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March 12th, 2007


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06:58 pm - Cheering for the Wrong Side
The initial inspiration for this piece was the new film The 300, however, after reading rm's in-depth review of the film, it sounds like the film is considerably better than Frank Miller's typical vilification of all form of effeminacy and other generally noxious attitudes. Instead, I shall write about far more widespread attitudes about historical heroes and villains, and related attitudes about perceived effeminacy that I've seen in all manner of historical scholarship as well at popular attitudes and the opinions of no shortage of intelligent and educated people. Being a dyed-in-the-wool sissy and rather proud of this fact, I tend to look upon any judgment that lionizes manly men or demonized sissies with a vast amount of dubiousness and so I am often end up sympathizing with villains in both historical and fictional narratives. Sometimes, there seems to be very good reasons to do so, as I hope to demonstrate below.

I have a minor in Classics and in studying the Persian Wars of antiquity, the position taken by the vast majority of academic and popular authors is always very clear – we have on one side the heroes – the Greeks, civilized, educated, free, heroic, and manly. On the other side, you have the Persian Empire – servile, effete, decadent, and cowardly. Of course, in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, perceptions of this conflict have also been colored by Western attitudes about various later Middle Eastern empires, attitudes expressed most eloquently in Edward Said's Orientalism.

However, when you look more closely at the situation, you find that the supposedly free and heroic Spartans were essentially the most brutal and savage slaveholders in antiquity, the supposedly wondrous Athenian democracy existed alongside a degree of oppression of women in Athens, and to an only slightly lesser extent throughout all of Classical Greece significantly greater than that found in much of the rest of the surrounding world.

In the Persian Empire, we have record of two female rulers of portions of the empire Artemisia I, ruler of Halicarnassus and shrewd naval captain, who commanded a ship in the battle of Salamis and was especially hated by the Greeks, both due to her skill at evading their trap that destroyed most of the Persian fleet and because they were angered by even a small defeat (amidst the overall Greek victory) by a woman. Around a century later, Halicarnassus was again ruled Artemisia II. In contrast, not only were there no female rulers of any city-state in Classical Greece, there are almost no records of anything about Greek women of the time because the culture was one of the most misogynist to ever exist. The only exception was in Sparta, and there the higher status of women was largely a necessary adaptation to a culture devoted to the exceptionally (even for that era) brutal oppression of their vast population of slaves – the Helots.

In vivid contrast in addition to clearly permitting the occasional female ruler, the Persian Empire embraced religious tolerance, and specifically did not enslave the populations of captured nations, instead largely permitting local rule as long as taxes were paid and safety and order were maintained. However, despite all that, people still speak of the heroism of the Spartans during the Persian War, the Athenians are declared to be the most enlightened state of antiquity, and the Persians remain the villains in both popular and academic narratives.

The other case is even clearer and the academic and popular reaction more disturbing. From the mid 19th century until sometime in the later half of the 20tgh century, in the West, Imperial China was regarded as a land synonymous with degenerate effeminacy. As such, in both popular and academic culture finding heroes and villains in Imperial China initially seemed to present a difficult problem. However, the choice was actually quite easy. For many dynasties, two major forces in the Chinese court were the scholars and the eunuchs. Ever since Jesuit missionaries arrived in China in the 16th century and found natural allies with the scholars, the scholars have been the wise and educated heroes, while the eunuchs were universally described in the West with such terms as "greasy", "servile", "fawning", "bloated", and many other terms that are similarly complimentary. The picture one obtains of the court eunuchs is of drunken decadents who spend their time fondling the Emperors children and create schemes designed to enrich themselves and impoverish the Empire. You see this in all manner of scholarly works from Jesuit accounts written in the late 16th century, to scholarly accounts written in the 1970s and 80s.

However, this is rather at odds with events like the voyages lead by Admiral Zheng He during the early Ming dynasty, where a fleet of vast trading vessels visited India, Africa, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and very possibly Australia (voyages explored in depth in various recent books including the excellent history When China Ruled the Seas by Louise Levathes. Zheng He was a court eunuch, and the only reason his voyages ceased is that the much-vaunted scholars disliked both the power the voyages gave to the court eunuchs and also distrusted the foreign contact and foreign ideas the voyages encouraged, and so when they had the chance, they cut off all Chinese sea travel, which of course meant that in a century, the Portuguese came to China rather than the reverse. In any case, sometimes historical attribution of heroes and villains is considerably less obvious than it first appears. Attitudes about eunuchs in China have largely changed in academia, with luck popular and academic attitudes about the Classical Greeks will eventually change. I'm a big fan of the cosmopolitan wonders of Hellenistic Greece, but I find nothing admirable or heroic in Classical Greece.
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative

(8 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:gsyh
Date:March 13th, 2007 04:01 am (UTC)

Oh I nominate:

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Orlando Bloom!

Alexander Siddig (Dr.Julian Bashir in Star Trek Deep Space Nine, and in that and his other roles, he had excellent chemistry with his male co-stars)

Andrew Robinson (Scorpio in Dirty Harry, Garak in Star Trek Deep Space Nine), he's in his 60s now, but he still acts...and hey there were old people who were gay in the ancient times then eh? Robinson is still sexy, and even when he's creepy he's still attractive and appealing.

Amazing, a lot of pre-Enterprise Trek actors weren't afraid of same-sex scenes, though Rick Berman and Paramount were. Jonathan Frakes (Commander Riker) actually demanded that they cast a man for the role of the asexual alien he was dating in an episode that came out less as a veiled statement against homophobia, than Conservative nightmare about a militant lesbian world of sterile sexlessness. Both Siddig and Robinson admits to playing up the chemistry.
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From:heron61
Date:March 13th, 2007 06:21 am (UTC)
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I'd watch that. It's an obvious choice for a film and with homophobia fading fast in much of the first world, I'm expecting someone (likely in Canada or Britain) to do it.
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From:gsyh
Date:March 13th, 2007 03:56 am (UTC)

Well, this is interesting

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I'm Chinese, so I've always knew that the East is much more progressive than usually portrayed in the West (Disney's Mulan was both racist and sexist), I just didn't know by how much outside of China, and a little about Middle East, specifically Syria and Iraq).

I didn't know Persia was so progressive, I actually thought they were conservative because there is nothing in Koran that say women must wear headscarfs (at least according to those Everything You Need To Know books on display at the library years ago), and it was a tradition adapted from wealthy Persian women.

The eunuchs were pretty evilized in Chinese culture too, though I don't know if it's because they are feminine (traditionally homosexuality is tolerated, but that changed after the Great Leap Backward so what's left could be highly coloured by that). There are theories that the eunuchs were corrupted, because they were bitter and resentment over what was done to them, and power is their replacement of sexuality.

I don't know the gender thing really goes with Chinese history, since much record that were made has been lost. There has been one female ruler, Empress Wu Zetian...and then other rulers who ruled through their sons and secret police. China had secret police as far back as the 10th century and Zetain was in charge long before she had officially the throne, so I really don't know if it can ever been know how much and for how long women could have been in charge behind the scenes at the very /top/, or if it was just rarities and wishful thinking.

Have you ever seen Star Trek? I really dislike the post-TOS era Klingons and the hype about them. They are so honourable they're willing to fight to the death, with people who don't want to fight. At least the Cardassians did the things they do for survival, in the beginning. I also find the latest Trek, Enterprise, the portrayal of women disturbing in the episodes I have seen, along with Vulcans in the pilot, those femmy limp wristed Vulcan/Women who kept Archer's father from having his dream rocket launched (from getting up - getting off earth), wow.
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From:alobar
Date:March 13th, 2007 05:15 am (UTC)
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Back when I was a kid I was very impressed with the movie El Cid. It was not until many years later that I discovered that Moorish Spain was a very enlightened place with much more acceptance of women being educated, open debates amongst Christians, Jews, and Moslems. The Christians, on the other hand, were brutal to Moslems and Jews. Women lost a lot when the Christians took over.
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From:earlofstomp
Date:March 13th, 2007 02:29 pm (UTC)

Rando stuff after a good read of your post...

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As someone who likes Greek society and Persian society for what it gave the western world (and that would be a conversation of many hours really, can't even begin to summarize that) I am looking forward to 300 as a wonderful piece of fiction. I, unlike many americans, know pretty good what happened with the 300, it was BTW one of the motivations for what later happened at the Alamo in TX... In fact there is a great documentary out there about Sparta and their world. It was barbaric and it was controled, it was like all other societies, trying to preserve a lifestyle, culture, and way of life. In the End if fell because it could not change, big lesson there, we (that's the human race we) should be careful to understand...

Both the Greeks and the Persians were barbaric in one way or another, I find it hard to make any of them good guys / bad guys. They are what they are and there is much to learn from them.

Another good point to make at this time Persians are not Arabs, they are Persians, their own cultural subset. To me that is like calling Scottish people English, just plain wrong and rude. A point lost on many western people who cannot bother to understand anthing so simple as from where someone is and what they are about...

Thanks!

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From:heron61
Date:March 13th, 2007 07:24 pm (UTC)

Re: Cyrus...

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I largely agree. My problem is with the truly vast amount of academic and popular writing which not only takes sides, but takes the exact same side.
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From:earlofstomp
Date:March 14th, 2007 01:47 pm (UTC)

Re: Cyrus...

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I can agree with the above. I really think taking sides dessembled into the same mostakes of the past and objective examination of the facts (there I said it) is really the way to go.
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From:eklectick
Date:March 14th, 2007 11:01 pm (UTC)
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The adulation accorded Classical Athens started in antiquity, and no one has ever wanted to give it up. Everyone seems to want a classical (and near-perfect) predecessor to look up to, copy, and surpass. The various Greek city states fought one anothers' civilian populations with disgusting "barbarity" (for all their barbs about brutal barbarians ;-).

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