For the most part I seriously enjoyed Mass Effect despite the initial problems I wrote about in my previous post. After the first couple of missions I had a handle on the gameplay and was at a point where I had the freedom to shoot things up or have deep conversations with my crew at my own whim. I completed most of the side quests and finished the game wanting more; I immediately began a renegade playthrough, though I did not have time to get very far.
Overall, Mass Effect took huge steps forward for inclusiveness in games. Its racial diversity is unlike any I have seen in a game: nearly all of the major and minor human NPCs are people of color, and none of them are stereotypes. In another impressive step, not only is there an important character—the Normandy's pilot, Joker—who happens to be disabled, but a conversation with him reveals the many different layers of ableism he has experienced throughout his life. Unfortunately, the game stumbles when it comes to gender inclusiveness. While the game seems quite egalitarian on the surface, notably in the ability to choose whether to play as a male or female character, I have noticed some deep sexism in the world-building (galaxy-building?), some subtle and some not. I will be writing about how the game explicitly addresses sexism, racism, and other social issues in a future post; for now I want to examine how the fiction of the game has been influenced by sexism on the part of the developers.
I. The Alien Race of Women—I Mean, Asari
The Asari are the all-female race of blue aliens that are iconic to the game. The Asari member of Shepard's crew is Dr. Liara T'Soni, a (relatively) young scientist and possible romantic interest for both male and female Shepard. Liara is a frustrating character because she is likable, but she was clearly designed to be as likable as possible—to a certain type of male gamer. Go on any gaming forum discussing her and there will be multiple posts talking about how hot she is because she is so “innocent." This perception of her seems to stem from her nervousness when talking to Shepard and her implied virginity.
The positioning of innocence as an attractive trait in women has its roots in patriarchy, related to how patriarchy encourages the infantilization of women: women are portrayed as childlike and unable to make decisions for themselves, necessitating a male protector and provider who knows what's good for her (thus maintaining patriarchy, despite how insulting and inaccurate this characterization is). The infantilization of women is seen in many aspects of our culture, and a quick Google search turns up examples in law, religion, advertising, and fashion. For this reason, I find the obsession with Liara's innocence to be creepy, not to mention in contradiction with other aspects of her personality, namely her actual age—over 100—and her extensive experience as a scientist. (For the record, I also think rompers are awful.)
In addition, while some have praised BioWare for including the option of a lesbian relationship in the game, Liara is, frankly, a cop-out, a way to have hot girl-on-girl action for straight men without actually having any gays: both Liara and the codex explain at length how the Asari don't really have a gender (by which I assume they mean "sex", since sex and gender are two different things and the Asari are clearly gendered female) and they mate through psychic mind connections. While I don't think the actual development of the relationship or even the sex scene is outrageously exploitative (though I would note that the sex scene with Liara is slightly longer, with more nudity than the others), when contrasting the romance options for male and female Shepard, I found the lack of a romance option between two men to be conspicuous. The absence of a gay male romance, which is due at least in part to the gaming community's reputation as a notoriously homophobic space, implies that the female Shepard/Liara romance is mostly for straight male titillation rather than a concern for the inclusion of LGBTQI folks.
Obviously, my problems with how one Asari character is written shouldn't condemn an entire species, but the Asari as a race are also problematic. In short, they are every female stereotype or cliche rolled up into one new species. According to the codex, the Asari have three stages of life: the Maiden, the Mother, and the Matriarch (otherwise known on Earth as the "crone"). These stages just so happen to correspond with what were, until fairly recently though arguably still today, the three acceptable roles for women in society. Making these archetypes an explicit aspect of an alien race that just happens to be all-female is at worst sexist and at best lazy and uncreative.
In addition, the Asari are sexualized to a much farther extent than any other species (partially as a result of point two, below). The first Asari the player meets in the game is called the "Consort," and yes, she runs what amounts to a brothel: clients meet her for her "services," which may or may not be sex. Walking through the Consort's chambers, the player overhears nervous aliens telling the Consort's aides that this is their "first time." While the consort is not explicitly a prostitute, the situation is clearly meant to humorously resemble a brothel. The player can also watch Asari strippers dance at the club called Chora's Den. Thirdly, Liara and the codex both describe how Asari can mate with any intelligent being through a sort of psychic mind-meld. Now, I am all for science fiction experimenting with different kinds of sexuality and sexual practices, but this is another case of pandering to straight men. It's no coincidence that the all-female race is the one that can mate with anybody.*
Even Matriarch Benezia, one of the most powerful and wise beings in the galaxy, is sexualized. She had to have huge breasts and a revealing outfit because even though she is old and powerful, she still needs to be sexy, as the primary purpose of the Asari (just like women here on Earth) is to be attractive to straight men. Their second purpose is to serve men: as Liara drops her research to serve Shepard, as the Consort serves her clients, as the dancers serve the bar's patrons, Benezia serves Saren and Sovereign. This turns her into a villain, but not even a willing one—she loses all agency because of Sovereign's mind control, breaking it just enough to tell her daughter that she is not worth saving.
In another frustrating move, the Asari are known for their skills with Biotics, Mass Effect's science fiction version of magic. This isn't a problem in and of itself, but in the context of video games as a medium and RPGs in particular, there is a sexist trend of always putting women in the role of magic user, with few exceptions, ever since White Mage was the only female character in the original Final Fantasy. The codex also pays lip service to Asari Commandos, who are described as extremely deadly; the player encounters them in one battle in the entire game, during which they didn't nearly live up to the hype.
As another detail that serves to emphasize how stereotypically feminine the Asari are supposed to be, the Asari member of the Council is representative of compassion and diplomacy. Where the Turian member represents military action and strength, and the Salarian represents intelligence and strategy, both men, the Asari member of the Council is the only woman and occupies the traditional role of women: peacemaker. Because she's so good at understanding peoples' feelings. Again, this isn't bad in and of itself, but combined with all the other ways in which the Asari are stereotypically feminine, it belies the sexist assumptions about women in the mind of the people who created them, namely that the creators buy into gender essentialist arguments about how women are. (That article even cites the sexist and simply wrong idea behind the arrangement of the Council [emphasis original]: "A common corollary belief is that while men are physically and rationally superior, women are morally superior.")
The Asari are the only alien species in the game with visible females, so they were made to be "hyper-female", encompassing the stereotypical roles for human women. This is not only sexist and gender essentialist but a failure of imagination: why would an alien race conform to our (incorrect, arbitrary) human assumptions about what women are or should be? Good science fiction challenges our deepest-held assumptions, including those about gender, femininity and masculinity. With the Asari, Mass Effect only reinforces the idea that all women are a certain way, and that way should be as pleasing to straight men as possible.
II. Why Are There No Ugly Female Aliens?
In general, the portrayal of women in Mass Effect is better than many games. It meets the required minimum of having female characters that aren't hypersexualized: they have relatively realistic proportions and their clothing is appropriately similar to the male characters', for the most part. There remains, however, a notable discrepancy between men and women in the galaxy of the game: all the women are hot, but not all of the men are.
Look at the varied body types we see among male aliens in the game. In addition to the humans (most of whom, I will grant, are meant to be attractive—Kaiden certainly is), we see the lizard-like Turians, the hulking and reptilian Krogan, the large and cattle-like Elcor, the amphibian Salarians, the squat Volus, and the jellyfish-like Hanar.
All the female aliens present in the game, aside from a single female Quarian (who I will get to in a moment), are Asari**. The Asari, a species with all the issues I outlined above, that seem to be a space representation of femininity. This is Othering via world-building: male is the default for most races, but the ones that have females at all are so female they encompass female archetypes, run brothels, strip in bars, and have sex with anyone and anything.
Go ahead and do a word search for "female" on those Wikia articles linked above. It isn't even mentioned on the Elcor or Volus pages; the only mention on the Hanar page is to say that there is "no discernible difference" between male and female Hanar, which is only problematic because of human sexism—see the side note about gender presentation below.
The only mention of "female" on the Krogan page is how all the Krogan females are on the Krogan homeworld trying to have as many babies as possible. Convenient! The only mention of "female" on the Salarian page is to note that the species is 90% male, and the females also all stay on the Salarian kitchen—I mean, home word, but it's okay because they are all powerful politicians. Of course, this means they needn't appear in the game. How convenient!
The only mention of "female" on the page about the Turians is in the "trivia" section, and it says: "No female turians are seen in the game. This is because there was insufficient development time and memory budget to support two different versions of the same species."
This explains everything. The reason the stuff about Krogan and Salarian females seems like convenient excuses is because they are: when time and budget were tight, the non-hot females were the first to go. Other than humans, there was only room for one model for each species, and for the most part, the females were disposed of—except for Tali, the only Quarian in the entire game. Having only males did not stop the developers from having many Turian and Krogan NPCs, so why does the player never encounter even one other female Quarian? I mean, other than the convenient excuse that all the Quarians never venture outside of their own fleet (except when they do). Tali is saved from the chopping block because, unlike Turian or Krogan females, she is acceptably attractive: she has an hourglass figure, a sexy accent, and her mask allows fans to imagine that she has a face like their favorite actress.
The absence of something as insignificant as females may be explained, but that doesn't mean it is excused. And it certainly doesn't mean that Mass Effect's depiction of a galactic society where every single woman, both alien and human, just so happens to have a humanoid body a supermodel would be jealous of isn't sexist, messed up, and wrong.
A side note on gender presentation
The thing that kills me about the "we didn't have time to make any females!" excuse is that there is no real reason male and female Turians, for example, couldn't look just alike above their clothes. Not all animals on Earth have sexual dimorphism; why should all aliens?
Technically some of those Turian or Krogan or Hanar NPCs in the game could be female, despite having deep voices and no breasts. There is no reason an alien society should have the same ideas about femininity or masculinity as we do (or have such ideas at all!). The catch is, only humans are playing Mass Effect; therefore, any creature lacking sufficient feminine markers are going to be assumed (in this unfortunate case, correctly) to be male. The developers could, however, have easily challenged players' ideas about femininity by casually referring to the ugly, deep-voiced Elcor ambassador as "she".
As I said above, good science fiction challenges our most basic assumptions. Unfortunately, Mass Effect is not good science fiction. In fact, it seems to embrace our own societal "common wisdom" about women and femininity all too wholeheartedly. I can only hope someone on the development team has read Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness or some Octavia Butler before writing Mass Effect 2.
* One thing I do find interesting about the Asari is the idea that "purebloods"—Asari who mate with other Asari—are lesser, as they don't bring anything new to the species. It's an interesting inversion of the "Mudblood" idea; the term is from Harry Potter, but it's a common trope in fantasy: see the vast number of stories about half-elves angsting that they don't belong to either the elf or human cultures.
** Some may object that the Rachni Queen is a female "ugly" alien; while this is true, they aren't part of Citadel culture in any way; they aren't meant to be seen as equal to humans or the other intelligent species. Not only that, but, as an insectoid species, the Rachni Queen's only purpose is to breed lots of children—quite patriarchal. Also, one exception does not outweigh the six other species that are "ugly" and all male.
Thank you to Kateri, Simon Ferrari, and Ryan Gan for their help in the preparation of this post.
Read more on the While !Finished blog.