Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Reigning men

He's here, but is he queer? Xerxes rises in 300.

There's a fun article over at slate which attempts to answer the rhetorical question, "If you liked 300, are you gay?" Its author, Matt Feeney, answers "no" - a point with which I agree; he's quite right that celebrations of "heroic masculinity" are willfully misread these days (by "clueless film critics" - and, of course, Andrew Sullivan) as gay. Feeney is likewise quite right to insist that the animating principle of these and similar displays (he has a specific jones for surfer flicks) is not homo-erotic attraction but sexual narcissism - although Feeney makes these points with a petulant passion that's a little amusing in and of itself ("If Point Break is homoerotic . . . then so is Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit," he cries, sans irony - which only makes me want to cue up White and Nerdy).

Now I didn't see 300 (and I'm gay!) - but I have to admit images like the ones above and below seem to undermine Feeney's thesis (at least in regards to this particular movie). Apparently Xerxes - and the pierced, bejewelled Persians in general - are styled here as gayer than the Spartans (some have seen the movie as a battle between "butch queens" and "bar queens"), but still, the digital airbrushing of the images hints at a certain feminization - or at least subconscious onanism (compare the sweaty images from Ben-Hur, and you'll see what I mean). The fact that in ancient Greece the warrior culture did spill over into homosexual culture (rather than being in tension, as depicted in 300) also gives one pause - could 300, despite its evident stupidity, map out this intersection fairly well in its images, if not its action?

The problem with Feeney's thesis, then, is that he doesn't really address the boundaries of the phenomenon he's discussing - he never ponders when or how narcissism/onanism might morph into actual attraction, despite the fact that in the ancient Greek culture, it evidently did. This topic is of particular interest for me because I witness the same tension between gay and straight culture in our own society - straight culture is constantly absorbing gay influences, as long as there's some fig leaf of denial available ("metrosexuality," etc.). Does that fig leaf, essentially, serve as the dividing line between narcissim and homo-eroticism? Do the two modes operate as twins in today's culture, serving each other's needs but never really overlapping? If this is the case, it's worth pondering why the boundary should be so impermeable - and my guess is that it has something to do with the status of women. In ancient Greece, of course, women were chattel, and no sexual practice could ever transform a boy into a girl; in modernity, however, the rise of gay rights has roughly paralleled feminism. Perhaps it's women's rights - or rather the modern permutation of sexism (which, stripped of its reliance on status and power, is based largely on sexual practice) - that's holding the gay/straight line.

Leonidas and Xerxes get in touch with their inner Hegel.

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