In the Grim Darkness of Warhammer 40k‘s Far Future, There Are Only Men, and It’s Terrible
Hi. My name is James, and I love Warhammer.
Warhammer, for those of you who aren’t aware, is one of the longest running and most popular miniature games, created and developed by Games Workshop, and split into two settings: the fantasy version, Warhammer: Age of Sigmar (formerly Warhammer Fantasy Battle, something I am still very upset about) and the sci-fi setting, Warhammer 40,000 (AKA Warhammer 40k, or just 40k).
While I used to play Fantasy (and still theoretically do, even if I haven’t touched my collection since the shift to Age of Sigmar), this article will primarily focus on the more popular, and more widespread, Warhammer 40k. What is the focus of the article, you ask?
Well, if you love something, you must be willing to criticize it and acknowledge its flaws, and while there are many flaws with Warhammer, the one we’re here to examine today is gender representation of the grim darkness of the far future. You’d better settle in, because this is a doozy.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: For the purposes of this article, unless otherwise stated, we are assuming that every model’s gender lines up with their sexual characteristics. Obviously, it’s possible that your entire Space Marines Chapter identifies as women, but since we can’t ask the models how they identify, we have to base it on what the model looks like, and how the background is written. We’re mostly concerned with official representation anyway, as entering the hornet’s nest of conversions, headcannons, and proxies would drive the author to madness. [It would seem it already has...]
Let’s cut straight to the heart of the matter with the biggest and most well known aspect of the Warhammer 40k universe: the Space Marines. The Space Marines (extremely quick version: 7-foot-tall genetically enhanced soldiers) are easily the most iconic army in 40k and also by far the most widespread. They have six different armies: Space Marines, Chaos Space Marines, Space Wolves, Grey Knights, Dark Angels, and Blood Angels, and of the many people I’ve played with, only a handful don’t play one of them (myself included). They’re also the vanguard of the company and the setting as a whole, with so much more representation in novels, audio dramas and video games than any other faction, it’s frankly a little nuts. They are, in more ways than one, the face of not just Warhammer 40k but of Games Workshop as a whole.
And they can only be men.
I mean, they can’t only be men theoretically, and that’s where it gets irritating. See, according to the background (usually called fluff by those who play 40k), only men can be turned into Space Marines, because … you know what, the reasons are just too stupid to go into, and this immediately presents the first major hurdle when discussing the sexual politics of Warhammer 40,000: trying to actually discuss it.
See, the lack of any real female representation in the game is a well known issue, but whenever someone tries to bring up that maybe the largest and most pervasive army in the setting should maybe stop being a No Girls Allowed club, everyone will immediately inform them that Space Marines can’t be girls. Trust me, I know. This has happened to me. Repeatedly.
This is what Dan Olson called the Thermian Argument. If you want to go more in-depth, you should watch his three videos on the subject, but the basic idea is that this is a method of arguing around criticism by simply using the in-universe explanation for why something is the way it is to shut down the discussion.
So thus, whenever the subject of perhaps making a handful of the thousands of Space Marines female, the immediate response is that, according to the fluff, Space Marines can scientifically only be male. This is, of course, nonsense; the science of Space Marines is the science of creating a 7-foot-tall, 800-pound immortal super soldier, and any arguments about scientific accuracy go out the window when you remember that this monstrosity is supposed to be able to fly. The pseudo-science behind the lack of female Space Marines has a few lines about male chromosomes, but it’s all made up science for a made up world, so there’s no actual science stopping Games Workshop from changing it. There is no logical reason why Space Marines can’t be female. Period.
So we have a setting where the most powerful, well-known, and iconic faction is entirely male. This is already a poor starting point, since it pushes any and all female presence to the far background, but it’s only when one examines the gender representation of the other groups that we start to realize how bad this issue really is.
To get the fairly obvious out of the way, Space Marines are, as established above, entirely male. Adepta Sororitas, AKA the Sisters of Battle, are entirely female. (Don’t worryl we’ll address the Sisters in a bit. I’m getting to them.) Orks are supposedly genderless, being overgrown fungus (really), but are coded male from top to bottom, and are referred to by male pronouns, so they’re pretty much entirely male, as well. Necrons and Adeptus Mechanicus, being robots and humans who have been irrevocably altered with robotic parts, are functionally genderless. Tyranids are basically bugs, so again, genderless. Daemons are … well, demons, so their gender is basically nil, so we’ve got another genderless faction there.
That leaves with the Eldar (space elves), Dark Eldar (mean space elves), Tau (alien communists), Imperial Guard/Astra Militarum (WORLD WAR 2 IN SPAAAAAACE) and Inquisition (you know the joke) as vanguards of gender equality, easily less than half of the factions in the game. For the most part, even these factions fall far short of being anything other than a boys’ club.
To give credit where it’s due, some of these armies do pretty well. The Tau not only reference many of their warriors as being female with identical armor to the male versions of the same units, but also have an explicitly female character whose armor is completely nonsexualized. Similarly, the Dark Eldar have a high number of female models in their basic units, and while the predominantly female Wych Cult units dress … unfortunately, it’s not like their male counterparts in the Wych Cult units dress any better.
The Inquisition does pretty well, with female Assassins and Inquisitors scattered throughout. Not quite parity, but in this game, we’ll take what we can get (I do try to love this game, remember?) The Eldar do … okay, but not great. They have a handful of female models in their basic units, and an all female (or according to certain sources, all identifying as female, which is as close as we’re going to get to transgender models). They even used to have a fairly major female character, although Iyanna hasn’t had a physical presence in the game since 3rd edition (we’re currently on 7th), so not as good as the other armies, but not so bad comparatively, right?
Well, then we get to the Imperial Guard, which represents one of the biggest dropped balls when it comes to female representation in the grim darkness of the far future. I love the Imperial Guard. They’re probably my favorite faction that I don’t actively play, and I’ve always found them endlessly compelling.
See, while the majority of the armies in the game are genetically engineered super soldiers, fearless robots, mindless aliens, or just plain backed up by some incredibly powerful technology, the Imperial Guard are normal humans, given one of the worst weapons in the game and armor that won’t stop most army’s basic weaponry, and sent out in numbers often reaching up into the billions. I’ve always loved that aspect of them—the normal human set against a war so much bigger than them that they can barely even comprehend it.
Since they’re often deployed in the billions, you might find it reasonable to assume that they pull troops from both genders, and while you’d be right (female troopers are definitely in the background, and there’s even a lesbian couple in one of the Ciaphas Cain novels), there’s not a single female guard model in any of their dozens of units. Okay, there’s one: a sniper in Colonel Schaeffer’s Last Chancers … in an army that will typically field an amount of infantry that borders on the absurd (I’ve seen armies push 100 models in medium sized games).
What bugs me about that is how easy it would be to implement. A handful of additional torsos and heads, maybe some alternate poses, and bam, you’ve got yourself a mixed gender squad. The same technique has worked for many Dark Eldar and Eldar units, as well as (on the Fantasy side of things) Dark Elves and Wood Elves … why is it that Elves seem to have better gender diversity than humans in Warhammer?
Obviously, for some Imperial Guard regiments, a female soldier wouldn’t look much different from a male one, such as in Armageddon Steel Legion (widely known to be the best Imperial Guard regiment), but you can’t tell me a female Catachan model wouldn’t look kickass. For a setting so eager to rip off Aliens, they seem to have forgotten how awesome Vasquez was.
But there’s one more—one I mentioned at the top wen I was dividing the armies up by gender—one army that is entirely female. That’s the Adepta Sororitas, also known as the Sisters of Battle (and briefly known as the Witch Hunters). I’ve been saving the Sisters for last, because to me, the Sisters are special.
Sisters are one of the 5 full armies I currently play (alongside Eldar, Dark Eldar, Dark Angels and Mechanicus), and they’re one of my longest running, second only to Eldar. They’re also one of my absolute favorites, with a gorgeous model line and a fascinating background. The INCREDIBLY condensed version: They’re the extremely religious military of the human faction’s Church, but the Church is forbidden from having “Men under arms,” so their entire military has to be women. Oh, and when I say religious, I mean religious; their ability to perform miracles is literally a gameplay mechanic.
They’re also one of my favorite to play, with a unique and highly aggressive playstyle that I’ve always enjoyed. And, not to toot my own horn, but they have one of the best win/draw/loss ratio of any army in my collection, with 14 wins, 1 draw and 1 loss since 7th edition started. That’s not to say they’re a top-tier army by any means, but they’re definitely solidly middle tier, and my affection for them is far from isolated; just a few days ago, one of my friends in my local group expressed an interest in them.
The problem is, they are prohibitively expensive and incredibly difficult to collect. The model line hasn’t been updated since 2004, which means that instead of buying a single box of 5-10 plastic models for a unit, you have to buy between 2 and 9 blister packs of 1-3 metal models. No other army is still metal, which incidentally makes carrying them around a workout.
This makes them expensive to collect. I’m not going to bring up figures, partially because the cost is available and partially because I’m a tiny bit ashamed of how much money I’ve sunk into this hobby. So instead, an example: A few months ago, I played a 1250-point game with my Sisters of Battle (for those of you who don’t play, each model is worth a certain number of “points” to put into play, and an average game uses 1500-2000 points) and decided to do a quick calculation on how much that army would cost in dollars if I was buying it new. I don’t want to say the figure (again, ashamed), but that 1250-point army would have easily payed for 2000 points’ worth of my then recently started Dark Angels army.
The sisters also haven’t had a physical codex since 2011, which leaves the army in the position of having only 16 choices across the entire army (if that sounds like a lot, I should mention that most armies have 30 or more). It also means that if you want to play, you have to get the digital codex, which means either owning a tablet or lugging around your laptop. Due to the lack of different units, their armies tend to wind up looking … very similar.
That, friends, is why the lack of female models in the Imperial Guard is only one of the bigger missed opportunities for female representation. They have an incredible, unique, fun to play army, with a great background and brilliant visual design, sitting in their universe, that they are doing nothing with.
Sisters are currently trapped in a self-perpetuating loop. They’re prohibitively difficult and expensive to play, so fewer people buy them, so Games Workshop never gives them new models or a proper codex, so they remain prohibitively difficult and expensive to play, so fewer … you see the issue. I’m sure Sisters would sell fine if they got a proper update, but because they currently sell so poorly, they’re unlikely to ever get updated.
I can forgive a lot of Games Workshop’s problems with female inclusion. I can forgive that they assume their fanbase is mostly men, and thus they don’t need to include female models. I can forgive the cheesecake presentation of a lot of a lot of the women that are there. I can even forgive the stupid boob-plate the Sisters of Battle wear, if only because it’s not more ridiculous than a lot of what the other armies wear. Fun fact: A Blood Angels unit wears armor with six packs and nipples on them. Check it out. What I cannot forgive, much less understand, is why GW allows one of their best and most unique armies to languish without any support.
We’ve established that the state of gender representation in Warhammer 40k is a major problem at best, and a complete disaster at worst. So what’s the solution? Well, here’s one I seized upon while writing this article: I don’t know.
There are a lot of issues with female representation in most geek-related media, and while Warhammer is one of the most bizarrely lopsided, it’s not the only one, nor is it the most extreme, and people have been trying to find solutions to these problems for years. In Warhammer, for example, I’ve seen people try to pressure Games Workshop to expand their female representation via sales (last year, a large-ish group of Sisters players coordinated to buy a specific Sisters of Battle model in order to show GW that there is a market for them), petitions (I’ve seen several petitions to GW, for everything from giving Sisters an update, to just including female models in the Imperial Guard), or just plain talking them up (this very article). The problem is that we don’t know if any of it is having any effect.
Games Workshop is a big company, and it changes slowly when it changes at all. For all I know, they’ve already heard the complaints about the lack of female representation in Warhammer, and we just haven’t seen the effects yet, because the wheels are taking forever to move. I know they listen to their fans, as they eventually did with the 7th edition Fantasy debacle (again, an article for another day). The only thing to do is to keep up the pressure and make sure they know that people want to see more female representation in Warhammer.
… and you could play Sisters.