There’s something rotten in the state of Warhammer 40k. Even as Games Workshop’s most successful creation continues to grow, recruiting new fans and breaking sales records left, right, and center, it still suffers from an old wound that refuses to heal, and re-opens every few months to gout foul, toxified blood once again.
If you’ve ever spent more than five minutes in Warhammer 40k’s online communities – especially within the last few months – you won’t need me to tell you that this open, festering wound is gender. Specifically, it’s manifested in the question of whether Games Workshop should introduce female Space Marines (FSMs) into official 40k canon.
A bit of background: during 40k’s formative years (the late 80s and early 90s) GW didn’t feel the need to market to women by including them in its #1 favorite army – and women fans weren’t in much of a position to tell GW they wanted to be included – so the game’s power armored poster children stayed exclusively big, beefy boys.
Today, after 36 years of self-reinforcing lore inertia and corporate risk-aversion, Space Marines are still front and center of every major 40k product, and they’re still 100% men.
Naturally, some fans already build their own FSMs at home with third-party components, and headcanon is forever – but, in the official models, Warhammer 40k books, and 40k games, all Space Marines are male. Some folks want to change that, mostly so that female fans feel more represented. Others really, really, seriously don’t want it changed, and they’re oh, so keen to make sure everyone knows it.
Living in these spaces every day, I admit I’m so tired of the whole damned business that mostly I just hope it’ll go away – but then I remember two things. First: staying neutral is always a vote for the status quo, which currently is a cesspit of bilge. And, second: when you turn your back on cesspits, unpleasant things start to grow from them.
So it’s time we had a little chat about this whole sorry situation – what’s going on, why it sucks, why it matters, and what’s to be done about it. Strap in, nerds – this is going to be a long and bumpy ride.
Don’t mention the g-word
Before we get started, it’s worth remarking – with some regret – how hesitant I was to even broach this subject in print. Not because it’s not important or appropriate, mind you; politics, including gender politics, are everywhere in fiction because they permeate every facet of human existence in the world, including our hobbies, games, and stories – whether you want them to or not.
At the risk of stating the obvious: anyone who berates you for trying to ‘insert’ politics into ‘their’ hobby is either woefully uninformed; dogmatically ignorant; cynically pushing their own politics under the guise of apolitical ‘gatekeeping’; or else some combination of those three. Such people deserve your sympathy and support, because they’re probably going through some stuff – but their views don’t amount to a hill of beans.
No, I’d usually avoid it because it feels like constructive discussion on the matter has simply ground to an intractable halt. In 2024, meaningful discourse about gender in Warhammer 40k spaces has been almost entirely drowned out by never-ending, bad faith arguments about female Space Marines. It’s been going on for years, it’s exhausting, it’s dispiriting, and it’s so, so boring.
It’s a shame, really. At one time, the debates around gender in Warhammer 40k were, if not drastically more intelligent and courteous, at least more varied. I remember explorations of gender roles among soldiers and civilians from all the weird and wonderful Warhammer 40k factions, and the imaginative diversity sci-fi allowed for in such things.
We considered all the regular human psychology – including gendered psychology – that’s buried deep inside Space Marines’ heads, sublimated to their warlike programming but still there, threaded through their personalities.
We marked the apparent Astartesian tendency to ponder and discuss baseline human experiences and impulses supposedly expunged from their brains – like love, sex, and family – and we wondered who these transhuman ‘men’ would be, if they were ever allowed to lead a human life of their own.
We wondered who the hell Slaanesh was, whether he was a he or a she or a they, and why. Come to that, we wondered why Slaanesh was thought of as having a different gender from the other Chaos gods at all. These were interesting, meaningful, nerdy questions.
Now the chat is all ‘female Space Marines Y/N’, all the time, and it blows.
Some fans argue it’d be an easily acceptable new idea to fold into 40k’s timeline, far from the weirdest thing in the setting, and would help move 40k away from feeling like it’s still designed for 14-year-old boys.
“No”, other fans say, “that’s stupid and wrong; only boy-children can survive the transformation into a Space Marine, it says so in an old lore text that I don’t own and have never read, but I’m sure I saw quoted somewhere.
“There are women in the other factions, why do you need to mess with the Space Marines? And anyway, if you’re so bothered about representation, why don’t you go and play Sisters of Battle? They’re women, aren’t they?”
Tell an AI to generate 30 slightly differently worded versions of that exact exchange, then post them online in a continuous loop for years, and you’ll create something remarkably close to what 40k spaces are like at the moment.
It’s true that – between 40k, its fantasy twin Age of Sigmar, and their respective spinoffs – Warhammer actually has a hell of a lot more great female characters and miniatures these days than it had in 1987, and some respectable LGBT+ representation too. Modern 40k feels noticeably less for the straight, male gaze, and all the better for it.
For some, though, progress in those other areas of the hobby only accentuates the fact that girls are still not allowed in the Space Marine treehouse, after decades of missed opportunities for GW to update the made-up rules of its fictional world and let them in.
Personally, like I said, I don’t care that much either way. I’m not very interested in arguing for or against female Space Marines.
They’re a relatively minor discussion point in a bigger conversation about inclusivity and representation in our hobby. On the long list of Warhammer priorities, I’d say they’re much less pressing than things like making sure LGBT people feel safe at community events.
So, you may well ask: why are we several hundred words into an article about them? Well, this is where things get a bit yucky.
It’s those guys again
FSMs aren’t inherently a very big deal – but, in my estimation, they’ve been made into a battleground issue by the behavior, motivations, and sheer fury of the people railing against them.
Because you and I both know what happens when fans of a fictional thing start sharing dangerous notions about updating it to make it friendlier to more groups of people. Those guys are going to start turning up.
Using words like ‘inclusivity’, ‘representation’, or ‘gender’ draws them to you like hungry carrion birds to a fresh corpse. Wherever real people are trying to be kind to other real people, at the cost of amending – or even simply criticizing – some elements of a shared, imaginary world, they sense an opportunity for performative outrage.
They’ll sniff out simple human compassion from a thousand miles away, and eagerly swoop in to mock it as ‘virtue signalling’, as loudly and derisively as they possibly can.
Who are ‘they’? For the most part, it seems, conservative-minded men and boys, apparently angry and afraid that men’s privileged status in our social and cultural systems is being eroded, who’ve constructed a personal identity and purpose around their favorite ‘manly’ hobbies, and therefore find it validating to imagine they’re nobly protecting those hobbies from external, corrupting forces.
They’re right – but, more importantly, they’re wrong
Let’s be clear: when those guys tell you there aren’t any female Space Marines, they’re absolutely correct. There aren’t any. Not one. GW accidentally, passively, set a precedent shortly before I was born (1992, if you want to know), the social world changed around it, and now it’s up an inclusivity tree without a gene-crafting paddle. FSMs that exist = 0.
The cracks start showing when they have to argue why there shouldn’t be. When you call upon them to show not merely that case A is true now, but that case A must always be true, and that all alternatives are definitely worse, probably impossible, and (for bonus points) immoral.
The evidence base on which they must build this ironclad case against change? A 36-year-old, crazy-paving patchwork of science fiction stories and blurbs from the back of model kit boxes, with only marginally more internal consistency than the Bible.
If there exists a rigorous, critical argument explaining why all Adeptus Astartes must always have exclusively male sex-physiology and gender characteristics – and, more importantly, why this peculiar red line of in-universe lore is so fantastically important that it’s worth alienating half the planet and venomously abusing strangers online to defend – then I confess I’ve yet to encounter it.
Much more common, in my experience, are fallacious screeds against a poorly defined ‘wokeism’ that, ironically, seem far more interested in hawking real-world political theories than they are in a serious discussion about Warhammer 40k itself.
None of these rhetorical tactics or rancid vibes are new. This same ramshackle, reactionary movement, steeped in in-group/out-group social pressures and masculine identity politics, has been at work in our culture for well over a decade. It weaponizes people’s feelings of powerlessness, disenfranchisement, and digital isolation in a fatalistic crusade to reverse the liberalizing social changes of the last 50 years or so.
It’s been a driving force behind GamerGate, the Alt-Right, and the Trump presidency, and it’s still very much alive in Warhammer, videogames, and throughout western public life.
Of course, 40k has been dealing with far-right foxes inside the hen-house for many years, simply because the hellish, bloodthirsty, xenophobic, totalitarian dystopia that is the setting’s central faction – the Imperium of Man – is practically tailor made to give teenage fascists a hard-on.
For every thousand fans, 999 appreciate the grotesque, multi-leveled parody of 40k’s appalling, dark fantasy world, and one becomes enamored with it at face value, despising our blandly egalitarian, neoliberal reality, and longing for a big, strong, gold-armored daddy to tell them what to do. Genuinely, it’s unsettling the adoration these people have for someone as abhorrent as the Emperor of Mankind.
That’s only one in a thousand – but 0.1% of a fandom as big as Warhammer 40k’s makes for a sizable extremist fringe. As 40k sales climb and influxes of new hobbyists join the game’s community, the club keeps getting bigger and more diverse – which causes the fringe to become more frantic and militant in its desperate, misguided ‘gatekeeping’ mission – and FSMs are its favorite subject.
So why are you bringing this up now?
Like news, precipitation, or bowel movements, this stuff goes through cycles. ‘The Discourse’ on FSMs tends to hit a rolling boil for a month or so, then die away for a couple of months in favor of more interesting topics, before inevitably bubbling to the surface again.
And the recent waves of FSM posting have me more worried than usual because of the attention they’re attracting. You see, recently I noticed Alt-right YouTube influencer Carl Benjamin, a.k.a. Sargon of Akkad, weighing in on the subject.
From what I can tell, though, most of his online presence these days focuses on fearmongering about immigration taking over England, demonizing non-white migrants, and fanboying over Elon Musk and Nigel Farage. I’d thoroughly recommend avoiding him; I try to.
But, over the holiday break, he still found time in his busy schedule for several tweets about why one particular type of toy soldiers can’t be girls, because, in his opinion, Space Marines are “representation for men, and not women”.
Curious, you might think, that a supposedly serious far-right talking head (and, er, respected podcast host) would a) apparently care about gender representation in fiction, or b) spend his valuable time opining publicly about the gender politics of a miniature wargame, even one he loves with all his heart.
Active political figures of all stripes are perfectly allowed to like Warhammer; the UK Home Secretary and Conservative Party MP James Cleverly is an avowed fan, for instance. But, oddly enough, public-facing political operators don’t often openly participate in online arguments over Warhammer lore, suspecting perhaps that it might lead people to think them superficial, unserious, or naïve.
Old Carl has no such concerns, though. He’s happy to join us nerds at the toy soldiers table – but not, I think, because he’s superficial, unserious, or naïve. No, it seems to me he’s caught the whiff of potential in the air. The Warhammer 40k community is going through another phase of growing pains, and it could become an increasingly fertile recruiting ground for anti-woke, alt-right acolytes, if they can properly cultivate it.
This, above all, is what’s putting a bee in my proverbial bonnet.
In principle, I completely understand Games Workshop’s desire to feign ignorance on the FSM question, leave the mess to sort itself out in the wider 40k community’s ‘free market of ideas’, and avoid alienating any customers. It’s cowardly, but it’s commercially prudent.
In practice, it’s resulted in a permanent, toxic, stifling stalemate, in which one side (Sargon and pals) can leverage the implied support of the IP owner purely because they’re defending the status quo.
Again, I don’t care whether or not they prevent female Space Marines becoming a thing. That’s not important. What is important is that this vacuum of authority could give Warhammer 40k’s GamerGate rump a free run at flogging all their political ideas to incoming generations of fans.
The longer GW refuses to comment, the longer the self-described anti-‘woke’ crowd can spuriously claim FSMs are leftist propaganda being forced down the throats of ordinary, right thinking Warhammer fans. The longer those claims go unchallenged by GW, the more new joiners to the hobby will be entering a Warhammer community twisted and malformed by alt-right ideology.
And the tragedy is, Warhammer 40k didn’t start out like this; it got sick over time. The current shitshow is almost certainly as distressing and depressing for 40k’s real creators as it is an appetizing opportunity for the likes of Sargon.
How did it come to this?
Warhammer 40,000 isn’t a fundamentally conservative, misogynist, or illiberal entity, either in its fiction, its philosophies, or its operation. Its earliest incarnations were chock full of satirical jokes at the expense of real-world conservatives, and its greatest creative luminaries have been subversive, anti-establishment, left-wing arty types.
Its central conceit – a future human empire full of misery, pain, and fear, governed via theocratic fascism and pathetically obsessed with exterminating its enemies – is an explosively unsubtle and, frankly, unmistakeable cautionary tale about the dangers of far-right thinking.
It’s a grand parody that explores just how profoundly low humanity could sink if freedom, equality, and democracy gave way to xenophobic authoritarianism on a species-wide scale – and invites us to reflect on what that means for our real-world political ideas and actions. There are other, greyer layers to it, but this is the deepest; this is the spine of its world.
But, over three decades of commodification, diversification, and occasional simplification of the source material, that nuanced political context has become more easily separable from the hobby’s iconic, recognizable, meme-able concepts, forces, and symbols.
Eternal war; an immortal God Emperor; the lionization of soldiers and their bonds of brotherhood; 40k’s fixation on such things was supposed to inspire distrust, skepticism, and a thrill of fear. Yes, they were interesting and complex ideas, with shades of grey – but ultimately they were the artifacts of dystopia, undesirable things to be vigilantly avoided.
The problem is that, divorced from their proper, parodic context, those same ideas can be emotive, seductive, and even subtly radicalizing in their own right. In other words: ironic fictional Nazism looks, sounds, and acts a lot like regular Nazism. And, if you don’t get the joke, you’re just as vulnerable to its poisonous ideas in a sci-fi wargame forum as you would be at a party meeting.
So what should we do about it?
In recent years, GW has made some limited – but welcome – public statements in an effort to align itself against bigoted or intolerant fans, under the banner phrase “Warhammer is for everyone”.
But a brief trundle through 40k Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, and Discord communities is enough to demonstrate just how far there is still to go before it can turn that mission statement into a practical reality.
Any suggestion that the envelope of Warhammer 40k products, media, or events be widened in any way to better accommodate and affirm non white straight cis male fans can confidently expect a wave of downvotes, mockery, and derision (and that’s if you’re lucky). This article will no doubt get its share of hate, too.
There’s a lot of work to do to ensure Warhammer 40k’s grim, horrible fictional worlds, and the very real social world experienced by the people building, painting, playing, watching, and reading them, remain completely separate – and we community members will always need to do our part of it. A growing cadre of dedicated creators is already fighting the good fight – YouTuber Arbitor Ian’s cracking video below is just one example of many.
But here’s my plea: Games Workshop, you have to do more, too. You don’t just get to be a neutral, noncommittal, catch-all corporation any more; you need to be more responsible than that. One single black-and-white social media statement every three years isn’t going to cut it any more.
Business is booming; the Warhammer 40k 10th edition launch landed you record monthly sales; and, at long last, you’re finally going to get your own proper TV and movies with Henry Cavill. In the next three years, your Warhammer 40k community could get inordinately bigger.
It’s your responsibility to help protect that growing community from being dragged into the mud by bad actors who not only don’t get 40k, but want to dictate their gross, perverted version of it to everyone else.
I am not asking for you to introduce female Space Marines. I do not care if you introduce female Space Marines or not. I’m just asking for you to take responsibility for their absence. Talk to your community about the subject; let us know you understand and care about the consternation it continues to generate.
Let us know – above all – that, when so-called ’40k fans’ online preach their tiresome, male chauvinist dogmas and shout people down for daring to suggest that nerds could be kinder to each other, they do not speak with your voice, and that they, as you once claimed, “will not be missed”.
The longer you remain silent, the worse things get – and the worse things get, the less I can respect you.