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.


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