Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Why Can't Warhammer Have Female Space Marines Anyway?


There are few better ways to drag a forum thread to hell than ardently demanding female space marines around Warhammer veterans. Really, you might as well steal raw meat from lions for all the drama it can (and will) cause. From frustrated players tired of this coming up time and time again, people using it as an platform to bash the hobby with accusations of sexism to copious amounts of Rule 34, the results are truly spectacular. It obviously doesn't help that the subject itself is one massive can of worms, especially when it comes to the questionable science justifying the mono-gendered army.

However, no one sees to fully explain or analyse just why female warriors can't join the ranks of the astartes, or examine what the results would be if they did. Welp, after seeing one too many threads bringing up this very point, it seemed best to finally offer curious folks an answer in full.

Let's start this with the sticking point which so much of this hinged on, a single line from the Index Astartes stating the following: Space Marine implants require the presence of a Y-chromosome to function. It's a key point within the astartes and unfortunately it's one of the lesser moments of that otherwise stellar series, deviling into such dubious biology that it has been questioned time and time again. This has been further expanded upon in some sources in the past to suggest that it is required as the Emperor and primarchs themselves were both male, but even then that's a less than satisfying answer. In many regards it's a downright terrible one.


While this tidbit of lore does supposedly put a stopper on the subject it's almost just hand-waving away any questions rather than delving fully into it. After all, from this we're supposed to believe the Emperor had such masters of genetic weaving under his control that they could create the very primarchs themselves, but could only get a more rudimentary enhancement to bond with half of humanity. Questionable doesn't quite cut it, and it's because of this reason that so many fans seem to keep coming back to this subject, trying to break or alter the canon to suit their needs. A point which is all the more frustrating when there is an equally similar answer which could help to justify such a limitation - Genetic compatibility.

Consider for a moment what an astartes is, really think about it for a moment. Think of the worlds they are taken from, the environments they use as their recruiting grounds and the people the hunt for. In populations of millions - often even billions - they will search for the select few, that small handful of warriors who are bloodthirsty, driven and devoted enough to suit their needs. To find even a dozen among a thousand is considered a small miracle in of itself. These are the kind of recruits Conan the Barbarian would merely be an average Joe among, and the horrific trials intentionally whittle down their numbers until only very best remain. 

Once their arduous trials are completed however, then comes the final examination which marks genetic comparability with the primarchs themselves. This isn't simply some test to see if they are strong enough to survive the test, but if they are "genetically pure" enough to match the chapter's own genetic gifts. This isn't down to personal endurance (though that certainly helps), skin colour or even their world of origin but if their very DNA is close enough to accept being the enhancements. This rejection claims nearly as many aspirants as the tests among some chapters, and it can be thrown off thanks to even the most minor deviation. It wouldn't be unreasonable to claim that, in the comparatively primitive M41, gender is something the gene-seed cannot be altered to mix with.

Unlike the previous example, this isn't some minor fact but a major detail which has been brought up time and time again in many books. The Crimson Fists novel Rynn's World does bring up the serious problems of ensuring recruits are a genetic match, and Damnation Crusade cited similar issues. In fact, some stories depict the process as being so problematic that even warriors who have completed the process can be rejected centuries after centuries of service, with Talos Valcoran serving as the poster-boy for such failings. One more base level genetic difference in a recruit could easily throw off the process entirely, and would bar women from ever undergoing the process. It certainly fits better than the excuse introduced in Index Astartes, but even discounting this there are a multitude of other factors to consider, namely the thematic elements of the setting.


Ironically, despite the famed "Grim Darkness of the Far Future" tagline, Warhammer owes so much of its inspiration to past eras, from the Byzantine Empire to the Second World War. When it comes to the warrior monks of the astartes, these tend to focus upon feudal eras, and this is further justified by their recruiting grounds. The likes of Fenris, Sacris, Barbarus, Ithaka and Chogoris  all remain trapped in relatively primitive eras where the sword and shield still reigns supreme. 

Even those who embrace technology tend to do so only on a relatively limited level, and the likes of Baal or Medusa are more akin to the world Fallout than any truly civilized society. In terms of game design, this allows them to reflect an era of history to give the chapter greater character, and to inspire a breed of warrior who blends the fascination of ancient warfare with future soldier. In universe meanwhile, this is justified thanks to the sheer brutality of these worlds. A planet which forces its inhabitants to constantly risk famine, disease, death and monsters from birth is naturally going to breed better warriors than a tamed one. While there are certainly exceptions, these are few and far between requiring either a militant devotion as found on Macragge or recruiting only the scum of the underhive from hive worlds such as Necromunda.

The obvious problem with using such worlds is that, even if gender was no issue for gene-seed implantation, the majority of their warriors would still be male. Why? Most feudal states favoured males as the dominant gender. While this is certainly not universally true, most societies which favour raw physical strength or prioritizes a warrior caste will usually lead to male leaders dominating it. They will usually be the ones going out on raids, waging war or hunting beasts after all, and it's those qualities which the astartes will ultimately be looking for above all else. In most chapters this would mean recruits would still be largely male save for the odd Brienne of Tarth, meaning comparatively few women would make it to the operating table, survive, and join the chapter itself. The reverse would be true across certain societies of course, but Games Workshop would have relatively few of those to call upon for inspiration. Let's face it, once you use the Amazon inspiration for an army, you're only left with a few Scythian and Sarmatian concepts to build others and little else. Even the most successful ancient matriarchal society - the early Egyptians prior to their conquest from the north - is relatively unknown, and much of its visual distinction is already claimed by the Thousand Sons.

Still, let's discount all of the above. Let's just say that there are no issues standing in the way of female astartes of any kind and they could freely be recruited into any chapter at will. Well, you might be wondering what such a chapter would look like, and you're in luck. There's actually plenty of images which accurately depict exactly what they would look like:



Here's another to back that up:



And here's a really great one depicting what they would look like at close range:



Confused yet? Don't be, because this honestly quite spot on as most depictions would go. If you actually break down what goes into shaping an astartes from beginning to end, you'd realise that physically there would be little to no difference between male and female recruits. Both would lack sexual organs, both would feel no desire for the opposite gender, both would have their bodies coursing with combat enhancing drugs, and both would be so muscular that they could bench press a truck. Their bodies aren't merely enhanced by astartes gene-seed and its organs, but utterly reshaped, and the only difference you might find between recruits would be a slightly different skeletal structure. Well, or possibly physical proportions, but it's a bit hard to tell at times and i'd hate to try and justify the awful "chestplate" modifications some people produce.

The line between the two only becomes all the more blurred once you consider the mental training and programming each recruit undertakes. This varies a little from book to book of course, but the general idea is that each new recruit is retrained. Their minds are forcibly programmed with new knowledge, certain character traits are altered and they are mentally redirected to be more disciplined and focused in war. Some take this to extremes, where Nick Kyme's Salamanders books featured recruits who literally could not remember their lives as humans or the Death Spectres where recruits undergo a literal rebirth. It's rare to even find chapters which allow their recruits to retain their human names, as many take on entirely new identities upon joining the chapters ranks, shedding their connection to humanity itself.

While certain distinct qualities would certainly remain, the training regime strips away individual traits in order to make warriors more uniformed. They share the same ideals, act as one in battle, revere their primarch in a way they could not have conceived before and are devoted to waging war in the Emperor's name. Those which tend to stand out the most are born more from their culture than anything else, usually distinct traits from tribes, regions or certain attitudes of older eras, but that's it. If women were to be treated in the same way as men here, that would effectively rob them of the one thing which might truly make them stand out, and each would effectively be indistinguishable from the other.


You see, astartes aren't so much male as genderless. The only thing which tends to make them stand out as "he" is their past lives and the traditions of their homeworlds. Well, that and the fact that calling them "it" just sounds insulting no matter which way you put it. The point is that they are shaped less by their gender than they are tradition and culture, so a female recruited into the Space Wolves would still be loud and boisterous, a female recruited into the Salamanders would still follow Vulkan's teachings and a female recruited into the Imperial Fists would still love fortresses.

Simply put - Altering existing lore to add female marines wouldn't be much of a game changer, and if anything it would only hurt certain aspects of each existing chapter. You would still have the same models, still have largely the same internal lore, still have the same heroes, but it would come at the cost of disconnecting many worlds from the eras they were historically based upon. Please understand, this isn't intended to be sexist, but the moment you reshape the gender roles in a society based upon an ancient era, you lose an already tentative feeling of immersion. Again, half the fun behind the astartes is seeing the ancient past mashed together with the far future, and once you start tweaking with the former, veering it further and further away from its original themes, much of that engagement is lost.

So, with this in mind, why do people keep asking for female astartes anyway? Just about every army in the game already features female heroes or warriors after all. The Tau Empire is noted to have female Fire Warriors (near indistinct from their males in armour no less), the Craftworld and Dark Eldar are the same, orks are genderless, the Imperial Guard recruit both genders (though it is sadly lacking models at that end), the Necron Dynasties have female leaders among them, the Tyranid Hive Fleets are technically matriarchal; the Sororitas are the same, the Mechanicus have both but barely care, the Arbites recruit both genders, and Chaos varies from one group to the next. That's half the game right there, but the problem is that the other half is made up of astartes from both sides.

The astartes - traitor and loyalist alike - are the two most popular factions, the two most well developed and with the richest lore. A single prominent chapter will often feature more detailed lore than another faction's entire armies combined, and each is directly tied to the single most prominent celestial powers in the entire setting. The Horus Heresy itself was fought primarily by astartes legions, and it's the single most important event of the last few thousand years. Plus, even atop of all that, you also have the simple fact that the astartes have the most novels focusing upon their chapters, and spend more time in the spotlight than anyone else. Between that and the less than stellar treatment of the Sororitas by many writers (Chris Wraight, we love your work but please stay far away from them) and it's not hard to see why many would want women among the astartes.

So, after all that let's say someone is still adamantly determined to have a chapter of female recruits. Is there any way to introduce female astartes to the setting without breaking existing lore in half? Actually yes, and it's a relatively simple answer far too many people seem to ignored - The Missing Legions.

Not too long ago we discussed how the legions might have survived into M41, actively serving the Emperor in some secret role. Among the many changes and differing aspects suggested there, players could easily make one or both primarchs female and lead a matriarchal society. This would bypass the aforementioned gene-seed problems - minus the Y chromosome one of course, but most people would forgive you for that - and many of the cultural issues as well. After all, while most primarchs are shaped by their homeworlds, many societies would be rebuilt or altered by them on a path to greatness. It wouldn't be unfeasible to have one such primarch alter the gender roles of their home if they weren't already favouring female warriors; nine foot tall demigods tend to be rather good at getting others to follow their will after all.


Rather than attempting to messily rework an entire existing army, it would be a chance to pick out a distinct number among them, make them female from the start and just go from there, working or altering them however a player wished. With so little about either legion known to the fandom, there's plenty of wiggle room to work around new details, facts and concepts. Hell, if someone was determined enough there's nothing to stop them developing an entirely new spin on an existing culture adapted into another chapter. Is it a long shot? Definitely, but it's the only option which doesn't introduce a lot of major problems. For example, players could attempt to claim that a chapter's gene-seed mutated thanks to being experimented upon during the Cursed Founding, but that would open up a new can of very insulting worms.This way at least offers a natural start, a solid basis to evolve from, a long history to play with, and no sudden, massive alterations to any existing force.

So, there we have it folks. You have a detailed break down of how such a retcon wouldn't work with existing chapters, the issues behind the genetics, the problems with claiming the astartes retain genders, and a possible solution. While it might not be the single most comprehensive article on this subject, the intention was to cover as many bases as possible, specifically those which kept arising time and time again in arguments. While there might be a follow up article later on down the line to better explore one theme or another, this will be it for a while, as the next Warhammer article will be focusing upon what could be done to improve the Sororitas instead. 

If you have a few thoughts of your own you want to add into this brief article or counter-points to make, feel free to add them in the comments as always. After all, this is a big and very broad subject to tackle, so the more people involved the merrier.

5 comments:

  1. Hi Bellarius. I don't really blog any more these days, or read blogs much, but I just wanted to say that your articles (such as this one) are insightful and well-written, and deserve a lot more attention than they get.

    You said: "while it might not be the single most comprehensive article on this subject..."

    I think it might be! Certainly the most comprehensive and lucid one that I've read. As to why people keep asking for female space marines, that's an interesting question. Honestly I think it's because they haven't really thought about it. They are, in their own minds, standing up for gender inequality, calling for a reshaping of the sexist 1980s past into a form more palatable to contemporary people. They probably also feel iconoclastic, and may even be imagining cartoonishly hot female marines like these ones.

    But as you said, if you think about it enough, it becomes sort of a non-question. Marines are genderless - it's not a question of whether they're male or female really, it's were they once male or female? And that's a bit of a pointless thing to worry about right? Especially since it can't be represented on a model.

    It's certainly murky though. One thing you alluded to but didn't state directly is that yeah, they're genderless, but because they're shaped for fighting, their genderless-ness takes a hyper-masculine form. I think a female space marine would be even more of a tragic being than a male one. Instead of having the outward symbols of her gender amplified, she has them changed and then amplified.

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    1. My thanks indeed for that, it's certainly nice to hear people appreciating some of the more rambling and general lore related material here. Admittedly though, overlooked as this stuff often is, i'm my own worse enemy on that front, trying to cover far too many subjects across multiple mediums for my own good. It can put people off thanks to lacking direction, but there we go.

      Anyway, in all honesty this stuff is actually pretty short as these articles go, and most points here could easily be the focus of 1.5-3K essay examinations across the lore. The thing is, most people just wanted a quick general answer to this stuff, so here's something to cover as many of those bits as possible in as few words.

      You do raise interesting point though, as much in terms of why they keep asking there - which could be grounds for further examination in the future and perhaps a more detailed look into the fans themselves. Would be interesting to tie that more closely to some of 40K's self parody elements and origins atop of this.

      As for the point about how they are genderless but obviously feature masculine traits, that is definitely a good subject in of itself but it's one I wanted to avoid here. Mainly the problem is that trying to discuss it arguably enters a transgender territory, and it would be all too easy to accidentally insult or present a potentially alarming view while trying to detail such thoughts. That and, atop of this, you then have the problem of trying to see how masculinity can be used to influence a culture while at the same time they lack a sex drive or even direct gender identity. It's a tangled knot of a very interesting subject which I sadly don't have the time or knowledge to really go into.

      Anyway, many thanks for the praise and thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Certainly nice to hear from you again.

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  2. I admit, I was nervous when I clicked the link to this article. I appreciate how you maintained a level tone throughout it, despite the volatile subject, and want to maintain that level tone (and level head) here in my thoughts.

    Your mention of the feudal and martial cultures that are sources of inspiration for the Space Marines sparked my desire to write this comment. The Space Marines are a unique concept in science fiction. As superhuman warrior monks, they are trained and modified in brutal and bizarre ways, take vows to serve the God-Emperor and the Imperium, they live in fortress-monestaries, maintain a life of discipline, training, and prayer, and give their lives in service to the Imperium. They are a major part of what drew me to Warhammer in the first place, they are a concept I appreciate, and I do not want to see it broken up.

    The Marines have the Adepta Sororitas as spiritual counterpart. The Marines are the warrior monks, the Sisters the warrior nuns, and they represent different facets of the Imperium, like real monks and nuns are different facets of the Catholic Church. They are different in that they are all-male (what some people seem to take issue with), and are also equally valued. (By the fans, at least. Please, GW, plastic Sisters one day?) This is the main reason I see no need to have female Space Marines.

    Both the Marines and the Sisters have their particular and unique flavor and lore. Both factions would be hurt if GW tried to retcon them being all-male/all-female.

    Fans complaining about the Marines being all-male when every other army can have female warriors strikes me as unnecessary and (in the case of the all-female Sisters and the infinitely customizable Missing Legions) hypocritical. There is the whole Warhammer galaxy for fans to imagine and create their own characters in, without any need to go after the one all-male faction in the game and decry them simply because they are all-male.

    For these reasons, I firmly believe that lore-wise, Marines should always be all-male, and the Sisters always all-female, for that matter. (Modeling-wise, I have no objection to female Marines. One’s own miniatures are sacred territory.)

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  3. These are pretty much my arguments too whenever anyone brings up female Space Marines, and honestly I think they only do it because the Marines are popular, and personally I think the Sisters are better.

    I didn't hear anyone complain about the Sisters in 3rd edition, when you could make them S5 as opposed to a Marines S4, or where you could give the entire squad Rending (though it wasn't called Rending back then) or when you could give everyone a 3+ (or in the case of characters a 2+) Invulnerable save, which was far better than anything else any army could get at that point (not to mention Lorewise they don't have any sort of limit to their size).

    Granted the sisters certainly aren't like that any more, however all it really takes is a new Codex to fix this, so I'm not really annoyed by it that much (I can always play using Witch Hunters with my group of friends anyway) but I just can't see what making female Marines will do or prove aside from having a group of people yelling out "Me too!"

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  4. Eh. I can see most of these arguments, but to me, they're more of a way to say "MOST marines should be male by in-universe logic and the remainder won't be particularly stand-out while wearing armor." And that makes sense, but what I disagree with the the idea that there is nothing to gain by adding femarines.

    Fact of the matter is, the run-of-the-mill marine isn't interesting, it's almost entirely the standout individuals and their origins and later actions. And you know what, being female effects the origins part a lot!

    In my eyes, yes, it's odd to hype this issue as being important, but it's perhaps more odd that the writers took a hard-line all-male stance in the first place. For the Sisters of Battle, there's at least clear in-universe logic (though I don't really think it would damage much if a later event repealed that narrow definition of no men-at-arms), but for Space Marines, the Y-Chromosome thing is as you noted, dubious science. About twelve percent of the human genome is thought to vary from person to person, an that's on our single planet Earth. To contrast the genetic differene between male and female is less than two percent. In terms of in-universe logic, if females are too genetically different to inherit gene-seed, then essentially no one outside of a legion's home planet's genetic stock should be able to either!

    Also there's the issue of the pen & paper RPGs that have grown up around W40k. My DM once told me that a female member of his group really didn't want to play as a man, so he made her an Adeptas Sororitas instead of a Space Marine like the rest of the group. That change alone nerfed her so much she died in the first session.

    Just some observations, good article though.

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