On March 7, 2014, 300: 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.