Watch out readers: I’m about to get a lot rambly and a little academic.
Some time ago, when I was a wee college student taking ANTHRO 190B (Introduction to Archaeology), I was introduced to post-processual archaeology and the concept of the “drudge on a hide.” I’m not going to go into a deep critique of post-processualism, but the thrust of it is one I admire. Essentially, the argument is that we cannot be completely objective in our reconstructions of the past. It’s not possible. We can be objective about what we find and where we find it, what it’s made of and how many of them we uncover. But when it comes to creating a picture of the culture that created that object, we’re guessing. We’re guessing through the lens of a completely different culture, with a piece that we can’t be sure mattered a lot or a little. If in a thousand years, archaeologists uncover my house, they’re likely to find a collection of plastic cups in waaaay too many sizes. Will they assume that was important to us, the Millenial USian culture? To the entire culture throughout it’s existance? Or will they know this is just a relic of a time when we, House Evans-Hyphenate, had a lot of parties, and someone different always brought cups? You can’t ultimately know what’s the individual and what’s the culture, what’s important and what just kind of happened. That doesn’t mean don’t try—it means, be aware of what you might be bringing to the table. Check your assumptions. Know how your culture is steering you.
The image I’ll never forget from this particular lecture was a slide with two pictures on it: a man standing, strong and proud, with his weapon in hand, and a woman depicted crouched on a stretched out hide. “The Drudge on a Hide.” Modern people trying to craft a narrative about our ancestors tend to apply a template to them that we’ve convinced ourselves is natural and perpetual. Men do things. Women are ornaments or servants. You see the Noble Savage. The Madonna and Child. We make these representations because they’re what we expect to see, but often they’re just a fantasy. To begin with, in a pre-industrial society, the opportunity to just be desired is kind of limited—there’s too much to do!
And do is the important part. Women aren’t just accouterments to their partners. For example, we think of men as builders—in some pastoral and hunter-gatherer societies, women build the shelters. The Maasai. The Arbore. The Inuit. In some cultures, unless a man gets married, he’s basically homeless because he’s not allowed to build a house. Gender roles certainly exist, but they don’t match the 50s happy homemaker.
This is something that has always bothered me about orcs: What the hell do the women do? Some sources, it feels as if the designers didn’t even consider it. They are objects in the most complete sense—existing only to bestow status on their mates. They reproduce, preferably sons. They stay in the caves. They do not do. To borrow from the FR Wiki: Male orcs dominate most orcish societies and females are usually, at best, prized possessions and little better than livestock at worst.
The implication of orcs as uber-warriors, carnivorous hunters of prey means that they’re probably not farming. In any other society, the women would primarily be gathering, but gathering what? We go back to that carnivorous tag, and consider that in many depictions, they live in caves high in the mountains (which the females don’t leave). They’re settled hunter-gatherers. Are they butchering the meat (like Inuit women, a famously meat-heavy culture)? In any other society like that, the women would be responsible for building and maintaining the shelter, but again, it’s a goddamned cave. There’s not a lot to do there.
We as modern people have been infected by this idea of Women as Ornament. As if ancient women could only cook and clean and raise offspring. To begin with there are so many more things a pre-historical society needs to have done—gathering (why do we ALWAYS forget the gathering part of hunter-gatherer? You know, the major source of foodstuffs for most of these groups?), butchering, sourcing and hauling water, crafting tools, crafting shelter, repairing things, brewing etc. Moreover, the vast majority of these hunter-gatherer societies are egalitarian—the women have as much power as the men. This dramatic imbalance is the kind of thing we don’t start seeing until agriculture becomes a thing.
I could ramble on about hunter-gatherer societies all the livelong day. But I can almost hear some of you going “But this is fantasy! They don’t have to be realistic!” You’re right. They don’t. But what they have to be is plausible. And I for one don’t buy for a second that a complex society of humanoids leaves half of its population to dawdle in caves, and that half of the population—who all have the same strength bonuses—just goes, “Oh gee, well, okay.”
But then there’s canon. The stated situation of the world is that this is exactly what happens. Sucks to be a lady-orc!
Sucks so bad that I have to suspect there’s other options on the table.
Because as much as we like to say “men are from Mars, women are from Venus,” the reality on the ground is that there’s a huge range of people—and again, we’re blinded by our own assumptions about what’s “always been so.” Leaving aside what the whole of a culture has looked like, it’s easy to agree that outliers have always, always existed. Women have always fought. People have always bucked gender roles. People have always “not fit.” So what happens to an orc or half-orc woman who doesn’t fit? What do you do with a very clever female orc? Sure you could hit the far end and say if you don’t fit, you don’t deserve to live—but don’t forget, they need strength and cunning and numbers.
In The Adversary, there’s a character, Oota, who I dearly wish had more screen time. Oota is a female half-orc, inarguably a product of an orcish culture. She declares herself to be the Chosen of Obould Many-Arrows. She’s brought a large portion of the internment camp together, based largely on the fact that she’s cunning and she’s tough as mountain roots. She’s got a way higher Charisma score than the average orc, and that has nothing to do with her face. Oota is the one part mob boss, one part chieftain, one part champion. Luthic, the only goddess in the orc pantheon and patroness of the home and hearth, would not be impressed.
And so? Oota’s a born leader, who cares what her parts are? To deny that, to waste it on scraping skins and boiling soups, would be spitting in Gruumsh’s eye, wouldn’t it? She’s obviously meant to be in charge.
But women aren’t in charge in orc society. So either Gruumsh has bestowed the wrong gifts on her and the orcs have to admit he’s fallible as shit…or she’s not a woman.
The first time Dahl sees Oota, he thinks she’s a male orc. She dresses like one. She presents as male. Her breasts are bound and her hair is cropped. She has some mannerisms—calling Dahl “son,” for one—that are intended to read as masculine. And you don’t get a whole lot of time to explore that sadly—Oota’s role in the story isn’t to unpack orc culture, and I’m always going to be bummed it’s not.
(Fortunately, I have a blog!)
To an orc, Oota is male. She’s stepped into a very male role, in a society that clamps down on female freedom like the X chromosome is infectious. Look at Albanian sworn virgins and you see something similar—women taking on the identity of men because being a woman kind of sucks. But also because as men they can provide a way around some of the unpleasantness that comes from that society. Your mother’s a widow? She can keep living with a son but a daughter has to get married and join another family. Your family’s in a blood feud? Sons can participate and their deaths are compensated. Daughters are just dead bodies. Even better—the sworn virgin can go about the family’s business and the menfolk can hide in the basement and avoid getting murdered.
I don’t mean for that to sound like gender identity is just a product of external factors, but I think in a case like this, it opens one to the possibility of thinking about one’s gender in a different way. It doesn’t change the orcs’ culture, mind. They’re still patriarchal as an Aristotliean wet dream. But within that framework, here is an opportunity for the outliers. Here is something for a clever, strong, fierce female half-orc to do.
To a human, Oota is female, albeit on the “butch” end of the spectrum. In my mind she occupies both these genders fully—the orcs call her by masculine pronouns and treat her as a man, the humans by feminine, and all together, that’s who she is. Further, I would say she goes for orc women, but human men. I’m tempted to call her “genderqueer” but I’ll admit my fluency in the terminology makes me hesitant to apply labels to someone who lives in a fantasy world and isn’t technically completely human. Whatever labels suit her best, Oota is Oota.
A lot of the time, when people talk about diversity in fantasy or science fiction, there’s this backlash that gets people complaining about a “PC checklist.” And I suppose if you feel that way, it might look like plunking a gender non-conforming half-orc into my story is just some attempt to appease a focus group. But I write this to show it’s not remotely the case: Oota exists in my story because she should exist in that world. We like to pretend that our assumptions are the unvarnished truth, but we’re looking through a lens just like anybody else. There have always been, and will always be, people who don’t fit the mold of the dominant culture. There have always been, and will always be, other cultures criss-crossing that space. There will always be other voices besides the one shouting loudest. To pretend otherwise is to deny our everyday experiences—we aren’t a monolith, so why would anyone else be? It’s implausible.
None of this touches on the more important part of that conversation—the need for diverse voices and viewpoints. That’s another topic that’s well-worth having (and there are some people having it very well). Maybe you don’t care about giving people a chance to see characters who look or love or act like them—fine. We’ll have to agree to disagree. But I fail to see how ignoring the diversity that’s there, the elements that make a world more plausible, improves the story.