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.
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.
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... 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.
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.
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.
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, over 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).
Trope go BOOM!