A lot of ink (pixels?) have been spilt over the years about the misogynistic and patriarchal nature of the Gorean world and – more recently – about this fundraiser and this game as a whole. The Free Woman/Slave division is seen as the virgin/whore dichotomy writ large. Michael Moorcock even campaigned for Gorean novels to be put on the top shelf and Norman himself has blamed these criticisms for various setbacks over the time the novels have been published, though I’m not sure how true that is.
Still, we live in a more enlightened age, don’t we? People are much freer about sexuality than they used to be and after the Comics Code, Satanic Panic, Murder Simulators and all the other nonsense we’ve had to put up with we’re all well aware that (for the vast and overwhelming majority of people) there’s a sharp delineation between fantasy and reality? Right?
It seems not.
Well then, is there a role for women in a Gorean role-playing game or are they destined to just be – as some wag asked me on Twitter – ‘part of the equipment list?’
There’s no getting away from the fact that the Gorean society, as written is deeply patriarchal – as in genuinely, actually patriarchal. Men hold the power but in the Gorean world that is largely because men still hold the means of production and the military might. Gor is largely pre-industrial, everything is done by hand and muscle power is more important in fighting, agriculture and in generally keeping the world moving. Men cannot be done without and as such hold the balance of physical power.
Women are not without power though. Many castes do not disfavour women, the Scribes, Physicians and Initiates certainly don’t, and there’s nothing to prevent a woman becoming the head of her caste in a city. The caste of Warriors lacks examples of women in the books, but as an hereditary caste there seems no reason to think that there aren’t female warriors, though they might be more likely to fall into support roles, espionage and the like. Women in the Caste of Builders might be supply sellers, architects, researchers, even if they’re less likely to be hod-carriers or bricklayers.
Women hold a great deal of economic power as well, running most of the shops, leading merchant houses, investing their money, managing estates and breeding racing tharlarion (examples from the books). Free women are accorded a level of respect that – within certain bounds – give them a decided social advantage over Gorean men. Nor are free women asexual ‘Madonnas’. Free women have access to male silk slaves and are presented as sexual beings throughout the books, slavery is not an inevitable fate and many women and men find free companions to be with (equivalent to marriage) though both may also have slaves to entertain them on the side.
Tharna, until it was overthrown, was a vicious matriarchy. There are Panther Girls in the northern forests and in the great jungle of the interior (called Talunas) who are runaway slaves and free women who reject the dominant male society. So tough and committed are they that some scar their faces or otherwise mutilate themselves to show their rejection of Gorean society.
Nor is there any reason you can’t play as a slave girl (or slave boy) within the group. Many slaves are loved and cherished, fought over and for and many slaves have played key roles in important events on Gor. A slave may also only temporarily be a slave, seeking to earn their freedom or perhaps a skilled thief put in a collar as a punishment and simply biding their time.
Nobody, male or female, at the table should be – or is – forced to put up with anything they don’t want to.
Fantasy games, books, graphic novels, heck – fantasy art in general – is an opportunity to engage with and experience a world that doesn’t even have to exist. We don’t even have to like what occurs there to enjoy it. Just consider the popularity of horror novels, of splatterpunk films, reaction videos. It’s OK to enjoy ‘problematic things’ and you don’t have to agree with them to enjoy it. A game world that is genuinely different is interesting, conflict is interesting, a bland, generic, everything is shiny and happy game world is dull as ditchwater.
Your game is your own, make it your own.
Repeat that mantra.
When it comes to sexuality, Gor in the novels is presented as almost 100% heterosexual, though there are a few hints as to otherwise and one glaring exception that gives some hints that homosexuality is accepted within Gorean society and catered to by slavers. In short, there’s nothing whatsoever to stop you playing a gay or lesbian character and Gorean society doesn’t seem to give too much of a fig about it on a societal level.
Transgender issues are a bit more thorny. So if you’re sensitive, stop reading now.
Still want to read on?
Intersex conditions are likely to be viewed as deformity and the Goreans are pretty ruthless when it comes to babies with deformities, killing them almost all the time – for any deformity that cannot be healed or prevented by the physicians. Deformed people and cripples are viewed with disgust more than pity and even begging a living can become virtually impossible for them as in Gorean society it is seen as a deep insult to either be pitied or to be shown pity. It’s all a bit Spartan.
With that unpleasantness out of the way, what about people who aren’t intersex but feel that they’ve been born into the wrong sex? Given Gorean views on the importance of gender this is likely to be a very difficult path to go down and they’re more likely to be slotted into the homosexual identity than anything else. Some cultures have room for those who live differently than their obvious gender, the Red Savages in particular make young men who fail to become warriors live as women and it seems likely that the transplanted cultures of the jungles and of the barrens have also carried over cultural acceptance and spiritual reverence for this kind of thing.
It’d be a hard thing to play out, just as its a hard thing in real life, but the conflict between the hugely strict and important Gorean attitude to gender and someone who defies that could make for fascinating RP.