Imagine you’re in a city you’ve never been to before, and you’re in the mood to watch whatever sport it is you like. Your team’s playing tonight, and one of your friends has always told you to check out one of those big chain sports bars. There’s one in every city, always a place to waste a couple hours.
So you head out, sporting a t-shirt with your team’s logo on it, step inside…and every single person there is wearing another jersey. You’re conspicuous. Some of them are staring. Some of them are rolling their eyes. And everyone one of them knows you’re not from here.
Now imagine you can’t change your shirt.
Welcome to our hobby.
An imperfect analogy, to be sure, but it’s hard to underestimate the power of knowing that “people like you” are doing the thing you’re doing. Pursuing a certain degree. Working in a particular field. Moving plastic toy soldiers around a 6’x4′ table.
For me, it was the second semester of my freshman year. It was 8 PM, in one of the lecture halls of Olin Center. Ironically, for the purposes of the rest of this post, it was a feminist art history course. Women in Medieval Art and Literature. When I got there, I was the only man in the room (there would eventually be two, me and one of the co-professors). I was also the only freshman.
I was wrong. The professors were welcoming, the other students willing to hear my views, even when I pushed back on something, and in the end, it was one of the most enjoyable classes of my college career. But it also took time for me to really believe it, and feel welcome. And it took very visible effort on their part.
That’s why representation matters (or at least one reason). To get over that initial hurdle. That initial feeling of not belonging. To silence that part of your primitive rodent brain telling you that these aren’t your people. To have people to emulate, and to find a commonality.
In this hobby, I have a luxury – almost everyone looks like me. I look like I belong. I’m indistinguishable from nearly anyone else seriously considering buying another Wave Serpent, and I often just get a nod from shop owners. At most, “What do you play” or “Do you play?”. Never, in several decades and multiple continents, has anyone assumed I’m shopping for a partner.
I am welcome. And a great deal of that is because I am well represented.
But for women and people of color in the hobby, or looking to get into the hobby, that’s actively not true. They’re not well represented, and the experience of many of them (though by no means all) is that that lack of representation is a hard hurdle to overcome. Swimming against the current is tiring, and there are alternative uses of ones time.
The deepest level of representation is something out of our control, at least in the short term. More women, and more people of color in the hobby is not a switch you can simply throw – otherwise, believe me, Games Workshop would have. The beginning is in something that can be improved swiftly: representation in art, in advertising, and in armies.
Art. Art is…getting better. But is far from good. There are two women pictured in the Imperial Guard regiments section of the new codex, an Armageddon Ork Hunter and a Faeburn Vanquisher. The guard do however remain…conspicuously white. In the brand new Eldar codex, a race that’s often depicted slightly more representatively, outside of mass battle scenes there are a handful, though they are noticeably outnumbered. Some of the best representation comes from licensed properties – the Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader etc. RPGs, as well as video game characters like Lt. Mira, who was one of the better parts of Space Marine and pretty much the spitting image of what I imagine a competent Cadian officer to be like.
In the fiction realm, representation is also somewhat better, with a number of prominent female characters, even in Astartes-heavy books, where this is an uphill battle, and better representation of PoC.
Advertising. Here, Games Workshop has been doing much better. Recall the ad for some of the getting started kits, featuring this pair:
While the commentary of many people in the community was a hugely disappointing “neither one of them play 40K” (that was the slur free version…and how do you think that made the women and PoC who do play 40K feel?), the ad is aspirational. These are people Games Workshop wants playing. It’s a welcome formed of economic ambition, but a welcome none the less.
Which gets us to the last one…
Representation on the Tabletop
Representation in armies and miniatures is where things fall utterly flat. Want to play one of those Guardswomen? Tough. Your options are limited to two figures, both ancient sculpts, in the Last Chancers set. No Cadians, and no other regiments, including the Gaunt’s Ghosts set, which is ostensibly about a decidedly mixed-gender regiment. The Space Marines are, of course, a lost cause (a topic for another day). The Inquisition – again, a source for some excellent female characters – right now, you’ve got Death Cult Assassins, and that’s it. For a setting where, as many assert, gender is irrelevant because we’re all cogs in the horrific machine that is the Imperium, half of those cogs are conspicuously hard to put on the tabletop.
But What About the Sisters of Battle/Silence?
It should be noted that, at least as far back as the 3rd edition Codex (I cannot speak for the 2nd, I didn’t own Sisters at the time), the Sisters of Battle have never actually been an exclusively female faction. The Ecclesiastical component of the army has been ever-present, and largely male. And on more than one occasion, these elements have been essential to make a stripped down army list work. But lets concede the idea that one could make an all-female Sisters of Battle army – it still doesn’t get us all the way there.
Tokenism – having one of something that’s notably exclusively for that trait – isn’t inclusion. A bit of the hobby set aside for you isn’t being welcomed, it’s being tolerated. To go back to the restaurant analogy at the beginning, it’s like a table in the corner. And given the level of support of the Sisters of Battle, it’s like a table in the corner where you never got a fork, the wait staff forgot about you, and somehow beer costs way more than it otherwise should.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the Sisters of Battle. They’re just not a solution to the problem.
They’ve also got some deeply problematic elements to them, that even if they were enough, might still not be welcoming. Their figures universally have armor with very prominent and exaggerated secondary sex characteristics and the Sisters Repentia which draw very heavily on sexual imagery. More subtly, the very well fleshed out and evocative themes of the army – the notion of martyrdom, the way the Adepta Sororitas is deployed much more widely throughout the galaxy than the Astartes, etc. intersects poorly with them being the only notably female faction in the game. “Some women get slaughtered to show how serious everything is” is a well-worn trope in comics, SF/Fantasy and gaming, and it’s subtly pervasive in fiction (and not just fiction by Matt Ward).
TL;DR: The Sisters of Battle don’t mean we can rest easy.
But Girls Don’t Need an All-Girl Army!
No, they don’t. But if they wanted one – or even an army where there were fair number of female models in the army – they should have that option. Their own self-insertion characters. But again, representation is around that initial hurdle. People like you exist in this hobby. People like you exist in the setting.
And I have known women who have felt unwelcome because of the distinct lack of female figures in many lines. That all women might not feel that way is irrelevant – a loss to the hobby is a loss to the hobby.
But What About the Ungendered Armies?
This seems to come up a lot – the assertion that the Orks and Tyranids especially are ungendered, and thus somehow…”count”.
They don’t. One is an intelligent space fungus, and the other a bug.
I’d also challenge the idea that they aren’t gendered. Ghazghkull isn’t an “it”, it’s a “he”. So is Grukk Face-rippa. And Kaptin Badrukk. And Boss Zagstruk. Are you noticing a trend?
The Tyranids are more challenging. There are some gendered unit titles – the Dominatrix (in fluff), the Hive Crone, the Genestealer Patriarch, the Broodlord – but generally, the Tyranids are genderless. But again, this doesn’t really matter, because no one is looking for representation in insectoid horrors from beyond the stars. But that’s the thing – not everything has to be as long as there’s strong representation elsewhere. And right now, there’s not.
But What About SuperCoolSpecialCharacter?
Inquisitor Greyfax is awesome – it takes a special sort of person to give
Greater Daemon of the Emperor Saint Celestine the side-eye and mutter about witchery. And Yvraine is awesome, a throwback to the Eldar ancients of old, and one of the few beings to spit in Vect’s eye and live to tell the tale (though not without getting a boatload of her allies killed, as one does).
But they’re also not fully the solution, even if you ignore some of the stylistic choices in many special character models (like say, the prevalence of high heels on characters heading into battle…). The problem is these special characters are exactly that…they’re special. Relying on them for female representation is suggesting that while any joker who can hold a lasgun can get a model if he’s a man, a woman has to be exceptional to be worthy of representation in the setting.
That’s a problem. First, it doesn’t actually solve the “I’d like to make the regiments shown in the Codex” problem at all, and second, it’s an uncomfortable mirroring of a common and pervasive experience of many women best embodied in the phrase “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.”
But What About Victoria Miniatures/Sculpting Your Own? Aka:”Buy A 3rd Printer Noob!”
I’ll confess when I started writing this essay, I didn’t see this one coming – it’s a particularly flawed bit of reasoning brought to you by Twitter. I love Victoria’s Arcadians. I’ve reviewed her stuff twice now (Link 1 and Link 2).
But if we’re talking about welcoming someone into the hobby, working from that common initial scenario of walking into a game store, do you really think “Oh yeah, we only carry male Guard figures. If you want women, there’s a site online you can order them from. Except they’ll be 73% more expensive, in resin, and oh yeah, largely incompatible with the rest of the Guard line because they’re at different scales” is a welcoming message to send?
That goes double for the suggestion that you can sculpt your own or go to 3D printing. Remember that bit about expecting women to be exceptional in order to be represented? Expecting half the population to come to the table with advanced hobby skills in order to be represented is pretty much the living embodiment of that. And flies in the face of everything GW has done to make the game and the hobby more accessible – easy build models in colored plastic, a pretty foolproof paint system, a vastly simplified ruleset…
It’s just absurd.
Why Is this a Thing Now?
It’s been a thing for a long time – like many things, social media has made it easier to find discussions that used to take place in smaller groups. But “why are there no female Cadians” was a thing more than a decade ago – I know because I went in on a proto-crowd funding campaign with someone who was casting some. The quality was…well…what you’d expect from home casting a decade ago, but this is not new. This has mattered to me, and the women I’ve gamed with, for a long time.
As to why this is getting posted now? Games Workshop made an announcement, a move in the right direction, and it brought some voices out of the woodwork. I believe it’s important for those who support increased representation to speak up and say so – silence is, effectively, an acceptance of the status quo. And it’s an effort (or, to use a somewhat jargon-y term “emotional labor”) that shouldn’t fall only on the shoulders of the women in our hobby.
So What Is the Solution?
The solution is one Games Workshop has already talked about – to a considerable hue-and-cry. Increasing the models (and, hopefully, the in-game artwork) that represents women. GW did a very good job of this with some of the new Tau sprues – some of those heads are female, and it’s just not a thing. I’d love to see a re-designed Cadian sprue with the same thing – enough heads to at the very least make a mixed gender unit.
And I’d like to see them in different styles. For the most part (though not exclusively) the female characters that do exist are highly sexualized. They’re wearing corsets and high heels. Someone who wants to represent a male Inquisitor has options from Hulking Dude the Size of a Space Marine to more standard power armor to the classic “Van Helsing” Inquisitor look. If you want to represent a woman? You’ve got Greyfax and a very particular aesthetic.
What I want is to be able to build Lt. Mira out of the box.
And those that think that that request is an attack on the hobby I’ve been a part of for a really long time?
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