Girl in the Machine
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
The Sexy Space Women of Mass Effect

In Bioware's latest action RPG, Mass Effect, players are introduced to an expansive universe populated by diverse races, dazzling planets, and compelling adventure. Players explore this universe as the customizable Commander Shepard, and along the way questgivers range from the hulking krogan to the jellyfish-like hanar. One of the game's most advanced races is the asari, the first beyond the ancient Protheans to acquire space travel.

I have mixed feelings about the asari. Despite their ability to reproduce with those of any sex, the Galactic Codex refers to them as "an all-female race," and they definitely look just so. It's not surprising that the most human-looking race is also the only one that's all-female, but I'll get to more of that in a minute.

In many ways, I really like the asari. First off, their scientific prowess enabled them to be the first modern race to take to the stars. Their culture is one that values observation and logical reasoning before action, owing to their impressively long lifespans. They possess an intellectual capacity that is unmatched, celebrating interspecies communication and inclusion. Their breeding method emphasizes unity, both literally and figuratively: during a process called "melding," the asari and her partner essentially become a single functioning nervous system.

During their 1000-year lifespans, the asari experience three stages of life. The first is the curiously-named Maiden stage, wherein the asari is characterized by a need for restless exploration. The Matron stage comes next, bringing with it the inclination for settling down and reproducing. Lastly, the Matriarch stage marks asari that are old and wise with experience, often becoming councilors for the younger members of their race.

It's not hard to see the uncanny subtext beneath the classification of these stages. Maidens are, by definition, "young unmarried women," and I find it puzzling that a term specifying the necessity for men is being applied to an all-female race. Similarly, matrons are denoted as "married women," falling perfectly into step with a stage in life that's uncomfortably close to the good old "biological clock" myth. Words like maiden and matron have long, traditional histories that tie in directly with the patriarchal system of heterosexual marriage, and to be used in this situation is a misnomer at best and thinly-veiled sexism at worst. "Matriarch" is, however, spot on, and it pleases me that they didn't continue the trend with something like "old bat."

Though the asari live to a ripe old age, a complex system of cell regeneration keeps them from showing it. They all stay forever young-looking, even the wise matriarchs, which, while being pretty cool, doesn't keep me from raising an eyebrow. There's a lot to be said about how demonized female aging is in our own culture, and it's no coincidence that a race comprised totally of women is not only uniformly slim and comely, but totally ageless so that they can stay this way.

While the asari are just as diverse in personality and motivation as any other race, their presentation in the game is a mixed bag. They are strong, competent leaders, and their representative in the galactic Council is one of the most outspoken and shrewd. However, the first time Shepard encounters a group of asari (either in the Consort's Chambers or Chora's Den), they are all sex workers (prostitutes in the former, strippers in the latter). I hate to say it, but neither of these cases surprised me in the least. It would have been much less ick-inducing had there been even a reference to male sex workers, or at least members of other species. Also unsurprising is the skimpy wardrobe employed by many of them. Poor Matriarch Benezia is so strapped into her top that her boobs look like they're struggling to escape.

Overall, I've found Mass Effect's depiction of women to be overwhelmingly positive. However, just like most games, it has its missteps. I'm very fond of the asari for the most part, although their (unfortunately expected) objectification makes my skin crawl (see also: the Viera). Despite the many points in the game's favor, it becomes just another example of how difficult it is to find female video game characters -- and particularly those of an all-female race -- that are designed without bias.

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 Posted by BomberGirl
 8:08 AM + Link to this post
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