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.
- Uncharted 2: Among Thieves Review - November 4, 2009
- Beyond Gender Choice: Mass Effect’s varied inclusiveness - September 10, 2009
- Is BioShock Feminist? A response in defense of Bridgette Tenenbaum - September 2, 2009
Great food for thought! I really like your post. I love Mass Effect; this really opens my eyes to aspects of the game that I had not noticed.
Hey, I think you’ve made some great points in this post. I discuss some alternative interpretations in my post on mass effect’s sexist tendencies, and I link back to this post. Maybe you’d like to check it out.
Female Krogons are shown in Mass Effect 2, they just don’t look any diffrent other then their choice of clothing. There are also all male races like the Vorcha, and Drell.
I admit I often wondered where all the female Turians and Krogans were hiding whilst playing Mass Effect but I have to say I think this article is reading into things too much. Bioware have included man on man action in the past (Dragon Age) so homophobia isn’t their style. More likely it was left out due to time restriction. Hopefully (for those so inclined) it will be included in Mass Effect 3. I’d say female Turians and Krogans will make an appearance there aswell. As for the female Rachni queen being “quite patriarchal”? Are you kidding me? Maybe Bioware… Read more »
I never did play Mass Effect 1, but having played Mass Effect II, I can say that at least your thoughts on the Krogan are misplaced. From what I remember, women had a VERY active role in society until the Salarians introduced the genophage. The reason all the women are constantly breeding is that without the constant breeding, the dying race would most likely go completely extinct. While I’m sure this will be called “lazy” and “immature” regardless, I feel that it should be pointed out that at LEAST in that case, the feelings are not that of sexism but… Read more »
As a scholar who’s hoping to make video games his general area, it’s nice to see someone taking a serious, analytic approach to what games like Mass Effect imply. (And in case that sounds negative to Mass Effect, I should add it’s own of my favorite games.) I think you’re right about the gender implications of the game, especially the problems the Asari represent. That said, let the nitpicking commence: I think you’re being a little harsh on the game in saying that it’s bad sci-fi; there’s enough ideas being challenged–mostly in the realm of domination and repression of other… Read more »
Just having started visiting gamecritics recently, I just wanted to say that this is probably the most interesting article I’ve read on videogames. I really hope the author writes a similar piece on ME2.
I just want to address some points you made in the article Alex “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.” You are partly right about this since some of the people who do like her is because of her innocence but at other times peole will say she is favorable because she is intelligent, nice person ,… Read more »
Hello everybody! I’m read this article very carefully and I’ve to say, I disagree on a lot of points. I don’t know if the author(Alex Raymond) is a man or not, I would suppose it’s the case, but even if the author is a she, I think we women can stand for ourselves when something offend us. We don’t need someone to speak for us, especially when it’s only a part of the general opinion. I happen to be playing video games since a long time, and yes, it IS mostly a masculine universe, but that doesn’t mean women can’t… Read more »
It occurs to me that complaining that a single-sexed mammalian species that need no penis to reproduce looks female is…a bit odd. I mean, how do they nurse their young? How do they give birth? The Hanar might reproduce through mitosis for all we know, but a humanoid mammal? Actually, they look *less* female than they probably should, they’re fairly waifish in their build, apart from the Matriarch Benezia. I mean, we’re talking upright mammals here, not tree-climbers or four-legged runners or the likes, and humans are the only basis we have for what the childbearing gender of such a… Read more »
To add just a small idea to that, females having children is patriarchal, because one of the defining qualities of being female is birthing children. IE, unless the species is totally asexual, only females can have children. That’s the base assumption, unless I’m missing something?
I think you’re looking a little too deeply. It’s a sci-fi game. Conventions and cliches will always exist. But I do find it interesting that your response to a society being entirely dominated by the females still gathers your ire just because the player never sees them. What if it was the other way around? An alien society dominated entirely by the males and all you ever saw was the females? Would it be an archetype of male control? These are alien species. If the designers do their job right, the species roles of male and female (or lack of)… Read more »
but in a world where millions if not billions of women are denied basic human rights, surely there are more pressing concerns for the feminist movement than Mass Effect.
If not, that may explain why feminism is now largely confined to white middle class college graduates, rather than the people who could really benefit from its message of emancipation
I do believe the Salarian representative to the council is female, and I think it’s clearly identified in the books. Which is sensible seeing as how females occupy most of the Salarian political structures prestigous posts. I think she was voiced by a woman (Which could an implicit indication of the creators choice of Gender for that character), however the Salarians are all run through that “Croaking-nasal” effects process so it’s very difficult to say for certain. In that case you see that the most dominant political organization in the game universe was predominantly female. Arguably the council has been… Read more »
I think you make some good points but your presentation of “patriarchy” and the origin of those gender roles is so outdated it makes me a little sad.
Last time I checked women have greater freedom to choose between gender roles( thanks due to feminism ). This idea that women are victims of patriarchy because patriarchal societies give them the role of victim is very wishy washy thinking. Are women now victims because of feminist indoctrination?
Confusing comment system is confusing. XD
So because few games will actually avoid sexist bullshit, we should just not care? Yeah, doesn’t fly with me. I would think the fact that everyone does it would be more reason to respond. And honestly? Mass Effect did a great job with the humans. They showed it wasn’t too much effort and you can mix in people of color and women into the human end without it being an afterschool special and without making the women sex machines. Why does that suddenly fall apart when it comes to aliens? Are you telling me, after they did it so easily… Read more »
I’m sorry, but the bit about Rachni society being PATRIARCHAL? They are based on ants. So the queen gives birth, the soldiers defend her and the workers help her. All these breeds are female. In an intelligent society, the queen would rule, and has domination unto the rest. Now I come onto the males. Males are called drones, and what is the drones job? Drones grow old enough to have sex with the queen then die. Their sole purpose is to have sex. And yet you have claimed this society is Patriarchal. I’m sorry, but you could not be more… Read more »
Does every new species of intelligent life we meet, real or imaginary, have to be so PC? Yeah, the Asari are hot pieces of ass who use magic and have mind-meld sex. Don’t worry, somewhere out there is a fat ass Asari species just waiting to be discovered by a group of space-faring chubby chasers. My point is that some cultures are *not* going to be politically correct in our eyes. So I’m playing a game and visit an alien homeworld and there aren’t wheelchair ramps everywhere. I’m not going to have a fit. Perhaps one game has a species… Read more »
To respond to one of Alex’s major points: How do you know you have not met Krogan, Salarian, or even Turian female in the game already? You are automatically assuming that female Krogan, Turians,and Salarians would be radically different physically or have different voices from their male counterparts. Many species of animals on Earth are hard to distinguish between male and female at first glance. Just because Bioware didn’t specify this does not make them or the game sexist. Also, you fight many Krogan/Turians/Salarians with full armor and helmets on, so it’s entirely possible that those are females too. Also,… Read more »
“the final product is still sexist in that shows a universe where the only females that exist are ones whose bodies fit our human, arbitrary standard of beauty (ie. thin with curvy hips and breasts). This is sexist.” The developers don’t have the resources to include every single type of person, real of imaginary, that ever existed in the entire universe. This is reality. There are time, budget and creative constraints that dictate this. This is reality. Not every movie, video game or television show producer needs to have a checklist of PC stuff they need to make sure they… Read more »
Thanks so much for the link! Like I’ve said twice already, I understand that there were time/budget/memory constrictions. It’s certainly a valid explanation (and I’m glad it’s that rather than outright sexism), but it doesn’t change the fact that in the final product there is a huge discrepancy between how female aliens and male aliens look WRT beauty standards. Now, Mr. Weekes misunderstood some of what I said. First of all, I don’t think anyone in Mass Effect was hypersexualized (except perhaps Benezia). Secondly, he talks a lot about the humans and how both men and women were designed to… Read more »
One of the writers who is working on ME2 gave a response to your article on the Mass Effect 2 forums. http://meforums.bioware.com/forums/viewtopic.html?topic=694151&forum=144&sp=15 I believe Wrex tells us that Korgan warlords fight over women because breeding has become difficult. It tells us how screwed up the Korgan are and how they treat women as baby-makers. I the problem with ME is that you don’t see many species in other worlds apart from the Citadel. The Developers have said they had memory constraints so at least they made excuses so the universe holds up. The squeal might to a better job. In… Read more »
[quote=Alex R]I have no idea what your point is about the Asari. It makes sense to sexualize them? I don’t care if it makes sense; it is still sexist. As for the Krogans, I addressed that point in the article. After doing research on the game, it becomes obvious that the REAL reason there are no female Krogans/Turians/Salarians/whoever is there was only time/budget enough to have one model for each species. For the Krogans and Salarians they made excuses to explain this. For the Turians they didn’t even bother; Turian females apparently just don’t exist. Of course, they could have… Read more »
I have no idea what your point is about the Asari. It makes sense to sexualize them? I don’t care if it makes sense; it is still sexist. As for the Krogans, I addressed that point in the article. After doing research on the game, it becomes obvious that the REAL reason there are no female Krogans/Turians/Salarians/whoever is there was only time/budget enough to have one model for each species. For the Krogans and Salarians they made excuses to explain this. For the Turians they didn’t even bother; Turian females apparently just don’t exist. Of course, they could have solved… Read more »
[quote=Alex R]To everyone accusing me of making gendered assumptions–try reading the section entitled “A side note on gender presentation” again. Your concerns are addressed there.
If I really wanted to go looking for sexism, I could just walk out my front door and find all the sexism I could ever want; it’s a lot easier and cheaper than buying a $300 console and $60 games.[/quote]
My point about Krogan females and the Asari being sexualized are nothing to do with Bioware’s problems making all the gender models for the aliens?
Yogi–I’m sure I’ll have a chance to talk about this more, but in short, I’ve been a gamer and a feminist all my life (though I only started identifying as a feminist about two years ago), and since they are my two biggest interests, I have a lot of fun combining them. Unfortunately I’ve never taken a gender studies course; all my knowledge has come from ravenously reading feminist blogs like Shakesville for the past 2 years. To everyone accusing me of making gendered assumptions–try reading the section entitled “A side note on gender presentation” again. Your concerns are addressed… Read more »
You played this game with the goal of finding sexism within. You said that it is convenient that all the Krogan females are at their homeplanet, while it is even more convenient that you missed out the part that Krogans are a dying species, with it being very hard for them to have children. You said that the Asari are sexualised, in that matriarch Benezia, Liara and the Consort and dancing NPCs are all sexualised in some way. I don’t see how you can blame the Game for the creepy views on the fans. She is innocent because she has… Read more »
Off topic, but this Yogi character seems smarter than the average bear. I Kant help but think he might be an old friend. Then again, I might just be being Idiotic.
Oops. My apologies Alex – not sure why I called you Richard.
You act as if that is an insult 🙂
[quote=yogi]It’s good to see the site finally take ‘Kant’s’ criticisms to heart, and incorporate cultural criticism into its editorials. Given the amount of response to both of Richard’s posts, such commentary is obviously as welcome as it is overdue. Chi is to be commended for taking the (belated) leap of faith, and for finding a writer clearly up to the task.[/quote] I’d like to clear up some misconceptions that one or two of our long-time readers/pundits seem to believe. In 2000, we published a fairly ground-breaking piece on Nerd Heroes by Matt Weise. Over the next 9 years there have… Read more »
[quote=yogi][quote=yogi]It’s good to see the site finally take ‘Kant’s’ criticisms to heart, and incorporate cultural criticism into its editorials. Given the amount of response to both of Richard’s posts, such commentary is obviously as welcome as it is overdue. Chi is to be commended for taking the (belated) leap of faith, and for finding a writer clearly up to the task. It’s another fine piece by Richard…although two consecutive articles on gender suggests a limited repertoire. I hope not, and encourage him to expand his horizons. [/quote] Oops. My apologies Alex – not sure why I called you Richard.[/quote] Oops… Read more »
[quote=yogi]It’s good to see the site finally take ‘Kant’s’ criticisms to heart, and incorporate cultural criticism into its editorials.
Given the amount of response to both of Richard’s posts, such commentary is obviously as welcome as it is overdue.
Chi is to be commended for taking the (belated) leap of faith, and for finding a writer clearly up to the task.
It’s another fine piece by Richard…although two consecutive articles on gender suggests a limited repertoire. I hope not, and encourage him to expand his horizons. [/quote]
Oops. My apologies Alex – not sure why I called you Richard.
It’s good to see the site finally take ‘Kant’s’ criticisms to heart, and incorporate cultural criticism into its editorials.
Given the amount of response to both of Richard’s posts, such commentary is obviously as welcome as it is overdue.
Chi is to be commended for taking the (belated) leap of faith, and for finding a writer clearly up to the task.
It’s another fine piece by Richard…although two consecutive articles on gender suggests a limited repertoire. I hope not, and encourage him to expand his horizons.
Oh, and I just remembered, the Krogan were a dying species, so it’s natural that the females would be trying to have as many children as possible, if they care about not going extinct that is.
“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!”
How insulting of you to condemn Krogan culture. You should be ashamed of yourself.
Even as far into the future as 2183, I don’t think the world will become your utopia.
First of all, it’s nice to see thoughtful, well written game criticism, and you do make a lot of good points. Though I have to disagree with your analysis of the Asari in general and Liara in particular. Of Liara’s personality you write “The positioning of innocence as an attractive trait in women has its roots in patriarchy”. I’d argue that it has it’s roots in human psychology. Innocence can be refreshing and even charming, particularly when paired with genuine curiosity and affability. There is a quite natural tendency to find innocence cute and endearing, the evolutionary benefit for a… Read more »
“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” How about Samus Aran, Laura Croft, Nariko from Heavenly Sword, Shar-Teel from Baldur’s Gate, Bastila Shan from KOTOR, Sarah Lyons from Fallout 3, and Jill Valentine from the Resident Evil series to name a few. And I’ve seen at least two female marines in… Read more »
Very good article, those are all things that bothered me about the game and it’s great to see someone point them out and explain them so well. I’d add that the human society in Mass Effect seemed about as sexist as the current day one and this wasn’t seen as a serious problem compared to, for example, tensions between humans and alien races (and some of Ashley’s lines especially seemed to express some very backwards ideas, like the part about women having to prove themselves before they were allowed in combat roles, or her bizzare response to the player picking… Read more »
I’ve not played the game, but your commentary on gender issues seems, at best, misguided. Let’s look at the most obvious problem: the assertion that the “mother, maiden, crone” triple aspect represents stereotypical, accepted roles of women in society. Actually, these three roles are an important part of women-positive religion Wicca. This triple aspect is found in various goddesses, and it’s not always modern stereotypically passively feminine as shown by the Irish triple goddess Morrígu. Not recognizing this important and basic aspect casts a pallor over the rest of your analysis. You also seem to not understand that most of… Read more »
“Not only that, but, as an insectoid species, the Rachni Queen’s only purpose is to breed lots of children—quite patriarchal”
That’s not patriarchy, that’s how social insects actually work.
This is probably the best commentary on gender in videogames that I’ve read. Kudos.
I loved Mass Effect and believe for the platforms (especially Xbox 360 but also the PC) it is one of the more mature games to be released in the last few years — certainly for one with the sales it garnered. That said, I really appreciated this article and thought most of its points were dead-on, including the “cop-out” presented by the Asari. I give Bioware a lot of credit for writing more mature and thoughtful games than most of the other developers out there right now, but there is always room for improvement, particularly if developers are trying to… Read more »
As appealing as hot lesbian alien action is…
I have to admit that when I played a female character I started out with this goal in mind, but after talking with Kaidan… That guy just deserves it more. 😉
Nice article! I remember when playing Mass Effect, I thought it was funny how you met all your female party members in big trouble and you had to save their asses from getting fried. But I suppose Bioware knew what they were doing pleasing the hetero male crowd with that, since there was a huge fight on Fallout 3 forums when it was hinted that Fawkes, the strongest companion in the game, and the one that comes to rescue YOU, could’ve been female. Of course the developers stepped in and confirmed that it was only a misunderstanding and Fawkes is… Read more »
@ Alex R: I can’t wait to hear your responses if you do! I read through the linked page. She’s got some points right, but I think she’s mostly off-base. For starters, the men are also quite sexualised — There’s a lot of comments about how handsome your character is if you play a man, with villagers in Two Rivers talking about romantic possibilities in a town gossip kind of way. Sky gets a similar treatment as well. I refute the claim that the men aren’t sexualised in design, either: Look at Furious Ming, in particular — Shirtless and buff.… Read more »
@Sean: Unfortunately, I haven’t played Jade Empire (yet!). A friend of mine did write about the gender issues in it, though: http://forums.theirisnetwork.org/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=124
She noted in the comments on my personal blog that both games seemed to have similar issues with attempting to portray a gender-equal society and failing in some critical and sometimes subtle ways.
I haven’t yet been on the forums, but I will definitely dive in some time soon! As for your question, I’m no biologist, but commenter Filby on the Reappropriate post sums up my opinion rather concisely: http://www.reappropriate.com/?p=497#comment-2951 My only issue with Jenn’s post is that she generalizes that men have XY chromosomes and women have XX; while that is true in general, it is certainly not true in all cases (and intersexed or transgendered people are much more common than you might think). More personally, I know gender essentialism has to be mostly bullcrap because I defy so much of… Read more »
I was highly underwhelmed with Mass Effect, and the gender issues you’ve discussed here were, to my mind, indicative of a wider lack of maturity and intelligence shown throughout the game. (Although you’re right to praise the character of Joker.)
By contrast, I thought Jade Empire’s take of sex and gender issues was fairly impressive — The now famous inclusion of male and female homosexuality, the range of both male and female figures in numerous degrees of activity and power, etc. I’d love to hear your thoughts on a comparison between the two.