We all have characters we personally relate to—not necessarily finding them interesting, wish-fulfillment, or someone we’d like to have a drink with (though that can overlap!), but a character that provides a much-needed mirror to our own experiences. Tali’Zorah from Mass Effect is one such character for me, a virtual someone I can identify with both in personality and some of the struggles she faces throughout the course of the games. This isn’t, however, the dominant reaction to her, which is usually to treat her as either an enticing kink or a dainty waifu to be saved. And it’s a damn shame.
If you’re a gamer with a preference for FPS or sci-fi, you’ve likely heard of her. For the sake of those who haven’t, a brief introduction: Tali’Zorah is a character from the Mass Effect trilogy, an intelligent and driven quarian engineer and one of only two(!) squadmates you can recruit throughout all three games.
Quarians are an alien race that were forced to flee their home planet when the robots they created gained sentience and fought for their independence. Due to their unique immune systems, the quarians had no choice but to wear environmental suits and masks to protect from foreign disease. They were all but disowned by the galactic community for creating an intelligent A.I. race and have subsequently spent generations wandering the stars in a ragtag group of ships, as no planet would give them refuge.
Why is it so important to know this history? Well, because it defines Tali’Zorah at her every waking moment—whether she wants it to or not. Because of the losing battle with the geth centuries ago, she lives on a flotilla of rundown ships where she has to spend as much time maintaining them as she does just living her life. As a quarian, she bears the brunt of her ancestors’ losses and the ensuing stereotypes that come with it (she is called everything from a ‘suit rat’ to ‘clanless’). Said suit makes her stand out in a crowd, unable to blend in anywhere but her own fleet. Her immune system affects what she can wear, what she can eat, and how she can be perceived by any given person. She is surrounded by limitations.
Outside of the game, while being a popular character with significant merchandise, multiple top ten list spots, and countless forum threads to her name, she is still swamped with some less than stellar attitudes—being treated as an exotic sex symbol by straight cis male gamers (for example, most of her memes revolve around her appearance) and having her vices, of which she discusses multiple times in the game, looked upon as a fetish on blogs and threads (familiar with the moe cliche of a ‘cute ill girl’?). Tali is even described with a paternalistic fondness by some as shy or a shrinking violet … when she is one of the most blunt and caustic-tongued characters in an already very snarky series.
“Hey now,” you may be thinking. “Those are just harmless fan reactions. She’s a fictional character, she can’t care about things like this.” And you’re right: these are limitations I’m familiar with.
As a woman of color who struggles with her own mental and physical health, there is a lot for me to empathize with here. I’m used to people fetishizing my racial background instead of appreciating who I am as a person or my unique qualities as an individual. My being sick semi-regularly (mainly due to chronic anxiety/stress) isn’t cute or attractive, but cause for a lot of frustration, depression, and missed opportunities. People have and still sometimes interpret me according to their personal biases, regardless of whether or not the qualities they’re ascribing are actually there. Yeah, these parallels run almost uncomfortably deep at times.
And that’s why I love her.
Tali’Zorah is a science-fiction amalgamation of all the socially prescribed ills I’ve been provided, injected with a hefty dose of the admirable qualities I want to see in myself—a sharp tongue, selfless heart, resourceful mind, and an endless drive to continue despite the odds. In the course of three games, she has helped take down a violent extremist and ascended to a seat of influence in her community. She is one of the best engineers in the galaxy and an integral part of a legendary crew. Even in her introductory scene, where she attempts to sell a piece of top secret data to a touchy-feely male mercenary (that no doubt brought back at least one uncomfortable memory for its female players, including myself), she catches wind of a set-up at the last second and reacts with a flash grenade. Not bad.
This is a letter speaking against the typified and shallow male fan reaction and speaking out for other minority women out there pounding their fists against these familiar barriers. Tali’Zorah is more than just your fetish or a sickly damsel—she’s representative of the best we can be when we’re caged by the worst of circumstances and perceptions.