The Mistress of the Lash Wears Chains

A Drow matron. ((A dark skinned and white haired elf woman in scant red and black leather sitting on a throne))

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.’

World of Warcraft's Hyldnir. ((A tall, blue, strongly built woman, wearing dark armour.))

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>.

Here's the text for the quest that has your character slay the "Mistress of Chains." ((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!"))


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.[1] 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

From Dragon Age: Origins another demon with sexual overtones. The Desire Demon, and the only one with a feminine gender to boot. Here she is seen groping her breast. Because that's just what us sexual women do totally randomly all the time.

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.[2]

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).

A World of Warcraft Succubus: I keep asking about coincidences in this piece but is it really by chance that her primary physical weapon is a whip?

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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

About Quinnae

Quinnae Moongazer, (or Katherine Cross, as she is known in Muggle-speak) is a pizza loving feminist sociologist, trans Latina, and amateur slug herder, working on her PhD at the CUNY Graduate Centre. When she's not studying or gaming she can be found at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. Her blog can be found at and her writing has also appeared in Women's Studies Quarterly, Bitch Magazine, Questioning Transphobia, and Kotaku. She is a co-editor of the Border House.
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38 Responses to The Mistress of the Lash Wears Chains

  1. Jayle Enn says:

    One of the things that’s always struck me about drow is that for all the thousands of pages written about how powerful they are, is that they are nevertheless intended as adventurer fodder. The stalwart, statistically male and defensively heterosexual party goes down, fights and defeats these boss-monster women, and the world goes back to an even keel.

    The Hyldnir and their hated Valkyr cousins are just confusing. They hate men and each other in the most unimaginative way, but at the same time -all- of their energies are devoted toward earning a man’s favour.

  2. Quinnae says:

    Well said, Jayle. I really should’ve mentioned both of the issues you raised in your comment. These matriarchies are often configured as something for the players to subvert or defeat thus allowing the- as you say statistically male and defensively heterosexual- average gamer to excise the nightmare thus presented, and to revenge himself upon this parody of powerful women.

  3. Ohma says:

    This sort of…uh…stigma?…attitude? is something my partners and I are very careful to keep in mind when we’re writing (well, when they’re writing, I’m mostly world building) because even though we know why we created a group that superficially fits this trope to a T, we need to remember that other people wont. So we take great care when dealing characters from that group and characters interacting others from the group, to highlight that their problem is not their sex or sexuality (in fact that’s usually portrayed in a positive light) but is instead their civilization’s rulers who are on the whole amoral plutocrats who have shaped their society into something that only really serves them.

    Though I think it helps that one of the main characters is from the superficially dominatrix-y society, and her personal mission is only to overthrow the plutocracy, not to change anything else about her culture. Also that of the other three major sides, two of them have fundamental flaws that are basically that they aren’t culturally more like the sexually liberated groups.

    though i suppose the problem is still communicating that without just dumping exposition all over the page >_>

  4. Quinnae says:

    @Ohma, that campaign sounds fascinating.

    The issue you’re raising here is part of the problem really; you’re trying to create a more complex campaign that subverts the dominant ideas imported into these kinds cultures and yet you’re keenly aware that because of its superficial resemblance to a certain stereotype people may well misunderstand it.

    The imagery of the dominatrix is hard to reappropriate but bless you for making such a spirited effort! This is why I love pen and paper RPGs. :)

  5. Maverynthia says:

    I think you missed another sad fact about Drow society. The fact that Drow Houses and in a constant backstabbing (but not in the open) circle to try and be the top house, which also throws out the trope that women will fight amongst themselves if left to their own devices.

    I do find it sad that 99% of the fiction out there is a patriarchal world view, and the other 1% matriarchal is the societies that have been described here. It infuriates me to no end to see another evil matriarchy, or another succubus demon. I would say something about ‘female-nightmare’ but unfortunately we live in it everyday.

    This kind of society is one I subvert a bit for my NaNoWriMo novel. I take our world view and flip it. While men are “equal” they are still objectified through media and games. They are the “cute anime catboy mascots” and the “fragile boys that need to be protected.” Of course the men wear the pretty fashion and make-up and the women wear the pants and care nothing for such things.

    I wonder if we ever will see a more realiztic matriarchal society that examines WHY women and men are “different”. Rather than women STILL running around in dresses and heels when they are the ones doing the objectification/subjugation.

  6. Grimalkin says:

    Something else similar to these lines is the fact that not one but two new NPCs in the revised World of Warcraft refer to Sylvanas Windrunner as a “bitch”. I don’t want to spoil the designers “reasons” for giving this dialog to NPCs but I think it is totally unnecessary and almost ruined the game for me. Sylvanas didn’t appear that way to me, she is a headstrong leader who is doing what is best for her people and she really does not care what anyone else thinks about it, including her supposed “allies”. It seems that the designers are attempting to portray her as a villain and the entire thing is done poorly, in my opinion, from her “sexy” outfit to her headstrong nature. Her entire storyline seems to support your exact points in this article.

    If you want to see the storyline play out for yourself, create a new Forsaken character and run through the quest line from Tirisfal Glades to the end of Silverpine Forest (up to the conclusion in Shadowfang Keep).

    Actually, I dislike the entire direction of the current Horde storyline to the point where my spouse and I are seriously considering switching to Alliance.

  7. Shy says:

    I don’t have much to add here, other than that I completely agree.

    I’m pretty tired of good=chaste and bad=slutty, but I’d imagine it stems from sexuality as conquest. If a guy gets a lady to give it up (so to speak) then that’s an accomplishment, and even more so if she didn’t share her sexuality with anyone else. If a lady is more in control of her sexuality then that could lead to the guy feeling “manipulated” by his own desires rather than pleased with his desirability, especially if he feels interchangeable with other men to this lady.

    So I guess it’s just a form of insecurity, is what I’m saying?

  8. Laurentius says:

    Very interesting, but I can’t help but mention that for me it was a little bit difficult to read. I may be not accustomed with all these subjects but it tackles so many themes and ideas that I was often almost lost at thoughts when I was “digesting” one paragraph and already something new opens up. I don’t know, maybe making two blog entries out of it would make it more accessible for me. As I said it’s very interesting but I feel it may be a little confusing for less experience readers.

  9. 12Sided says:

    Though I agree that there are so many problems with Drow they’re still one of my favourite fantasy races because I feel like there’s so much potential there that the writers just don’t see or aren’t interested in. I have a number of male drow characters that I love role playing with. I can play with how their society has affected them, what have they internalised, how do they see themselves.
    I remember reading about the drow pantheon with Lolth’s son and daughter; Eilistraee and Vhaeraun. I first read Vhaerun as described as Chaotic Evil but wants equality between drow sexes so they can work together to rise up and take over the surface, and Eilistraee being Chaotic Good, wanting the drow to come to the surface and live in peace, yet her descriptions never say anything about her views on gender politics, so I always imagined groups of her followers still being matriachal simply because they never had a reason to re-examine the way they saw gender. But I have yet to see any of the FR novels with the same take on it that I have.

  10. Kimiko says:

    Say, just out of curiosity, is there a way for the player to join/help these women? I seem to recall that games like WOW often give the player choices like that.

  11. Beth says:

    @Maverynthia What you were describing at the end actually reminds me a lot of this one episode of Star Trek The Next Generation where Picard and Riker go to a planet that is ruled by women. The women are taller and larger than the men, the men wear the ‘pretty’ clothing, and the men aren’t taken as seriously. (The leader of the world has a hard time taking Riker and Picard seriously at first because they are ‘men’). I mean, this is obviously not a perfect matriarchy or anything, more like a social commentary on the state of our own culture, reversed.

  12. grumblycakes says:

    You know, I can only think of one video game matriarchy that isn’t evil… the queendom of Falena in Suikoden 5.

  13. Rakaziel says:

    I share your observations and can only say it is a pity that this stuff gets still written. Not only because it is basically just strawwomen to fight against in the name of patriarchalic male fantasy and propaganda, though that is the worst part, but also because it is such a waste in worldbuilding, character development and story potential.

  14. Adam says:

    I think you are deliberately ignoring some historical foundations for BDSM culture. Dominatrices and male doms alike are viewed as somewhat “evil” because of their obvious roots in torture and medieval dungeons: dark, scary places where unspeakably evil acts occurred. The whips and toys evoke little bits of evil of days gone by, and quite intentionally (that’s part of the fun/excitement). It strikes me as absurd that you wish an archetype for a torture artist to be reconsidered a modern “hero”.

    Additionally, the association between darkness and evil is not just some veiled racist stab. There is a mountain of historical cultural basis for it (some of which you may dislike, but it’s not all just racism). Clearly a strong influence Western culture is the Judeo-Christian “God is Light” concept, as well as God creating light from the darkness. There are more practical reasons for humans to feel this way, however. The fact that sunlight makes us feel warm, safe, etc., and in the darkness we can’t see what evils may be approaching. As children we have nightmares at night and imagine monsters in the closet. Also, crimes tend to spike at night when people are asleep and the darkness hides much. These are just a few obvious reasons for the association of light with “good” and dark with “evil.”

  15. Alex says:

    This post is so interesting, and I learned a lot from it. For one thing, the fantasy matriarchies I’ve seen always bugged, but I’d never realized it is another type of male fantasy. That makes so much sense now. Thanks, Quinnae! =)

  16. Julian Morrison says:

    @Adam, I dispute your “because” in the first paragraph. BDSM plays with images of evil, and of old torture techniques (copies only lightly, because most medieval stuff was unspeakable and physically ruinous to the point of not being survivable). But BDSM does not seek to be seen as evil outside of play. And the co-opting of BDSM tropes is not led by BDSM players. Nor is a real “dominatrix” (I prefer the term “domme”) a role consisting solely of nastiness.

    Fundamentally the “vanilla” mainstream has severe problems understanding masochism, and understanding consent. So the mainstream image (and fantasy) of the evil dominatrix has her preying violently on innocents. But that isn’t the whole of the trope, as Quinnae shows, the rest of it is all about the male perspective. She dresses for the male gaze, excites, spurns and hurts the men – a version of the role reversal game that the ancient Greeks would have understood. This vision of evil as a reversal of the natural hierarchy (which extends from the king ruling the country, to the man ruling the home) comes down to us from them, via the Romans and the church in Rome. This demon is a demon precisely because she rules men, a reversal in the eyes of patriarchy. And she is constructed as a caricature, made to be beaten by the conquering hero, who restores the rightful order.

    As to the light-dark thing, I’d say religion was the one co-opting even earlier imagery – light is fire or daytime and thus safety, dark is the realm of unseen predators. The light-elves and dark-eves were made up by pagan cultures. But Tolkien racialized them as white aristocratic near-angelic elves and black ignoble orcs (along with his other racial touches, like the quasi-Asian people on Mordor’s side) – and generic fantasy has copied him uncritically since.

  17. @Adam:
    In the right context, a “torture artist” could very well be a hero. The act of torture itself is not necessarily evil. A Dominatrix/ Dominant can be an important guide in someone’s life. They can help masochists and submissive indulge in activities which many feel a passion/ need for. While part of the fun is the whips and chains relation to their past use, throughout time there have been people who found them pleasurable and Domination fulfilling. Even in medieval periods and before then we have evidence that BDSM play existed. It has always been a positive force as much as a negative one.

    Your comment also ignores the central point of Moongrazer’s article where she argues that sexually empowered women are seen as evil. She wants to call attention to the fact that when a woman is in touch with her sexuality (be it Dominant or submissive) she is created to be nothing more than an object of male gaze instead of an interesting and deep character. Often she is in skimpy leather outfits not for any personal reasons, but because it’s fun to look at. These characters are as much on display as the submissive they play with, so to speak. A ‘torture artist’ heroine might be a woman who has a powerful, Dominating sexual energy but whom uses that to her personal advantages. Either to progress in her life, or use it to influence people enough to save those she loves. She might be a powerful warrior type whose sexuality/ sadism is an extension of the way she presents herself to the world; perhaps even finding a masochist who appreciates her gifts. Her sexuality is a reflection of a greater whole, instead of being the entire basis for her character. A strong sadist (or masochist) protagonist has her sexuality as a realized portion of herself, but with many talents and abilities which can’t be boiled down to a single trope. The idea is that as of right now, the majority of powerful women are presented as one-dimensional man-haters, or who exist solely to crack the whip and moan for men who see her as a kinky sex object. We do not have many like Melisande Shahrizai (a villain, but one who is certainly not one-dimensional and who uses her abilities and nature to greatly farther her place in life).

    As for the rest, the religious basis for “Light” versus “Dark” can itself be a racist commentary. Remember that Jesus is always depicted as being Caucasian despite it being highly unlikely that he ever was. With white skin, flowing brown hair, European characteristics which weren’t exactly common in the Middle-East and among the Jewish community. There is a racist bias within much of the formation of Christianity.

    Additionally, not every religion always saw the night as a bad thing. Pagans were seen to glorify and revel in the night. Feasts at midnight, worship of the moon, dancing until dawn. Many people today don’t see it as a particularly bad thing. There are children who are afraid of monsters in their closet, but there’s also those who love nothing more but to curl up at night in the pitch dark. Sunlight and heat of the day is great, but so is the peace and chill of the night.

    I’m also certain that if human beings were active during the night, and asleep during the day, we’d have a spike in crimes right around noon. When people are predictably off the streets and asleep, it makes crime easier. It’s not so much the night that’s dangerous, so much as the lack of witnesses as the vast majority of them have gone home. By walking alone at night, you aren’t walking down a busy sidewalk and there aren’t many people around who could help you.

  18. Quinnae says:


    The entire point I was making was as follows (to make it as simple as possible):

    * BDSM culture uses certain symbols that have certain meanings attached to them as part of a parodic play of sexual power.
    * The sense of parody is important, BDSM pokes fun at power and reappropriates the symbols of power, authority, and torture for the purposes of pleasure.
    * The association of these things with negativity is the fault of society not taking the time to understand what kinksters are actually doing.
    * Thus people creating media, like World of Warcraft, uncritically reimport the symbols of BDSM *as* BDSM/sex symbols and resignify them as something bad.

    Put much more briefly, the very idea that a dominatrix can only ever be an ontologically negative being is the very idea that I was challenging, and yet you summon that very point and call it a critique of what I wrote.

    The dominatrix/domme is someone who appropriates the symbols of power and torture, yes, but she herself as a historical figure was not the one operating the torture chambers of, say, The Spanish Inquisition. The dominatrix as a sexual figure has any number of possible moral meanings. My criticism was of the fact that such a sexual figure is always configured as evil in media like video games.

    You also say “dominatrices and male doms” yet one of the points of my article is that you *do not see* male doms of any description in games like this. The dominatrix is only ever a -trix.

    So if you think it’s absurd that I ask for such a figure to be reconfigured every so often as a hero or at least as a more morally complex individual, all I can say is that your way of thinking (that something can only ever have one possible meaning) is the very ideology I’m challenging here.

    Same with your descriptions of light and dark.

    As Jade Castillo points out, many religions ancient and modern had very different relationships with the night. Hells, in an example of something positive from WoW, the Night Elves are a fictional example based on that historical human reality of veneration of a virtuous and sacred darkness.

    Secondly, in Western fiction there is an unfortunate trope of good guys having light skin and bad guys being dark skinned that was quite popularised by J.R.R. Tolkien (see, the Haradrim versus the Men of Gondor and Rohan). While there are other meanings for light and dark, the implications of the constant repetition of that Tolkien-esque trope remain beyond the control of the artists and should be paid attention to. I could write an entire article about that, certainly, and I only mentioned it here as an aside I felt obligated to mention with regards to the Drow, but I left the point very undeveloped since it was not why I wrote this piece.

  19. Maverynthia says:

    @Beth I seem to recall that episode vaguely. I also remember that Her and Riker also had a thing going on in it as well.

    @Quinnae What I find interesting is the actual SCIENCE of race. The people of the hottest parts of the world tend to have dark skin due to the melanin and such to block the rays and keep cool (been a while since I’ve been in biology). As well as the animals. Of course hot = sun/light. Creatures that are found in caves and total darkness tend to be pale and have white skin. People too, as you think of the Norse and them being pale in the cold, which is a lack of heat. You can see animals that are white come from cold regions cold = dark/no light while warmer regions tend to have darker and more colorful skins and fur.
    The plae thing is also a joke. The gamer that crawls out from the basement and is “white as sour cream”.

    So if anything, white/light = evil and black/dark = good. xD

  20. Laurentius says:

    “So if anything, white/light = evil and black/dark = good. xD”

    It’s not the same, light = good, darkness=evil is probably most primal archetype, well beyond any concept of human race and most probably any organized religion. Humans cannot see in darkness, light is needed to see colours and give them any form of evaluation.

    “Additionally, not every religion always saw the night as a bad thing. Pagans were seen to glorify and revel in the night. Feasts at midnight, worship of the moon, dancing until dawn.”

    It’s not about night itself, and actually moon and stars were worshiped b/c illuminating darkness of the night.

    “Remember that Jesus is always depicted as being Caucasian despite it being highly unlikely that he ever was.”

    Now that’s big overgeneralization, it’s not hard to find different racial iconographic presentation of Jesus.

  21. XIV says:


    You sure have a lot of ‘probably’s’ in your statements there. And some of them worry me a bit since they seem to actually be attempting to justify the whole light-skinned people are good and dark-skinned people are evil thing by implying it’s ‘beyond the concept of race’. I’m pretty sure it’s not. Maybe it’s about time that archetype is put to rest because it can have some pretty bad implications?

    On the Jesus depiction, I don’t really think it’s that big of an overgeneralization at all. Heck, even doing a google image search will bring up a caucasian male in a majority of the first results. And I know here in America almost every media representation of Jesus has him being white. Just because it’s not hard to find other ones doesn’t mean much when one highly inaccurate image of him has constantly been pushed to the front as the dominant image.

  22. Alex says:

    Maverynthia makes a great point that the light/dark archetype could easily go the other way, and yet it doesn’t. Why?

    Besides, just because there may be certain archetypes doesn’t mean we shouldn’t challenge and subvert them.

  23. Laurentius says:


    I did not say that because it’s archetype we must follow it blindly or not: – “Besides, just because there may be certain archetypes doesn’t mean we shouldn’t challenge and subvert them.” – totally QFT. What i meant by saying “beyond concept of race” is that we can to a degree track down this archetype to the oldest written sources of Ancient Egypt and Sumer. It’s thousands years older then invention of “races” in western culture and actualy any civilization of light-skinned people. Egyptians weren’t white despite what Civilization V might shows you, and Sumerians, probably the oldest civilization definietly was dark skinned people. I mean, just because racial stereotyps can use even oldest human archetype does not mean they are the same or have the same roots.

    As to second part : “always” is big overgneralization in this case, i’m sorry but for me “always” does not mean “always in USA” nor “always in american media”, there is whole world out there with it’s histry that word always should refers to.

  24. Rakaziel says:

    Also take into account tabletop games.

    I guess the most prominent bad example of one-dimensional BDSM villains here is Slaanesh from Warhammer Fantasy / Warhammer 40K, also the Dark Elves or Dark Eldar, and both of which are also connected to Slaanesh. It could be noted that all three of them have very pale white skin though.

    Another bad example would be the Iron Kingdoms world (Warmachine / Hordes) Two of the three evil factions (Cryx, Everblight, Skorne) feature women in revealing outfits and the third is currently led by an “Archdomina” though it actually describes a queen there. Cryx is a bit worse here, featuring horned amazones with giant chain lashes as their primary weapons, who intentionally wear revealing clothes to distract their opponents in battle, sacrifice their male children in rituals and steal men to sire the next generation. Also they have witches who use seduction as one of their attacks.
    Also, all the female charactes in the good factions wear very form-fitting but completely covering armor, so the trope saint vs whore is active here as well.

  25. Jonathan says:

    Interesting piece. It strikes me that there is lack of fantasy fiction that has room for virtuous, but sexual female characters that doesn’t head straight into overt erotica territory. Or at least if it’s out there, I haven’t found it.

  26. Pingback: The links are strong with this one (4th December, 2010) | Geek Feminism Blog

  27. Kaonashi says:

    Well written! It’s comically tragical that an oppressive matriarchy is so easy to imagine, but the real patriarchy is so easy to miss for some.

    I have to say though that the concept of being both alluring and repulsive can be really interesting in character design. It’s common in horror after all, with things such as evil children. So a sexually attractive horror isn’t such a strange thing in itself, although it’s clear that character designers and authors aren’t always very imaginative or willing to break free of stereotypes when they create them. Maybe it’s just too hard to do an interesting, sensible alternative today, but it would be fun to see someone try.

  28. I always found the fact that the drow are dark skinned and live underground to be annoying, considering the fact that actual underground creatures tend to be albino. And it’s a rather blatant example of a sort of sloppy, semi-racist reasoning that are evil must be dark colored, which leads nowhere good.

    Anyway, on the topic of dark=evil and light=good, I’m curious if anyone has any examples of works that reverse this dichotomy at all? About all I can come up with is stuff that’s deliberately being transgressive. (And something I’m failing to write :P)

    Also I’m skeptical of any claim of universality there, though I will admit that there is a tendency to see day and the sun as good, for obvious reasons relating to biology, which quickly can lead to that dichotomy. But I’m more skeptical of the idea that night or darkness is anywhere near universal in being considered “evil”.

    Also, the “Mistress of Chains” quest image makes it look like we also have some cultural appropriation of Hinduism going on there. The character design and name is pretty clearly drawing on Kali, though making her evil and a “dominatrix” is new (well, her being evil isn’t WoW’s idea, that’s at least in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and probably earlier western sources too).

  29. milly says:

    Very interesting article. I have always interpreted this phenomenon differently. I figured that it was a male fantasy rather than nightmare, since it seems that heterosexual men who have a sexual fantasy of being dominated are very common (I run into a lot of them as a vanilla heterosexual female anyway). I figured the casting of the dominatrix as evil was part of the fantasy, but perhaps also partly due to the shame of being a male submissive. That shame being there because we live in a society where sexual submission is only appropriate when demonstrated by females.

    I have another example for you from a game I play, by the way. City of Heroes has a parallel dimension where all the signature heroes are evil. Ms. Liberty, one of the most prominent heroes in the game, has an evil counterpart who is actually called “Dominatrix” and she has a bunch of minions in over the top bondage gear. She doesn’t have a whip, but she does have a coil of rope on her belt.

  30. 12Sided says:

    @EmilyEmilyEmily well I know in the Forgotten Realms mythos Drow used to be the same as all the other multi-skin-toned elves until they sided with Lolth against Corellon, then it was either Corellon giving them the black skin/white hair/red eyes to kind of colour-code them as ‘evil’ or it was something Lolth did to mark them as her followers. Not that it makes it any better just that it’s not supposed to be an evolutionary trait in FG if not the other.

  31. Neophyte says:

    Wanted to chime in with a slightly different perspective. I’ve been a D&D player for a while, and while my GM’s never included the Drow, I’ve read the mythos on them.

    I’m thinking that maybe instead of male nightmare, they’re just a different variety of male fantasy. Some of the more submissive players can be attracted to strong females who would dominate them. Since domination usually involves ‘forcing’ someone to do something, it’s not in the fantasy conception of something a ‘good’ character would do – a High Elf dominatrix, for example, doesn’t seem to fit in the worldview (this is probably its own problem).

    The ‘good’ female elves are pretty sexualized as well (see Night Elves in WoW), so my theory is that non-submissive players fantasize there, while the more submissive types fantasize about the Drow and the ‘evil dominatrix’ stereotype.

  32. Neo Romantic says:

    At several points in Dragon Age I wished they’d made the (downtrodden) elves _dark_ elves, as it would have added a different dynamic to the way the player reacted to the situation… As it is, it’s very easy for people used to fantasy to look at the setting and go “WTF? Elves are good guys, you are all idiots.” and feel good about themselves for being against the fantasy racism. I wonder how it would have played out if the elves had looked like drow…

  33. Yeah, having the story be “the drow have blackish skin because they’re evil and it was a curse” may make more sense from a perspective of evolutionary biology (inasmuch as “a wizard did it” counts as evolutionary biology), but that just sort of makes the racism worse.

    Morrowind also has that problem, in which case it’s pretty explicitly stated that the dark elves are dark colored because of a curse. Though they aren’t evil, usually.

    I mean, at least they’ve started making it a greyish black that doesn’t really correspond that closely to real races, but there’s still sort of this “not being white is a terrible curse” subtext, which is… not helpful.

  34. 12Sided says:

    @EmilyEmilyEmily yeah when I draw drow I tend to tint their skin blue just to try and get as far away from any real-life skin tone as possible but the dark=bad problem is still there.
    It’s one of the reasons why I tend to look at everything the drow do as a product of Lolth, the in-fighting, paranoid, mistrusting and brutal society keeps them dependant on Lolth in many ways and vying for her favor, and Lolth did this because gods in FG get their power from their followers to a large extent. It always seemed to me that drow who survive to adulthood are going to be really messed up because of that society (and this is one of the reasons Drizzt and his never-tarnished moral beliefs irked me to no end from the start when I read his back story)

  35. Jonathan says:

    I once played a drow who had escaped from the Underdark and all that stuff, but I intentionally made him a neutral character, rather than a good one. I figured that over a century of living in that environment is going to result in an individual who, even if he was rebelling against the excesses and evils of his people and their goddess, was still a rather unpleasant individual by human standards.

    So while he was convinced that sacrificing intelligent beings to dark gods and killing not only your rivals, but their entire families were very bad things, concepts like friendship, trust and compassion were completely alien to him. It made for some interesting role play.

    I’ve also got to mention the DERP Fantasy Gaming “World of Alrune” LARP system, for having blind, albino evil elves that live even deeper than the drow-like race and tend to dominate them, giving a rather interesting situation where the black race does evil largely at the urging of the white elite.

  36. Quinnae says:

    To everyone who has been commenting with their thoughts and examples: Thank you! The phenomenon is even more prevalent than I realised, but it also very heartwarming to hear everyone’s different ways of subverting these tropes.

  37. Alex H says:

    Yes! Great post Quinnae. I try to combat this problem in two areas: First, in my d&d campaign the drow are patriarchial (and win in the end bwahaha!) and the matriarchies that do exist differ greatly from the norm. Secondly, I’m creating an OpenBor mod based on dark elves that deal with very classic stereotypes. Hopefully I can incorporate some of this insightful criticism into my own. Thank you for this post.

  38. Nezumi says:

    One thing I notice is that these matriarchies are never proportionate in oppressiveness to real-life Patriarchy. In most “civilized” society, although there is sexism, women are not treated as slaves whose lives are utterly meaningless, and who exist solely to be brutalized and used — although certain societies in the past and even, sadly, current societies do have attitudes that border on this, if not falling into it outright.

    … In fact, the only case I can think of where a matriarchy was portrayed as similar in attitudes and degree of oppressiveness to the comparable patriarchal societies is “A Choice of Broadsides.” (it, and other games by A Choice of Games have been discussed frequently on this blog) If you choose to play a female in it, society is reversed into a matriarchy comparable to the patriarchal society of the works it emulates, or its version with a male lead. Men are instead considered the domestic sex, to be placed on a pedestal — with all the covert and overt sexism that entails.

    This seems to suggest that the sort of male this “male nightmare” is oriented to is the type that doesn’t understand there still is inequality of the sexes — that doesn’t recognize the patriarchal nature of the world, and, so it is assumed, thus would not recognize a more subtle matriarchy and the negative aspects thereof, and has to have it exaggerated into a virtual living hell for men. In this case, the borrowing of BDSM may simply be part of the unsubtle nature of the representation — men won’t recognize powerful, abusive women unless they fit the dominatrix archetype.

    Needless to say, this is problematic in and of itself. It is still uncritically importing BDSM as a bad thing, it’s still turning women into flat caricatures and bogeymen… but it carries a host of other problems, including negative assumptions about their audience by the writer… and the suggestion that it means that more subtle, realistic matriarchies will not be explored because creators thing their audience is too stupid to get them.

    Of course, this is all just random thinking on my part, so I have no idea whether it reflects reality in the least.

    Either way, I have a set of problems with this on top of everything else, which I would like to mention:

    1) You almost never see comparable patriarchies in RPGs, or if you do, they’re a footnote. Although such patriarchies might be triggering for some, there’s a whole host of sexist issues here, from the implication that only “us girls” are crazy enough to act like that, to further implication that such things are really “for boys” — it’s about male fantasy and male nightmare, not female fantasy or female nightmare; “us girls” are so insignificant that there’s no need to cater to us.

    2) You never see more subtle, less oppressive matriarchies, and when you do see such patriarchies, they’re almost always obviously unintentional and not recognized as such by the creator. Besides the unchecked male privilege inherent in basically considering a patriarchy comparable to modern Western society a “default”, there’s issues with the implication that matriarchy can’t be subtle and pernicious… not to mention the number of lost roleplaying opportunities due to the inability to roleplay in such a matriarchy or an acknowledged patriarchy of that ilk, or to play a character who is openly from such a society.

    3) The situation of sexual and gender equality being the default in RPGs, with deviation being remarkable. Yes, this is what the real world should be like, and sometimes you want simple escape from such issues… but other times you want to work through such scenarios in a non-threatening, fictional milieu; that’s one of the things roleplaying is for… and treating societies with gender issues as strange, evil “others” or outright nonexistent roughly 100% of the time deprives you of that option.

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