I've been meaning to write about this kinda thing. Do you think it was a consciously done racist thing? As in, it may have been consciously done, but was it done with purposeful racism in mind? I am not trying to make excuses for it either mind you, but I find we over analyse and make more out of some things that for the most part are innocent coincidences. To avoid it, we would all have to spend our time politically correcting everything we say and do so as not to piss off some demographic, race, social group etc.
So I thought I would share some thoughts on the questions he raised, both in relation to the film and in a general context. A bit heavy for a Friday, yes, especially when my brain synapses are pretty much through firing for the week and are already heading down the pub. But let's give it a shot anyway.
First, the idea of intent:
"...was it done with purposeful racism in mind?"
I think that the question of whether someone sets out to denigrate an entire group of people, or whether it happens as a result of their own unexplored or unresolved prejudices, is not as important as we make it out to be. In fact, I might argue that the latter is more insidious and therefore more dangerous than the former. If racism has become so ingrained in the business of living that it is evident even when people aren't trying, then that is a much sadder reality than if there are fringe elements of people out there going "you know what? I hate black people and I'm going to make a movie about it." But aren't we lucky! We don't have to choose, because both exist.
So yes we'll find people like the bus driver in the DR who let the fair-skinned people board but left my friends and me at the bus stop because he thought we were Haitians and he "doesn't stop for 'negros' (spanish)". But perhaps much more common in our lifetimes will be the films, TV shows, songs, comedians that reinforce ugly stereotypes about certain groups of people. And for these cases, "I didn't mean it" does not cut it as an excuse. Because what "I didn't mean it" really means is "I didn't care enough about these people to do better".
It's comparable to my work as an economist. You go to talk to Ministers of Finance or budget directors and they say "We didn't develop this budget to discriminate against women" or "The economy is gender-neutral!" Well no it isn't, because you're operating within a system that since it existed has made much of women's work invisible. So the results that you get if you depart from that system are also going to exclude those women, whether you 'mean it' or not. It is your responsibility to interrogate your own assumptions and do better. Because otherwise, you're hurting the group in question, and that hurts everyone.
"...we over analyse and make more out of some things that for the most part are innocent coincidences."
Definitely, for 300, these weren't innocent coincidences. This wasn't a film that included one walk-on role of an Asian person in a laundromat, which after they saw it made three white University anthropology majors in Seattle somewhere roll their eyes and mutter about stereotypes. We're talking about a film that, in depicting an epic battle between Persians and Greeks, digitally manipulates the features of the players to make the Persians appear as dark, faceless (therefore inhuman, unimportant) devils and the Spartans white gods. It excludes any redeeming characteristics about Persian society at that time like their famed religious tolerance and focused only on Xerxes' obsession with enslavement. It called the Athenians "boy lovers" (bad) and portrayed the Spartans as hypermasculine (good). None of this is coincidence, especially when you consider Frank Miller's Islamophobia, which I didn't know of until after the film when I went searching to find out what all that mess had just been about . (I couldn't possibly explore this as well or as thoroughly as others have done, so I've included some links for further reading at the bottom.)
Yes, we can say that comics and films are meant to have a good guy and a bad guy, and that the Persians were in fact invading Greece for the second time so doesn't that pretty much make them the bad guys? Of course. But what films like this do is make one-dimensional, faceless demons out of people of colour, and then celebrate their mass slaying by a white superior race. They say it doesn't matter what their faces look like (and face here is a metaphor for actual identity and value system), just where they come from and the colour of their skin; because odds are if they come from there and look like that, they have one intent, so better to pre-empt that. And the effects are not harmless. People are not as adept at separating out fiction from reality as you might think, especially in an environment of cultural tension between the groups in question. The Persians were not Muslim, but many people, after having watched the film, equated the two and transferred the images from one to the other.
In terms of innocent coincidences in other films, I can understand the dilemma. You see black people represented in certain ways and don't know if you should follow your natural urge to laugh or your intellectual urge to be offended. For me, some things are clearly, neck-bristlingly offensive; or just annoying, old, unimaginative stereotypes; or perhaps born of generalizations but true and therefore hilarious. But honestly, when I do get really offended or annoyed, it isn't as a result of an innocent coincidence. For example, in all my years watching ER (which has now hideously jumped the shark), I've seen my fair share of black crack addicts and drug dealers and Mexican gang-bangers. But not only have some of those characters been treated with complexity, to show other elements of their realities, but there have also been people of colour as doctors, activists, little nerdy kids, anything that people might be; and there have also been white criminals and drug addicts, some among the 'heroes' of the cast. So while I'm not going to necessarily get annoyed because the drug addict on a particular show happens to be a black man, I'm damn sure going to be annoyed if it is always a black man, or if they make a point to pit black ignorance and helplessness against white perfection.
I'm going to finally say just a little about political correctness. The reader wrote:
To avoid it, we would all have to spend our time politically correcting everything we say and do so as not to piss off some demographic, race, social group etc.
I think there's a growing backlash against political correctness. People now think that refusing to indulge others' sensitivities will make them seem cool and smart, like mavericks who are willing to take back their speech from hypersensitive tree-huggers. Yeah I call bullshit on all that. How about trying to seem smart the old-fashioned way? By actually being smart, and informed, and analytical, and socially responsive. Unfortunately, I sense this more acutely in Barbados and other parts of the Caribbean, where we're so used to other people looking and behaving like we do, we carry on indefinitely not being challenged on our bigotry. It is firmly entrenched and we find it comforting. We are so used to yelling slurs at gay people, Asian people, fat people, Guyanese people, that we act like it's just a quaint part of Barbadianna: it's cultural and harmless. Well it's not. And if we stepped back and considered it, we would realize that we're not only perpetrators of it, we're also victims. But some of us are too stupid and too busy trying to seem edgy to figure that out.
I know it can seem like the acceptable language is constantly changing. So what? Change it. You don't need to "spend all your time" doing it: it's not as if groups are meeting every week trying to see how they can piss people off by making them learn new words. And no one is going to put you in a pillory because you had a slip and said 'disabled' and not 'differently able'. But if a group of people gets up and says "listen, we really hate this word, and here's why, and here's what we prefer," who the hell am I to say "yeah well I don't like that word so I'm just going to call you Blackie"?
In my experience, the people who rail most against political correctness are (as just one example) the pigs who not only want to persist in calling women bitches and whores, but also want them to like it. So these people aren't the ones who find themselves having to change their lexicon every day and get genuinely confused but want to do better; it's in great part the ones who just don't want to bother with anyone but themselves and the group to which they belong. They want their bigotry to be sanctioned not only by their peers but by those they're bigoted against. It's another case where "I didn't mean it" really means "I don't care enough about these people to do better."
And I wouldn't call any of it innocent.
Osagie K. Obasogie on The Rebirth of a Nation?
Touraj Daryaee on Go tell the Spartans: How "300" misrepresents Persians in history
Jehanzeb Dar on Frank Miller’s “300″ and the Persistence of Accepted Racism