Book Review: Of Muscles and Men, Michael Cornelius, ed. (2011)

Friday, April 13th, 2012

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Ralphie prefers Jason Momoa’s Conan. “He’s dreamy!”
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Hey y’all! This post has zero to do with animal rights, but bear with me. I’m thinking about consolidating my other, mostly-unused blog, Smite Me! with V for Vegan to create one blog for (nearly) all of my writing. Maintaining two personal blogs, each for different but sometimes overlapping topics, just isn’t working for me. Anyway, you may see some non-AR posts pop up from time to time. For now that’ll mostly just mean more book reviews. Eventually I may also change domains, but I’m still thinking on it, experimenting and whatever.

Along these lines, I’ve already changed my twitter username, from @easyvegan to @vegandaemon. Vegan sraffies, holla!

So that’s what’s up. Hopefully you enjoy my writing no matter what it’s about, but hey. You’ve been warned!

 

By the Power of Grayskull!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

Aside from the early ‘80s Conan the Barbarian films (starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the eponymous, loinclothed hero) and a few odd campy television shows (namely He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and She-Ra: Princess of Power, which I grew up on, as well as Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, which I’ve enjoyed as an adult), I’m not what you’d call a big fan of the sword and sandal genre. But when I spotted Of Muscles and Men: Essays on the Sword & Sandal Film in Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program, I decided to request a copy anyhow, since I highly enjoy critical pop culture studies and thought it would make for an interesting read.

To say that Of Muscles and Men veers toward the academic would be an understatement. In terms of accessibility, it’s much more similar in difficulty to, say, The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series or Investigating Cult TV than the more mainstream Smart Pop Books by BenBella (of which I own nearly half the available titles!). That said, some essays are more suitable for lay people than others – it really just depends on the author and his or her approach and writing style.

While most of the essays focus on the intersection of violence, sex, and/or gender in the peplum or sword and sandal genre – loosely defined as those films featuring a reluctantly heroic strongman, clad in sandals and/or a kilt and carrying a sword or other phallic weapon, and set some time in humanity’s ancient past – the authors nevertheless manage to touch upon a breadth of topics. Among my favorites are:

* Larry Shillock’s piece on Helen of Troy (the 2003 USA miniseries), an arguably feminist retelling of the Trojan War featuring Helen of Argon as the protagonist (“An Enduring Logic: Homer, Helen of Troy, and Narrative Mobility”);

* “Beefy Guys and Brawny Dolls: He-Man, the Masters of the Universe, and Gay Clone Culture,” in which editor Michael Cornelius parallels the development of Mattel’s Masters of the Universe action figures and Filmation’s animated television show (the latter essentially being a marketing tool for the former) with the rise of gay clone culture in the 1980s; and

* the hilariously titled “’By Jupiter’s Cock!’ Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Video Games, and Camp Excess,” wherein David Simmons examines the influence of video games on the increasingly violent and stylized Fourth Wave peplum films of today (such as the STARZ original series Spartacus: Blood and Sand, from which the interjection “By Jupiter’s cock!” originates).

I must admit to only skimming several of the twelve essays in this collection, either because they failed to hold my interest or contained so much jargon that I couldn’t easily decipher it all. Also disappointing is the lack of attention paid to those sword and sandal films and television shows starring female heroes: for example, the previously mentioned She-Ra: Princess of Power and Xena: Warrior Princess (both are mentioned in passing). Granted, Of Muscles and Men is ostensibly a collection about masculinity – “male protagonists as heroic, violent, fleshy, and, in the end, extremely useful” – but the presence of the occasional woman in such roles is a topic worth exploring, inasmuch as it challenges the role of “hero” or “strongman” as the exclusive province of men.

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(Crossposted on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads.)