Anti-Iranian Racism is Patriotic, Part 1
This article is the first in a two-part series. Part 2 will be posted on Thursday.
By NAVID FARNIA
“It seems to me quite obvious that our country and the entire Western world is up against an existential foe that knows exactly what it wants…and we’re behaving like a collapsing empire,” Frank Miller told NPR.
For some reason, nobody seems to be talking about who we’re up against, and the sixth century barbarism that they actually represent. These people saw people’s heads off. They enslave women, they genitally mutilate their daughters, they do not behave by any cultural norms that are sensible to us. I’m speaking into a microphone that never could have been a product of their culture, and I’m living in a city where three thousand of my neighbors were killed by thieves of airplanes they never could have built.
Frank Miller is a renowned comic book writer and film director. He is perhaps best known for creating comics like 300 and Sin City, both of which later made the big screen.
When the movie 300 came out in 2006, numerous critics and scholars emphasized its parallels with Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations hypothesis. In his 1993 article, “The Clash of Civilizations?”, Huntington proposed that cultural divides, not ideological or economic ones, would be the primary source of conflict between civilizations during the post-Cold War era. Specifically mentioning “the West and the Rest”, Huntington argued the necessity for the West “to maintain the economic and military power necessary to protect its interests in relation to [non-Western] civilizations.”
I originally decided not to watch 300 because I knew it’s representation of the Achaemenid (what’s known as the Persian) Empire would harbor a strong anti-Iranian sentiment. I heard and read enough to know about its overt, unapologetic racism. In fact, Osagie Obasogie wrote that it may be the most racially charged movie since The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s 1915 ode to the Ku Klux Klan. And although I wasn’t yet familiar with Huntington’s hypothesis, I did know the movie would have a clash of civilizations-style theme. However, I only recently learned about Frank Miller and his connection to 300.
Celebrating Racism on the Big Screen
A couple weeks ago, I decided to watch 300’s sequel, the newly released 300: Rise of an Empire, as a personal assignment for this article. (Rise of an Empire is based on Frank Miller’s still unpublished comic book sequel to 300, “Xerxes.”) I also finally watched 300 for the same purpose.
Having now seen both movies, I can say the sequel is no different from its predecessor. Frank Miller’s ideological markings are clearly all over both films. Rise of an Empire is deservedly receiving similar criticism for its racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, ableism and Islamophobia. The film ruthlessly portrays the Achaemenids as monstrous barbarians who have no conception of freedom, justice, equality or humanity.
When 300 was released nearly a decade ago, some critics combated the movie’s message by defending the Achaemenid Empire and advocating for its supposed benevolence toward those it conquered. This article has no such intention. “All empires are terrorizing propositions,” asserts scholar Hamid Dabashi. To be sure, the Achaemenid Empire was no different.
Rather, it’s the 300 franchise’s unabashed anti-Iranian racism that should garner attention and condemnation. The series is a microcosm for the rampant anti-Iranianism diseasing American society and clash of civilizations mentality paralyzing Western thought. As a concept, “the West” cannot exist without “the Rest” just as whiteness means nothing without the racialized “other.” The Achaemenids conveniently signify “the Rest” and “the other” in the films, which explains Xerxes army’s racial diversity (it seems the Persians are represented by all racial groups with the exception of whites). In reality, moviegoers wouldn’t care about Greek triumph if not for the racialized Achaemenid antagonists.
As such, 300 and Rise of an Empire are both premised on anti-Iranian racism. Reviewing Rise of an Empire, Time’s Ishaan Tharoor writes, “The Persians remain the incarnation of every Orientalist stereotype imaginable: decadent, oversexed, craven, weak, spineless.” Ignatiy Vishnevetsky chronicles Rise of an Empire’s counterfactual history and its hypocritical portrayals of the Athenians (the film’s protagonists) and Achaemenids:
The Athenians are merciless because they represent a higher ideal; the Achaemenid are merciless because they are the bad guys. During the naval battles, which make up most of the movie, the Achaemenids cruelly lash their galley slaves, while Athenian triremes are powered by the democratic values of young men who have chosen to row of their own free will.
There’s an irony here: Out of all the Ancient Greek city-states, Athens depended the most on slave labor…Athens also distinguished itself from its neighbors by granting women absolutely no legal rights. Even by the standards of the time, Athenian society was notoriously xenophobic. Their legal system was a joke and their foreign policy was brutal. In fact, aside from practicing a political system called “democracy” – open to only a small portion of the population and empowered by widespread slavery – Athens was hardly a model society.
Perhaps the movie’s most blatant offense is the scene in which the Achaemenids attack the Greeks using an oil tanker and employing an apparent suicide bomber to destroy the Greek fleet. The scene is an obvious attempt by Miller, director Noam Murro and co-writers Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad to signify a relationship between the ancient Achaemenids and modern-day Muslims. It perfectly epitomizes the clash of civilizations. Although Islam didn’t exist back then (nor did Christianity for that matter), Rise of an Empire still finds a way to be emphatically Islamophobic.
Overall, 300 and Rise of an Empire propagate jingoistic fantasies where the white men are empowered both by supposed democratic values and their free will to kill the aggressive men of color (who are actually commanded by a Greek-born white woman). Even the movie’s makers categorized 300 as a fantasy, and they surely see Rise of an Empire in the same light. But they’ve yet to explain why they have such racist fantasies, as critic Masoud Golsorkhi rightly points out.
Racism Beyond 300
Anti-Iranianism routinely manifests in American culture to conjure ideals of freedom and democracy vis-à-vis Iran’s tyranny and repression. It has become an accepted and normalized form of racist expression. Put simply, anti-Iranian racism is patriotic.
In this sense, the 300 series’ anti-Iranian sentiment is no anomaly. Just last year, Argo won the best film Oscar. And while it doesn’t quite measure up to 300’s moral atrocity, Argo is nevertheless very problematic. Recounting the 1979-1980 American hostage situation in Iran, Argo depicts Iranians as being consumed by their hatred of Americans. According to the movie, Iranians’ entire existence revolves around how they feel about the U.S. and Americans. The film’s message implies that the Iranian revolution resulted from this hatred rather than a rejection of U.S. involvement in Iran. As such, Iranians are given no agency in regard to their own pursuit of freedom. Moreover, Iranians are shown to be stagnant and are almost categorically hostile toward the Americans.
But beyond director Ben Affleck’s gross generalization of Iran’s society and people, Argo proves to be a poorly made film. It ultimately lacks intellectual complexity and artistic sophistication. The movie’s popularity stems from a clichéd climax and of course, the anti-Iranian sentiment. Comparing Argo with some other movies that were up for last year’s best film Oscar, Dabashi asks, “So why Affleck, why Argo, why now?”
Dabashi explains how the American propaganda machine functions as a “Culture Industry”, in which popular culture is force-fed to the masses with the purpose of building passive public consent. For example, U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq has support because the culture industry provides the propaganda necessary to develop consent. If Hollywood propagates the clash of civilizations mentality at home, then the U.S. government can more easily practice it across the world. Dabashi continues, “Hollywood need not be in bed with the military logic of the Pentagon. The Pentagon is embedded in the militant imagination of Hollywood.”
Conditioning Anti-Iranian Racism
Although Argo and 300 represent different perspectives in the American political spectrum – with 300 partaking in a militant conservative vision of conquest and Argo being a liberal story about the American “victims” – both share a patriotic fervor that embraces America and the West. They accomplish this by creating a stagnant, amorphous and at times, mystical enemy. Ultimately however, that enemy comes into focus through a lens of anti-Iranian racism. Racism is necessary in order to define the evil unknown. Thus, certain people are barbarians, tyrants and cowards simply because they are Iranian people.
Racist media representations of Iranian people have a detrimental and potentially violent impact on how Americans perceive them. In her article, “Frank Miller’s ‘300’ and the Persistence of Accepted Racism”, Jehanzeb Dar mentions two important theories in analyzing media, Cultivation Theory and Cognitive Social Media Theory:
According to the Cultivation Theory, a social theory developed by George Gerbner and Larry Gross, television is the most powerful storyteller in culture – it repeats the myths, ideologies, and facts and patterns of standardized roles and behaviors that define social order. Music videos, for example, cultivate a pattern of images that establish socialized norms about gender. In a typical western music video, you may see female fingers like Brittany Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Beyoncé wearing the scantiest of clothing and dancing in erotic and provocative ways that merely cater to their heterosexual male audiences. These images of women appear so frequently and repetitively that they develop an expectation for women in the music industry, i.e. in order to be successful, a woman needs to have a certain body type, fit society’s ideal for beauty, and dance half-nakedly.
Cognitive Social Learning Theory is another social theory which posits, in respect to media, that television presents us with attractive and relatable models for us to shape our experiences from. In other words, a person may learn particular behaviors and knowledge through observing the images displayed on television. A person may also emulate the behavior of a particular character in a film or television show, especially if a close-identification is established between the viewer and the character.
Because 300 and Rise of an Empire celebrate the white man’s imperial triumphs, the movies’ storylines are also constructed with that specific audience in mind. The films therefore play out as white male fantasies. Viewers are introduced to white protagonists who have to defeat their evil non-white foils and of course, end up succeeding. Thus, the 300 series allows its audience to interact and build a relationship with those on the frontlines of imperial and racial violence.
Argo, meanwhile, manufactures a narrative that explores the softer, human side of the U.S. empire’s citizens. These citizens are victims to the equally manufactured American-hating Iranians. How can one watch Argo and not come out thinking Iranians hate Americans? This is by design. The movie creates a dynamic in which solidarity with the American protagonists equals hatred against their Iranian “oppressors.”
Moreover, while Cognitive Social Learning Theory explains the extent to which the protagonists are relatable, Cultivation Theory shows how movies like 300 can contribute to conditioning violently hostile attitudes toward Iranians and other Middle Eastern people. For American soldiers then, murdering Afghans and Iraqis is reduced to an action movie fantasy. “When U.S. soldiers are inside their tanks, when U.S. pilots are flying their fighter jets, when U.S. marines look through their night vision goggles – they do not see human beings when they pull the trigger. All they see are videogame figurines…,” says Dabashi. Tragically, drone warfare has substantially worsened this (non-virtual) reality.
Rise of an Empire undermines Iranian people and their history by propagating a racist white male fantasy and drumming up a hostile brand of patriotism. Ironically, the movie’s March release coincides with the Persian New Year, which occurs on the first day of spring. Although the film attempts to portray the Achaemenid Empire’s downfall, Iranians all over the world are currently celebrating their culture, history and perseverance as a people. While moviegoers are subjected to Rise of an Empire‘s clash of civilizations, Iranians are basking in the rise of spring.
Navid Farnia received his Master of Arts degree from the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University in New York. He is an Iranian American who was born and raised in Oklahoma.
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