The Male Body and Conan the Barbarian

Men are misunderstood. Elusive masculinity has pervaded the depths of Hollywood and has been scrutinised for decades, not least following feminist critique and reaction.[1] It comes as little surprise that one of these ‘reactions’ was the stoic, silent, all-action muscle man of the 80s depicted in the peplum[2] inspired action/fantasy films which gave film careers to the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dolph Lundgren, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Sylvester Stallone – men who epitomised masculinity in all its glory or men in crisis?[3] It is the intention of this essay to critically consider some of the theorists who have written on this subject area, and apply their arguments to two primary texts. The film texts chosen are two variations of Conan the Barbarian (1982, dir. John Milius) and Marcus Nispel’s 2011 remake of the same name. The aim is to examine the male body and masculinity/masculinities depicted and to question if the twenty-nine year difference has impacted the ‘manly’ way in which Conan seeks retribution.

Yvonne Tasker in her Spectacular Bodies discusses the “simplistic embodiment of a reactionary masculine identity”[4] which can be read as either “triumphal or crisis-ridden”[5]. She states that “the central question for many critics has, consequently, become one of whether such images reassert, mourn or hysterically state a lost male power”[6]. It is not about examining the performance of masculinity in a binary forum but to consider masculinities in their multiplicity, namely the interrelation of the ‘action man’ and ‘real man’[7].

The 80s version of Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) depicts the retributive man[8] as a corporeal action-figure, his shoulder-length brown hair and blue eyes attempting to distract the viewer from his intimidating bulk and over-sized phallic sword (but failing). Any displayed femininity, in the male star, is counteracted by active aggression, attempts at objectifying the male are negated by showing, as Tasker argues “[t]he performance of a muscular masculinity [which] draws attention to both the restraint and the excess involved in ‘being a man’[9]. He is shot, often, from low camera angles to emphasise his girth. One short scene is dedicated purely to the former Mr Universe[10] flexing and posing stretching every bicep, tricep and muscle sinew whilst wielding a sword. This Conan is, I would argue, the ‘action man’ all- power no-substance; a distortion of masculinity. A performance Schwarzenegger has perfected over the years as, both, actor and politician – a not-quite believable specimen of manhood – the inflated, narcissistic, hard body.


To clarify, this ‘hard body’ is white (beneath the fake tan) and according to Richard Dyer, an example of the oppositional critique Tasker is referring to, in which he describes the subjugated male who restores patriarchal authority while legitimising white power through his hard body. “The built body connotes what it is to be white – ideal, hard, achieved, wealthy, hairless and tanned – often resembling armour”[11]. This is questionable, particularly as Conan (Jason Momoa) in the 2011 version is not white but Native Hawaiian and while not as dark-skinned as his African American counterpart  Ukafa (Bob Sapp) he is ‘other-ed’ as non-white and savage.

This Cimmerian towers at 6’ 4” and has long dark hair, he is not physically over-developed and dresses in a leather kilt (as opposed to loincloth), swaddled in red cloth and, at times, has chain-mail armour covering his left arm. The male body is not the feature of this film as Momoa is, almost, always shot in close-up from the neck up, his face filling the frame. Fight sequences are filmed in slow motion, and during these occasions Conan is objectified, shot in slow-motion for absolutely no purpose, passive to the viewer’s scopophilic gaze[12]. Some critics would describe, notably Steve Neale, Momoa’s Conan as “feminised because he is eroticised”[13] yet the female and homoerotic gazes should not be discounted. The injection of the love interest does (as with the previous Conan) seek to reassert hetero-normative sexuality this is fleeting, however, for Conan and Tamara (Rachel Nichols) discard each other and by the picture’s climax both are alone, active and in control of their own destiny.

The Conan of 2011 is the amalgam of both action and new man, one who seeks to embrace his activity and passivity in equal measure. If the body drives the ‘action man’ of the 80s then the face, it would appear, drives the ‘new man’ of the 00s. That is not to say that the battle for manhood is over, far from it, there has to be an acceptance of male power and powerlessness[14] and a general recognition of the ambivalence surrounding masculinity and femininity in the male figure or, to put in Tasker’s terms, the fusion of action/new man[15] . Hollywood must produce cinema which transgresses hegemonic masculinity and transcend the limitations placed upon the male gender to, potentially, find the new, new man if such a beast exists. 

Editor’s Note:

At the time when this piece was originally published, there were rumours surrounding Schwarzenegger returning to star in another Conan. I did not take into account The Expendables franchise in which all the ‘old boys’ came out to play, mainly due to timing, however, I would like to revisit the notion of this piece in relation to Dwayne Johnson who, in my opinion, serves both the ‘hard body’ and ‘new man’ – he is the bulk and face (at the very least it serves the people’s eyebrow). Then, there’s The Stath… neither face nor body (in the sense of peplum bulk) but ‘a hard man’ nonetheless. 

[1] R.W. Connell, Masculinities (2nd Ed) Cambridge: Routledge (2006 [1995]) p41.

[2] Peplum refers to the sub-genre created in Italian cinema of the 40s and 60s which was later adopted by Hollywood in the 80s. Michele Lagny discusses the thematic and historical context of this types of films in his article “Popular Taste: The peplum” in Richard Dyer & Ginette Vincendeau (eds) Popular European Cinema, London: Routledge 1992 pp163-180.

[3] Yvonne Tasker, Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema, London: Routledge 1996 p109.

[4] Ibid, p109.

[5] Ibid, p109.

[6] Ibid, p109.

[7] Ibid, 120.

[8] A term used in Rutherford, Jonathan “Who’s That Man?” in Rowena Chapman & Jonathan Rutherford (eds), Male Order: Unwrapping Masculinity London: Lawrence & Wishart 1988, p23.

[9] Ibid, p119.

[10] Schwarzenegger won Mr Universe in 1967 and the title of Mr Olympia seven times in his career as a bodybuilder.

[11]Richard Dyer, White, London: Routledge p146.

[12] Laura Mulvey “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975) in Sue Thornham (ed) Feminist Film Theory: A Reader Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 1999 pp277-290.

[13] Steve Neale “Masculinity as Spectacle” Screen 24 (6) (1983) pp14-15.

[14] Tasker (1996) p125.

[15] Lynne Segal’s model of a new man is one who “explores the pleasures of passivity” cited in Tasker (1996) p117.

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