How Mass Effect Helps the Understanding of Unequal Gender Portrayals in Mass Media
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FemShep, You’re My Hero: How Mass Effect Helps the Understanding of Unequal Gender Portrayals in Mass Media

By Rob Payne | Think Pieces | March 25, 2013 | Comments ()

"Soldiers like the Commander are rare. Women like Shepard... are even rarer." - Admiral David Anderson, Mass Effect 3: The Citadel DLC

I reviewed Mass Effect 3 on March 21, 2012, with a follow-up about the endings soon after, but I only covered the Extended Cut, and not Leviathan or Omega, because neither of those latter downloadable content add-ons changed the essentials of the original game. Nor is this a real review of The Citadel - because if you're still playing Mass Effect, you're probably going to play this most recent DLC, anyway - so let's just say that it is the best of the three DLCs (and behind only Lair of the Shadow Broker for best ever in the series) due to it's unabashed pandering to fans, which after so many hours of gameplay is exactly what those fans who are still playing the game want. It's mostly a celebration of our Commander Shepard, a character deserving of a victory lap more than most, no matter how one feels about the final game or its ending(s). In short: the latest, and probably last, DLC for the ME trilogy proper is worth the price tag and the 5 gigs of memory. One year and three DLCs after release, Shepard is still my hero. To be more precise: my heroes are my own, individually created Commanders FemShep.

Before Mass Effect, I rarely played as a female character even if I had a choice, because why wouldn't I pick the avatar which whom I most immediately identify? But, really, this wasn't just my default position, but the default position of almost every game designer ever. The issues of unequal representation and patriarchal perspective isn't isolated to games (or comics, or their fans), but is abundant in every single medium we consume for the purposes of our entertainment. It's been discussed a lot, and will continue to be as it remains a problem for many, because it is something relatively easy to understand on an intellectual level, especially when statistics back up anecdotal evidence and our very observant subconscious. I've always thought myself enlightened philosophically on this front, because I never really understood why people wouldn't want their women to be as badass as their men. It's why romantic comedies are the only film genre I find little value in, with a few exceptions. But on an emotional level, I could only begin to appreciate the overwhelming deluge of inequality, and how simple it ought to be to avoid, in popular media by playing through all of the Mass Effects as the female lead.

I always, and only, play Commander Shepard as a woman. Well, FemSheps are the only avatars with whom I completed the games. Before you ask, no, this has almost nothing to do with preferring to stare at a woman's butt for over 40 hours. Actually, my affinity for FemShep is rather unintentional. My initial Shepard was a dude who looked not unlike President Obama - it was 2008 and he'd just been elected - but I never got past the first mission because I utterly loathed Mark Meer's performance. So I quit and restarted with a redheaded, green-eyed lady who wore no make-up except black lipstick, because that's just how she rolls (for initiative). I instantly fell in love with Jennifer Hale's portrayal and she never once disappointed in any of the three games. I tried a few more BroSheps in ME2, but I could never make it all the way to the Omega-4 Relay. I haven't given Meer a shot with ME3 yet, because at this point I don't care. Commander Shepard, to me, needs only be a woman, named Dahlia, Mallory, or Eve.

My initial Shepard, the ginger Dahlia, started as a pretty hardcore renegade. My natural instinct isn't to play this way, but my favorite Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic character became a dark lord of the Sith and I expected a similar experience. Gradually, I began to see the consequences of my ignoble actions as conveyed by BioWare's incredibly talented storytellers and I started to play differently. Dahlia's red bar definitely surpassed her blue, but by the end she was saving the Council and supporting Captain Anderson over Ambassador Udina. Her crew was clearly softening her edges, especially an innocent blue-skinned alien archeologist. With Dahlia's resurrection at the hands of Cerberus in ME2, a group the first game gave us plenty of reasons to hate, she continued making more paragon decisions, though bad guys still tended to find themselves thrown out of penthouse windows. Ultimately defying Cerberus' leader the Illusive Man with the destruction of the Human Reaper, Dahlia was set on her almost total paragon path for ME3. The war story of the third game allowed for the atonement my Shepard needed, due to many of her actions in the first game. A war monger turned peace maker, all because the game convinced me to play it my way, regardless what Shepard looked like.

By contrast, Mallory is the Shepard who made nearly all of the wrong decisions throughout. That is, when I could actively allow a beloved squad mate to die, I did so. Not everybody, because it's an RPG and I like to upgrade, but my friendly fire body count was fairly high. She was saved for last due to how many narrative threads she'd cut along the way but, like all nerds, I have a compulsion to complete things. Some of Mass Effect's alternate realities I'll never see outside of YouTube clips because I refuse to give Commander Shepard a penis, but don't take that to mean any of my Shepards lacked balls. Nearing the end of my Mallory playthrough, something struck me as quite brilliant on the part of BioWare, Mass Effect's creators - Shepard is really no different on the macro level regardless of how you play, or who you play as. Who lives and who dies can always change, but whether you are good, bad, neutral, male or female, Commander Shepard is Commander Shepard is Commander Shepard. Sometimes she's a cool hand Luke, others she's a stone cold warrior, but she never stops being Shepard.

I didn't quite grasp the significance of this change until I finished ME3 with Mallory, where Wrex, Jack, Kasumi, Zaeed, Legion, and every non-squad crew member but Dr. Chakwas had died previously. I did finally manage to get both the Salarians and the Krogan to join the cause, with the bonus of a still-alive Mordin, but it was impossible to make peace between the Geth and the Quarians. The strange thing is, if I had always played as a male Shepard, I think this could have been the main storyline of my first playthrough. I've seen both the boy scouts and the bastards save the day countless times. I've played as them in almost every other single game, with few exceptions, so playing as a practical villain is novel enough. But suddenly and rather thoughtlessly, I was playing as a woman in the exact same role as the burly man on the cover art. I don't know how else to say it, but eventually it felt wrong not to take the opportunity to play as the complicated hero I would want to write about. Hell, the character who I would want to be. This wasn't a conscious decision. I had no idea I was doing this until I beat the game as a veritable villain and played the Citadel DLC with so few friends at the party.

No matter who your Shepard is, her/his dialogue menu options, and the actions that follow, are always the same (RPG rules notwithstanding). The actual spoken lines don't change save for the reading, and these are not equivalencies but identical actions and responses regardless of the player avatar's gender. Similarly, if body armor is more form fitting, they are for both Bro- and FemShep, and when the armors aren't, they aren't for both sexes, too. All weapons are also available to both genders, dependent on your class in ME1; and when ME3 threw in weight considerations, my lady Shepards were just as strong as those of the gentlemanly persuasion. Love interests do differ, but that can be chalked up to the distinct characterizations of those teammates, and especially in the cases of Cortez and Traynor, who are openly gay in the last game. When the romances don't differ between Bro and Fem (in the cases of Liara, Kelly Chambers, and the Consort Sha'ira), the cut scenes use exactly the same animations where the focus is on your love interest and not the player. Male and female Shepards even stand, walk, run, jump, and hide in cover the same way; the latter never receiving an extra hip shake nor necessarily posing in a way that accentuates her already obvious feminine qualities.

The only real, marked differences between the Commanders' two possible sexes are the voices of Meer and Hale. Their individual performances can (and do) alter your perceptions of them as people - one is a cheerless, guileless plank of wood, and the other is fiery, soulful, and legitimately funny - but what players can (and do) see play out on screen is not at all varied. That can probably be counted as BioWare merely being efficient, or lazy if you're less charitable. Why add in that much more code to make Bro- and FemShep obviously different genders in how they relate to their universe, when it's much cheaper and easier to merely use different skins on the same skeleton? Whether it's accidental or not, this is a huge step in the right direction toward gender equality when it comes to heroes and protagonists in fiction, not just games. Those programming limitations are things that all writers and storytellers who care about how their work is perceived, which ought to be all of them, should consider when crafting their own heroes and heroines. Unless gender is the story, it doesn't have to control the narrative or how it's received, and it probably shouldn't in any case.

Good or bad, male or female, Shepard is Shepard. But as a woman, she is nearly one of a kind in a vast sea of overtly sexualized female protagonists. Heroines tend to always be women first and then champions second. Metroid is often praised for giving us Samus Arran, the first female protagonist in video games, but it came as a surprise twist after you beat the game and players didn't really get to pretend as a woman. It was a bait and switch like David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner. More recently, and far more worryingly, Samus the futuristic warrior woman morphed into her Twilight-y equivalent. Then there's Lara Croft from Tomb Raider, whose absolute badassedness couldn't be taken seriously while she was tripping over, or stabbing herself with, her own breasts (depending on the console generation). Now Square Enix, after giving Lara realistic physical proportions, are insisting that players (i.e., men and boys) won't relate to her the way they do Master Chief from Halo or the grunts from Gears of War. Instead of fighting alongside her, they'll want to protect her. Thankfully, the actual game makers' seem to see things differently from the home office.

My experience playing as Commander FemShep, who was never raped or sexually assaulted, implied or otherwise, and whose agency players controll throughout, flies in the face of the standard, outdated mentality. That anyone would still make these same arguments after decades of Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, Buffy Summers, and the women of "Game of Thrones" is absurd. And yet, it is one thing to watch and admire those awesome action figures, and quite another -- as a middle class white man well aware of his privilege -- to be a wonder woman acting out choices and fulfilling heroic fantasies normally reserved for people who are much closer, at least in one significant way, to being "just like me." I can't know what it's like to be a woman, much less a complex Mary Sue like Shepard, but having that virtual experience over three epic games illustrated just how astonishing and dishearteningly rare it is to find actual strong female protagonists in the stories we tell each other. Ten thousand years of human history tells us that these stories are pretty damn important to our culture, and as a race of people we've clearly been doing it wrong.

There's nothing evil or inherently bad having, or playing as, male heroes, but when the sexes are split virtually 50/50 in the real world, why is so much of our media output in most genres focused on a single gender? Why is Commander Shepard one of very few exceptions and not the general rule in games or movies or comics? Do we need more Bayonettas and Lollipop Chainsaws, two fine games that nonetheless don't surpass their stereotypes, when women like FemShep and Lara Croft can be so much interesting and entertaining? Those are questions I almost always understood as ones that needed asking, but post-Mass Effect I feel the ever growing need to demand an answer before I spend any more time or money on lesser heroes and heroines. The usual response just doesn't jibe after six years, and at least that many DLCs over three games, when Commander Dahlia Shepard is still my hero. For 120+ hours, I was a woman. The Reapers heard me roar.

Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. He knows they aren't perfect games, but he's impressed at how radical BioWare's sci-fi series tackles race and sexuality, too.

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