Gender in 40K

Alright, I just did a post about religion in 40K, so I figured I’d move on to gender now. Nothing like controversy to make one think about the hobby as more than a diversion. This has actually been an issue that’s come up on Twitter and Bolter & Chainsword a few times lately so it’s been on my mind. I’ll just lay this out there to start:

I think Warhammer 40K has a much more realistic take on women than many geeky hobbies, but it’s still not a positive gender environment.

What I mean by that is; the few women who do appear in official fluff are fairly realistic and not hyper-sexualized as is typical of comics, sci-fi, anime, and most other games I can think of. However, there are simply so FEW women that I can’t really say they’re getting it right. It’s almost like Games Workshop is a little scared to take on the idea of women.

The most recent Knights material would have been a good chance to fix this a bit with retconned fluff, but instead they opted to make the women a ridiculous caricature of manipulative female stereotypes. I was very disappointed, needless to say. I liked most of the new stuff quite a bit, but the cheap reliance on a tired gender trope set things back a bit for me.

Of course, most of us think of Adeptus Sororitas when anyone mentions women in 40K, which makes sense. Sisters of Battle, for what it’s worth, are the faction that many cosplayers gravitate to (mostly women at that) and a fair few of them end up sexualizing the ladies. Why they should do so is beyond me, other than the fact that cosplayers and manga fans seem able to sexualize ANYthing. Whether you’re into it or not, they’re fans and GW can’t be blamed for what they do with the IP.

GW has always treated Sisters of Battle with a healthy dose of respect, in my opinion. Even the rather scantily-clad Penitents could hardly be described as ‘sexualized’ by most folks, I think. Having played the 40K-based RPG games, especially Rogue Trader and Dark Heresy, I’ve been happy to see that the women portrayed in those games are fairly realistic as well. The occasional sexy ladies easily fall within the bounds of balance with the ass-kicking or simply plain women with realistic figures throughout the whole body of work. There are some conventionally sexy women in real life, after all, so it would be odd to leave them out.

I’ve played table-top RPGs, video games, seen a lot of comics, and watched a lot of sci-fi that were a little porny (some very overtly so) and somehow, 40K has largely stayed above the fray. I still wish there was a more realistic balance in the factions. Imperial Guard especially should probably have a split between men and women unless we’re to assume that the Imperium still ascribes to wide-ranging cultural gender distinctions across many disparate planets. While this may certainly be the case, there is simply no mention of these norms in the fluff that I can remember. Eldar, both Craftworld and Dark, have more women in their ranks than normal, but nowhere near a 50/50 ratio. Maybe there’s a reason for that as well, but I don’t recall ever hearing it.

Perhaps the lack of gender diversity is the rule of cool at work, and the designers and artists just don’t like or feel comfortable sculpting and drawing women. I’d love to think it’s as innocent as that, even if it speaks to a rather sad reality about introverts and nerds.

In our day and age, women are increasingly joining active military roles and there’s no reason to believe this trend won’t continue. Seems far-fetched, amongst a galactic total war, that women wouldn’t be conscripted and tossed into the meat grinder along with everyone else. We all know you don’t need a lot of upper body strength to fire a lasgun in a gun line.

Some companies, like Victoria miniatures, are doing their level best to even the field in a very respectful way, but of course you couldn’t bring the models to an official tournament. Other trends recently have seen campaigns like Toughest Girls in the Galaxy and the notorious pinup series of Kingdom Death become huge hits. While some say they’re great for not conforming to standardized body expectations, and others decry them as shock-schlock, the bottom line is that they are very much sexualized and can be very alienating for some women.

I have a daughter, and like most children she is curious about my hobby and has expressed interest in doing some projects of her own. I don’t really feel conflicted about the sexuality in the game, but of course the violence and dark themes are more of a concern. She has also expressed interest in manga and comics, but I have SERIOUS misgivings about a lot of what I see there. If she were to ask me, however, why she couldn’t find more women models for an Eldar army she’s thinking about, I don’t know what I’d tell her. Games Workshop should take a look at the changing demographics of gamers, and perhaps consider maturing their image to keep up. Basically:

We need GW to step up and quit acting like women don’t exist.

What do you think? Am I crazy? I’ve had a few people seem surprised by these ideas, but I think in retrospect it holds water. 40K isn’t exactly bad for women, but it’s not great either.