There are a number of sexist tendencies in the Mass Effect series, most of which revolve around the way the Asari are represented and the role they play in the galaxy. Whether these are intentionally sexist or simple over-sights is anyone’s guess. I wouldn’t go as far as to call Bioware sexist, but when you consider the Asari life cycle (Maiden/ Mother/ Matriarch), it seems too blatant to ignore. Perhaps they were trying to be ironic? IDK.
However, good articles that critique the Mass Effect series in this respect have already been written (links at the bottom). Although I agree with many of the points these articles make, I also recognize that there are some strong, female representations and instances that undermine patriarchal ideology and binary oppositions in these games. Whether or not these were intentional is still anyone’s guess, but I’m just going to call it as I see it.
Biotics/ Mysticism: A few articles suggest that the fact that the Asari (an all-female race) have a great affinity for biotic prowess can be construed as sexist. It reinforces the idea that females are more in-tune with the illogical, supernatural realm of mysticism and magic, a realm that defies reason and logic (traditionally masculine fields). But there are many feminist thinkers that appropriate this idea of feminine mystique (Irigaray and Cixous). I don’t necessarily agree with this view, but an appropriation of the illogical, mystical realm can undermine traditional patriarchal values. It allows for the value of a different kind of knowledge and wisdom, a different perspective on existence.
As far as the Asari go, their perspective on existence differs greatly from from that of the other races. In their own words, they take the long view, they embrace eternity. This is a very telling choice of words. An embracing of eternity directly contrasts the definitive, finite realm of logic and reason. Yes, we understand the concept of eternity, but only as an abstraction as opposed to “true” understanding. There’s no way to know whether or not the Asari actually understand eternity, but they are certainly presented as a race that is more in-tune with a different perspective on existence, and I’m not just referring to their biotic abilities now; I’m also referring to their mind-meld method of reproduction and their extensive life expectancy. The mind-melds blur the sense of identity between the individuals participating in them. Moreover, the mind-melds are directly linked with the Asari’s sexuality, and their sexuality strongly influences their ability to think outside of the terms of finality, logic, identity, and reason, and this undermines traditionally patriarchal values. Their sexuality also undermines heteronormativity because the Asari can reproduce with any gender from any species. In this sense, the Asari can be understood as a positive, feminist representation.
It is also worth noting that these species of mystics were the first ones to discover the citadel, and they are revered throughout the galaxy; it’s really is unfortunate that, because they embody stereotypical notions of beauty and are so keen on mating with other species, they also play the role of the galaxy’s girlfriends. Clearly, not a representation a feminist would condone, but I’m supposed to be writing about how Mass Effect can be understood as a feminist text, so I’ll discuss the strongest feminist representation in the game…
Aria T’Loak, in my opinion, is the strongest feminist representation in the game because she runs Omega: A haven that operates outside of galactic law and is essentially a society of the marginalized. (marginalized groups are those that are oppressed or unaccounted for by a dominant culture. Members of these groups are considered “other,” as opposed to same.) In this realm of the other, Aria’s rule is unquestionable, and this has little to do with her gender or her race. Quite simply, as an individual, she has come to find strength in this epicenter of marginalization. This type of feminist representation, one that does not emphasize the difference in sex and gender, but rather emphasizes marginality as a point of departure, is the most effective, in my opinion, because it brings attention to the constructedness of gender roles and expectations.
There is one instance during which Aria seems to be intentionally presented as a symbol for opposition against patriarchal figures, and that’s during the side-quest called “the patriarch.” This is another one of those cases that make me wonder whether Bioware is aware of the charged messages they’re creating. During this quest, the fact that Aria was a marginalized subject who overcame masculine oppression becomes too blatant to ignore. For those that haven’t played this quest, the player is sent to protect Aria’s old arch-nemesis, whom she calls the patriarch. I won’t explain the entire quest, but once again, the word choice is what really drives me to make such conclusions.
Interestingly enough, the game presents an equally strong, but clearly distinct representation of feminine strength with the introduction of Samara the Justicar. While Aria finds strength in marginality and operates outside of traditional laws and codes, Samara embodies the very definition of the law, of distinct notions between right and wrong, good and evil. However, because the Asari are an all-female race, one could argue that this representation makes the claim that the realms of logic, reason, and law can be usefully appropriated by females; it claims that males do not have exclusive rights to these modes of conceptualization.
While I understand that both representations can be construed as sexist, my goal was to show that they can also be seen as positive figures. It seems that issues of gender and sex can always be problematic, which is precisely why we should discuss them at length, even if clear-cut answers aren’t attainable. Other examples I would like to discuss, and maybe I’ll have the time to do so in the future, are Jack and Morinth (Samara’s daughter).
***I didn’t know where to squeeze this in, but one of the bars in Mass Effect 1 is called “Chora’s den.” This is significant because the concept of the “chora” is a central part of Julia Kristeva’s writing. Julia Kristeva works with issues of marginality and feminism. (could be a coincidence though).
If you want to read an excellent feminist critique of Mass Effect, here you go.
I still want to talk about these topics, but probably wont. Can one of you guys do it? : Ethical Dilemmas, Questions of Identity, God and Faith, Space and Place: the settings of ME2, Music and Mood.