Conan the Barbarian's Female Issues
The remake keeps the damsel-in-distress trope that the rest of the fantasy genre has outgrown
Fanboys who feared that the new adaptation of Conan the Barbarian might betray its roots in favor of a brainy, multi-layered drama updated for the 21st century can rest easy. Conan the Barbarian is still a head-first dive into Robert E. Howard's Hyborian age that holds little appeal for people not already familiar with the extravagance of the swords-and-sorcery genre. Director Marcus Nispel has kept almost everything about its namesake character—the wandering, thieving, brawling, womanizing barbarian—intact, including Howard's retrograde approach to female characters.
For all their fun and epic prose, Howard's stories were still campy adolescent-male fantasies that often used women as mere plot devices or as part of Conan's reward packages, equivalent with treasure and other forms of plunder. Women needed either to be saved from some threat or aided in a quest they couldn't complete on their own. When Howard's original Conan stories were published in the early '30s, this might have been a acceptable approach to female character design, but in today's world, it feels out of touch. It's too bad, because as other recent movies and TV shows have proven, works of fantasy can portray strong women while remaining true to their own mythologies.
In a quick whirlwind exposition, we learn that there's a special necromancer's mask that grants its wearer supernatural powers. Ages ago, people apparently got sick of being bullied by necromancers and rebelled. The mask was shattered and the pieces were hidden throughout the land. When the movie begins we learn that Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) is on a mad quest to reassemble the mask so he can bring his dead wife back to life and take over the world. Unfortunately for poor pre-teen Conan, one of the pieces is in his house. So Zym arrives with his army, burns Conan's village, and kills his father, leaving our little barbarian to wander the earth in search of revenge.
Twenty years later, Zym is still searching for the mask's final component, the pure blood of Tamara (Rachel Nichols), an innocent monk trainee hiding in the mountains. Tamara is less a character than an object of play, with each side fighting to retain possession. Zym wants her blood and Conan wants Zym, so after rescuing her, he decides to take her prisoner. "She is my property now," he tells Zym's men. From then on, Tamara spends a good chunk of the movie tied up or tied to things. At one point, Zym and Conan quite literally fight over her as she lies chained to a sacrificial altar. What's especially strange about this is that despite two separate scenes in which Conan frees groups of slaves and expresses hatred for those who hold others captive, he never thinks twice about keeping Tamara under lock and chain for half the movie.
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Romance between the two inexplicably blossoms on Conan's ship where he remakes her into his vision of what a woman should be. "You look like a harlot," he tells her. "Cimmerian women dress like warriors. Give her the leather and the armor." Of course this makeover is purely aesthetic, rather than character-based. Later, in a masterful seduction, Conan looks her in the eye and declares, "I live. I love. I slay. I am content." Evidently, this is all the wooing necessary for her to give up her virginity (or implied virginity, at least: She's a monk). The two make needlessly graphic love in a cave in the shadow of his sword. Later, when Zym is defeated, Conan simply rides off, leaving Tamara behind. "I know you have to leave," she says. He probably won't even call.
Granted, the fantasy genre typically relies upon these kinds of stock roles—the damsel in the tower, the hunky knight, the sallow necromancer—but many popular modern works have made great strides in bending conventions, if not breaking them completely. While J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series has been criticized for its use (or lack) of women characters, the Peter Jackson adaptation beefed up the role of females and portrayed a few key instances of girl power. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Arwen (Liv Tyler) rescues Frodo (Elijah Wood) after he is stabbed by the Witch-King. In Return of the King, we discover that the formerly invincible Witch-King can only be felled by a woman's hand when Éowyn (Miranda Otto) delivers the killing blow (Both times I saw that part in theaters, people went wild with applause).
On television, Game of Thrones ended its first breakout season with its female characters holding almost all the cards. Take the stunning Daenerys Targaryan (Emilia Clarke). When we meet her, she's being forced by her brother to marry the barbarian king Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa, really showing some range) in exchange for an army with which he can recapture his lost kingdom. Though she starts as a bargaining chip, Daenerys slowly grows in influence to become Drogo's equal. Though she loses her husband, she is reborn even stronger, emerging unscathed from his burning funeral pyre with several newborn dragons now under her control. Badass. By contrast, Conan's only female character with any power, Zym's witch daughter Marique (Rose McGowan, almost unrecognizable), is portrayed as bisexual, physically unattractive, and having an incestuous relationship with her father. Not the most flattering portrayal, even for a villain.
Unlike the classic 1982 adaptation starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, this movie is devoid of the camp and cheesiness that gave its overblown masculinity a kind of wink-wink quality. Instead, Conan chooses to take itself far too seriously and in doing so unwittingly (we hope) makes the case that the hero's treatment of women, and their treatment of him, is something to aspire to. Rated 'M' for "Misogynist."