Warhammer’s race and gender problem

Rigg's Shrine title card

Still working through my Age of Sigmar inspired recent obsession, I came across this post on Kieron Gillen and Matt Sheret’s Hipsterhammer Tumblr about the problematic nature of many of the new “rules” found in Age of Sigmar’s War Scrolls. This is of course true to the extent that you can take them seriously at all. But at the same time, the sad fact is that Warhammer has never not been problematic in terms of its presentation of disability, race and gender. And in many ways, it appears to have gone backwards since the 80s.

Map of the Known WorldPart of the problem is also what I praised in my last blog post: the impressive background developed for the Warhammer Fantasy RPG. Before then, the Warhammer setting was pretty much a free for all and several developers went off in several different directions. The “Known World,” very closely modelled on our own, included its own analogues of the Americas, Asia and the Middle East, even if the non-European-analogous bits were notably smaller than they are in the real world. The first “scenario pack” published for Warhammer 2, “Blood bath at Orc’s Drift” was set in the New World/America. Citadel Miniatures produced a range of miniatures based on different cultures, even if many of them never rose above the status of racial caricature, the pygmies being one especially notorious example.

Warhammer Pygmies were transposed from the African analogue to the South American one, Lustria. Lustria itself was probably the most detailed setting GW produced during the Warhammer 2 era. It was the setting of the introductory scenario included in the base set (“The Magnificent Sven”) and was revisited a couple more times in the irregularly produced Citadel Compendium (“Rigg’s Shrine” and “The Legend of Kremlo the Slann”). It was an interesting mix of Aztec and Mayan mythology mixed with von Daniken and punk, with Norse settlers battling with the indigenous ambiphibious Slann and the Amazon’s.

All of this was highly problematic, post-colonial material. But at least it existed. The fleshing out of the “Old World” and particularly its Holy Roman Empire analogue The Empire, lead to development of any other part of the setting essentially ceasing for at least a decade. GW didn’t return to Lustria until 1996 in which a radically revised version of Lizardmen were introduced and the Slann relegated to a more background position. The Amazons and Pygmies were simply written out. But at least the Americas (with North America now mainly populated by Dark Elves) were represented at all. The rest of the world was pretty much written out.

What we ended up with was a vision of a world in which the World of Men is limited to Europe, beset on all sides by bestial, evil and debauched races. It’s hard to see the Warhammer World as much more as the warnings of the Daily Mail and British National Party taken to its ultimate extreme. No wonder it blew up.

In terms of gender, the situation is, if anything, even more dire. The Amazons, in 1984, are the first and only attempt to create a female figure range for Warhammer Fantasy (the fact that Warhammer 40,000 had the Sisters of Battle is a rare example of 40k actually managing to out-diversify something). And no, the hermaphroditic Daemonettes of Slaanesh don’t count, even if they have become more female over time.

Why does this matter? GW are of course welcome to do whatever they like. But I’d argue that this lack of diversity simply compounds the lack of groundedness that has come to typify their fantasy setting. If you can’t imagine any of these characters having families and a hinterland, and the world is so lightly sketched that almost an entire hemisphere was completely unexplored by the time it is destroyed, no wonder it had failed to capture the imagination. And if you aren’t a while male of European descent, you are being offered nothing to identify with.

This runs contrary to the direction that the rest of the tabletop industry seems to be going. Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder are in a competition to out diversify the other; Android Netrunner, which has had gender and ethnic diversity baked into it since its latest incarnation was launched, is about to focus on Cyberpunk India for six months. Fundamentally, these companies are not doing this out of the good of their hearts, but because they want to reach out to a more diverse paying audience, and to revitalise a bunch of tropes which to everyone other than an increasingly dwindling minority of their existing audience has become extremely dull.

Age of Sigmar could be an attempt to reach out to a more diverse audience as well. Thus far, however, the only audience it looks set to appeal to is the existing Warhammer 40,000 market. If we are going to see greater ethnic and gender diversity in their miniatures range, it is not apparent from their new starter set, which appears to be as hyper-masculine as Warhammer has ever been.

Imagine if GW had gone the other way. Imagine if, at the end of their End Times metaplot they had blown up the Old World and instead begun to explore the rest of the Known World instead. Meeting the bedraggled remnants of a fallen Empire on the battlefield could have been a bright and colourful range of new civilisations. We could have revisited old ideas like the Amazons, updated for the modern era, explored rich civilisations in the analogues of Africa, the Indian sub-continent, China and Japan. I can’t be alone in thinking that would have been so much fresher and exciting than the rehashed content they have instead come up with.

Maybe we’ll still see something similar emerge out of this, but I somehow doubt it.


  1. Very interesting post, and thanks for linking to my post on the Pygmies.

    One of the issues briefly touch upon – the post-colonialism of late Warhammer, is that the Warhammer world used race as it’s primary organising principle. Race determines which army you belong to and which geography you belong in and defines the material culture. Warhammer is quite literally a race-war. Whether this continues with Age of Sigmar when each race appears to exist in it’s very own “reality bubble”, or whether integrated mixed-race warbands become the order of the day remain to be seen, but it’s a problematic way of constructing a fantasy world.

    Regards gender, I’m not sure why the daemonettes of Slannesh are to be avoided, they are probably the most interesting and perhaps fruitful area of gendered representation in Warhammer – an exposition of the feminine as mutant, not a thing in itself but rather a demonic perversion of the normalcy of the male body. Hypersexualised Witch Elves – the earliest incarnations of which were represented very much as equal warriors of their male counterparts (and based on the matriachal Drow of AD&D) , rather than swimsuited psychopaths in fetish boots they are now, also underline an attitude towards the feminine dominated by the male gaze. Alternatively the Wood Elves have long represented an alternative, somewhat feminised masculinity, often quite jokingly portrayed in early Warhammer as dandies and fops – but characters like Orion seemingly draw heavily on neopagan (Wiccan) constructions of masculinity.

    One of the reasons I hope GW don’t return to the Amazons is that I doubt they could make them without falling into the sexualised tropes they use to represent other females. Their design ethos these days seems to be to over-exaggerate and polarise everything, there is little room for the subtleties required.

    All interesting stuff. Cheers! Zhu

  2. My only point about Daemonettes was that they are hermaphrodites not women, and that’s a whole different topic. Intersex has always been problematically portrayed in Warhammer; on the other hand, Power Behind the Throne is where I first learned about gender neutral pronouns and that non-conventional gender identities even existed. It’s a bigger topic than I’d feel comfortable going into, especially since I understand that the portrayal of Daemonettes has developed significantly over the last 25 years and I’m out of touch.

    I agree about how GW would portray Amazons now given its current mindset, although they weren’t overtly sexualised in the early days. Once again, the solution appears to be to prise Warhammer out from GW’s hands.

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