300 & The History of Sexuality

 

Upon reading David Halperin’s Is There A History of Sexuality? I immediately connected it to the 2006 film 300, directed by Zack Snyder and starring Gerard Butler, which is based on the 1998 graphic novel of the same name. The film focuses on the historic Battle of Thermopylae in which a small contingent of Spartan warriors took on a vast Persian army. The film and novel are clear fictionalizations of these events, but are interesting to look at for their representations and misrepresentations of a central tenant of ancient Greek civilization: masculinity and sexuality.

The film is ripe with eroticism and hyper-masculinity as the warriors themselves are near naked, incredibly buff and constantly cast in a romantic light. Spartan culture was indeed focused on the ideal male form, to the point of instituting a ritual in which weakness is discarded even as early as birth. Shaved Spartan boys are then thrust into a world of violence enduring what they called the agōgē in which they are taken from their mother’s and raised by men.

What the film completely ignores is the pedagogic relationship boys were required to develop with an adult male Spartan who would be their tutor. There is some hint of this between the soldier Stelios and his younger friend Astinos but what homoerotic behavior might be inferred from this is overruled by the quote early on in the film where the main character King Leonidas refers to Athenians as “boy-lovers” with a tone of disdain. The Persians, meanwhile, are portrayed as much more sexually open, having orgies and presenting themselves effeminately with makeup, piercings and perfumes. They are also portrayed as the villain however, and their legion of inhuman monsters fighting for their lustful androgynous masters makes the film seem even more homophobic.

The monstrous Persian representation, as well as Leonidas’s remark against homosexuality (or potentially pedagogy), is in stark contrast to the rest of the films conception. In addition to worshipping the male form, the film is overflowing with imagery of penetration. This is mostly in the form of spears and swords bursting through Spartan enemies and spraying blood everywhere. Indeed the fighting is glorified at an erotic level, frequently being slowed down to highlight the Spartan prowess at an almost pornographic level. These visualizations fit better with Halperin’s exploration of Greek culture and its focus on male dominance and insertion. The films few sex scenes also revolve around penetration, represented in one scene by the involuntary gasps of air Leonidas’s Queen must release with each thrust of his spear. In another scene the Queen gives her body to a politician to help win support for her husband’s war, and the climax of the film culminates in her penetrating him back with a sword in the gut.

This brings us to the role of women in Sparta, which was unique even amongst the Greeks of this time period. When a Persian messenger challenges the Queen for speaking out of turn, asking, “what makes this woman think she can speak among men?” she retorts “Because only Spartan women give birth to real men.” Even having more rights than most women of their time is somehow still summed up by male dominance, in this case Spartan ego. Still the Queen plays an important role in the plot of the movie and in the war effort, speaking at the Senate to rally support for her husband. Despite this the film emphasizes that love is a weakness in the eyes of the military. This could have to due with the male superiority in Greek culture, as women were seen as inferiors and objects of desire alongside boys. Real Spartan men were not permitted to live with their wives and could only visit them secretly in the night, though leaving the barracks at all was discouraged.

To me, Halperin’s purpose was to display that while today’s society views sexuality as a binary that has existed since the days of Adam and Eve, it in fact has a much more vibrant history. Indeed it seems Greek and Spartan sexual cultures were so different from our own that we cannot completely understand what it was to live within them, let alone expect a movie audience to grasp the cultural differences as historical realities.

“The Platonic Blow” – A 20th Century Response to Whitman

W.H Auden was one the the greatest and most intelligent writers of the 20th century and one of my favorite poets of all time. Much of Auden’s work is influenced by politics, religion, philosophy, and love. Auden was gay and fairly open about that fact. He often traveled to Berlin before WWII broke out to enjoy the gay scene in the city and to visit his close friend Christopher Isherwood. Isherwood, whom we briefly discussed in class, traveled with Auden to China, Spain, and eventually to America. They collaborated together on books about the Sino-Japanese War and the civil war in Spain.

I will leave it to you to read Auden’s more famous poems (which is something you really should do) and instead focus on a particular poem that is not as well known. Auden wrote this particular poem to his lover Chester Kallman to be playful and never meant it to be published. It is titled “A Platonic Blow” and you can read it here. It’s worth the read.

Not only is the poem about a guy cruising a man, bringing him back to his apartment, blowing him and rimming him, but it is a finely structured poem on top of that. Auden uses internal rhyme, an end rhyme scheme of ABAB, and each line is metered so that there are five stressed syllables. “A Platonic Blow” is unique in Auden’s work because of the explicit and raw eroticism of it.

Auden and Chester Kallman

I chose to look at Auden and this particular poem in contrast to Walt Whitman. We spent a significant amount of time in class talking about Whitman and his poetry. Whitman is in ways regarded as one of the father’s of queer culture and literature, despite the fact words like queer or gay were not labels he applied to himself. It was the 19th century and these terms were not in play yet; however, Whitman still laid the groundwork for the queer literature to come. As you know from Whitman’s poems we read in class, much of his work was centered around the intersection and combination of the American nation and sex.

Auden and Isherwood

Auden, too, wrote about the nation and sex, but he chose to keep the two separate. His poem “Spain” is one of his greatest works and deals with the idea of the nation. He wrote it while in Spain with Isherwood, and it describes the country in its past, its present, and in its future. Much like Whitman, he had an idea of what he thought the nation should be, although they were writing about different nations. Whereas Whitman saw love and sexual relations between men as a reconstruction of the nation’s relations, Auden never mentions the two in conjunction. He, who was out in a way Whitman couldn’t be, chose to keep his ideas of the nation separate from his ideas of same-sex relations.

It may have been because Auden lived in a strange period where same-sex relations were not so taboo that he did not feel the connection between the homoerotic and politics that Whitman felt. The Weimar Republic was fading and war was approaching, but there seemed to be this bubble in time that allowed for queer culture to flourish for a few years. “The Platonic Blow” highlights the sexual climate of the time, which was becoming much more open than the the one Whitman knew. The poem is blunt, crass and beautifully written, and it seems to say that sex does not need the nation. It can exist outside the confines of politics and borders. Whitman saw sex and the nation as being intertwined, but Auden saw them as separate entities. “The Platonic Blow” is one step further into the explicit erotic that Whitman couldn’t take, and it show so clearly how Auden chose to keep his sexual feelings separate from his published work.

Here are some great Auden links:

Biography

Auden Reading His Own Poems

My Favorite Auden Poem