Analysis, Feminism

What’s Up With Alien Gender Roles? 5 Alternatives to the Token Sexy Species

Mass Effect

I recently completed my playthrough of Mass Effect 2. I really loved it, but I was a bit put off by the strip clubs. It really highlights that even in this universe, lady aliens are sexy. Apparently, there cannot possibly be a universe in which aliens will not be objectified by their gender. All the women aliens have breasts, which doesn’t make any sense considering the improbability of aliens following a similar evolutionary path as humans. No one is even sure why humans have evolved breasts!

I see similar trends in just about every kind of media that includes aliens. I can excuse it when it happens in old Star Trek or other sci-fi media when special effects and CGI were still so new and there were limits on how much a human actor’s appearance could be changed. Otherwise, it’s clearly just a transparent attempt at appealing to the supposedly most valuable demographic of cis heterosexual men. Not only is this alienating to many who do not fall into that demographic, it’s also cliché and boring. I think it would seem more realistic and interesting to draw inspiration not from what humans find appealing, but instead from other species.

1. Insects

Very often with aliens, there is noticeable sexual dimorphism. There’s nothing inherently wrong with giving aliens sexual dimorphism, and it is very common on our planet. However, I notice that even aliens tend to have similar sexual dimorphism as humans do in that the males are bigger. If we look away from humans and towards other forms of  life on our planet, very often the females are bigger. I’d love to see an alien race where that is the case. There is no reason to stick to the same patterns we see in humans.

2. Hyenas

In case insects are a little too unrelated to humans, we can look at hyenas as an example. In hyena packs, females are dominant and larger than the males. Why not have an alien race where the females are more dominant over the males?

3. Anglerfish

Anglerfish already look alien enough, so they would be a great inspiration for an alien race. Female anglerfish are what everyone pictures when asked to think of anglerfish. This is because the males are reduced to little more than sacks of sperm that the females can then use to fertilize her eggs. How about a race of aliens where the females are the ones seen, and the males are little more than gamete producers?

4. Peacocks

Part of the issue I had with the strip clubs in Mass Effect and ME2 was the fact that only aliens who are women were ever performing. With so many animals like peacocks and songbirds on our planet, we can take inspiration from them and have aliens who are men dancing, singing, or using other ways of performing to attract other aliens.

Mass Effect

5. Who needs a gender binary at all?

There could be a race of aliens who have no concept of gender. They could come in two or more forms, except they do not categorize themselves by those forms, but instead something else which may not even be noticeable to humans. This could help players learn not to assume, and to ask for and respect whatever pronouns an individual alien requested.

So far, we have only discussed aliens who fall into a binary, but there is no reason to limit them to having two genders (besides the unfortunate fact that this is what most people are comfortable with). I say we should push the boundaries and come up with aliens who only have one gender or more than two.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. There are so many options for how gender can be addressed in alien species. We have barely broached the complex topics of biology, sex, and gender. In addition, we have no reason to limit ourselves to how humans view and treat gender. I thought it would be interesting to draw inspiration from other species that are already on our planet as a bridge between our limited human ideas and unlimited imaginative ideas. I would just love to see any ideas besides bigger aliens who are men and smaller aliens with breasts who are women, or leaving out lady aliens entirely and having the player character only ever interact with the men of the species. We need to stop keeping ourselves so limited in our ideas about gender and reach out for new ideas.

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6 thoughts on “What’s Up With Alien Gender Roles? 5 Alternatives to the Token Sexy Species”

  1. YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW MANY TIMES MY FRIEND AND I HAVE HAD THIS EXACT CONVERSATION. Seriously, I’m forwarding this to her.

    We both love Mass Effect and are chomping at the bit to play Andromeda, but we’ve never liked the very obvious Straight Guy Boner Designs of the aliens. It was only later in the series that they started to branch out a little and even then the female aliens outside of asari and quarians were heavily tokenized and usually indistinguishable from the males, with the obvious exception of Nyreen (who has her own trope problems later in the DLC, but no spoilers from me).

    Straight cis men will brag all day long about their creative prowess, but seem suspiciously unable to envision futuristic and dystopian realities where women are in power, bigger in size or even narratively and artistically distanced from a mainstream sexual appetite! We’ll pretend it’s because women and girls are scientifically defined by lipstick and tits and not because men are collectively threatened by…well, everything, really. It’s science!

    Don’t argue!

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  2. Point is, BioWare tried to do something with Asari but failed misearably. Liara, in ME1, states that Asari are “mono-gendered” and that “male and female have no real menaning” for them. But it doesn’t make sense: if there’s no concept of male and female, then there’s no mono-gender, there’s just the lack of it. In the end, Asari are agendered and that was a beautiful thing to put in a game. That obviously makes no sense when in game they are referred as she, or dressed with long dresses (except when they’re in armor) or the extreme sexualization (that Liara also mention in the game and that probably has connection to the way asari experience sexuality, more loose and free than other species apparently).
    It’s ironical that the game developers did to Asari exactly what ME universe does to them in game. I still don’t know why they went for the agendered thing if they wanted them to be an all-women race or if they didn’t want to develop alien species that much. In any case, the idea of free sexuality can come without objectification on a galaxy-scale.

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  3. I think the example of the asari (‘token sexy species’ is spot on) really cuts to the core of the problem in ME’s imagination of the major alien species. They’re boringly human, each and every one of them, and not because their differences are intended to provide a comfortable distance from which to explore the more fraught or tender parts of our own existence (as is typical of science fiction in general), nor even because the dev team wasn’t especially imaginative (though that may be part of the problem), but because they have to be accessible to the player and their human character – they are there solely for the player’s consumption. Specifically, nearly all organic team members need to be sexually available to the player character, making assembling the crew in each game something akin to intergalactic sex tourism. They all have to exhibit distinctly human sex characteristics (and presumably share very similar sex organs) because the player character has to be able to fuck them, and more importantly the player has to be able to imagine/desire it.

    The romance subplots have become a core part of BioWare’s games, and though they’re often the site of a few cursory nods towards more progressive sexual politics, I think the representation of gender and sexuality in the ME series very effectively exposes what lies at the heart of these sequences. The different alien species are, in this capacity, little more than an assortment of flavors for the player to choose from.

    All of that said, I’m super interested in imagining more alien aliens, and I really enjoyed your article! Though I think the notion of drawing on the many, many species on Earth whose females are the dominant sex has a lot of political utility, I agree with your final point that we can go so much farther in imagining other universes.

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    1. Your statement suddenly made me think of Mordin! And how you can’t romance him at all. But he’s also one of the most beloved characters of the series. But alas I am exhausted right now and can’t articulate my point well, but I feel like there’s something there.

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