Matriarchies, Patriarchies, and Beyond

Mythcreants hosted a panel at this year’s GeekGirlCon in Seattle. Chris, Oren, Rhys, and I discussed gender in spec fic and how you can create matriarchal, patriarchal, or egalitarian societies for your stories.

It was a lively event with many challenging questions from the audience. I’ve put together a summary of our main points for readers who weren’t able to attend. We’ll start it off like we did at the panel, with a quick primer on sex and gender from Rhys.

Sex is what’s between one’s legs or how their chromosomes are paired. While sex is most frequently male or female, an abundance of biological differences result in a third category called “intersex.”

Gender, however, is determined by someone’s presentation and personal identity. Generally it’s the way one perceives themselves on the scale of femininity to masculinity and can be expressed through adherence or non-adherence to gender roles.

For the purposes of this post any use of “male” or “female” will be referring specifically to biological sex and reflect ability to bear children. “Man” and “woman” will be used only for gender identities, mostly based on modern patriarchal definitions and their reversals in hypothetical matriarchies.

What Might a Matriarchy Be Like?

“In a matriarchy, everyone with a womb can spawn their own minions.” – Chris

Real matriarchies are few and far between in our world, which gives writers little to draw on. As a result, spec fic has a lot of poor attempts at matriarchies. Some portray a straw man or “man-hating” feminism, while others reinforce gender stereotypes and more simply fail to actually be the matriarchy they say they are.

Rick and Morty’s “Raising Gazorpazorp” episode falls into the first two traps. They introduce a society where the males are completely separated and forced to live in a desolate wasteland because they’re so violent. Meanwhile in the technologically advanced female side of things, status and political power is achieved primarily through fashion.

The novel Prudence portrays women as if they are empowered. The book suggests that because they use Victorian social conventions to manipulate men, women actually wield the true power. While this might happen occasionally, it’s not true empowerment because in day-to-day life the imbalance of power, prestige, and value still favors men.

To know how a matriarchy might actually look, we first need to understand how patriarchy works in most contexts. It’s much more than just men being in political power. It’s about men, and the roles typically associated with men, being valued above that of women. Some opponents of equal pay laws argue that women only look like they are paid less than men because they go into professions that pay less. But this has it backwards. Those professions typically pay less because they are associated with women.

We see this with the decline of pay and prestige for teachers in the US. For most of the country’s history, teaching was considered a very academic and highly valued profession. Teachers were imparting their knowledge to students and giving them the skills needed to be successful. This view of teaching was almost universally held… when teachers were men. The decline of a teacher’s buying power, the shift from viewing teaching as skilled profession to a caregiver position that’s “in their nature,” these all correlate with the gradual shift from the field being dominated by men to dominated by women.

For a contemporary example, we can look at medicine. Doctors in many parts of the world are highly regarded and generously compensated. But this isn’t universal; in Russia, doctors are some of the lowest paid professionals and regarded about the same as blue collar workers. This, despite the fact that they require the same amount of education as an American doctor. What is the main difference between how this profession is viewed in these two places? In Russia, the majority of doctors are women. According to Carol Schmidt, a nurse practitioner who has spent time in Moscow, “medical practice is stereotyped as a caring vocation ‘naturally suited‘ to women, [which puts it at] a second-class level…”

So if patriarchy devalues women and any labor viewed as “women’s work,” then a matriarchy would flip those perceptions on their head. A true matriarchy would elevate the value of any roles filled primarily by women, and the roles filled by men would be lower paid and lower status. Biology will bias caregiving and motherhood as high-value women’s work in all matriarchies, but all other roles and professions will change with demographics.

Other traits that we could expect to correlate to matriarchies would include:

  • Matrilineal descent, where ancestry and inheritance are defined primarily through the female line. Surnames, property, and prestige are most often inherited through the male lines in patriarchies due to the higher value placed on men. It is reasonable to assume that in matriarchies this correlation would reverse.
  • Matrilocality, a social system that expects married couples to live with or near the wife’s parents. A common practice among horticultural communities that exist within patriarchal structures, it is likely to be expanded to other community types in a culture where the women of a family are more prominent than the men.
  • Visiting marriages, where husband and wife continue living with their own families full time, rather than moving in with each other. This is a subset of matrilocal communities, as the children are raised by their mother and mother’s extended family. Our modern western conception of marriage has its roots in ancient patriarchal systems that viewed wives, and women in general, as property. Remove that history and there is more room for unconventional marriage arrangements to flourish.

A setting that approaches the idea of a matriarchal society in a reasoned and realistic fashion will definitely have differences from the world we live in today. But storytellers need to be careful not to reinforce sexist stereotypes when building it. A world in which there is no history of warfare because women are in charge is not a good faith effort at a matriarchy. It is built on the stereotype that violence and competition are masculine traits, rather than human traits.

What Would an Egalitarian Society Look Like?

“The Culture series, which is basically Star Trek, if everything Star Trek said about itself was true.” – Oren

Due to the biases of the writers and the studios that produced the franchise, Star Trek has fallen short of being truly egalitarian. While typically forward for its time, each iteration still lacked equal representation of the sexes in all levels of command.* This makes Star Trek a good first step towards representing an egalitarian society, but it doesn’t get us all the way there.

The Culture series, on the other hand, does a solid job of creating an egalitarian society. Sex and gender are complete non-issues for this society. In part it is because the technology is so advanced that a person’s sex can be changed back and forth almost at will. One’s sex is no longer seen as an important part of their identity, because it is common and accepted to change it on a regular basis. With sex being a fluid aspect of a person, binary gender identity and gender norms become completely undermined. That gives the series a strong foundation upon which to build a truly egalitarian society.

In Nickelodeon’s Avatar franchise we also see societies that are by and large egalitarian. While individual characters or communities may be sexist (looking at you, Northern Water Tribe), women have more opportunities and representation than is true of the historical societies that they are loosely based on. This is probably in large part due to the fact that bending ignores sex and gender. It’s difficult for a non-bending male to oppress a female bender, after all. Also, when dealing with a long-term war, no society in the setting (except the Northern Water Tribe) is willing to ignore their strongest potential warriors, the benders, just because of their gender. It’s not perfectly egalitarian, but the setting also never claims to be, and the sheer number of female soldiers shown throughout both series is a big leap forward in media.

If we were to have a truly egalitarian society, gender would decrease in importance significantly. Professions would be more or less equal in gender distribution. More striking, there would no longer be professions that are viewed as men’s fields or women’s fields. While having children would still be a burden of the female sex, raising children would not be seen as a woman’s role, but a parent’s role. We see some signs of these values and perspectives starting to work into our culture, but it will be a long while and much work before we are all the way there.

In making a good egalitarian society, you need to be mindful of your cultural biases and willing to reexamine and revise your work. Creating characters and establishing them in your stories before you pick a gender for them is one technique used by writers like Chris. Or you can alternate back and forth between male and female characters as you work to build your supporting cast. Anything that you can do to consciously add diversity and representation into your work is a positive first step.

Reexamining your work as you go is the more important step. At a previous GeekGirlCon, developers from Bioware shared how they worked to ensure greater gender equity in their latest addition to the Dragon Age series. They had taken the route of alternating between male and female NPCs as they created the game, and then after the characters and dialogue were created they ran a statistical analysis. They found that female characters had been assigned less dialogue overall, and that for plot important dialogue, female characters had been given only about a third of the lines. Once this bias was identified, they went back and shuffled character dialogue around to correct it.

Most of us aren’t going to run a statistical analysis on our work, but we should be mindful that bias can always sneak in. Getting new perspectives on your work, reviewing it critically, and being willing to make changes are all essential if you are trying to create a story that is actually as egalitarian as you want it to be.

What Causes a Society to Be More or Less Patriarchal?

“A factor, at least in spec fic, is magic. Because it’s hard to oppress women who can shoot fire out of their hands.” – Oren

Two major factors seem to influence how strongly patriarchal human society is: competition for and control of reproduction. While not the only cultural factors influencing the pervasiveness of patriarchy, throughout history and fiction we see that they strongly correlate with women’s place in society.

Reproduction is inherently competitive for males. While any person with a womb can reproduce, males must have the (willing or unwilling) participation of a female. As a group, men become expendable when there is tighter competition for reproduction. If your society has X number of females and Y number of males, a loss of males has less impact on the social group’s capacity for reproduction than a loss of females.

Therefore, if there are fewer females within a society, their “value” increases, but only in the sense of a commodity to be owned. We see this in Mad Max: Fury Road and the krogan society of Mass Effect, where females that can bear healthy children are so limited that they become a resource to be protected or stolen. It makes an ugly sort of sense; a community has no future without the ability to have children. But it means that females end up having no control over their own lives, because nothing they do can possibly contribute more to the community than childbirth.

Conversely, at times when women have been a significant majority of the population, they have also had an increase in influence and opportunities available to them. Most people are familiar with how women in WWII America were vital to keeping the war factories running. A shortage of young men forced employers to be less picky about the gender of their labor pool. As a result, women experienced a short period in which they were allowed and even encouraged to pursue life paths that were normally restricted to men. After the war, with men coming home and looking for work, many of these opportunities were suddenly taken away.

A longer period of this phenomenon occurred in medieval Europe, where for several hundred years the population had an unusually high percentage of women. While this trend lasted, Europe saw an increase in women entering skilled professions, and even some key positions in the political and religious institutions of the day. By the 1500s the population was shifting back, and the work available to women became increasingly restricted.

Reproductive control is the second major factor in the influence of patriarchy. In a society without access to birth control technology, unplanned pregnancy can disrupt female lives and make them more dependent on social networks or husbands. In extreme cases, pregnancy can be used as a way for males to exert control over females, making them vulnerable and forcing them to depend on a male for food and shelter.

Gaining access to birth control technology gives women control over their reproductive choices. Controlling when and if they reproduce allows women to do so only when it would not derail their life or career, opening up opportunities they might otherwise not be able to pursue. It also gives a measure of protection from males who might try to use their biology against them.

When writing, reviewing these two factors is a good way to estimate how patriarchal, egalitarian, or matriarchal a society might be. Any demographic factors, cultural views on sex, or religious taboos that lead to increased reproductive competition will weaken women’s control over their lives. The degree to which women can control their own reproductive choices will also have a large impact. Sex positive culture, even distribution of the sexes in the population, and full access to reproductive technology are probably prerequisites to a truly egalitarian society. And to have conditions favorable to a matriarchy, it is likely that a women would need to have not only full reproductive control but also demographics that forced them to compete rather than men.*

Can Patriarchal Settings Discourage Patriarchy in Real Life?

“If the protagonist’s actions are vindicated only at the end, then the story is further normalizing patriarchy.” – Mike

The general thinking of the Mythcreants panel is that patriarchal settings can discourage real life patriarchy if, and only if, they are intentionally written to not reinforce or normalize patriarchal tropes. The characters that challenge patriarchal standards must receive consistent support from both other characters and the plot. If they struggle without any support, then at best the story is saying that only extraordinary people can stand up to patriarchy. If patriarchy is portrayed as normal, or that resisting it is always a great struggle, the fiction is only reinforcing patriarchal narratives.

The best example of a story that effectively challenges patriarchy and toxic masculinity is Mad Max: Fury Road. In Fury, we clearly see that both men and women are negatively impacted by patriarchy. Healthy females are obviously a commodity, but men are as well. The Warboys are Immortan Joe’s cannon fodder; in his mind they are on par with the war rigs, a resource to be owned and used.

If you are using a patriarchal setting, several pitfalls need to be avoided to successfully challenge patriarchal norms. First of all, it’s not enough to just be aware of the dynamics of privilege and patriarchy when they are used in a story. A valid criticism of Ex Machina is that while it is obviously aware of how it uses those tropes, it is simply rehashing them without challenge. As a result, the movie normalizes the harmful dynamics portrayed.

The other problem is that your audience can miss the message if you’re too subtle. Mad Men, for example, had some audiences of its early seasons thinking that it was supposed to glorify 1960s masculinity. While over time it became more clear that the show writers were trying to subvert patriarchal norms all along, many audience members were already thinking that Don Draper was a figure they were supposed to emulate.

To challenge patriarchal norms in a story set in a patriarchal world, the storyteller needs to actively challenge those norms on all fronts and avoid too much subtlety.

How Should Spec Fic Handle Transgender or Gender Queer Persons?

“Well, it could handle it at all, that would be nice.” – Rhys

Spec fic storytellers can start by making an effort to simply include trans folks regularly. Currently anyone that doesn’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth has little representation in media. We have a few examples of canonically trans characters in Sense8, Steven Universe, and Orphan Black. Beyond these three shows, however, there is a current lack of visible trans characters in spec fic.

This oversight gets worse when you consider how many spec fic societies are supposed to be egalitarian or utopian. Egalitarian societies in particular, with their de-emphasis on the importance of gender, should be open to and supportive of people who identify outside of the narrow binary of our current gender norms. While not all societies represented in spec fic stories would be accepting of identities that challenge patriarchal and gender norms, we should strive, at a minimum, to include more representation in those that would.

As a storyteller you should want to have a wide diversity of life experiences that you are familiar with. That makes it easier to put yourself in the heads of characters, to understand their motivations, and to develop them in meaningful ways. So you should try to meet trans people (there are more than most realize) and get a sense for the diversity of their life experiences. Having characters with a range of perspectives will only make stories richer.

Patriarchy and gender norms are too large of topics to fully cover in a one-hour panel or a single blog post. Entire books and course curricula are devoted to gender issues. But the information provided should be a good starting point for storytellers – in particular, those who want to be more deliberate about how they use gender in their works.


Special thanks to GeekGirlCon for hosting the event and to everyone who attended the panel.

Want pointers on your story? We’re available for hire.

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  1. Pedro O.

    Great article. The section about “Can Patriarchal Settings Discourage Patriarchy in Real Life?” represents something that always worries me about some of my games. Take Call of Cthulhu for an example (if you set it at 1920), how should we deal with the prejudices and oppression from that time? Some people choose to ignore and erase it (as if it was possible), not imposing anything different for PCs who are women or non-white. This strategy doesn’t please me.
    But, trying to represent those elements in a critical way can be hard, you can fail and just reinforce the prejudice. I guess it’s possible to get a good result if your game is focusing on them, but if they are just a side theme (or worst, just “flavor”), you may be too shallow. What do you think about that?

    [Sorry for my lousy english]

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      For roleplaying games specifically, I think it’s often best practice to simply ignore the various prejudices that a PC might face, unless that player is specifically interested in them as a story element. There’s way less separation between player (audience) and character in an RPG than their is in a novel or film. Dealing with discrimination can be emotionally draining, and it’s not a good idea to force that on a player just for the race/sex/gender/orientation of their character.

      If the player is interested, then for sure there’s some rich story potential to be had. But the main action of CoC is cosmic horror shattering human minds, and that works fine without bringing up all the terrible prejudices of the time period.

  2. Sara

    I was just wondering, but if in the matriarchal societies feminine professions are more valued and payed more, what about important masculine jobs like construction workers, and engineers, if they aren’t as valued, wouldn’t that negatively affect the society as a whole?

    • Mike Hernandez

      One of the main takeaways from my research is that jobs in a patriarchy are valued more not because they are inherently more masculine or harder to do, but because the majority of practitioners are male. The reverse would be true in a matriarchy.

      Construction work and manual labor aren’t necessarily men’s jobs. It may seem logical for them to be because the greater strength required, but looking across history and cultures, in a number of societies women have done the majority of the work that requires strength and endurance. Many hunting and gathering societies for instance, have the men doing the hunting, and the women doing the gathering. The hunters typically get the respect and glory, but if you look at number of hours committed to obtaining food, the level of physical exertion, and the number of calories contributed, the female gatherers are working longer and harder hours and providing a much greater level of sustenance for the group. It’s a much more important role, even though it is less valued. Similarly today in the US, care workers for children, sick, and elderly, tend to work very long and physically demanding hours, and it is work that is severely needed despite the low pay and value that are granted since it’s viewed as women’s work.

      As for professions requiring high levels of education like engineering, most would probably be majority women fields in a matriarchy. But where men are dominant, it would look very similar to mid 20th century computer science. Until the 1980’s most programmers were women, including the entire NASA Apollo program’s computer science team. They received lower pay and no recognition compared to the male engineers they worked alongside, but we wouldn’t have landed on the moon without their incredible work.

      So when work is attributed lower value and lower pay it doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t get done, but it may mean those who have their pick of the work will choose something else. Men and women who are very talented and have a lot to contribute may avoid a profession they could thrive in if it’s undervalued by society.

      To give the short answer to your question: Yes I do think matriarchy would harm society, in a mirror image of how patriarchy harms society.

  3. Tyrel

    Great article, the only thing I had a problem with is when you used the Ricky and Morty episode as an example of a stereotypical matriarchy. The reason that is include in that episode is because they are making fun of the concept which is originally portrayed in the 70s Sean Conry film “Zardoz”. So the shows creators aren’t trying to push that stereotype they are making fun of it.

  4. Michael

    Quick note: the author of Prudence doesn’t claim her version of Victorian England to be a matriarchy.

  5. Tiberia

    “Well, it could handle it at all, that would be nice.” – Rhys

    This may be one of the best summaries of the problem of Transgender folk in the media, there just aren’t many. Blessedly its far better now than before.

    Growing Up I recall seeing “Flawless”. short summary for those that don’t know; A cop is injured and during recovery takes singing lessons from a trans-woman neighbor to help recover his voice. It’s one of Schumacher’s better films.
    The Film was suggested to me by my pastor, and I’m glad he did. It was not a great film by any measure, but seeing a transgender person portrayed in a positive sympathetic light, even if just in that one single movie, helped me get through things. Its a great example of how even mediocre stories can have a great effect on others, and why having representation for under represented groups is so important.

    As for why there is a lack itself, I think that is a problem that the trans and gender queer community itself has to play a large part in solving.
    I can’t speak for all Trans people of course, but I can for myself. When I make characters for roleplay and stories I don’t make them transgender. a large part of it is I want to roleplay a woman, not someone haunted by their own genitals. Same for characters in stories, as when I write its often in the form of one person roleplay. Consciously I know an rpg would be a great setting to explore my feelings of dismorphia, but for my own enjoyment I’d just rather play a cis-woman (and be one for that matter). In addition in most settings a trans character has an out; Magic or technology. So most of the drama and conflict is too easily solved.
    But this article reminded me that just dealing with it at all is valuable, and I should. I’ve toyed with the idea of trans characters in shadowrun and Mage ascension before but never played them. So I decided to make one of my recurring and favorite characters Trans, because its important to deal with the subject instead of ignoring it all the time. If any other trans or gender queer people read this, I would suggest playing a trans or queer character as well, it may help you communicate your feelings to your friends better than you could before, and help deal with the subject, even if just little

    ok this comment is long and rambling enough as is.

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