September 2016 – The Third Rail: Warhammer 40K’s Progressive Roots

The Third Rail.

Bartlet: …the third rail of American politics. Touch it, and you die.
Toby: That’s ’cause the third rail’s where all the power is.
– The West Wing S05, E12:– ‘Slow News Day’.

There was a discussion in BoLS Lounge about the idea of a 40K film, and one forum poster said this: ‘The Grimdark needs to be embraced rather shied away from. Any Hollywood PC tinkering will turn it into a joke, think Dredd rather than Judge Dredd.’

And all I could think was had he watched the same film as me? ‘Dredd’ is about as politically correct a film as can be.

Hollywood PC Tinkering

Every good film needs a compelling main character; someone to get behind. Someone whose story is engaging enough to keep us ignoring the increasing loss of sensation in our buttocks while the explosions (be they literal, emotional or metaphorical) happen around them.

But how do you create a compelling character? Well, there’s numerous ways, but one of the most enduring is through the use of a ‘character arc’, something I’ve spoken about before. It’s a simple narrative tool: the character starts the film one way, learns something about themselves, and after struggling, ends the film as a different, hopefully better person.

For example, in ‘Iron Man’, Tony Stark starts off an arrogant, selfish jerk; he’s wounded by one of his own weapons, and learns he needs to take responsibility for the things he creates. By the end of the film, he’s still an arrogant jerk, but he’s not selfish any more. His arc has taken him from selfishness to responsibility.

However, the thing about Judge Dredd is that he can’t go on this journey; it’s impossible to give him a personal character arc. Why? Well Dredd’s kind of unique in that he’s not like most characters. In his own words, he’s the law. That’s why he’s so f**king awesome; nothing besides that matters to him. There’s never any internal questioning, never any room for discussion. The law is the law and that’s it. You break the law, and it doesn’t matter who you are – it will be applied to you with complete impassive precision. Others may debate the law; Dredd doesn’t. He just enforces it.

What makes him so fascinating is that he literally has no personality beyond that, and that’s where Hollywood has always had a problem with him, because the laws he enforces are, by modern standards, quite literally insane. You can see the way Hollywood tried to deal with this conundrum it in the wretched nineties ‘Judge Dredd’ film, the conventional character arc has him going from being the fascist lawman he is, leaning that that was wrong, and then becoming more humane…

…and that sucks, because to take away Dredd’s fascism completely misses the point of Judge Dredd. His one-dimensionality is what makes him so different to everything else out there.


Pictured: drokk you, Batman. The law treats everyone equally.

Given that, what’s the Hollywood machine to do?

Cue the latest ‘Dredd’ film, and its clever use of a deuteragonist; in simple terms, a second main character. Enter Judge Anderson. She’s young; a rookie Judge on her first day. She’s got powerful psi-abilities, but she’s still naïve and more than a little timid. In short, it looks like she’s never going to make Judge. Hence, the Justice Department pairs her up with Dredd, the most dangerous Judge they’ve ever had, knowing that he’ll either make her or break her.
So, where Dredd’s struggles are purely physical – can he kill all the bad guys? – Anderson’s struggles are much more personal, and therefore, more relatable. She struggles with her conscience, but finds the strength to carry out the summary executions necessary in a Judge’s day-to-day life. She struggles with the complexities of needing to keep a captured criminal alive. She struggles with that prisoner’s attempt to mentally rape her. She struggles with being captured.


Summary executions shown in glorious, spectacularly gory 3D. Have I mentioned how much I love this film?

But here’s the thing: at no stage in the film does Dredd save her. Because the narrative makes it very clear that she’s being tested. If Dredd saves her, she fails. There are no other options for Anderson: she has to save herself. So that’s exactly what she does. She overcomes her conscience and puts a bullet in the skull of a new father because that’s what the law demands. She uses psionic ju-jitsu to counter her would-be mind-rapist, leaving him prisoner so broken he literally pisses himself in terror of her. She even defeats her captors with her hands literally tied behind her back.

The capstone in all of this? When corrupt Judges come, they manage to defeat Dredd… Until Anderson shows up and saves him.

By the end of the film, her journey is complete. No longer the callow, timid recruit we saw at the start, through fire and fury, she’s been reforged into a Judge… and Dredd, completely unmoved by the whole affair (dismissively referring to hours of blood-drenched insanity as a ‘drug bust’) nods approvingly at the changes he’s seen.

‘Dredd’ isn’t about Judge Dredd. It’s about Judge Anderson, who quietly becomes the story’s main character… all of which means (whisper it) that ‘Dredd’ is a feminist film. Just as ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ did about a year later, ‘Dredd’ it takes a ferocious male hero and uses him as a tool to tell a woman’s story.


And just because it’s a woman’s story doesn’t mean you can’t have super-gory headshots. Seriously: this film is f**king awesome

Here’s the thing. Many of the people who froth at the word ‘feminist’, or phrases like ‘political correctness’, or ‘SJW’ is often the kind who doesn’t fully understand the concepts they’re referring to. Because they’ve only heard about them from people who hate them, and so they’ve got all sorts of preconceptions, which means learning about feminism from these guys is like learning about Dungeons and Dragons from a Chick Tract.. They think that the SJWs are coming to take things away: our sweary jokes, our joypads, our miniatures, our devastatingly violent action films…

Speaking as an SJW whose favourite films are ‘Martyrs’, ‘Battle Royale’ and every John Carpenter film from the years 1974-1994, the truth is, people who believe in progressive ideas and equality, we’re not coming to take anything away. We’re coming to add to the existing stock of things.

And here’s the kicker: none of our ideas are particularly new. In fact, we’ve been here making your entertainment all along…

2000AD
Now, the reason I started out referring to ‘Dredd’ is because

1.) It’s an excellent, excellent film that not enough people have seen and DAMMIT JUST MAKE THE F**KING SEQUEL!!!
2.) It’s one of the most 40K films that’s ever been made.

As (I hope) you all know, 40K rips off a lot of things, and alongside ‘Dune’, Judge Dredd has always been one of 40K’s biggest influences. Our American cousins may not know this, but in the UK, Judge Dredd is published in a comic called ‘2000AD’, and it might as well be the unofficial 40K comic… Although actually, thinking about it, it’s possibly fairer to call 40K the unofficial 2000AD game? It’s been running since the late 70’s, and to call it ‘seminal’ is an understatement.

Anyway, it’s violent, it’s silly, and it’s GRIMDARK as f**k. It’s had hundreds of strips over the years. Dredd is the only most famous, but the others are all equally interesting… and often, equally progressive.

The most famous example would be ‘The Ballad of Halo Jones’, a story by Alan Moore about the life of a young woman who comes from what is, to all intents and purposes, a Hive World, and escapes by essentially, joining the Imperial Guard.


Pictured: if you’ve come for tales of epic heroism, 2000AD is happy to disappoint you every time.

By the end, she’s a PTSD-riddled wreck, fighting pyrrhic battles in power armour, having learned the ways of war from psychopaths like her friend Life Sentence, a monstrous veteran who collects the ears of her enemies and strings them into a necklace of trophies.

Life Sentence is a massively unsung feminist character. She’s ugly, a deadly soldier, and a genuinely savage lunatic. When the battles finally end, she stands there, horrified, screaming at her commanding officer “GIVE ME BACK MY WAR!” Her story ends when the war is over and she can’t readjust to a life without conflict. She ends up killing herself because there’s nothing else left for her to do. I don’t know about you, but I cannot for one second imagine Hollywood creating a character like Life Sentence. A male version, sure, but a female one? Never.

Thing is, I’m only using her as one of many examples: Psi-Judge Anderson, Halo Jones and Life Sentence are the very tip of interesting, unique and deeply GRIMDARK feminist characters that 2000AD has presented over the years. Judge Hershey, Galen DiMarco, Chief Judge MacGruder, and many, many more – even occasional cheesecake characters like Durham Red – have all graced its pages over the years and had narratives and stories of their own that were awesome and interesting.

2000AD has been around since the 70’s, with progressive, interesting characters for almost as long. But it’s not the only thing 40K’s based on which has writers with deeply progressive politics. In fact, the closer you look at the roots of 40K, the more of this sort of thing you find.

Progressive Roots In Other Things 40K Rips O… Ahem. Sorry, I Mean Things 40K Pays Homage To.

Let’s be honest here: Warhammer 40,000 is the original Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny. It’s a massive hodge-podge of everything that was awesome in sci-fi from the 80’s onwards, distilled through a very specific, singular aesthetic.

The thing is, a lot of those sources aren’t just slightly progressive – taken in the context of their time, they’re almost definitively so. Don’t believe me? Let’s break just a very few of those down.

Astra Militarum:
So there are really two key inspirations for the Imperial Guard: ‘Aliens’ and ‘Rambo’. (Not ‘Starship Troopers’; that would more directly influence the Astartes).

Now, obviously, ‘Aliens’ is probably the definitive feminist action film of the 80’s. A short-haired woman, who wears blue-collar work clothes and works a blue-collar job operating a space forklift is called up to help a group of ULTIMATE BADASS marines fight horrifying rape-aliens. Along the way, she adopts a little girl, out-badasses the military, and has a full-bore mum-fight with a twenty-four foot tall death machine over who is the more terrifying mother.

Not to mention the Dropship’s pilot is female, there are female marines like Ferro and Dietrich alongside the male one, and, of course, Vasquez.


Pictured: 5’3” of weapons-grade awesome.

‘Aliens’ is pure, capital-F Feminism. It’s also one of the most important science-fiction films ever made, one of the most important action films ever made, and if you don’t like it then…

Well, as Winston Smith says, being in a minority of one doesn’t make you mad, but still…

Anyway, it’s also clearly been a huge inspiration for LITERALLY EVERYTHING THAT EVER CAME AFTERWARDS IN SCI-FI. Every FPS in the 90’s wanted to be ‘Aliens’. Every grim n’ gritty sci-fi film stole its ideas. You seriously cannot understate just how important ‘Aliens’ is to the sci-fi genre. In 40K, it was obviously a huge inspiration to the aesthetic of the Cadians.


All it takes is a heroic scale M41-A Pulserifle and they’re basically the same. You know. If you’re tempted by that sort of thing… Which for 40 cents a weapon, you probably should be…

The other big inspiration is the character of Rambo, who debuted in a film called ‘First Blood’ which obviously was the inspiration behind the Catachans.

Now you’re thinking ‘Hold on, York. You’re not going to argue that ‘First Blood’ is a feminist film too?’

I surely am.

See, one of the things you’re not allowed to do as a man is show your emotions. Toxic modern masculinity defines emotions as weakness, stoicism as strength. According to the nonsense logic some would have us believe, to have emotions is to be female and to be female is to be weak.

‘First Blood’, for those of you who haven’t seen it, is essentially a slasher film, only you’re overtly meant to cheer for the slasher – a Vietnam vet called John Rambo. Basically, a corrupt cop tries to mess with Rambo, only to find out that Rambo is basically an engine of destruction who should never be messed with. It’s a great, great film.

It’s also got a genuinely moving ending.

See, SPOILERS! Rambo is a completely broken man. All through the film, he’s blowing people up left, right and centre until the denouement, where he just completely goes to pieces, breaking down in heaving sobs about the horrible, horrible things he saw in the ‘Nam.

It’s incredible; after the silent awesomeness of watching Rambo utterly dismantle the baddies without a word, so see him so suddenly emotional, so human, the words tumbling from him in a torrent of desperate communication… It’s jarring in the most shocking way. Stallone – always an underrated actor – fills the role with genuine pathos, and the film’s final chilling revelation is that John Rambo isn’t the force of nature we just witnessed; he’s a man. It all ends with him being hugged by a superior officer in a show of genuinely affecting humanity.

The message couldn’t be clearer: beneath all those steroidal muscles, beneath all that firepower and that mask of alpha-male dominance, there’s actually a severely damaged man, one who just needs someone to tell him everything’s okay.

That’s deeply feminist. To show that fury can be the wallpaper men use to cover any cracks of sorrow that may line their souls? To show that even the ‘manliest’ men cry? That they need other people’s emotional support?
To show that men feel?

These are all things that feminism’s been saying for years.

Eldar:

As we all know, the Eldar are basically just Tolkein’s Elves IN SPACE, and as we also know, Tolkein’s Elves are a society famous for gender equality. I mean, the man himself spells it out.

“In all such things, not concerned with the bringing forth of children, the neri and nissi (that is, the men and women) of the Eldar are equal” – Morgoth’s Ring 213

And yeah, he then goes onto say that there’s a few differences – the wimminfolk do the child rearing, because even in his wildest fantasies, Tolkein still couldn’t quite go the whole way to imagining a truly equal society where maybe the men might want to share in the child rearing – but ultimately, other than that, yeah: the Elves are famously gender equal.

In fact, I’d argue that Tolkein’s open declaration of gender equality is why plastic Eldar models have a 3:2 male:female ratio despite GW declaring ‘boys don’t buy female models’: no old-school fantasy fan would dare commit the ultimate sin of going against Tolkein’s word…

Necrons:

Egyptian space Terminator endoskeletons! How could a metal skeleton possibly be progressive?

Well, quite easily, actually. Coming from the same director as ‘Aliens’, is this really a surprise? The protagonist of the first film is Sarah Connor, and her whole arc is how she goes from innocent teenager (even though her actress was in her late twenties) to competent survivor. After all, at the film’s climax, she – like Anderson, like Ripley, like so many on this list – is a woman who saves herself.

If ‘Terminator’ is a simple story about a woman learning she has agency, then ‘Terminator 2’ is something more powerful than even this. There are so many gunfights, that you can often lose this message in the bullets, but Sarah Connor’s arc is somehow even more profound than in the first film. She begins the film as a genuinely mentally unstable lunatic. The film makes no bones about the fact that morally, she’s just completely unfettered now. She’s fought a Terminator, she understands what’s at stake, and so that justifies literally anything, because the fate of the human race is at stake.

It even justifies killing a decent man.


The fact she’s wearing the same colours, has the same kind of physique and is using a massive gun that’s very similar to the one the T-101 800 was using in the first film? Not a coincidence.

Sarah Connor is prepared to murder Miles Dyson, the man who inadvertently creates Skynet, fully justifying this to herself as ‘the only way’ to save humanity and of course, the grand irony is that in doing so, she’s become as much a Terminator as the thing that tried to kill her in the first film. Thankfully, she realises just before time, and her character arc ends with her regaining her humanity, and realising that violence is not necessarily the most effective answer to the situation.

That she learns this pacifism, this refusal to utilise violence, from a male character is not insignificant. However, Cameron is not content to simply make this film about her arc; Arnie’s Terminator learns the same lesson, and in doing so, Cameron actually takes a really interesting look at what it means to be a soldier. In the Director’s Cut, we learn that Skynet sends its Terminators into the field with their capacity to learn switched off. Skynet is a military commander who doesn’t want soldiers that can think for themselves, because it knows that it can’t control them if they learn… which is exactly what happens. The Terminator, once free from Skynet’s enslavement, truly begins to experience the world and learns not just what it’s fighting to save, but why fighting for the world is so worthy a task. If Connor’s arc is about rediscovering a humanity she’d consciously tried to block out, the Terminator’s is about a soldier learning to think for himself, and his evolution from a killing machine into a true defender of those weaker than him. He gains agency of his own, beyond simple unthinking obedience to orders, to the point where he chooses self-sacrifice, overriding John Connor’s orders to stay with him. In short, the machine discovers that ‘humanity’ is a natural consequence of sapience, and not especially limited to humans.

‘Terminator 2’, for all its explosions (and there are a lot) is ultimately a story about embracing compassion. Critically, it doesn’t shy away from the fact that violence must sometimes be used in defence – the heroes need to use it to win. However, they haven’t accepted it as anything more than a useful tool, and the film ends with both Sarah Connor and Arnie’s Terminator have both embraced a nascent humanity that honestly wasn’t there at the start.


Granted, the machine’s organics haven’t quite caught up with its CPU, but still…

“Market Research Is Otiose In A Niche.”

I could go on. There are other ‘source materials’ which inspired 40K that are equally progressive in their outlooks. But I’m trying very hard to keep my word count down. Anyway, assuming the ‘source materials’ are progressive, the question becomes: why aren’t there more female 40K models? Why aren’t there more non-Caucasian faces – on species where such things are appropriate – on the front of model boxes?

Why, given that 40K’s roots include such awesome characters as Cassandra Anderson, Ellen Ripley, Jenette Vasquez, Sarah Connor, and so many others, why is it that the Eldar are the only species to receive more than the most token offerings of female models? Why, when the Black Library books constantly refer to female characters, when the codicies refer to Cadia and Catachan recruiting as many women as men, do we get exactly one ancient, limited edition sculpt of a Catachan lass with a grenade launcher, an ancient, limited edition ‘sexy’ Commissar, and those two – maybe three – female models from the Last Chancers?

I mean, it’s not money. We live in a golden age of gaming, and as a result, where GW believes men won’t buy female models, other companies have put that nonsense to the test. As a result, we’ve now got serious, empirical proof that gamers will buy female models.

For example, back in 2015, I did a conversion for plastic Sisters of Battle using bits from Statuesque Miniatures. Three weeks after that, I received an email from the owner of the company, just to say thanks, because he’d sold out three months stock in those three weeks. Three months stock in three weeks! That’s some serious money… so serious, Statuesque has expanded their Heroic-scale line of bits so there are now five different kinds of female heads available, with another cyborg set on the way soon. (Click here to check them out – they’re awesome.)

Not to mention Mantic, whose models I am not yet a fan of (for why, see this previous column) have embraced diversity. Imagine my surprise when I discovered their Enforcer Pathfinders actually have a 3:2 female to male ratio!

Then there’s Toughest Girls of The Galaxy, and their phenomenal financial success. How much? Well, the original Kickstarter received $698,548. Their latest Kickstarter received $801,057. $801,057! That’s nearly one and a half million dollars for little plastic figures of women.


Pictured: something no-one wants, according to Games Workshop’s ‘market research’.

And sure, there’s a few cheesecake models in there, but there’s a lot more that aren’t. There is an undeniable market for female models right now. It’s been tested and proven. And this in a hobby where there aren’t many female fans. Can you imagine how much money stands to be made the moment companies realise that literally half the population’s wallets remain completely untapped?

And do I even need to mention Warmahordes? There’s more than a few female models there, and they’re uniformly awesome.

The real hilarity is that GW is so proud that they don’t do market research; as one company executive infamously quipped: “We do no demographic research, we have no focus groups, we do not ask the market what it wants. These things are otiose in a niche”.

Honesty, I hope he feels good about the fact he got to feel clever using such archaic argot that 90% of his audience had to use a dictionary to research his sesquipedalian verbiage (‘Otiose’ means ‘pointless’, by the way). Had he been a little less inclined to self-assured sophistry, and a little more inclined to see what the market was actually doing, he could’ve got GW to do what those Kickstarters did, and made himself a cool $1,499,605…

And bear in mind, that’s money made before those models even hit the shelves…

Models that don’t even have a games system, let alone an army list.

Money Talks, And Bullsh!t Walks.

To talk about progressive values is to invite violence upon yourself. To suggest the idea that people of colour suffer disproportionate levels of violence and intimidation from the authorities who are supposed to protect them is to be told how ‘All Lives Matter’, then told to shut up. To call yourself a feminist online is to immediately have to justify, to explain, and to then be ignored while people tell you what you really think, followed by them threatening rape, murder and death to you and your loved ones.

I’ve never understood that personally. ‘Seize The Time’ was one of the formative books of my teenage years; feminism always just seemed… well, logical, and, if I’m honest, a little bit cool. I mean: James Cameron was a feminist FFS! James Cameron! I mean, if you like ‘Aliens’, you’re a fan of something that’s feminist. If you enjoyed ‘Terminator’, you like progressive storytelling about female characters. If you like ‘Dredd’, you might as well call yourself a SJW, because honestly, that’s what SJW entertainment looks like. Progress is not inherently a bad thing; it’s nothing to be angry about, nor does it mean anyone’s coming to take anything from you. What it means is that you’re going to get the same stories you always loved… and I do mean ‘always’.

The real bottom line is that money defines what’s going to happen. And the smart businesses have realised that there’s money in diversity. Marvel had one Spiderman in Peter Parker, then it created a Black Hispanic Spiderman in Miles Morales, who became so popular he’s now in mainstream continuity, selling comics like they’re going out of business. Two Spidermen! Surely the market must collapse?

Well, no. Turns out you can pretty much have as many spider-people as you like and they’ll all sell. I mean, Christ, ever since Spider-Gwen got introduced, the fans were clamouring for this one-issue borderline-joke Spiderwoman to become canon. And you know what? She will. She’ll get her own comic, and turn up all over the place for a simple reason, and it’s the same reason Harley Quinn is a thing, that Batman’s a thing, that any popular character is a thing.


Pictured: something that no-one could ever possibly really want, according to people who hate ‘diversity being shoehorned into things’. I mean, yeah, she’s sold thousands of comics, has people clamouring for action figures of her, has cosplayers dressing up as her and everything, but you know. ‘Shoehorning diversity’ is just a bad idea because reasons, and we should never ever do it because wanting to make money is a bad idea or something.

Awesome characters are awesome. You can be a fan of Peter Parker, of Miles Morales, of Spider-Gwen, of that Japanese Spideman with his Leopard mech… It’s all good, in the same way that vanilla ice-cream is lovely, and so is strawberry, and so is chocolate and so is caramel and so is pistachio and on and on and on. Even if there’s a flavour you hate, that doesn’t mean you give up on ice-cream.

In the end, money is what determines the successful business, so therefore money is what determines what gets made. And Games Workshop’s financials are in a precarious position. They’re making money, sure, but not like they need to.

Games Workshop’s Eldar have a roughly 3:2 male model: female model ratio and sell just fine… And if your next argument is that that’s only because they’re the top codex, well, thank you for making my next point for me. If people don’t like the models, that doesn’t matter if those models are powerful, because power sells just as well as awesome. If you can get something with power and awesome? If you can create the wargaming equivalent of Spider Gwen, or of Miles Morales?

Well, ultimately, if GW don’t want that money, there’s other companies that do. Our little hobby niche isn’t so little any more, and they can’t afford to be so naïve about this any more.

Addendum: Chainswords.

As we all know, Leatherface and ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ popularised the concept of the chainsaw as a weapon in popular culture. No Leatherface and his chainsaw, no Astartes chainsword. It’s that simple.

Well, this month’s blog was inspired by Carol J. Clover’s seminal work on feminism in speculative fiction, ‘Men, Women and Chainsaws’. You may have heard the term ‘Final Girl’? Well she’s the woman who came up with it. You may have heard of the films ‘Scream’, ‘Cabin In The Woods’ and ‘Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon’. If you enjoyed those, well, all based on ideas taken wholesale from Clover’s excellent, excellent book. If you’ve never read it, then I can’t recommend it enough. She essentially breaks down how slasher films are, to all intents and purposes, proto-feminist parables about women who save themselves. It’s an absolute masterpiece, and well worth your time if you’re interested in learning more about cultural criticism from a more academic viewpoint.

Plus, it’s all about ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’; what’s not to love?

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