Conan’s Iron Thews: Masculinity and Degeneracy in the Age of Eugenics

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 4

Masculinities and Science Fiction

Conan’s Iron Thews: Masculinity and Degeneracy in the Age of Eugenics

Brad Congdon

The increased popularity of American pulp fiction in the 1930s coincided with the rise of eugenic thinking. Eugenics influenced governmental policies regarding immigrant restriction, anti-miscegenation, and the sterilization of the “feeble-minded.” [1] Eugenic thought was widely disseminated in literature, popular art, and film. [2] These supposedly scientific ideas appeared in early genre fiction, since the fear of dysgenics is rightly the realm of horror, while the scientific guidance of birth (by promoting “eugenic” marriages and the sterilization of the so-called “unfit”) and the existence of a “superman” are suited to science fiction. Weird Tales, a magazine that blended these imaginative genres, circulated eugenic thought while transforming it into gendered fantasies. Perhaps nowhere are these fantasies more apparent than in Robert E. Howard’s sword-and-sorcery tales of Conan the Cimmerian. In “Red Nails” (1936), Howard invests eugenic fantasies in the body of Conan, a hero who thwarts “degenerate,” racialized others. An exemplar of masculinity, Conan invites a connection between idealized masculinity and racist, nationalist biopower, by embodying the Nordic myth promulgated by Madison Grant in The Passing of the Great Race (1916), who referred to Nordics as “the white man par excellence” (167).

Raewyn Connell defines hegemonic masculinity as “the configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women” (Masculinities 77). During the early twentieth century, patriarchy was “threatened” by “social upheaval, including economic changes, immigration, labor unrest, and black and women’s rights organizing” that “challenged the social and political power of white middle-class men” (Stein 170–71). Masculine domination was increasingly justified by eugenic notions of evolution and the biological superiority of white men. [3] In this context, the Nordic ideal acted as an exemplary form of masculinity. As Connell explains, exemplars of masculinity “express ideals, fantasies and desires, provide models of relations with women and solutions to gender problems and above all ‘naturalize’ gender difference and gender hierarchy” (“On Hegemonic” 90). Exemplars of masculinity are explicitly fantasy figures, such as those that populate Howard’s sword-and-sorcery genre. Though “the Hyborian Age” setting of the Conan stories is meant to be “Europe-like and medievalist,” Howard’s fantasy fiction filters his historical understanding through contemporaneous, popular beliefs in eugenics (Young 28). These popular beliefs include Nordicism, physical culture and fitness, the threat of degeneracy, and the problems of “overcivilization.” Howard’s Conan embodies idealized masculinity for this era of American eugenics, standing in for “the Nordic white statuesque male, who had arrived imaginatively to save the country from racial destruction” (Nies 2).

Conan and Nordicism’s “Iron Thews”

Even before Arnold Schwarzenegger played Conan in the 1980s, the character was defined by his muscles, and it is the barbarian’s “iron thews” that best qualify him as a eugenic exemplar of masculinity. When Bêlit, “The wildest she-devil unhanged,” first sets eyes on Conan, she exclaims, “You are no soft Hyborian! … You are fierce and hard as a gray wolf. Those eyes were never dimmed by city lights; those thews were never softened by life amid marble walls” (“Queen of the Black Coast” 125, 127). Bêlit’s response explains Conan’s attractiveness while evoking Howard’s eugenic views of civilization, degeneration, and masculinity. Bêlit suggests that civilization leads to “softness” at the individual and cultural level, echoing many race scientists who believed so-called “overcivilization” led to increased effeminacy in men, often associated with homosexuality or “inversion” (Stein 197). Conan has avoided degeneracy by being less civilized and thus more animalistic: he is “fierce and hard as a gray wolf” (“Queen of the Black Coast” 127). As we will see, though, Conan does not represent atavism, but the pure-blooded, un-degenerated Nordic.

Howard’s Conan stories are redolent with descriptions of the Cimmerian’s muscles, which exaggerate his already overwrought masculinity. Readers are confronted by Conan’s “broad muscular breast” and the “muscles of his heavy bronzed arms” (“The Devil in Iron” 329), or they are asked to visualize how his “great muscles quivered, knotting like iron cables” (“A Witch Shall Be Born” 268). This fixation on Conan’s hard body gains significance when considered in the context of American eugenics, an era when “the physical body both reflected and determined the character of the social body” (Stein 4). The muscular, white male body was of particular interest, for example, to creators of popular images (e.g., posters, caricatures, cartoons) in the 1930s, who, as Kerry Soper has argued, popularized eugenic thought

by visually identifying and categorizing individuals into racial, pauper, or criminal classes; by promoting or rationalizing the sterilization or extermination of insane, defective, or criminal classes through demonizing caricature; and by justifying societal divisions between “superior human stock,” and degenerate (often racially based) classes through a contrast between idealized, “classical” bodies and distorted, “defective” bodies. (270)

By the 1930s, eugenic notions of superior white male bodies and degenerate defectives and criminals had become a demotic visual language. Conan’s iron thews aligned him with contemporaneous notions of “superior human stock.”

Readers of Weird Tales could have looked to the burgeoning world of bodybuilding, then known as “physical culture,” as a real-world reference for Conan’s muscular figure. In America, the figurehead for physical culture was Bernarr Macfadden, the man behind Physical Culture magazine, which by the late 1920s sold more than half of a million copies each month (Stieglitz 246). As Shanon Fitzpatrick explains, Macfadden’s company:

linked outward bodily appearance, physical health and ability, and inner racial value in ways that idealized heterosexual white bodies… Its media brokered representations of vitalized Anglo-Saxonhood that framed muscular, light-skinned physiques—particularly those in procreative heterosexual unions—as the apotheosis of civilizational advancement and suitability for power. (62)

Macfadden suggested that overcoming the degenerative effects of overcivilization required appropriating “barbarian virtues” from so-called primitive societies (Fitzpatrick 73). In this way, he echoed earlier arguments like those forwarded by G. Stanley Hall, the founder and president of Clark University, who in 1899 claimed that “the key to building powerful virility in American men … was to encourage primitive savagery in American boys (Bederman 78). As a purely fantasy figure, Conan can fully embody these masculine “barbarian virtues” lauded by Macfadden and other eugenicists; his strength and virility represent both what has been lost by a modern, changing social world and what can be regained through physical culture and the eugenic breeding of “superior stock.”

“Red Nails”: Conan Among the Degenerates

Macfadden’s readers would have been familiar with the fitness guru’s slogan, which spoke to the cultural zeitgeist: “Sickness is a sin; don’t be a sinner. Weakness is a crime; don’t be a criminal” (qtd. in Currell 47). Conan is never sick, never weak: his exemplary masculinity comes into focus against the contrasting masculinity of these supposed sinners and criminals who were popularly characterized by fin-de-siecle descriptions of criminal physiognomy. [4] Within a patriarchal culture, Conan’s muscles take on ideological meaning, because the barbarian is seen as the answer to the threat to white male superiority posed by de-evolution and degeneracy. Both Jeffrey Shanks and Justin Everett have commented on evolutionary and eugenic thought in Howard’s Bran Mak Morn stories. The Conan stories share this quality, placing Conan within a drama of civilization, viewed as a cycle of evolution and degeneration. [5] This link between civilization and degeneration is most clearly argued in “Red Nails.” Howard described the plot to H.P. Lovecraft in a letter dated December 5, 1935: “I have been dissatisfied with my handling of decaying races in stories, for the reason that degeneracy is so prevalent in such races that it can not be ignored as a motive and as a fact if the fiction is to have any claim to realism” (qtd. in The Conquering Sword of Conan 385). “Red Nails” would prove to be the last story of the Conan cycle and Howard’s definitive word on degeneration.

“Red Nails” begins not with our barbarian hero, but with an introduction to Valeria of the Red Brotherhood. Unbeknownst to her, she is being pursued by Conan, who is following for unwanted, amorous purposes. Together, they evade a “dragon” and discover the walled city of Xuchotl. Believing it abandoned, the pair enter and encounter two degenerate races of men, the Tecuhltli and the Xotalancs, locked in a generations-long conflict. Conan and Valeria initially work with the rulers of Tecuhltli—Prince Olmec and Princess Tascela—to defeat the Xotalancs. Then, Olmec and Tascela turn on Conan and Valeria; nevertheless, our two heroes triumph.

The complex history of Xuchotl attests to Howard’s interest in the supposed degeneration of masculinity. Briefly, a race from “Old Kosala” originally conquers the land, building the city with slave labor, and then raises dragons from the earth as protection. Locked inside the city’s walls for generations, the inhabitants grow decadent before being betrayed by a slave named Tolkemec. Tolkemec opens the city gates to a conquering army, “a tribe of Tlazitlans,” led by brothers Tecuhlti and Xotalanc (346). The brothers rule peacefully for five years, until a woman (eventually revealed to be Queen Tascela, a vampiric immortal) comes between them, leading to a feud lasting 50 years—a feud predicated upon a competition between men over a woman, and on the violence this competition entails. For Howard, Xuchotl is a petri dish for the experiment of civilization: the longer a “race” of people is civilized, the more it degenerates. [6]

Conan’s masculinity is antithetical to the degeneracy of the Xuchotlans, whom Olmec describes as “a perishing race,” admitting that they had produced no children in the past fifteen years (248). The first Tecuhltian we encounter, Techotl, is described as “very dark, though not negroid… He was built with an economy that was almost repellent” (232). The rest of the men of Techuhlti are “of the same type as Techotl, and the women were equally dark and strange-eyed, though not unbeautiful in a weird dark way” (242). The primary physical signifier of their supposed degeneracy is their darkness, though beyond the characteristic of their skin colour is an unsettling quality: they are described as “weird” or “repellant.” This degeneracy means that the Tecuhlti have lost the masculinity that Conan represents. To emphasize this point, Howard compares Conan and Olmec: while both men “presented a formidable picture of primitive power,” Olmec’s physiognomy includes “something abysmal and monstrous that contrasted unfavorably with the clean-cut, compact hardness of the Cimmerian” (273). Both are powerful, but Conan presents a superior, streamlined version of Olmec; as Christina Cogdell has argued, streamlining was a design process that paralleled eugenic thought (33–83). In this way, the Cimmerian represents both the start and end point of eugenic notions of masculinity: he is the pure-blooded Nordic, untainted by civilization, and the goal of eugenicist breeding programs that sought a “purely Germanic and Nordic super race, enjoying biological dominion over others” (Black 7).

In contrast to Conan, the Xuchotlans are victims of “overcivilization.” Having lived too long within city walls, their race has degenerated physically and sexually. Indeed, many eugenicists saw race and sex as inextricably intertwined. Melissa Stein explains that evolutionary theorists “argued that distinct gender roles and distinctly sexed bodies marked higher evolutionary stages. The disruption to gender norms posed by homosexuality and ‘inversion’ … thus threatened both white manhood and the white race as a whole” (171). This racial/sexual drama of degeneration plays out in Xuchotlan society, and in the narrative of Conan’s female companion, Valeria.

“Virile Manhood and Superb Womanhood”

Nordic masculinity cannot regenerate “white” civilization alone. A fitting partner is needed. Eugenicists aimed to improve humanity through breeding, either by restricting childbirth via sterilization or promoting eugenic marriages. Ultimately, eugenics centered the female body and the role of the mother in both its scientific and rhetorical concerns. The exact figure the ideal mother would cut was debatable: Macfadden, for example, championed the notion of “superb womanhood,” and “framed virile manhood and superb womanhood as complementary ideals that would achieve their greatest expression in physical culture marriages” (Fitzpatrick 69). Valeria is the type of woman that Macfadden had in mind, and the narrative of “Red Nails” seeks to show the superiority of Conan’s virile manhood and Valeria’s superb womanhood before ending with them as a potentially procreative couple.

Though Valeria’s fitness will later be seen as an asset, she first figures as a potential threat to masculinity. Valeria evokes concerns of homosexuality and inversion, both of which were seen by some eugenicists as signs of atavism and evidence of racial degeneration (Stein 180–81). Valeria’s initial description suggests anxiety around gender norms: “She was tall, full-bosomed and large-limbed, with compact shoulders. Her whole figure reflected an unusual strength, without detracting from the femininity of her appearance” (“Red Nails” 211). Howard notes Valeria’s strength and therefore her suitability as Conan’s partner; however, he also emphasizes her femininity to assure readers that she’s a fitting object of Conan’s heterosexuality.

Similarly, Valeria’s actions are threateningly masculine. She asks of Conan, “Why won’t men let me live a man’s life?” Conan replies that the answer is “obvious,” while “his eager eyes devoured her” (214). The cultural practices of patriarchy mean that Valeria’s femininity stands in the way of her goal to live “a man’s life.” Significantly, when Valeria first sees Conan, her response is suggestive: “‘Conan, the Cimmerian!’ ejaculated the woman” (213). Valeria responds in appropriately heterosexual fashion, but it is suggestive of a (stereotypically) masculine orgasm. Valeria’s desire for “a man’s life,” her self-determination, and her masculine response to Conan all imply inversion, and female “inverts” were understood as a threat to national and racial superiority (Stein 179).

In addition to gender nonconformity, Valeria’s narrative evokes homosexual attraction, threatening a potential union with Conan and the chances of eugenic futurity. When Valeria catches Yasala, Tascela’s servant, attempting to poison her, she punishes the woman in a homoerotic passage:

“You sulky slut!” she said between her teeth. “I’m going to strip you stark naked and tie you across that couch and whip you until you tell me what you were doing here, and who sent you”   
Then for a space there was no sound in the chamber except the whistle and crackle of hard-woven silken cords on naked flesh … Her body writhed and quivered under the chastisement.

Though this scene depicts same-sex eroticism, it is meant to cater to the heterosexual interests of the male reader; however, such non-productive sexual activity would have been deemed a perversion that “threatened ‘race suicide’ by diverting sexual activity from its true purpose—reproduction” (Stein 174).

Subsequently, the tables are turned when Valeria encounters the vampiric Tascela, who is similarly poised as a sexualized threat. Echoing eugenic notions of heredity and breeding, Tascela states that Valeria’s life will “mak[e] me bloom again with youth and with life everlasting,” countering the degeneracy she has suffered (“Red Nails” 276). When Valeria is overcome by Tascela, her reaction is confused and sexual: “her shame at being manhandled by Olmec was nothing to the sensations that now shook her supple frame …. She scarcely resisted at all when Tascela forced her into a chair” (“Red Nails” 270–71). The “sensations” Valeria feels are unexplored, but akin to shame, leading her to “scarcely resist” the ancient vampire woman. Just as Valeria’s attack on Yasala is sexualized in the narrative, so too is Tascela’s violence toward Valeria eroticized, with the dominant-submissive dichotomy reversed. Valeria’s non-heteronormative activities, like her desire for masculinity, are threats raised only to be overcome, proving her worth as the partner to the ideally masculine Conan.

Valeria’s movement towards gender and sexual conformity has many steps, but Conan’s masculinity is the critical factor that sets her on the journey. By the second chapter, we learn that though she typically resists men’s offers of protection, “she found a secret pleasure in the fact that [Conan] had done so… After all, she reflected, her companion was no common man” (228). As an exemplar of masculinity, Conan naturalizes gender hierarchies: his obvious superiority guides Valeria into her proper place. At the end of the story, Tolkemec—the slave who betrayed the city’s original inhabitants—returns, only to be vanquished by Conan. Valeria kills Tascela, and with this queer threat slain, Valeria immediately affirms her heteronormativity: she insists on caring for Conan’s wounds, before the two kiss, leading Conan to declare “There’s nothing we can’t conquer” (281). Valeria enters the tale pursued by Conan and declaring that she wants to live “a man’s life,” and ends the story nursing Conan and submitting to his embrace. The degenerate masculinity represented by the Xuchotlans confront our heroes only to emphasize the superiority of Conan’s Nordic masculinity. The queer threat of the vampiric invert, Tascela, is only presented to be ultimately cast aside for Valeria’s superb womanhood. Eliminating these threats is a victory for traditional gender roles and “racial hygiene.” The narrative of “Red Nails” demonstrates Conan and Valeria’s fitness for each other as they face the threat of what they view as sexual deviancy and racial degeneration, both of which they violently overcome.’


Howard’s “Red Nails” demonstrates Conan’s role as an exemplar of masculinity for the age of eugenics, when eugenicists reasserted “white male authority in their fantasies of the invincible Nordic …. as white males sought to retain complete social and economic control of white women through narratives of domestication and patriotism” (Nies 7). Following Connell’s formulation of exemplary masculinity, Conan “expresses ideals, fantasies and desires” of Nordic virile manhood, naturalizing both racial and gender hierarchies (“On Hegemonic” 90). The comparisons between Conan and the degenerate Xuchotlan men, particularly Olmec, serve to make obvious Conan’s supposedly superior heredity and “racial stock,” asserting that such superiority is legible at the level of the body. Moreover, it is Conan’s superior masculinity that domesticates Valeria’s potentially errant femininity, transforming her “masculine” desire for agency into a desire for heterosexual partnership, opening the possibility of a reproductive futurity that must be read in the light of America’s eugenic program.


[1] For the political effects of eugenics, see, e.g., Black.

[2] For the popular dissemination of eugenic thought, see, e.g., Currell & Cogdell.

[3] For the scientific defence of hegemonic masculinity in the early 20th century, see, e.g., Stein.

[4] For criminal physiognomy (as a reflection of atavism), see, e.g., Boies; Nordau; Lombroso and Lombroso.

[5] See, e.g., the Conan tales “Rogues in the House” and “The Tower of the Elephant.”

[6] Howard’s terminology can be confusing. “Xuchotlans” refer to the people of the city; “Tlazitlans” refers to the race of men; “Tecuhltians” and “Xotalancas” refer to members of the two warring tribes.


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Brad Congdon is an assistant professor in Dalhousie University’s Department of English and an instructor at Saint Mary’s University, where he teaches English and Communications. His scholarship has appeared in The Journal of Modern Periodical Studies, Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, and English Studies in Canada, as well as Norman Mailer in Context from Cambridge University Press (2021). His book, Leading with the Chin: Writing American Masculinities in Esquire, 1960-1989, (University of Toronto Press) received the 2018 Robert K. Martin prize for best book from the Canadian Association of American Studies.

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