The Appeal of Hypermasculine Fiction

Conan the Barbarian (not the talk show host,) the epitome of hypermasculinity.

Masculinity has its problems, and I’m certainly not going to shy away from that fact; it’s caused so much grief and destruction throughout history, that it’s negative effects are innumerable. Then naturally when the idea of hypermasculinity comes up people get uncomfortable. I’ve found that the reality of the genre is far more simple though, and offers almost a strange juxtaposition of real masculinity, and the absurdity of it all.

Let me start off by saying that I’m a fan of hypermasculine fiction, the reasons of which have changed over the years. During my pre-teen and early teen years I embraced it as a means to to indulge in power-fantasies. Those years of my life were defined by fear more than anything else, so the idea of larger-than-life heroes going through absurd quests was a perfect escape.

After that stage in my life I started to appreciate it for two different reasons; the impressive amount of sheer imagination it takes to put those types of stories together, and the combination of absurdity and serious story-telling.

So, what is hypermasculine fiction exactly? I wouldn’t define an average sword-and-sorcery fantasy as hypermasculine; it’s a pretty rare genre to come across actually. It’s defined by being harsh, cruel and crude. Often the focus is on the characters or the setting rather than an actual defined plot. The most popular franchises within the genre would be; Mad Max, Conan, Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns, and more “serious” forms, like Pacino’s Scarface.

Historically, the genre takes a big part of its inspiration from Icelandic character sagas; a specific form of hero story from the late Middle Ages. Like the main characters in hypermasculine works, the heroes of Icelandic sagas are flawed and often disturbing figures, not people to adore and look up to. Unlike medieval Iceland however, violence is not a key element of modern western society, which often leads to hypermasculine works taking place in fantasy, or historical settings.

Now that I’ve picked all the fun out of the genre, the question still remains; what is the appeal of it all? Sure, earlier I talked about how I adore it for the imagination required, but that can be applied to any form of speculative fiction. Where the true appeal lies is in its simplicity. In its “purest” form it has a single motive; to be as brutal, angry and chaotic as possible. It’s absurdist, not in how it aims to present itself, but because of how driven it is by so little.

Using “Mad Max: Fury Road” as an example, the creators explore themes of feminism, freedom, power and of course, madness; but very little is actually defined. Who is Immortan Joe? Why has society devolved this way? Where does this film take place in the overarching Mad Max universe? The reality is, it really doesn’t matter, and while in the back of your mind questions will arise, that knowledge would add little to the story, and an argument could be made that it would actually take away from the work with unnecessary exposition.

The hypermasculine “hero” isn’t written to be a relatable individual, they’re written to be a vision of the extremes that humanity might have the potential to reach. People can take these extreme characters in any way, and they’ll ultimately be correct. The genre’s hero is a distortion, an impossibility; for some people these characters will be disturbing, for others (like pre-teen me) empowering, and to most, simple fun.

Whatever the intention of the author, hypermasculine works are what you make of them. Being offensive is in their nature; chopped off limbs and genocidal maniacs are their goal. While yes, they’re gross and generally uncomfortable, they are, in the end, what you make of them. Take them seriously, view them as comedic, heck just enjoy them for the exploding limbs; it really doesn’t matter, but don’t miss out on them because you’re afraid of their moniker.