In a conversation I was having with a date recently I told her when describing my video gaming habits that the “analysis never stops.” This was largely to explain the cubic litres of geekiness I effervesce whenever I get going in some discussion about gaming and/or social science, and I often remark that I find the line between the two to be quite fuzzy. This is, in short, why I eagerly applied to be a writer at Border House because it provides a well put-together forum for precisely these kinds of musings that would be seen as over serious navel-gazing elsewhere.
This leads me to today’s topic: fantasy matriarchy. The best known example of this would, of course, be the Drow from Dungeons & Dragons. The dark elves who openly subordinate their men, worship a spider goddess, and are lead by a collection of great houses, all ruled by women, building up to the Queen of the Underdark, the Ur-matriarch. It is worth mentioning in a brief aside that the ubiquitous concept in Western fantasy of dark elves being “the evil ones” is problematic in its own right and continues a long standing and not-coincidental association of whiteness with goodness, and darkness with evilness.
Yet beyond this is the often unregarded issue of this obsession with matriarchy which appears occasionally in fantasy environments, including most recently World of Warcraft. In my return to the game, I’ve levelled my beloved Holy Priest in short order, and as I was driving headlong through the seventies I stumbled onto the Hyldnir of Brunnhildar Village. I won’t spoil anything in this lengthy questline but spoilers are not really required to illustrate the fact that the Hyldnir are an oppressive matriarchal village of frost vrykuls (large humanoid creatures whose culture was given many Norse influences) who enslave men in their mines. As I played through the quests and encountered writing that beat one over the head with the idea that the Hyldnir hated men I began to wonder just what drove the obsession with these matriarchies. I then realised that this was the flip side of ‘male fantasy’- which is ‘male nightmare.’
We often speak of various elements and imagery in these games being suited to the gaze of a presumed heterosexual cis male audience and subsume this under the heading of “male fantasy”- fantasy suited to men who fit the hegemonic ideals of what heterosexual men should be interested in. On the same token, however, male nightmare is oriented towards what this mythic man should be duly scared by. This is not to say that women wouldn’t be put off by such a crude matriarchy, but that we are not the ones held in mind when such stories as that of the Hyldnir or Drow are conjured- except inasmuch as we become incidental and often sexualised actors in this fantasy.
The Myth of Female Power
Driving these depictions is a pantomime of female sexual and social power that is readily adapted into a form that exists only at the expense of men, and thus becomes the ‘male-nightmare.’ The often crude portrayal of matriarchy in the mould of the Drow is also a resolutely sexual image. This is somewhat less true of WoW’s Hyldnir, but anyone with a passing familiarity with Dungeons & Dragons knows that the Drow are often very sexualised. Concomitant with fear of female domination is a sort of parody of female sexual liberation.
It is often cast as something to be feared in these worlds, providing a salacious mixture of male-gaze oriented imagery (the infamous chainmail bikini being standard issue among women in fantasy matriarchies) and the male-nightmare of women overthrowing men and oppressing them both socially and sexually, a thoroughgoing inversion of patriarchy that is rendered far less subtle than its counterpart.
It is here that we find ourselves at an intersection of many different kinds of sexual politics and one of the more interesting imbrications is the link to kink. The association of Drow-style matriarchs with dominatrixes is hardly a coincidence, and the figure of the dominatrix- whether in gaming, fantasy stories, or comic books, is often configured as evil. She is interpolated as a ‘bad guy’- a villainess archetype- and thus reifies the kinkster’s own performance of antagonist. It divorces the concept of ‘dominatrix’ from its roots in the BDSM community and all context. Where a real dominatrix might be an empowered woman who can fight injustice in the world (see Clarisse Thorn for quite a potent real world example), those often portrayed in games, films, and comics are reduced to clichéd baddies who are as deep as a puddle.
In playing through the fascinating and downright fun new content just released in World of Warcraft I nevertheless found myself shaking my head at the dominatrix’s latest appearance in this game as a named figure in the form of a demon matron who had, as you might have guessed, enchained three men and was holding them hostage as bait so that she might entrap your character as well. The quest text itself refers to her as a dominatrix! When you oblige her by showing up, she appears on the scene and floating quite prominently above her head is the title <Mistress of Chains>.
The imagery of kink and S&M is often appropriated into clichéd descriptions and representations of sadism and villainy. To use another Dungeons & Dragons example, in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting there is a goddess whose motif is very heavily BDSM-themed: Loviatar. Care to guess her alignment? Lawful Evil. It is more than a little distressing to see that a certain kind of sexuality, when expressed by women, must always be cast as evil and must always be portrayed as expressed at men’s expense.
Zero Sum Minus Ten
In Star Wars canon we also find the matriarchy trope arising in the form of the Hapan and the Witches of Dathomir. Both are, again, brutal and cruel matriarchies where the outright disenfranchisement of men is commonplace and they are socially conceived of as inferior while women fight and rule. Among the Dathomiri witches, men are explicitly portrayed as breeding devices for the women and little else. It is a blatant caricature and parody of patriarchy and another example of how it seems so difficult for (the very often male) authors of fantasy and science fiction to envision empowered women who aren’t oppressing men.
It is not pure happenstance, I feel, that a male friend of mine told me about WoW’s Hyldnir in the following way: “Hey, Quin, did you see the feminazi village? You’d love it!”
These are the kinds of thoughts that such portrayals are meant to sire, and the connections that are drawn between empowerment, feminism, liberated sexuality, and these matriarchies are clear enough. They are another manifestation of the zero sum fears held by many who are invested in various aspects of our kyriarchical world. The fear that women’s liberation would lead to the oppression of men is as old as the various worldwide movements themselves and this current in society’s collective id bubbles up again and again in these fantasy worlds. But when it comes to the matriarchies of sexualised women there is an odd and compelling intersection between the male-fantasy and the male-nightmare.
It is of note that the women in these settings who are portrayed as ‘good guys’ are very often asexual (at least, outside of fanfic and fan-porn) and that the paragons of virtue- good-aligned priests and paladins- are also modelled on a distinctly Judeo-Christian model of virtue-through-chastity. Not too long ago I talked about how roleplaying offers the individual gamer a myriad of avenues through which one can destabilise these archetypes. One of the issues I dwelled on was that my characters were sexual and sometimes kinky women who were also morally virtuous and fought evil in their world. Their virtue was not contained in a hackneyed notion of sexual purity, embodying the ‘good’ side of the Madonna/whore dichotomy, but through their actions in the world, the meaning thereof, and their love (sometimes expressed sexually).
The sexually liberated woman is thus tamed through her domestication in the form of these archetypal femmes fatale. She is turned into a mere cardboard cutout, a spectacle for the heterosexual male gaze, a screen onto which he may project his nightmares, and to top it all off a villain in many cases. From the ancient myths of the Amazons and Lysistrata into the present day we find this trope recurring again and again in patriarchal culture. A woman’s sexuality is her downfall, and if it isn’t then she must be evil and using it explicitly against men rather than with (or without) them. The nightmare of privilege is the reversal of one’s power, to be left in the position of those one subordinates and for one’s erstwhile inferiors to become one’s masters. In this day and age this trope is expressed by the common political cliché that holds that civil rights has gone “too far” or that things have gone “too far the other way”- from that wellspring comes all the theatrics concerning ‘reverse racism’ and so forth. It is a vision that represents the ultimate internalisation of systems of domination: an inability to think outside those terms.
We should see more dominatrixes portrayed as heroes, and more women characters who are not alienated from their sexuality; women whose freedom does not come at the expense of men and whose power does not exist solely for the entertainment and titillation of a heterosexual male audience. I would also like to see more societies with gender equality as a central feature, where these strong women share a stage with men and people of other genders in sovereign equality. It does not seem terribly difficult to portray, the ingredients are all there, and fiction that creates interesting female characters whose sexuality isn’t alien to them is not hard to find nor is it especially new either.
Some might now interject and say that I’m nitpicking, that if good-aligned women were shown as being more sexual I’d simply then turn around and accuse the writers/developers of objectification. The response to that critique is simple: the very thing I am arguing against here is that there are two modes for women characters: madonna or whore. There is a way to portray women’s virtue and women’s sexuality (even leatherbound and masochistic sexuality) concurrently in the same person. Sexuality is myriad and need not simply exist in one over-stereotyped mould either. We can make women characters who are noble but not the archetypal madonna, and sexual but not the archetypal whore.
There is a good deal more to be said on the subject of women-as-villains and the fact that we are often very poorly rendered as such. Our only weapons as villains are sexuality and half-baked hyperfeminised madness, and our chief targets always seem to be men. We deserve better villains, and more creative social structures. The next mistress of the lash I see ought to be free.
 To be fair to Forgotten Realms and my own D&D theological geekery, however, there are goddesses who are both sexual and virtuous. Descriptions of the goddess Sune and the demigoddess Lastai both readily refer to their sexuality and how their faiths support free love. But it nevertheless remains notable that a BDSM motif is apportioned to the evil sex goddess.
 Here we also find some moral complexity. The Hapan are not explicitly evil per se, and one of the guiding principles of most of the Dathomiri witch clans is “Never concede to evil”- nevertheless any cursory analysis of Hapan culture, particularly its aristocracy, finds much that is morally dubious and the Nightsisters of Dathomir- one of the witch clans- is explicitly evil and the fact of their universal domination of men in their cultures again raises the question of why this must necessarily be a feature of a society with powerful women among its leaders.
- A dark skinned and white haired elf woman in scant red and black leather sitting on a throne [↩]
- A tall, blue, strongly built woman, wearing dark armour. [↩]
- A WoW quest text box with an image of a six armed, green skinned and scantily clad woman beside it, the text beneath her saying "Foul demon dominatrix! Get her heart!" [↩]