Computer RPGs are my refuge. When the day is stressful, when I’ve been particularly incompetent or put my foot in my mouth up to my knee, I can switch on my computer and disappear into another world for a while. I can feel proud when I solve the hardest puzzles in The Witness, I can be the Hero of Ferelden, I can be the Inquisitor, I can be the Saviour of Neverwinter and lately, I’ve been Commander Shepherd from the Mass Effect series.
What I should make clear before I go any further is that I LOVE Bioware games. I love them all. I will buy pretty much anything they put out from here on in. As a games company, they are one of my favourites and the most egalitarian I have come across.
Yet my enjoyment of the latter has been marred somewhat. The society in Mass Effect is meant to be gender blind. Relationships and gender identities are written as fluid and that is FANTASITC. Also, the games I reference here are quite old, but bizarrely it’s the most recent one that has irritated the most. And yet…
- In Mass Effect 1 you have a couple of romance options, two with human characters. In ME2 these characters aren’t around and you can romance someone else. If you then want to rekindle things with the ME partner in ME3, you have to explain the ME2 relationship to them. A Male Shepherd can simply say “You weren’t there for me” and this is apparently fine. A female Shepherd has to apologise.
- Look at the casual outfits for Male and Female Shepherd. Male Shepherd is fully clothed in a funky jacket, “jeans” and t-shirt. He looks classy and sexy at the same time. Female Shepherd is in a zip up, skin tight, slit to the ass, plunging leather dress.
- There are two whole races that are confirmed as dual gendered where you never even see the females of the race (Turian and Volus). I believe you see one female Salarian and one female Krogan in the entire trilogy.
- Across the trilogy, all of the male characters appear to age, whereas the females look younger each game. My FemShep went from looking like a mature woman in ME1 to looking about 18 in the last game.
- Jack’s costume. I need say nothing more.
- If this society is gender blind, then why are all the exotic dancers in the club either female form or the genderless, but to human eyes female presenting, Asari?
- Look at the face variations – the male faces in general are more characterful and fully realised. Kaidan goes grey at the temples and gets lines, Hackett gets a battle scar, Anderson gets wrinkles. The female characters background characters all look similar; smooth faced and with perfect hair and make-up,, defined as different by skin tone and colouring.
These are all little things. I’ve been told that I’m overly sensitive and that I’m out looking for them now; that I’m spoiling things for myself. Here’s the thing though – once you’ve been made alert to it, you can’t stop seeing it. It’s insidious; this subtle message that women are mostly decorative and no matter what else they do they have to look hot while doing it.
You can’t tell me that I’m being overly sensitive when a lead NPC is telling you that her sister has gone missing, possibly kidnapped by someone who wants to use her for dreadful things, and the directors choose the camera angle that gives a gratuitous vacuum sealed, ass shot. Not just once, but twice, and in a way that no male character is shown.
“Hey, ladies! We care about your trauma but make sure you look HOT while telling us about it!”
Sorry Miranda, but that skin suit you are wearing is more important than your fear.
And as I’ve said before, Bioware are one of the best. You only have to look at the fantastic Escher Girls (http://eschergirls.tumblr.com/) to see far more extreme examples.
The Bioware message boards, heavily policed as they are, contain comments like:
“Ryder [the new Andromeda character] is ugly as f***.”
Is that your only comment?
“I don’t want to have to follow something like Sera [from Dragon Age Inquisition] around again. Here’s hoping there is someone like Miranda in the party.”
I’m sorry, did you just say “something“? How come Miranda is a “someone”? Oh, that’s right; she’s pretty.
So even in my escapist fantasy there is this reminder; this wasn’t made for your gaze. You’re fairly plain; you really should do something about that if you want to be listened to. Even if you save the galaxy you need to wear make-up too. You’d better be pretty or we’ll discount you.