Since I now no longer have a job and am regularly plagued by bouts of ill-health, I’ve been spending a lot of time recently sitting around watching TV and films whilst recuperating from various illnesses. So I figured, why not blog about them? Let’s start with Conan the Barbarian (2011), which is by far the silliest movie I have ever seen.
Conan movies have already been done, of course, but Hollywood has apparently run dry the well of original ideas and is instead stuck in an endless loop of remakes and “reimaginings”. Why write something new when you can just rip off an established formula? The 2011 Conan remake stars Jason Momoa, Jason Momoa’s pecs, Ron Perlman (for about half an hour), Nonso Anozie, Stephen Lang, Rachel Nichols and Rose McGowan with her eyebrows shaved off, because Weird Villains always shave off their eyebrows (see also: Grima Wormtongue, LOTR).
I have a bit of a soft spot for Jason Momoa, because I liked him in Stargate: Atlantis, where he played the character Ronan Dex. He was also in Game of Thrones as Khal Drogo at around the same time he did Conan, so let’s hope he doesn’t get typecast as Scary Barbarian Dude forever:
Let’s start at the beginning of Conan the Barbarian, with Conan’s Dead Mum. Plenty of fictional mums are Dead Mums, obviously. Some die during the hero’s childhood, but some Dead Mums go further in their deadness and die in childbirth. Hardcore! Conan’s mum, however, is not content to do Dead Mom-hood by halves and actually manages to die before Conan is born. For some inexplicable reason she goes onto a battlefield heavily pregnant and gets stabbed in the uterus, at which point Conan’s dad (Ron Perlman) performs an emergency C-section with a dagger and lo! Conan is dragged into the world and placed in his dying mother’s arms. Now that’s how you do Dead Mum!
Next we see some of Conan’s childhood, presumably to show how kickass Conan is even as a child and also to pad out the part of the movie where Ron Perlman is still alive. Tragedy strikes when Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) invades Conan’s village and kills everyone. Conan and his father say a touching goodbye in a burning building because in fantasy land there’s no such thing as smoke inhalation. This is a movie about men and manliness, so naturally this father-son bonding is super-important, since it’s the only emotional depth men are allowed to display. Then Conan’s dad pours molten steel onto himself and dies.
Half an hour into the movie and we finally get to see Jason Momoa in his manly skirt and very little else, because
barbarians don’t wear clothes. Conan by this point has acquired a Black Best Friend, Artus (Nonso Anozie) who I think is supposed to be a pirate or something. Anozie was born in Lincoln and in real life has a rather posh British accent, but for this movie he does a Nigerian accent. I’m assuming this is to emphasise how ~Foreign~ and ~Exotic~ Artus is. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.
Now we get a scene where Conan and Artus (two POC) save a group of mostly-White slaves from some Offensive Arab Caricature slave-traders. But wait! They’re just white actors dressed to look like Offensive Arab Caricatures, so it’s totally not racist! It’s like a bizarre hybrid love-child of cultural appropriation and racism, like those gross stereotypical hallowe’en costumes. STAY CLASSY, HOLLYWOOD!
Conan and Artus rescue the slaves, including a cage full of topless women. Yes, this is a real thing that happens in the movie. In case you ever doubted that this entire movie is one extended male fantasy, this scene will put those doubts to rest forever. The topless women are overcome with desire at the mere sight of Conan’s manly prowess, and afterwards beg him to take them all out to a bar. None of them seem to have names and none of them put any clothes on. Of course in real life there are some cultures where women don’t habitually cover their chests, usually because of the local climate, so is this a loving, thoughtful homage to such cultures? Or an attempt to demystify the female form? HAHAHAHAHAHA don’t be silly. These slim, White, conventionally attractive women are topless because that’s the kind of nerdy-White-guy fantasy this film caters to. STAY CLASSY, HOLLYW–ppffft, forget it.
CUT TO Tamara (Rachel Nichols), the film’s female lead, who lives in Shaipur Monastery, a place that looks like some clueless White people helped themselves to everything in sight at the cultural appropriation buffet. The monastery itself is clearly based on Buddhist monks and monasteries, but the architecture inside looks vaguely Greco-Roman and the aging White dude who’s apparently in charge of the place is smoking a sheesha pipe. Khalar Zym attacks the monastery to kidnap Tamara, because she is the last “pureblood” descendant of an ancient family of necromancers and her blood will reactivate Zym’s necromancer helmet McGuffin. Or something. At first it seems like there’s no Asian people in this ripped-off-from-Buddhism monastery, but then Zym’s forces attack and a bunch of POC Buddhist monks appear out of nowhere so that Tamara the
pretty White woman pureblood can escape. All the POC die horribly in the attack, and Tamara continues to be referred to as “the pureblood” throughout the movie because no one involved in writing this script had an ounce of self-awareness.
Tamara flees in a coach with her little knife (so spunky!) and Conan attacks the coach because PLOT. Zym’s forces also attack her, and we get a ridiculous fight/chase sequence designed to show that Tamara is not a weak, helpless woman. She stabs some guys and jumps on a horse and stuff like that, so she’s not weak, okay everyone? She’s practically feminist!
The problem here is that whilst Tamara is fighting off all these men, she does so in a way that constantly re-emphasises her femininity. She’s wearing a white dress the whole time, and frequently screams and looks scared and makes little “oh, I am a lady in pain!” noises. This is a common trap for a certain type of reluctant, every-woman action heroines, who must act terrified and traumatised throughout whatever fight they get into to remind the audience that they are delicate ladies not suited to violence, but they are bravely doing what they must despite being scared and overwhelmed. Tamara isn’t a warrior woman, ergo she is not allowed to be vicious or brutal. She can’t abandon all pretense of performative femininity for the ten minutes it takes to ruthlessly stab a few guys in the face and run away.
Tamara is the kind of female character who fits comfortably into ideas about how women “should” look and behave, and that carries with it certain restrictions and expectations surrounding how she handles herself in active situations. Whenever she exhibits strength, forcefulness, power or violence she must do so in a way that makes it clear that she’s just barely overcoming her own innate feminine weakness. She is not allowed to comfortably occupy a role of strength and agency. In this and many, many other fictional contexts, femininity is viewed like some sort of terrible, crippling disadvantage that women must exert a supreme effort to overcome. The things Tamara does in the movie aren’t really that awesome or amazing compared to what Conan and the rest of the menfolk get up to, but we are supposed to cheer her on anyway – not because she’s achieved anything objectively great, but because she managed to overcome her womanly deficiencies long enough to make herself useful. We’re supposed to applaud her victory over her innate feminine weaknesses.
In this case the victory doesn’t last long, and Tamara ends up under Conan’s protection because PLOT. Some goon with really bad fake teeth shows up to “take the pureblood”, at which point Conan calls Tamara “his possession” (yes, really). After he beats up Bad Teeth Dude he ties Tamara up to stop her running away, because leverage blah blah revenge something PLOT. Then he uses her as bait to lure out Khalar Zym and exact his manly revenge. None of this makes Tamara dislike Conan, or distrust him, or reject his ‘help’. She just sort of goes along with it because that’s what a good woman does, I guess – follow her man around and not ask questions, even questions like “why the hell are you ‘my man’ now? I don’t remember agreeing to this”.
Conan’s showdown with Khalar Zym features Zym’s daughter, Marique (Rose McGowan sans eyebrows) who is a super-powerful witch who rarely uses her witchy powers, because that makes sense, no really. This is one of the few times in the movie she actually does something magical – she makes some sand guys attack Conan and Tamara, and it’s pretty awesome, but then she never does anything like that ever again. Incidentally, Marique wins the closely-contested award for Most Ridiculous Costumes; her outfits all have a bad case of Female Armour Syndrome and despite travelling the world with her dad in a ship carried by elephants (yes, that’s a thing) she still has time to do elaborate hairstyles everyday. For… reasons. Her mother is also dead, by the way. There’s a lot of that going around in this film.
Conan fights Zym (with a bit of help from the ladies) and it goes badly blah blah, anyway the upshot is Tamara vaguely helps Conan away from the battlefield and over a conveniently placed cliff to Artus’s pirate ship. This noble act is enough for Conan to decide maybe she’s not completely useless, so cue the celebrations! Fireworks! THROW A PARTY! The mighty, manly Conan has deemed this lowly woman worthy of notice, how flattered she must be! Artus generously tells her that by “saving Conan’s life” she has earned Conan’s respect and his own, which is just a fancy way of saying that they’ll actually treat her decently now rather than carting her around like unwanted luggage.
You see, how women get treated depends entirely on how men view them. Women aren’t treated like human beings because that’s the right thing to do; they have to first earn that treatment by making themselves useful in some way. This is a film about masculinity, remember, so a lot of the messages apply in a general sense. And generally speaking, this sort of conditional treatment of women is a recurring feature of masculinity and pop culture ideas about manliness. Certain women are worth elevating to the status of “real people”, by virtue of performing some desirable function; most are still subhuman objects who deserve only to be ignored, ridiculed or abused.
This change of attitude is inexplicably endearing to Tamara, and after she helps the crew fight off some pirates (or something, I kinda missed what those guys were) she discovers that maybe she likes this barbarian lifestyle. Or maybe she just likes Jason Momoa’s pecs. Anyway the ship docks and Tamara follows Conan ashore to seduce him, and we are right in the heart of the masculinity fantasy now.
This is what this brand of masculine performance is all about; this is the male fantasy at play here. It’s the fantasy where you can live out your ‘manliness’ – not caring about the feelings of others, being aggressive and violent, treating women badly – and if you perform that type of hyper-masculinity well enough the women you treat badly will still want to sleep with you. Conan is the guy who just the day before tied Tamara up and used her as bait. But women in this film are irresistibly drawn to Conan because of his incredible manliness. Women are supposed to find this kind of hyper-masculine display attractive, so in the movie they do; so Tamara, instead of being put off by Conan’s ill-treatment of her instead finds it compelling and desirable.
After they get it on in a convenient abandoned cottage (seriously, why was that there?) Tamara gets herself captured because PLOT. The film – which up until this point had admittedly been incredibly silly – now crosses the line into the utterly ridiculous. There’s a tentacle monster. A cave in the shape of a skull. Tamara gets tied to a giant wheel. It’s so ridiculous.
Conan wants to save Tamara, so he goes to a Vaguely Arab City to find some thief guy he met earlier because blah blah PLOT. The film, unsurprisingly, is thick on the cultural appropriation, because if you’re going to populate your *barbarian* fantasy world with ~exotic fantasy cultures~, you obviously can’t base them on White European cultures. Those are far too civilised. Better to shamelessly rip-off a bunch of non-Western cultures instead. Yes, according to this film all non-Western cultures are barbaric. STAY CLASSY HOLLYW– you know what, why do I even bother? *sigh*
Out of nowhere this film then passes the Bechdel Test when Marique tells Tamara about her Dead Mum, but all this really proves is that passing the Bechdel Test doesn’t automatically mean a movie is feminist. Because Tamara then gets tied to a wheel, literally fought over by Khalar and Conan, and gets into a fight with Marique because where would this movie be without a hot girl-on-girl showdown? Marique doesn’t use any of her magic powers in this fight, which should make it pretty even, but despite her earlier ability to fight off fully-grown men with nothing but her tiny knife Tamara now struggles to take down a woman of her own size and weight. Logic clearly wasn’t even allowed in the same room as this movie script, lest some of it rub off and make the entire edifice crumble.
In the ~emotionally resonant climax~ Conan finds himself clinging to a chain to keep Tamara alive, which is just like with his dad you guys OMGOSH emotional depth so deep and meaningful. For a minute there it looks like she might get fridged, but Conan manages to throw Khalar off the bridge into the lava instead (she’s hanging off the bridge by the chain, or something, honestly I didn’t follow that closely). Conan then rides Tamara back to the ruins of her monastery which is presumably still full of the dead bodies of her friends and also kinda burned and destroyed, and then he leaves her there. So she doesn’t get fridged but she does get unceremoniously dumped. This is all part of the fantasy – Tamara is a Good Woman, sexually willing but not too clingy, disregarding the worst of Conan’s behaviour and then allowing him to ride off into the sunset without any emotional display. The male fantasy is complete.
That’s all this movie is really; one long masculinity fantasy dialed all the way up to 11. It’s an hour and a half of Jason Momoa acting out a bunch of male fantasies. The only reasons I can see to watch this movie are:
1. To laugh at the ridiculousness of it all;
2. To get a whistle-stop tour of every male fantasy currently doing the rounds; or
3. To see Jason Momoa’s butt, because you do get to see it once.
Apart from that, you might as well avoid it.