Red Sonja: Let this poor woman out of this dreadful film!

I have seen Conan The Barbarian several times, but somehow I had never seen Red Sonja. Now that I have, I’m really not sure how to rate it. My grasp of Arnold Schwarzennegger‘s acting career is shaky, so I was stunned to find out this film was made in 1985. I wouldn’t have guessed 1960, but 1985 seems so… modern, for a film with such blatant anti-feminist content. (Perhaps I should brush up on my feminist history again, there’s probably a good explanation and I’m just not connecting the dots.)

The premise of the film offers an opportunity for something very feminist, especially since few women had picked up swords in leading roles before Brigitte Nielsen portrayed Sonja. But here’s my summary of Sonja’s origin story. Notice anything problematic?

There was once a woman named Sonja. The Evil Queen Gedren (Sandahl Bergman) made a Lesbian Pass at Sonja, who was rightfully disgusted. So the Evil Lesbian Queen had her family murdered and Sonja raped (complete with a shot of her grimacing face and the assailant’s bobbing shoulder). Sonja then received great physical strength from “the spirits” and learned how to fight so she could pursue revenge.

How different would it have been like this?

There was once a very strong and capable woman named Sonja. She ran a farm with her family, and an Evil Queen wanted them to pay higher taxes. Sonja refused, so the Evil Queen had her family murdered and her farm destroyed. Sonja then spent several years learning how to fight so she could pursue revenge and free the people of her land from the tyranny of the Evil Queen.

(If she were that cool, though, Nielsen might have gotten top billing in her own movie instead of coming in second after Arnold.)

(And the origin story would be just like one typically written for a man.)

Sonja does become a fearsome fighter, but she’s continually rescued by Arnold. She’s also constantly told things like “you must learn to like men a little better” and “hatred of men in a lovely young woman could be your downfall.” The end of the film reinforces the continual theme that without the love of a man, a woman is nothing. Sonja and Arnold are fighting, and if she loses, she basically has to date him. “Why does she fight so hard?” an observer asks, “She doesn’t want to win.”

Compared to the other women in the film, though, Sonja is a model of self-determination, wisdom, and strength. The Queen is a megalomaniacal idiot, not a grim and determined adversary, and her sexual orientation is portrayed as part of her moral decay. Sonja’s sister is in a female warrior cult that prays to the “God of Gods.” They’re good fighters, and they defend themselves well against overwhelming odds, but when they’re captured and thrown into a pit in their own temple, they just cry, beg, and moan. No shouts of defiance, no angry promises of vengeance from their god. Just tears and wails, instead of using the secret escape route they should have built in when they designed the darn thing.

Despite what the screenwriters do to Sonja, though – making her by turns unfulfilled spinster, damsel and distress, and even surrogate mommy – there is something to like here. Nielsen’s Sonja is a woman on a mission. She is tough, she has no patience for fools, and she doesn’t take crap from anyone. Nielsen is dressed in the traditional “I’ll be fighting people with swords but we wouldn’t want to cover my skin” type of costume, but it almost seems like she just doesn’t have time to indulge in any exhibitionism. She has some important REVENGE to commit, people!

If only the filmmakers could stop shaking their heads and murmuring “poor dear, someday she’ll get over this anti-man thing and settle down.”

Unsurprisingly, this film had a number of other issues. I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but I was uncomfortable watching the white woman schooling the Asian child (played by Ernie Reyes. Jr., who is of Filipino descent) in combat techniques and philosophy that she learned from Asian men. The only fat character is a clumsy, subservient servant with a heart of gold for the child he follows.

For a while, I thought I would give it no stars. Perhaps it was my horror seeing the posters for the new Red Sonja movie that Robert Rodriguez is producing that made me give Sonja herself a closer look.

She’s trapped in a movie that stabs her in the back repeatedly and disrespects everybody but the glorious white man – but even in this film from almost 25 years ago, I don’t think Red Sonja sets us back 20 years. I think it’s more typical than anything – kernels of feminist empowerment sabotaged by filmmakers who think women are jokes. If I could rate the character and the film separately, I would, but unfortunately I’m going to rate the film itself and give it one star.

This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.

6 thoughts on “Red Sonja: Let this poor woman out of this dreadful film!

  1. Grace

    I suspect this one is very much a product of its time. 1985, the age of false feminism in the guise of power suits for women who were still mostly getting coffee and Windexing the glass ceiling. Prime backlash years, you know?

  2. Zahra

    Yes, I second Grace– I’m a little too young to have real perspective on the 1980s, but every discussion I’ve ever heard of that decade’s notorious backlash against feminism has cited _Fatal Attraction_ as the locus classicus. That era’s media was all about showing how the independent/career woman was evil (and really needed a man).

    It was also the height of the AIDS pandemic and the egregiously homophobic response to it, so making the Evil Queen yet another Evil Lesbian stereotype might have been a way to check off the “gay people are EVIL!” box without actually having to acknowledge the existence of men with same-sex attractions. Which makes things easier when you’re in the middle of murdering thousands of them through neglect.

    Do I sound bitter? I’m just saddened by how little has changed–we STILL have more evil lesbians, bisexuals, & gay men than otherwise; we STILL have white people appropriating and becoming the “experts” on Asian culture; we STILL have rape used as an insensitive plot point; we STILL have to watch the woman hook up with a guy to be “good.” Every time. I’m tired of it.

  3. Taranaich

    (Hopefully you won’t mind a two-years-late comment)

    The problem with changing Sonja’s origin in the film is that the origin in the film is more or less her origin in the comics: the difference is it’s a man, the sorcerer Kulan Gath, in place of Evil Lesbian Queen Gedren. If you change the origin, you risk alienating the hordes of fans of the comic (and there were many back then).

    Changing the origin to something more feminist – even if that just means giving her the same sort of origin as a male protagonist – would thus change her from Red Sonja into someone else.

    But then, the origin of Red Sonja was always something that bothered me. Roy Thomas was inspired by the Celtic myth of Aoife, but in the myth, it was more a case of the woman already being a badass warrior and deciding for herself that she wouldn’t lie with a man who coudln’t beat her in combat, rather than some sort of divine curse that essentially rendered her either powerless or chaste.

    Infuriating, since Robert E. Howard’s Red Sonya, ostensibly the origin of Thomas’ Red Sonja, didn’t have anything like this origin story.

  4. Lycere F. Cunningham

    I have to take issue with the way that Queen Gedren’s being both lesbian and evil is being seen as a bad thing. I wouldn’t want there to be some sort of ban on lesbian characters getting to be badasses, and seriously, what’s more badass than being a megalomaniacal villain? They’re some of the most fun, most memorable characters. I’m a lesbian myself, and I know that that’s the sort of character that I would relate to and have fun role-playing, so why shouldn’t a lesbian get to be one of those? My only complaint is that Gedren was killed at the end. There should be a remake told from her point of view; with her revenge against Red Sonja being seen as a reasonable response to Red Sonja’s lesbiphobic rejection of her, but with Queen Gedren the one doing the raping, not her soldiers; with Queen Gedren winning at the end; and maybe ending with her chaining Red Sonja up and keeping her as her little plaything…

  5. Skye

    Lycere, I totally hear you, and my apologies if this came across as me trying to get rid of a lesbian character! Looking back I do wish I’d written it differently. I would love more badass megalomaniacal villains of various orientations and genders beyond the standard cis-het ones myself!

    I think what got me was how her sexual orientation seemed to be bound up in her evil, especially when you consider how the film aggressively pushes Sonja into a heterosexual relationship. With that plus the drought of lesbian characters in general, I was suspicious of why the story was done that way.

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