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Literature Review

Active Passive: How does the Conan the Barbarian (1982) being a fantasy work, depict and challenge gender roles?


This literature review aims to examine the various works around the gender roles in John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian (1982), yet because of the gender roles within the reel world as within the universe. The review conjointly makes a shot to focus on the hassle of the movie to place a “female” in the equally powerful role if not the lead. “At the time of its release, Conan the Barbarian was the logical product of nearly a century of orientalist fantasy”- (Hardy, 2019: 62)


The review is split into three components for comprehensive analysis; the primary half (Active-Passive) examines the main male and feminine characters of the flick i.e. Conan and Valeria. The second half (Setting the Stage) examines how the flick paved a path for the long-run works of fantasy and S&S Genre, and the third half (The Father of Conan) investigates the first author Robert E. Howard W.R.T. his most noted created character-Conan. In the seven times, Mr. Olympia Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Conan whereas Sandahl Bergman compete for the character of Valeria. The Characters are referred to as Conan and Valeria in numerous sources and this review from here on.

“If someone says that Conan the Barbarian was a good movie, you may ask why he thinks so. The answer must be some account of the qualities of the movie that support that critical judgment. Those reasons can be examined, weighed, and in this case almost certainly found wanting.” (Rachel, 2007:232)


There is an antique norm of males being active whereas females are passive members of society. However, the flick may be a solid necromancy fantasy movie; it touched the sensitive strings of society throughout its time. For the first time, the feminine within the flick was not a ‘helpless, good for nothing person heavily relied on the male lead’. “Valeria is a woman of movement. She is best, she is the master of the sword”- (Sandahl Bergman, one among the interviews for Conan the Barbarian- “The organization of gender roles habitually seen in action cinema is reassuring in that it upholds the traditional male/active, female/passive dichotomy. Men can feel safe in their role of deliverer, and women can be comforted by the knowledge that they will be protected.” (Wright, 2012: 402)

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in gazing has been split between active/male and passive/female. The crucial male gaze forecasts its fantasy onto the feminine figure, which is titled consequently. In their ancient exhibitionist roles, women were checked out and displayed for their look coded for sturdy visual and sexy impact so they would be same to connote to-be checked out.

Cohan and Hark criticize film theory for this equation of the male with activity and therefore the feminine with passivity, and so the character of Valeria is not designed to be checked out for ‘passive’ feminine options.

Yes, Valeria and different feminine characters in Conan (such as King Osric’s perverse blue-blood daughter) conjointly show a substantial quantity of skin; however, they neither dance nor portray the ‘buxom helpless damsels’ of the peplum. Still, from her debut, we tend to understand Valeria as the ‘freelance’ hero until the end. She conjointly carries a weapon (somewhat Smaller than Conan’s blade and matching her slender appearance) and is in a position to climb, run, ride, and fight even as well because of the male protagonists. “Violence and nostalgia are common tropes of the New Hollywood movement to which Milius belonged.”- (Leotta, 2018: 70)

Her gear is additionally more civilized than Conan’s; however, the materials square measure similar: rough metal and animal skin straps, very little armor, and no superfluous ornamentation. Valeria guarantees Conan to return from hell if she were dead and he requires her that show her determination. This promise she is going to eventually keep when her death, once Conan battles Thulsa Doom’s warriors. Eventually within the battle, Conan stumbles and falls: an instant one among his enemies would possibly profit off.

The depiction of the feminine protagonist as a helper of the male leading figure is not uncommon in journey films, but here Valeria takes the lead and takes a dominant position not possible in earlier productions. In line with Neale – the portrayal of muliebrity in movies is problematic; but, this position, originating in an earlier era of flicks, does not appear to use Conan, though it had already been recorded.

Valeria does not match this description in the least. The romance she has with Conan would be a fellow male hero.

All of Conan’s attributes are exaggerated: his speech and behavior are harsh; his weapon system is extra-large (naturally conjointly functioning as a logo of masculinity); and no matter the ornament he dons is hyperbolically rough and unsophisticated. Withal, Conan ne’er seems wild, savage, or in real-time dangerous. He is a fierce enemy; however, he includes a code of honor that makes him likable enough. Therefore, his attractiveness is pushed to the boundaries by reducing the civilized components of his character to a minimum and at a similar time maximizing the ‘rough’ aspects of masculinity. “Starting in the 1980s the peplum hero is vulnerable both psychically and physically.” (Rushing, 2016: 103)

Conan is about in stark distinction to the characters of the Italian peplum or the yank ‘spectacular.’ In these genres, the male hero employs his bodily strength (and wits) to understand ideals bigger than he will. “He never fully swears himself to any cause but rather seeks calculated vengeance and opportunities that lead to personal wealth.”- (Flanagan, 2011: 100)

These square measure ideals of leadership, sacrifice, justice, romance, or other human qualities, which will be symbolized by the attributes of his body, weaponry, and so on. Conan is completely very different, using body, strength, and determination (not essentially wits) for his or her own sake. the sole exterior feature that shapes his temperament is the origin of his motivation, specifically the deeds of his enemies or friends, that causes him to hate, befriend, or love the folks he encounters, reckoning on the motivation behind and effects of their actions. “Masculinity, whether in terms of ideology, gender politics or sheer spectacle, is central to discussions of the peplum.”- (O’Brien 2012: 29)

Otherwise, Conan is driven by intense egocentrism. He is even masculine just for his own sake, one would possibly say, as his options set him apart except for all different men. “Conan is not an altruist; he is a solipsist.”- (Falkof, 2012: 109)

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Setting the Stage

All of the foremost qualities that highlight the newly established distribution of gender roles – the mortal as the protagonist, the sturdy body reference (i.e. personal attributes), the social references (i.e. cluster attributes), and material references (i.e. item attributes) – would seem and re-emerge in future works of the S&S genre. “In S&S, the role models generally change due to the overwhelming domination of both sexes by the male principle: both men and women may equally fill the role of the merciless warrior.”- (Ipsen, 2012: 04)

The following things and characteristics so became canonical: the large, super-sized sword; the muscle-packed body of the male protagonist and the equally grammatical body of his feminine partner, evincing a match in strength; exotic gear (leather-strapped consumer goods, visible skin); and the ‘quest’ to be consummated. Notably, the attainable absence of a romantic affair characterizes the gender roles, too. Within the 1984 sequel, Conan still seeks his Valeria, not desirous to become involved with the other girls. nearly all S&S follow-ups on the massive screen have followed the Conan pattern, representational process heroes with massive swords and muscle-packed bodies, supernatural appearances associated with dark magic, a search leading the hero through associate degree Arcadian and/or apocalyptic landscape, and a decorative art form. Also, “To avoid one-sidedness and partial vision, one should learn how to employ a variety of perspectives and interpretations in the service of knowledge”- (Kellner, 1998: 21)

Semiotically, Conan resembles the installment of an associate degree experiential object, or a part of a film expertise horizon, that became the initial sign to be derived thenceforth.

To conclude, firstly, post-Conan works have similarities with the enduring illustration of Conan: muscles, animal skin gear, big swords, explicit plots, and subplots, explicit settings, imaginations of antediluvian worlds, and so on, clear purpose towards Conan the Barbarian.

Secondly, after Conan, it was impractical to make an S&S movie while not referencing – by choice or not – the instruction of Conan. Additionally, to simulate Conan, S&S as a genre likewise as every individual piece of S&S art so purpose toward Conan as their purpose of aesthetic origin. Conan set standards within the genre.

Thirdly, and most curiously, Conan made a group of symbols that are the most attention-grabbing considering gender roles. In post-Conan S&S, a return to the once-mounted gender roles was not possible. Each, of the weaknesses and the strengths of the gender roles would forever be shared equally between the sexes. Weapons would not be signs for men only; masculinity and femininity intrinsically were modified within the context of journey films. Thus, Conan and Valeria became the prototypes for brand-spanking new masculine and feminine.

The father of Conan

Robert E. Howard, also known as the father of Modern Fantasy, was a pulp fiction writer. He was obsessed with his Irish heritage, “many of the scholarly texts about Howard describe his obsession with his Irish heritage.”- (Dowd, 2016: 16)

“Some mechanism in my subconsciousness took the dominant characteristics of various prize-fighters, gunmen, bootleggers, oil field bullies, gamblers, and honest workmen I had come in contact with, and combining them all produced the amalgamation I call Conan the Cimmerian”- (Van Duinen, 2016: 340)

Three-quarters of a century after his death, Robert E. Howard has finally stepped out of the shadow of his most notable creation, Conan the Cimmerian, and is rising at his rightful place, that of a start father of the Fantasy genre, rivaled solely by J.R.R. Tolkien in terms of importance and influence. Fifty years of editorial abuse could not check the grim Cimmerian’s vitality and forestall Henry Martyn Robert E. Howard from eventually earning the long-overdue recognition he merited. “In all versions, the background of Conan is the pseudo mythical Hyborian Age character created in the 1930s by pulp writer Robert Howard, even if the live-action TV serial uses backgrounds and toponyms that are unknown to the Howard universe.”- (Bertetti, 2014: 2347)

In the summer of 1930, Wright declared his intention of launching a replacement magazine managing ‘‘tales of the Orient.’’ something east of the Yankee coast was deemed oriental enough, however, Wright had a particular request for Howard. He had been quite affected by a number of the Texan’s recent tales combining the Fantasy component with a historical (or pseudo-historical) setting. Howard’s vision of History was a red and somber one. His selection of protagonists were exiled or broken men. Also, “In 1955, L. Sprague de Camp published a posthumous collaboration with Howard titled Tales of Conan.”- (Look, 2012: 93)

In tales like ‘‘Red Nails’’ and ‘‘Beyond the Black Watercourse,’’ Howard’s pessimism way transcends any wool gatherer price one could realize within the texts. The latter is commonly cited as Howard’s most satisfying Conan tale. In this thinly disguised tale of Yank pioneers and wronged Indians, the purportedly irresistible and unbeatable barbarian is outwitted and captured by the savage Picts. He can eventually manage to flee, however, the many men and women he has solidified his ton with will not be therefore lucky. Few are the writers of Fantasy stories who succeeded in mingling Fantasy and realism with such mastery. The story may be a masterpiece as a result of Howard’s refusal to resort to pulp conventions and carry his grim gap plight through to its bitter conclusion: ‘‘Barbarism is that the state of humans… Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. Moreover, inhumanity should always ultimately triumph. For readers who had been fed with the illusion that every girl is lovely during the Hyborian Age empty of philosophical puzzles, the jolt must have been a violent one, indeed.

It was so with the Conan stories that Howard ensured his literary gift. By their terrible nature, these transcend the genres they are derived from, whether or not Western, history, or high-adventure. By displacing them from their historical context and cloaking them with a Hyborian color, Howard gave them a Catholicity they would not have had in another kind. They became unchanged.

Almost eighty years later, the character has achieved international fame. The stories are revealed in nearly every country and language within the world. One success resulted in another, the character spawned several derivations and embarrassing illegitimate children: he was featured in major motion photos, many comic books, cartoons, pastiches, TV series, toys, and role-playing games. within the method, Howard’s creation has been diluted to the purpose that it’s typically nearly possible to acknowledge the initial character within the picture image of the semi-illiterate, fur-clad, super-hero he has become within the public’s mind. “The Conan stories are thus not about the character himself, but about the events that his arrival set in motion, acting as a catalyst.”- (Louinet, 2011: 169)


The movie was the initiation to break the stereotypical norm of what a woman can do and what a man can do. The character of Valeria is equally exerted in the movie if not more. The modern woman can be seen as Valeria, she walks equally with men in each sphere of life. Conan the Barbarian became a role model for future projects in the fantasy genre. Today, we see the female leads in real life as well as in real life, all thanks to the efforts of Valeria. Lastly, Robert E. Howard looked ahead of his times and created characters that were not orthodox heroes. This helped tons in shaping the writing in modern times, with no rigid norm that men will always be active and women will always be passive.


I would like to approach my essay using the same theme of Gender roles with an extension to race, masculinity, character engagement, narration, semiotics, politics, cultural relevance, and ideology. During my research themes I found very interesting are the masculinity, ideologies, and transmedia characters (Ipsen, Rushing, and Bertetti), also the politics and ideology of the modern Hollywood era (Kellner). I have various unique ideas about these themes that I would add to my essay. I plan to make a blend of my ideas with those I have researched; this will produce a bright presentation of ‘gender roles’ in Conan the Barbarian.

The parts I would want to focus on include the climax scene as well as the opening sequence, the scene where Conan meets Valeria, and how Valeria helps Conan when Conan being a barbarian tries to learn the civilized ways squatting down for hours. I will pay close attention to the dialogue where preconceived gender roles are challenged and it is frequently done in the movie. I also intend to note down how the character of Conan as a man develops, the different stages of Conan from the start to the climax bind the audience.


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  2. Falkof, N. (2012). Arnold at the Gates: Subverting star persona in Conan the barbarian. In: J. Prida, 1st ed., Conan Meets the Academy: Multidisciplinary Essays on the Enduring Barbarian. McFarland & Company, ch.2, pp. 104-123
  3. Ipsen. G. (2012). Conan the Blueprint, The Construction of Masculine Prototypes in Genre Films. In: K. Ross, 1st ed., The Handbook of Gender, Sex, and Media. John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
  4. Van Duinen, J. (2016). Robert E. Howard, the American Frontier, and Borderlands in the Stories of Conan the Barbarian. Extrapolation,57(3), Charles Sturt University. pp. 339 – 353.
  5. Rushing, R. A. (2016) Skin Flicks: Haptic Ideology in the Peplum Film, Cinema Journal, 56(1), pp. 88-110
  6. Bertetti, P. (2014). Toward a Typology of Transmedia Characters, International Journal of Communication, vol. 8, University of Southern California, pp. 2344–2361.
  7. Hardy, M. (2019) Conan the Constructor: Building Eastern Worlds in Fantasy Film, Fastitocalon, vol. 8(1-2), pp. 61-73
  8. Dowd, C. (2016). The Irish American Identities of Robert E. Howard and Conan the Barbarian. New Hibernia Review, Vol. 20, No. 2, Center for Irish Studies at the University of St. Thomas, pp. 15-34.
  9. Wright, A. (2012) A Sheep in Wolf`s Clothing? The Problematic Representation of Women and The Female Body in 1980s Sword and Sorcery Cinema. Journal of Gender Studies, 21(4), Routledge, 401-411.
  10. Kellner, D., Ryan, M. (1988) Camera Politica: Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film
  11. O`Brien, D.P. (2012). Heroic Masculinities: Evolution and Hybridization in the Peplum Genre., University of Southampton, Faculty of Humanities Film, PhD, ch.5, pp. 193-228.
  12. Leotta, A. (2018). The cinema of John Milius. Lexington, pp. 70-79.
  13. Louinet, P. (2011). Robert E. Howard, Founding Father of Modern Fantasy for the First Time Again., Contemporary French and Francophone Studies, 15(2), Taylor & Francis (Routledge). pp. 163–170.
  14. Look, D.M. (2012). Statistics in the Hyborian Age: An Introduction to Stylometry via Conan the Barbarian, In J. Prida, 1st ed., Conan Meets the Academy: Multidisciplinary Essays on the Enduring Barbarian, McFarland & Company, ch.1, pp. 92-103
  15. Flanagan, K. M. (2011) “Civilization…ancient and wicked” Historicizing the Ideological Field of 1980s Sword and Sorcery Films, in Of Muscles And Med: Essays On The Sword And Sandal Film, ed. Michael G. Cornelius, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, pp. 87-103.

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