Guess who's cumming to dinner?

Despite the many controversies that beset it, 300 is a very impressive queer cultural critique. I was sitting in a bar last night watching the ending, and mulling over how brave the director was to attempt a mainstream blockbuster movie focussed so strongly on the cultural politics of homosexual relationships. To the best of my knowledge it’s the only mainstream blockbuster movie ever made that lookd directly at the confused politics of sexual relations in the queer world. While on the surface, on a trivial reading, it’s a piece of visually stunning warporn, the director very cleverly used this warporn both to lure in mainstream heterosexual audiences, and to model the socio-sexual relations of the gay bathhouse. Basically here we have a movie that uses battle scenes to recreate the visceral chaos of a gay sauna, and to investigate the complex relations of dominance, submission and manipulation that exist between “tops” and “bottoms” in this world, or at least in this world as its cultural stereotype is understood by most queer critics.

The battle scene-as-sauna is a powerful and unique contribution to cinema. The gangs of faceless men in the background, struggling and sweating, the chaos and the intense physicality of battle, when eroticized in the unique style of the movie, are a brilliant analogy for the sexual milieu of the bathhouse. Others have struggled with ways of representing homosexual activity that don’t offend the mainstream, but the battle scene conveys all the essential elements of sex in a culturally acceptable way, without any transgressions. We have sex as death, an age old image that everyone understands; we have a “battle” conducted entirely with piercing weapons; and we have the slaying of another, so often characterized as the pinnacle of masculine responsibility, as a metaphor for sexual conquest, also so clearly construed as a masculine role. The moment of death as orgasm, the petit mort of everyone’s experience, the exhaustion of the fighters after a hard “battle,” and the image of war as expression of self… what is this but warporn as porn?

Nowhere is this war imagery more usefully exploited than in the climactic scene, where we see also the heart of the movie’s queer cultural critique. The key to the movie is to understand it as a metaphor for the deployment – and ultimately the frustration – of power by a “bottom,” represented in the form of the Persian emperor, to undermine the will and strength of a “top” (Leonidas) and of “tops” as independent men (the Spartans). For those unfamiliar with this politics, let us put it simply. In many popular imaginings of gay sex, both straight and queer, the world of gay men is divided into two types: “bottoms,” who are fucked; and “tops,” who fuck them. Fundamentally this is based on a misogynist construction of women as fucked and man as fucker; in the classic misogynist imagery, women have “power” that they can deploy in the form of seduction, to undermine the will of the man and to set him on a path – they are the power behind the throne, Lady Macbeth, using their feminine wiles in a way that the misogynist construes as infinitely more powerful than we mere men possess (control of the state, the family and the means of production) – all these things fall to the wayside at the sight of a perfect arse, in the misogynist construction of woman-as-betrayer. As old as Genesis[1], this misogynist trope also infects the imagery of the gay “top” and “bottom,” with the “bottom” seen as “having the real power” through their ability to seduce, deceive and manipulate.

In 300 the director deconstructs this vision of the “bottom” as deceiver, and a clear judgment is made on the true state of power relations between the fucked and the fucker. The Persian Emperor – the ultimate (or nadirical?) “bottom”, manipulates hordes of men in the bathhouse (battlefield). They fuck (kill) each other in vain attempts at conquest, all to try and protect their claim to him, or to stake a claim thereon. The Spartans here are construed as tops, while the faceless Persians are merely other bottoms, deployed by the ultimate bottom as objects to be fucked (killed) in his attempts to bring the “tops” to accept his power. Ultimately the Spartan’s efforts are futile – no matter how many they fuck (kill), they must ultimately exhaust their strength. But at this moment, instead of seeing them bow to the superior manipulative power of the “bottom,” we see his power rejected ultimately – it is shown to be false and shallow, based as it is on the weakness of others rather than the strength of self. The two “tops,” finally exhausted by their orgy (battle), look to each other in exhaustion, and declare their undying love for each other. Then one of them – Leonidas – draws himself to his feet for one last effort. Bringing forth his cock (spear), he hurls himself at the hated “bottom”, and shows his true feelings for the manipulator. The tip of his weapon rips off the Emperor’s decorative chain and slashes his cheek, splattering blood across his face. In 300 we understand, immediately, that blood symbolizes cum, and so we see at the end of the movie the cumshot in which all modern porn must end. The “tops” have shown their undying love for each other and at the last one of them expresses his contempt for the “bottom” in the traditional way – with a cumshot. And so the Emperor’s victory is shown to be hollow, to have been achieved only through the public display of his own sexual humiliation. At the last, the “top” chose independence and another independent man, and showed the bottom to be nothing but an object of scorn and sexual degradation.

Is this not a powerful critique of a style of sexual relations? And all conveyed within a visually powerful, strongly homoerotic movie that is at times stirring, exciting and poetic. Though many will disagree with the interpretation of sexual relations shown in the movie, I think we can all accept that as cultural critique, it is unparalleled in its intensity, ingenuity and power. A  masterpiece of subtle social critique deployed through completely unsubtle images, and presented in such a way as to achieve mainstream success. I can only hope that it will inspire other queer cinema to emerge from its “indie” lacuna and into the limelight!

fn1: though probably not as old as Phil Collins