Shepard ain’t white: Playing with race and gender in Mass Effect

By | June 21, 2011

A screencap from the video game Mass Effect, showing a brown-skinned woman with short dark hair, my version of Commander Shepard.

I'm Commander Shepard, and this is my favorite blog on the internets.

Back when I used to play the MMOs, the game characters I created always tended to look the same — pale-skinned, vibrant-haired, brightly-hued eyes. I am not sure why; I assume it was aspirational. However, when EverQuest 2 rolled around, I went a different way and impulsively created a heavy-set female-identifying character who was also dark-skinned with a gleaming mane of silver hair. She stood out in a crowd like a brightly-spangled circus pony in a sea of cattle. It occurred to me then that although my ability to change games culture as a monolithic juggernaut was limited, I could at least help reshape the visual landscape to be less uniformly white and conventionally “pretty”.

Some games even outside the MMO sphere have since taken the extreme character customization route. The Mass Effect series is one such example. Players can specify their own Commander Shepard’s gender and physical appearance with some precision, and even, to a degree, her politics and identity. My Commander Shepard is impatient, impulsive, committed to social justice, a survivor, and a queer woman of color. The character I impose on the game avatar is multiracial, which is likely to be the norm by the year 2183 when Mass Effect takes place, although that’s not why I did it. I did it because I don’t see queer women of color as protagonists very often, not in video games, but not anywhere else in media either.

Fans of Lady Shepard often talk about how jarring it is to see Mass Effect promotional materials showing the default male character instead. And it is! The lady version of the character is so memorable and feels such a natural part of the story (thanks in no small part to Jennifer Hale’s fantastic voice acting) that watching a trailer only to see some dudeish lunkhead come barrelling onscreen is bewildering. Who is that guy? Where’s Shepard? Shepard’s not male! Some 80% of players choose the male version of the character, so of course he’s going to get the marketing spotlight (although this will be changing soon).

On the other hand, how many big-budget games depict a woman of color as the protagonist? I tried to research this and beyond the obvious (Mirror’s Edge, the Portals) the results were too depressingly slim even to report. No matter Shepard’s skin tone, the Mass Effect series does a lot with race and racism/xenophobia within its narrative, some of it under the radar, some of it overt. The first game features a team member named Ashley, a human who is at best suspicious of aliens and at worst openly bigoted. I know lots of folks have love for Ashley, and to be fair, she represents a more realistic human response to a galaxy in which we are forced to work with often-condescending aliens for the good of all. But I don’t play games for realism. I could not get rid of Ashley and her offensive comments quickly enough. (I am so juvenile, in fact, that I refer to her as “Ass-ley”. If I’d kept her alive, I imagine her character would have eventually arced in favor of alien acceptance, but I was not down with listening to her alien-bash that long.)

There are also lots of other examples in Mass Effect of human-alien tension and prejudice, interactions that criticize racism and human nature with a thin veneer of sci-fi narrative over top. These examples are vivid and apt in light of current discourse around immigration policies and the offensive laws being debated and passed in the American Southwest; as much as Mass Effect is about civilization-destroying monsters of unimaginable power, it is also about us, as humans, and how our inclinations toward distrust and bias affect our ability to make sound decisions, and to see circumstances as clearly as we might. Though the Mass Effect series features an individual savior — Commander Shepard — it is also about serving a greater purpose, and about sacrificing the individual for the good of the many. It is complex on all these points, and that is a whole other post of analysis.

This post, however, is about my Shepard.

I have spent the past several weeks replaying the first two games of the Mass Effect series with a new character, the version described in the opening paragraphs above, and the experience has been far more educational than I expected, leading me to do a lot of personal analysis of my expectations of characters and my own internalized prejudices and privileges. These games were not written specifically with a woman, much less a woman of color, as the protagonist. At best they were written to be gender- and race-neutral, or at minimum they were written as the cultural default (i.e., white and male). Either way, the story lacks the encoded racism directed at characters of color in even the best of media representations.

When Brown Lady Shepard is rude, or curt, or dismissive, the reactions she receives from others are not to her gender or her race, but to her words. Why? Because the character was written with the expectation that most people will play it as a white dude, a character for whom reactions based on gender or race are inconceivable. He’s “normal”, y’see. In real life, and in most media representation, we are culturally conditioned to respond differently to a big ol’ white dude with no manners than we do a woman of color doing the exact same thing. The white dude is just a jerk, but there’s often a built-in extra rage factor against the woman of color, for daring to be “uppity”, for failing to know her place. This distinction is often unconscious and unrecognized, but it’s there. In Mass Effect, no matter what my Shepard says or does, not only is the dialogue the same as it would be for the cultural “default”, but the reaction from the other non-player characters is the same. (The only exception to this is the handful of times that Lady Shepard is called a “bitch” — I suppose Dude Shepard may get called a bitch too, but I doubt it. I find it fascinating that they would record specific name-calling dialogue in this way.) Brown Lady Shepard waves her intimidation up in a dude’s face and he backs the fuck down, just like he would if she were a hyper-privileged white guy. My Lady Shepard faces no additional pressure to prove herself because of her background; if she is dismissed, it’s on the basis of her assertions, and not because she’s a queer woman of color from a poor socioeconomic background — even though that’s exactly what she is.

I am not surprised real-life dudes don’t play as Lady Shepard.* Her character accomplishes something truly revolutionary, though whether it was intentional or not I cannot say. The most radical thing about Lady Shepard is that she does not exist for the enjoyment of heterosexual men. There have been plenty of female game characters who are fun to play and relate to for members of all genders — Lara Croft has her appeal, certainly; and you all know how I feel about Bayonetta. But these are females who are relatable and likeable to many women-identified people in spite of also adhering to those outrageous physical characteristics that appeal so strongly to your typical dude gamer; some women-identifying gamers ignore them, and some like them, but the truth is that they are there for dudes to ogle. Lady Shepard does not have a giant rack; she doesn’t shriek or prance. Lady Shepard carries herself like a soldier, reproducing Dude Shepard’s businesslike movements and stride, step for step — which is understandable, because the actual animations used for both are exactly the same.

Because Shepard spends most of her time running around and laying waste to her enemies while wearing armor, the use of one set of animations for both male and female characters really only becomes apparent in two circumstances. The first is when Shepard dances. Yes, Shepard can dance at some of the clubs, for a few seconds, and for the most part she does a decidedly unfeminine (but adorable) Dude Shuffle, punctuated with the occasional fist pump. The second is when Lady Shepard is dressed in “casual” clothing, specifically a sleek black dress used in “Kasumi – Stolen Memory”, a DLC mission. Lady Shepard strides around a cocktail party with purpose and comes across, unsurprisingly, like a butch in a dress: she seems uncomfortable and out of place. I found her wide-legged lurching hilarious, charming, and quite appropriate, as Shepard the character would not have much reason to wear a dress, nor would I expect her to relish doing so even in the interest of her mission. Butch dress-wearin’ Shepard really bothered a lot of players, many of whom are lobbying for more ladylike Shepard animations in Mass Effect 3. But if there is a problem with Shepard marching around in her dress, I’d argue this discrepancy does not call for a less-butch Shepard; it calls for no fucking dress. Put her in a hot futuristic tuxedo, or something. The lady does not need to wear a dress in order to be an effective leader. I’m just saying.

Further, Lady Shepard’s sexuality is treated as a normal but ultimately secondary trait. She has the ability to flirt with and even engage in romantic relationships with members of her crew, but she doesn’t have to do so. She is neither oversexed nor frigid. When Lady Shepard gets fall-down drunk at Dark Star on the Citadel, and comes to on her hands and knees on the men’s room floor, a turian taking a leak in the urinal nearby, there is no judgement, no cautionary-tale morality to the scene. There is no sexual component at all, no harassment, no threat of assault. Shepard just gets up off the floor and goes back about her business (or back to the bar, if I’m playing, because I find the whole getting-Shepard-drunk sequence hilarious — I told you I was juvenile). How many dramatic representations do we regularly see involving a woman and drunkenness that don’t also suggest something about her sexual availability?

No one ever blames Shepard’s moods on PMS and no one ever asks if she’s on the rag, no matter how much of an asshole she is. No one ever suggests that Shepard is unhappy or excessively driven because she has not known the miracle of child-rearing and therefore her life is oh-so-empty. In a firefight, no one tries to protect Shepard from the violence, and afterward, when Shepard picks up a crate full of spoils, no one asks if she needs help with that. Thugs do not spare her feelings, nor do they fail to take her threats seriously. When other aliens accuse her of being overemotional, it’s framed as a human failing, not a female one, and when they call her crazy, it’s because she is actually doing some mad shit, and not because she’s just some silly unbalanced female.

In almost any other storytelling medium, my Shepard’s ladyness and brownness would be critical plot points. Her superiors would belittle her and dismiss her because of these characteristics, and Shepard’s ultimate success would be a tale of strength through adversity and overcoming oppressive odds, not because she has managed to save the galaxy from certain doom, but because she dared to do so as a woman of color. We like to fetishize racism and sexism in our popular stories; they make convenient conflicts and obstacles for a compelling narrative without having to get too imaginative. Of course the brown lady is going to be downtrodden, and with effort and persistence and strength of character, she will rise up against her oppressors! While this is an important story to tell, it’s also extraordinary to see a story told in which Shepard’s place is the same no matter her gender or race; in which no one ever suggests Shepard got where she is only because of affirmative action; in which no one ever smacks her on the ass and calls her “baby”; in other words, a story in which we are not constantly reminded that Shepard shouldn’t be able to do what she has done. We don’t need Lady Shepard to verbally eviscerate a racist or punch an ass-grabber in the face to know she’s tough. We know she’s tough by her non-explicitly-gendered actions — the same way we know Dude Shepard is tough.

Throughout the second game in the series, Shepard is referred to as “the human” who saved the galaxy from the first wave of a continuing threat in the first game. Not the man or the woman, but “the human.” Even though functionally this means less additional voicework to accommodate a male or female character, it’s apt in a world that breaks beings down by alien race first, and all the rest of our small species distinctions fall in line. What does our quaint reliance on binary gender, and our social connotations associated with same, matter to a salarian or a turian?** They don’t share our narrow context. As Kelly Chambers, Shepard’s personal assistant, muses at one point, our character should be what is most important in how we relate to one another, not our race or gender. Intentionally or no, Mass Effect makes a convincing case for a culture in which this could one day be true.

* Edited to add: I based this on BioWare’s oft-mentioned 80% statistic — I am aware that lots of dudes do play as Lady Shepard! I know many of you! My language here was super-generalizing based on numbers, and I probably ought to have been more specific, so my apologies to any dudes who were all BUT WAIT I LOVE LADY SHEPARD!

** Excepting one particular turian. Eee.


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