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Trenchmates – Sexism in the Warhammer Worlds

10/17/2012 18 comments

This edition of Trenchmates is written by my good friend Elizabeth Corbett (@lizbth_geeks for you Twitter folk). While she’s not a wargamer per se she does paint a mean miniature and is a dedicated roleplayer. Today she’s writing on a subject close to her heart, I’ll leave the rest to her.

I don’t wargame. I’ve never been tempted by it. I like playing games, and I like playing boardgames, and I’ve enjoyed playing WFRP and Dark Heresy, and I’ve even enjoyed playing Space Hulk before – but I don’t field armies on tabletop battlefields, and I don’t think I ever will. It’s not my thing. I don’t like turn-based strategy games on the PC either.

Why am I starting a guest post on a wargaming blog saying I don’t play it? Because I do paint miniatures, and I know a reasonable bit about the background, and I wanted all the readers to understand where I’m coming from before I launch into the real purpose of my writing:

I think Warhammer Fantasy and 40K really need to address the sexism in their games, and I’d like to see more people understand my position. Who knows, it might even encourage more women to play. This sexism can be seen in the miniatures, both historical and current, in the literature surrounding the games, and in the way the games are marketed.

The miniatures tend towards making the women more naked than their male counterparts. Even the otherwise heavily-armed and armoured Sisters of Battle have the Sisters Repentia, walking into battle clothed only in rags “to atone for their crimes”. One the one hand, the miniatures have to be readily recognisable on a battlefield with perhaps a couple of hundred models, and exaggerating secondary sexual characteristics of women is a way to do it; on the other hand, they don’t have to be mostly naked: that was a deliberate choice made by someone. Compare these three female spellcasters from Warhammer Fantasy, one each of the three elven races, to their male equivalents.

High Elves

Wood Elves

Dark Elves

The High Elf is recognisable as female but is at least as fully clothed as her male counterparts. The Wood Elf is less clothed than her male counterpart, although in fairness still wearing more than the War Dancers (the only nearly-naked male figures I have ever seen in this game). The Dark Elf… okay, that was a Finecast, let’s look at the normal model…

Nope, not wearing much at all, is she? Really quite naked, one might say. (Another short rant: I had to compare spellcasters, because they’re the only class which consistently has women. Apparently we’re allowed to cast fireballs from our hands, but not use a morning star.)

Someone, somewhere, made a deliberate choice to make naked women a feature of this game. Leaving aside the impracticalities of being naked on a battlefield, with arrows and swords (or guns and swords), not to mention inclement weather, I would be fine with this if the men were naked too. But they’re not, as a rule. They wear clothes. They don’t have vines artistically draped over one pec and swirling around their thigh.

This implies an expectation of their audience: that the people who play this game will want to see tiny naked women but not tiny naked men. It implies the audience is male, and straight. Statistically, I’m sure the latter is mostly true, but the former implication is part of the thing that keeps women out of the games; when we are only presented as highly-sexualised afterthoughts, we don’t really want to get involved.

And afterthought is a good way to describe the women in these games, which are disproportionately made up of male figures. Okay, in Fantasy, the time period suggests that most women wouldn’t be fighters in the Empire or whatever. But it’s fantasy. The clue’s right there in the name. Even the Elven races, much more classically feminine in style and lines, have many more male units than female. Why? Why does this have to be the case? In 40K, even the “women didn’t fight then” argument falls down. You’re honestly going to tell me that in the dawn of the 41st millennium, with all the technological advances implicit in the game, women are still only allowed to fight if they’re traumatised and indoctrinated orphaned girls? You’re going to tell me that the Space Marine gene cluster only works with a Y-chromosome?

These are choices which the game designers made, and they are choices repeated over six editions of the game. Coming up with a handy backstory to explain why there are no women does not make it any less sexist; if anything, it means that more people have been dragged into being apologists. Similarly, introducing armies like the Sisters of Battle, where they are almost entirely female, just makes it more obvious that the rest of the armies have little to no women in them. It’s the equivalent of saying “I’m not sexist/racist/homophobic, I have female/coloured/gay friends”. If you feel the need to make a big thing about it, your point is already lost.

For me, the worst thing about this whole business isn’t that it makes these games all-male environments where women are tolerated rather than welcomed, as bad as that is. The worst thing is what it does to the children, who are too young to know how to compartmentalise or analyse. Whenever I go into Games Workshop, I see kids. Kids playing and having fun, interacting with adults on an even footing, which is great to see. Mostly boys, but that’s as much symptomatic of the culture which says girls should play with dolls and boys should play with guns as anything else. These little boys are seeing that women are excluded from battle, both on and around the table. They are painting little women who have one tit hanging out and a loincloth whipping over their thighs. They are learning to treat us as irrelevant objects.

I don’t expect Games Workshop to single-handedly change the culture which says to little girls that they can’t like maths and violence, but I can expect them to make their games much better balanced and representative. And I can definitely expect grown men reading this blog to think, just for a second, about how this all looks to a woman, or to a girl. Your hobby could include twice as many people. That’s double the battles! I know that for a lot of people, this is about creating a space outside of their partners and families, and I understand the appeal of tribalism, but you can have this and not exclude all women.

So how could you as a player make a difference? You could mod your armies a little. It doesn’t even need to be much, the armour most of the little people are wearing covers pretty much all detail; you just need to write it into your backgrounds, assuming you do them. The Dark Eldar kits come with male and female heads separate to torsos; they could be added to any elf, with a little bit of extra effort. The Sisters of Battle could be modded and thrown in to a Marine unit, or an Imperial Guard unit. In fact, I’ll even do it for you, if you pay me (I accept any currency, or wine). This hobby encourages creativity and personalisation of your armies. Think outside of the sprues. Encourage your opponents to do the same. Take your non-sexist armies to tournaments. You don’t have to stand and lecture everyone on the evils of the patriarchy and whether all sex is rape; you just have to turn up, with a representative army, play your games, and leave at the end of the day. It shouldn’t be a big thing to have women in your army. It shouldn’t be a big thing to be a woman playing the game.

This whole rant could just as easily have been written from a race-sensitivity point of view as well. Take a look through the books; it’s very hard to find non-white faces. Again, anything which apologises for it is just excusing racism, not addressing the problem.

Please remember, if you’d like to submit an article for Trenchmates, you can find all the information you need here.