Tropebusting: Matriarchies in Gaming and Sci-Fi/Fantasy

The following is a guest post from Zaewen:

Zaewen is a white, straight, cis woman and avid feminist gamer, with MMOs being her favorite genre. She has a degree in psychology, a Texas accent, and spends most of her free time playing games, reading blogs, and very occasionally doing some blogging herself. Zaewen hopes to one day get a PhD in awesomeness (or sociology) and do her best to help change the culture we live in.

It’s Tropebusting time! Yes, like Mythbusters, but with Tropes! Sadly, there will be no gratuitous explosions ala the Savage-Hyneman team, but there will be pictures! Maybe even pictures of explosions! Ok, that’s enough exclamation points, onward to the busting of the Matriarchy tropes that exist in Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and gaming!

First, you may be wondering what exactly a matriarchy is, let alone what a Matriarchy would be (yes the capitalization makes a difference). In anthropology, there are many terms for categorizing the way a culture/society is structured: matrilineal/patrilineal means land, property, and inheritance are passed down through the mother’s line (matri-) or the father’s (patri-); matrilocal/patrilocal means that new family units move in with (or move closer to) the mother’s family or the father’s family; and, lastly, matriarchal/patriarchal means that power is usually held by the mother (or women in general) or by the father (or men in general). Now in sociological and feminist theory, there is a concept called the Patriarchy that takes that last anthropological category and expands upon it to describe a culture that consolidates all (or nearly all) of the power in men and promotes sexism and discrimination against women. There is a contrasting, hypothetical concept called Matriarchy, which would theoretically be the exact opposite of a Patriarchy. It’s purely hypothetical, though, because such a culture has never existed (at least on a large, global scale like the Patriarchy). Because we live in a Patriarchy, and Patriarchal cultures have been the norm for most of recorded history, the idea of a Matriarchy is interesting territory to explore in Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and the games that belong to those genres. Sadly, most of time that this particular territory is explored, we only ever get some really bad and problematic tropes instead of the good speculative fiction that is (or should be) the hallmarks of those genres.

 

A Drow Matron reclines on her throne with her feet propped up on the back of a shirtless and chained Drow man. Another man and woman stand beside her throne.

The Drow are fiercely Matriarchal. Men are treated as second-class citizens, are ritually killed without a second thought, and just generally have a crappier go of it then women.

 

The most prevalent of these tropes is that Matriarchies are Evil, like really, really super-duper EVIL. The Drow, of DnD fame, are one of the best examples of an Evil Matriarchy (and a Sexy Matriarchy, but I’ll get to that in a moment). For those not in the know, the Drow are the dark elves of the Forgotten Realms that live underground and are EVIL. Very EVIL and very Matriarchal… and not by coincidence. Their evilness is in their Matriarchy: they worship an evil demon god, Lolth the Spider Queen, who revels in torture and murder; they have a competitive Great House system led by the house Matrons wherein house prominence is gained by exterminating one of the higher houses; and relegation of men to the lesser valued status of Warriors, Mages, and sperm donators while women get to be the powerful Matrons and Priestesses. There’s whips and chains, ritual sacrifices, and more backstabbing than you can shake a poisoned dagger at. They are evil because they are Matriarchal and ruthlessly subjugate half of their population. However,  there is also a very strong sense that they are a Matriarchy because they are so unbelievably evil, that a society run by women is just inherently evil. The inter-house competition is based around jealousy, vanity, gossip, and frenemy-type alliances that always end with backstabbing, all of which are heavily gendered to be the stereotypical not-so-fair traits of the ‘fairer sex’. Sexism is still sexism, and does not look any better when it has a fantasy veneer painted over it.

 

Matron Baenre, the oldest and toughest of the Drow Matrons, sits on a magical disk surrounded by two of her adult daughters.

The leaders of the highest House of Menzoberranzan. They got there (and stay there) through subterfuge, assassinations, and the ruthless extermination of houses that pose a challenge to their rule.

 

Now, you might ask, “Wait, Zee, isn’t the Patriarchy like really EVIL too?” Well, yes, the Patriarchy is evil because it promotes the subjugation of half of humanity, but it’s not because men are inherently evil. What we see in the Drow society, and the many Evil Matriarchies depicted in literature and games, is not just a Patriarchy-flip though. Rather, they are grossly exaggerated reversals of the Patriarchy. Very few fictional Matriarchies accurately reflect the reality of contemporary, or historical, Patriarchies. There have been many horrible atrocities and greivous violations of basic human rights committed by Patriarchies, both current and ancient, but by depicting an exaggerated reversal, the Evil Matriarchy trope makes a farce of these tragedies. It sends the message that the ongoing  inequality and oppression faced by women today, and in the past, is not that bad because it could be worse, they could face the horrific fates of the men showcased in these fictional Matriarchies. Instead of getting insightful commentary on a Patriarchal system (or any hierarchal system), fiction that utilizes this trope only provides the audience with sexist stereotypes and belittling depictions of the plight of women who have suffered under real-world Patriarchies.

A Drow woman wearing a very revealing ensemble that consists of tiny leather straps that have been fashioned into a bikini bottom, a midriff and cleavage baring top, and thigh high boots. She wields a magical staff and appears to be standing in the typical "back arched, breasts thrust outwards" spell-casting position.

A Drow woman wearing... not much.

One of the other prevlant tropes is that Matriarchies are Sexy. Smokin’ hot babes, kink and fetish gear, random girl-on-girl action, and as little clothing as possible are all big parts of these societies. The Drow, are again, one of the best examples of this (and probably the progenitor of most modern hyper-sexualized fictional Matriarchies), but there have been many Sexy Matriarchies throughout literature and gaming. From the Amazons warrrios of Ancient Greece to the (mostly) benevolent Asari of the Mass Effect universe, as well as the Kelari of Rift, the Night Elvesof Warcraft, and almost every other iteration of dark elf, these Matriarchal societies range the gamut of good and evil, passive and aggressive, but they all share a large degree of sexualization. This trope stems from a couple of places. The first is that the overt sexuality of the women in the Matriarchy is a symbol of their power. This ties into the prevailing notion in our real-world society that much of a woman’s power and value lays in her sexuality and how she wields it, whether its as a good, chaste virgin or a dangerous, seductive spy (just to pick two of the many archetypes). It’s a really complex topic (and would double the length of this already long post if I delved too deep into it) but it’s the same notion that creates the sexual double standard of slut v. stud and the virgin-whore dichotomy. The Sexy Matriarchy trope relies on this Patriarchal idea of female sexuality as power to convey the message that the women of the society are powerful. This has some pretty unfortunate implications though when it comes to Evil Matriarchies that are also Sexy Matriarchies, like the Drow. The idea transforms from female sexuality is their power base to female sexuality is evil and corruptive, which is definitely not a great message to be sending out.

A Night Elf seductively reclines against a large white tiger. The Night Elf is wearing a plate mail bikini that, when coupled with the way her legs are sprawled out, leaves all but the most explicit parts of her crotch exposed. The tiger, meanwhile, looks a little annoyed to have been used as a punny prop in such a cheesecake piece of art.

The Male Gaze in full effect in some artwork for World of Warcraft.

Of course, the other root to many Sexy Matriarchies is simply the real-world impetus to sexually objectify women, even when it makes absolutely no sense to do so. I highly doubt a real Matriarchy would have the women, the people in power, be the ones who make their bodies sexually available and pleasing at all times for the low-status men. Pretty sure it would be the opposite: men would be the decorative, ‘fairer’ sex. Instead, we get all-powerful women shoe-horned into chain-mail bikinis and sexy poses to titillate the presumed male audience. This, my friends, is what is called the Male Gaze, a feminist theory that describes how much of our media is framed to always view the world and its inhabitants through the male gaze. That means men are actors and subjects, while women, no matter how powerful they are in a supposed Matriarchy, are still only objects to be lusted after.

This ties into another trope: Matriarchies that look suspiciously like Patriarchies despite being ruled by women. A lot of Matriarchies have some aspect of this, mostly because they are imperfect reversals of a Patriarchy due to exaggeration or just misunderstanding of what a Patriarchy is or what traits are inherent to a gender. To use the earlier example of Drow, the fact that male Drow tend to both be fully clothed and have more career paths open to them (warrior+assassin+mage verses priestess) than their female counterparts is not exactly logical in such a ruthless and strong Matriarchy. An even better example lies in the Salarians of the Mass Effect universe. A supposedly strict Matriarchal race, the Salarians have conveniently designed gender roles that keep all of the women (who make themselves a minority by tightly controlling reproduction to make sure only a handful of women are born each generation) on the home planet while the men go off and do important manly things in space. Their Council representative (the ruling board of the entire galaxy) is a male, all of their ambassadors are male, their military commanders are male. In fact, you never see a female Salarian in either of the two released games. For a Matriarchy, that’s not a whole lot of female power being displayed outside of the domestic sphere (i.e. their home planet) or child-rearing and procreative duties, which is a pretty Patriarchal world view.

Six Salarian men in high-tech armor are standing around in Shephard's ship after a mission.

You meet many, many Salarians in the game but none of them are women.

 

Other Matriarchies that fall under this trope seem to pretty much be Matriarchies in name only. They have a female head of state or leader, some sassy girl power quirps, and that’s pretty much it for the “all (or almost all) power is consolidated in the women while promoting sexism and discrimination against men” part of the definition of a Matriarchy. Most of the playable-race Matriarchies you encounter in MMO’s will be of this category: the Dark Elves of Everquest, the Night Elves of WoW, the Kelari of Rift, etc. Next time you’re running around in one of these games, pay attention to how many more men of the race you see then women, especially with quest givers or people that are important lore-wise. You’ll quickly see that for the most part the women are more sexualized than the men more often, aren’t actually in more powerful positions, or are still subject to a lot of the double standards and stereotypes that women have to deal with in the real-world Patriarchy. With this trope of Not-Really a Matriarchy, the term is only applied to them, or they’re only given the most vague surface resemblance to one, as a shorthand to the audience that these people are kind of evil or alien or exotic.

A close-up of ancient frieze sculpture of a battle between Amazons and Greeks. The close-up shows the time-worn image of a naked man fighting a mostly naked woman.

Matriarchy tropes go way back to the Ancient Greeks.

All of these tropes, either on their own or used in conjunction, send out some pretty peculiar messages about women: that women holding power is bad or odd, that female sexuality needs to be controlled lest it be used for evil, and that even when women run things they are still held back by their gender and need men around to do most of the work. It’s been theorized that these messages were actually the main purpose behind the myth of the Amazons back in Ancient Greece. While the Amazons might have existed, tales and myths of their society were exaggerated for the express purpose of proving that women were inferior, irrational, vengeful, and vain and used as justification for their subservience. As for nowadays, I’m going to be generous and give the people who create these ficitional Matriarchies the benefit of the doubt that they’re not trying to craft outrageously sexist propaganda. Rather, I think that the messages at the heart of the Amazon mythos have made their way into our collective consciousness and these modern, fictional Matriarchies are simply playing off of these stereotypes in attempts to create races that are easily readable as evil or alien in our Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and games. Which, of course, is still very sexist.

Quinnae, here at the Border House, has a great post that articulates some of these problematic messages that the Matriarchal tropes bring up. Her post made an excellent point that many games are using these stereotypes to play on a reverse of the male-fantasy that most games and fiction cater to. Instead of the typical male-fantasy of nubile maidens whose affection they can earn with their heroic deeds, powerful Matriarchies force the male audience to come face-to-face with the male-nightmare. It’s the primordial fear all humans have of past wrong-doings coming back to haunt them; the what-if  of women finally gaining power and doing to men what was done to them. This is why most of the powerful Evil Matriarchies that are encountered are adventure material (so that they can be overcome or conquered as one astute commenter points out in Quinnae’s post), but most player-character or ally races are of the non-threatening Not-Really a Matriarchy category. The former is used to titillate, challenge, and reward the assumed male adventurer, the latter is there to provide an interesting, exotic backdrop for the player, but both scenarios rely on sexist stereotypes to cater to the presumed Patriarchal world view of a male gamer.

So, if these Matriarchy tropes are just sexist stereotypes, what would a real Matriarchy look like? We don’t really know. We know what some matriarchal (in the anthropological sense) cultures look like, but there have never really been any Matriarchies on a large scale. One would assume that a Matriarchy would look much like today’s Patriarchy: a nuanced and complex system of both subtle and extreme oppressions and privileges that can be simultaneously easy to identify but hard to untangle the root causes of. The speculative fiction of Sci-Fi and Fantasy, and the interactive nature of games, are great ways to deconstruct and analyze the Patriarchy through the metaphor of a Matriarchy. These tropes, however, do little more than support and propagate the Patriarchy (and really bad Sci-Fi and Fantasy stories).

 The promised picture of an explosion: the Mythbusters duo recreate the prototypical running away from an exploding car image from movies. Hyneman can be seen with a TnT trigger and Savage is being pushed through the air by the force of the explosion.

Trope go BOOM!

(Originally posted here)

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64 Responses to Tropebusting: Matriarchies in Gaming and Sci-Fi/Fantasy

  1. Korva says:

    Very well put. Thanks for the linkback to Quinnae’s post as well. Can’t really think of anything else to add, you covered each point that I had in mind when I read the subject line.

    Gah, the night elves of Warcraft. Such potential — and Blizzard wasted no time absolutely gutting it and throwing it on the trash heap in terms of graphical portrayal (which infantalizes AND oversexes them so much I want to puke), in terms of the way they are written, and in terms of their role in the game world. I could rank about it for hours, and I don’t know which aspect of it bothers me the most. All of it is toxic and a real slap in the face.

    The asari and salarians are not much better. The former are a straight-out fanservice wankfest and nothing else, their supposed power never demonstrated and instead overshadowed by aggressive, dominant males at every turn. The latter are a pathetic “excuse” for not thinking female aliens worth portraying if they’re not “hawt”. There’s no reason why female salarians (or turians, or elcor, or …) should look noticeably different from their male counterparts to us mammalian players so they could simply have used the same models for both genders.

    Don’t get me started on the drow, I have hated them with a passion ever since I first heard about them, and that was years before I even heard the word “feminism”. ;)

    After all these more or abhorrent failures … has anyone come across a (more or less “strident” or rigid) fictional matriarchy that they consider done WELL? I don’t think I have. Maybe the Black Furies from Werewolf: the Apocalypse, but that’s not really a society but one of several small splinter groups of an “endangered species”.

    • Doug S. says:

      After all these more or abhorrent failures … has anyone come across a (more or less “strident” or rigid) fictional matriarchy that they consider done WELL? I don’t think I have. Maybe the Black Furies from Werewolf: the Apocalypse, but that’s not really a society but one of several small splinter groups of an “endangered species”.

      Perhaps the novel Glory Season by David Brin?

    • Zaewen says:

      Glad you like it! Quinnae’s post was actually part of the impetus behind me writing this. A while back it seemed like Matriarchies were popping up all over the place in feminist gaming discussions: Quinnae’s excellent post, Go Make A Sandwich’s Mass Effect posts, heck, even my guild in Rift had some discussion on the topic because of the Kelari. It all just got me thinking and it took a while to get the thoughts down right, but I wanted to get the ideas out on ‘paper’ and talk through them a bit.

      Anyhoo, I honestly can’t think of a Matriarchy done well in literature or games. I can’t even really think of many well done fictional societies that aren’t just slight variation on the real-world (i.e. our society but with magic or our society but in the future). Most of the really different fictional cultures rely on tropes or just aren’t really well thought out with regards to how their societal norms would be created or impact the populace. I think the best non-standard fictional culture I can think of is the one in Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness.

      • Evan says:

        I’d suggest some of Liz Williams’ books, particularly _Banner of Souls_ and _Winterstrike_, but matriarchies definitely have a place in a lot of her work.

    • Lacerta says:

      The first example that comes to mind is the Hyena people in the webcomic “Digger.” http://www.diggercomic.com/

      • Korva says:

        Damnit! I loved that webcomic, can’t believed I forgot about the hyenas. Thanks for the reminder, now I want to read it all again. ;)

    • Overmind says:

      Do planets controlled by a women-only organization Bene Gesserit in the last books of the Dune series Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse:Dune count? There are essentially two groups on those worlds: ordinary people, both male and female without any discrimination regarding their roles, who have regular jobs as workers, specialists, technicians, regular soldiers, etc. and Bene Gesserit members (and sometimes novices) who perform the most critical and dangerous tasks as well as rule (one democratically chosen Bene Gesserit is a supreme ruler; only Bene Gesserit members vote).

      Another all-female organization in those books are the Honored Matres who have conquered a significant swath of galaxy through sexual enslavement, brute power and terror they instilled in others with their unprecedented cruelty (like nuking an entire planet with billions of people in it because a couple guys living there dared to defy them). I have a mixed feeling about this organization because they fall into that sexual dominance trope mentioned in the article, but on the other hand they also possess considerable martial prowess (i.e. they also use other means apart from sex to further their goals) and they generally only enslave sexually individuals (male and female) who may be of use to them (sex, just as religion, politics or warfare, is treated rather instrumentally in the series), they do not turn all men around into their sexual slaves just for kicks.

      • Trodamus says:

        From what I understand, the Bene Gesserit’s representation is problematic as, while they are deployed as the singular source and experts on genetic memory, manipulation, etc., they lack overt power and are relegating to manipulating men who are in power, with some suggestions that they keep men in power as they are easier to manipulate (and get genetic material from for future lineages, natch).

        Not to mention that they, for no adequate or given reason, can’t access “male” memories and must await deliverance from this at the hands of the male Kwisatz Haderach. After he shows up off their schedule, their capabilities are further diminished.

        Honored Matres are strangely less problematic; the combined forces of (spoiler alert) the all-female army of the God Emperor (fish speakers) and the once-reproductively enslaved Bene Tlaxu, both escaping a terrible foe (the machines) and exacting revenge for several thousand years worth of crimes against their sex.

        That they don’t necessarily have a perfect, emotionally balanced and even-handed response to the above doesn’t mean it’s sexist, really. Except maybe the Duncan Idaho thing.

        • Ruxandra V says:

          From what I understand, the Bene Gesserit’s representation is problematic as, while they are deployed as the singular source and experts on genetic memory, manipulation, etc., they lack overt power and are relegating to manipulating men who are in power, with some suggestions that they keep men in power as they are easier to manipulate (and get genetic material from for future lineages, natch).

          Not to mention that they, for no adequate or given reason, can’t access “male” memories and must await deliverance from this at the hands of the male Kwisatz Haderach. After he shows up off their schedule, their capabilities are further diminished.

          Honored Matres are strangely less problematic; the combined forces of (spoiler alert) the all-female army of the God Emperor (fish speakers) and the once-reproductively enslaved Bene Tlaxu, both escaping a terrible foe (the machines) and exacting revenge for several thousand years worth of crimes against their sex.

          That they don’t necessarily have a perfect, emotionally balanced and even-handed response to the above doesn’t mean it’s sexist, really. Except maybe the Duncan Idaho thing.

          I don’t have quotes on me since it’s been a long time since I last read the books and I didn’t do so in the original English either, but from what I remember, the lack-of-overt-power was explained in-universe in (I think) book 5 by the BG’s plans being the long-term sort that require the sort of organizational stability you just don’t get on a throne.

          The Kwisatz Haderach bit is also quite a bit more complicated than you’ve presented it. Here be SPOILERZ, btw. The point of a KH isn’t just the ability to access both male and female memories, which any run-of-the-mill abomination can do, but to be able to see and choose possible futures. I’m still not entirely sure why they aren’t trying to get a female one, though I’d guess that they’ve done as much as they could figure out with the awakening process, and they’re hoping that if they get lucky enough to get a man able to survive it, they might also get lucky enough to have him become a KH. They get Paul, and they get him without expecting him, and they get him through circumstances that are entirely out of their control but which have him in a position where he can fuck up the only source of their much-needed unobtainium, so them losing that battle is kinda to be expected. It’s also heavily implied in book 2 (and a tiny bit in book 1) that the main reason Paul’s little sister isn’t a KS is that Paul is older and was awakened first and the future locked in to his prediction to the point where he doesn’t even need eyes to see. Again, it’s been quite some time since I read the books and my memory might be playing tricks on me, but in book 1 while they’re both still kids and Paul’s hold on the future isn’t yet that strong, she pulls a trick that nobody else in the books manages, and in book 2, she starts out as able to see some of the future, an ability she finds harder and harder and then impossible as her older brother’s hold on said future strengthens. Never in the whole of book 2 do I remember the slightest hint that the reason Paul is a KH and not Alia is any other but who got there first. The rest of the Frank Herbert-written series chronicles humanity’s attempts to escape the constraints Paul and his son’s precognition places on their future, and the reason why we don’t get any more full KH’s is explained in one of the latter books, where everyone has figured out what a horrible idea KH’s are and anyone who has the potential to become one gets taken out of the gene pool, one way or another.

          Here be still SPOILERZ. The Dune series has undeniable problems with homophobia and sexism (not buying the women-get-rid-of-the-adolescent-mindset-automagically-by-having-kids part one bit, for example), but I’ve never found the Bene Gesserit to be much of a problem in the domain. Stereotypical witches that they are, there’s very little about them that exists only to conform to the stereotype, rather than growing organically out of the world they live in. Again, if I remember my appendices, they came out of a society where men held most of the secular power and women the religious power. Said split led to women being the ones who got to explore the mystical stuff that led to the developing of Bene Gesserit powers, and to women being more likely to be interested in the long-term outcomes, and from all this the Bene Gesserit as we know them ultimately grew.

          • Ruxandra V says:

            Bah, sorry for copy pasting your reply. I had it in my text editor so I could see what I was replying to without switching to another window and I made a mess out of copy pasting. Teach me to do this when running low on sleep.

  2. beo_shaffer says:

    Reading, this post made me think about Star Trek matriarchies.
    Its been a while since I’ve seen any of the episodes and there are some that I haven’t seen at all, but from what I can recall/find on the ST wiki it looks like they do better than most, but not great.
    Also, I think Circle of the Crone from V:TR is matriarchal, but I have very spotty knowledge of nWod vampires(I do oWod Vampire and nWod other stuff mostly mage).
    Lastly, I think calling it a matriarchy is a stretch, possibly a big one, but I have noticed some interesting tendencies in cubi society like 12 of the 13 major clan leader being female:
    http://missmab.com/Demo/Leader01.php

    • beo_shaffer says:

      Forgot about Ooku. I haven’t read it yet so I don’t want to say much, but its supposed to be good. its stet in an AU during the waring states era, were a disease that targets males has led to an matriarchal society.

      • 8mph Ansible says:

        As a reader and fan of the series I also have to second Ooku. Its alternate history format is follows mainly actually history but just gender swapping all the historical figures.

        In the society the women are at first expected to take over the various roles traditionally assigned/allowed to men, as substitutes until the plague supposedly blows over. At the noble level they try to hide this fact (from each other) by keeping the woman who is replacing a son or household head in seclusion, giving her a man’s name, sometimes teaching her how to behave like a man, and overall waiting for her to produce a male. Commoners have it a touch easier in comparison. However, as time progresses with a 1/3 male population it becomes less a substitution and more of a normalized thing to have a openly female led household even among the nobles by the time grandkids start popping up.

        And from time to time you have women question why do they seem to be holding up old patriarchal ways even though they are heading society (e.g. nobles still having to adopt male names, why should the shogun produce a male heir).

  3. Deviija says:

    Thanks for writing this! I really enjoyed reading it since it acted as an outlet of my feelings and thoughts about the Not-Really Matriarchies and Matrarchial societies portrayed in our tabletop and video games (and sci-fi and fantasy in general). The Drow have been a point of irritation and disgust for me since I was a wee child — and that was before all my feminism and equality and double-standard learnings, and before I even realized WHY it was disturbing and how it was disturbing. I just knew it was wrong and it was still exploitative.

    Another thing that may not be true to the collective, but something that I always felt was the high popularity of characters like Drizzt. It isn’t really about a disenfranchised Drow, imo, so much as it just popularizes a very male figurehead of the Drow society… which really is more like a patriarchy and still suffers from the male gaze, etc. like the article touches upon. It just makes it feel even more male-dominated to me from such high profile male characters in such positions of power, in a way. And of course, Drizzt, the male Drow, is a goodly type; not like the evil female Drow from his society.

    Asari, Salarian, Krogan, Turian… yes, it irritates me greatly that aliens cannot be aliens on their own merit but must hold some sort of humanoid code that demands non-earthly ladies of a species to have recognizable breasts, wide hips, and feminine face/voice aesthetics, etc. It’s like that video that recently came out, with behind the scenes talk with a developer at BioWare, where the fellow talks about Turians and how they bandied about how to represent a lady of the species. And jokes about ‘putting lipstick’ or breasts on her to differentiate the gentlemen and ladies… *facepalm* It may be in jest, but just knowing they had such talks makes it uncomfortable for me. Rather upsetting, too, if that’s all the kind of de facto ideas that they can drum up for an ALIEN species.

    Asari at this point, imo, are simply a male gaze fanwank exploitation. They were cagey at best in ME1, but it’s game over with them at this point for me.

    • Zaewen says:

      There is a lot of Patriarachal threads in the Drow lore, especially once you dig deeper into it. I’m not 100% knowledable on the topic, but while writing the article I found out that there are non-Matriarchal cities of Drow (that don’t follow Lolth, cause she wouldn’t put up with that blasphemy). From what I could tell without delving head deep into it, it seems that there is a ‘good’ diety led city that is mostly a real-world kind of Patriarchal (nominal equality but with some real inequities when it comes to women) and a ‘not as evil’ diety led city that is very Patriarchal. Which has the unfortunate implications that Matriarchy = Evil, Patriarchy = good or at least not as bad.

      I also agree, that the focus on mostly male, mostly good characters coming out of the Underdark says a lot of the same things, too, while simultaneously shifting what *should* be a story about female power and how that affects a society to a male-centric story about overcoming that evil, emasculating upbringing to go on to do manly adventurey things.

      And *sigh* about Mass Effect. I love that game and the overall story is pretty good sci-fi, but their racial lore is just sad with its sexism by omission and design. If they really wanted those back stories to the Krogan, Assari, and Salarians, they should have owned up to it and talked about its implications, and not just sweep that stuff under the rug or try to distract us with blue bewbs.

    • DysgraphicProgrammer says:

      Especially since the “What do female aliens look like?” problem could have gotten them out of the “where are the female aliens?” problem, with just a little dialog.

      “Actually, I am female. Humans can never tell the difference with my race. By the Way, are you male or female, Sir or Madam? ”

      Now you just have one or two ambiguous models and who knows which is female and which is male?

      • Zaewen says:

        Exactly, slip a couple ‘she’ pronouns in instead of all ‘he’ pronouns, toss in one or two ‘people of different alien species have problem reading the gender of other species’ moments and bam, no need for craptacular Krogan and Salarian back stories. (I get that the genophage is a huge part of the plot, but having the Krogan women rounded up into one special, closeted tribe that is treated like some form of holy breeding farm is not at all necessary to that plot point)

        • Trodamus says:

          The Krogan thing especially was strange, because from the first game I had really thought the fertility thing had affected the males, rather than the females (buying additional testicles, etc). That the second game suddenly said that females were made barren by the genophage seems… odd. Also seems that, if the sterility is genetically based, simply reducing the viable female population in a quick-breeding species like the Krogan would result in the genophage being bred out in a few generations.

          Also seems that if females were that important, Wrex would have had a female advisor or something in his throne room.

          • Zaewen says:

            Aye, it just doesn’t seem all that well thought-out biologically or sociologically speaking.

            Also, even considering where they went with the genophage, we should be seeing infertile and post-menopausal (just to use an analagous human term) Krogen women out doing awesome space adventures.

            • Deviija says:

              That’s one thing I definitely wanted to see! A Krogan lady that said, ‘eff this breeding noise, I don’t accept this lifestyle!’ and went off into space, causing adventurous awesome.

              I could say the same for Salarian, too. A lady that is tired of political machinations and being some pampered egg-layer, and gets out to have grand adventures where she can have some thrills of her (short) Salarian life. Not stuck on a homeworld and never seeing the stars.

              It makes no sense to me. Even having such omissions present in the lore, or hearing bits and pieces of news (like when on the Citadel, via the intercoms or at kiosks), about women of these species out there doing things seems like a huge misstep, imo. Not EVERY woman of these species should be knitting and breeding at home placidly. Please.

      • Deviija says:

        Absolutely! That is exactly what I have been asking for on the BioWare forums. There does not need to be widly varying body types for alien species, especially since they are *not* human mammalian evolution. Have some of the men actually be women! You can change the voices if one REALLY needs to have differentiation for the player to recognize, but I fail to see the NEED for such things. Especially in species like Elcor, or Turian, or Krogan.

  4. Pingback: Roundup of Unusual Size: Tropebusting, Fan Portals and the Seven Pillars of Game Design (Now with more Nightmare Mode!) « Dire Critic

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  6. Ultraviolet says:

    Wow has it’s upsides – i personally find the night/blood elf dynamic extremely symbolic and beautiful, the only thing that screws it for me is the culture of hawt and sexxy which is simply yaaawn the most boring and immature thing ever. Neither of them are a true matriarchy or patriarchy, not in WoW. in WIII plot yes but in WoW i really wouldn’t call it matriarchy, given the druid orders 1) have practically splintered off 2) have started to recruit both sexes. Blood elves aren’t strictly speaking a patriarchy either.

    There of course is a truly countersubversive message in there but it is not about matriarchy or patriarchy. It’s about a viable and sympathetically portrayed materialistic (not in the sense of ‘finance oriented’ but ‘completely devoid of spirituality’), hedonistic and technology/magic-addicted solar cult – which has literally every value (check one by one, none are missed) opposed to 70’s feminist spirituality, but as a matter of irony there is emphatically no sexism there beyond the ubiquitous chainmail bikini culture plaguing WoW as such. Whoever wrote it gives an impression they knew what they’re doing, occultly, philosophically and social engineering-wise.

    And, my bloodline, the Secondborn of Enki, in another world far beyond Azeroth space which you would call IRL having barely survived an attempt to ‘delete it out from existence’ …i do not enjoy the sight of Fate’s battlelines and with heavy heart i have armed myself where my first thought would be to extend my hand in friendship – but i am afraid in this day and age ‘a blood elf woman and proud’ fits the bill extremely well, as does the autumn colour palette which does wonders to my green eyes – and i find playing/being her healing. So in the end i have little to say beyond Selama ashal’anore.

  7. Jonathan says:

    I’d love to see a Matriarchy done well in a sci-fi or fantasy setting, but I’m struggling to think how it could be done well. Simply gender swapping a typical Patriarchy would work on a satirical level; I don’t think it would require any exaggeration to appear ridiculous to a typical reader and it’d be fairly easy to make the reader realise it was just a mirror applied to our own society.

    Beyond that, I think things must get difficult. I will apologise if there are any holes or mistakes in my reasoning, I’m far from knowledgeable about this kind of anthropological view of gender. If we assume that a Matriarchy is as inherently unjust as a Patriarchy (even if it were some kind of utopia, if it was founded on oppression and discrimination, it’d be wrong) then we have to view it as a bad thing. At the same time, crafting a Matriarchy that was substantially different to our real-world Patriarchy must be at least partially based on the concept that some elements of the Patriarchy exist because of traits inherent in men. As Patriarchy is bad, at least some of those traits must be negative ones. If that’s the case, then how do you create a fictional Matriarchy that doesn’t ascribe negative traits to women?

    • M Caliban says:

      “Simply gender swapping a typical Patriarchy would work on a satirical level; I don’t think it would require any exaggeration to appear ridiculous to a typical reader and it’d be fairly easy to make the reader realise it was just a mirror applied to our own society.”

      I disagree with the idea that simply gender swapping a Patriarchy would lead to a society that the audience would find ridiculous. The majority of time that you have Patriarchies in fantasy and science fiction works, they’re accepted as natural by the characters and the text spends little to no time on the implications of that social structure.

      If the typical reader realizes that the setting is just a mirror applied to their own society, that’s the product of poor storytelling. Not to mention, most speculative fiction isn’t set in modern, Western nations.

      “If we assume that a Matriarchy is as inherently unjust as a Patriarchy (even if it were some kind of utopia, if it was founded on oppression and discrimination, it’d be wrong) then we have to view it as a bad thing.”

      Rarely in a fantasy setting is evilness attributed to the social systems. If there’s injustice in a land, it’s either attributed to a bad or weak ruler, in which case the protagonist will usually be involved in the struggle to replace them with a good and strong ruler, or it’s considered part of human nature.

      The exception is slavery.

      Here’s the thing: If a writer is making a society simply so they can criticize its gender inequality, they shouldn’t be using a Matriarchy.

      This reminds me of the current debate on sexism in DCU Flashpoint. The only time we see massive, gender-based violence in the DCU is when Amazons attack Western countries to kill and castrate men. This is despite the fact that in the real world, it’s always the reverse.

      “…how do you create a fictional Matriarchy that doesn’t ascribe negative traits to women?”

      You treat the negative traits show as part of being human or the product of specific, bad people.

    • Korva says:

      I wouldn’t say “some negative traits are inherent in men” (paraphrasing), for two reasons:

      1) It would be a kick in the nuts of any male feminist.

      2) It would go right back into “boys will be boys, nothing you can do about it” territory of gender essentialism — which, in the end, absolves those men who ARE bad of blame for their crimes. And we really do not need any more of that.

      Nor do I think that a Matriarchy would have to ascribe negative traits to all women or women in general as something inherent rather than a consequence of being in power, of having ALL the power. A tendency to be physically larger and stronger for example (male humans, and female hyenas, to refer back to Digger) is not negative in an ethical sense. It’s aggravating, but it doesn’t automatically mean “the bigger the badder”.

    • Zaewen says:

      If someone took a real-world Patriarchy and just flipped it, it could come out as both satirical, farcical, or as serious commentary it all just depends on the tone of the work and how it’s handled. To me, there are a couple routes to protraying a non-tropey Matriarchy and most of them involve just involve writing good, fleshed out stories and characters. Tropes get used because the creator wants to take shortcuts: do we want to show that Matriarchies are a bad idea? Then we’ll use an Evil Matriarchy cause that gets the point across really well! Do we want to show that the women in this Matriarchy are really powerful? Well then we’ll make them sexy dominatrixes, that’ll do the trick! Instead of giving us real examples of how the system of rule is bad, or how these women are powerful, the creators rely on the tropes to express those traits in a very shallow way.

      As for the part about -archies being based off of inherent traits in one gender or the other, I don’t believe that is true. Heirarchal structures are based off of a need (or greed) for power. The real-world Patriarchy is not around because men are (or were) evil, its because way back when someone(s) got into power and set it up so that they could stay in power. The same sort of forces would be what creates a Matriarchy in a fictional setting. Having that as the basis for power, instead of inherently negative traits in one gender or the other, is part of what separates out the tropey Matriarchies from the good speculative fiction Matriarchies, the ones that can actually tell us something about ourselves and our culture.

  8. Ronny Nunez says:

    Great article! The only issue I have is that the Drow aren’t inherently evil, at least not initially (Which only reinforces that its not inherent). Drow Society is ruled in a way by the Matriarchy but that system is a fiat of the religious order. Lolth, being the evil Spider Queen Goddess that she is, promotes chaos, female dominance and punishes anything that would disrupt her style of order. The “inherent” evil that is seemingly apparent in Drow is just reactionary. If you removed Lolth then it would be a different sort of Matriarchy, if one at all. I don’t think that hurts your argument, but I thought I would throw that out there.

    • Zaewen says:

      Yea, there are Drow that don’t follow Lolth and they end up being more or less good, but Patriarchal. I still feel that the Lolth = Evil = Women in Power schema of most of the Drow have this undercurrent theme of being a Matriarchy because they’re evil.

      • M Caliban says:

        I agree.

        Drow aren’t inherently evil in the sense that they’re biologically predisposed to evil. We’re talking about the drow as characters here, not as organisms. They’re inherently evil in that the writers have chosen to make the default drow state evil and matriarchal.

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  10. Ultraviolet says:

    Drow example is screwed because Forgotten Realms default to patriarchy. so it’s be with Lolth or be ‘normal’ which in the setting means real world style patriarchy.

    From tabletops i find it difficult to even name a case where it wouldn’t be that way. Maybe Blue Rose where Lartyan empire which is properly matriarchal is still a screwed up tyranny between the lines but then same is true to an even larger extent for the prime example of patriarchy, Jarzon – and the setting itself explicitly defaults to equality. But that’s the only case, literally.

  11. Overmind says:

    “From what I understand, the Bene Gesserit’s representation is problematic as, while they are deployed as the singular source and experts on genetic memory, manipulation, etc., they lack overt power and are relegating to manipulating men who are in power, with some suggestions that they keep men in power as they are easier to manipulate (and get genetic material from for future lineages, natch).

    Not to mention that they, for no adequate or given reason, can’t access “male” memories and must await deliverance from this at the hands of the male Kwisatz Haderach. After he shows up off their schedule, their capabilities are further diminished.”

    What you say is true but only regarding the first four books of the series. In the last two (the ones I’ve mentioned) Bene Gesserit have changed considerably: they have substantial political power and their main goal is promoting peaceful relations and cooperation between various other factions. They do it mainly through diplomacy and (rarely) through warfare or displays of power. Worlds run by them are typical matriarchies: only women hold authority positions, take part in policy making and perform most important tasks.

    “Honored Matres are strangely less problematic; the combined forces of (spoiler alert) the all-female army of the God Emperor (fish speakers) and the once-reproductively enslaved Bene Tlaxu, both escaping a terrible foe (the machines) and exacting revenge for several thousand years worth of crimes against their sex.”

    You must have taken that information from Brian Herbert’s books and not from the books I’ve mentioned. And I don’t consider his works a continuation or supplement of the original series (at least in a strict sense). In Frank Herbert’s books it is mentioned that Honored Matres consist of Fish Spakers and a long-lost Bene Gesserit expedition. Not a word about Bene Tleilaxu among their ranks or about taking revenge for crimes against them. They simply slaughter everyone that stands in their way. It is, however, said there that they run from some mysterious enemy, but its nature is never explained (and the last scene in Chapterhouse suggests that those foes have nothing to to with machines).

  12. Panzeh says:

    I don’t really like the male-fantasy “matriarchy” portrayals, either, and it’s really interesting how a true reversal on the tropes might actually say something. Pictures of barely-clad men performing quasi-sexual acts on one another in front of a well-dressed female audience might be interesting, but, there’s a belief that gamers are homophobic and especially don’t want to see casual male homosexual acts.

    I’m not really against sexualization in games, I just wish it were even-handed, and not where the men are bare-chested but look really strong and powerful while the women wear outfits designed to titillate men. Why can’t men be sexualized in a way that makes them look vulnerable, to appeal to someone else?

    • PlusSizedGamerWoman says:

      “Pictures of barely-clad men performing quasi-sexual acts on one another in front of a well-dressed female audience might be interesting, but, there’s a belief that gamers are homophobic and especially don’t want to see casual male homosexual acts.”

      I would seriously pay cash money to make this game happen. So serious. I’d invest hardcore.

  13. Quinnae says:

    Thank you so much for this excellent post, and thank you very kindly for the shout out. The Mistress of the Lash Wears Chains was a development of some academic ideas that I’ve been trying to give legs to, and it is very flattering to see that it helped to frame a bit of your fine article.

    I was just having a discussion the other night with a very good friend of mine. We said pretty much exactly the same thing, that as a “Matriarchy” these societies are pretty terrible at the whole ‘unequal power’ thing. For instance, among Drow if the society were really to be an inversion of Patriarchy (leaving aside, for the moment, the issue of caricature and distortion you eloquently describe that mocks women’s experience) then men would not be given access to the warrior or Mage caste. Except for the ‘rare exception’ which had ‘transcended the natural limitations of his sex’- i.e. exceptionalism in reverse. Why would a matriarchy, especially one that so brutally represses men, let them anywhere near weapons?

    Rather, my friend said, they’d be kept from war because the women “couldn’t bear the sight of their beautiful, delicate men being harmed on the field of battle. What’s more, their man meat would be far too distracting for the women warriors.” Again, this is a proper inversion of patriarchy in all of its subtlety.

    Then there’s the issue of the violent repression itself, symbolised by that fetishsistic picture you used at the start of the article with the male drow being used as a footrest.

    That is not how oppression works in practise. Oppression is very often violent, yes, (rape, domestic violence, hate crimes, bullying, sexual harassment) but these things are very intentionally kept in the shadows of privacy (a matter I wrote about recently on my blog). In general, violence is a measure of last resort in terms of *direct confrontation* with the state. People have to want to obey. In Drow society it’s clear the men don’t wish to obey, en masse, which is a sociological problem with this culture. Societies do not, in practise, work like this. Oppressive systems cannot survive constant rebellion, *especially* not if the underclass has access to weapons and magic.

    As my friend and I agreed, what man would play a Drow male if his condition was truly equivalent to the position of women in Patriarchy? A man relegated to housework and fieldwork, told he was too fragile to do anything important?

    The Drow are a fantasy of overcoming “female power.” Men believe that women are all nags who use our feminine wiles to deceive and sunder them. This is then projected onto the Drow, who at times seem like caricatures of complaining henpecking housewives, who become a means of overcoming the evil woman through fantasy in a cathartic exercise.

    You also made a good point about clothing. In a truly flipped-Patriarchy Matriarchy we’d see men walking around with few coverings on, possible with bulging codpieces, oriented towards a ‘female gaze.’ Women, by contrast, might still adorn themselves with symbols of rank and station, but they would have next to no reason to dress in enfeebling and impractical ways. Why do so when *they* are in power? Their whole schema of sexy would be different. Women would not be the sex class, nor the referent for sex.

    Anyway, I’m rambling but you made a lot of excellent points and thank you so much for continuing to write about this issue! Also, thanks for defining all of those terms so clearly at the start of your piece, that was something I neglected to do.

    • Zaewen says:

      I’m glad you liked it =)

      And I totally agree with you, the fact that women in the Drow society are still the ‘sex class’ doesn’t line up with how fiercely Matriarchal they are at all. To add to that, all the ‘reasons’ that can be given to why they are so sexualized (i.e., Lolth’s hedonistic whims, to punish men for lusting after them, because that’s what women in power do, etc) all just serve to show how much of a sham Matriarchy it is and that it ultimately servers a Patriarchal world view.

      Also, your points about violent repression was something I really wanted to talk about in the article, but I couldn’t quite figure out how to express it fully, which you did marvelously. That the violence they suffer is so over the top violent and so right out there in the open, like the ritual sacrifices and murders, really does make a farce of what actual people have had to go through with real-world oppressions.

  14. One refreshing aspect of the Amazons in Xena is that they are NOT depicted as keeping and abusing male slaves, or abandoning male babies to die, which is awfully common in a lot of ‘Amazon’ stories. They’re not particularly evil or particularly good, they’re just another culture.

    Of course, the show also never dealt with the men issue *at all*. We see an Amazon who had a husband and child, but we never actually saw them together, he was already dead. How do they generally handle relationships and reproduction, since we never see any men in the Amazon villages? No clue. Fanfic writers have all sorts of theories.

    Also, while their outfits do not cover huge amounts, they are also not as ludicrously sexual as some art examples. (as a live-action fighting show, they kinda HAD to be able to jump around in those outfits!)

    • Lake Desire says:

      I’m popping in to comment on my favorite show, Xena: Warrior Princess. (I just rediscovered the show last year after the lesbian subtext of Fang/Vanille in FF13 reminded me of Xena/Gabrielle, and I went and watched the whole series last summer.)

      Overall I love the Amazons on Xena for the same reasons you list. We’re generally supposed to sympathize with the Amazons, but for a campy 90s show the Xena creators do a nice job not making them good or evil.

      An ongoing critique of the Amazons the Xena producers make is that the Amazons are ritualistic and hidebound. The rigidity of Amazon law is the crisis in a number of episodes over the seasons. I remember one episode where Gabrielle and Xena think about settling down in an Amazon village to raise their daughter Eve and Gabrielle ends up having to do a bunch of rituals JUST BECAUSE it is the Amazon way. By the end of the series, the Amazons end up a dying people because they won’t adapt. However, none of these critiques of the Amazons have anything to do with their gender, which I appreciate!

      I think the episode I cite about is also where the young Amazon wants a baby so she tries to bone Joxer. So they sort of address how Amazons reproduce, but mostly for comedic purposes.

      It’s funny hearing Lucy Lawless and Renee O’Conner talk about the outfits on Xena. Lucy says it was really hard to breath and move in Xena’s leather corset, but while Renee says Gabrielle’s outfits (similar to Amazon attire) were comfy but frickin’ COLD.

      By the way, if anyone is interested, Xena is an awesome feminist & lesbian show that I really recommend. It’s got its legitimate flaws, but it really is a historic show in opening up the door for female action heroes and queer relationships on television. I don’t think Buffy the Vampire Slayer would have been possible if not for Xena. If you want a few good standalone episodes, I recommend watching “the Rheingold Trilogy” of season 6 (episodes 7 – 9). These episodes require no prior knowledge of the show and do a nice job exploring the Xena and Gabrielle’s love for one another.

      • Ah, I forgot about that whole Joxer thing! I never saw that, ‘cuz I kinda stopped watching post Ides-of-March. In my head canon most of the show after that point doesn’t exist. :) I’ve only vaguely heard of some of the things that happened in that time period.

        (The rheingold trilogy is an exception, I think I did see it and it was okay.)

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  16. mim says:

    Great article! You pretty muhc nailed down the problem, with the exception of the problematic use ofr the word “sexuality” here. I don’t know about DnD or Mass effect, but with the night elves I vertainly don’t see any sexauality, and I don’t really like seeing the word used as an expected source of power for women, because it seems incorrect. Sexuality is about the individual and their emotions, thoughts and actions, while you seem to be talking about men’s perception of women’s availability for their gaze and desires. It’s an extremely important difference, because if you don’t take notice of it you end up having discussions about wether or not bare skin on a woman is catering to the male gaze or an “expression of her sexuality”. In 90% of the cases it isn’t, because expressing sexuality is somthing you do by having sex, masturbating, talking about what you want and who you want on your own terms, regardless of wether your looks and actions cen be percieved as sexy by the people around you.

    • Zaewen says:

      I think you may have misunderstood what I meant when I talked about sexuality, the male gaze, and such in this article. I, too, do not like seeing female sexuality positioned as some form of inherent power that we have over men. Not only is it a fallacious idea, but also rooted in very troubling, very sexist stereotypes. I’m also not fond of the “but she’s just expressing her sexuality” excuse that is often brought up when discussing issues such as those seen in the article. Its an invalid argument that completely clouds the fact that these characters aren’t expressing their sexuality… their sexuality is being expressed for them by their creators. That’s the difference between ‘expressing your sexuality’ and things like the male gaze: the agency of the person, which is slowly stripped away the farther we get from real, live person and the close we get to animated characters. To me, its not about whether or not she’s baring skin or how she’s dressed, because that is a part of sexuality, but whether or not she chose too.

  17. Helen says:

    Another thing that gets me is that these Evil Matriarchies are never in any way threatening or restrictive to the male player. I have played game after game (both video games and tabletop RPGs) where my female character is restricted in what she can do because she is a female in a patriarchal fictional world. If anyone complains, the response is that this is just “realistic.” Not only are these fictional patriarchies restrictive to me in playing the game, but they are often threatening to me as a person, with depictions of violence, subjugation and sometimes rape of women that are upsetting. Again, criticism is met with the argument that this is just the fiction of the game and female players should just deal with it.

    One would think the tables would finally be turned when the game portrays a matriarchy, but conveniently, it isn’t so. The fictional matriarchies only provide adventure for the male character, never restriction. The player with a male character never finds there are adventures they can’t do because they are set in an area where men are not allowed to enter. They don’t have to make do with second class equipment because that would be realistic in a matriarchy. There aren’t any shops that refuse to sell to them. There is definitely not anything that would be truly threatening and upsetting to male players.

    It’s such a double standard!

  18. Farseer Lolotea says:

    Ugh, don’t get me started on drow. (I recall a discussion about them way back when on some forum or another about how the concept could be “fixed,” and one of the first things I said was to make their culture come off less like it was written by some guy angry at his ex-wife.) Or night elves, for that matter.

    However, the Kelari (aside from being apparently ruled by a female theocrat) didn’t really seem like much of an example to me. Then again, I’ve mostly played bahmi and could have missed a few details.

    • Zaewen says:

      The Kelari lore isn’t very detailed right now (since the game is so new) but they are described in their lore as matriarchal with an occasional exceptional dude getting to be High Priest. But they really don’t come off that way in game, which is why I put them in the Not Really a Matriarchy category because it feels like the matriarchal signfiner was stuck on there to give them slightly more evil/alien flavoring to go along with their already out there outfits (which is also why they got mentioned in the Sexy Matriarchy bit too) and their skin/hair/eye colorings.

      We’ll have to see how their story developes if they’ll stay in those Tropes are move onto something better. Right now, we have very little interaction with Kelari lore figures, its mostly just Anthousa, Sylver, and Kira, with Kira being the only one you interact with more than once or twice and she’s doesn’t quite seem like a ‘normal’ Kelari (or just person for that matter, being as she’s an awesome/terrifying assassin from way back when)

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  20. Edawan says:

    Just wanted to point out that the WoW artwork you’ve included is some fanart, not an official artwork.
    Also I wouldn’t say they’re a matriarchy.

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  22. Mantheos says:

    I always interpreted the Salarian Citadel Council member as being female. I don’t recall any specific reference to his or her gender. Following the logic of Salarian leaders being female, I assumed that the council representative was female. Maybe that’s not a safe assumption, but in that case you can’t say it is a male either way because there has not been much information about the council members except that they dismiss the Reaper threat. ;) I wouldn’t say that the Salarian matriarchy is a negative depiction of women ruling society, at least not as much as the Drow. I’m interested to see what that’ll be like when you visit the Salarian homeworld in Mass Effect 3. I do completely agree with you about the Drow and their gender hierarchy. there are a lot of problems with them in many areas.

    • Zaewen says:

      According to the Mass Effect Wiki, the Salarian Council member is male (it’s not noted if its always a male, or just a male in the time that the games cover) and IIRC that’s from the Codex in Mass Effect 1.

      And I wouldn’t say it’s a negative depiction of women ruling society, especially not to the degree that the Drow are, but that’s mostly because we don’t see them actually running their society. It’s all shadowy, domestic politics as far as the games are concerned because they’re cloistered on the homeworlds whereas the men are the ones out running things (galactic politics, military, science, intelligence gathering, etc) in the entire rest of the galaxy. Kinda why I put it more in the ‘Not Really a Matriarchy’ category because it seems to be a very Patriarchal world with the Matriarchy moniker attached to it to give the lack of female Salarians a more ‘important’ reasons than just because they didn’t feel like having them around.

  23. Peter says:

    Good post, but I have to play nitpicker on one point: you use the Asari from Mass Effect as an example, but they don’t qualify as a capital-M Matriarchy, since there are no male Asari to oppress.

  24. Cordate says:

    While this blog and the post do focus on content of games, there’s a good deal of better-written matriarchal-culture exploration to be found in speculative-fiction and science fiction novels. Marge Piercy and Nicola Griffith are two authors who come to mind. Maybe the Lambda award winners (an annual award given to published works which celebrate or explore LGBT themes) for each year ought to be on game developers’ and movie-writers’ must-read lists.

  25. Tateru Nino says:

    I’d always assumed that at least half of the Salarians I saw in Mass Effect were females, and I just didn’t know what distinguishing characteristics to look for.

  26. Zaewen says:

    It’s true, they don’t fit squarely into the Matriarchy category, mostly because they have no men around to be messing with, but they fit almost perfectly into the Sexy Matriarchy category because of the way they display their sexuality and bodies in ways highly reminiscent of they way human women do because of our Patriarchal system. It’s pretty much like a Not Really Matriarchy, if you use all of the other species’ males as a substitute for the lack of an Asari male. They dance, dress, and do sex work for the men of every other species in the galaxy (and, of course, the occasional woman). For an all female society (which is one of the extremes of Matriarchy too… subjugating males to the point of total exclusion which is sorta what the Asari were designed to do/be) they conform pretty rigidly to a Patriarchal world-view.

  27. Kasey says:

    I’m a little late to the party here, but I wanted to bring up the Cirinists, from Dave Sim’s Cerebus. They actually seem to check all of the boxes you mention above – they’re not EVIL, not SEXY and they don’t look like a patriarchy.

    A lot of feminists have (completely understandable) issues with Sim – he is rabidly anti-feminist, incredibly outspoken, and probably more than a little unhinged. He’s obviously very concerned with gender and society and, I think, worth reading, despite his eccentricities and his anti-feminist, pro-male point of view.

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