"300: Rise of an Empire": Women as Warriors

Curator's Note

On March 7, 2014300: Rise of an Empire joins a line of chest-swelling, fanciful yet cinematic interpretations of ancient warfare dominated by well-oiled muscle men, shaking their naked fists at a tide of insurmountable odds. Practically unique to the genre, 3ROE features a woman warrior in the guise of Eva Green’s Artemisia I of Caria, a historical navy admiral who, according to Herodotus, served the Persian King Xerxes in his campaigns against the Greeks during the 5th century BCE. If it crossed your mind to wonder how a woman could compete against the clearly masculine feat of upper body strength required to throw a spear from a rocky crag into the orifice of an enemy, never fear. As the second 3ROE trailer tells us, Artemisia “has sold her soul to death itself”, thus relieving the cognitive dissonance evoked by the idea that a woman could ever be a legitimate soldier in her own right except through artifice or supernatural influence.

And there, in part, lies the injustice of 3ROE’s contribution to a narrative of warfare as an endeavor of raw power and intestinal fortitude for which women are deemed ‘naturally’ unsuited. From such a perspective, denying women's direct participation in active combat seems 'natural' because military prowess is aligned so intimately to attributes generally assigned to men. This construction of the 'natural' portrays warfare in a context that marginalizes women to the role of disinterested caretakers, peripheral cheerleaders, and irrational mystics.

As with any deeply rooted cultural belief, the myth that ‘real’ women cannot be ‘real’ warriors, which Jean Elshtain referred to as the narrative of the ‘beautiful soul’ versus the ‘just warrior’, contains its own defenses. How easy to relegate questioning this myth to feminist hysterics; to assume long histories sequestering women in the home reflect inescapable biology; or to claim that 3ROE and films of its ilk offer, after all, a depiction of men and women in pre-modern societies whose artistic license we should forgive. Our gendering of war as masculine, a trend 3ROE reifies, subsidizes, however, our collective dismissal of women’s presence as warriors in history and current events. It facilitates the representation of Jessica Lynch as the ‘maiden in distress’ as much as the representation of Lynndie England as the ‘fallen woman’, and ultimately devalues the project of assessing the contributions of women to security through armed conflict.


James, this post is so provocative. Thanks for sharing it with us. When we hear about women in the military, it does tend to be through negative portrayals or as problems (i.e. rape claims in the military). It made me wonder about the broader stakes of gender identity. Does Demi Moore have to prove how tough she is in GI Jane so she can be legitimized by masculine characteristics? What is threatening about women in the military such that media tends to circulate rather specific images in rather specific ways? How fundamentally do we depend up on characterizations of women and men behaving in particular ways. And what are there implications for masculinity as well? My favorite scene in a Chuck Mee play depicted men returning from war, trying to woo ladies, and finding themselves unable to compartmentalize the behavior expected of them in war and then rejected at home. It was a paradox that the play put out there and then left unresolved. What sorts of representations might help mediate these depictions? What role can gaming (particularly games that appeal to children) play in broadening our understandings of gender and the military?

The female warrior debate feels a lot like the "are women funny" debate to me. It seems like an argument people keep having despite the evidence displaying itself right on front of them. However, women are underrepresented in all forms of media concerning the military. I think the best thing creative teams can do is simply change some of the characters to women, and then don't make her gender a key part of the story. Give her the same obstacles to overcome as all the other soldiers. We don't need to talk about female veterans. We just need to talk about veterans.

I absolutely agree that the issue of representation could be addressed by something as simple as constructing stories as we normally would and then switching the genders to affect change. As an example, you can see the experience of Michelle Nijhius when she did just that for her children's bedtime stories (http://www.lastwordonnothing.com/2013/12/18/one-weird-old-trick/). I think men are often postured to react to such a project as if it were attacking men - a position I do not share if for no other reason than that it relies on a false idea of media as a zero sum game. And in that respect I appreciate the Bechdel Test for women in movies (http://www.feministfrequency.com/2009/12/the-bechdel-test-for-women-in-m...) because it focuses not on degrading the representation of men - another conversation altogether - but on uplifting the representation of women. Lastly, a critique of the representation of women warriors is not in the same discussion as a critique of militarism or violence - again, another conversation altogether - but about how women are represented in positions of power. For better or worse, the military is a key institution in our society, a pathway to authority and prestige in many areas that matter to us culturally and politically. To act as though women 'don't belong' disenfranchises women from access to this institution, and that is troubling for a variety of reasons.

Thinking about a few other issues you pointed out, Karen, reminded me of an article by Heari and Puechguirbal (http://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/other/irrc-877-haeri-puechguirbal.pdf) about how during times of violent conflict, women literally hold down the fort, organize communities, manage trauma, and construct means of social resistance. Because they are deemed the 'weaker sex', however, when the war is over and the men return from the battlefield to devise the post-conflict constitution, women are written out of leadership positions and expected to return to their homes without acknowledgement for their roles as combatants.

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