September 19th, 2007
300 is arguably the most racially charged movie since D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. In true post-9/11 form, Zack Snyder's film turns Brown into the new Black; Persians are depicted as bloodthirsty savages thwarted in the Battle of Thermopylae by a small contingent of freedom fighters – with noticeably paler skin – looking to preserve democracy at all costs. This eerily resembles Birth of a Nation, the 1915 epic celebrating the Ku Klux Klan's rise during Reconstruction to defend Southern whites’ dignity and honor against what were then seen as recently liberated Black insurgents. Like Griffith's film, this mixture of race, racism, sex, and violence has been astonishingly profitable: 300 has grossed nearly $500 million worldwide since hitting box offices in March and hundreds of millions more are on the way with its recent DVD release.
In many ways, 300 has already become as much of a cult classic as ‘Birth‘ was in its heyday. Like ‘Birth‘, 300 is likely to be remembered more for its groundbreaking cinematography and technical achievements than its racial overtones. What's interesting, however, is how both films’ critically acclaimed screenplays were brought to life by manipulating skin color; the digitally airbrushed complexion of 300's characters emphasizes, exacerbates, and racializes the Persian/Spartan conflict in a manner not unlike Birth's use of blackface.
In a time of growing unrest between the West and the Middle East, this racialized depiction of freedom, nation, and democracy becomes central to 300's take home message. But closer inspection reveals a subtler, yet similarly troubling idea that has gone largely unnoticed: 300's unapologetic glorification of eugenics.
Within the film's first few minutes, audiences are introduced to a practice presented as key to Sparta's heroic culture: breeding better humans. Every newborn was inspected for health, strength, and vigor; those showing defect or disability were abandoned to die. The film suggests that this rather crude form of eugenics is put in place for military reasons: every Spartan child should either be able to become a soldier or give birth to one.
Initially shocked, audiences are quickly reassured that this is all for the greater good: nation, freedom, and the Spartan family. How else can Sparta defend itself – and inspire modern democracies – unless it reserves scarce resources for the strongest? 300's crafty narration, erotic imagery, and blue-screened dramaturgy give sympathy to these practices. After all, Spartans are brave, noble, and beautiful; the ends here seem to justify the means.
This pro-eugenics trope is magnified by the film's dramatic climax, which implausibly suggests that but for the Spartans’ betrayal by Ephialtes – a physically disabled Spartan hidden from the authorities as a child – the 300 eugenically selected soldiers would have outlasted Xerxes's minions. The impression left in viewers’ minds is that were it not for the failure of Spartan eugenics to catch Ephialtes at birth, King Leonidas might very well have led his outmanned and overmatched army to victory.
Like other readings of the film, this would hardly be noteworthy except for the specific cultural and political contexts in which audiences engage these images, thoughts, and ideas. Just as the West's growing conflicts in the Middle East bring attention to the film's racial commentaries, so too do rapid and unregulated developments in reproductive and genetic technologies – what Slate's Will Saletan calls in a different context “our gentle descent towards eugenics” – heighten sensitivities to 300's portrayal of eugenics as not only morally justifiable, but also sound public policy.
What's noteworthy here is that eugenics is not simply an idea of the past. As we mark the centennial of the world's first eugenics law (Indiana, 1907), reflections on the harms perpetuated in the name of “breeding better people” have yet to produce any meaningful federal legislation to prevent human biotechnologies from being used in a manner that might repeat this shameful history. People today are developing and using embryo-selection procedures to “weed out” babies with disabilities or select their sex. Some scientists are developing technologies that might lead to “designer” children who would suit various social preferences for hair color, skin color, and more. In fact – not unlike what happened in Sparta – other technologies are being researched to enhance humans to fit certain military specifications.
Take as an example the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), the U.S. Department of Defense bureau responsible for developing military technologies. It has become increasingly interested in funding research into human enhancement that can build better soldiers, which Wired describes as an effort “to let [soldiers] run harder and longer, operate without sleep, overcome deadly injury, and tap the potential of their unconscious minds.” Though these techniques would be aimed at young adults rather than at embryos or newborns, they are closely related to eugenics in that they embrace a similar belief that we can and should design individuals to suit social and political ends. And, as in ancient Sparta, national security and militarism can become easily intertwined with these conversations.
If enhancing today's soldiers is already on the table, are we also headed toward a truly eugenic militarism that starts from scratch and uses reproductive and genetic technologies to select, design, or engineer “freedom fighters”? What would this rebirth of a nation – through enhancement, eugenics, or otherwise – mean for our country's social, political, and military future?
If it wasn't already clear that reproductive and genetic technologies could presage a new eugenics, 300's blockbuster message should draw attention to this as much as it might foreshadow ongoing conflict in the Middle East. A disturbing number of scientists, fertility specialists, biomedical researchers, and others are pushing a market-based eugenics founded on parents’ private choices. Yet throwback eugenics based on Spartan-like freedom and democracy could also be around the corner. Only better oversight and clear regulation of human biotechnologies – as we see in Canada and the United Kingdom – can help us navigate these impending challenges. Otherwise, to paraphrase King Leonidas, we may very well end up dining in hell.
Osagie K. Obasogie directs the project on Bioethics, Law, and Society at the Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland, CA. He also regularly contributes to the blog Biopolitical Times, where an earlier version of this essay appeared.