Games Workshop may have talked themselves into a corner with their lack of female Space Marines, but future potential remains.
The most iconic figurines of the tabletop strategy game Warhammer 40,000 are the ‘Space Marines’ – impossibly tall and muscled human males encased in armour with huge shoulder pauldrons and even bigger guns.
Upon introduction to the franchise, one might legitimately ask where the female space marines are. The background (or ‘fluff’) clearly specifies that only males are capable of being put through the long, tortuous process of physical alteration and brainwashing required for the creation of a space marine.
A fan of the game and its background might expect that to satisfy the questioner. But, of course, Warhammer is not real. It’s a fictional universe, and each element was added as a conscious choice. The truth is that early versions of Warhammer 40,000, or ’40k’ did in fact include female space marine models.
The retail outlets requested that those products be wound down, because they simply did not sell. This is not surprising in a society still riddled with sexism, compounded by the overwhelmingly male player base of the late 1980s.
It’s not as simple as the boys not being interested in playing with girls, however. The issues begin on the design end. The makers of Warhammer have long been known for their failures in attempting to produce models of women, particularly women’s faces. The assumption of male as default plays double duty in creating this barrier. The sculptors themselves lack practice, and the expectations of the fans are higher than they should be.
The majority of space marines are covered head to toe in bulky powered armour. It would not be a leap to suggest that some of the biologically enhanced warriors encased within happened to be women. Even slight tweaks to the proportions of some models could have left enough wiggle room for the models to be ambiguous, especially given the quality of sculpts at the time.
But the expectations of a female model having ‘feminine’ elements to distinguish it from a male model would render that more difficult than it needed to be.
This is compounded by the fact that warhammer is produced in a ‘heroic’ scale, meaning features which are deemed important get exaggerated – the face, the hands, the weapons – in proportion to the rest of the body. Since male is seen as the default, designers feel compelled to exaggerate elements in order to make a model ‘read’ as female.
When they moved to the mass production of space marines, they sold them in packs of three. Instead of making one in three of their iconic models ‘distinctively’ female, they chose to have them all male, and explain it away in the fluff.
Strangely enough, the in-universe explanation for the lack of female space marine models has not been carried over to other factions. The Astra Militarum, ordinary humans organised into something resembling a modern military, is known to recruit pretty much anyone who can hold a laser rifle. And yet their plastic kits have only ever included men.
Female models are confined largely to the Eldar, a faction of space elves who are generally androgynous anyway, and the Sisters of Battle, who telegraph their female nature both in miniature and in the background of the setting.
Games Workshop have written themselves into a corner by justifying the lack of female space marines in-universe. Lore explanations provide convenient ammunition for those seeking to reinforce their own pre-existing sexist attitudes.
‘Space Marines are an elite force – the best of the best. It makes no sense for them to recruit any women when they could take men instead.’
Changing the background now, after 30-odd years, risks undermining the elaborate fictional universe they have created for the setting, which includes an enormous list of novels as well as other materials.
However, there are already canon examples of non-space-marine space marines: people who have undergone an alternative process bringing them to a functional equivalent of space marine physicality. Oddly enough, all of these characters have also been male – even though there is no inherent reason why a woman could not be enhanced to the level of a space marine.
The Space Marines will always be the iconic figures of the Warhammer 40k line, and in the short term they will most likely remain male, even as Games Workshop’s fantasy line dips its toe into having the occasional female superhuman analogue.
But the Astra Militarum represents ordinary humans standing in the face of intergalactic horrors, armed only with what fans lovingly refer to as a ‘flashlight’. If Games Workshop is interested in increasing the number of women amongst their models, they could begin by showing that women are just as capable of shining a torch into the eyes of an alien monster as men are.