the star profitably shaped by the industry discourse and pleasurably experienced by film spectators,” the most effective way of identifying the cultural currents which were already in circulation in the American society that made Valentino a star (7).

By extension, she also uses Jazz Age cultural discourses of masculinity, as embodied in Valentino’s star and filmic images and in the gendered public responses to him, to see “how American masculinity negotiated various social and sexual dilemmas of the time,” such as women’s increased sexual and economic freedom and the large influx of ethnically-other immigrants (5).  Thus, she not only uses star figures to identify cultural concerns and then-dominant definitions of masculinity but also to ascertain the various responses that were employed by society at the time in response to its perceived threats and anxieties.  So, in contrast to Hansen’s more theoretical, psychoanalytic formulations of such male and female responses to Valentino and the cultural and historic changes of the time, Studlar grounds her similar investigations in the figure of Valentino himself, in the definitions of masculinity he embodied, and the cultural discourses mobilized around him, as well as in the specific culture itself.

Studlar’s well-organized, deeply-researched, highly-engaging scholarship has the interesting benefit of registering the perceived concerns and responses of the time in a reception history that reveals a portrait of the time beyond mere historical “facts;” to a large extent, perceived reality is reality for the people living it, and by using the figure of Valentino to register prevailing social perceptions, Studlar is able to record the social realties which overlay concrete historical and cultural fact.  Thus Studlar shows the complex ways in which Valentino figured prominently and importantly within the “perceived crisis in American sexual and gender relations” of the time, how he, “like dance, had become symbolic of tumultuous changes believed to be taking place in the system governing American sexual relations” (196-7).  Furthermore, Valentino and his star text, and the sexually ambiguous, “dance mad” masculinity he represented, seemed to confirm the “increasing effeminacy of men and the masculinity of women” which was perceived by the culture (mostly its men) of this time (186).

In exploring the relationship between stars, the star phenomenon in general, and culture, Studlar is able to examine “the circulation of meaning around masculinity as a cultural concept” by way of these four male stars (4).  For instance, as both Hansen and Studlar address, Valentino’s past career as a dancer tied into his feminized persona of being “a creation of, for and by women,” as Hansen wrote, a popular conception created by his immense dependence on the desire and adoration of female fans to remain a Hollywood actor and star, his being “discovered” by June Mathis, screenwriter of his star-making film Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as well as his well-publicized relationships with dominating, sexually-vampish and –ambiguous women like dancer Natacha Rambova, whose platinum “slave bracelet” he wore (“Ambivalence” 262, 261).

However, whereas Hansen saw such popular characterizations and perceptions of Valentino as linked to negative ideas of his being dependent upon women and to the new liberalized female sexuality and identified them as a largely male defense against the threat he posed in terms of female sexuality, Studlar uses these same circulating star images and perceptions to identify larger cultural anxieties and discourses beyond female sexuality.  Studlar explains and explores Valentino’s pre-film career as what was derogatively called a “lounge lizard” or “tango pirate,” men paid by women to be their dance partners and to teach them the latest steps, and the public male-voiced outcry against it.  She reads this negative male response in relation to the threatening new expressions of liberalized female sexuality and the (male) perception of women’s “actively searching for pleasures” which such “lounge lizards” made all too visible and which they easily facilitated in the newly expanding public sphere (159).  But such responses also relate to (and help Studlar identify) not only perceived threats, but also the traditional, dominant American masculinity they appeared to be displacing.  Epitomized by the Rooseveltian cult of virility, these more traditional codes of masculinity were perceived to be under particular threat as Valentino’s and the lounge lizards’ more ambiguous, feminized, “dance mad,” and often racially-other type of masculinity were embraced by women, both by film fans and by the many women going to dance halls and jazz clubs in the 1920s.  By examining all of these elements in relation to each other, Studlar moves beyond the limiting realm of female sexuality to get at the ambiguous and complex web of discourses, social transformations, and cultural threats which were circulating in American culture at this historical moment.

Additionally, Studlar’s research satisfyingly engages with the highly problematic ethnic aspect of Valentino’s stardom, linking such negative outcry against what was characterized as his effeminate, non-American image to the xenophobia which was prevalent at this time; she connects these rampant expressions of xenophobia to the newly Eastern and Southern European, versus the previously Western European, demographic of immigration, the nativist movement which had been building since the 1890s, and ensuing ideas of racial purity and eugenics.  Additionally, such racial discourses further compounded the threat and anxiety caused by Valentino’s characterization as a “tango pirate” type of man, both in his past career and in his films which frequently played on this own biography and on his lean, athletic body by incorporating dance into the narrative, for Studlar writes that the “darkly foreign” immigrant was the most dangerous incarnation of the already-existent stereotype of “sexualized and greedy masculinity” epitomized by “lounge lizards,” or “boy flappers” (151).  Thus Studlar acknowledges multiple cultural perceptions and discourses which were broadly circulating during the American Jazz Age, which become succinctly visible as responses to the so-called feminized masculinity and the dancer and racially-other characteristics of Valentino’s star texts.

In returning to her unifying theme of this modernity’s “transformative masculinity,” Studlar further explains that Valentino became especially troubling to Jazz Age America(-n men) (and full of positive potential for its women) because he (and his films) revealed a transformation of masculinity, or rather subverted then-dominant patterns of transformation, as opposed to the “oscillation between sadistic and masochistic” positions outlined in Hansen’s “ambivalence”-stressing scholarship.  Such structures and narratives of transformation well matched organizations of the popular-among-women romance novel as analyzed by scholar Janice Radway, potentially explaining his films’ appeal among women, as well as this modern era’s “obsession with the transformative potential of masculinity” (171).  These narratives of transformation, which defined popular Harlequin romances, for example, characterized some of Valentino’s early star-making vehicles, such as Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse wherein he narratively progressed from “male butterfly to sacrificing war hero” (175).

However, such transformations do not characterize most of his films.  Rather, as Studlar writes in her cultural history, Valentino’s racially-other, sexually ambiguous, feminized masculinity ultimately “could not be transformed into traditional American masculinity,” either through such conventional and popular narrative patterns or in his own star image (176).  Whereas most ethnic stars like Tony Moreno had been assimilated into normative ethnic and masculine codes, Valentino’s films, with their emphasis on dance, physical disguise and transformation, and the (male) dancer’s body, suggested an ambiguous “nuanced range of erotically charged moods” in contrast to the dominant patriarchal notion of controlling masculinity and also productively “visually redefined the cinematic images of the male body” at this time (191).  Therefore, as Studlar concludes, Valentino ultimately presented the intensely troubling (to men) and massively desired (by women) figure that he did to Jazz Age America because, narratively and extratextually, his “vehicle for masculine transformation” did not assimilate him to dominant discourses of gender and ethnicity but instead left him “culturally poised between a traditional order of masculinity and a utopian feminine ideal” (197).  The star figure of Valentino converged “female fantasy with the dangerous, transformative possibilities of dance and with the highly restrictive norm for constructing ethnic masculinity in a frankly xenophobic nation,” creating both a site of tension and potential resistance, leaving him to embody “anxieties for some…promise to others” (197).

Forgoing any grand, all-encompassing, theoretical conclusions, choosing instead to embrace the ambiguities and contradictions and overlaps of her cultural research through the star figure of Rudolph Valentino, Studlar concludes by explaining that Valentino presented not a unique case, but “a higher order of problematic” for a culture already struggling with the issues brought up and exacerbated by his stardom and his star texts (197).  Thus does she avoid the “dehistoricizing theoretical orthodoxy” that threatened Hansen’s scholarship, offering a new type of historical inquiry which merges disciplines of study and eschews Grand Theories to paint a picture of society as it was seen by those living within and making it (Studlar “Babel” 40).


deCordova, Richard. “Richard deCordova Responds to Miriam Hansen’s ‘Pleasure, Ambivalence, Identification : Valentino and Female Spectatorship’ (“Cinema Journal,” Summer 1986).” Cinema journal 26.3 (1987): 55-7.

Erens, Patricia.  Issues in Feminist Film Criticism.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Hansen, Miriam.  Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.

—. “Pleasure, Ambivalence, Identification: Valentino and Female Spectatorship.” In Stardom: Industry of Desire.  Ed. Christine Gledhill.  London: Routledge, 1991.  Originally published in Cinema Journal 25.4 (1986): 6-32.

“Many Hurt in Mad Fight to Pass Valentino Bier.” Boston Daily Globe.  ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Aug 25 1926.

Mulvey, Laura.  “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ inspired by Duel in the Sun.”  In Feminism and Film Theory.  Ed. Constance Penley.  New York: Routledge, 1988.  69-79.  Originally published in Framework 15/16/17 (1981): 12-15.

—.  “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”  In Film Theory and Criticism.  Ed. Braudy, Leo and Marshall Cohen.  7th ed.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 711-22.

 Studlar, Gaylyn.  “Discourses of Gender and Ethnicity.” Film Criticism XIII.2 (1989): 18-35.

–.  “Gaylyn Studlar Responds to Miriam Hansen’s “Pleasure, Ambivalence, Identification: Valentino and Female Spectatorship” (“Cinema Journal,” Summer 1986).” Cinema Journal 26.2 (1987): 51-3.

–.  Rev. of Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film, by Miriam Hansen.  Film Quarterly 47.1 (1993): 39-40.

–.  This Mad Masquerade: Stardom and Masculinity in the Jazz Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. 150-98.

“Thousands in Riot at Valentino Bier; More than 100 Hurt.” New York Times.  ProQuest Historical Newspapers.  Aug 25, 1926.

 “Valentino Passes with No Kin at Side; Throngs in Street.”   New York Times.  ProQuest Historical Newspapers.  Aug 24, 192.


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

300 title image 1


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.


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.



“300.”  Box Office Mojo.  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.