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The Women Of Conan The Barbarian, Better Than You Might Think

I’ll be honest, the only reason I was going to see the recent reboot of Conan the Barbarian was for its star Jason Momoa. Thanks to his time on HBO’s Game of Thrones, he’s now someone I follow (not in a creepy way). I wasn’t really a fan of the 1982 Conan and I had no illusions the film would be anything but a male-pandering, bloody escapade with lots of bared breasts. What I was surprised to find out was it was an excellent depiction of strong female characters. And lots of bared breasts. 

Conan was created by writer Robert E. Howard in 1932 and featured in a series of fantasy stories in Weird Tales magazine. The character – a Cimmerian, son of the village blacksmith – lives to seek revenge on a conquering war lord but spends most of his time getting into fights and sleeping with tavern wenches. In that regard, the modern take is precisely the same with two standouts.

Rachel Nichols character Tamara is depicted in the film as a “pure blood.” One’s thoughts immediately jump to “typical virgin sacrifice character” but this is actually not the case. In fact, Tamara is a student at a monastery who is the pure blood decedent of the sorcerers of Acheron. The bad guy, Khalar Zym, needs her blood in order to release their ancient power for his nefarious purposes. Ok, fair enough, but Tamara is far from a helpless damsel, which is a delight to see. She’s not a trained warrior with expert moves either but she does know a few and defends herself when she needs to instead of shrinking into a corner and waiting for a man to come and save her. And she does this on several occasions throughout the film. She even winds up saving Conan’s life a few times.

Rose McGowan (rumored to be playing another Howard character, Red Sonja, for some time) plays Marique in the film. She’s the sorceress daughter of Khalar Zym and while she yearns for her father’s attention and approval, is really the one with all the power. If not for her, Zym would never have found the pieces of the puzzle he was looking for. In fact, he would probably have bit it early in the film if it wasn’t for Marique using her sorcery to beat Conan in their fight. Even as a child she looked like someone you wouldn’t want to mess with.

Is Conan perfect in its depictions of women? Unfortunately no. At one point, Tamara is tied up and gagged by Conan for attempting to run away and talking too much. This actually stick out as an eye sore in a film where the females, including Conan’s own mother, are incredibly independent. There are still those nameless, half-naked slaves/wenches who are there for the taking. None are taken by force but yes, their only reason for existing is for the main character to have sex with, though we never see this happen on screen. Conan’s only on screen sexual liason is with Tamara. She isn’t “taken” by him either but seeks him out and he’s the one who gets left alone in bed the morning after.

Although I don’t consider Conan a great film and it played out pretty much how I expected to, I really was happily surprised by their depictions of their major female characters. That was certainly not something I was expecting. Are feminists going to flock to see the movie? Certainly not, but in my mind, it’s at least a positive example to point to of how women can and should be shown on screen.

If you want to see for yourself though, the movie is out on blu-ray and DVD on November, 22.

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  • Francesca M

    Sorry.. Momoa made that rape joke.. no bueno.

  • Darwayne Michael Coburn III

    Its how that time period was and how it is shown even in the old Conan movie and in the books. That’s how it was. Lets remember women did not get to vote til 1920 in America. So do not get all bent up about how women are shown in that movie. As for Conan tieing her up and gagging her Think of his mentality of that period Its perfect for his character. If I was raised in that time period I would have done the same. You can not go into this movie thinking with a 20th Century mentality.   

  • Foo

    This is not representative of any period in history.  This is not a historical document, sir. 

  • Anonymous

    By the way, in America women might not have voted until 1920, but if we are gonna speak about History, I’d like to remind you that Celtic women were trained along with men since young girls, in weaponry, fight, crafts of all kinds, religion, hunting and surviving in different ways. They were also remarkable tactician and leaders of their clans.
    And as Foo mentions above, Conan is not based in any historical period. It’s a fictional character of a fictional word

  • Gabriela Alonso

    Conan tying and gagging Tamara has more to do with the character of Conan than with the time period. Keep in mind that he’s no knight in shinning armor. He’s a pirate and a thief. And he’s set on a quest to track down and kill his father’s killer. At that point of the story he sees her as merely a means to achieve said goal. He treats her no differently from what he would treat a man.
    I liked the way both female characters were portrayed. Neither of them was extremely sexualized (a la Michael Bay) and they both seemed believable.

  •!/haversam [A]

    I love it when americans try to joke in spanish using literal translations. Actually….I kinda hate it.

  • Anonymous

  • Anonymous

    Wow, if you think the female characters in this film were surprisingly strong, wait till you read the original stories. The Conan stories have some kickass female leads who do more than just sit there and look pretty.

    There’s Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, who was the closest anyone – male or female – comes to being Conan’s equal: “stronger than the average man, and far quicker and more ferocious,” who “brought into action a finesse of swordplay that dazzled and bewildered her antagonists before it slew them,” “the equal of any man in the rigging of a ship or on the sheer face of a cliff,” “whose deeds are celebrated in song and ballad wherever seafarers gather,” who commanded ships of her own, who no living man could disarm with his bare hands, who “had proved her reckless courage a thousand times in wild battles on sea and land, on the blood-slippery decks of burning war ships, in the storming of walled cities, and on the trampled sandy beaches where the desperate men of the Red Brotherhood bathed their knives in one another’s blood in their fights for leadership.” 

    Conan knew that “if he came any nearer her sword would be sheathed in his heart” and that “he had seen Valeria kill too many men in border forays and tavern brawls to have any illusions about her.” After the nightmare with the dragon, “her buoyant self-confidence began to thaw out again,” and “there was a swagger in her stride as she moved off beside the Cimmerian. Whatever perils lay ahead of them, their foes would be men. And Valeria of the Red Brotherhood had never seen the face of the man she feared.” While it’s nice they made an attempt with Tamara, she can’t hold a candle to Valeria, or Belit, or many of the other women of Conan (not all of whom become Conan’s women, despite the popular stereotype of women serving as nothing but Conan’s chewtoys).  Even the damsels in distress have more spunk: Sancha in “The Pool of the Black One,” Olivia in “Iron Shadows in the Moon” and Zenobia in “The Hour of the Dragon” actually save Conan’s life at key moments through their intervention, taking action on their own initiative despite not being kickass warrior-women or confident nobles.  Better than can be said for many pulp dames.

    The same goes for Howard’s female villains. In this film, Marique is the Evil-Lyn to Khalar’s Skeletor, in that she’s more or less the top henchman, not the true villain: she might have all the power, but she’s still subordinate to a man despite being more powerful and more crucial to the plot. When Howard wrote female villains, they were almost always the primary antagonists, rather than the typical henchman of the main bad guy: Salome, Thalis and Tascela were mistresses of their domain, and Akivasha may not have been the primary villain of the story in which she appears, but neither is she in any way the subordinate of the big evil.  In case you mistake this for some sort of vendetta against women readers, Howard wrote strong female rulers in Yasmina, Taramis and Yasmela, all of whom are portrayed just as competent as their male counterparts.

    But the best of Howard’s females by far are those of his historical tales: Dark Agnes in particular reads almost as if it was written by a rabid feminist.  Seriously, everyone on Mary Sue should read “Sword Woman,” “Blades for France” and “Mistress of Death” (they’re all collected in “Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures” by Del Rey, which also includes Red Sonya – not to be confused with Red Sonja, a pale imitation of a kickass female who could give Brienne a run for her money – in “The Shadow of the Vulture”), you’d love them.

    Regarding the rest of the film, it should be kept in mind that the whole “quest for revenge against the conquering warlord who murdered his parent(s) and wiped out his tribe” was invented in the 1982 film, and nowhere to be found in the original stories. It’s pretty engrained in popular consciousness by now, which is pretty irritating when the new film decides to go with that instead of an actual adaptation of an actual Conan story.  Not to mention neither Tamara or Marique, or any of the characters in the film aside from Conan himself, are anywhere in the stories.  Kind of like making a Lord of the Rings adaptation where Frodo Baggins has to slay the evil dragon Gorgalok with the help of the wizard Valkar by using the One Ring.

  • Anonymous

    It should be pointed out that one of the things adaptations always miss is that Conan treats women well in comparison to civilized men.  He comes from an egalitarian barbarian society where the women fought alongside the men, half their pantheon consisted of war-goddesses, and even his own mother gave birth to him in the middle of a battle.  Part of the reason he’s so disdainful of civilized women is because they don’t measure up to the barbarian women he’s known, though when they do (like Belit or Valeria) he’s certainly appreciative of their independence and spirit.

    In this film, Conan treats the heroine the worst out of any of the male characters.  It is, how you say… bullshit.

  • Anonymous

  • Anonymous

  • Anonymous

  • Francesca M

    I’m Cuban-American.

    I kinda hate people who comment just to be jerks.

  • Peter Vervloet

    And then there was Zelata, a witch capable of communicating with animals, whose wolf helped Conan beat four Nemedian soldiers in Hour of the Dragon. Perhaps not physically strong, but capable in her own way.

    I’m kind of surprised how poorly researched this article is in the sense that it indeed only references the Schwarzenegger films rather than the books while at the same time boldly claiming the books were exactly the same as the 80s films, that… quite frankly, is spreading misinformation.

  • Anonymous

    This was an article about the women in the new Conan film, not the past stories. And I did reference the books you’ll notice but again, this was not about Conan as a whole, just the new film. Thanks for reading.

  • Peter Vervloet

    Granted, but it is (in my opinion) hard to do a piece about a (very liberal) reinterpretation of a book without referencing the original work in at least some detail. Or at least bringing up some of the previously mentioned strong women from the original books as they easily could, and perhaps should have been in the new film.

    But that said, I do appreciate that you brought these two ladies to our attention as it has caused me to reconsider being more fair to the new film, so thanks for that.