My Problem With Space Marines

Spess Mehreen

Spess Mehreen

In Warhammer 40K, Space Marines are the end all be all of the galaxy, at least from a marketing perspective.  They have Ultramarines, Blood Angels, Space Wolves, Black Templars, Grey Knights, Dark Angels, Chaos Space Marines…  And that’s just the ones on the tabletop who’ve had a codex released in the last decade.  That is seven out of 16 armies.  44% of the tabletop armies are Space Marines of some shape or color.  This number gets even more staggering when looking at the novels, nearly 3/4 of which are about Space Marines, and of all of the Warhammer 40K videogames, only two do not have the player take control of Space Marines as the protagonists.

Space Marines are 40k.

And that’s what my problem is.

First off, let’s take a look at a Space Marine.

Behold him in all of his awesomeness.  But, let’s stop and think about what makes him look awesome, shall we?  Behold the thick armor that gives the impression of heavy musculature.  Observe the wide shoulders and broad chest, the huge hands and feet…  The giant phallus held at crotch level ready to spew his streaming man death upon his enemies.

Space Marines are men.  And not just men, but the chosen sons of the patriarchal god of the setting.  These characters represent power and control no matter their faction.  They have the agency to enforce their will upon the universe through violence in a fashion that none of the other human armies can.  While the Imperial guard is capable, they still cower, trembling, before the Tyranid swarm, or they die screaming at the hands of the Necrons, but not the Space Marines. The Sisters of Battle are the elite soldiers of the Ecclisiarchy, better equipped than any other army of mankind than Space Marines themselves, and are constantly killed off in huge numbers in order to show off the power of the enemy they’re fighting.

They Shall Know No Fear.

Space Marines are traditional masculine values cranked up to eleven.  They are unbelievably tall, unfalteringly brave, invincible in combat and when they speak everyone listens.  In most places in the Imperium they’re worshiped as gods or angels, and only the bravest of warriors get to join their ranks.  When the Space Marines see a problem they fix it by merely by being Space Marines, and the only thing in the galaxy that really threatens them, at least in the fluff, are other Marines, Daemons, or huge swarms of monsters.  It is impossible for anyone other than another Space Marine to tell a Space Marine what to do with any real authority because the Space Marines derive their authority not through law, but through “birthright”, being the Sons of the Emperor himself.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing!

Space Marines are a power fantasy, pure and simple, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Everyone wishes they could be someone with more control than they have now, capable of doing things that they can’t.  Whether it’s super heroes, video games, or a good book, power fantasies are staples of the fiction experience from the beginnings of time.

The problem with Space Marines lies in the conceit of the “Boy’s Club”. These warriors espouse traditional masculine ideals like no other, to the point that they completely eschew the traditionally culturally female traits almost exclusively.  The Space Marines do not cook, or clean, or care for children, that is the job of the serfs, the lower class of being.  Space Marines honor their god and their traditions, and Space Marines go out into the world and kill while the serfs stay at home, trapped into the feminine roles assigned to them for simply not being good enough.  Serfs are not even allowed to maintain the chapter’s equipment.  That is the job of the Tech-Marine, the Man As Mechanic.

Space Marines are smarter, faster, stronger, tougher, braver, more respected and more cherished by god.

Women can’t be Space Marines.

Bring it up on a forum and someone will yell.  Mention it in anything official and it’ll be redacted.  Space Marines are the Sons of the Emperor, and there shall be no daughters.  The geneseed of the Emperor will not take root in the body of a woman.  While there might be some pseudoscience hand waving of this involving genetic codes, the fact remains that this was a conscious decision made by someone at some point to restrict the ranks of Space Marines entirely to the male, purposely excluding the female.  The closest thing to the Space Marine, including gender exclusivity, are the Sisters of Battle.

Sisters of Battle are not Space Marines.  They are, alternately, depicted as sacrificial martyrs or lunatics driven by emotion and frenzy rather than reason.  Sisters of Battle are the feminine ideal as imagined by the male.  Their power armor is form fitting, their stature is smaller and their stories are more personal.  They submit themselves wholly to god, virginal, but fetishized, and they exist to serve the Ecclisiarchy, which is always portrayed as ruled exclusively by men.  Sisters of Battle forsake their agency and give themselves unto the will of men.

Sisters of Battle are not equal.  Beyond the fluff, they are simply not marketed like Space Marines.  Games Workshop sells the Space Marine to the audience while Sisters of Battle are held back in the dark corners of their products.  Sisters of battle have less literature, less models and less mention in the press.

My problem is this.

Space Marines are not my power fantasy, and the constant marketing of them as the ideal warrior of humanity alienates me.  I have no urge to be nine feet tall with five foot wide shoulders.  I have no desire to walk as a god among the masses, crushing those smaller than me with my bare hands.  I don’t want to be a square jawed, thick muscled, gun toting agent of destruction to my enemies.  I am not blood and steel.  I am not a Space Marine.  I am not a man.


12 thoughts on “My Problem With Space Marines

    • They are good. Sisters of Battle ( Along with Tau, Necrons, and Dark Eldar ) are the newest editions to the game. So they’re still being developed. They’re due for a updated codex soon just like the other armies have gotten theirs.

  1. Not a huge fan of them, never understood Deathwatch and why anyone would want to role play these either.
    Wake up GW, raging heroes kick starter made its mark in 30 seconds for female armies.

    • There’s something missing here.

      Games Workshop has a well established fan base in both North America and Europe markets. So there’s no need for kickstarter here. Not sure why it was brought up.

      There’s plenty of females in the WH40k world ( Let alone the other games too that Games Workshop makes ). There’s females in Eldar, Dark Eldar, Tau, Imperial Guard, Sisters of Battle, Chaos, Chaos Demons, yadda.

      The writer here seems to be upset that Sisters of Battle are not equal to Space Marines. Every army has it’s unique twist to it. Let alone Games Workshop has stated that you can make your own Space Marine chapter ( So if you want to make a all female “Space Marine” chapter… ) go for it.

      Had the writer really looked into the official rules for the game and the ‘openness’ of the chapter rules, she would’ve seen that her dissatisfaction here really holds no weight.

      There’s plenty of literature on Sisters of Battle as well. You’re right there’s not as much as Space Marines, but Space Marines were the very first army in the game. Sisters of Battle was added in 4th edition if I recall correctly? Maybe 5th. I know they were added along with the Dark Eldar to the game and they are the most recent army(s) to be added.

      Give it time and they’ll be well developed as the other armies as well.

      Also, Sisters of Battle are not that fanatically crazy, and they don’t “bow down to men”. They serve the Ecclesiarchy and have been known to hunt down corruption even in the Space Marine chapters. They work alongside with the Witch Hunters. They are also known as ‘Daughters of the Emperor’ ( So the whole ‘There’s no daughters of the Emperor’ is thrown out the window ). The writer is correct that the Sisters of Battle are not affected by the geneseed that the Emperor of Mankind had created to form up the Space Marine chapters.

      • You bring up an argument I was definitely expecting with this post, and I appreciate your point of view. It’s often hard to see what the problem is without it being brought up, and while the examples may be extreme there’s a reason for making people aware of them. My rebuttal here will be point by point.

        1) There are plenty of women in 40K. This is technically correct. There are women in many 40K armies, but not a representative proportion. 50% of the human race is female, but the population of the armies in 40K, or even in the fluff, comes nowhere near that number. The total number of named female heroes across all of the books is less than the number of heroes in any single given 5th or 6th edition codex. Commander Shadowsun, for all of the mention of Tau females across the different 40K media, might very well be the only female in the Tau army, if not the race itself. Meanwhile the Eldar, which do have female unit choices, have only a single female named character in their codex, and she is relegated to the unisex Howling Banshees. The same is true for the Sisters of Battle, who, despite being an all female army, only 1/3 of their named heroes are female. It’s a matter of a lack of proportionate representation even in cultures where there is no privilege given based on sex.

        2) Open chapter rules. Again, technically correct. There is nothing stopping anyone from creating female Space Marine chapters according to the rules, and I do mean anyone, Games Workshop included. Despite this, after nearly 30 years of development, dozens of armies, even more books, hundreds of models and numerous opportunities Games Workshop has yet to ever mention, much less produce, any female Space Marines. That makes purely male Space Marines a choice by the company to exclude women from the ranks of the “Battle Brothers”, which itself is an exclusionary term. The pressure of this weight of history from the company, along with pressure from gamers who defend the established fluff, makes creating a female Space Marine army an action which can easily result in ridicule or shaming.

        3) Literature on Sisters of Battle as a newer army. Absolutely correct. I have no argument with this. I believe Tau and Dark Eldar have even less fiction than the Sisters do.

        4) Crazy. This, unfortunately, is a major problem with how they are represented. Sister of Battle are known in fluff for being fanatical to the point of throwing themselves naked at the enemy in penance for imagined sins (Witchunters Codex Entry: Sisters Repentia). Celestians have the Holy Hatred special rule which gave them bonuses to hit against literally every enemy due to their fanatical hate. This, in 40K, isn’t really too egregious, but the major issue comes from all of the Martyrdom inherent in their concept. Sisters of Battle are made to die, and used to even give bonuses to the army for doing so. This is bad because it pushes the idea of the female as sacrificial, or incapable of achieving her goals completely. It’s a common conceit that a woman must make sacrifices more often than men, that she has to give up an important part of her life in order to gain something new. A prime example of this is the idea that, when a woman has a child, she has to either give up her job or give up raising her children. This isn’t any more true for a woman than it is a man, but it’s still expected of her culturally, and the emphasis on martyrdom in the Sisters of Battle helps to reenforce these ideas.

        5) Bow Down to Men. The Sisters of Battle have no agency of their own, unlike Space Marines. When the Space Marines go into battle, they are asked directly for help, or they move on their own. When Sisters of Battle fight it is for one of three reasons. Either they have been ordered into the field by an Inquisitor or Ecclesiarch, or they are defending their territory. Sisters of Battle to not lead crusades, or invade other planets, or even exercise their force unless prompted to do so by another, and the other is almost always male. Unlike Space Marines, Sisters of Battle do not enforce their own will, but rather serve as enforcers of the wills of others, be they Ecclesiarchs or Inquisitors. Along with this comes the fact that they are the most tightly bound to Imperial Authority of all of the armies of the Imperium of man due to their direct worship and close ties to the God Emperor, who is the core of their concept as Church Militant. This means that even the decisions they make themselves are, to a much higher degree than any other army, attributed to The Emperor, and they are themselves more subject to “His Will” than any other faction.

        6) Daughters of The Emperor. This represents what I’m talking about in male vs female more than anything else, actually. Though Sisters of Battle are called The Daughters of The Emperor, they are obviously not his favorites. They do not receive the same gifts and benefits of his Sons, nor are they as favored. The Emperor dotes upon his Sons and heirs, giving them his geneseed, and all of the super powers that Space Marines get, while the Daughters are not. Instead of giving his Daughters the tools to protect themselves, as he did with Space Marines, he watches over them and protects them himself, not allowing them out of his sight.

        In conclusion, what I meant to express was that Games Workshop could, at any time, have chosen to make any of the Primarchs female, and hasn’t. They could have, at any time, chosen to make any Space Marines female, and didn’t. They choose exclusionary male language in “Battle Brothers” for their main cash cow, and they promote the masculine ideals of the Space Marines as the face of their company while choosing to exclude females from the group. This is not random, this is a choice by the creators, and it represents a policy, even if it is an unspoken one, of excluding the feminine from their media except for a token representation making up less than 5% of their products, or 1/10th of proportional representation.

        While this policy is almost certainly designed for their demographic of young males, it chooses to exclude young women from their target audience, though I am sure they are perfectly happy to catch a female gamer here and there. The reason this upsets me isn’t due to targeting however, it is due to the influences this can have on their audience, reenforcing ideas and stereotypes that are already culturally ingrained in the minds of the youth.

        • I’d like to point out that you’re viewing space marines and the imperium as a progressive society when it is extremely religious and conservative. They are completely resistant to any form of social change and kill anyone that opposes them. In the context of the universe it makes perfect sense for the women to be neglected and martyred as a reflection of a flawed society as I pointed out in other comments. If the imperium was a “utopian” society and women were still treated the same I would agree that there is an issue.

          This is also a game written by men for men. It is very difficult for men to write from the woman’s perspective. It is also nearly impossible to create something that appeals to both genders equally. I dont think you can criticize something intentionally stereotypically masculine for not appealing to women. You can’t expect to be the demographic of every creation. That said, GW could created a new army that appeals more to women. 40k would probably still be male dominated though and make a female centered army a financial failure. That might be why SoBs don’t have as much support as the other armies.

          • Thank you for the commentary, but I’m not viewing the Imperium as it is, but rather as the product of its creators. Its creators chose to make it a misogynistic setting generally, but without expressly saying so, masking their intent with token nods to females. Women can be Inquisitors, but are rarely shown as Inquisitors. Women can be Imperial Guard officers, but there are no models of them. The issue is that the creators of the setting willfully created a place that reenforces misogynist ideas.

            As for it being a game written by men for men, that’s another choice. There are plenty of female game creators and writers available for hire, and Games Workshop doesn’t hire them. Part of the reason for this is that, in excluding women from their demographics they have also discouraged women from being interested in interacting with their brand. Again, this is a willful choice. They have chosen, knowing the consequences, to push a misogynist policy centered around Space Marines to an audience, a decision that they know has a negative influence on their female customers.

            It would be easy enough to simply add in more female characters to prexisting armies than create a “Female Oriented” army, and there’s nothing stopping them from doing so. The fact that they haven’t done so is telling of their policies.

          • I guess I don’t understand why its inherently wrong for them to create a misogynistic universe or focus on male customers. You’re simply assuming that it is a product of the creators own misogyny, but writing a holocaust story does not make one anti semitic nor does including slaves in a story mean the authors want to exclude African Americans. You’re making the mistake that the universe and characters in it are solely reflections of the creators own personal views which is hardly ever the case.

            I also don’t understand why they need they need to write new fluff and appeal more to a female audience. People don’t ask cosmopolitan to include more guns or tips on picking up women to the few male readers they might have. There is nothing wrong with writing for a specific audience nor does it imply contempt for those that are not part of their target audience.

  2. My main problem with them is one of the first things you bring up, they make up a huge chunk of the playable armies.

    As far as 40k and space marines lacking feminine values I think there might a bit more reasons why they arent really represented. I always saw 40k written to be masculinity on steroids to the point of intentional absurdity, somewhat like Tarentino movies are absurdly violent and gory. Another reason might be that 40k is the grim dark future. There are heavy gothic themes and civilization has regressed to mirror the dark ages. Basically 40k, at least the imperium, is a reflection of a time in human history where feminine values were often disregarded. This isnt to say that the 40k universe or games workshop should not have an army that represents female values, but that if you’re looking for progressive social values the imperium is the worst place to look. Sisters of Battle could really use a real codex and updated model line.

  3. I can kinda agree with where you are going with this. Though truth be told, The Sons of Russ will always be my army of choice. For there fluff is excellent, the units are well rounded, and they fit my play style very well.

    I will start will what I know. Space Marines are the standard in which all armies are measured. They are the poser boys of GW, and they are recognized on sight for what they are. The Sisters on the other hand does not even have a full codex. A single Troop choice, and not a lot of versatility. I did not even know what a Sister of Battle was until my 40k Mentor started using them against me.

    I feel though that Women are recognized in other other armies in 40k. Take the Eldar for example. Sleek, fast, smart. They win battles not by brute force, but by being faster and smarter then there opponent.

    Orks!….. They don’t really count, but they needed to be mentioned.

    Okay, so I really do not have much to go on when it comes to Women to look up to in 40k. Though the Sisters need more units and rules, I would support the proposal to make them into a fully functioning army. Not just a extension of the Inquisition.

  4. I don’t agree that sisters of battle should be made into role models. There are no role models in 40k. Having anyone be bastions of morality and values in the imperium doesn’t make much sense.

  5. I feel the need to jump in here because so many people are writing about the Sisters army like they know everything there is to know about them, and a lot of you guys are just wrong. I’m only picking at facts here – your opinions about misogyny are totally outside of this post.

    Sisters of Battle did NOT come into the game recently. Their first codex was published in 1997, meaning they came in at the tail end of 2nd edition. The switch from Sisters of Battle to Codex: Witch Hunters came at the end of 3rd edition, in 2004, and was pretty clearly designed with 4th edition rules in mind. They did not get a model update at that time, although new models were produced to match the old ones. The White Dwarf codex update that came in 2012 was sorely needed; trying to play out of Codex: Witch Hunters up to that point was basically an exercise in futility. The rules were nearing a decade old, the models closer to 15 years.

    And they STILL haven’t gotten a model update. As far as I know, even though GW has brilliant new plastic casting techniques that allow for incredible detail on Dark Eldar, the Sisters aren’t even on the list for getting new models. They’re old, they have exactly three poses (gun up, gun down, and pulling the pin on a grenade) and their Sister Superiors come with chainsword and plasma pistol, because why the heck wouldn’t you want to spend 15 points on that?

    That’s the PROBLEM with Sisters. It’s not that Space Marines are so wonderful or so prominent or whatever, or that they’re written for males in a game made for men or on and on and on. It doesn’t matter whether or not anyone thinks Space Marines should or shouldn’t be written and stereotyped the way they are. The issue is that Sisters are completely forgotten.

    Here is an army that has been codexed for four editions now. Here is an army that has NEVER seen a model update. They are forgotten and overlooked again and again and again. Veteran players that take the time to comment on blogs about women in 40k think that Sisters were added in 5th edition and that they’re the newest army to be added to the game. God, no. Tau were released FOUR YEARS after Sisters were.

    The problem isn’t that the fluff is written to favor one gender over another. The problem is that the gamer doesn’t know or give a damn about the sisters at all, and GW only serves to perpetuate that by refusing to give the sisters the time they deserve.

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