Monday, July 11, 2022

Stories told by Monsters - Part 5.4 The Female of the Species

The following is the eleventh entry in a 13-part article series. Click here for an overview and a table of contents with links to the various parts.

Breaking narrative limitations based on gender

One aspect that Fabius – and Josh Reynolds – dare to question about the story landscape that they are presented with is the gender-exclusiveness of the Space Marines.

The Space Marines are, for all intents and purposes, Warhammer 40.000’s protagonist faction. Despite popular works about regular humans like Dan Abnett’s Eisenhorn- and Gaunt’s Ghosts-novels, respectively about an Inquisitor and a regiment of the Imperial Guard, most of Black Library fiction tends to be written from the perspective of Space Marines. This is mostly driven by the dominant popularity of the Space Marines on the tabletop, where the Space Marines serve as the show-case faction for most of Games Workshops releases, their iconic look serving as an instant point of recognition and differentiation from other works of military science-fiction.

The Space Marines are also, per definition, exclusively male, which contributes to a deficiency regarding diversity in Warhammer 40.000.

On the tabletop, female models are few and far between, and even factions with an equal or even higher amount of female characters in the lore of the universe, like the Imperial Guard or the Aeldari, have few, if any, female models up for sale. The only faction that consists wholly of women, the Sisters of Battle, have had little support from Games Workshop over the years and have only a limited and expensive range of models, which makes them less attractive and accessible for new players.

Games Workshop seems to be taking steps to address this issue, with new model releases of female characters like Inquisitor Greyfax and the Aeldari Yvraine and finally announcing new models for the Sisters of Battle for the near future. Worth mentioning in this context is also that in Games Workshops fantasy-setting Age of Sigmar, the 2015-successor to 40k’s IP-cousin *Warhammer Fantasy Battle, *the Stormcast Eternals, Age of Sigmar’s showcase-faction of super-human warriors, canonically count female members upon their ranks (Games Workshop, 2018a). One of these female members of the Stormcast Eternals was even chosen to be depicted as the showcase-character on the cover of the Core Book for Age of Sigmar’s 2nd Edition (Games Workshop, 2018b).

With the Space Marines, the problem extends to their core concept. Since the crystallization of the 40k-IP in Warhammer 40.000’s 3rd Edition, the Space Marines are canonically exclusively male, with the genetic modifications needed to turn a human child into a Homo Astartes only applicable to male children. Despite the best efforts of the Black Library writers, this inevitably leads to a noticeable tilt in the gender representation in Warhammer 40.000-fiction: the majority of novels is written about all-male Space Marines as 40k’s most popular faction, one of the most popular novel-series of the IP is mostly fought out by all-male Space Marines and Primarchs, and more and more 40k-fiction set apart from the Horus Heresy links back to it, which further strengthens the all-male Space Marine-presence.

With a general trend to greater social awareness of feminism and issues of sexism and gender representation in reality as well as fiction, discussions about the possibility and the reasons for a lack of female Space Marines have become increasingly common in community-forums for Warhammer 40.000’s tabletop and fiction. Debates about this topic have become so common and tend to get so heated that some forums forbid the topic altogether or only allow it under strict oversight and moderation, warning that discussions will be immediately shut down if they spiral into insults or virtual yelling.

In those debates, arguments for female Space Marines point to the mentioned lack of representation for female players and readers as well as the freedom of Games Workshop to define their fictional universe in any way they wish, while arguments of those debating against the concept tend to centre on aesthetic preferences of the debater, the conceptual idea of Space Marines as caricatures of hyper-masculinity, more suitable opportunities to enhance female representation in the IP like an increased support for the Sisters of Battle, or the citing of in-universe reasons for why the science-fiction process of creating a Space Marines can only be applied to boys. Despite the heated atmosphere that tends to appear around discussions of the topic, there are reasonable and nuanced arguments to be made for both sides of it, and it has yet to be seen whether and how Games Workshop will address the issue of a lack of female representation in Warhammer 40.000 in the future.

Against the background of this on-going debate about female representation and the possibility of female Space Marines, Josh Reynolds wrote Primogenitor and later Clonelord. While the exact reasons for Reynolds to write the female characters of both novels the way they are – and how the male characters treat them – aren’t known to the author of this analysis, the characters of Fabius, Igori and Savona can easily be viewed as subversions of the ongoing opposition to the idea of female Space Marines and the dominance of male characters in the setting.

The existence of Igori alone subverts the premise of the all-male generation of super-humans that the Space Marines represent. On her first appearance, it’s quickly made clear that she and her brethren are equal, if not superior, to the all-male Space Marines.

“Gland-hounds. The New Humanity, as designed by Fabius Bile. Stronger, faster, more aggressive than the brief sparks [of humanity] that sheltered in the shadow of the Imperium.” (Primogenitor Lt. Ed., p. 70)

After Oleander gets ready to attack the implacable Igori, Arrian stops him:

‘I wouldn’t, brother,’ Arrian said, softly. ‘She is his favourite, currently. Look at that necklace of baubles she wears. What do you see?’

‘Teeth.’ Oleander said.

‘Whose?’ Arrian’s voice was a rasping purr. [...] ‘Space Marines, brother.’

The Gland-hounds were built to hunt Space Marines. Or, rather, their gene-seed. One on one, they were no match for their prey, but in a pack they could pull down even the most frenzied of Khorne’s chosen.“ (Primogenitor Lt. Ed., p. 71)

Later, Fabius explicitly questions the Emperor’s wisdom in limiting the Space Marine-process only to males, quoting the poem “The Female of the Species” by Rudyard Kipling:

“‘More than once, I have questioned the Emperor’s wisdom in bestowing his gifts upon but one half of the human race. For in man, as in all beasts, the female is the deadlier of the species. You are a thing of furious beauty, my dear [Igori], and never let anyone tell you different.’“ (Primogenitor Lt. Ed., p. 143)

Another character that subverts the premise of exclusively male Space Marines even more explicitly than Igori is Savona.

Savona gets introduced in Primogenitor as one of the Joybound, the Radiant’s sub-commanders, and is instantly noticeable for being a mortal champion of Slaanesh, and a female one at that. She commandeers her own host of Renegade Space Marines and is even considered by Oleander as second-in-line of the Joybound (Primogenitor Lt. Ed., p. 202), with himself only as fourth-in-line.

Risen to a position of authority by ferocity and martial capability, she is nevertheless faced with what amounts to institutional sexism amongst the Astartes. “She is not one of us [...] She is not a warrior of the Third”, another Joybound says to Oleander. Savona observes that, despite her being able to rise to a considerably high position amongst the Astartes, in the end “Legion will only follow Legion” (Clonelord, p. 48). Later in Clonelord, she notes the fact that “she had no rank, no authority save that which she earned by her own savagery, over and over again” (Clonelord, p. 107). And even amongst the warriors of the Emperor’s Children, for which limits are one of the last things that they consider a crime, “there was one taboo remaining [...] her hands were not worthy to take the life of a Legion brother.” (p. 107).

Clonelord features Savona more prominently as a loose ally to Fabius and the other protagonists after she survived the finale of Primogenitor and carries along with other members of the 12th company on the Vesalius (Clonelord, p. 107). The novel expands upon her backstory: Taken as a slave by Renegade Space Marines, she wholeheartedly took to worship of the God of Excess, murdering her Space Marine master at some point and stealing his armour.

The daemonic armour “found her to be sweet soil” and changed shape to fit her form. Tellingly, it didn’t just provide her with a powerful set of armour, but is specifically mentioned as to having grown a Black Carapace inside her, the last of the nineteen implantations that a male aspirant has to receive to become a Space Marine (The Origins of the Legiones Astartes, 1988). For all intends and purposes, Savona became a female (Chaos) Space Marine.

Two of the few characters treating her as such are the Clonelord himself and her fellow woman-in-a-man’s-world, Igori. Igori acknowledges as much while threatening her:

‘He made us to hunt your kind.’ [Igori] spoke softly into Savona’s ear. ‘To pry you open and fetch him the prize within. That was our purpose, and now, it is our joy. [...] It is the dearest ritual of our people, the cracking of ceramite and the cutting of the black carapace. You are our sacrificial animals, and we offer you up to him. [...] You are stronger than us, but we are many and our numbers swell. Soon, we will hunt the last of you, and that will be a day filled with sadness and rejoicing, for we will have fulfilled one purpose, and become free to find a new one.’

By continually using “you”, Igori makes no difference between Savona and the male Space Marines. While she is making a show of supremacy and talking down to Savona, she does so while acknowledging her as a fully-fledged Space Marine, no matter Savona’s gender or the means of her transformation.

On page 108 of Clonelord, Savona formulates what amounts to the Warhammer 40.000-version of a feminist challenge to an established oppressive patriarchy:

[...] she had begun to kill those who eclipsed her. Never openly, for to do so would surely turn the 12th Millenial against her. [...] instead, she let them do it, with only a quiet word of encouragement in the right ear, or a meaningful glance. Duels and rebellions, accidents and angry confrontations, whittling down the chain of command, one rusty link at a time. [...]

And once at the top [...] would begin the true work – breaking down the last of the old ways, and reforging them into a warband worthy of her. The 12th Millenial would die and be reborn as something stronger.” (Clonelord, p. 107/108)

Feminist theory on language and society has had an important influence on the development of narrative therapy, and Payne (2006) provides several therapeutic examples – both men and women - where the questioning of dominant narratives regarding gender are central to the therapeutic process of a person seeking therapy. On page 21, he writes about feminist theory informing narrative practice:

Taking gender as an example [for socio-cultural narratives], feminists have demonstrated how patriarchal attitudes permeate social institutions and popular thought, and how these assumptions lead to injustice. As a result, in some social circles traditional narratives about the ‘essential’ – and subordinate – nature of women are no longer taken seriously, although I believe that these ideas are often demonstrated in ways we do not recognize by those of us men who think of ourselves as liberal. A determination to keep alert to gender issues is characteristic of narrative practice, not only in giving attention to specifically gender-related problems brought to therapy, but also in a self-monitoring focus around the politics of therapy.”

Female representation in media and art has long been a subject for study, and there are numerous studies and scientific works discussing prevalent lacking and stereotypical representation of female characters across media (Gill, 2006; Brooks & Hébert, 2006; Collins, 2011). This includes, but is of course not limited to, the worlds of Warhammer 40.000, and the gender-exclusiveness of the most popular faction of the setting, the Space Marines. No matter if intentional or not, Josh Reynolds has provided two in-universe examples for the narrative value of what basically amounts to female Space Marines, which can rightfully be considered a feminist act. This is in line with the questioning, de- and re-constructing character of Fabius Bile as well as the awareness of narrative therapy for limiting and potentially harmful narratives, gender-related and otherwise.

Continue with 5.5 Ignorance, Thy Name is Fabius

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