Curious: Women as objectified in The Forgotten Realms
In The Elfish Gene, a memoir about growing up with Dungeons & Dragons in 1980s England, Mark Barrowcliffe provides a pithy summary of what passed for a female presence in his world. There were:
- the leading ladies of fantasy literature;
- female NPCs—with bust, waist, and hip sizes determined by d100—and
- heterosexual young men pretending to be alluring women.
This last one was made worse by the publication in those days of the houri class, a cross “between sorcerers and prostitutes”. If for some reason you can’t imagine how bad that can get, Mark supplies some choice lines from a co-player:
“I will make your flesh sing a song of ecstasy such as will echo through the caverns of your soul. Happily shalt thou spend thy sweet seed.”
I had to endure reading that, so you do, too.
While I’ve never gone through the awkwardness of having a high school boy bid me “come hither” (and all that follows), I can relate somewhat to Mark’s experience. Much like him, I spent my youth in an all-boys school. And also like him, D&D helped expand my very limited horizons.
But while he engaged directly with the game, I did so by proxy; through the video games and novels set in the Forgotten Realms. While my sixth-grade classmates were busy dog-piling on each other, I sequestered myself in the corner with R.A. Salvatore’s The Crystal Shard, trying to deduce from context clues the meaning of terms like “fondling” and “harem girl.” Like I said, very limited horizons.
These days, instances like these are somewhat rarer.
Under the guidance of the 5th Edition designers, D&D has hastened to unburden itself of its misogynist past. Managing Editor Jeremy Crawford noted that the team strives for their “text and art to imply no barriers” for people of all demographics.
D&D as a game, however, is inseparable from the fiction that animates it. The works of Tolkien, Howard, Lieber, and Moorcock are, of course, major influences—but ultimately, it must reckon with the fiction of its own worlds. In changing its stance on gender and race (more on how these two are linked later), it will have to contend with the ways these are handled in the Realms.
There are many ways to approach this. But I’ll start with a presence that dominated my early sojourns in the Realms: the drow.
Conspiracy: Women as a force of evil
For the uninitiated, the drow can be summed up as a black-skinned, subterranean subrace of elves best known for their oppressive matriarchy and general propensity to evil; both inspired by their fanatical worship of Lolth, a vindictive spider goddess. They were first introduced as minor monsters in a 1978 module and were the lead villains in 1986’s “Queen of the Spiders,” a Greyhawk adventure. A couple of years later they would flourish in the Realms under the pen of one of its most prolific, influential writers: R.A. Salvatore.
In 1988, Salvatore published The Crystal Shard, introducing the now iconic renegade drow, Drizzt Do’urden. The first trilogy of Drizzt books are set on the surface of the Realms, so not much is revealed about the drow except that everyone is suspicious of them.
But after the first trilogy’s success, Salvatore delved into Drizzt’s backstory.
Homeland is the definitive introduction to modern, so to speak, drow society. And, well, it’s something alright. Within the first few chapters:
Matron Malice, Drizzt’s mother, uses the pain of birthing him to empower a curse on a rival noble house, which allows her forces to destroy them;
Drizzt grows up tortured by two sisters and treated like a normal sibling by one;
He enters drow society as a warrior-in-training (women mainly enter the clergy where the vie for the favor of Lolth; men can try to distinguish themselves through martial or arcane prowess
Zaknafein, his father, becomes his teacher in both swordplay and ethics;
His graduation ceremony turns into an orgy. Most students get it on with each other, but top-ranking female graduates take their pick from summoned demons. Drizzt abstains.
These scenes provide substance for the broad descriptions written in splatbook sidebars. Queen of the Spiders outlines high priestesses who were “strangely attractive.” With Homeland, we get the specifics: matriarchs who lie with demons for power and heighten their spells with the pains of their labor. Femininity isn’t incidental to their twisted power—it’s intrinsic.
The link between femininity and evil is extended in drow society.
Because feminine power stems from Lolth, it is inherently corrupt. And because that power is both religious and civic, it means that the society is twisted through and through. Thus the perversion of the drow isn’t only in their magic, it’s in their elevation of women.
Now, one could argue that a society that takes the oppression of patriarchy and redirects it at men could be an argument against gender inequality in general. This might have been a redeeming factor if drow society weren’t such a sophomoric caricature.
In addition to the demon orgies taken straight from a cultist’s wet dreams, there’s an inordinate number of words spent lingering on bared breasts and see-through silk dresses. Meanwhile, little is said about the charms of drow males; even Zaknafein, whose value as a consort is a major factor in his social status.
The way drow males are presented is a telling counterpoint. While their female overseers fight over scraps of Lolth’s favor, drow males better themselves through hard work with steel or spells—not twisted at all.
There are a number of arguments and refutations about how all this works, which you can find scattered across the internet. But one of the more lore-based ones is that the drow are only evil because of Lolth.
The perversion of feminine power, whether mystical or cultural, is rooted in a corrupt presence. Its not that feminine power is necessarily corrupt—it just so happens to be, because Lolth has perverted it.
Except that when you build a world, things don’t “just so happen” to be.
Throughout D&D’s history, the feminine hasn’t just been linked to an abstract concept of evil—it’s also been linked to concrete, visible forms of monstrosity.
This is most evident in D&D’s monster art over the years, where many of the most threatening female monsters, such as succubi, erinyes, and mariliths, were as seductive as they were imposing. Others, like the nymph, rely primarily on their charms to defend themselves. Female sexuality becomes more than a figurative threat—it entails a saving throw.
Which leads us back to D&D as a game.
Because racial (and monstrous) qualities are enshrined in templates and stat blocks, racial judgments aren’t prejudice; they’re facts. Statements like “elves are smarter than orcs” are simply true; as are statements like “drow are evil.”
Furthermore, racial traits often entail a mix of the biological (e.g. hardiness, enhanced senses) and the cultural (e.g. facility with machinery or equipment). The game world conflates heredity and culture. The drow cannot exist apart from Lolth’s perverse influence—they are Lolth; they are femininity seen as monstrous—unless you throw in metagame (or metafictive) intervention.
This brings us back to Drizzt. The renegade drow is ostensibly meant to symbolize the possibility of redemption for the drow; but this is undermined by the fact that his heroism depends on rejecting everything that they are.
Each of his milestones distances him further from them: abandoning his graduation, expatriation from his homeland; murdering his blood sister (the one who treated him decently), and most recently, a more direct defiance of Lolth. Drizzt can’t redeem the drow because his virtue depends on entrenching their evil.
And while Salvatore has attempted in his later works to grapple with this legacy, it’s one step forward, one step back.
In the D&D 5e canon, Salvatore’s works focus on the return of Drizzt’s old adventuring party by way of divine reincarnation.
He returned one of their nemeses, a drow matriarch, as well. But whereas the Companions were restored through a blessing, the returning villain is a product of yet more perverse childbirth magic, including an ilithid communing with a child still in its mother’s womb (yes, using its tentacles). And so the identity of the drow as a symbol of monstrous femininity persists with little to suggest it will change.
Breaking the Curse
So is there hope for the Realms? I would argue there is and it comes from a tiny mountainside village called Arush Vayem.
In 2011, midway through D&D 4e’s publishing run, Wizards of the Coast released Brimstone Angels; the first novel in Erin M. Evans’s series of the same name.
If Homeland was something of a primer on the drow, Brimstone Angels served a similar function for two new playable races: the tieflings and the dragonborn (mainly in the last two books). Both races, like the drow, elicit a degree of suspicion: dragonborn because of their similarity to the Realms’ apex predators. Tieflings, because of their fiendish appearance, the result of a literal deal with the devil made by their ancestors.
Brimstone Angels introduces an unconventional family comprising Mehen, a dragonborn exile; and his two tiefling daughters – Farideh and Havilar – whom he adopted when the rest of their village turned them away.
Their home, Arush Vayem, is a refuge for outcasts who’d rather disappear but even there tieflings have a bad rap. Case in point: the girls’ governess sheared her horns off and clubbed her own tail to draw less attention.
Mehen does his best to equip the girls for living in a world that hates them; but Farideh nonetheless feels like an outcast even at home. Unlike her sister Havilar, she’s withdrawn and unable to keep up with their father’s weapon drills—the “bad” daughter. So when Havilar summons a demon to amuse herself, it’s Farideh who gives in to its wiles and enters into a contract to become his warlock.
Farideh is similar to the drow in that her lineage is reviled and her power is essentially perverse; a result of consorting (at first professionally and then sexually) with the Fiendish Planes. But unlike with Drizzt, Farideh develops as a hero by coming to terms with her heritage, finding a means of working with it without rejecting it outright.
If Drizzt’s milestones distance him from the drow, Farideh’s bring her incrementally closer to her infernal roots.
In order to progress, she first has to come to terms with the nature of her pact magic. And it’s not just about being a warlock: she has to reckon with being a Chosen of Asmodeus and a descendant of the Brimstone Angel; who struck the deal that made the tieflings what they are.
These things clash with her sense of righteousness, but they are also what give her strength. Farideh accomplishes what she does—including brokering a new deal with Asmodeus—because of her tiefling heritage, not at its expense.
The series also takes the issue of sexuality by the horns.
Sex and all it entails are intrinsic to Farideh’s story. Her fiendish patron Lorcan, for instance, manipulates her through seduction and feigned romance. In xenophobic Cormyr, she and her sister are presumed to be courtesans who indulge more uncommon tastes. This is further complicated when Havilar’s lover is the first prince in line to the throne.
The series never shies from these entanglements, as much of fantasy fiction does. Instead, the process gives Farideh a chance to deepen her acceptance and ownership of herself. Although at first Lorcan turns her desire for affection against her, she eventually finds strength in her later partner; who overcomes his prejudice to accept her completely, infernal grandsire and all.
Did I mention she falls for a fallen paladin? Again, she owns the stereotype.
The series should also be acknowledged for its representation of homosexuality, primarily through Mehen.
While his romance isn’t a show-stealer like Farideh’s or Havilar’s, it’s detailed enough. Mehen’s past is haunted by a lover who abandoned him and he hesitates to embrace romance again; especially while his girls face mortal peril on a regular basis. Throughout this, Mehen faces some obstacles unique to gay couples; such as the pressure to produce an heir and maintain appearances.
At the same time, though, the book never suggest that his gayness is morally fraught in and of itself. And of course, his daughters are entirely supportive—especially since it’d get him out of their hair and horns.
What rings true even in the fantasy of The Forgotten Realms
D&D has definitely made great strides in terms of representation. The design team has openly committed to making the game consistently more inclusive. Contrast that with the D&D of Mark Barrowcliffe’s time, when editors thanked writers for omitting homosexuality because it “saved them the trouble of taking it out again.” With the Forgotten Realms being the default setting, this suggests a significant, if gradual shift in direction.
This, of course, doesn’t save it from many fundamental problems. As long as the game interprets race as a clear-cut signifier of abilities and ethics, it will retain echoes of real world discrimination. And as long as the drow remain as they are, the Realms will remain a world that insinuates the monstrosity of the feminine. These aren’t going to change because of a few novels that themselves must account for the existing fluff and crunch.
What Brimstone Angels does signify, however, is that we can tell stories that challenge the established order.
It’s possible for characters of any race and gender to take ownership of their identity and tell stories that celebrate it. And for the players who identify with those characters, that will make the Realms feel a little more like home.
Have you read Brimstone Angels yet? Do you have thoughts about representation in Dungeons & Dragons? Let us know in the comments!
Featured Image: Art by Patricia Menorca