So I’ve had a three-part series of rants in the pipeline for a while, and I figure with the latest rounds of discussion about the recent Bioware panel, this might be a decent window to throw in a little more criticism. Requisite disclaimer: I adore Bioware. I adore Mass Effect. But I hold ‘em to a higher standard because of that respect, because they’re more likely to listen when we tell ‘em something’s wrong. They do a lot of things well. They could be doing a whole lot better.
Mass Effect Rant 1: The Asari and Their Triple-Aspect
Let’s talk about the asari. Lots of fantastic points have been raised about how messed up it is to claim you’ve got a monogendered race and then code every single one as female and have every single one referred to by feminine pronouns. There’s been even more discussion about how messed up it is to then have pretty much every race in the Mass Effect universe regard them as sex symbols (even the majority-asexual salarians aren’t immune, which is played for laughs). That much has been talked about a lot, and called out a lot, and rightfully so.
One thing about the asari that I haven’t seen discussed so much is that, well, for a very long time now female characters (and, indeed, female persons) have been limited in the eyes of male consumers (…and, indeed, male persons) to one of three clichés: the virgin or whore, the mother, and the old wise woman. This is something that crops up all the heck over various religions and mythologies, and all the heck over various TV shows and books and movies. The notion is that, once a woman reaches a certain age, she’s no longer a sexual person and tends only to gain any level of respect by having kids and running a family. Once she’s too old for kids, okay, she can be an elderly advisor. Huh. Sound familiar?
That paradigm is sexist as fuck, I mean, it’s not just limiting women to traditionally feminine roles, it’s placing time limits on those roles. And while feminine roles are often A+ awesome and kickass (women who choose to have sex or not to have sex are awesome, women who choose to raise up families are awesome, women who choose to help out their communities are awesome), these are imposed externally. These are, and have always been, primarily male writers placing these restrictions on female characters—because, plainly, the virgin/whore is defined by her sexual attractiveness to men, the mother is defined by her ability to create a progeniture for the male protagonist, and the wise woman is defined by her ability to pass on her knowledge to the male protagonist. It’s really fucking sexist and it’s really fucking insulting.
So the fact that Bioware has rather clumsily made the Maiden/Matron/Matriarch triple-aspect a biological necessity of the asari race? Holy crap, that’s awful. And, yes, in the later games they backpedal and address that many asari eschew traditional roles (often managing to denigrate traditionally feminine activities in the first place, oh honey no), but those exceptions don’t change the fact that this is a well-established rule. Someone actually thought about the three roles female characters are most commonly pigeonholed into by male writers, and that someone sat back and went, “Whoa, why don’t we have a whole race of female aliens that hit all those boxes?” And enough other someones smiled and nodded that this brilliant idea made it to the final game. Three times. It’s not subversive, either. It’s not even attempting to be clever. It’s just shitty worldbuilding, which is so rare in Bioware’s writing that it always stands out like a sore thumb when it does happen.
Basically? In a sci-fi story, a medium in which aliens and spaceships and moral dilemmas are often used as analogues for real-world equivalents, asari are meant to reinforce narrative conventions that force women into a very limited stable of roles. That’s reflected in the squad composition: with the exception of Tali, all the female squadmates across all three games are either human or asari, and despite how well-written many of those characters are, on the whole we are still treading familiar ground and working with very familiar archetypes, here. In contrast, male squadmates are human, turian, krogan, salarian, drell, prothean… I mean, c’mon. In the language of sci-fi allegory, each of those races represents a certain personality “type”—which, incidentally, will be the subject of part 2 of this rant—and the massive exclusions when it comes to female characters of those races is coming right out and saying “there are very few ways to be female but an infinity of ways to be male”.
I’d like to have seen Bioware do better with the asari. They could hardly have done worse.
(Side note: In case I don’t get a chance to mention it later, I think there’s some fairly complicated gender stuff going on with EDI and Legion, which is why I didn’t include them in the above discussion. For a variety of reasons, I find it pretty easy to headcanon that EDI, at some point in her more traditional sentience, actually did adopt a female gender identity, but that really is just a headcanon and YMMV. For Legion, given the less typical journey toward sentience, I find it much harder to headcanon that there’s been any gender identification at all by the end of the third game.)
Well said. I’m curious to know whether the asari will be touched on in your other rants — I find them the worst world-building in more than one way, and I suspect that the fact that they got pigeon hold into “blue sex aliens” early on contributed to that.
Mainly, they suffer from ‘telling’ instead of ‘showing’ — asari are the oldest, wisest, and technologically advanced race, we’re told… while we’re only shown them being annoying stick-in-the-muds who gyrate at strip clubs or join mercenary outfits.
I remember hearing somewhere that the asari were an intentional call-back to Kirk’s green space babes — to which I say that you can do a bit-part appearance as a call-back joke, but if you base a whole, pivotal species on it, you damn well better do some subversion. Especially when the thing you’re referencing is problematic to begin with.