More on How Not to Write A Strong Female Character

I just recently saw 300: Rise of the Empire.

Back about 10 years ago, I saw the original 300 film. (I can’t believe how long ago that movie was released.)  I’m both a longtime comic book fan and an avid reader of ancient history and archaeology;  I had bought the original 300 comic book miniseries by Frank Miller years before there was even talk of making it into a movie.  Granted, I accepted that this account of the Battle of Thermopylae was NOT what I would recommend as a source for a paper on Ancient Greek History. I found the movie itself to be ridiculous popcorn fun. As a heterosexual woman I will also tell you that the multitude of sculpted six-pack abs was pretty easy on my eyes as well.

When word came out that there was going to be a sequel, I don’t think I was the only person who wondered, “How can you do a sequel when (SPOILER ALERT!) the title characters ALL DIE?”  So I was intrigued. I was especially intrigued when I got wind that the movie would feature the Battle of Salamis and a major role for Queen Artemisia, a female admiral in the Persian fleet who was a real historical figure.  (I had run across accounts of her exploits before in my various past readings.)

Much as with the original, I did not expect 300: Rise of the Empire to be a factual documentary on historical events.  But it turns out that this film took even greater liberties than the first one did.

I had no problem with the still-ridiculously-impractical non-armor that the non-hoplites wore in the film. (I actually view the whole visual convention of these films as a form of “heroic nudity,” which you can see on real ancient Greek art.) Besides, the overdeveloped abs are half the fun of the film for me, anyway. I also laughed at the non-ancient Non-Persian fashions – who knew they had fishnet stockings back then?  I also admit I am a fan of Eva Green – I love how she plays villains (if you can stand it, watch her as Morgan le Fay in the Starz TV series “Camelot.” It’s only 10 episodes.)  Yes, she chews the scenery with great vigor but in a movie like this you can’t exactly be subtle.

What struck me, though, was how much Artemisia in this movie is a textbook case of the faux feminism I discussed in the last post.  In the movie she is the commander of the entire Persian fleet and the power behind the throne of the Emperor Xerxes.  Unfortunately, she’s depicted as a revenge-crazed ex-slave who, though ethnically Greek herself, hates her own people for her family’s (never clearly explained) slaughter and her subsequent sexual violation. She’s a bloodthirsty swordswoman who gleefully decapitates her underlings for their shortcomings.  She runs into battle, engaging her enemy with two blades drawn, ending in a climactic one-on-one duel with the Athenian general whom she faces with the infernal fury of a woman scorned. And YES, there’s a scene where she shoots arrows. (Though to be fair, the other side shoots arrows, too.)

Look out! She's got a BOW AND ARROWS!

Look out! She’s got a BOW AND ARROWS!

The historical record paints a totally different picture of Artemisia.  According to the ancient historian Herodotus (whose relevant quotes are conveniently gathered here), the real Artemisia was actually a widowed queen with an underaged son, and she had legitimately inherited the throne of her city-state from her late husband. (She ruled Halicarnassus and was the ancestor of the later queen who famously commissioned the Mausoleum) Her polis had been conquered by the Persians and was a vassal state of their empire but Artemisia had no burning hatred of the Greeks, as far as I can tell.  She was simply a loyal satrap to the Persian Emperor.  None of the slaughter, enslavement or rape shown in the movie ever happened to her.  She didn’t command the entire Persian fleet, but only a small complement of ships — nonetheless it was still unusual for a woman to be a military commander, especially among the Persians who were quite patriarchal.  The also-patriarchal Athenians were so unnerved by facing a woman in battle that they put out a reward of 10,000 drachmas for her capture. (Which they didn’t achieve.)

Unlike her manic screen counterpart, Artemisia was quite level-headed, and perspicacious enough to advise Emperor Xerxes AGAINST facing the Athenian forces in a naval battle.  She was a shrewd tactician and outwitted her enemies with deception and subterfuge.  (Spoiler Alert!) She not only survived the Battle of Salamis but lived on to give her emperor more valuable advice and was rewarded for her wisdom.

Now, as a fan of ridiculous action movies, I got my few dollars worth of amusement out of 300: Rise of the Empire.  I never expected the movie to be more than a festival of over-the-top, cartoonish violence.  It’s a shame, though, that the writers chose the lazy, Hollywood-shortcut way to introduce mainstream audiences to what could have been a fascinating STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER.

(Artemisia also appears in a classic 1960’s “Sword and Sandal” movie called The 300 Spartans. I haven’t seen this version yet so I can’t comment on it.)

I also have major issues with having the “strong female character’s” primary motivation be enslavement and rape, and her personal enmity with the opposing commander to be rooted in what is basically sexual rejection. But that’s a whole other discussion.

Artemisia was a woman who IN REAL LIFE was an accomplished female in a man’s world. She was a military commander but she was known more for her brains than mindless brawn.  In the visual short-hand of Hollywood, though, she has to be shown as a heavily-armed berserker.  The swordfight sequences were fun enough to watch, but I think it would have made a perfectly entertaining movie to see Artemisia pulling the wool over the Athenians’ eyes with her wily tactics. They could have still shown plenty of swordfights and mayhem-filled set-pieces, but with the backdrop of the two commanders’ battle of wits. It’s disappointing that the film wasted this opportunity.

So, if you were intrigued by the figure of Artemisia, by all means look her up and find out her real story. As is often the case, truth is stranger – and more interesting – than fiction.

(As a side note, if you would like to read a comic book with an Ancient Greek storyline that is actually METICULOUSLY researched, I highly recommend Age of Bronze, an excellent comic-book retelling of the events surrounding the Trojan War.)

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