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Trenchmates – Sexism in the Warhammer Worlds

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.

  1. belverker
    10/18/2012 at 00:53

    Good article, and i can see where you are coming from in relation to the figures on the tabletop, but I find GW to represent women quite well in the books and fluff. Especially in the 40k novels (see the gaunts ghosts series and the eisonhorn and raveger novels)

    And to your point about women being turned off playing by the way female models look in the GW range, look at Wyrd Miniatures and their Malifaux range the majority of the female models are overly sexualised and they have a largeish female player base.So it may not be just the models it could also be the setting or the type of gameplay that might also stop females from geting interested in it.

    But i do agree that it would be great to see some more realistic female models in the range

  2. docbungle
    10/18/2012 at 08:12

    Reblogged this on Miniature Musings of a Bear.

  3. docbungle
    10/18/2012 at 08:31

    Too take it further look at Privateer Press they do mix it up a bit more and offer sculpts for both sexes in some instances and there are female characters and units. Although most have a cult thing going on so lack clothes. Such as the Tharn.
    I think it stems for being a very male environment yes there are women in the hobby but not many in decision making areas. But that is a whole other conversation.

  4. 10/18/2012 at 08:44

    This is all very true, and there are unfortunately many more examples than those you mentioned – the female Orc cheerleader for Blood Bowl, for example. Or in the background for Orks in 40K, there’s no female sex at all, because they reproduce asexually as fungal spores.

    This was one reason why I bought the Eowyn model – because the Lord of the Rings models are based on the movies, they are more realistic, and so the Eowyn models are probably the best female models that GW have made.

    • Tim
      10/18/2012 at 12:42

      I’m actually ok with the Ork thing – it feels suitable science-fictionary to have this terrible menace that comes from fungus, and as such they can be seen not as male but essentially genderless artificial killing machines.

  5. Tim
    10/18/2012 at 12:49

    Some sensible arguments here. One thing I would say about the gender roles in the Imperium is that it is supposed to be a feudal society, in which misogyny seems to be overt. I half wonder if part of the reasoning (along with the reasoning Ms Corbett puts forward) is that you’re supposed to be uncomfortable with the Imperium and not like it. As such you can see it as being like a modern animated film – brainless stuff for the kids and brain candy for grown-ups. I might be overthinking this, however.

    In terms of the pure mechanics of production, I can see the appeal of having a single body type to stamp out – and let’s face it under say the armour of an Eldar Guardian anything could be going on so really it’s about the gamer’s personal fluff for their army. When it comes to the actual female characters who are produced, I can definitely see the problem, however (let’s not even mention the ‘sexy Commissars’ posted on BoLS.

    Belverker does make a good point about the fluff – some of the toughest and most rounded characters in the fiction are women. Can I just mention that I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the Bequin saga?

  6. Elizabeth
    10/18/2012 at 14:26

    Couple of points about the argument that there’s more in the fluff: It’s not required reading, you have to pay extra, and certainly the younger gaming contingent are not likely to read it. Taken with the non-existent or overtly-sexualised miniatures, I would say it’s part of the problem, not part of the solution. It’s easy to use the fact that these characters exist as a salve to any egalitarian concern. GW certainly doesn’t seem to have followed up on it with a range of miniatures. I could be wrong though, my exposure is limited, and a lot of the details are spread out over a vast range of books, supplements, and editions which I simply don’t have the money to buy, especially as I don’t want to field an army.

    I am quite tempted to mod a SoB unit into Ultras anyway though. Or maybe the green ones. Dark Angels? Something instantly recognisable. I’ll have to see if the Edinburgh GW shop will display it. If not I’ll be looking for someone to take it to a con. *pointed stares*

  7. Scion_of_Terra
    10/18/2012 at 15:52

    This is stuff that I’ve noticed over the years, and I have to say that I’d like to see more coed product lines. I feel that the recent Dark Eldar releases were an inspiring step in the right direction, with roughly equal numbers of male and remale modelling options on every sprue, and in every case both genders are dressed in the same manner. (See: Warriors, Wyches, Hellions, Reavers, Scourges, Venoms.) Lelith Hesperax is arguably an exception, but I would point out that a: she’s a wych, it comes with the territory, and b: it’s still better than her dominatrix outfit from her previous incarnation.

    I understand that GW doesn’t want to go back and redo all their sprues. In the case of SOB and SM, they wouldn’t do it anyway, not with 30 years of fluff in the way. But what if they put out a boxed set of 10 female Imperial Guardsmen? Add in a couple of extra heads and torsos for officers and one would have everything needed for a coed or all-female regiment – something we know is present in 40k thanks to the fluff. I’m sure it would sell like the proverbial hotcakes – honestly, I’m astonished GW hasn’t done this already.

    With regards to the racism present in GW products – I’ve always been a little upset that the only ‘flesh’ tones from GW paints were for European skin tones. Not only that, but ‘Eavy Metal has never done a dark skin tone on a human being for their official stock photos. So I think that’s something GW should correct.

    • Tim
      10/18/2012 at 17:13

      Until they do bring out such Guard figures, I’m working with Escher gangers and other random stuff from other companies to do mixed sex units.

    • belverker
      10/18/2012 at 20:10

      They used to have “dark flesh” as a colour and in some of the older Chaos Warrior arnybooks they have pictures of dark skinned marauders (this probably raises other issues about the only coloured people in warhammer fantasy being evil) and now that i am thinking about it there were some dark skinned Catachans in their codex and possibly the current imperial guard one, but the fact that these stood out to me is an indication that yes there is a problem with their not being many instances.

  8. Pascalnz
    10/18/2012 at 21:07

    I agree with a bunch of what was said in the article, and I don’t have a tonn of time to write down my thoughts on the matter. I just wanted to point out the male wood elf caster has in fact wearing less than the female. legs arms chest, vs legs and arms uncovered. for some reason it took me longer to notice the bear chest on the guy…guess I’m more a legs guy ;P

  9. 10/19/2012 at 12:30

    Corvus Belli have done a pretty good job of keeping things even handed in Infinity the Game. Until recently that is, they’ve had a couple of pretty sexualised sculpts over the ast few months. But, generally speaking their model lines are neutral when it comes to sexuality.

    Certainly I think there is plenty of space for less niche miniature wargames. Men and women both enjoy being creative and working with their hands, I expect that a more egalitarian games system and environment could have considerable success done properly.

    And as with the movie market, it’s the inclusive products that make the most money.

  10. 12/15/2013 at 19:24

    There have been a number of disrespectful and some very abusive comments on this article recently. To be clear, why I encourage constructive debate, if you’re not able to be civil you are not welcome here and your posts will be deleted.

  11. Ron Huskins
    03/15/2014 at 11:10

    Hey, I thought there were a couple good points here. I would however like to point out cost of female models for mixed armies as an issue. I enjoy this hobby and do quite a few kitbash’s in my spare time. I will say there have been female space marine models which.. honestly look kind of strange. Further more it doesn’t match how their fluff is written. They are basically a fraternity of sterile male super soldiers. Where as Adepta Sororitas is a sorority of flame thrower loving religious zealots that are non sterilized females. Fluff wise guard should be about 50-50 for male female but I think that comes down to the company and how they make their sprues. More people would probably prefer not having multi gender sprues and the ones who do are probably willing to shell out the cash for leftover heads from shadow warrior or Wych kits. Sisters models are literally ALL pewter and cost about double a guardsmen per model so a lot of people will not go that route for converting half a battalion of guardsmen. Also most armies in fantasy that have a high mix of female warriors usually have at least one kit dedicated just to females. Making it possible if not horrifically expensive to mold your army to be more gender diverse. I don’t expect many female orks, and I don’t think it old want to be able to tell the difference between male/female beast men or skaven. Tomb kings is probably the most gender diverse army out there and we may never know. Jokes aside it is possible to represent females in a not hyper sexual way in these games but it isn’t cheap. I have been working on a set of inquisitorial henchmen and even just the 12 diverse individuals I have been modifying to represent people is getting pretty pricy. My last point I suppose is that it isn’t just warhammer it is the entire fantasy genre, take a look at the armor in WoW or even dragon age. Another point is have you considered the psychological impact this game has on males when they have only hyper masculine perfect figures to compare themselves to? I have yet to see a non ogre male that didn’t have near perfect physique.

  1. 10/21/2012 at 14:49
  2. 10/25/2012 at 20:21
  3. 12/31/2012 at 14:23
  4. 04/22/2013 at 21:43

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