Home > Trenchmates > Trenchmates – Sexism in The Warhammer Worlds: Part 2

Trenchmates – Sexism in The Warhammer Worlds: Part 2

Well, what an interesting four days it has been! My friend Elizabeth’s post has generated a huge response from the online wargaming community, much of it constructive and, I am very pleased to say, almost all of it has been mature, dignified and respectful.

Indeed, one of the reasons I started the Trenchmates feature was to encourage reasoned debate surrounding the hobby both as comments via my blog or the features embedded in my Facebook and Google Plus profiles. It was on the latter that I received several pieces of correspondence from a João Rita from Portugal. He was certainly passionate about the subject as you can see from his comments and I asked him if he would like to write a response to Elizabeth’s article for the blog.

Here it is:

After commenting, on G+, on Ms Corbett  article, I’ve been challenged to reply here. In the immortal words of Barney Stintson “Challenge accepted!”

First of all, the main point that bugged me: the sentences right at the start “I don’t wargame. I’ve never been tempted by it”. So, we have an article about wargames, written by someone who doesn’t wargame. This, in my experience, never ends well, quite the opposite (at least in relation to wargames).

Second, the “sexist” charge. Right out I’ll say: “Yes, the basis of the game has sexism in it”. It’s inevitable. Warhammer is based on a magic/medieval Europe, and the simple fact is that this is, inherently, a sexist background. Knights, mercenaries, warrior heroes… all of these (or at least 99%) were, like it or not, male. As for Warhammer 40k, it’s armies were developed around the mid-80s, clearly based on the UK and US armies of the day. How many women were there in front line troops at the time? None. But over time, things have changed in the real world. And, while GW has done some changes, it has been slow to do so because, let’s face it, the majority of it’s fan base is male. So, male minis are predominant. Which hasn’t stopped quite a few girls/women from playing. And GW is changing, slowly but steadily. I doubt that the Fantasy part will change much (women pikemen? heavy cavalry? no real setting for that) but, in 40k, the number of female charaters in the novels has been increasing steadily. Two of the alien races (Eldar and Dark Eldar) have females in their line troops (as opposed to dedicated “amazon” units). And there are a lot of people talking about this (female AND male) so I’m betting we’ll see females in w40k troops sometime in the future (just not in the Space Marines…). Besides… under all that body armour & helmet & backpacks, how do we know that half that infantry squad isn’t female?

Third… the models. Well, seen simply as the models themselves, yes they do seem sexist. BUT… the afore-mentioned Sisters Repentia are simply w40k’s version of medival Europe flagellants: half-naked fanatics who would roam the fields hitting themselves with sticks and whips, as penance for their sins. And these women HAVE fallen from grace: they are Sisters of Mercy who have been found wanting in their duties to their god-emperor. Hence, the extreme penance of going to battle with no armour. Warhammer Fantasy has a similar unit, the Empire’s Flagellants, fanatics who charge into battle half-naked, screaming “Repent!” (btw, this unit is all-male. sexism?). The elfs? Well, for that, one has to blame D&D and Tolkien! Seriously, does anyone know any Fantasy setting in which elfs don’t dress somewhat similar to that? I don’t… and that Dark Elf is a “Sorceresses of the Dark Covenant”. With a tittle like that, and a member of a race that relishes in torture, mayhem and deprivation, I’d be very surprised if she wore anything else…

Ms. Corbett is, apparently, a roleplayer. If so, I’m sure that 5mn perusing pretty much any RPG rulebook will turn up examples of sexism: anything from D&D, Vampire, Cyberpunk… all have scantly-clad female heroes…

So… is Warhammer sexist? Depends. The entire wargame/RPG hobby has sexist roots, but that doesn’t stop women from playing. In the end, it’s the players that make a game this-or-that: if your opponent is sexist, he won’t change no matter what minis he has, and when plays vs a girl he’ll probably make a fool of himself. If he isn’t, then he won’t even care about the sex of the mini (or of the opponent).

After I received this on Thursday I contacted Elizabeth and asked her if she would like to write a response to this as is her right of reply. Here is what she sent me:

Okay, addressing João’s points:

1. Whilst I appreciate that starting something by saying “I don’t actually do this” isn’t that great a beginning, I basically wanted to cover myself from people going “but what about obscure facts A, B and C? Why didn’t you take them into consideration?”. But one does not have to be an aficionado of something to have an opinion about it. It would have been disingenuous of me not to disclose that I know less than a wargamer does. I still know more than most people because of my roleplaying experience in the game worlds, and being (frequently unwillingly) lectured on the models, rules and fluff.

2. The idea that the armies are based on real-world armies is not one I am qualified to discuss. I will point out that women have served in battle on or off the front lines for thousands of years, usually unofficially (in disguise), but more than one culture has had all-female regiments at various times in history, and there has been integration into the army for several decades now in most Western countries.

I made this point in the article, but I’ll make it again: this is not a game based in reality. It is fantasy. The games designers were free to include women in heavy cavalry units or in Terminator armour if they chose to do so. They did not. Games Workshop have not addressed this (Eldar aside).

Also, you’re right that they could be any gender underneath the massive power armour they wear. The ones without helmets though? They’re all male. The power armour is an exaggerated male shape. When I look at them, I see tiny men, because that’s the way they were designed to be seen. That’s problematic.

3. Flagellants historically were monks who flogged themselves in their cells, not on the field of battle. The idea has been taken from history but is not being used in a historically accurate fashion. The church also issued an edict against them after a while; too many of them were dying.

Tolkein, for all his faults, made no mention of naked female elves. All of his elves were fully clothed. He in fact made very little mention of nudity at all. Even the story of Turin Turambar only has one instance of human female nudity, and there (SPOILER ALERT) is one amnesia episode and three guilt-ridden descents into madness.

I’m not arguing that the fantasy genre as a whole is better than GW at avoiding these clichés. I in fact deliberately didn’t mention it, because I didn’t see it as relevant to my argument. The genre as a whole being sexist as all hell is not a reason for GW to be sexist as all hell as well; it’s an excuse. I feel the same way about fantasy in general, do not get me started on Gears of War, and I can take all sides of the Tolkein debate by myself (and in fact have been known to do so when drunk). I also get angry at sexism in magazines, on television, in journalism, on the street, in Exalted, and in Jane Austen. Sexism is bad. Gender stereotyping is bad for men as well as women. It limits the way men behave, think, play and dress just as much as it limits the way women behave, think, play and dress.

Everything in the last paragraph, though, I agree with, except I would replace “depends” with “yes”. Thing is, it’s perfectly possible to play and enjoy something which you know is sexist (and racist, and homophobic). I do it all the time. Literally. But I feel really strongly that we should be aware of the faults of the things we love, as well as their strengths. Just because the game is sexist and racist doesn’t mean everyone who plays it is, or is complicit in it, or that everyone should stop playing it. It just means there’s a caveat: Beware of the sexisms. Here be racisms. Cave homophobia.

Thank you to both João and Elizabeth for taking their time to write to me. I think no matter how you feel about these issue, they are of paramount importance, especially if we want our hobby to be more broadly accepted.

As always, please feel free to leave your comments in the usual manner but please remember to be respectful.

If you would like to contribute to Trenchmates, please click here for further information.

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  1. 10/21/2012 at 17:10

    Reblogged this on Miniature Musings of a Bear.

  2. Little Dave
    10/21/2012 at 17:39

    Interesting articles and good blog in general Tim. I really only have two points to add:

    1. There is one solid instance of racial inclusion in 40K, the Salamanders regiment of SM’s are all black and are even a ‘hero’ figure in the genre. I’m not sure if this example of affirmative action could be considered a good or bad thing but there it is.

    2. One of the things that I find encouraging for GW’s future is that in the last 15 years there have been a steadily increasing number of female employees in the studio. The new digital editor of White Dwarf is a lady. Hopefully this slow (I mean continentally slow) shift will leave its mark on the company.

    • 10/21/2012 at 19:22

      Hi Tim

      1. Except Salamanders aren’t identifiably ‘black’ as a racial type they have ‘jet black skin and burning coal embers for eyes’; it’s stated as a mutation specific to the Salamanders so at best it’s tokenism at worst a description like that is problematic.

      2. I am not sure what you base that on? Certainly there are female employees at GW and the percentage may remain unknown unless its featured in their annual report like some workplaces do.

      Unless we see an actual female designer writing rules and background it really doesn’t count for much. Bethan is their digital editor. Before her there was another graphic designer also female around the time Island of BLood was released I can’t re all her name sadly. So the net impact to the design studio is actually zero. There has been no female input in the design process.

      The best you can hope for is an increase in writers in Black Library.

    • furyofmenasa
      10/21/2012 at 21:14

      Many thanks, however can I point out that my name’s John?

      I do know a Tim though, and the next Trenchmates article is written by him.

      • 10/21/2012 at 22:50

        Oops. Apologies.

  3. Little Dave
    10/21/2012 at 22:50

    Talima Fox has worked for GW for 16 years including as an editor on the design team, specialist games and now an editor/writer for Forge World. Hardly in the mainstream of the design studio but she does have an oportunity to have some input on this issue.

    I take your point though. My original recollection was that around 15 years ago is when I remember the first female member of the Eavy metal Team.

    As for the Salamanders: I agree, a problematic example at best.

  1. 04/22/2013 at 21:43

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