Women and Mass Effect
Mass Effect, released by Bioware in 2007, is a third person shooter and RPG of considerable depth, universally praised for a brilliantly diverse and incredibly unique setting and story. However, in many ways, it struggles with its gender portrayals, even while excelling in its portrayal of the human race and I will use this article to discuss both its merits and its failures and provide an analysis that is not intended to criticize, merely to highlight prevalent issues and offer an alternate view point.
Unfortunately, we run into issues rather quickly when looking at the original box art. The first time I played through, I was completely unaware that there was a female Commander Shepard because the only one I ever saw was the male incarnation. He appears in all the promotional material and also as the main character on the box art. This wouldn’t be a problem if the male version of Shepard was the only one available, but given that there was a female Shepard who is as important within the story as the male Shepard should you choose her, it seemed a bit of a shame that she wasn’t publicized to a greater degree. Furthermore, even if you realised that being a woman was an option, her customization when compared to the man was a little disappointing. Male Shepard has a custom face, specifically texture mapped and meshed from a real and fairly attractive man. (A Dutch male model called Mark Vanderloo) The female Shepard had no such treatment and the difference is quite marked; the texture and appearance of her skin seems false and cartoon-like when compared to Male Shepard and she just does not look as real as the male version. For Bioware to not dedicate as much time to the female Shepard as to the male Shepard feels a little discouraging and seems like a lacklustre approach to the female market. It would be harsh to describe it as an out and out sexist gesture as I very much doubt the developers thought process was directed at purposefully excluding and ignoring women, but it does feel like an oversight that undermines part of the potential market for Role Playing Games.
However, despite this largely graphics related omission, the portrayal of the female Commander Shepard is admirable. The difference between the male and female Commander Shepard is cosmetic and aesthetic only. In terms of personality, there is little difference and both incarnations are treated the same way by the NPCs that they come across. Unlike many games where the women don inappropriate and incongruous clothing, female Shepard is attired as would be expected of someone battling their way through the galaxy and it is refreshing to not have to rigorously employ our suspension of disbelief in order to trust that our character – fighting battles in her ‘chainmail bikini’- is fully protected. Also, there is no difference in responses between each gender to conversations or events; the female Commander Shepard is just as able to vehemently condemn, rage or praise as much as the male Shepard; there’s no notion of gender difference here. The female Shepard is in no way portrayed as more emotional or more compassionate than her male counterpart because of course that would be an outdated and ignorant notion to employ. Female Shepard can be as ruthless as the male Shepard or as kind as the male Shepard. There is no discrepancy and in short, the player can act however they want regardless of sex, which I feel is the way it should be. Having played as a male character on my first play through and a female on my second, I am happy that with one of the most major parts of the game. It leaves anyone playing this game feeling like they had the full and complete experience regardless of gender.
It is a slightly different story within the world of Mass Effect though. It seems that in 2183, while the human race has come on in leaps and bounds in terms of racial stereotyping, the galaxy as a whole has not quite achieved the same feat with gender stereotyping. The humans in the Mass Effect world are of every racial background and thankfully experience no prejudice; there are members of ever race working in every conceivable position within the Citadel, including both men and women. However, our biggest hurdle to equality comes in the form of the other species who also inhabit the galaxy and with whom we spend a lot of our time as players. In our first foray into the Citadel early in the game, we meet many different species; the stout, machine-like Volus , the hulking, monotonous Elcor, the gracious, jelly-like Hanar, the reptilian, intelligent Salarians and the imposing, militant Turians. The races are diverse and incredibly interesting but the problem is that they are all male, or at least all sound like males. Of course, it could be argued that they are a completely separate race and so how they sound has no bearing on their gender, as perhaps they come from a species whose females speak with deep voices or one where there is no sexual dimorphism, however, this game is made for us of the real world and in this world, men have deep voices and we can only assume, unless told otherwise, that any character speaking in a deep voice is a male.
The females of each species go unrepresented and don’t appear with their male counterparts at all. The Salarian race is explicitly stated to be 90% male due to social rules dictating that only a tiny fraction of eggs laid by a Salarian female are ever allowed to be fertilised (male Salarians come from unfertilized eggs and females from fertilized ones) The females that are born are kept on their home planet and serve as the cornerstones of all political machinations but we still never come into contact with them, no matter how important they are purported to be. There is nothing wrong with this; it is an invented culture after all and every culture approaches the issues of parenthood, gender and work in their own way but it would have been nice to be able to diversify our experience of each Mass Effect race by interacting with the females of their race also. The notable exceptions to this seemingly male dominated cross section of the galaxy are the Asari and herein lies the problem. In a world so detached from the real one, there still manages to be a rather odd, innate adherence to gender stereotypes and politics.
Biologically they differ in terms of lifespan, skin colour and reproduction but they are very obviously human-like, or more specifically female-like, with womanly waists, hips and breasts. The Asari also go through three distinct life stages: the Maiden, the Matron and the Matriarch. These quite obviously mirror the stereotypical historical and traditional female roles of virgin, mother and grandmother. It feels a little awkwardly contrived that the one female race we see should also be the one race that goes through such hegemonic female life roles. Although, this very much depends on how you perceive it and I am always loathe to jump straight into accusations of discrimination or sexism. You could say for example, that their portrayal as a strong and integral species within the galaxy could instead be seen to empower women and that the three stages of life are just part of their culture (although I do find myself cringing when the ‘matron’ stage of an Asari’s life is described as being characterized by a ‘desire to settle down and raise children’). This could be taken to be the case early in the game, however, the more you play the more it feels that the Asari are a sexualised species and incidentally happen to be the only female aliens we ever come across. The Asari are said to be mono-gendered with the concept of ‘male’ and ‘female’ meaning nothing to them, however, it is quite hard to deny how feminine in appearance and voice they are, so although sexually they may be both, they are fairly obviously gendered female.
The fact that Liara, an obviously female character and an undoubtedly beautiful one, is a potential romantic interest for female Shepard would be a brilliant sign of the changing attitudes towards homosexuals if it wasn’t for the fact that there is no male romance option for male Shepard. This leads us to the conclusion that the female Shepard and Liara romance option is more of a fan-service offering to men than it is a true representation of the diversity and fluidity of love between two people. In fact, where the female commander Shepard had no facial mapping, Liara was facially mapped from an actress named Jillian Murray. Unfortunately, what we can infer from this was that Bioware did not deem it important for the female Commander Shepard to be fully mapped and beautifully rendered, but for a potential love interest (someone that the men playing the game were meant to find attractive) it was very important.
Mass Effect is not a sexist game, as I feel that in general these days, sexism implies a certain amount of wilful ignorance or insult, which I very much doubt the developers had when they were creating this rich game. However, I do believe that it panders a little to a male audience, with the presence of the attractive female Asari’s and a total absence of any other female aliens. It’s not that the game does anything particularly wrong or overtly sexist, it’s more that the complete lack of other female aliens feels disappointing and detracts from the breadth of knowledge the player can gain of these diverse citadel species. There is nothing wrong with appealing to a certain audience because it makes economic sense but I do believe that we are capable of doing this without employing stereotypes of any kind of any gender. I like the Asaris as a species; they feel very rounded and real and their culture is unique and their biology so different but it feels a little too coincidental that the female aliens we come across in the game are beautiful while the males ones, such as the Turians or the Krogans, are ‘ugly’. I still loved the game and consider it one of my favourites but I suppose, like all well-rounded experiences it isn’t without its flaws. But all the more to learn from and improve upon.