A New Queered Gaze?: Reading “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” as Symptom of a Shift in the Male Gaze
crossposted at Orbis Mediologicus
What’s a media/film/queer theorist-type to make of the new Starz show Spartacus: Blood and Sand?
Analyzing the ‘Guilty Pleasure’ as Symptom
I’ll admit it: its a guilty pleasure. A very guilty one. Nearly as much as the men’s gymnastics or diving competitions during the summer olympics, the Starz Network’s new series Spartacus: Blood and Sand is difficult to ignore. The acting is second rate, the script is useless (although the way the script deals with sexuality is actually quite interesting), but turns out I’m not alone in finding this engrossing watching. From reviews I’ve read of the series, the ratings are through the roof, and from a brief survey of some gay websites, seems the show has a huge gay following.
And hardly a surprise, I mean gladiators, and the occasional male full-frontal nudity. But it turns out thatSpartacus is equal opportunity in its dispensation of guilty pleasure – they show women’s breasts far more often than fully naked men, occasional full frontal female nudity, lots of scenes of hetero sex, alongside men walking around in loincloths, walking around naked in the bathhouse, occasionally fighting naked (even if they don’t show ‘the goods’ when that happens or in bathhouse scenes), etc. But having read reviews of the show by mainstream publications, it seems that there’s enough hetero-sex and breasts to please hetero men because there’s one other key component: tons of violence, gore, and blood. Of course, when I watch the show, I barely notice this, I only see the homoeroticism, but to most reviewers, all they see is the violence. Which is precisely what’s interesting about all this.
Lucretius, Batiatus, Spartacus, and Doctore
That is, different viewers see different things when they watch Spartacus, which is because they occupy different spectatorial positions. It reminds me of reading the varied accounts of how different people described Josephine Baker’s first performances in Paris. Depending on what they wanted and/or expected to see, they saw different things. Baker’s body was a screen on which they could project their desires (similar to the moon in the opening scene to Oscar Wilde’s Salome).
Similarly, Spartacus is constructed to be a spectatorial palimpsest, and as such, its a marketing tour-de-force – everyone finds something to gratify what feminist film theorists first called the ‘erection of the(ir) eye (s).’ Those testosterone filled guys who love bodybuilding who flocked to see Zack Snyder’s 2007 film 300, can try to ignore the blatant homo-eroticism and just go for the manly posturing, gore, and slo-mo violence – besides, there’s lots of naked women to see alongside the feats of strength! For the hetero women, there’s tons of naked men to see – and whoever said hetero women aren’t aroused visually by the sight of men, and that hetero women’s version of porn is the harlequin romance, hasn’t keeping tabs with the ways so many women bloggers have put THAT myth to pasture. Perhaps only queer women might find this all quite a drag, even though on occasion women kiss, if in a manner that seems designed for the sake of pleasing male viewers. Some things change much slower than others.
But here’s what’s most interesting about the show – how it deals with sex. Firstly, on a narrative level. Rougly speaking, the series re-tells the story of Spartacus, how he starts off as a Thracian warrior, opposes the order of a cruel Roman military supervisor on a command, challenges him, is arrested and made a slave, and sent to be a gladiator in the gladiator training school of the wily Batiatus, or be shipped off to the deadly mines. Sex is discussed and portrayed as being an everyday fact of life, and using everyday English slang for sexual parts and deeds is common, even from the privileged classes.
‘Gay’ Lovers in Roman Times: Barca and Pietros
About four episodes in, we meet Barca, a huge slave who is Batiatus’ enforcer. In about the fifth episode, we find out that he has taken up with a love interest, a young gladiator named Pietros. The fact that a man (and a very tough one at that) is interested in another is treated as simply as anything else is in the series. We see them happilly kissing as lovers, just as we see Barca turn into a massively powerful gladiator in the ring. He bargains to buy freedom for himself and Pietros, so they can be free and live together, none of which surprises anyone. They raise doves together in their cells. Pietros is clearly the less manly of the two, but he isn’t depicted as womanly, simply not as hyper-masculinized as the other gladiators around him. He is, though, in many ways more masculine than many of today’s stereotyped representations of gay men. He is sensitive without becoming a stereotype, and in many ways, is difficult to categorize within Hollywood and TV’s highly limiting roles for gay men on the screen.
For a while, Barca(above) and Pietros remain as secondary plot characters, and are occasionally depicted as happily engaging with each other tenderly and sexually while other gladiators party with women in certain scenes where the gladiators are rewarded for a job well done. But eventually Barca comes to know some information threatening to Batiatus, and he is killed by him. Batiatus tells Pietros he bought his slavery but left him behind, overcome by his freedom but not having enough money to buy freedom for both. A new gladiator comes to the school, and quickly takes a fancy to Pietros, but it is obvious he beats Pietros and treats him horribly. Spartacus shows his concern, and expresses concern for Pietros. In despair of being abandoned by Barca to sexual abuse, Pietrios hangs himself. Spartacus finds Pietrios hanging there, and in a fit of rage, kills Pietros’ killer with his own hands.
It is clear that this show is gay-male friendly, openly courts a gay male audience, and that the fictional character Spartacus not only is friendly to those men who love their own gender, but defends them as well. In fact, the character, as everyone else in the series, views sex incredibly differently than in the present day. It seems that someone must’ve been reading Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality Part II, or did some historical research. For a melodrmatically acted soft-porn ratings-hungry guilty pleasure series, someone is making sure they did their homework!
Of course, for reasons that go unexplained, they did not present Barca and Pietros as going off and living happily ever after, sending us back to the image of queer love as tragic which goes as far back as Achilles and Patroclus, but in more modern form, at least to Oscar Wilde’s Salome or Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. It would be nice to see happiness come to a queer couple on a screen at some point, and beyond the often really annoying romantic comedies and coming-out narratives that dominate mainstream gay film. But despite the show’s obvious limitations, I’ve got to say that it is nice to see a show in which love between men is both depicted outside the standard stereotypes, and in a manner that queers contemporary expectations.
Slavery in Spartacus: Eroticization, Race, and Power
Interestingly, however, what truly drives the erotic relations in the show in general, and the scenes of spectatorship it provides, is not gender or sexuality in the modern sense, but rather, gender and sexuality routed through power, class, and slavery. Nothing like modern slavery occurs in Rome, of course. Almost everyone depicted in the series is a slave, a gladiator. Most are what, in today’s terms, are generally called ‘white’, but also many slaves are of Mediterranean appearance, which fits the actual historical demographic of slaves in Ancient Rome. Interestingly enough, because the producers wanted to save on production costs, they shot the series in Auckland, New Zealand, and most of the cast comes from Australia and New Zealand. This of course gives the actors the non-American accents needed to sound ‘Roman’ enough on screen (thanks, Roland Barthes), but also provides an interesting development in terms of the representation of race on screen. For in fact many of the gladiators who have Mediterranean looking features in fact are of mixed Euro and Maori descent (for example, Manu Bennett as Crixus and Antonio Te Maioho as Barca). The slipperiness of racial signifiers is revealed as at work when people from across the globe from those they are representing can do so because of a shared difference from the standards of a normative Anglo-Euro-American notion of whiteness. Spartacus himself (played by Andy Whitfield), of course, while he has dark hair and eyes, has an aquiline profile which makes him able to play a lead rather than supporting role.
Interestingly enough, there are two characters who in today’s world would be called Black, namely, Pietros (the young lover of Barca, played by Eka Darville) and the strict trainer of the gladiators, the harsh but fair Doctore. While Pietros is light skinned, Doctore is dark; while Pietros has a large afro, Doctore is bald; while Pietros is sweet and nice, Doctore is bad-ass but fair. Doctore does not drink, worships his deities in private in his quarters, and is loyal if severe. In many ways, Doctore is the anti-Pietros, showing us that, at least in some ways, race is still represented as split between polar opposites. For in fact, there are no women from sub-Saharan Africa depicted (at least up until now, midway through the first season). Pietros can be seen in this sense as a stand-in for a world in which the Black female is erased (though ‘Black’ women are briefly depicted when Ambasadors from Sub-Saharan African come to sell slaves, including Crixus, to Batiatus, in a fascinating racial role reversal).
That said, no-one in the world of Spartacus seems to realize Doctore ‘is’ Black. For in fact, in Ancient Rome, he obviously was not, for modern racial ideas are in fact a product of the ages of colonialism. Rather, Doctore is seen as simply belonging to one of the many non-Roman ethnicities conquered by Rome. He has darker skin than many of the others, but this does not make him of a different ‘type’ than any of them. Some of the Germanic gladiators have dread-locks, but not Doctore. Clearly racial representations here also work to queer our expectations, at least to a degree.
Slavery in Ancient Greece and Rome
All of which brings us to the issue of slavery in Ancient times (for more see here), and just how different it was than the slavery practiced by Europe in the age of colonialism. Anyone could be sold into slavery, though it was very difficult for this to happen to freeborn Roman nobles (depending on the period, it was illegal). In Ancient Greece, slaves were generally members of conquered warriors, or people who couldn’t pay their debts. For debt, slavery was often temporary. Slavery existed amongst the Ancient Hebrews as well, and its rules are described in depth in the Torah (Books of Moses). While some slaves in Ancient Greece worked in the silver mines, usually to death, many slaves could also rise to high prominence. Slaves could often come and go as they please, and if they were highly educated, they taught the offspring of the wealthy. Slaves of high ability could rise to great heights, either winning their freedom, or in the service of a free noble. Slaves could even at times own their own business and keep a large percentage of the profits. Slavery had nothing to do with race in any modern sense. In Rome, like much else, slavery got much worse. Slaves could be beaten to death, unlike in Greece and the Hebrew lands, where mistreatment could cause strong penalties, even death, for those who beat of killed their slave. Slaves were often worked to death and treated horribly.
Slavery in Spartacus: The Politics of Looking and Using, and some Lacanian Theory
In Spartacus, slavery and freedom determine the economy of sexual currency, both visual and bodily. As a gladiator, Spartacus learns he must do what his master Batiatus, his dominus, says. But he also has a domina, Batiatus’ wife Lucretia (played by Lucy Lawless, the famed Xena from Xena: Warrior Princess, whose director is the same as that of Spartacus. Batiatus is often showed having sex with other women, always slaves, while talking to his wife who sits at his side, not the least jealous, for at any moment, she can summon a gladiator to please her, and she often does.
Women’s roles in Spartacus are complex. Lucretia and her rival, companion, and ‘frenemy’ Illythia, often call the gladiators to them. They gaze upon them as objects, just as women were so often objectified by the ‘male’ gaze in traditional Hollywood cinema and film. This new female gaze is no more kind, for the men are viewed as objects to be used and abused and little else, for they are slaves, and in the eyes of the wealthy Romans, living toys and workers. Hulking men with exquisite bodies and complex personalities are treated like toys by the women. In one scene, Crixus and Spartacus are called in front of several of the women. Crixus is more trusted than Spartacus, so he is without chains on this wrists, while Spartacus remains chained. But Lucretia lusts after Crixus, and she has him remove his loincloth. The viewer gets a chance to look at Crixus’ full nudity through Lucreita’s eyes, replicating the shot-reverse-shot technique describe by Laura Mulvey in her classic essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” – but this time, it is the male who is being objectified.
And who is naked. As Lacan repeatedly describes in his writings on the male ‘phallus’, it is by remaining veiled that men’s penises (which Lacan describes as ‘flaps of flesh’) become seen in the popular imagination as larger than life. The phallus as the (veiled) signifier of male potency (symbolic phallus, or Φ) gives rise to the imaginary image of the phallus (imaginary phallus, or φ). Both of these support and are supported by the rules within society which maintain male privilege and power. One point made repeatedly in the series is that Spartacus’ name was given to him by Batiatus. All the gladiators have to use the name given by the master of the house, the one with the (Lacanian) nom-du-pere, the name-of-the-father.
Here we see one of the ways in which men, and Batiatus in particular, still retain power, and there is no question that men run the show in Spartacus. Batiatus is lord of his house, and Lucretia has only so much power, and in Rome, her legal rights would have been severely limited. But over a slave, male or female, her power is second only to that of Batiatus himself. In one episode, Spartacus is basically pimped out by Lucretia to her female frenemy, Ilythia, all in an attempt to out her to her husband as having slept with a gladiator who nearly ruined him financially in the ring. The danger was not that she was unfaithful, or slept with a slave, but that she slept with precisely this slave. Spartacus and Ilythia are wearing masks, and Spartacus thinks he is sleeping with another woman. Lucretia dupes them both, intrudes on the scene pretending to not realize what is going on, and then unmasks them both. Fearing betrayal, Ilythia throws herself at Lucretia’s feet. This is where Lucretia wants her, under her power, and she pretends to comfort Ilythia, saying, “this will be our little secret.” To seal it all off, Lucretia then gives Ilythia a kiss, but with tongue. They begin to make out, and it is unclear which secret is meant – the deep kiss or her having slept with someone who embarrassed her husband. The scene cuts quickly, implying that they continue to make out.
But it is in their power over male slaves, not other free women or men, that female power shows itself in full. Let’s return to the scene in which Lucretia and her horde of women ‘inspect’ the gladiators. In the one previously described with Crixus and Spartacus, when she commands Crixus to take off his loincloth, we see a huge hulking man, and the unveiled phallus, all displayed for the female gaze. When full frontal male nudity is shown in the series, it is usually from a distance, in long-shot (no pun (un)intended!). From what can be seen from the distance in question, it seems as if Crixus’ crotch is shaven, unlike many other of the males who are naked in the show, and unlike the naked females as well. Does this show his powerlessness before her gaze? He certainly makes no eye contact, as Lucretia and her female hangers-on inspect him. He stares ahead, an object of the gaze, his phallus deflated to penis. And shaven, it looks, well, small. On a huge man. This is precisely the sort of scene which, at least to Lacan, would be disastrous to the entire concept of the male phallus in society.
Crixus of Gaul (or New Zealand?) on display
Nor does this happen only once. In another scene, Spartacus is called before the collective female gaze, and the women require some of his blood, for the blood of a gladiator is supposed to be an love elixir that will keep your man “hard for a week.” One of the women then penetrates Spartacus with her blade to draw just a tiny bit of blood, and he willingly permits this. All the time when Crixus and Spartacus are being inspected in this manner, they seem to be simmering with rage at their powerlessness before this female power over them. Of course, this is all enforced by male power, outside in the wings, for if the gladiators so much as look the wrong way at these women, they will be swiftly killed by the many guards waiting in the wings. All the women have to do is call for them. The fear is still of male penetration. But male penetration is here depicted as what is deployable by the female voice (itself a Lacanian object), even as women use their gaze and knives to penetrate Spartacus’ skin. And they do it in groups . . .
Character Armor/Body Armor
If we examine the body posture of the gladiators throughout these examination scenes, we see, however, that their defensive, angry, rage-filled posture indicates another psychoanalytic concept. Wilhelm Reich, in his classic work Character Analysis (1933), argues that one of the primary modes of defense employed in schizophrenia, and paranoid schizophrenia in particular, is character armor. Due to the concrete character of schizophrenia, the fantasy of an armor to protect the body is often used to describe the psychic state of the sufferer, and this is then often literalized in a rigid posture on the body, or body armor. This notion is made use of extensively by Klaus Theweleit, in his massive tome on the psychoanalytic tropes at work in the novels written by those who would become Nazis in World War II, Male Fantasies (1977). Theweleit describes how the rigid posture so privileged by male fascists is based upon the fantasy of character armor which is threatened by the ‘female flood’ which threatens to overwhelm it from without and within.
Looking at Crixus and Spartacus before the female gaze, this is precisely what we see – character armor. All the men have on armor, a literal cage of muscles which has become de rigueur for urban gay men (at least if they want to solicit the clonified urban gay male gaze), if also at times for straight men. While the phallus was supreme in culture, men didn’t need muscles, they had the phallus, even if this was always embattled (as Kaja Silverman describes in its multiple vicissitudes in Male Subjectivity at the Margins (1992 – see her excellent chapter on men with war wounds in post-WWII Hollywood films)). In the age of pax americana, having the phallus, paunch or not, meant you didn’t need character armor of muscles like we seen in the men in Spartacus.
And it is perhaps here that we see precisely what is at stake in the filming of Spartacus. We see male sexuality assaulted on all sides. And seemingly, loving its own domination. Freud spoke of feminine masochism, the pleasure women get out of being dominated by men. Is there perhaps male masochism at work here? Spartacus‘ gladitorial fashion certainly recalls BDSM attire, in a variety of ways. Perhaps disavowal can allow even hetero-identified men to get their kink on.
While many would see fluff and pulp, Spartacus is a symptom of the gender politics of the age. We ignore pop culture at our peril, for it is precisely where tomorrow’s fantasies, and the day after’s reality, are formed. As Slavoj Zizek has argued, if we want to understand why a culture does what it does, we need to study its fantasies, for these depict how that society wished things would be, which they try to enact in the world only when they can, due to the limitations of the ‘reality principle’. To learn about our true selves, we need to understand the fantasies which haunt our waking lives. And the more a fantasy is simultaneously unreal, silly, dreamlike, AND full of inexplicable and perhaps guilty allure, the more it likely explains the barely repressed desires that direct the seemingly irrational behaviors of waking life.
Spartacus’ Mirror: The Hurt Locker
- Open for Display: The New Masculinity in Times Square
Modern masculinity is under siege, it is changing. And while perhaps this is traumatic to some, perhaps there are pleasures here for others – including those who are dominated, those who used to have unquestioned power. There are moments in which both Batiatus and Lucretia thrive on their ability to control the powerful men in the arena by simply reminding them they are slaves. And we, as viewers, seem to take pleasure in that vicariously. Why does this series seem to luxuriate in the domination of men? For a picture with a strong male viewership, designed for a mostly male audience (gay, queer, or straight), and directed by a mostly male team, the concept of masochism seems like a potential likely solution.
Seeing Crixus in his cell at night, staring out into the world, muscle bound yet bound, and depicted as a stallion in bed who loves another female slave, yet serves as Lucretia’s boy-toy, we see him unable to sleep, pondering the world in a cage. I am reminded here of a film like The Hurt Locker, this year’s best picture, and the work of Kathryn Bigelow, the first female to win the prize for Best Film (she also won best director). The main character, James (Jeremy Renner), is reckless like many of the gladiators in Spartacus, he is a warrior, he wears a fully body suit of high-tech, padded armor to protect him from explosions to his soft insides. He thrives on the rush of danger, just like the gladiators. And he is empty inside. When I see Crixus in his cage-like cell, looking through the metal bars wondering at his fate, I can’t but think of the image of James at home from war for a brief period of time, overcome with the image of shelves full of cereal. He has so many options to choose from, but cannot choose, this world baffles him. He stares with the same blank stare as Crixus. Where am I? What am I doing? Why do I need this armor, and why am I so helpless without it?
To think ‘it’ (the shift in ways of looking, that is) all started with Marky Mark and Antonio Sabato, Jr., the first men to appear naked but for their briefs on massive bill-boards in Times Square in NYC, soliciting the sculpted male body to the gaze of desire. But how far things have changed, and how masculinity has changed in the ways it is embattled since the early 90’s.
It’s for these and the other reasons listed above that I can’t help but think that Spatacus a large part of the fantasy behind the reality depicted so ascetically in The Hurt Locker. The over-the-top fantasy of one seems as if to over compensate for the gritty realness of the other, its almost painful lack of development, its empty violence, its climaxless flatness, its masculinity stripped of all eros. If we are to look for a mediator, however, perhaps we see it in a film like Jarhead (2005, Sam Mendes), in the scene in which, realizing the first Second Gulf War is over without the soldiers, having spent so much time psyching themselves up, having fired a shot, the soliders, so many of them muscled like Spartacus, firing in the air at nothing. Between the homoeroticism of Jarhead and the drained emptiness that was masculinity seen in The Hurt Locker, we find today’s embattled (assumedly straight, seeing as we still have DADT) masculinity. If contemporary masculinity is in between these two, Spartacus is truly its fantasmatic mirror.
All this said, I do not want to be misinterpreted as glorifying the world depicted in Spartacus. This world is sorry, violent, terrifying, and scary, there is very little that shows human decency here. But what we see is perhaps a fantasmatic mirror reflection of today’s paranoid geopolitical world. In fact, the male-male couple of Barca and Pietros presented just about the only seeming scene of real happiness (and this is precisely, in psychoanalytic terms, endemic of a ‘screen memory’). What is being screened, however, would seem to be the pain of objectification on all sides, all around. While there is sexual liberation to be had here, there is a high price to pay in violence. Masochism for all, perhaps, seems only slightly better than sadism for some.
Nor do I want to be seen glorifying the sort of slavery depicted in Spartacus. Despite the high-camp involved, Roman slavery and Ancient slavery was still brutal, if often less so than that practiced by Europe in the age of colonialism. Slavery is always a horrible affront to dignity, if not much, much worse. Then again, today we have neo-slavery in the economic colonialism produced by the modern forms of economic globalization, outsourcing, illegal immigration politcies, etc. While neither ancient nor neo-slavery are anywhere near as atrocious as that witnessed in the age of colonialism, we need to remember just how horrific all forms of slavery are.
But there is much we can learn from a show life Spartacus about our own age, particularly when we read both psychoanalytically.