Jehanzeb Dar, of the terrific blog Broken Mystic has written a great essay on the racist/Orientalist epic film "300." It is cross-posted at my home-away-from-home Racialicious and is getting a lot of attention there, which he completely deserves. Here is the link to the original essay. And here is the link for the cross-post. Go and read it, its great.
The comment thread following the cross-post at Racialicious is typically lively, which is to be expected. (The Racialicious crew are a brilliant bunch and the standard of the comments is generally very high--in no small part due to the guiding hand and aggressive moderating style of editrix Latoya Peterson.) But there is a sub-theme popping up in the comments that bothered me and rather than hijack the thread, which is full of other great points, I thought I'd expand my concerns here at the Pomegranate. If anyone has followed me over from Racialicious and wants to jump in, even those I've disagreed with from that thread, you are welcome.
Early in the comment thread CVT posts:
"I don’t know if it specifically read as against Middle Easterners. Because, although that’s the history of it (since it’s “Persia”), I thought they did a pretty good job of lumping all people of color in as the enemy (there are faux-ninjas, black “Africans”, as well as the turbaned “Persians”). And, of course, with the enemies are all the disfigured monsters, etc.
So it’s more just “White is Superior” to me - over ALL other races - and not just Islamophobic. I think Frank Miller is just equal-opportunity racist in this particular portrayal - and I don’t think any thorough, psychological analysis is necessary to see that."This comment struck me as dismissive, not only of Jehanzeb's thoughtful analysis of "300" but of the Orientalist and Islamophobic themes particular to the film. I am frankly mystified as to what mental trick is required to look at an Orientalist epic like "300" and say "I don't know if it it specifically read as against Middle Easterners." So I responded:
"While I agree with your larger point re: light/dark =good/bad in sci-fi and fantasy I disagree that the “Persians” in 300 stand in for all PoC. They are very consciously designed to represent Middle Eastern people. There is a clear parallel being drawn between the ancient Greeks and “Persians” of the story and the contemporary West/US/Israel and Middle Eastern states. 300 isn’t about African Americans anymore than Birth of a Nation is about Middle Eastern peoples. I agree that we all suffer under the weight of these representations but it is important to be clear: this movie is an Orientalist fantasia, a “virtuous West” triumphs over “morally corrupt East” parable created for an audience that allowed Guantanamo (speaking of homoerotic violence) to happen."
My intention wasn't to split hairs for the hell of it but I was really bothered by the idea that someone could shrug away the specific slur against Middle Eastern peoples that "300" represents in favor of a generalized "White is superior" message. I mean if you can't see it in "300" what is it going to take? But then, I suppose if people weren't rioting in the streets over Guantanamo then a glitzy film wasn't going to do it. At this point another commenter entered the conversation and responded:
'300 isn’t about African Americans anymore than Birth of a Nation is about Middle Eastern peoples'
Did you see the movie, like half the Persians whose face was (sic) visible to us the audience were black. (The messenger, the briber of the priest, the disembodied head of the fallen general) and the other more racially “ambigous”(sic) Persians were hella dark (even though many Persians are as pale as Europeans) Plus, the Persian army was a hodge podge of differnet (sic) races and ethnicities. Whits (sic) vs. POC. yeah."
I was flummoxed that my objection to this sentiment was so difficult to understand, so I wrote:
"Dude, I don’t care if they are purple: the “Persians” in this film were repulsive analogues to Middle Eastern people (who come in 31 flavors, peach to coffee). Yes, there is a general agreement that sci-fi/fantasy is a Eurocentric narrative where white=good. But, again, 300 is supposed to dramatize an actual historical event, not an LOTR fantasy. And yes, I wholeheartedly agree that such representations damage all PoC. But generalizing the insult represented by this film dilutes the intended effect, which is to retroactively justify contemporary violence against Middle Eastern people by linking it to “history.” By overwriting this intent with a US American Black/White narrative you obscure both the history of Orientalist imagery it draws from AND the contemporary propaganda value of a “historic” victory over licentious (but sexually repressed!), barbaric, Middle Easterners.
Sound familiar? It's meant to."
At this point I was feeling the pressure to play along for the sake of "PoC solidarity." The thread was a friendly one, I admired the essay that inspired it and here I was, introducing discord. After all, it is not such an awful thought that what effects some of us, effects all. Except that I am not sure that is how the sentiment was intended in these comments. Instead it seems that these folks--CVT and Dirge--are just not able to see Orientalism and Islamophobia. And I can't help it--that galls me. The last almost-decade has been an endless human-rights nightmare with Middle Eastern people and Muslims at the center and these guys still can't see prejudice unless it is framed in Black/White terms? How is that even possible? Presently CVT rejoined the thread ans posted:
"Although the “Persians” are literally equated with Middle East/Islam in the film, it’s no coincidence that their allies are various - differing - folks of color, all lumped in together, as one massive “evil” Empire. Dismissing that fact is counterproductive. “Birth of a Nation” only has black folks as the “evil” - “300″ has most forms of non-white skin as “evil,” and clearly so."
So at this point I am incredulous. I write:
"I am not dismissing it, I am saying it is a misstatement at best and a deliberate obfuscation of Orientalism and Islamophobia at worst. I have said repeatedly that I support the basic idea that we are in the same boat–but not at the expense of a particular understanding of this as hate film directed at me and people like me.
A cursory look at Jack Shaheen’s Reel Bad Arabs (referenced by Jehanzeb in his essay) clearly shows the genealogy of these images in American cinema. But they predate the advent of that media by thousands of years. Orientalist and then Islamophobic narratives are central to the formation of the West from its beginnings.
I refuse to allow that history, which is played out to such devastating effect in the present as State-sanctioned violence against Middle Eastern people, to be absorbed into a different racial narrative just to satisfy a general American need to recast every story in familiar (i.e. Black/White) terms: No.
I have no desire to turn this excellent thread into a debate over this one element that popped up in the comments. I have said what needed to be said about it and you’ll either hear me or you won’t. Instead of continuing down that road I’d like to ask a few general questions:
There are countless examples of repellent portrayals of black folk in American culture–new and old and when they are called out on this site and elsewhere I gladly join the chorus of voices decrying them. So why is the reciprocal gesture so difficult for some to manage when the focus is on Middle Eastern people?
Why, in order to enjoy wider PoC support, do I have to submit to the notion that "300"–or whatever Orientalist cultural expression is at issue– is “really” about a Black/White narrative, which trumps all?
Do you think it is a coincidence that this film was made while we are occupying Iraq? While Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and numerous other CIA “black site” prisons are filled with Arab and Muslim prisoners? (Still! Thanks for nothing so far President Obama…) When torture is made legal in the United States but it is only practiced on Arabs and Muslims?Can you understand why, given these things, the attempt to recast a hate film created specifically to demonize Middle Eastern people into a completely different racial narrative, is offensive?"
...Which brings us to this post. As an Arab/American I sometimes feel caught in the limbo between these categories and not comfortably within any of them. This is a particular experience, and a significantly different one from folks who are easily categorized. Still, I am losing patience with the lack of imagination--especially among progressives--that stems from an unwillingness to entertain parallel narratives. The willful dismissal of specific Middle Eastern/Islamic concerns is not new--even in so-called progressive, anti-racist circles. There is a great deal of talk in such circles about "white privilege" but I think attitudes like those expressed by CVT and Dirge embody privilege of a different sort: Western privilege. That is, the "right" to frame the conversation in familiar terms and the demand that others fit their experience within yours.
So I checked back in on that thread and after Jehanzeb made a passionate post comparing "300" to a minstrel show (as a way, presumably to reach the folks who wanted to brush aside the racism and only engage with the movie as entertainment) an individual who calls herself--ironically enough--"Think" wrote:
"If they had been fighting a bunch of black women who look like me I probably would have felt differently though, so I do understand what you mean. However, they weren’t…So all I saw were “buff and half naked” men fighting in slow motion, which I think is H-O-T. Maybe that’s not what you want to hear (see?) but at the end of the day it IS entertainment for me. I didn’t like what Frank Miller had to say, but when I watch the movie the themes that come to my mind are of courage and tenacity against all odds. That’s my lens. When I watch it again, I wonder if I’ll think differently….if so at least I know that 300 isn’t the last movie on earth.
So sorry, instead of fuming, I fanned myself…like I said, they were hot! They could have been fighting a bunch of stuffed animals, as far as I’m concerned."
...I think I can actually taste my lunch again.
So the next time you ask yourself, "how could this happen?" re: Guantanamo/Iraq/Abu Ghraib/Palestine etc. etc. etc...
Clueless morons like "Think" are how.