Minotaurs, Udders, and Worries of Gender Stereotyping

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 13 September 2012

Minotaur Shaman by Jared von HindmanMinotaur Shaman by Jared von HindmanIn two recent posts, Jon Schindehette and James Wyatt explore the minotaur and question what defines a D&D minotaur. From everything I can tell about D&D Next, the entire mythos of D&D is getting a once over in preparation for the core books and two of the important guiding principles seems to be 1) does it feel like D&D and 2) is this creature/class/background iconic enough. For the latter, I believe they want to make sure that each creature seems unique and is instantly identifiable.

One of the issues with minotaurs is that over the years the creature has gone from the one-of-a-kind monster created as a punishment for defying a god's commands through the union of a snow-white bull and a human woman and found in the labyrinth beneath Crete to a full race with society, offspring, and the like. Since there was no society in the original stories, the earlier D&D authors had to create one. They often centered on the beastly qualities of minotaurs, and that makes sense to a degree. Hence why minotaurs often have a gore attack or are described as being incredibly strong.

It's not wrong to have some races who exhibit these traits, and I can see the minotaur as being one where it makes sense to have so a strong dichotomy between sexes. I do quibble a bit on a few elements though on how things are presented.

Physically representing the gender of a minotaur

In his article, Jon has a section on, if there are female minotaurs, how should their sex (or gender) be signified in the art. The poll has three options: human-styled breasts, cow-like udders, and they should just all be male. This left me with some questions. Why do we only talk about how females should be represented physically, but not males? Do they not see how this reinforces that females are the other? And why is the first thought to represent gender as a biological dimorphism rather than in another way? I mean, we don't have to display the male minotaur's penis to show that he's male (even though it would also fit with our mythology since bulls are often tied to virility and fertility).

Minotaurs as a symbol of Strength and Power

From James' article we have this possibility for the minotaur origin story in D&D:

Sometimes, when Baphomet’s petitioners plead with him for strength and power, he rewards them by transforming them into minotaurs. Some cultists thus transformed view it as a blessing, others as a curse, and each viewpoint largely depends on the opinion they held of Baphomet before the transformation.

This quote in itself isn't worrisome, but I start to get a little nervous when we consider that according to Jon's poll, minotaurs might be male only. One of the issues I've had with D&D (and part of why I didn't play for a long time) was that all-female races were often tied to looks, either being so beautiful that poor adventurers, especially male ones, couldn't help but want to have sex with them, or so ugly that no one would want them and that made them bitter old, well, hags. All-male races tended to be beasts of some kind, influenced by their out of control appetites, whether they be sexual, as with the satyrs, or gastronomical in nature. If minotaurs are male-only, this continues the tradition of gender stereotyping where it doesn't make much sense. I realize that cows are often seen as docile, but they are also strong.

Things I'd Love to See

Again, it's none of these are at the "this is so obviously sexist and I will not purchase these products" level of thinking, but it makes me worry a bit and is one of the difficulties of looking at individual races without seeing the whole picture. How many other races support this rather human-based dimorphism?

Focus on Needs and Motivations More than Sex and Gender - What do these races eat? Are they civilized? If so, what do they produce and trade to others? What are the race's core needs - food, shelter, companionship and the like. In just about every society, all sexes contributed more than just children to the community. If you need gender roles, give everyone jobs beyond procreation. In some early societies, physically weaker (but perhaps faster or higher endurance) people would help herd deer and other game towards the skilled and physically stronger hunters. Find interesting things for everyone to do. Characters tend to have very similar needs and motivations; their sex and gender often influence how they satisfy them.

Write from the Point of View of the Female Members - My experience with many previous editions is that they took either an outside observer stance or spoke about the society from the male viewpoint. The main exception I can see are the Drow, but they are so incredibly problematic in my opinion that I can't advise someone use them as an example. I'd love to see more of a person on the ground approach.

Value Female Contributions Equally (Where it Makes Sense) - Yes, we will have some societies and/or races that are horribly sexist (like the Drow). However, as noted above, in many societies, especially where there isn't an overabundance of resources, everyone has to contribute to society. In societies that have gender roles but aren't meant to be oppressively sexist, consider valuing the contributions from female members of society as highly as those from the male members. Remember, many fantasy societies still rely heavily on a barter economy rather than a currency based one. Food and clothing was often a more immediate need than a new sword or iPod and, in settings that lack of technology, could be a bit more expensive to get.

Understand the Biases in the Source Material - Many of those myths we use as the basis of our stories, including D&D, were meant to transmit values to younger generations. The heroes and monsters were meant to convey what behavior would be rewarded and punished by the societies that told them. Likewise, many of the earlier editions took a field guide approach to discussing creatures, concentrating on what they ate and looking at their mating and childrearing habits. One thing to consider there is that there's a long history of scientists trying to use nature to reinforce what they considered to be proper human behavior and they hid or would not report on behaviors that deviated from their expected script.

Is Sex-DIfferentiation Important for this Race? - Consider how important sex-differentiation is for the race. There are lots of animal species out there where it's rather difficult for humans to tell the sexes apart. They still seem more than capable of reproducing, so why should it be so important to every race in a fantasy world to outwardly display their sex?

Move Beyond Primary and Secondary Sex Characteristics - This emphasis on primary and secondary sex characteristics, especially of women characters, feels a bit creepy to some women and men. Seriously, a female character should be more than her organs, whether they be her legs, her breasts, or her skin. Many societies find it important to mark the transition to adulthood in some outward way. Perhaps we can use those as signifiers instead, and have them for all sexes and genders in the society?

Consider non-heterosexual and non-cisgender viewpoints - Throughout human history, we've had differing opinions on close and romantic relationships between members of the same sex. We've also had differing opinions on the importance of gender and even whether or not gender is binary. By bringing some of that diversity to the gaming world, we can cut down on some of the sameness we often experience.

Remember Rule Zero - Rule Zero doesn't just work in the game, it happened in real life. When war came knocking, people often didn't care whether or not so-and-so didn't want women to have weapons. Women are just as intelligent and resourceful as men and they would use what they knew about to try to fight off invaders.

Stop Giving Gendered Answers to Poll Questions - Seriously, guys, enough with poll answers like "My kid sister could kick its butt."


Excellent points all around!

I had some similar thoughts in August, so I made some minotaur-themed art -- taking things beyond the usual.

What do they eat in everyday life? What do they do? (Yes, that's a female minotaur.)

What about minotaurs who do not fit the traditional image of minotaurs? What about, say, a minotaur bard? Also, what kind of prejudices one might meet? And so on... I thought about 19th century and the era of traveling entertainers in the West; I thought about Sarah Bernhardt, the countless backdrop saloon dancers shown in westerns; I think I want to go back to this character to create a picture from her point of view. But I can't imagine her anything but a -- pardon the pun -- a bullheaded lady who knows what she wants, and does what she wants. And she wants to sing. And she's got the bardic school belt to prove it. ;)

Those choices are especially interesting in that it's established that it's rather difficult for humans to tell the sexes apart for Dragonlance minotaurs. Since that's been done successfully in one iconic D&D world (Krynn), why not have it as an option in the poll?

Thanks for posting, I agree with what you're saying.
When 4E appeared there were similar discussions about Dragonborn females, which I disliked.

I'd like to see more focus on how a community of a race works, it would make interactions with communities more interesting and add more variety.

Personally, I'd like to see more variations on genders, not only "heterosexual male/female" and "no gender".

As usual, you raise some interesting points....THANKS! I love these types of discussions.

So, just spit balling here...

Maybe there is no physical difference between the sexes of minotaurs. Maybe there is no "sexes" in minotaurs (maybe they are asexual). Maybe the sexual differences are nuanced or subtle. Maybe...

As usual, there are a millions options between the usual...these are boy minotaurs and these are girl minotaurs and you can tell by the obvious appendages.

You made the comment about penises on male minotaurs. In Greek sculptures, they did have that appendage. We can't show them in D&D for "obvious reasons". That being said, is it necessary to show any genitalia to stay true to the D&D lore? That's a really good question, and one that I'd like to raise with the R&D folks that create and hold the lore sacred.

Here's my question for you and your readers.
What is you ultimate minotaur race look like. Paint me, visually of course, a picture that I can pitch to R&D. I'm always interested in seeing more opinions.


Joining in with the above, and saying great post, and it's given me some things to think about. I agree that generic art should not use sexual characteristics as a focus point, but when it comes to Minotaur, if it was decided that they did have sexual organs, would there be female Minotaur who would capitalise on that for a mate? In a similar way that males would be bare chested to show their obvious strength?

That makes a fair number of assumptions about minotaurs. Why wouldn't a female minotaur also show off her muscles? :) I've read the Ecology of the Minotaur article from Dragon 116. If having a warrior is a high honor, perhaps having both mother and father be very strong would be a good thing? How do minotaurs select their mates?

Great post, but why can't there be female cult leaders who become minotaurs? I don't think the quote postulates males only in any way.

The quote doesn't, but the poll on Jon's post asks if people would prefer to see male-only minotaurs. If that's what ends up in canon, it sounds like either female cultists couldn't be changed into minotaurs or that they would become male if so changed.

If minotaurs are going to be a player character race, I'd like to see them be much like the Krynn minotaurs. (If they're just monsters, then they can be much more animal-like and no different between male and female, as there's less need to relate to them on a physical empathy level.)
They are tall, humanoid, very muscular (think Olympic body-builder), covered in fur, and have the heads of bulls. They have the obvious capacity for being savage or peaceful, though even then they have an innate potential for sudden violence.
Fur covers their obvious secondary sexual characteristics (much like with very furry dogs or bears in our world), so humans have difficulty telling the difference between male and female minotaurs. Of course, minotaurs could shave, and then it would be a little more obvious, but minotaurs look at their coats with the same pride dwarves have for their beards.
(This offers several benefits, including a ready excuse to cover up things that must be hidden "for obvious reasons" and also avoids unintentionally exploiting the female body.)
Differentiating male and female minotaurs is a matter of color and style. I wouldn't be averse to seeing male minotaurs tend toward darker shades, females toward lighter, or possibly one sex varies more in color than the other (i.e. mottled fur, etc), or the horns might be differently shaped (multiple points on the horns for one gender, like deer and antlers?). The two sexes of minotaurs should not be any different in size or strength.

Thanks Tracy, this is a great article. I love minotaurs, and I hope they don't ruin them with such blatant sexism.

Something that might interest you is the Buddhist tale of the naga girl in the Lotus Sutra. She is told that because she is a woman, she will not be able to attain Buddhahood--she must "overcome" her female-ness in order to be enlightened. The naga girl then, in a single instant, simultaneously transforms herself into a male and attains enlightenment. Some people argue that this supports traditional gender discrimination, because she "has to" become a man; others say that the naga girl was making fun of the men, saying "oh, becoming a man, that's not so hard, especially when I'm more enlightened." I'm not sure where I come down on the interpretations, but even if people decide that minotaurs are all male, there are always ways to subvert the paradigm. (Also, Nagas as PCs, woo.)

Any step we can take away from pasting anthropomorphic boobs on everything would be great. Boobs do not make something female, the ability to bear young (or produce eggs) does, and that isn't generally visible.

I'll second the vote for stepping away from binary gender in player and monster races.

Just to address the very first point really quick...

Why are we talking about whether female minotaurs have breasts or udders? Because we're talking about the physical appearance of the creature, and the question of breasts versus udders is a significant question of how bovine they are versus how human -- the traditional answer is breasts, because the minotaur was just a man with a bull's head; but they have evolved in fiction over tme to be much more bovine, including hooves and tails (and that necessarily leads to udders).

Why are we not talking about male minotaurs penises? Because unlike breasts or udders, there is not a meaningful difference between male bovine and male humans. We aren't asking "how big is a cow-minotaur's breasts," we're asking "do they HAVE breasts?" There's no analog for male minotaurs.

Finally, it's not that we're displaying physical dimorphism to show that females are female, it's simply an inescapable fact when you're discussing appearance. In ordinary clothing, a penis is going to be hidden and breasts and udders are not. Unless you're suggesting that female characters should not have female characteristics, this just feels like raging for the sake of raging.

Yeah, no it's not a sake of raging just for raging. Actually, there's no rage here except perhaps in your comment.

And no, it's not necessarily true that a female minotaur would have breasts or udders or that a male minotaur would have a penis. More importantly, the reason the post was discussing them is not because those are the differences between humans and bovines but because those were the go-to suggestions for differentiating between male and female minotaurs. We could express that difference in a number of different ways. For instance, maybe female minotaurs don't have horns.

And stop looking at so much porn. It's leading you to believe that all women have noticeable breasts which is false. :) Also, penises and testicles aren't necessarily hidden by clothing. I've seen the outlines of them plenty of times in everyday interactions.

Sorry if you read rage into my comment; there wasn't supposed to be any. As for noticable breasts and udders and penises, I was working off the assumption that we were trying to stay true to the myth, ie human with a bull's head. If human and bovine are the only chips in play, breasts or udders are the two options. The question of horns or not is valid, but it's not the go-to question because it's not related to the "more human/more bovine" issue.

Thanks for keeping this civil, it's irritating when disagreements on the internet result in petty sniping at each other.

I'm going to write a new post about this article, but I'll throw it in here as well: http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2012/09/guest-post-the-omniscient-breas...

That you believe breasts are noticeable all the time and penises never are is part of the issue with assuming the male gaze is the default and/or universal.

That you believe breasts are noticeable all the time and penises never

I don't.

In ordinary clothing, a penis is going to be hidden and breasts and udders are not.

You did. I understand why you don't notice that this statement is incorrect but, it's incorrect nonetheless.

I was incautious with the wording of a side comment that was only tangentially related to my main points. I apologize for that.

To clarify, on average breasts are going to be more prominent in general, both because they are larger organs that penises and because they are on the upper part of the torso, where we naturally tend to look when interacting with other people. This is not the same as saying "breasts are always noticeable and penises never are." Any boy who's been through puberty is aware of times when penises are more noticeable than others, and some women have smaller breasts, and some clothes (like sweaters, robes, etc) hide even large breasts better than others. Et cetera and so on. I have a wife, two daughters, and several sisters who I am very close with and I like to believe I'm as aware as a man can be of the sexualization and body issues that women have to deal with in our culture on a daily basis.

I'm not trying to pick a fight with you, but I don't appreciate the way you're treating me and my comments, most notably by addressing only the smallest of my points and by making rather insulting implications about how I view women based on a few words I used.

In the end, my main point stands: if minotaurs are bovine humanoids then their characteristics are either bovine or human; any third option detracts from the assertion that they are bovine humanoids. If this is true, and if it further holds that, like humans and cattle, minotaurs are mammals, then the females are going to have some kind of milk-producing organ; given the choices of human and bovine, the options are breasts or udders -- any third option again detracts from the assertion of bovine humanoids, or that of mammal. Whether cow minotaurs have fur or horns or spots or whatever other secondary (tertiary?) sexual characteristics you want is completely separate from the question of breasts or udders; the question remains unanswered regardless of what we choose. The question of why we aren't discussing minotaur penises is because it is not at issue; humans and bulls both have penises, and it is not a defining characteristic of mammals one way or the other.

If you want to make a point that men notice breasts more than women, or women notice penises more than men, or anything else that seems more in line with where this thread of argument is leading, I won't fight you; you probably have a point, much in the way that your linked article has a point (I've read it previously). But I don't think it really has anything to do with the purpose of my comment, or the matter of why "breasts vs udders" is a meaningful and appropriate question regarding the appearance of cow minotaurs.

Except it's not necessarily true that they are going to produce milk. We don't even know if they are capable of reproduction and, as cited in the original article, it's possible that they are magically transformed. And, even if they do, there's no guarantee that breasts or udders would be the most noticeable gendered trait about female minotaurs.

The fact that we need something to distinguish female minotaurs from the "default" male-minotaur is a huge issue with how D&D books are written. They are written to assume that any character is male unless it is specifically noted that they are not, which is also the point about the article I referenced that you apparently read. In other words, they take the "omniscient heterosexual male narrator" voice.

For the most part, I agree with the rest of what you're saying, I'm just not sure it's the sort of stuff that is or needs to be addressed in the confines of the core rules.

Motivations, contributions, biases, and societal factors are all nice-to-haves, but in a lot of cases I (as a GM) am going to dismiss it and create my own. I'm not necessarily going to use the published setting even if I used published races, and focussing too much on culture means a lot of wasted effort. That sort of stuff should be in a "Minotaurs of Golarion" type of supplement.

Is it important to differentiate the sexes? I'd say yes, almost without exception -- are their any animals where the sexes are indistinguishable? Does this mean penises and breasts for everyone? Certainly not! Does this mean human-normative differences? No. A reptilian- or avian-based race is going to have differences between the sexes, but they shouldn't have breats and they might be subtle from a human perspective. That's OK and (with the exception of Dragonborn draco-breasts) I feel it's been held to in fantasy for the most part. That being said, players are humans and it can sometimes be a lot easier to portray a creature that resembles something you're familiar with; I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with that, either, if done reasonably and respectfully.

The question of non-heterosexual/non-cisgendered viewpoints is, again, something think belongs in a supplement, if anywhere. And I say "if anywhere" because those topics aren't necessarily 'for' everyone. If I'm playing a game with my little brother, I'm not going to want to delve into questions of sexuality and gender identiry -- those themes and issues are the kind of thing I reserve for a particular playgroup, where we can all be comfortable discussing it. Putting it in a supplement, let alone a core book gives it a primacy that is going to limit the book's audience. When it comes down to it, if I'm going to use an RPG to discuss gender identity with my friends, I'm almost certainly not going to take any cues from what a company publishes.

Not sure if this as been mentioned yet, but in 2nd Edition AD&D all minotaurs (and possibly 1e) all minotaurs were males. Cursed IIRC. That element might be going back to the origins of the game, which is likely why it was an option: breasts, udders, or like it was in earlier editions.

Which might make minotaurs the counterpart to the female-only medusa.
Just a nostalgic FYI.

Making minotaurs male-only doesn't overly bother me (although I do love playing a female minotaur druid :) ). The problem there is connecting maleness to power and strength, but we could get around that by ensuring a diversity across monsters.

It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to make Minotaurs a matriarchial society based on physical power. Sort of a counter point to Drow where it is based on magical power. That said, traditionally you're looking at hyenas for that sort of societal structure in which case it might make more sense to be talking Gnolls.

But how close should D&D monsters stick to their real world animal inspirations? That's an answer I don't have.

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