Is Zack Snyder a Feminist? We analyze his films’ female characters in depth in this 5-page article.

It’s everywhere on the internet. Thanks to a sudden surge in a culturally conscience movie going culture, the audience is demanding for more equal representation of women on the big screen, and not just for a female-lead comedy or a “sexy action movie”, but for the titans of film like comic book movies and fantasy to start including women in more active roles both in front of and behind the camera. The revolution came as sudden as a storm and has pit social media on both fronts of a “war” that no one can remember a time when they weren’t involved in it.
For many, it seemed like Zack Snyder made movies “for the guys”. Films like 300, Dawn of the Dead, Man of Steel, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole and Watchmen appeared to be in heavy favor of those with a Y-chromosome…but are they really? You might be surprised to find out that Zack was leading a charge for strong women before it was “cool” to do so, and before having a “woman who isn’t in love” became a selling point, and not a mark of genuine film-making.

Sarah Polley as Anna in DAWN OF THE DEAD
Sarah Polley as Ana in DAWN OF THE DEAD

In 2004, Snyder’s debut film Dawn of the Dead carried on a genre tradition of the female horror-movie protagonist in Ana, a suburban wife and nurse who is thrown immediately into danger as she has to escape hell itself in the film’s now iconic opening. What is painfully important about Snyder’s lead character, played brilliantly by Sarah Poley, is that she and Kenneth (Ving Rhames) are the only two survivors in the mall that really have any experience and authority, although Ana is initially harassed by CJ (Michael Kelly), he and the rest eventually fall to her for guidance. Larkin Hiott wrote in a piece for Films for the Feminist Classroom on the film’s opening:

Pregnant with social anxiety surrounding contagious disease, Snyder’s film features a “final girl” figure in Ana (Sarah Polley), the protagonist; however, this active, survival-motivated adult character is immediately contrasted with a corrupted child version of herself. The first agent of contagion both Ana and the viewer encounter is a gruesomely mangled neighbor girl, who violates the sanctity of domestic space when she enters Ana’s bedroom while she and her husband sleep. The use of a young girl, fashioned as grisly embodiment of the spreading infection, speaks clearly to Barbara Creed’s Freudian-based concept of the “monstrous-feminine” that threatens the security of an ordered adult world.

Hiott goes on to site  Creed saying that “this invasion initiates a threat to the sovereignty of patriarchal institutions by highlighting “the fragility of the symbolic order.”. To strengthen that notion, Ana escapes the confines of her suburban nightmare and eventually finds herself in the iconic shopping mall where the survivors spend a vast majority of the film. Later on Ana, now the leader of the pack with Kenneth, also takes it upon herself to end the life of the newborn zombie child that a survivor gave birth to. This  gruesome scene shows Ana abandoning a traditional role of maternal instincts in favor of survival, and also acts as a bookend to a dangerous example of a male’s presumed dominance over a woman’s body as the mother to the zombie child, a Russian woman named Luda, was tied and held up as she slowly succumbed to the virus while the father of the child, Andre, ushered in the baby girl.

Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo in 300
Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo in 300

Snyder’s next work, 300 is  a bit more controversial to look at especially given our undying love for the film and all of Zack’s works, so, to help us we looked to Sarah VanDyk who has extensive experience in the field of human relations as well as being an advocate for women’s rights.
“My first thought was that this film would be rife with feminist leanings. After all, Spartan women enjoyed a level of rights and opportunity that was almost unfathomable in the ancient world. While it’s true that the film’s female lead, Queen Gorgo, shows an impressive amount of personal strength and a mastery of all of her innate “feminine” emotions, it is hard to miss that all of the power she has is completely contingent upon men.”
VanDyck continued:

“One of the most poignant examples comes at the very beginning of the film when the Persian ambassador questions the Queen’s right to speak amongst men. Her defense for being there is ‘Because Spartan women are the only ones who give birth to real men.’
This was the line that hooked me on the movie. “Eat shit Persian!” was what I interpreted her as saying. I thought to myself, ‘Here is a Queen who doesn’t fuck around.’”
“However, it is easy to forget that what Queen Gorgo reveals with that line is essentially “The ability of my uterus to produce male humans is what gives me the right to speak here.” If you take away her uterus, you take away her right to be heard. That to me is one of the most anti-feminist ideas women ever encounter.”

While Sarah raises a very good point above in that, at a glance, the line could read as demeaning it is important to remember that, as Sarah mentioned previously “Spartan women enjoyed a level of rights and opportunity that was almost unfathomable in the ancient world,” including but not limited to essential dominance over their household and their men. In Sparta, women owned more than a third of the land, they were raised on good education as well as athleticism and training, and essentially were the sole tool in the raising of their children. Spartan men were gone to war and tours of duty quite frequently, and the women would not only take care of nearly every facet of Spartan life outside military affairs, but raise the children until the age of 7.
The line in question, to me, is less of a derogatory one but more of “We create, and raise, these children who grow up to be the unstoppable killing machines that your King is so terrified of”, raising Spartan women above the rest as both parents and influences.

Theron (Dominic West) sexually assaults Gorgo (Lena Headey) in 300
Theron (Dominic West) sexually assaults Gorgo (Lena Headey) in 300

Gorgo then goes on to submit herself sexually to the corrupt politician Theron who claims quite boldly that he “owns the Council” in hopes to send reinforcements to her husband, as well as giving Sparta a fighting chance against the sea of death otherwise known as Xerxes’ forces who threaten their very way of life. Gorgo willingly uses her body, knowing that despite being the Queen, her voice is of no use to the elders of the council who refuse to go to war on the grounds of tradition, the festival known as the Carneia. This is a very bold move that actively shows Gorgo manipulating a man and then, after he has manipulated and humiliated her before the council, murders him spilling his blood, and marked gold of Xerxes. This shocks the council who then listen and accept her deceleration of war.
Obviously the phallic nature and irony coming into play that after Theron has sexually used her, she penetrates him in the same way. “This will not be over quickly. You will not enjoy this. I am not your Queen.” She whispers to him, mocking his predatory threats to her earlier during the aforementioned sexual encounter. She then gives a rousing speech to the Council:

I am not here to represent Leonidas; his actions speak louder than my words ever could. I am here for all those voices which cannot be heard: mothers, daughters, fathers, sons – three hundred families that bleed for our rights, and for the very principles this room was built upon. We are at war, gentlemen. We must send the entire Spartan army to aid our king in the preservation of not just ourselves, but of our children. Send the army for the preservation of liberty. Send it for justice. Send it for law and order. Send it for reason. But most importantly, send our army for hope – hope that a king and his men have not been wasted to the pages of history – that their courage bonds us together, that we are made stronger by their actions, and that your choices today reflect their bravery.

Gorgo’s actions fully realize the seed that was planted earlier in the film about the archaic and patriarchal traditions Sparta participates in when Leonidas reluctantly goes to ask the Ephors for permission to go to war. The disgusting, physically and mentally sick creatures who fancy themselves to be wise-men are nothing more than leeches who sexual abuse and drug a young Spartan woman, “The Oracle” into giving them “answers”, to which they (also bribed) tell Leonidas he may not spill blood during the Carneia and even he, The King of Sparta, does not trust them. This is two affronts to an established society and male dominated society, showcasing how backwards the customs are. The Oracle scene in question was advertised with its erotic slow motion dancing and the beautiful milky white figure of the Oracle herself, but in the film Snyder pulls the rug out from under the viewer by ending it with the Ephor running a disgusting, sand paper tongue across her mouth- immediately turning the viewers initial arousal into disgust, a message to both the film-goer and about what kind of monsters Sparta had at its lead.

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  1. Thank you for such an accurate examination of who Zack Snyder really is as a filmmaker. More annoying than the claim that he’s “style over substance” is the utterly false claim that he’s sexist and misogynist. It still baffles me that there are people who don’t trust him to handle Wonder Woman in a movie simply because of their superficial analysis of what he did with Sucker Punch and his other previous movies. I for one would never trust anyone more than him to handle a female character in an action movie and make sure that she’s well-rounded, fully-dimensional, and more than just a sexy fighter. But what’s even better is that he doesn’t just create or film great female characters, he creatively involves them in the story in a way where we can have discussions and interpretations of what she or they represent beyond their involvement in the movie. His female characters transcend his stories, and I can’t think of a better way to handle female characters than that. So plainly put all the haters can suck it because he truly knows what he’s doing.

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