I'm a huge Conan the Barbarian fan. I have comics, a video game, movies, and best of all, collections of the original pulp stories. As an aspiring sword and sorcery author, I use Conan as a plumb line to measure my hero, but I'm also aware of how harmful these stories can be. Conan stories are rife with sexism, misogyny, racism, violence, and toxic masculinity. Women in Conan stories are often helpless, submissive, and naked, good only for their lady bits, while Conan is aggressive, competitive, shirtless, and dominant. Shouldn't we just do away with this macho trash and read only Willa Cather and Margaret Atwood? Is there a way to enjoy Conan without contributing to America's toxic masculinity problem? Yes, but it requires penetrating insight into how these ideas are a problem for society and how they are purposefully misrepresented in Conan stories.
Conan premiered in the magazine Weird Tales in 1932, and is one of the oldest pop culture staples of masculine power. He pre-dates James Bond by 21 years. Conan, written from the proficient pen of pulp fiction icon Robert E. Howard, provided escapist entertainment for people who suffered loss and powerlessness in the Great Depression. The ale-swilling, hard-fighting, womanizing antihero wore many hats over his career: pirate, mercenary, thief, even king. That tradition hasn't been lost since the days of pulp fiction. Conan survives in movies, video games, and comic books, as well as Del Rey's collections of Robert E. Howard's original Conan yarns. Dark Horse comics has handled the property with a particular deftness, with writing that echoes true to Howard's original voice and lush visuals that paint Howard's Hyborian landscape in broad strokes. But what effect has this brand of entertainment had on the American psyche?
Pre-World War I America was a different place, in which Jim Crow was the law of the land, women were consigned to child-rearing and homemaking duties, and white men had hegemony over commerce and politics. While progress has been made in all of these areas, Conan's reincarnations have done nothing to update or revise the character to reflect modern sensibilities.
It seems that each time progress is made in chipping away at white male hegemony, Conan gets trotted out like a show pony of machismo. In the 1960s, during the first wave feminist movement, Conan saw a revival in pastiches and "posthumous collaborations" with other writers who worked on Howard's fragments and unfinished ideas. Frank Frazetta's dark imagining of the character for cover illustrations accentuated the violence and sexual dominance of Conan.
In the '80s, when women were breaking into the corporate world, a whole slew of hyper-macho action flicks surfaced as a backlash against feminine power. Conan was among this clutch of mega-macho men; portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, he was the ideal picture of raw, masculine power, untamed and wild.
In 2004, Dark Horse comics started a new Conan series helmed by Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord that set out ambitiously to retell all of Howard's original tales in chronological order, from Conan's early years as a brash young adventurer to his ascension to the Aquilonian throne. The series has transformed a few times over the years and has been handed off to different creative teams, but it's still chugging along strong.
In 2011, a new motion picture was made starring Jason Momoa, but it lacked critical approval. Conan hasn't had the kind of presence in cinema that James Bond has had, but his permanence in writing and comics is unrivaled.
I don't mean to suggest that Conan is the harbinger of anti-feminism, but he has always been used as part of the backlash, and he is by no means the only one. There are tons of macho heroes out there. I also don't mean to suggest that Conan stories provide only anti-feminist content and have no other value. Howard's Conan stories criticize civilization for being self-destructive, and that theme is certainly a valid discussion topic today. The problem is that Howard also had to meet market demands, which were that his stories had to be marinated in violence and oozing sex. These superficial characteristics, though tantalizing, have become as much an indispensable feature of the stories as anything else. Conan perpetuates a model of toxic masculinity.
What is "toxic masculinity"? It doesn't mean that all masculinity is toxic. Masculinity is a good thing. I recommend reading Thor: God of Thunder, paying particular attention to 'Thor the Avenger' (especially issue 12) as a prime example of healthy masculinity. But there's masculinity and there's machismo, which is an exaggerated sense of masculinity that emphasizes things like virility, dominance over women, aggressiveness, and violence. Masculinity is different from machismo, but there are a lot people who can't tell the difference. That's where "toxic masculinity" comes from.
Machismo is self-destructive. Conan tends to embody machismo, and Robert E. Howard even admitted it in one of his letters to Tevis Clyde Smith in 1932:
"My heroes grow more bastardly as the years pass… I don't know how the readers will like it. I'll bet some of them will. The average man has a secret desire to be a swaggering, drunken, fighting, raping swashbuckler."
I'm not aware of Conan ever committing rape, but he has certainly talked down to women. In a letter to his editor, Howard explained how those impulses listed above are what appeals to the reader in escapist fiction:
"A man reading [a] story about Conan, then, would feel again in the depth of his being those barbaric impulses; consequently, Conan acted as they felt they would act in similar circumstances."
Howard also noted about barbarism that
"…as near as I can learn it's a grim, bloody, ferocious and loveless condition."
Conan stories were written with the intention of creating an avatar through which the dark impulses of human kind – specifically those of masculinity – might be explored without actually committing barbaric acts. Conan himself echoes Howard's sentiments in the tale Queen of the Black Coast, where he tells Belit:
"In this world men struggle and suffer vainly, finding pleasure only in the bright madness of battle…Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content…. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content."
Here Conan admits that he's essentially living for himself, a hedonistic existence. What's so toxic about it? Well he loves being alive, and he also loves taking life away from others. He only finds pleasure in battle. Now, I'd be a hypocrite if I said that competition was bad, since my years of martial arts and Magic: the Gathering have certainly been competitive. But there's healthy competition and then there's ruthless aggression. Conan lives for the slaughter, so ruthless aggression has brought out something ugly in him.
The "love" he refers to is really just sexual passion. Conan was never interested in settling down. Even in the novel Hour of the Dragon, he promises a slave girl that she'll become his queen, but that's no guarantee it will actually happen. Most of Howard's original tales ended with some girl in his arms who was not there at the start of the next story. He's a womanizer; there's no getting around it.
Like most men who are consumed with machismo, Conan is trying to avoid something. The opening passage of The Phoenix on the Sword, called "The Nemedian Chronicles", mentions that Conan has "gigantic melancholies." Conan remembers Cimmeria, as the first line of Howard's poem Cimmeria suggests. The land of Conan's birth is a dark, awful place, and Conan never returns there, at least in Howard's tales. We don't know what awful memories he has of Cimmeria, but based on what he tells Belit (quoted above), we can see that Conan's goal is to destroy himself with a frenetic lifestyle. He just wants to eat and drink, fight and fuck, and ultimately die. He's running from some kind of pain, and he either refuses to face it or doesn't understand how to face it. I suspect it's the latter because Conan has never run from any other problem before, so he probably isn't aware he even has a problem. That's one of the drawbacks of not being emotionally healthy.
As I said before, masculinity isn't a bad thing, but Conan is the example of the wrong way to be manly while a good example of manliness can be found in Thor: God of Thunder. Conan is still lots of fun to read with its spooky monsters, electric fight scenes, and steamy sex. So how do we defend liking Conan to someone who criticizes its toxic elements like I just did? The best way to justify liking this material is to recognize that it's not just the magic, monsters, and Conan's seeming invincibility in combat that make it fantastical, but the way the story rewards Conan for living a destructive lifestyle. In real life, macho guys get into fights, go to jail, have child support payments, and are unable to emotionally connect with women or friends for fear of looking weak. I've met people like this. They're real. That's no way to live. It looks cool when Conan does it, but it belongs in fantasy.
-- All of the excerpts of Howard's writing in this essay come from The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, published by Del Rey, 2003.