Probe away! Mining for queerness in Mass Effect 1 & 2

By | June 26, 2011

[Note: This is a long, long, long post that delves deeply into gender and sexuality as presented in the Mass Effect video games, derived from the stuff I cut out of my prior post on playing Shepard as a woman of color. I think I can safely say I am pretty much done writing about these games until 2012 at least.]

Lady Shepard and Garrus share a tender moment in her quarters. Subtitle reads: "I want something to go right. Just once. Just..."

I kinda took a bullet for y'all to find this image. Some fan art cannot be unseen.

Whenever I bust out the Big Theory guns and aim them at a video game, there’s always commenters who respond with “blah blah limitations of medium” or “blah blah coding error” or “blah blah unintended mistake”, and so on. While I understand this perspective, it’s irrelevant to my analysis. The criticism I write is not directed at the game’s developers (although I’m happy to see them read it) or the coding of the game itself.

Taking my previous post on race as an example, it’s easy to argue that a game ignores the character’s race not because it’s consciously trying to be radical, but because designing a game that responded differently to every possible combination of appearance choices would be impossible. And that’s probably true. The notion that a game is written to both privilege and assume a “default” white male perspective is hardly outrageous; most of our culture is framed this way.  However, some games — Mass Effect being one example — create room to sidestep this “default” ideology by allowing a player to experience its story from a privileged perspective even when playing with a character whose appearance or identity would lead to their being marginalized in the real world.

The many narrative and gameplay points that make Mass Effect subversive may or may not be intentional from BioWare. Their intention doesn’t matter in the context of my analysis, as I am examining how the game concretely functions in culture — not how it was hypothetically meant to function. Arguing that intention overrules reality is like arguing that I cannot possibly kill you with a kitchen knife because the knife was meant to slice vegetables. Of course I can kill you with it. I just have to subvert the knife’s intended purpose.

Thus, BioWare’s intention is less important than the reality, which is that Mass Effect 1 & 2 can be played in a manner that subverts cultural assumptions and marginalization.

If we waited around for games — or any media, for that matter — to purposely transmit the representation we wanted to see… well, we’d still be waiting. In The Celluloid Closet (an excellent documentary looking at the history of GLBTQ representation in film), Susie Bright talks about looking for “crumbs”, the willingness to sit though a whole movie just for the chance that some character might wear an outfit that might mark them as gay. This is what marginalized people often do as consumers of media — we zero in on little clues, tiny implications, looking for the faintest reflection of ourselves. Media is a powerful cultural influence, ostensibly the most powerful in Western culture at least, and so a lack of visible representation functions to erase the lives and experiences and identities of those who do not fit the mainstream expectations of what is “normal”. In so doing, media actually helps to reinforce these limitations of “normal”, if not create them.

Games, of course, are different creatures than films. Whereas film may begrudgingly lend itself to alternative readings — and heaven knows audiences and academics have seized upon the narrowest slivers of suggestion for as long as film has existed — games require their audiences to take an active role in the trajectory of the experience. We make choices, and we are helping to tell the story. The Mass Effect series is one example of a game that also creates room to shape our own representation, to rewrite the standard idea of what a hero looks like.

Now, a tiny bit of theoretical context. I promise it won’t hurt.

Queer Theory evolved in the early 90s, driven mostly by the work of Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick, two scholars who were bloody masters at breaking down everything you thought you knew about sex and gender (while making you weep at the needless density of their jargon-heavy prose… oh wait, that was just me). Like most post-structuralist theories, it happened as a reaction against another approach. Prior to this point, most conversations about sex and gender identity took place in an essentialist framework. Essentialism assumes that sex and gender are “essential” categories, things that are naturally-occurring and even biological. The Queer Theorists came along and said NAY, these are ideas invented by culture and discourse!

An easy example comes from Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, in which he notes that, in Western culture, the whole idea of having a unique word to specify men who have sex with other men is only a couple centuries old. It’s true! Prior to that point, this was a behavior that some dudes engaged in, and some dudes didn’t, but which was no more in need of a special name than any other non-universal behavior. Some people install the toilet paper roll with the loose end facing out, some in. We don’t have a name for that, because we’ve decided it’s not important. Similarly, men having sex with other men was considered largely unimportant for a lengthy portion of human history. However, when we apply a name to something, we give it power to become an identity, which then shapes how we interact with the world, and how the world interacts with us. Naming something gives it power to define us, or marginalize us.

So Queer Theory comes along and says, hey you guys, all these categories are bullshit! Binaries are bullshit! What if we looked at sexuality as being about more than what kind of genitalia a person prefers? What if we looked at gender as being more than two options? This is the part that loses a lot of people, and understandably so — it’s so easy to be repelled by the idea that gender and sexuality are fluid concepts that defy simple names, and this speaks to the power that these names hold over us. How do we even think about these things, if not with ideas like male and female and masculine and feminine and gay and straight? What if “queer” is not exclusively a behavior, or even an identity, but an action — something we are, but also something we do?

The answers to these questions are evolving even now. And the Mass Effect universe provides one arena in which that evolution can be… pondered. Debated? Spectated!

Working with aliens opens up worlds of possibilities for reexamining sexuality. When we break with standard ideas of what people look like, we gain room to interrogate the conventional wisdom about gender and sexuality, without losing our audience. We assume less about an alien than we do about a relatable human. We are still likely to assign gender, based even on the thinnest of markers, because gender is such a huge influence in how we relate to people, be they aliens or humans.

(As an aside: I spent the first ten episodes of Farscape, which at the time I was only half-watching because my husband dug it, thinking Pilot was female. For whatever reason, I just labeled him “female” in my head from the first encounter. When I finally noticed the crew using masculine pronouns for him, I was astonished. To this day — several seasons later and years after the show was cancelled — I am still inclined to think of him as feminine and I am as likely to refer to him with “she” or “her” as I am “he” or “his”. Given that Pilot has no sex drive and no human gender markers — no mammaries, no hips, no hair — plus a voice that I STILL think sounds vaguely womany, it’s not terribly surprising that his gender could seem fluid to me.)

Of Mass Effect’s many queering agents, the asari are most frequently discussed. The asari are “monogendered”, which is to say they are all ladies. This would be more interesting from a queering perspective if they weren’t also explicitly “hot” according to popular beauty standards, at least from the neck down. Though the asari have normal faces and slender sexy lady-bodies, instead of hair, they have tentacles. Oh, and they’re blue. In the first game of the series, Lady Shepard can romance an asari squadmate, Liara, in a pairing often read as “lesbian”. I think this reading is incredibly simplistic. Calling Liara feminine or ladyesque is entirely understandable, but calling her female is inaccurate. “Female” as a concept relates to biological sex, sometimes to chromosomal makeup (though not always, as chromosomes are actually tricksier than your high school Bio teacher ever told you), but mostly to reproductive capacity. The female is the sex responsible for supplying eggs, and/or for bearing young. The asari can do this, and much is made of the asari’s non-traditional means of reproduction, but important bit here is that the asari can also father offspring. Which would also make them male.

Yes, the asari are a bunch of hot chicks with a galaxy-spanning reputation for promiscuity. But they are also hermaphroditic*, having the reproductive capabilities of male and female biological sexes. (EDIT: I have since learned that “monoecious” is a less problematic term here. The more you know!) Even with their sexy lady-bodies, the asari queer our assumptions about biological sex as it connects (or rather, doesn’t connect) to gender identity. The asari present as female and are explicitly coded as feminine, and yet…. there’s more going on under the hood than we might expect.

It is only in Mass Effect 2 that we see the first hint of human-lady-plus-human-lady lesbianism, by allowing Lady Shepard to romance her personal assistant Kelly, a pert redhead who is pretty straightforward about being attracted to all sorts of people, gender identity and alien-ness notwithstanding. Curiously, the romance with Kelly does not unlock the “Paramour” achievement** gained by a romance with a male-coded squadmate.

The romance with Kelly goes formally unconsummated, unlike those with the male-identifying options (consummation is not explicit but implied by a short cutscene prior to the final mission of the game), and arguably this is why the Paramour achievement is not applied. However, this raises as many questions as it does answers. Why isn’t there a consummation cutscene for Kelly? Why have it as an option at all if the game won’t recognize the romance with an achievement in the same way? Kelly is unique in that she is the only romantic character whom Shepard (male or female) can later invite up to the captain’s cabin to dance for her, with Kelly wearing the same skimpy outfit worn by the asari strippers at Afterlife on Omega.***

No matter the reason for the lack of achievement and the missing cutscene, the effect is that Female Shepard’s relationship with Kelly reads as less “real” than a pairing coded as male/female. This is problematic given that sexual relationships between women are often culturally understood as acceptable and “hot” insofar as they appeal to hetero men, or are dismissed as less legitimate “experimentation” a woman might try out before settling down with a nice proper penis. The idea that two women cannot possibly get everything they require in a relationship without the involvement of a dude is a common one, and so even if this lack of acknowledgement is simply an error or oversight, the effect is the same: the absence of the same legitimacy afforded the other relationships reflects these unfortunate cultural attitudes about female-female relationships.

Of course, even without the achievement, romancing Kelly as a Lady Shepard manages to inject some queeritude under the radar, like a big gay Easter Egg. The intent ultimately matters less than the result, which is the implication that Lady Shepard can fuck her secretary. Damn, that Lady Shepard is a bad, bad man.

Though there is a lot of emphasis placed on the opportunity to hook up the ladies, the male romantic options are also subversive in their own ways. The sole human male romance option is Jacob, a Black dude. As easy as it is to get distracted by the alien opportunities, the fact that the only possible human male romance option is a Black guy sets a pretty excellent example in terms of promoting characters of color as more than mere cannon fodder. In science fiction in particular, it’s rare to find men of color in primary roles, much less as romantic leads, so Jacob’s positioning here is tremendously refreshing. (Do you remember the complaints that the female romance options in another BioWare game, Dragon Age 2, were too “exotic”, i.e. non-white? Do you remember lead writer David Gaider’s epic response, also at that link? Did you know that this shit actually happens, in which players mod non-white characters to Aryan them up and make them more “attractive”? Did you know that anytime someone says to me that I’m “overthinking” things like race and gender in video games, my first inclination is to pistol-whip them with my Xbox controller?)

There are two other male-coded romance options in Mass Effect 2 besides Jacob. One is Thane, who is shaped like a human male — aside from being green and vaguely reptilian — and therefore evocative of a “normal” sexual partner for a(n ostensibly straight) female Shepard. If you lean back and squint, Thane is essentially a regular — if super tragic — guy in a weird outfit. Like much of Mass Effect, Thane’s difference can be read as an allegory for race, so while he isn’t particularly encoded for queerness, his presence does underscore the lack of a standard white male role.

Finally, I have saved my favorite for last.**** Garrus is a turian, and a character and squad member in both Mass Effect games. Physically, Garrus is a birdlike metallic-plated wasp-waisted alien who is about as non-human in appearance as a bipedal creature can get, and who is coded male only by his voice and the pronouns everyone applies to him. His basic body shape evokes both human genders, with the v-shaped chest considered ideal for human men, paired with a narrow waist and broad hips, as one might expect to see on a human woman.

I discovered the possibility of romancing Garrus on my first collaborative playthrough with my husband (we often play narrative-heavy games like Mass Effect “together”, which usually means my husband handles the combat while I shout instructions). There was a moment, after Garrus tells a story of hooking up with a former crewmate, where one of the resulting dialogue options was suggestive. We were both astonished, looking at one another open-mouthed, unsure of how to proceed. Why was this shocking? Because there is nothing overtly sexual about Garrus, physically-speaking. Whatever interest exists for Garrus comes as a result of his personality, his history, or his wit — or all of the above.

Maybe a minute passed before I burst out, with no reservations at all: “Oh, we are so going with this.”

The romance with Garrus is arguably the queerest pairing I’ve ever seen in a video game — even moreso than Lady Shepard grinding with a hot asari — because unlike the asari, who are coded feminine in every conceivable way, the imposition of a gender assignation to Garrus feels purely superficial to me. It isn’t simply that the relationship can be read as gay; it is that the relationship can be drawn in a manner untouched by any traditional human concepts of gender, which is ultimately what queering does — it deconstructs gender and sexuality as we currently understand it. This reading is helped by the fact there are no female turians in either Mass Effect game, a product of limited time to create new character models and animations. Until I found this out, literal years after playing the games, I had just assumed that some of those turians walking around were female, but that the race just didn’t have physically-obvious sexual markers.

Regardless of the reason behind it, the effect of the lack of distinctly female turians is to make Garrus’ gender even more transient, as we have nothing to compare him to. It queers him: the result is that turians seem not to be bound by human ideas of gender and sexuality, and in fairness, why should they be? Arguably the masculine identifiers placed on Garrus, and the feminine ones on Liara and the asari, are not inherent to those races but rather something humans with limited imaginations impose upon them to make their motivations and relationships somewhat clear. Are we so arrogant as to assume that even fictionalized life throughout the galaxy would naturally mirror our own conventions, which seems unlikely given the diversity even of life on earth, or that they would do so simply for our convenience and comfort? Why would we assume that an alien race would even understand the concept of binary gender in the first place?

This is one possible critical reading of the Mass Effect games; it is by no means definitive. “Queer”, after all, is necessarily a subjective concept. I know lots of folks will have trouble thinking of the Shepard/Garrus relationship as queer, just like they will balk at the notion of Liara as anything other than a straight-up lady. I understand. It’s not an easy perspective to take. I also get that many people will have difficulty thinking of the world of Mass Effect in general as an intrinsically queer environment. The purpose of these analyses is not to argue about whether a certain character is a certain gender, or not. Nor is it to convince anyone that any of the above was intentional or consciously wrought by the game’s creators. Can you play it and ignore these big questions? Absolutely. But for me, it’s a hell of a lot more interesting with them. Mass Effect offers an opportunity — and an uncommon one — to break up our deeply held beliefs about gender, and what is “normal” or “natural”, and what is not. For now, it’s easier to deconstruct these ideas with aliens than it is with us, even though they are just as negligible among humans as any made-up tentacle-headed race.

* For my more advanced readers: I am unwilling to identify the asari as intersex, although this term is far preferable to “hermaphrodite” in human terms, because they have no sexes to be “inter”. There is one asari sex, or arguably, if we wanted to get philosophical about it, we could say there is no asari sex. Either way, “inter” is inadequate, and “hermaphroditic” is appropriate when trying to understand asari sex in human contexts, because all asari have those characteristics necessary to reproduce in a manner human science would label as “male” or “female”. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

** Achievements are these little awards one gets on Xbox Live for completing certain in-game tasks, like finishing a mission, or shooting people in the head X number of times. They serve no real purpose and gain the player nothing save the satisfaction of having a little digital award associated with their gamertag, but lots of folks are REALLY INTO achievements and so they seem to matter.

*** You can call up other romantic partners, but they’ll just sit on the couch or lie on the bed with Shepard — Kelly is the only one who dances.

**** TEAM DEXTRO 4EVER. Okay I got that out. Whew.


45 Comments

Awlbiste on June 26, 2011 at 5:50 pm.

With each new ME/2 post of yours I am sadder and sadder that I just can’t jive with first-person perspective games.

I just wanted to say that I linked “Aryan Nation Isabela” to my boyfriend and he kind of just sighed, like he didn’t get why people felt the need to do that. Also then I realized every single romanceable character in Dragon Age 2 was an option no matter which gender Hawke you decided to play. Except the one highly religious male. Arguments have been made that it’s just laziness on Bioware’s part but I’m glad they did it that way. And I am STILL mad they made Morrigan a male-only romance option.

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Susan on June 26, 2011 at 6:11 pm.

Mass Effect is a third person perspective- first person games make me super motion sick, but that’s never been an issue with ME. Except for some of the vehicle sections in ME1, but that’s totally worth it.

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Lesley on June 26, 2011 at 6:14 pm.

Yes, this! I am prone to EXTREME motion sickness and I can’t play FPS games like Left 4 Dead 2 for longer than ten minutes because of the perspective, but I can play the ME games for hours (ahem) with no problem.

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Awlbiste on June 26, 2011 at 7:45 pm.

I own it… I suppose I need to give it a try, huh? I could have sworn it was first-person and that’s why I didn’t like it.

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Lesley on June 26, 2011 at 6:17 pm.

I hate the whole “BioWare just did that because X” argument, seriously. It’s like, why take this away from people, or dismiss it? Let the queers have their good queer times, FFS.

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YellowValkyrie on June 26, 2011 at 6:10 pm.

An alternative to the baggage-laden term “hermaphroditic” would be the term most frequently used in biology: monoecious. You might also say they’re parthenogenetic, though they do incorporate other individuals’ physical and cultural makeup into their offspring.

I’ve really enjoyed your Mass Effect posts – I’m on my 4th playthrough of ME1, trying to get all the achievements, and I’ll probably start ME2 pretty soon.

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Lesley on June 26, 2011 at 6:13 pm.

Ooooh, new terminology! I know hermaphroditic is super-problematic in most circumstances but wasn’t sure what would be better to use. Thank you.

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Piper on June 26, 2011 at 6:49 pm.

This is much too long! If you are trying to recruit people for “fat acceptance” you might want to try writing articles that don’t take an entire day to read!

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Lesley on June 26, 2011 at 7:01 pm.

Um, this has nothing to do with fat. So, I guess it’s cool then?

O_o

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Frances on June 26, 2011 at 8:54 pm.

In the words of my favourite teacher, when someone complained that the readings were too long: “Oh, BOOOOO HOOOOOOOOOOO”

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Lesley on June 27, 2011 at 9:13 am.

Haaahahaha. At least nobody gets graded on reading my blog!

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Jesscw on June 26, 2011 at 6:53 pm.

That was fascinating, i found myself nodding and smiling as you dug deeper into the theory behind this and the concept of gender in our (rather limited) human views. Ive never played this game but im really tempted now- wish i had the right platform.

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Awlbiste on June 26, 2011 at 11:24 pm.

It’s available for PC also!

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Panko on June 27, 2011 at 2:45 pm.

And PS3.. you have no excuse.

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Frances on June 26, 2011 at 8:50 pm.

Judith Bulter and Eve Sedgwick, two scholars who were bloody masters at breaking down everything you thought you knew about sex and gender (while making you weep at the needless density of their jargon-heavy prose… oh wait, that was just me).

NO, it was definitely not just you. Butler is amazing but I’m pretty sure her writing made me brain bleed when I was at uni. So impenetrable.

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Frances on June 26, 2011 at 8:52 pm.

Good formatting, Frances. (Only your quote was meant to be italicised.)

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Erika on June 26, 2011 at 10:22 pm.

I think I’m very attached to gender assignment. I saw Garrus as male (the voice/stance did it for me), I saw Pilot as male. I saw the Asari as definate females just by the traits they displayed (kind of thought of them like the lizards who can switch gender to make babies, though). Dragon Age was neat in the romance aspect, though it was lacking all the stuff that made ME great for me. Fascinating breakdown.

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Panko on June 27, 2011 at 2:50 pm.

See, I too was thinking that both Asari and Turians had no defined gender, but (conveniently) had physical markers humans could identify (breasts, voices). Likewise with Krogan, Elcor, those floating jellies, etc. I figured some of those we saw were female, some were male, but we just can’t immediately tell.

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Molly on June 27, 2011 at 6:50 am.

Lesley, I’m so sorry. This is a wonderful post. Thoughtful, witty, insightful, all the things I’ve come to expect from you. Obviously I’m no Doctor of English, but don’t the typos drive you nuts?

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Lesley on June 27, 2011 at 7:11 am.

Hello, and thanks! They really don’t, as they’re invisible to me, heh — if I noticed them, I’d fix them, but blog posts don’t get meticulously proofread around these parts. The perils of blogging without an editor!

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Lesley on June 27, 2011 at 9:11 am.

I re-read and found two! Go me!

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TeleriB on June 27, 2011 at 7:33 am.

I really, really do hope you get around to playing Dragon Age: Origins, because I would love to read your analysis of that.

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Susan on June 29, 2011 at 2:45 am.

Second this.

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Ebony on June 27, 2011 at 12:05 pm.

Hi Lesley. I love your blog!

FYI the link you posted about David Gaider was actually his response to a homophobic “straight male gamer” complaint about the same sex romance options in DA2 (and how he resents the fact that Bioware has decided to acknowledge more than just heterosexual male gamers). I’m only pointing it out because I thought that Gaider had shut down another gamer complaining about romantic companions not being white enough, which I would have loved to see!

On another note I don’t know how I feel about the fact that we even get achievements on XBLive for getting laid (don’t stop me from doing it, but I digress). That being said I second TeleriB’s prompt about you trying out Dragon Age: Origins. I would love to hear your take on the “easy lover” achievement for bedding one of two bisexual characters…

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Lesley on June 27, 2011 at 12:08 pm.

Hi Ebony! And thank you!

Yeah, Gaider’s response zeroed in on the homophobia, but the dude’s original complaint included his disappointment that the fuckable ladies were all too ‘exotic’ for his epicurian tastes. I think Gaider’s reference to straight male privilege kinda extended to the exoticism comments, but you’re right in that he wasn’t explicit. I wish he was.

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Ebony on June 27, 2011 at 2:41 pm.

Ah. Thanks for pointing that out. I must have stopped reading and missed that bit when I realized there was no hope of him making any sense whatsoever lol.

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Dancing Geek on June 27, 2011 at 3:33 pm.

I always understood Asari reproduction as being all done by the Asari wishing to become pregnant. That any partner would do, from any species. In that way they don’t require any special male attributes to father the children, the act of fathering (at the point of conception) is entirely passive. Another reason I don’t see any Asari fathers is the notion that when paired with another species I don’t believe the other species partner would ever be able to get pregnant.

I don’t think this affects your points at all, but I’m a geek and these things matter to me! :)

What do you think?

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Lesley on June 27, 2011 at 3:45 pm.

I would agree EXCEPT the asari bartender on Illium specifically mentions a prior relationship with another asari in which they had a child, and “I was the father. It didn’t work out.” Which makes me think there must be more to it. The use of that language at any rate is pretty damn queer by my reckoning. :)

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Linear on June 30, 2011 at 6:19 am.

That any partner would do, from any species. In that way they don’t require any special male attributes to father the children, the act of fathering (at the point of conception) is entirely passive. Another reason I don’t see any Asari fathers is the notion that when paired with another species I don’t believe the other species partner would ever be able to get pregnant

Except for some reason, the ardat-yakshi are more likely to result from an asari-asari mating than asari-other mating, asari children from asari-other matings do show some traits of their father species, so the father cannot be completely passive. Yet another poorly thing in the ME universe, unfortunately.

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Max Battcher on June 27, 2011 at 6:30 pm.

Tangent: I thought Pilot was female for a while, but mostly because I started mid-season somewhere and kept confusing Pilot and Moya. Blew my mind learning that pilot was voiced by Lani Tupu who also played Crais.

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Lesley on June 29, 2011 at 9:34 am.

YES. Learning it was Lani Tupu also blew my mind — the bad thing about finding that out is that I now spend a lot of energy trying to hear Crais in Pilot’s voice.

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Peter Tupper on June 27, 2011 at 8:25 pm.

Re Farscape: Moya is clearly gendered female by her crew/inhabitants. Maybe Pilot is gendered male as a way of emphasizing that he is a separate being from Moya, though physically attached to her. Otherwise his identity might subsume into Moya, for whom he interprets.

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Fluffycat on June 28, 2011 at 5:59 pm.

I never thought about Pilot’s gender until they had some visit to a ship with a different Pilot who was obviously female. She had a higher pitched voice, and looked different. I don’t remember if she was like Ms Pac Man, wearing lipstick and a bow, but just that she looked more female to me somehow.

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Lesley on June 29, 2011 at 9:33 am.

The visual of a Pilot with lipstick and a bow just made me laugh and laugh.

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Nathan on June 29, 2011 at 4:01 am.

Hullo-
I had some high geekery points that might be food for thought:
The business with the bartender where asari can also be ‘fathers’ is interesting in that pure asari pairings are relatively uncommon and sort of a cultural taboo. Being a ‘pureblood’ is a stigma and pejorative (Liara is one, for example), and seemingly shameful to the parents.
While the fake biology explanation for this sort of makes sense (it’s like incest: you sometimes get weird/scary mutations) the way asari treat purebloods and their parents is probably the closest thing in the Mass Effect fiction to the social antagonism those of queer sexuality experience today. Also weirdly subverted in that pairings with aliens is considered not only okay, but preferred overall.

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Lesley on June 29, 2011 at 9:32 am.

Oh wow, well put. I need to think about this more!

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gadsy on June 29, 2011 at 1:59 pm.

all of this is just making me wish that the writers cared enough to build more lore into the story. mostly, that they wouldn’t be content on just calling the asari non-birthing parent “the father”. i mean, they spent enough time making words up like “azure” and “ardot yakshi” but they couldn’t have made one up for “the father”? i just think that that would have given the players a deeper idea of just how different the asari gender roles/construction truly are when compared to the other races. instead, they just fall into very clear heteronormative/essentialist traps that can get very, very aggravating.

anyway, great read as always.

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Beck on June 29, 2011 at 4:32 pm.

Thanks for acknowledging the problematic nature of the word hermaphrodite but in the future it would be better to go with intersex even if it doesn’t make much sense in this context (monoecious does seem to be the best fitting term). The word hermaphrodite is not only problematic but inspires feelings in many intersex people that is similar to the feelings inspired by “faggot.” (I imagine you expected to get at least one comment about it)

Otherwise, I really enjoyed this post. I think we need more feminist scholarship on game media.

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firefey on August 11, 2011 at 5:32 pm.

i get (and agree with) not using hermaphrodite, because it is problematic, but intersexed is not the right word at all here. so i have to object to using it in this context. i also thing hermaphrodite is the wrong word too, for the same reason. the asari function as both mother and father, but we have no idea what their actual genital make-up is. though i’m inclined to think they don’t actually have any because their mating is a melding of minds, and not of bodies.
i understand how hard it is when we don’t have the right words to actually talk about gender and gender identity, but i think if the right words are available, we should use them.

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thirtiesgirl on June 29, 2011 at 5:47 pm.

I’ve never been a gamer, and never will, but I’ve been reading your gamer posts regarding gender and sexuality with interest. This particular paragraph resonated with me:

“If we waited around for games — or any media, for that matter — to purposely transmit the representation we wanted to see… well, we’d still be waiting. In The Celluloid Closet (an excellent documentary looking at the history of GLBTQ representation in film), Susie Bright talks about looking for “crumbs”, the willingness to sit though a whole movie just for the chance that some character might wear an outfit that might mark them as gay. This is what marginalized people often do as consumers of media — we zero in on little clues, tiny implications, looking for the faintest reflection of ourselves. Media is a powerful cultural influence, ostensibly the most powerful in Western culture at least, and so a lack of visible representation functions to erase the lives and experiences and identities of those who do not fit the mainstream expectations of what is “normal”. In so doing, media actually helps to reinforce these limitations of “normal”, if not create them.”

I used to be a big fan of Sex & the City, the tv show. I still am, for the most part. The movies, especially the second one, have ruined my enjoyment of the tv show, but I still watch it now and again and am usually reminded of what I love about the show: that, at it’s heart, the show is about friendships between women and how the choices these women make have affected their lives, their friendships and their relationships. I could care less about the haute couture, the NY landmarks, and the supposedly ‘glamorous’ lifestyle the women lead. What draws me in are their relationships, their choices and how these things affect them.

A lot of my women friends used to have the same reaction when I told them I was a fan of Sex & the City: “those women are so plastic on that show,” “they’re all so skinny, I don’t identify with any of them,” “I’d look that good, too, if I had a personal trainer,” etc. And I’d patiently explain to them that while I certainly don’t see myself represented *physically* in the characters of Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte, I see myself represented emotionally, psychologically (aside from the interest in haute couture, expensive shoes, and NY night clubs and restaurants). I even said to a friend once that “Carrie is a fat girl in disguise.”

But the thing is… no, she’s not. The character of Carrie is not played by a fat woman, as much as I might like to see under the facade and assume she’s a “fat girl in disguise.” Carrie doesn’t look like me; nor does Miranda, Charlotte, or Samantha. I can’t keep “looking for crumbs,” so to speak. My friends were right, to an extent. How much more powerful would Sex & the City have been if it had not only been a show about women’s relationships and choices, but featured women with a variety of body shapes and sizes, not to mention different racial backgrounds and ethnicities?

I still value the show for what I got from it, but I have to acknowledge the fact that the characters don’t look like me, which, in a sense, negates and erases my own experience as a woman who has made similar choices, had similar relationships and made similar mistakes in her own life. Now when I periodically catch a re-run of the show on cable, my experience of identifying with the characters is lessened because, as much as I might try, it’s getting harder and harder to see myself in them. I don’t just need the emotional and psychological connection any more. Now I want to see an actual reflection. I want to see characters who look like me.

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Medea on June 29, 2011 at 9:50 pm.

After reading this post I caught an apposite NYT headline: Male or Female? Good Question!. It’s a post in the “Scientist at Work” blog about field zoologists trying to identify the sex of the spotted hyenas they’re observing in the wild. The hyenas do not display easily identifiable male or female characteristics, be they behavioral or physical. Commenter #5 calls out the problems with the term “pseudopenis” as applied to the genitalia of the female spotted hyena:

Actually, that word gives me pause… How odd to project human assumptions about sexual organs onto the hyena. How can the female hyena’s external genital shaft, which evolved through (one assumes mainly, if not completely) functional reasons, be called a “pseudo” anything, as though it’s an envious imitation of the “real” thing?

I don’t mean to imply that field ID of a wild animal’s sex is on par with anything that goes on with human sexuality in our society, but it was an interesting little microcosm of our attitudes toward “male” and “female”.

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Linear on June 30, 2011 at 6:49 am.

Gosh, why haven’t I subscribed to your blog’s RSS feed yet? Must rectify this. >_<; I am going to try to use "monoecious" at least once today, thanks to this.

Garrus in ME2 to me comes off as coded to be very masculine, the ultimate bro to the player’s dude, an answer to both his very vocal male (he’s our BFF!) and female (omg why can’t we romance him?!) fans. (Tali in ME2 felt the same way, though there was more of a disconnect between the romance!Tali personality and the friend!Tali personality.) And it’s not just his voice: His personality is also very masculine in that idealist-soldier archetype meets bff-boy-next-door archetype sort of way. Or perhaps a younger brother/protege archetype, which is why I couldn’t fathom my headcanon femShep feeling anything romantic for Garrus — he was like the little brother she’d always wanted, except he’d totally pwn her if she tried to give him a noogie.

but that aside,

It always bugged me that all the alien LIs were not options for both male and female Shepard for the exact reason you state here:

It isn’t simply that the relationship can be read as gay; it is that the relationship can be drawn in a manner untouched by any traditional human concepts of gender, which is ultimately what queering does — it deconstructs gender and sexuality as we currently understand it.

There’s no reason to believe that any of the alien races would have the same gender concepts as humans, nor that the alien LIs themselves would be physically attracted to Shepard. (isn’t there a somewhat uncomfortable joke from Garrus about his not having a human fetish? oh, Garrus <3 and IIRC Thane says something about never having affection for someone of another species.) It seemed more when playing that they fall for Shepard the person for who she is, and why that wouldn't also be the case with male Shepard is beyond me. (I know that someone higher than the ME devs nixed same-sex romances in ME1 and I'm assuming ME2 as well, but it appears that they're rectifying that in ME2. Hurrah.)

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A'Llyn on July 1, 2011 at 9:18 pm.

Ooh, interesting topic!

There was definitely a comment from Garrus about not having a human fetish, but being willing to give it a try with Shepard, as well as a remark from Thane. I myself spent a perhaps unwholesome amount of time wondering what the heck Garrus looks like under that armor, if sex between a Turian and a human is complicated enough that he has to “do some research” and figure out how it would work.

If spotted hyenas here on earth can puzzle us with their genitalia, who knows what a species evolved on another planet has going on?

I wondered if there are religious spokespeople who passionately denounce interspecies sex in the ME-verse because it’s unnatural and utterly non-procreative (and if they still also hate gay sex, or if they decided that’s cool because at least it’s your own species?).

As you said, once you’re looking at aliens, does the gender of the other person really matter, even if that species has gender? If ‘queer’ is framed as “not textbook ‘this is how humans mate’ sex,” then once you cross the species line, is there anything you can do that’s NOT queer?

On the other hand, you could totally have xenophobic gay humans saying “hey, that’s gross, keep it with your species” or non-xenophobic but queer-identity-focused humans saying “hey, whatever you xenophiles do is cool but call it something else, you don’t know our experience.”

So much room for speculation!

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BumbleBeePixie on July 27, 2011 at 9:05 am.

A very interesting read. Somebody posted this on Tumblr and I gave it a go. The ideas you expressed are also something that I can bring up next time in A-level English Language when we discuss gender again.

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Weetzie on March 12, 2012 at 1:29 pm.

This post is ancient, but I had to comment because it’s wonderfully written and, I think, likely to give me that final nudge towards finally playing Mass Effect.

I love BioWare for their attempts to include different players, and for their focus on story as much or even more than actual gameplay. I think my one disappointment with Dragon Age 2 (which I found myself much preferring over Origins) was that you couldn’t romance Varric. Because Varric was fucking awesome.

I was wondering, on the off-chance that you ever saw this, what your thoughts were on BioWare’s decision to simply take away gender-bias when it came to romance in the base game, thus technically making all available characters bisexual?

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