My introduction to the 40k universe was about five maybe six years ago when my boyfriend got me into the Dawn of War franchise. The original is still probably one of my favorite Real Time Strategy games ever made. The mechanics continue to hold up and I boot it up on occasion. On an aesthetic level, there’s a lot about the 40k that I still love. I love the opulence, the grandeur, the absolute mythic nature of its lore. The Imperium’s ships are giant cathedrals floating through space. How cool is that?
Warhammer 40k though has many many fucking problems and a lot of flaws in its world-building that have helped it to cultivate a conservative reactionary fanbase that doesn’t see the fascism of the Imperium as satire or parody, but as something to aspire to. It’s debated a lot whether or not that Warhammer 40k was originally meant to be a satire of Thatcher-era conservatism, but that’s not the way the franchise is presented today.
And for anyone about to argue with me on that, I’m going to refer to this meme to save us all some time
When the fanbase is a bunch of Trump supporters photoshopping his weird ugly-infant-looking mug onto pictures of the Emperor, I think we can assume that 40k has failed as a satire of fascism. They aren’t portraying Trump in shining golden armor conquering his enemies to make fun of him.
So let’s talk about my issues with this franchise.
The Demonization of Female Sexuality and Queerness
Degenerate. It’s a word often used by fascists as a catch-all for anyone with a gender-identity or sexuality that they despise. For Nazis, this extends even to cishet couples in interracial relationships. I’ve seen more than one twitter tankie use it to describe sex workers and trans people.
Degeneracy is Slaanesh’s domain. A being of unfiltered sexuality, worshiped by succubi, queers, and kinksters. Androgyny and queer sexuality is lumped in with sadomasochism, rape, and sexual abuse.
Stories regarding Slaanesh and her cult typically involve beautiful women seducing faithful Imperial guards or Space Marines into their beds making them vulnerable to demonic possession. Sometimes her cultists are portrayed as being androgynous, lithe young men “trapping” otherwise straight and masculine men into an act of queerness. It’s gay panic for space operas.
If each of the chaos gods represent a different brand of horror in this grimdark universe, Slaanesh is the horror of sexuality not controlled by the state. It’s why queerness and female sexuality is considered every bit as terrifying and full of malice as rape and sexual abuse.
And if you think that fascists don’t read into this as well, let me refer to you this comment from youtube white supremacist and fascist body-building doofus, the Golden One towards leftist trans youtuber, Contrapoints.
It bears repeating, if the intention of Warhammer 40k is to satirize this type of fascist policing of sexuality, it falls completely flat on its head when fascists use it as an example when referring to degeneracy.
Fortunately Contrapoints took this strange back-handed compliment in good stride and had a kickass t-shirt made out of the idea
And you know what? That’s fine. It’s cool if queer people want to appropriate Slaanesh, and steal the idea of degeneracy away from the nazis to make it into something cool. That doesn’t mean this was Games Workshop’s idea or doesn’t speak to a massive problem with the lore of the 40k universe.
Queerness is portrayed as an actual threat to the universe. Women in control of their own sexuality or shown as demonic predators. Often in discussions about the Imperium’s cartoonish fascism, one of the defenses of their actions is that the universe is so horrifying that fascism becomes justified. By that extent, queerness justifies fascism in this universe.
And that makes me want to scream.
The Lack of Any Meaningful Resistance
In every historical case of real-life fascism or dictatorial state, there are always those who stand up against oppression. People are too creative, too clever, and too damn stubborn to tolerate authoritarian measures for long. Rebellions may not always succeed, but they exist, no matter how small. There are always activists and fighters and rebels wherever you go.
Except in the grim darkness of the far future apparently. Everyone is either a mindless automaton chanting out their “for the emprah’s” or a chaos cultist. You don’t really have a healthy skeptic in the bunch.
The closest I have ever seen to an Imperial citizen questioning the legitimacy of the Imperium is that of Ciaphas Cain. Though he’s a bit of an oddball in 40k’s cast of zealots. His motivations are not portrayed as noble, but rather selfish and cowardly. Unlike other Commissars, he doesn’t blow the heads off his soldiers because he likes a healthy meat-shield between him and the endless horrors he faces. He does not wish to die for the empire, and he often blusters into something else we don’t ever see in 40k lore, incompetents and fools within the Imperium.
This great fascist empire in so many other works of fiction and adaptations is often depicted as a smooth-running organized machine. Everyone is so noble and zealous and nobody has any petty motives or aspirations at all. They are all eager to serve the Emperor, because they are the heroes and that’s what heroes in this universe do.
Ciaphas Cain calls bullshit. He’s an opportunistic scoundrel and recognizes the same patterns of behaviors in others. Through his eyes, we see the Imperium for the falling-to-pieces, disorganized joke it actually should be represented as.
Too often the Imperium is portrayed as the Nazis wished to see themselves in Triumph of the Will. Heroic music and epic marches accompany waving banners and men charging bravely into battle. The cries of “FOR THE EMPRAH” are done with inspirational beats. These shows of power are meant to intimidate enemies and rouse allies.
This by itself wouldn’t necessarily be a problem. Even the Stormtroopers in Star Wars, and the First Order utilize imagery pulled straight from Nazi propaganda, but still make it clear that these fascists are the villains. Their actions are condemned by the text.
Games Workshop on the other hand has decided to start marketing their franchise towards children, in which the bloodthirsty xenophobic zealots the Space Marine are depicted on the official website with this text
Warhammer 40k is so very close to how fascists see the world. They are beset on all sides by degeneracy threatening to choke out their way of life, and an ever-present foreign (re: xenos) menace seeking to take all they have from them. In their minds, authoritarianism is the only means of survival in this grim dark future. The portrayal of genocidal imperialists as heroes, particularly in this day and age is irresponsible, and personally overshadows much of the fun that I could be having with this franchise.
It’s getting a lot harder to love 40k, especially when the franchise continues to lovingly portray fascists as good men, demonizes queer people, and repeats xenophobic talking points as if they were actually worth considering. I can’t blame Trump supporters for photoshopping their beloved leader’s head onto that of the Emperor. That’s the world they want to create.
There are ways to fix this of course. Actually show the Space Marines for the genocidal brainwashed cultists they are. Center the narratives around those struggling to survive and resist the horrors of the Imperium. Bring some actual complexity into this universe. Bring in some queer characters who aren’t chaos demons for fuck’s sake.
I doubt any of this is actually going to happen though, because the Space Marines are popular, and Games Workshop wants to continue to sell miniatures and video-games. So they’ll keep pandering to the most toxic elements of their fanbase. It makes it difficult for me to keep enjoying this world, even for all the fun and shenanigans it promises.
Unless I get to play as the Orks. I love those silly green boys forever.