Anita Sarkeesian mentioned Mass Effect in her “Tropes vs. Women” series, stating that with ‘male’ as the default, FemShep is more of an add-on rather than a character in her own right. That stuck with me, so I looked at the game far more critically to appraise the gender nuances within the whole series. There was good and bad in what I saw.
Ten years ago this month, my very first anim test for Mass Effect. Yup, Commander Shepard was originally a woman: pic.twitter.com/FhC2E0FSrA
— Jonathan Cooper (@GameAnim) January 9, 2015
Despite what Jonathan Cooper tweeted above, it is clear that a number of actions Shepard takes in-game were designed around the male model, and all they apparently did was swap the male model with the female one with no change in actions. For example, whenever Shepard tries to cheer you up, the action seems to come right out of football where men routinely pat each other on the hips or butt. That is an action that very few women would do, even women in the military. Every time I see it, it makes me twitch.
However, despite this game design that has physical actions that do not fit with a female protagonist, there are a lot of interesting gender issues in the game. You encounter the Asari, a non-gendered race who concede to being referred to with female pronouns. There are the Turian, who you primarily encounter as male characters. As a race, they are rather militaristic and it shows. The Krogan are practically frat boys gone wild with an interesting society and the Salarian have differing genders with apparently different social roles. The Quarian are also a race with interesting gendered divisions. Then there are the Hanar, the big jellyfish who seem to be completely genderless.
These seemingly gendered racial profiles are interesting. I am well aware of how difficult world-building is, having written my fair share of things, so I understand that using these sort of archetypical characteristics can make writing easier. That is a given. However, they did have a tendency to make the females more passive, on the whole, than the men. That could be a factor of the writing or something added in by the animators who included the various body language cues which convey that.
Sure, there are some powerful women in the series. Matriarch Benezia comes to mind quite readily, and the team has several powerful and dynamic women as well. But in terms of the non-team characters, the females tend towards passivity while the males tend towards action. Daniel is the character actively helping Mordin Solus fight the plague, wanting to help save more people. On the other hand, there is the distraught mother in Samara’s loyalty quest who simply sits in her apartment and cries, waiting for someone to avenge her daughter.
Another thing I noticed is that the primary enemies you face in the game are male. In ME1 you have to deal with Saren, the rogue Specter. In ME2 it is Harbinger, the Reaper voiced by a male. Then in ME3 you have to deal with Harbinger and his buddies as well as Cerberus, controlled by The Illusive Man. The villains are males with power over others who use that power indiscriminately. Even some of the lesser enemies are male-gendered, like Councilor Udina and Kai Leng, The Illusive Man’s ninja. Even on the Council there are two males and one female. The primary political and military power held in that Universe is held by males.
Again, there are outliers, such as Aria T’Lok who runs Omega with an iron fist. The Matriarchs of the Asari that you encounter also hold power similarly to the Salarian Dalatrass. When we finally meet a female Krogan, she is as tough as Wrex and shows it. This does not change the overall political or conflict landscape, however, which is filled with males.
Speaking of the Krogan, they have an interesting social set up where the females have their own clans with an interesting amount of political pull. This comes up a few times in ME2 and ME3. The males have to petition to have sex with one of the females, and the women have all the power to decide. The females are apparently much more focused on culture-building and children, which are noble endeavors, but the males complain about the fact that the women want to talk about things. The males are presented as very combative and violent with a current of anger underneath—a fairly fundamental male trope.
As a race, the Asari are a mixed bunch. There are some characters you meet who are very active like the Commandos, but on the whole there is a lot of passivity in the non-team characters. Nassana Dantius, the crime lord, gets other people to do her dirty work in both ME1 and ME3, but her sitting behind the scenes directing operations helps lead to her assassination. The consort Sha’ira stays in the Citadel interacting with many people in power, having them come to her. The way these two characters interact with others are typically feminine, not being out front but handling business from behind. The entire race is crammed full of feminine tropes.
The Quarians are also a mixed bag. You have a few women on the Admiralty Board, but the other women you meet tend to be rather passive. You never spot a female Quarian heading into combat with the Marines, for instance. Tali’Zorah comes along and fights the good fight, but from what you encounter, the other Quarian women use very gendered ways of power brokering and manipulation. Shala’Raan does not tell Tali’Zorah of her father’s death until the trial, where Tali is obviously upset. That is not a very fair act towards Tali, but it does fit in with the presumed ‘feminine’ way of playing people.
And through all of this is your Shepard. If you are playing FemShep, there are no differing actions, no differing dialogue—just a simple swap of models. This occasionally results in FemShep acting and talking in a rather masculine manner, which can be a bit jarring during gameplay. Some of the more male mannerisms that show up during the romance options can really throw you out of the story. That discontinuity breaks the fourth wall like some absurdist play, making you view the romantic cut scenes in a different manner.
However, overall I really did love the game and its writing. While there are several issues I had with these gender essentialist roles that various races play, the illusion that FemShep wasn’t simply swapped out is maintained for the majority of the game. I know that the issue of gender parity is an important one now, especially with GG and its fallout, but I think that on the whole the Mass Effect series offers up a fairly decent gender balance. The cultures of the different races clearly come into play and can affect your decision-making, which I think is for the good. While it could be better, Mass Effect is more than just a female model swap of the primary male hero. It is a nuanced game with differing gendered NPCs that make whatever model you choose, male or female, an equal in the eyes of other alien races.