As social creatures, people often have a craving for romance stories or at least romance IN stories. Romantic plots and subplots are common even in media aimed at subcultures with a stereotypical reputation for being socially and romantically inept, such as fans of science fiction or fantasy. Recently, romance and romantic subplots come under heavy criticism by fans and scholars alike; often self-identified feminists call such media and stories out for being poorly written and having disrespectful (often overly sexualized) portrayals of the female romantic interest and often rightfully so. The usual suspects for such stories and subplots are media straight up classified under the “romance” genres and subgenres. However, even stories and media where the element of romance isn’t the primary focus can have not only well-written portrayals of romance – they can be remarkably thoughtful and somewhat progressive in their own right as well.
It can be easy to overlook such elements in media, especially when they are not the subject by which the work is focused on or associated with. That does not make any serious evaluation or analysis of them any less valid. A good example of one of the MOST OVERLOOKED on-screen romances comes in Universal Studio’s 1982, Conan the Barbarian.
On the surface, Conan the Barbarian comes across as a typical 1980’s “macho” action flick. It is well known for its glorification of masculinity, independence, and its gratuitous amounts of sexual exploitation. Early scenes in the movie include Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) being given a woman to rape, and Conan throwing a succubus/witch, mid-coitus into a fire, and let’s not forget the abundance of random topless women in the background in another scene. It is all too easy for not only feminists, but people in general to write this film off as exploitative trash. Upon closer re-evaluation, under the film’s trappings of a “swords and babes” straight male teen fantasy, lies a surprisingly well written and respectful romantic subplot – a rarity for genre peers and much of media in general.
Based on the writings of Robert E. Howard, the film follows Conan whose family and people are massacred at the hands of overzealous cult-leader Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) when Conan was but a child. After a grueling life as a slave, gladiator and mercenary, Conan earns his freedom before setting off to seek vengeance on Doom. In the midst of his journey, he befriends an archer by the name of Subotai (Gerry Lopez) and encounters a thief, Lady Valeria (Sandahl Bergman).
In a subtle detail overlooked by the film’s critics and detractors: when Conan and Subotai meet Valeria (who shares her mantra “Do you wanna live forever”) during a raid at one of Doom’s any towers, NEITHER MAN makes any comment about Valeria’s gender (and they NEVER DO). No male character in the film ever questions if it’s wise to ally with a woman, and Valeria’s capabilities are never in doubt. Valeria herself jokes about Conan and Subotai being under prepared as thieves, but nonetheless, all three of them team up. Valeria is shown quickly to be the most experienced and skilled thief as she instructs the group, leading them to victory. A lesser creative work might have required that Conan, the male-power fantasy protagonist, to bicker with Valeria over the notion of getting bossed around by a girl. As it stands in the film, no such scene, not even a sub-textual one exists. Early into their first meeting, Valeria’s status and proficiency are immediately acknowledged and respected by Conan. This shows that Conan views Valeria as a capable equal, as opposed to a desired object in need of rescuing, protection or sex.
At the end of their first successful mission together, the group celebrates and Conan gives Valeria the largest of the spoils of their raid before engaging in a passionate (in typical Hollywood style) encounter. While there are many glamorized and eroticized sex scenes between the two; there are more scenes of the two CONVERSING, eating and drinking together, showing that both Conan and Valeria have developed genuine feelings for each other and a lived-in rapport. Also notable is the fact that since Conan and Valeria have already fallen in love early on in the movie, the film largely avoids arguably one of the most insulting elements in romantic subplots – that the love interest or the relationship is somehow a “prize” for the protagonist. Valeria is never portrayed as a “reward” for Conan to obtain at the end of the movie after, or for, fulfilling his quest. By allowing Conan and Valeria to pursue a relationship together without the notion that either of them has “won” the other, the audience can feel a legitimate sincerity to their relationship.
Any well-written story has characters face consequences (good, bad, anything in between) for the choices they make throughout the story. Every story is based on conflicts, but if there are no consequences that ring true – said story can seem shallow and superficial. When considering an offer for riches as reward for the rescue a king’s daughter from Doom, Valeria cites that the two of them have spent their lives alone, facing death without a care, but now they have each other. They have something to live for, with the risk of the mission not being worth what they could lose. “You and I…” She tells Conan, “We have warmth. That’s so hard to find in this world”. Her plea goes all but unheard as Conan’s thirst for vengeance compels him beyond reason, and Conan leaves to face Thusla Doom alone. As a consequence of his foolhardy wrath, he is almost immediately captured by Tulsa Doom who has him tortured and crucified. On the precipice between life and death, Conan is rescued by Subotai and Valeria who bring him to a wizard to be healed. The Wizard warns Valeria that a heavy toll will be required to save Conan’s life, to which she remarks “I will pay it!” When Conan recovers, Valeria takes his face in her hands and in heartbreaking foreshadowing declares “If I were dead and you were still fighting for your life, I’d come back… from the pit of hell to fight at your side”.
After recovering, the group combines their strengths in a renewed attempt to rescue the princess and kill Doom. They succeed but not without Valeria dying during their escape (suggesting that her death was the price she had paid for Conan’s life).
In popular culture, specifically comic book culture, there is a term called “Women in Refrigerators.” This was a term coined by prolific critic and comic writer Gail Simone, and it refers to the death of a female character in a story with a male protagonist when the death is used to further motivate the male hero or to enforce the hatred between him and the villain responsible.
A common criticism of the film was that Valeria’s character was indeed “fridged.” It is a completely valid view and should definitely be considered, addressed and debated. Consider an alternative viewpoint however (which there always are in art), that there are many reasons why Valeria’s death does not count as being “fridged.” One of the reasons is that Valeria is a well-rounded supporting character and her death does not motivate Conan on his quest.
The consequence for Conan rushing to kill Thusla Doom was him being beaten and left to die, and in return, the consequence of Conan’s life being saved was Valeria’s own. Valeria is never a doting support character who remains inactive while the protagonist goes out on adventures, she is not a reward for the lead, and most of all – she is NOT a plot device used to develop the lead. She is a strongly written character who takes an active role in driving the plot of the film with her choices throughout being made clear and fitting with her character. Conan would have sought vengeance on Thusla Doom regardless of meeting Valeria or not. Valeria’s death is but one of many consequences Conan is forced to face in his journey. Therefore, if Valeria is respected as a fully recognized character, capable of her own actions and choices, then it should be recognized that she made the choice to sacrifice her life for Conan’s out of her own volition and love for Conan. Her choice is befitting and consistent with her own character arc, independent of Conan’s, and not simply used as a plot device.
After Valeria’s funeral, Conan and his comrades face Doom and his men head-on. In the midst of the battle Conan gets knocked down and is about to be killed, but the fatal blow is deflected. The one who rescues Conan is none other than Valeria, clad head to toe in the silver armor reminiscent of a Valkyrie (a battlefield apparition in European folklore). As she stands in her glory, she repeats her mantra, “Do you wanna live forever,” to Conan one last time before vanishing. Valeria’s brief return from beyond the grave not only lives up to her earlier promise to Conan, it reinforces the love between the two. It is no small feat for a movie about violence and revenge to also consistently reinforce a romantic sub-plot. Valeria’s final scene shows what the audience already knows, that her love for Conan is so strong that not only would she die to save his life, but she can come back from the dead to save him.
It’s easy to write off this film’s romantic sub-plot and even Valeria herself. She is a “girlfriend” character and a love interest in a supporting role. However, she is never reduced as a character in the sense that neither she nor her actions are objects or devices in the plot in complete service/subservience to the lead. The key as to why this subplot works is that it allows both members of the relationship to exist with complete independence of one another – the relationship is a partnership and not a union of co-dependence or support for a single character. It’s a rarity for many stories in fiction to develop a supporting character, let alone a love interest, not only with respect as a fully formed independent character but also in a way that is not focused on merely servicing a single protagonist.
Such a progressive approach to “romance” in genre fiction is slowly but surely making its way into the mainstream – even modern mythology and comic icons, Superman and Wonder Woman find themselves as the subjects of such a union…but that is a story for another time.