"You Saved the Galaxy Pretty Well… for a Girl"

I’m a regular reader of feminist political blog Shakesville. Its founder and main contributor, Melissa McEwan, is such a powerful writer that even short, seemingly frivolous posts are usually thought-provoking and meaningful; like this one. In it, she talks about how a particular song, originally written and performed by a man and somewhat sexist, becomes subversive and powerful when sung by a woman (in this case, James Brown’s “A Man’s World” sung by Christina Aguilera). A simple gender swap can change the entire meaning of a song. And since video games are always on my mind, this interesting observation got me thinking about Mass Effect.

In Mass Effect, the player has the option to play as either a female or a male version of the protagonist, Commander Shepard. Since the plot is exactly the same for both versions, most of the dialogue is exactly the same. And yet playing Mass Effect as a woman is so much more powerful, in certain ways.

In our world, particularly in the USA, we treat female leaders and other women in power with particular nastiness borne of systemic sexism. Shakesville’s series “Hillary Clinton Sexism Watch” has over 100 entries. Its sister series, the “Sarah Palin Sexism Watch”, has at least 26 entries, and she has only been in national politics for about a year. Former President Bush had so much respect for our European allies, he sexually harassed Chancellor Merkel of Germany. Women of color have it particularly hard, having to deal with sexism and racism and how they intersect, becoming an entirely new creature; the blog Michelle Obama Watch chronicles, among other things, racism and sexism against our First Lady. Sonia Sotomayor had to endure all kinds of ridiculously racist and sexist bullshit at her Supreme Court hearings. There is an extra burden on female leaders and women in power that simply does not exist for most men.

For this reason, seeing female Shepard being treated the same way a man would by her superiors, her peers, and her crew is so powerful. There is never a doubt in Captain Anderson’s mind about her abilities. Her crew is always respectful, never questioning whether she is fit to lead or disobeying her orders, even the men who were older and more experienced.

Shepard struggling with getting the Council to believe her struck a chord with me in a way it might not for a male player. Institutionalized sexism causes women to not be taken as seriously as their male peers. Women’s contributions are often downplayed or outright ignored. Many women have stories about having their statements or ideas dismissed only to see men praised for saying the exact same thing. Arguing with the Council, Shepard was put in a similar place because she is in a disadvantageous position, as a human and as a woman.

And that ending. How amazing is it to see a woman praised, without qualifiers, as a real hero? For being a great leader, period, not “for a girl”?

Granted, the situation with Mass Effect is quite different than that of subverting a sexist song; the plot of ME isn’t sexist, and playing as female Shepard doesn’t subvert much. But it does give us a glimpse of a universe where it’s possible to have a leader and a hero who is defined by her actions first, rather than her gender; and it came about just by treating the two characters equally. This glimpse affected me emotionally in a way that caught me completely off-guard. It was a pleasant surprise.

Advertisements

21 thoughts on “"You Saved the Galaxy Pretty Well… for a Girl"

  1. Since you hastily de-followed me I’ll leave my answer to you here. I never called your ideas or beliefs insignificant, I was simply commenting on the fact that simple Sackboys are causing such an uproar. I never considered the fact that the Comedian is a rapist, though I am sure you know that many other video game protagonists and antagonists (including those in games you have expressed interest in) have done even more shameful things. Your tiny fits of rage are not very becoming, IMHO. If I weren’t interested in what you have to say I wouldn’t have bothered following you, but now I am not so sure you are even mature enough to accept dissenting comments from those who think differently than you do. You needn’t act as if everything people say is a personal attack on you. It will get you nowhere.

    • The only reason I am letting this comment through is because it is such a superb example of derailment. Let’s take it line-by-line!

      I never called your ideas or beliefs insignificant, I was simply commenting on the fact that simple Sackboys are causing such an uproar.

      All right, first, let’s get the facts straight. This was my exact tweet: “Thank fucking goodness they didn’t make a Comedian sackboy. They shouldn’t have made Watchmen sackboys AT ALL, but…” I expressed relief that someone at MM had the brains to not make a Sackboy rapist! This is hardly an uproar! And you replied to this tweet saying that I was, and these are the actual words used, “crying” over something “insignificant.” To which I understandably got rather angry, due to the statement being incredibly insulting and dismissive. I even explained the rapist angle! To which you replied that I was “so silly.” More dismissiveness! At which point I unfollowed you, because I don’t need to deal with people being dismissive assholes at me on Twitter.

      Now that we are on the same page, let’s move on:

      I never considered the fact that the Comedian is a rapist,

      So you’ll apologize for being dismissive of my concern about potential rapist characters in a game that is supposed to be lighthearted and whimsical?

      though I am sure you know that many other video game protagonists and antagonists (including those in games you have expressed interest in) have done even more shameful things.

      DOH! And this, readers, is what we call the Don’t You Have More Important Things to Think About derail! Because if someone, somewhere, has dome something worse than what you’re talking about (and because the world is pretty shitty, it is certain they have), you have no reason to complain about this minor thing! So never complain about a bad meal because there are starving kids in China.

      Your tiny fits of rage are not very becoming, IMHO.

      This, class, is the You’re Being Hostile derail, or possibly the You’re Being Overemotional derail. This one is particularly hilarious because it suggests that I care about being “becoming!” How amusing! Next you will suggest that expressing my opinions without hiding behind a mask of apathy is not “ladylike!”

      If I weren’t interested in what you have to say I wouldn’t have bothered following you, but now I am not so sure you are even mature enough to accept dissenting comments from those who think differently than you do.

      The hits keep coming. This one is the You’ve Lost Your Temper So I Don’t Have to Listen To You Anymore derail. Which is related to the You Are Damaging Your Cause By Being Angry derail. This sentence is also hilarious because your response wasn’t a civil disagreement with my thoughts, it was a rude dismissal! Calling someone “silly” isn’t a disagreement, it’s a dick move! If you had simply disagreed I would not have gotten angry in the first place.

      And finally:

      You needn’t act as if everything people say is a personal attack on you. It will get you nowhere.

      Ah, the good old You’re Taking Things Too Personally derail. Because being told one’s offhand, relieved comment is “crying over something insignificant” is totally a neutral disagreement and not at all an exaggerated personal attack!

      What’s the tally? A total of 4-6 derail tactics in one tiny little paragraph! Wow, well done! Thanks for playing!

      • Very good take down of an incredibly ridiculous comment. Nice work, Alex.

        On topic: Mass Effect sounds like an awesome game. I understand your point about it being a more powerful experience if you choose to play as a woman. I am not sure whether dudes would be able to see the difference, nor do I think the difference would have as great an impact if a dude played as a woman, as most of them are very much engrossed in their dudely privilege. I don’t think they would appreciate the experience you wrote about on the same level as a woman because of their privilege.

      • Speaking as a male, I DID find playing the game as a woman a moving experience. I played twice, once male, and once female. When I played the second time, I deviated from my earlier path. Specifically, I allowed my character to get pissed off a bit more often (During my first play-through, I was unfailingly polite).

        I found the angrier, more self assured female Sheppard to have a stronger voice and characterization. She’s the Sheppard I remember, and I think it’s in no small part because she needed to endure in a largely male-dominated galaxy. (What’s with always advertising Sheppard as male anyways? That got on my nerves, a lot.) Playing the game as a not-renegade-but-still-badass woman made the game resonate with me in a way that playing as my own personified avatar didn’t.

        Doubtless people who deal with sexism in the real world would get a stronger reaction. I’m just saying that some of us Y chromosome folk noticed it too.

  2. The funny thing is that if Bungie developed Mass Effect, when you play as a female you’d have to deal with constant backtalk from your crew and would end up as just window-dressing by the end of the game.

    (referring to this article: http://www.lesbiangamers.com/halo-odst-one-discourse-into-sexism-and-tolerance-veronica-dare-halo-character.html )

    Careful if you read the comments, apparently the Bungie forums found out about the article and decided to shitpost like crazy.

      • Yeah it’s pretty amazing how stupid those Bungie fanboys are. It’s pretty obvious that the makers of the game just didn’t give a care about making the scenario believable or accurate. They could have at least watched an episode of Battlestar Gallactica to learn how to be inclusive to women in military science fiction but didn’t even bother to do that.

  3. I think an important thing to note here is that this dualistic dynamic is a perception that exists only because it has been ingrained in us. I think we need to do whatever we can to avoid perpetuating it to future generations. A woman SHOULD be able to earn and be treated with the same level of respect as a man for the same level of effort. I have a daughter who will be 6 soon, and during last year’s election season, while my wife and I were confident in our choice for President, we did what we could to allow her to see the process and develop her own thoughts. When the subject of equal wages came up in some of the campaign ads and debates, my daughter was so aghast that anyone would think it fair to pay someone less based on gender that her choice became immediately clear in her mind. It was a proud moment as far as I’m concerned.

  4. Pingback: Finally, an RPG with actual female characters | Melinda Bardon

  5. I have no idea why–I am not female, not especially a gamer, not sure even of what circuitous path of link clicking brought me to this website on a rainy Saturday evening–but reading this brief comment nearly caused me to cry. I applaud you for sharing this moment with the internet. Beautiful.

  6. Though male, I played through Mass Effect with a female Shepard, and was impressed with the voice acting. I ended up playing as really supportive towards my crew, but flinty and harsh when dealing with ‘outsiders.’ Jennifer Hale’s voice work allowed me to strike that balance perfectly.

    I also noticed the importance of everyone accepting Shepard’s competence without question, regardless of gender. It’s refreshing, especially in light of the recent metroid game.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s