Gender Representation in Fantasy Settings: Single Sex Race Trope

I think that gender representation problems in popular fantasy settings is a topic that is too broad to cover in just one post. There is a lot to be said about the problematic way in which a lot of settings (both in literature as well as in rpg and tabletop games) treat gender dynamics. I’m not even going to attempt to try covering all of it here. I just wanted to open up this topic with something narrowly focused enough to cover it in a single post. Let’s start by by showing you this small excerpt from the Wahammer Skaven Army Book written by Jeremy Vetock which made me wince:

Skaven Army Book Excerpt

Skaven Army Book Excerpt

If you read this and you don’t see anything problematic with the paragraph indicated by the read box let me explain. I think the purpose of that entire paragraph is to hand wave away the reason why there are no models available that depict Skaven women. Apparently they are sub-sentient, baby making machines kept in breeding pits. This kinda sucks.

Please note that the lack of female Skaven models doesn’t bother me that much because I imagine they’d be pretty weird. I have a feeling the GW sculptors would somehow try to make them “sexy” and I just don’t think that’s the way to go. You see, Skaven are evil, back-stabbing mutated rat-people so sexualizing them would be kinda weird. I’m actually quite ok with there being no plastic miniatures depicting rat-girls wearing chainmail bikinis that barely cover their human-like brests. I’m fine with the anthropomorphic rat army being full of hunched over, toothy little ugly monsters of indeterminate sex. But that paragraph in the book is kinda sexist and reductionist. It gives the entire species a weird ultra-patriarchal spin that’s not necessary and probably not even intended to be part of their lore.

Granted if your intention was to create an evil patriarchal-nightmare monster society then breeding pits and sub-sentient females would probably be a way to go about it. But that does not seem to be integral part of the Skaven lore and flavor. Outside of this small paragraph, Saven women are never really mentioned anywhere else in the book. The breeding pits have no special significance, and most of the descriptions are not gender specific. So the literal objectification of Skaven females seems to be almost an afterthought. It is something the lore writers seem to have added at some point when they decided they needed an excuse for the lack of bikini clad rat-girls in the army. Or at least that’s how it feels to me. If you skip that one paragraph, nothing actually changes. No other lore is impacted by the omission and nothing else is lost.

Skaven Picture

This is how Skaven look. You probably don’t want to see a sexualized, fetishized version of that.

The Skaven are supposed to be magically uplifted rats – or at least that’s one of the theories on how they came to be. If you ever had rats as pets, or played with them in a pet store you probably have noticed that it is not actually that easy to tell their gender at a glance. You more or less have to pick them up, flip them over and look at their genitals. The same is true for hamster, guinea pigs, rabbits and other types of rodents. They are typically not very sexually dimorphic. Both males are females are typically similar size, and have little to no outwardly visible secondary sexual characteristics.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that for Skaven gender actually works the same way. A fully clothed Skaven female is virtually indistinguishable from a Skaven male – at least to an outsider who does not possess a keen sense of smell that could help in making this distinction. And just like that, problem is solved. There is no need to create bikini clad rat-girl models, because existing models are perfectly suited to represent members of both sexes. In fact, you can say that any Skaven army out there is going to be roughly 50% female by population. Wouldn’t this approach be much better than the rather sexist “sub-sentient sex slaves in breeding pits” idea?

The above is an example of a single gender race trope which is rampant in rpg, tabletop and video game settings and which I personally loathe. Why? Because almost always it is reductionist and sexist in nature. Very rarely does it have any narrative purpose other than excusing the writers or lore makers from having to come up with a diverse roster of characters.

Dwarfs are another classic fantasy race that gets hit by this trope a lot in just about any setting. I vaguely remember reading a similar cringe-worthy paragraph in a very old Dwarf army book which explained that the ratio between the genders is like 12:1 and therefore Dwarf women are considered “too valuable” to be allowed to leave their houses. Fortunately, more recent editions of these books wisely omitted any such bullshit statements. In fact, once upon a time Games Workshop even had a “Dwarf Queen” model available:

Dwarf Queen Helga

Dwarf Queen Helga

They get bonus points for making her grumpy and fully clothed rather than somehow trying to get her into a chain-mail bikini. Sadly the model has been out of production for quite a while now, and the Dwarf army range is back to being all-male once again. That said, being a rebel I’ve been supplementing my own Dwarf collection with non Games Workshop models in order to add some gender diversity to my force. There are some excellent female Dwarf models out there from Reaper Miniatures and other smaller vendors. Here are some examples for you:

Dwarf Women

Dwarf Women

From left to right, these are: Freja Fangbraker from Reaper Miniatures, Dwarf Girl from Scibor and Haela from Hasslefire Miniatures. I’m using Freja one as one of my Thanes, and Haela just chills out in my Dwarf Rangers unit. I have a list of dozen other models like this from various vendors somewhere. Let me know if you are interested and I’ll share it in the comments.

The mere existence of models like these sort of renders the entire concept of the single gender race indefensible. You can look at these and immediately imagine how they could fit into the Dwarf society and the Dwarf Army. Freja is wearing heavy armor and has a look of sheer determination on her face – she seems like a serious military type, perhaps even a leader who would be fighting alongside her bearded brethren. Haela on the other hand looks very young, and seems like a free spirit – someone who would tag along and adventure with a group of rangers, dreaming of one day slaying a dragon or two. Their back-stories almost write themselves from the miniatures. There is typically no reason why there shouldn’t be more female Dwarfs in the lore and in the army books other than… Well, deeply internalized sexism and objectification of women really.

It is kinda sad, but that’s really the truth of it. There are plenty human and elf characters who happen to be women, but that’s typically because they are easy to sexualize and put in a chain-mail bikini or revealing robes. They are easy to make pretty and attractive because they can be lithe, slender and have the idealized but unrealistic body proportions of a comic-book heroine. Dwarfs on the other hand are short and stocky and thus their women can’t be easily morphed into a shape that can be readily objectified as a sex object. So a lot of artists or lore writers simply don’t want to be bothered drawing or creating women that do not fit some narrow definition of attractiveness.

Of course not all single sex races are male. Sometimes the pendulum swings the other way and you end up with something like the Asari from the mass effect universe. Unfortunately making all the members of the race female does not make the whole idea any less sexist. I honestly think that Asari were designed to be an all-female race so that Bioware could get away with having sexy space lesbians in their universe, which they could then use to sneak same sex romance into their first game. I mean, they get points for at least trying to promote sexual diversity (and they did a much better job of handling this sort of thing in their later Mass Effect games) but you have to admit that the whole idea of “see, technically this not gay because they are aliens and their gender doesn’t work that way” is deeply problematic on many levels.

I guess my point is: single sex races are always a bad idea. Unless your goal is to explore social issues involved with extreme patriarchy (or matriarchy or whatever) though a lens of a fictional species, there are almost always better ways to handle it. First step of course is to ask yourself why would you even want a single sex species to begin with? Why is it important?

If you simply don’t want to be bothered making different models/designs for both sexes you are approaching the problem from a completely wrong direction. Consider the following alternatives:

  • No Sexual Dimorphism – as with our Skaven example, not all species have pronounced secondary sexual characteristics that make males and females look distinctly different. For example, if you want to have an intimidating looking warrior dudes in your universe you can just say roughly 50% of them is female, but most humans can’t tell the difference and they themselves don’t really give a shit about gender.
  • Genderless or Gender-fluid – if you want an idea of how to create a species in which gender is fully fluid and thus have no bearing on social interactions or one’s identity, I highly recommend reading Left Hand of Darkness. In that book Ursula K. LeGuin depicts a society of hermaphroditic aliens who exhibit no gender whatsoever outside of short mating seasons, during which they can assume either male or female characteristics.
  • Completely asexual – you can also have a species roughly based on colony insect model, in which workers and/or warrior drones are sexless and genderless. It would not be a big stretch to imagine that they would be sent to adventure, fight and interact or negotiate with aliens and outsiders whereas the members of the species with breeding capabilities would stay home and… Breed, I guess.

If you would be willing to create an alternate model/design, but you can’t figure out how to make it “sexy” or how to make a “masculine” version of your sexy species, then stop right there. You are doing it wrong. Your reasoning and your design is flawed and needs re-thinking. Women of the species do not need to conform to some narrowly defined set of standards of beauty defined by popular culture and advertising. Men of the species do not need to have to be masculine macho dudes. Making your species single sex because non-standard depictions of gender makes you uncomfortable is kinda shitty thing to do and people will call you out on it.

If you really do want a single sex race, it needs to make sense. You can’t just say “they are all dudes” without a good narrative reason why a species would evolve that way. Or rather, you need a good excuse as to why this choice is not just a symptom of your own deeply internalized sexist tendencies. It can be done right sometimes. For example, I would say that the Khepri from Perdido Street Station are the least shitty example of this trope. And that’s because there is a built-in narrative reasoning behind this choice. China Miéville wasn’t using the trope to create a sexy-chick or ugly-warrior-dude species as this is usually the case. He chose to subvert this trope, purposefully making the Khepri somewhat unsettling scarab-headed women.

In the Bas Lag setting, Khepri females are sentient, cultured and humanoid, while males are just unintelligent crawling bugs. Their society is divided on the issue of how the males of the species should be treated. Most Khepri consider them as expendable pests that are as expendable as they are plentiful. They kill males the same way humans squash insects – with no second thoughts or remorse. There however exist factions within their culture that worship the tese non-sentient scarabs and considered them to be sacred. They consider the well being of the males to be of utmost importance and view themselves as their care-takers and servants. Neither of these philosophies is poised as the correct one, and it is left as an exercise for the reader to figure out how they feel about it. In essence Miéville subverts the single sex species trope twisting it into an interesting sociological thought experiment. This is why it works.

Unless you are willing to commit to something like that, single sex species is usually a bad idea. Khepri are an exception to the rule that proves a point. They work, and are interesting mostly because the single sex race trope is so deeply entrenched in Fantasy that seeing it flipped on it’s head and subverted makes it stand out in a positive way.

Then of course, there is the issue of gender not being a binary two-state system that society wants it to be. In real life gender exists on a rather wide spectrum, which is something that is almost never even hinted at in popular culture. But that’s a topic for a whole other discussion.

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9 Responses to Gender Representation in Fantasy Settings: Single Sex Race Trope

  1. StuartB UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    I’m interested in learning more about the Warhammer 40k universe and mythos. Mostly because that one Xbox 360 game a few years backed looked really interesting.

    Where should I start? Is there a book series or directory that would be a good starting spot?

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ StuartB:

    Err… Don’t know if spam or thread jack. Did you accidentally comment on the wrong post or something? Sigh… Alright, I’ll bite.

    Warhammer 40k is a setting for the tabletop battle game by Games Workshop. You can a good chunk of the lore and the rules for the game in this rulebook. The rest is spread throughout the Codex supplements for each army. The setting is kinda fluid and it gets frequently modified and expanded every time there is a new edition of the game. There are bunch of licensed novels that use the setting and I believe all of them are considered as cannon if blessed by the Games Workshop and 40k logos. That said, there isn’t one definitive book series that is considered to be the entry point to the universe. I think the 40k rulebook is considered the gateway drug here.

    If you want to read some 40k lore for free the Lexicanum and 40k wikia are pretty good resources. Also /r/warhammer – browse the links in the sidbar for lots of external sites and resources.

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  3. StuartB UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    Shoot, sorry, didn’t mean to thread jack. Thought I had read somewhere above (as I glanced briefly at the article during work before reading it just now) about talk about W40k. Apologies for that, but thanks for the reply!

    My mind must be playing tricks on me at work…

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ StuartB:

    Haha, no worries. I did mention Wahrammer, but of the fantasy variety. GW essentially has two main battle games: Warhammer 40k and Warhammer Fantasy. They are separate games with different rules, and separate lore though there is a bit of overlap. I think an unofficial fan theory is that the world of Warhammer Fatnasy is some lost low tech planet in the 40k universe, though I don’t think Games Workshop ever officially made that connection.

    So you probably read Warhammer and your mind subconsciously added 40k on its own. :P So I guess it is actually kinda on-topic.

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  5. Alex UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux says:

    Just thought I’d chime in with another take. (Granted I know nothing about this universe, so don’t take me too seriously.)

    I was wondering if there were naturally occurring Earth species that exhibited similar male to female ratios or behaviors and found this wiki about it. Apparently alpine marmots (sort of rats) have this odd, high male to female count thing.

    I don’t know if it’s sexist or not, and I’d be willing to bet your interpretation is correct. Just figured I’d see if there was a way that it wasn’t sexist. No clear answer. Thanks for making me think!

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  6. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Alex:

    Well, if you dig deeply enough you’ll find examples of all kinds of oddball breeding practices in wildlife. Parthenogenesis is not entirely uncommon among insects, crustaceans and some species of reptiles. So it’s not that “single sex species” can’t exist in nature. I just feel these types of species are over-represented in SF in fantasy (most settings seem to have at least one or two).

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  7. I think Terry Pratchett’s take on dwarves was the best. He did the no sexual dimorphism. There’s a quote which I’m now going to mangle…
    “Most of dwarven courtship is finding out very carefully what sex your partner is”
    So that drunk dwarf trying to headbutt you at groin level could be female or male, and you’re probably never going to know. Heck, why should it matter to you, if it doesn’t matter to them?
    And while I’m at it, why are boobs the automatic add to make female? Most mammalian species only have breasts as we think of them while nursing young. You could do some very interesting things with other anatomical features and they never do. It’s always boobs. Sigh.

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  8. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Melfina the Blue:

    Uh, there was a really good article that I read about how Pratchet’s notions about gender issues evolved over the years. Some of his early work was like “lol, poor nice guy Rincewind can’t get laid” then over the years supporting characters like Granny Whetherwax evolved from background jokes to being central to the entire franchise and become some of the most well realized and fleshed out female characters in popular fantasy. Can’t seem to be able to find it though.

    As for the boobs, you are right. Half the time the boobs don’t even make sense anatomically – like putting them on a lizard lady or something.

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  9. Sir_Jeffrey_Hudson Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Excellent article with lots of very good points. It’s always refreshing and encouraging to see nerdy feminist dudes.

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