Beyond Gender Choice: Mass Effect's Varied Inclusiveness

For the most part I seriously enjoyed Mass Effect despite the initial problems I wrote about in my last 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.

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18 thoughts on “Beyond Gender Choice: Mass Effect's Varied Inclusiveness

  1. Thanks for this article, Alex. I don’t think it can be denied that the game doesn’t conform to the model of gender inclusiveness you seem to be working with.

    If you’re so inclined, I wonder if you’d elaborate a bit on why you decided to take Mass Effect on this way. Is it because the game or its makers seem to you to make claims that they then “stumble” in supporting? Do you see gamers priding themselves on being inclusive because they’ve played the game? (These questions aren’t rhetorical, by the way–I do get the sense that there’s a certain self-righteousness involved on somebody’s part, but I find it hard to nail down as well as I’d like to.)

    • I’m writing about ME now and in this way because 1. I happened to just finish playing it, and 2. These are the things I noticed with regard to gender and inclusiveness in general. I’ll be writing more about other aspects of the game in the future–there’s a lot to talk about! And just a note, I’m not singling out BioWare as being more sexist than any other given developer–they are certainly more inclusive than many, like Epic, for example–but they are still influenced by the systemic sexism in our society just like the rest of us.

      Actually I don’t think they make any claims or seem self-righteous. Now, I missed a lot of the marketing for the game because I didn’t have a 360 at the time, but the racial diversity in particular was just THERE, no fanfare or anything, which is fantastic. It’s very matter-of-fact, there are all these important characters who just happen to be people of color. They didn’t make a big deal about being able to play as a woman or a man of color either, though in this case I kind of wish they HAD since it wasn’t clear and I think many people may not have realized that it was possible, since all of the marketing starred the same shaved-headed white guy.

      As for gamers, I think the vast majority of them don’t give a crap about inclusiveness. But I’m cynical!

  2. An interesting read. I must admit that the hyper-sexuality of some characters and the lack of a balancing relationship with Kaiden did bother me occassionally (as a bi-male) but on the whole I enjoyed ME on many levels – primarily the companion’s conversations on ship.

    I for one had assumed, maybe to subconciously and personally fix the apparent lack, that some of the Elchor at least were female.

    I am curious as to your opinion on Ashley Williams as a character. To me she was a practical and plausible woman, strong and professional without denying her softer side as a family-concious person and, surprisingly, a person of faith.

    • I loved interacting with the crew, and I wish they had more to say on missions. I also wish they’d had more elevator convos; I never took the rapid transit thing, I always ran everywhere on the Citadel just for a chance for those! They were so good.

      I thought Ashley was an interesting, believable, and well-rounded character. As a feminist I really appreciated how she talked about struggling with sexism in the military and admired the real and demonstrated strength of her and the women in her family. On the other hand, her xenophobia was upsetting, and as an atheist I can’t deal with that “Christians are so persecuted!” crap. So I had very mixed feelings about her, and that’s a good thing! I think she’s a great inclusion in the game and an interesting and well-written character, even though I went from loving her to not liking her so much.

  3. It seems a little dismissive to say that an insect culture whose biology and society revolves around the survival of its queen is “quite patriarchal”. Otherwise, I enjoyed the article, though I thought Part I was spot on and stronger than Part II.

    As for Maiden/Mother/Matriarch, these share names with roles that women were relegated to historically, but the roles themselves are not necessarily the same. The Bene Gesserit from Dune have similar titles, and it’s difficult to argue that their portrayal is uncreative or demeaning.

    • The problem isn’t with the titles themselves, it’s with the titles IN ADDITION to all the other problems with the Asari. Taken all together, the sexism is obvious. EVERYTHING about the Asari is explicitly gendered female, which is idiotic in an alien race that is not bound by humanity’s notions of what femininity is. I’d have to read Dune to see if the Bene Gesserit are problematic.

  4. A note on the first of your footnotes. The idea of the “____blood” concept wa actually a parrallel to the idea of real world interracial babies. Most notably the idea of the Half-Elves in fantasy was to explore the situations of a mulatto individuals in a fatastical setting, while not rising anyones heckles about the subnect matter. Of course that was a long time ago so the concept has lost its way and alot of its bite. Though it has altered to be more about the concept of the other and in Harry Potter’s case a look into classism from a Randian type perspective. Your point still holds.

    • Well, yeah =) I just thought it was interesting that with the Asari it is the “purebloods” that are stigmatized. It’s usually the opposite.

  5. 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.

    This appears to be a common problem with Bioware games; I noticed the same exact problem in Jade Empire. Specifically, I said:

    Honestly, for the most part, I don’t mind that the Jade Empire is a flawed world with sexism in it. It’s flawed in other ways too, which is part of why it’s engaging. But what I do mind is that its exploration of sexism is seriously undermined by the creators trying to force the image of a gender equal utopia on a model that clearly can’t live up to it.

    Thank you to Kateri, Simon Ferrari, and Ryan Gan for their help in the preparation of this post.

    I don’t get any kudos for helping out too? 😛

    • Yup, Mass Effect has pretty much exactly the same issue. Sexism is addressed on occasion (and when it is, it’s pretty good, actually!), but at the same time there is a bit of a vibe of “but sexism is over now yay!” when it actually turns out that sexism is built into THE FABRIC OF THE UNIVERSE, which can only be a result of unrecognized sexism on the developer’s part!

      I don’t get any kudos for helping out too? 😛

      D’oh, sorry ^^; They were my proofreaders! Thanks much to you too =)

      (BTW this is about the third or fourth time your comments have gotten caught in the spam filter. I’m not sure if there’s anything you can do about it, but I thought I’d let you know anyway!)

      • Sexism is addressed on occasion (and when it is, it’s pretty good, actually!), but at the same time there is a bit of a vibe of “but sexism is over now yay!” when it actually turns out that sexism is built into THE FABRIC OF THE UNIVERSE, which can only be a result of unrecognized sexism on the developer’s part!

        Yeah. In some ways it annoys me more than if they were unapologetic about a sexist universe because I feel like the devs at BioWare are patting themselves on the back for being so “enlightened”. It’s like, yeah, I appreciate that they’re trying, but at the same time the self-congratulatory vibe is creepy and I’m pretty sure it is a main contributor to the unrecognized (and unaddressed) sexism that continues to pervade BioWare’s so-called egalitarian universes. Frankly, it reminds me of the “allies” who are up with anti-oppression ideas until they’re asked to confront their own privilege.

        (BTW this is about the third or fourth time your comments have gotten caught in the spam filter. I’m not sure if there’s anything you can do about it, but I thought I’d let you know anyway!)

        Weird! I’ll try to figure out why that is.

  6. Pingback: Gears, Krogan, and Women-as-Incubators | Border House

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