I’ve seen this tweet bounced out by enough different people that I have no idea of the original author:

And I guess the sentiment is on the nose for a lot of Gen Xers, but here in Gen Y I was promised something even bleaker:


The future, as described in every Warhammer 40,000 book introduction:

“To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruelest and most bloody regime imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be re-learned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.”

“I’m here to talk about how queer it all is, and how that’s fabulous.”

When day one of the Trump administration sees the deletion of all reference to climate change and LGBT rights from the White House website, it feels like the present is catching up with the grimdark. Warhammer 40,000 is the ultimate child of the 1980s, a witch’s broth of heavy metal, 2000AD, British satire, Foundation, Dune, Starship Troopers, The Lord of the Rings, anything by Michael Moorcocke and just a hint of Monty Python, stirred together by some hairy British Midlanders and then digested for thirty years in the belly of the nigh-Lovecraftian corporate entity Games Workshop. A roadmap for a new global fascism.

I’m here to talk about how queer it all is, and how that’s fabulous. Let’s start with the male body of the 41st Millennium.

Warhammer 40,000 is a setting defined by war and by extension the (overwhelmingly male) body. This permeates the design of the toy soldiers that players use in the game, the art that depicts them, the language that describes them. The male body is scrutinized and explored in a way that it never is in Star Wars or even Call of Duty and it’s often on show, whether in text, art or plastic. Here is an Imperial Guard command squad from the Catachan faction, a jungle-based military unit that only employs muscle daddies:

 

The genetically enhanced Space Marines who are the setting’s iconic army are the pinnacle of this aesthetic. Their bodies are altered at a physiological and genetic level to make them superior soldiers and their physique, musculature, even their sweat, is scrutinized in minute detail. Here’s one of the Space Marines’ canonical super-adaptations:

The glib observation is that the galaxy’s first line of defense is an army of oily muscle men, but consider – there are twenty of these adaptations, itemized and carefully considered. This is a classic aspect of objectification, the disassembly of the person into their parts. And Space Marines are certainly objectified, both in the literal sense that we buy and paint toy Space Marines, but also that they are referred to as weapons as often as they are men: the hammer, sword, spear of the Imperium of man.

“The galaxy’s first line of defense is an army of oily muscle men.”

The human and superhuman male of the far future isn’t presented with intentional lasciviousness, but it’s also not the contemporary hetero-normative presentation – which valorizes the fit and demonizes the fat, but rarely scrutinizes or lingers on either. It’s a queer body.

The female body is presented as well, and as you would expect from a geek property predominately designed by and marketed at men it has a lot in common with comic-book femininity – prominent busts and wasp waists. Yet in the 41st Millennium the effect is not what we might expect. Consider John Blanche’s archetypal artwork for the Sisters of Battle (nuns with guns), a piece that still defines their model line:

Form-fitting black leather, corset, boob-plate armor (skull-boobs, admittedly), and just look at that high-heeled boot stamping on that naughty, naughty skull. Canoness Veridyan is a domme, and she is not impressed with you at all, you silly little heretic. Sisters of Battle are sexy, but just like videogame domme Bayonetta, that sexiness is Not For You. It’s not clear who they are being sexy for. The dominatrices of the far future are heavily armed religious celibates.

They’re joined in their sexual non-normativity by the Dark Eldar, who male and female alike are dressed for a long night at a leather party:

Dark Eldar are merciless space elves, sadists and slave-takers. They’re the last true adherents of a cult of decadence that almost destroyed their race, existing outside conventional space and torturing other species to keep a metaphysical enemy from eating their souls. Presumably these guys fuck, and fuck plenty, but it’s not something you want to be involved in unless you’re really into “literal physical dismemberment”. They take the sadomasochistic conjunction of sexuality and violence to an extreme.

The conflict between the visual language of sci-fi and fantasy in geek culture, which tends towards sexualization, and the iconography of militaria and a push for ever-greater-grimdarkness, creates a space where BDSM and queer physicalities can out-compete hetero-normative ones. This classic illustration from 1990s skirmish game Necromunda shows a gang-fighter from a densely populated industrial world plainly dressed in a leather bondage harness; the combination of violently exaggerated muscularity and the coding of leather-and-studs for warfare have by design or accident created a very homoerotic figure:

Or these gang-fighters of House Escher, a science fiction interpretation of the Amazon myth. ’80s punk and club fashion combine with warrior-muscularity to create a model line with many queer signifiers:

“Obviously sexual violence is a bridge too far for a toy retailer.”

Yet at the heart of the 41st Millenium is a huge ellipsis where we would expect to find heteronormative sex, and particularly its hideous shadow, sex as a tool of war. Here’s a description from the recent Traitor Legions supplement of the atrocities committed by the Emperor’s Children Chaos Space Marines, followers of the debauched God of excess, Slaanesh:

“…the Emperor’s Children invaded Earth but took little part in the fighting around the Imperial Palace. Instead they descended upon the civilian population… While their allies fought and died the Emperor’s Children slaughtered more than a million people and rendered them down to create endless varieties of drugs and stimulants. Countless thousands more died to give the Emperor’s Children more direct, if cruder, enjoyment.”

While the idea of turning people into drugs couldn’t be more metal if Nathan Explosion came up with it, notice how there is no explicit acknowledgment of the sexual dimension to the Emperor’s Children’s crimes. Likewise the Dark Eldar’s torture of their prisoners is described in sometimes worrying detail, but not their sexual assaults. Space Marines are not even acknowledged as sexual and have a surrogate reproductive method that involves transplanting germinal organs into an adolescent subject. Warhammer 40,000 tie-in novels might admit to sexual attraction between characters, but it is never more than a brief aside from the high-octane violence and cod Latin. We can speculate on the reasons for this. Obviously sexual violence is a bridge too far for a toy retailer (while genocide is not), and positive sexuality is largely beside the point of a property defined by violence.

Perhaps the success of the Space Marine power fantasy is telling: Space Marines are ordinary boys abducted from the confusion of adolescence and indoctrinated into an exclusively male, sexless military order, made powerful beyond imagination, duty-bound to high-octane warfare, with no space for the doubts and confusions of conventional human relationships. The adrenalized simplicity of warfare, as perceived by an adolescent non-combatant, is an attractive escape from the emotional complexity and challenge of sexual adulthood – a compelling fantasy for the man-child of the Western world. Regardless of reasons, the masters of the Warhammer 40,000 universe are so averse to talking about sex they can’t even acknowledge in print that the adherents of Slaanesh, god(dess) of lust, excess and sensation, whose demon servants are lithe, naked and sport anywhere up to six fulsome breasts, sometimes engage in a spot of nooky.

“If the grim darkness of the far future has ample room for queer reality then we in the present can make damn sure it fits in here.”

The inability to express sexual reality creates a gap into which queer sexualities can creep, and the bigger the gap the queerer a reader, fan theorist or slash/fic author can be without doing violence to the fiction. Hetero-normativity fails to assert itself. So I can claim that Space Marine chapters are arranged into pairs of male lovers, in the style of the ancient Greek Sacred Band of Thebes, or that the secret Wolf Lodge in Horus Rising has resonances with a San Francisco gay bath house, and the text says nothing back. Space Marines don’t acknowledge sex, and they don’t acknowledge the lack of it, to the extent that it’s hard to say they are even definitively asexual. Behind such a wide veil there could be anything. The attempt to realize the blackest black has made a negative space in which we can infer the pinkest pink.

Back in reality the business of living is about to get harder for non-hetero-cis white males in the USA. Gamers should already be familiar with the beast; the effluent tide that swept Trump into office began to rise with Gamergate. God knows what it’s going to take to deal with this – protests and punching Nazis. And those of us who are far from the front need to claim as much of reality as we can, as much of the territory of ‘normal’, make sure that every fiction is an intersectional space where by design or omission the only coherent paradigm is “love who you will, be who you are.” If the grim darkness of the far future has ample room for queer reality then we in the present can make damn sure it fits in here. Fuck the alt-right. Push back the front line of what is normal. Always paint your Space Marines pink.

About The Author

Contributor

Timothy Franklin is a secret zone in that game you used to love for that system you don't own anymore. It's all on Youtube now, anyway.

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  • phuzz

    “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war. Well, and cuddles, but mainly War”

  • Mr. Franklin is cordially invited to have a look at https://www.tumblr.com/blog/the-fluffy-underbelly. Also, look for primarch slashfic (Ferrus Manus/Fulgrim and Horus/Sanguinius top the pairing hit parade.) There is still a lot of work to do.

  • aramis_erak

    Queer identity is explicitly relegated to being part of the Chaos God Slaneesh’s worship… In short, they’re the bad guys.
    At least in the editions before I quit playing.

    • I think you’ve missed the point!

    • BrettH

      Well canonically they are always in need of more guardsmen… but also it can be argued that the chaos gods are not strictly evil, they’re all a sort of crude duality, pleasure and excess is obvious, plague and sickness bring with them an appreciation for life, and a will to live, Khorne brings bloodlust and rage, but there is a tinge of honour, respect and martial glory, and Tzeentch just wants everything to change all the time, we’re just unlucky that our humanity is a thing.
      The chaos are only the bad guys if you think the xenophobic militant theocratic dictatorship that all but enslaves every human it can on the grounds of winning an endless war for survival to be the good guys. Its actually hard to call any of these groups “good”, but I’d toss in with the tau, their the least xenophobic of the space xenophobes.

      • Jade Black.

        Chaos are canonically the bad guys. The entire point of chaos is to cause as much pain and suffering and death on as wide a possible scale as possible. In a world of villains, Chaos are the only one that doesn’t have shades of grey to its existence.

        The Imperium of man also isn’t xenophobic.

        it’s specieist.

        One is irrational, the other is rational. Saying “all the dutch are dangerous” and “all great white sharks and brain eating bacteria are dangerous” are no where near the same thing. Dark Eldar, Hrud, Orkz, Tyranids, Necrontyr, Exodite Eldar, Eldar Corsaires, Kroot, Ur-Ghuls, Umbra, Megarachnid, Rak’Gol and the overwhelming majority of other species are either a) actively trying to hurt humans b) incapable of not actively trying to hurt humans or c) utterly incapable of not destroying any civilization they’re a part of or d) will do absolutely anything to anyone for any reason and finally e) will die if they don’t stop trying to hurt anything they can.

        • BrettH

          Ah, my bad didn’t realize xenophobic had such a purely national based definition, poor choice of words there, still the point stands that they hate aliens on principle when there are a handful they’d be better of working with or at least not actively trying to kill.

          But more relevantly, I am positive that pain and suffering are not the end goals of chaos, they are each more directly motivated by a pursuit of power, which tends to require breaking down whatever order the rest of the world has set up, hence the name.

          Khorne doesn’t care how, he simply desires lots of bloody violent deaths.

          Nurgle’s power relies on people determined to live and survive his aliments, in exchange for joining his teeming masses and is described as engineering massive pandemics for his own amusement, also his demons are described as “cheerful” and sound like some of the nicest blokes in the whole canon (assuming you’re also a Nurgle follower).

          Slaanesh gains power when people give into their desires, he’s the antithesis of stoicism, and stoicism by definition is boring and nondescript. Pain and suffering are just a means to art and pleasure for Slanesh, if all the sentient beings were less dogmatic he wouldn’t need to kill people, he still would but in a flashy way everyone else would love watching.

          Tzeentch is empowered by people hoping for and desiring change, and aside from non-consensually mutating people he has a light touch in world affairs because the end goal to his schemes is always more schemes, he gains from people suffering but only because he will then want to change that.

          I don’t know if I’m just too forgiving the various incarnations of chaos, but at the very least I believe there is a significant grey-scale at play. Also its worth adding that aside from Slaanesh (to me the lightest of the greys), the chaos gods are generally implied to be humanity’s fault for being so… for lack of a better term non-contented. So if the humans just rolled over and died the chaos gods would be much less of a problem to the rest of the of the galactic neighborhood.

          • Jade Black.

            The emperor intended to make human kind a post psychic species. He intended to conquer the webway and completely free mankind from Chaos. Chaos conspired against him, turned his sons against him, and engineered a situation that resulted in the absolute damnation of all mankind in abject poverty and suffering to feed its self on their death (khorne), despair (nurgle), suffering (Slaanesh) and backstabbing scheming (Tzeench.) Chaos is, canonically, using humanity to create as much suffering and anguish as it possibly can in order to grow in power, feed. Chaos gods are not natural in the warp. They were created when nascent warp creatures fed on negative emotions, swelling into horrifying amalgamations.

            Slaanesh seeks to kill every single eldar. Trillions of individuals, and their remaining gods. TO consume them, and keep them forever, in absolute and unparalleled suffering. That is what he currently lives for. To kill every single eldar: man, woman and child and put them into his rapedungeon stomach. Of all the gods, only slaanesh is honest about his desire for an absolutist extinction and subsequent burning in hell for entire species. He is the darkest of blacks.

            Khorne is literally just “What if Khaine had no positive aspects” that’s literally all that he is. Everything negative about Khaine. A murderous psychoctic freak with nothing on his mind except as much death and bloodshed as possible.

            Nurgle wants you to turn to his worship, and embrace his gifts, finally joining his family because your life is so utterly full of abject despair that turning into a bloated rotting husk and infecting and killing everyone you know and millions more you don’t seems like the most loving alternative to allowing the universe to continue to grow and become nicer. The daemons of Nurgle aren’t nice. They’re horrifying, disease ridden sadism that claims to not be that and to instead be familial love.

            Tzeench is literally backstabbing incarnate. He schemes and schemes and schemes and has schemes that scheme against his schemes and while he does all this he horrifyingly mutates mortals and creates demons whose lives are confusing dementia ridden nightmares. Everything bad that has ever happened is the work of tzeench. All he wants is chaos and anguishing hope. Not hope for a better world. Hope for a better slave master, who’ll hit you slightly less often and turn your body into a hideous non euclidian mockery of humanity such that to look at you invites madness.

            There’s no nuance here past absolute surface examination.

            Chaos are the only faction whose purpose is ‘More Suffering.’ The only faction whose end game is ‘absolute genocide.’ The only group whose idea of a good time is everyone you know and love being raped, filled with diseases, tricked into hoping a better slave master will come only for that slave master to kill everyone and take their skulls.

    • Jade Black.

      No, you lumped them in there because you read things that weren’t there between the lines through your own disgust for queer people. Don’t blame other people for your failings to respect queer identities.

      Never is it said that gay people are Slaaneshii, it’s said that Slaaneshii people will engage in any action for the *experience* of having had it, not because they necessarily crave it specifically. Slaanesh makes you want experiences with all things, it doesn’t make you gay or trans or bi and never has.

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  • Newshunter

    Great article.

  • Omnia Incendent

    I must say I’m impressed by how the article generally doesn’t bash the hobby itself and that is refreshing.

    However, the absence of certain themes has more to do with anticipated reactions from various groups(No, not just brightly haired twitter users but Parents mainly), than it does with comfort levels. So treating 40k like it made all of it’s decisions in a vacuum before you pick it a part isn’t really fair.

    I personally won’t be painting my space marines pink, I shall instead continue to paint them Green because that helps them to identify as someone who gets flamer re-rolls.

    • Timothy Franklin

      You won’t find me bashing the hobby any time soon, I have a Nurgle landraider I’m partway through converting and a scratch built Ork Battlewagon on my painting table!

      I decided I was going to look over what the setting is like, rather than the things that caused it to be that way; the question of how 40k got to be the way it is is really interesting but a bit beyond the scope of this article. Kieran Gillan wrote a good article about that over on Hipsterhammer: http://hipsterhammer.tumblr.com/post/156891771531/on-slaanesh

      Salamanders rule, by the way.

  • Ben Owen

    I’m gonna go with… No.

    I get that representation is important, but in a universe were planets get exploded every other Tuesday, and the combined armed forces of the main protagonists number in the tens of trillions, shoe-horning sexuality into it isn’t going to count for much.

    Does sex in 40k happen? Yes, of course it does, and in every kind of variation, but you are reading too deep into what is “not said.”

    For example, “…more died to give the Emperor’s Children more direct, if cruder, enjoyment.” does NOT mean “They stick their pee-pees in their hoo-hoos.” It could mean anything from flaying them alive to tearing them limb from limb and bathing in their blood. Slaanesh is the god of *excess*, not just sex. And it is generally accepted as cannon that Astartes are chem-gelded, which means their man-parts won’t work anyway.

    Space Marines are like the Sacred Band? Please. Just because it it nit said, doesn’t mean you can impose your own fantasies on it. There might be one or two Space Marine chapters out there that are inspired by ancient Thebes, but only in the sense of bonding at a brotherly level, not a sexual level.

    40k is an incredibly dark and grim universe, and a lot more is not said than is (such as the specifics of Dark Eldar torture, etc.) and, as others have said, is because of the parents. I don’t know of too many parents who would be pleased with Little Jimmy telling them about how his Chaos lord has a wang down to his knees, a vagina for a mouth and like to peel the skin off his victims with a rusty knife dipped in salt.

    • Looper

      The point is it is already there. The Dark Eldar are basically wearing fetish gear. It might have an explanation in universe, but the net result is that it helps to normalise this stuff. It’s like Bowie normalising men wearing make up in the 70s.

  • Looper

    This is a fantastically great article. I don’t play wh40k so I can’t paint my marines pink, but I would if I did. It goes to show that inclusivity in games is important, so that it normalises the appearance of minorities. FFG are getting better at this; look at the characters for Imperial Assault and Mansions of Madness, lots of women and poc.