The 1980s was a major decade for sword and sorcery films featuring bold, fierce barbarian women characters. These exotic, empowered warrior women captivated audiences and became cinematic icons. In this article, we countdown the top 10 most iconic barbarian women films of the 1980s and explore why they were so popular.
#10 - Sheena (1984)
This tongue-in-cheek adventure starred Tanya Roberts as the titular Sheena, a fierce warrior princess raised in the African wilderness to be the guardian of her people. With her skimpy leather outfit showing off her athletic build, connection with wild animals, and acrobatic fighting skills, Sheena epitomized the strong female heroine trend that 1980s audiences craved. However, the campy tone and weak critical reception meant Sheena didn't reach the same cultural impact as some of the decade's other female barbarian classics. But it deserves a spot for helping kick off the 1980s' obsession with fierce fantasy female leads.
#9 - The Beastmaster (1982)
Although Marc Singer was the hero, this sword and sorcery cult classic featured Tanya Roberts again as Kiri, a beautiful slave girl freed by Dar during his heroic journey. Kiri rejects being a damsel in distress to become an equally skilled warrior and romantic interest on Dar's quest. Her incredibly revealing minimalist costume showing off her athletic build created an iconic and sexually empowered swordswoman image. While not the main barbarian woman character, Kiri represented a key shift for audiences in demonstrating that female supporting roles could be much more than just helpless eye candy.
#8 - Deathstalker (1983)
This Argentine-American low budget entry starring Richard Hill kicked off a successful B-movie adult fantasy franchise. The first Deathstalker film featured the warrior woman Kaira, memorably portrayed by former playmate Lana Clarkson. Scantily clad in fur boots and a revealing leather ensemble, Kaira used her sexuality without shame while assisting the machismo hero Deathstalker in his quest. Her fierce independence and combat skills made Kaira a prime example of the 1980s trend of blending female empowerment with titillation. While criticized by some as pure exploitation, the character highlighted changing audience expectations for fierce, lusty fantasy swordswomen.
#7 - Barbarian Queen (1985)
As the provocative title suggests, this low-budget Corman Production featured a memorably savage barbarian heroine in the scantily clad Princess Amethea played by Lana Clarkson. When Amethea's village is slaughtered by the evil Arrakur's troops, she embraces her primal fierceness and leadership skills to become the Barbarian Queen, seeking bloody revenge. Clarkson's athletic build, burning passion, and vengeful spirit encapsulated the contemporary archetype of the rugged, sensual barbarian woman that both male and female members of the audience could find intriguing.
#6 - Ice Pirates (1984)
This campy space opera adventure directed by Stewart Raffill was a flop financially but gradually became a cult classic thanks to its improvised semi-parody of pulp sci-fi and fantasy traditions. Surrounded by bizarre space raiders and robots, the tough barbarian princess Karina was memorably portrayed by Mary Crosby. Scenes like seductively squeezing through prison bars with only a g-string highlighted Karina's sexuality, but her haughty confidence, combat abilities, and role as a leader also displayed her warrior spirit that 1980s audiences appreciated. Mixing sex appeal with power, she represented a key film interpretation of the alluring cinematic barbarian woman trend.
#5 - Conan the Destroyer (1984)
Though considered inferior to its predecessor, this second Conan installment featured fan favorite Grace Jones as the fierce warrior woman Zula. With her hulking physique, intense gaze, and acrobatic fighting skills, Zula establishes herself as likely the most physically intimidating and formidable female warrior character of 1980s cinema. Her presence expanded audiences' perceptions of what a woman warrior could look and act like. Jones' intensity in the role is all the more impressive given her relative lack of acting experience at the time, proving she really committed to the memorable portrayal.
#4 - Red Sonja (1985)
Brigitte Nielsen portrayed the title character in this poorly reviewed yet financially successful adaptation of pulp fantasy heroine Red Sonja, directed by Richard Fleischer. With flowing red hair, deep cleavage, and thigh-high boots, Red Sonja's appearance epitomized the archetypal sexy fantasy female warrior. But while played primarily for male titillation, her prowess with a broadsword, fiery spirit, and quest for redemption also made her an icon. Despite being panned by critics for campiness, Red Sonja's lasting cultural impact proves she remains one of the decade's quintessential cinematic swordswomen.
#3 - The Warrior and the Sorceress (1984)
This Roger Corman-produced ultra low budget mashup of sword and sorcery and martial arts starred David Carradine as the wandering warrior Kain but featured harem slave girl Naja as the breakout female barbarian character. Played by Maria Socas, Naja wore the absolute skimpiest hardened leather bikini imaginable, leaving essentially nothing to the imagination. But rather than being merely a passive sex object, Naja is a skilled fighter who embraces her raw strength and sexuality. By confidently wielding power typically reserved for men, she expanded notions of what 1980s fantasy females could be. For better or worse, Naja left a mark as one of the decades most boldly objectified yet fiercely independent warrior women.
#2 - Conan the Barbarian (1982)
No list of iconic 1980s barbarian women would be complete without Valeria, played by Sandahl Bergman opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger's then-unknown title character in his big screen breakout role. As a thief and mercenary, Valeria stole scenes by matching Conan in might, wearing extremely revealing snake scale armor, and showcasing confidence and pride in her sexuality, physicality, and combat skills. Though meeting a tragic end, Valeria set the standard for the visually striking cinematic fantasy warrior women characters that came to define the decade, with an alluring blend of beauty, steel will, and brawn.
#1 - Xena: Warrior Princess
Technically debuting on television as a guest role on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys in 1995, Lucy Lawless' Xena rapidly became the ultimate personification of the bold 1980s cinematic fantasy female warrior archetype. This dark-haired warrioress rejected the prototypical blonde bombsell image and exuded swaggering confidence, cunning intelligence, and complexity beyond her original campy conception. By the time she got her own series in 1996, Xena transcended her sword and sandal roots to redefine television's female action hero for a new generation. Her bronze breastplate armor, formidable fighting skills, anguished past, and hint of sexual fluidity made Xena the apex of nuanced woman warriors. She ensured the iconic 80s cinematic barbarian lived on and evolved in popular culture.
Examining the Appeal of 1980s Barbarian Women
So why did these fierce, fierce fantasy female characters strike such a chord with mainstream pop culture audiences? For starters, their athleticism, warrior skills, and mastery of weapons helped empower women and expand notions of feminine strength beyond just maternal nurturing. Their unapologetic sexuality and skimpy costumes also celebrated a lusty, liberated image of feminine beauty and confidence.
But beyond mere titillation, the best barbarian women characterizations managed to balance their physical toughness with emotional vulnerability. Audiences found them more captivating and well-rounded when they proved women could be both badass warriors and sympathetic underdogs. This unexpected nuance helped make even relatively outlandish characters seem psychologically real.
Of course, exoticism also added to their allure. The primitive, earthy aesthetics tapped into timeless heroic archetypes and Jungian notions of the anima or wild woman that have fascinated humankind and storytelling for millennia. Audiences found escapist catharsis through these raw, primal avatars that channeled our collective id.
On a simpler level, viewers enjoyed the sheer visual appeal of fit, fiery-eyed actresses in very revealing outfits engaged in action and combat. But putting greater substance beneath the salacious veneer was what elevated the better barbarian women characters into icons.
Ultimately, the most effective 1980s cinematic warrior women merged sensuality with confidence, vulnerability with toughness, classic mythic allure with modern values of feminine empowerment. This winning combination made them breakout characters who still stimulate imaginations decades later.
The Evolving Legacy of 1980s Fantasy Women Warriors
While their tiny fur bikinis and proportions designed to appeal to male gaze raise some understandable current questions around female sexualization and agency, the iconic 1980s women warriors like Red Sonja nevertheless cracked open doors for subsequent complex heroines. They helped transition cinematic females from largely passive eye candy to assertive, dimensional action figures.
By proving mainstream appetite for bold women starring in physically demanding, traditionally male heroic roles, 80s barbarian queens began to shift norms and pave the way for greater female representation in big budget action stories. Contemporary giants like Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, Imperator Furiosa, and the women of Wakanda all followed in the footsteps of fantasy warrior women from the Reagan era.
We can see their influence today in heroines who wear sensible armor while retaining the self-assuredness and commanding presence of their ancestors. So even as we cringe a bit at the exploitative sexuality, we should acknowledge 1980s sword and sorcery films for progressively expanding images of women's roles in action cinema.
The journey remains incomplete, but Red Sonja and her fierce kin helped propel female empowerment forward in popular culture. By keeping their legacy alive, we ensure today's heroines stand on the shoulders of barbarian queens.
As this ranking demonstrated, the 1980s produced a slew of iconic cinematic fantasy warrior women who left an indelible, if at times problematic, mark on popular culture. They embodied a beguiling blend of exotic otherness and contemporary values of feminine power. Though sometimes crude in their exploitative elements or campy in execution, these barbarian queens represent an important turning point for action heroines that still resonates with audiences today. Their influence echoes through subsequent generations of strong female characters.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Were 1980s barbarian women just shallow male fantasies?
A: While they were certainly visualized through an idealized, sexualized male lens, these characters also represented empowerment fantasies that appealed to women and expanded female representation in action cinema.
Q: Did their skimpy costumes really have to be so revealing?
A: The extreme lack of clothing was highly problematic and disrespectful from today's perspective. But in the 1980s context, it also symbolized rejecting traditional standards of feminine modesty and embracing raw strength.
Q: Were barbarian women characters only present in B-movies?
A: Lower budget fantasy films featured them most prominently, but they did break into some mainstream box office hits like Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja.
Q: Who was the greatest 1980s fantasy swordswoman character?
A: Opinions vary, but Lucy Lawless' Xena may take the title for rising above her campy origins to achieve mass popularity and long-term impact on television.
Q: Did their costumes restrict their combat abilities?
A: In reality, yes - but the fantasy films ignored realism and showed the characters performing acrobatic fighting skills unencumbered.
Q: Could a female barbarian film succeed today?
A: Absolutely, if done right - by blending modern sensibilities with the classic archetype. Movies like Wonder Woman prove audiences still love a bold warrior woman.