A common narrative in popular culture and media is that there always have to be a female lead, a feminine presence for viewers to identify with. It was very much the case with the Lord of the Rings franchise making its way to the silver screen (Arwen and Tauriel respectively), and it’s becoming more and more common for female lead or main characters to appear in media such as games, comic books and TV productions over the past few years.
Games Workshop, however, appears not to be a company that sticks with the notion of identification through gender. Browsing through their catalogue, you get an extremely limited amount of female models available – in fact, outside of elves/eldar, a few vampires and the Adepta Sororitas, you’ll be hard pressed to find even a handful of female models, and even less female characters with any substantial background or lore.
(For the record, I’m very consciously excluding Slaaneshi daemons as female models; as much as they’re designed with feminine visual aesthetics, they are also very clearly described as non-gender-specific and adapting their looks to the desires of the viewer; their models are also, in their current incarnation, physically neutered through the very obvious removal of breasts and nipples.)
But what about the lore?
My first thoughts about this subject arose when I read the current edition of Codex: Dark Eldar. As a Wych Cult aficionado, I was quite disappointed that the lore for master gladiatrix Lelith Hesperax now included, black on white, that she is not only the greatest arena fighter in all of Commoragh (which in itself should merit some regard) – she is also the personal favourite and occasional courtesan of Asdrubael Vect. I can only assume she took over the role when he discarded Lady Malys.
This small change of lore – or establishment of speculations, whichever way you choose to look at it – came fresh after reading the novel Neferata by Josh Reynolds (which was absolutely trash, and that’s coming from someone that loves the Neferata character and named his World of Warcraft rogue after her), and it dawned on me that in the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 lore, there are extremely few strong, independent and progressive female canonic characters. On top of my head, I count a few elves, a few vampires, Valkia, Commander Shadowsun, Shira Calpurnia, the Sisters of Battle, the Sisters of Sigmar and Elector-Countess Emmanuelle von Liebwitz. And when put under scrutiny, the amount of those names that even hold up to a standard of “strong, independent and progressive” is almost non-existent.
Look at the Adepta Sororitas (and the Sisters of Sigmar, since really, these are the same thing in different settings) – nuns serving the unrelenting faith in their God-King – operative word “King”. Be it Sigmar or the Emperor, the pantheon of these women is exclusively male. They are servants of the cloth, the operative word being “servant”. For all their might and presence, there is nothing independent and progressive about these orders. They are, in terms of gender equality and value, as neutrered as their Space Marine counterparts.
The same is true about the few named vampires – Neferata, Isabella von Carstein, Ulrika, and all of their combined handmaidens. Be it Nagash, W’soran, Vlad, their sires or even a daemonic presence in their soul, none of these women are even remotely interesting as anything else than a weak and unruly servant of someone, most commonly male (Isabella’s daemon is a daemon, granted, but it is exclusively referred to as male). It is especially visible in the case of Neferata, who is in many ways the “Eldar Avatar of the Old World” – a beatstick you throw in when the lore needs a villain of stature and might, that can still be conceivably beaten by whichever character requiring a decisive victory (her defeat at the hands of a goblin rabble in The End Times: Nagash was particularily pathetic). Add in that is she regularly humiliated by arch-nemesis and fellow female Khalida, who herself is little more than a pawn with lust for nothing but vengeance and serving Nagash, the picture is complete.
There’s Valkia the Bloody, whose primary ambition in life is to kill enough men to be found worthy of being Khorne’s courtesan. Theres the Elector-Countess, who is regularly described as a dilettante with little regard for anything else than luxury and politics. There are the Dark Eldar women, who seem united in their being nobody without the presence of Vect. A case can be made for Shira Calpurnia, but she is a minor character in a minor setting without even a model, army (Adeptus Arbites) or rules for the game system she represents. And then, there’s the elves.
Alarielle, who is the token wife of the king, and courtesan of Prince Tyrion. She’s also pretty nifty with magics, but don’t forget – she’s banging Tyrion. As much as she is portrayed as a strong character, her relationship with Tyrion remains her prime feature. The same is true for Orion’s wife – you know, that woman in lore that is the mother of the Sisters of Twilight, but never really does anything other than sit in her tree and maintain the weave (except when she gets her ass handed to her by Morghur), while Orion hunts. Her name is Ariel, by the way. Hellebron? If you remove from her the bloodthirst and eternal jealousy of everyone else’s beauty, you’ve stripped the character down to nothing. Which really is the case for Morathi as well, in all fairness. And Drycha’s only goal was only ever to free her master.
Which leaves us with Commander Shadowsun. A single character. But she fits the description – strong, independent, progressive. Too bad her species is about as gender-neutral as the Necrons or Tyranids – unless the tau are so far advanced that they have total and complete gender equality (cue the mixed sex showerscene in Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers). It’s easy to imagine her gender simply being a case of “that’s pretty cool” from the design team, instead of representing an actual attempt at creating something unique and progressive.
Games Workshop have a long way to go yet in terms of making their settings and lore more equal. A few authors, most notably Aaron Dembski-Bowden, have found ways to insert a female supporting cast in their novels and stories that feels natural and complementary to the setting, rather than forced. Because there ARE women in the 41st century, as well there were in the Old World and still is in the realms of magic.
The challenge is to remove them from the complementary role, and into leads, without making it forced. It’s a huge challenge for Gamed Workshop, but it’s nowhere near impossible. Just look to the entire Star Wars franchise, any of the three large Blizzard Entertainment settings or BioWare’s Mass Effect universe, even Magic the Gathering or Dungeons & Dragons. The female heroes, leaders and warlords exist.
It’s just a matter of releasing them upon the world.
All imagery in this article used ironically.