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.