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High Horse: The case for FemShep

High Horse is a rotating opinion column in which GamesRadar editors and guest writers are invited to express their personal thoughts on games, the people who play them and the industry at large.

The people at BioWare have told us that by their reckoning, 80 percent of Mass Effect 2 players elected to play as a male version Commander Shepard.  I can think of a couple of totally innocuous explanations for this.

1. Some players don't want to go to the trouble of customizing their character model at all, and accept the game's default as quickly as possible in order to skip to the part where they can shoot stuff.

2. Many players approach the creation of their Shepard as a way to insert themselves into the story, and they create a Shepard consistent with that priority, i.e., male.

I will begin by saying there is nothing wrong with either of those play styles.

Above: It’s cool, really. Who doesn’t want to play as a bald-ish space marine?

But there is another way to play the Mass Effect series, and that is to try to exploit the narrative possibilities of the franchise to their fullest, to push the storytelling envelope as far as it will go. To do that, the first and most important step is to create a female Commander Shepard.1

In his book Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan writes:

"It will not be we who reach Alpha Centauri and the other nearby stars. It will be a species very like us, but with more of our strengths, and fewer of our weaknesses. More confident, farseeing, capable, and prudent."

To reach the stars, Sagan felt very strongly that we would have to transcend "sexism, racism, nationalism, and the other deadly chauvinisms that plague our species."

One way to hint at humanity's advancement in the centuries that separate the present day from the Mass Effect universe would be to depict a species more at peace with itself; a humanity that has made real strides toward solving the prejudice and bigotry we still struggle with today. What better way to do this than to not only depict its foremost warrior as a woman, but also, crucially, to let that fact go almost entirely unremarked-on throughout the narrative?

Play as a female Commander Shepard, and except for a very few instances, the fact that your character is a woman is a non-issue. Your combat prowess is neither questioned nor used against you.2 Your deeds are evaluated on their own merit, and it seems to never even occur to most characters in the game to mention your gender, let alone use it to draw any sort of conclusion about the kind of soldier or person you may or may not be.

If tomorrow our greatest war hero were a woman, her femininity would be central to everything said about her. But two centuries from now, it may be totally unremarkable. With characters like Chief Ashley Williams, Mass Effect hints at this future, but with a female Command Shepard, it embodies this future.

This, of course, is due in part to the technical constraints of the game. While BioWare can afford the expense of recording two versions of the main character's voice, they can’t record differing versions of every other character's interactions with you (except for those few, gender-specific romance subplots). As a result, the world of Mass Effect is a far more egalitarian one than our own, and this in turn makes for better science fiction, because it is supposed to be a more egalitarian world.

While the game is set in a refreshingly equitable society, its story is being consumed here and now. I know that sounds just eye-rollingly obvious, but stay with me. The real world of 2012 does not enjoy the sexism-free environment of the Mass Effect games, and the consumption of its story is thus unavoidably subject to our own unfortunate problems.

Take Shepard's encounter with Sha'ira, the Asari consort, on the Citadel in ME1. Though it is never stated outright, we are meant to detect more than a whiff of prostitution about her whole operation. Thus, when a male Shepard interacts with her, their discourse carries the baggage of a historical power imbalance between men and women in that context. But female Shepard can interact with Sha'ira as a peer, bypassing that imbalance and addressing her as an equal. Though their spoken lines may be identical, the subtext is profoundly different.

Examples like this abound. While the test famously proposed by Alison Bechdel to determine whether or not a movie was worth her time (does the film contain at least two female characters, who have at least one conversation about something besides a man?) is frequently over-applied, science fiction as a genre has struggled with its portrayals of women, who too often are defined in terms of their relationships with the men in the story. The genre can't help but inherit some of the problems of the society that created it. But Mass Effect, played with a female lead character, doesn't just pass Bechdel's test – it blows it out of the water. Suddenly, there’s a rich cast of female characters, none of whom are forced to negotiate with a man for their narrative payoff. This may not seem important or significant, but it is.

In 2183, Commander Shepard being a woman isn't even newsworthy. But in 2012, it’s nothing short of revolutionary.

[1]: Some may disagree with me that there is a "best" version of the Mass Effect story. I imagine the BioWare developers themselves would say as much. They are all wrong.

[2]: To be clear, I am not suggesting that there are no strong female soldiers anywhere in SF. But when they exist, their prowess frequently either comes at the expense of their femininity (Vasquez in Aliens) or derives inherently from it (Sarah Connor in the Terminator films). Frequently, they have very little to do (Uhura in Star Trek); are important solely thanks to their feelings for the main, male characters (Trinity in The Matrix); or die (Trudy Chacon in Avatar). Commander Shepard is a woman and a soldier, but those two facets of her being have nothing to do with each other.

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77 comments

  • jovik - March 29, 2012 12:24 p.m.

    You rejecting Vasquez is a product of your own sexist stereotyping. There is a 'feminist' article floating around claiming that the Metroid's Samus Aran character being female is 'a loss for women' because the character is too 'male' where the female author defined 'male' as 'strong and violent'. That author would no doubt claim the same thing about female Shepard. Female Shepard could exist - but she wouldn't look like the pictures you supplied, anymore than a real male Sheperd would be skinny and frail with a soft face and twigs for arms. My female Shepard looks the part, except for the twigs for arms which the game wouldn't let me change (thankfully the game at least made her tall out of BioWare's animation scripting laziness).
  • Technoman - April 2, 2012 4:12 a.m.

    He didn't reject Vasques. Your reply smell w bias and shallowmindedness. They gave Vasques the masculine, but just had to take something away, and for a good reason. Women never get just strong - they also get manly, veiny, dry, mean, manly - not the qualities one looks for in a woman (unless you're an odd 5%). Often they get the negatives listed above in trying, and do NOT get stronger even. You're living in some unrealistic dream.
  • Alestia - March 16, 2012 6:54 a.m.

    i play as both male and female shepard. Though i play Femshep more and thou the romance sub plots were a bit restictive in one and two im glad to see it open up in 3. as for y i play femshep more than male shpe that was a nobrainer really i love femsheps voice better..... and if u want to know kadin always dies on virimre ALWAYS. HE whines way to much when u save him.....
  • Mishmonster - March 14, 2012 3:37 p.m.

    So they finally made a FemShep, but they still didn't improve the romance options for her. They're crap! Three females, some not human; one human male that possibly didn't make it thru ME1; and a Turian? WTF??
  • reaperman22 - March 13, 2012 5:12 a.m.

    I did my Renegade play-through as a male and Im just finishing my Paragon play-through in ME2 as a female, not for any particular reason its just when i play rpg's i like to be an ass at least for my first play-through and in general the first character i create is a male, usually a stupid looking one as well just to make cutscenes more entertaining, so when i go through the game again i usually do the opposite to experience the other side of the game that i missed, also i was actually thinking about how well the game shows a sexist free future when playing as a female earlier today
  • DecoyOctorok - March 13, 2012 4:41 a.m.

    I've been playing as a FemShep ever since the first Mass Effect. I love Jennifer Hale's voice work and Shepard being a woman just makes more sense to me for some reason.
  • DecoyOctorok - March 13, 2012 4:42 a.m.

    I've been playing as a FemShep ever since the first Mass Effect. I love Jennifer Hale's voice work and Shepard being a woman just makes more sense to me for some reason.
  • yorktowne - March 12, 2012 11:42 p.m.

    "and they create a Shepard consistent with that priority, i.e., male." >Implying females don't play Mass Effect >Is a female playing ME3 with femShep >Offended Sexist in more ways than one, lol.
  • AGENTJORRRG - March 12, 2012 9:24 p.m.

    I've got a point for FemShep. The voice actor is waaaaaaaaaay better. In ME1 and 2 at least..
  • Rowdie - March 12, 2012 2:37 p.m.

    Fem Shep is definitely the way to go. The narrative comes off slightly better and who wants to look at some guy's back side for 180 some odd hours?
  • THEBIGJ3 - March 12, 2012 7:35 a.m.

    I (a man) have used a Female Shepherd for ME 1 and ME2 (and will port across to ME3). But I must admit my reasons were not for any kind of subcontextual, or sexual, reason at all. Personally anyone who can 'get off' on an unknown persons drawings/animations of fictitous men and women gets an "each to their own" response from me. I've just ALWAYS picked female characters for games, starting back in the day when the only real opportunity to play as a woman came with fighting games, so Chun Li, Sonya, etc were my choices because I believed them to be faster than the bigger, slower (seeming) male characters. Of course Tombraider is a given... Moving forwards I used female characters in Racing games too, such as the 'Pink One' from Snowboard Kids on N64, Pipsy for Diddy Kong Racing, and the blonde female character from SSX Tricky. I used Xenia for Goldeneye 64 and WetSuit Joanna for Parfect Dark, the main reasons being because they were thin, and therefore harder to shoot! And this has just stayed with me now, so it's FemShep, and Femanyone else going forward, the naritive and context of in-game conversations is not important to me really, just keeping up old habits...
  • Dmancapri - March 11, 2012 8:19 p.m.

    Dear anyone who wants to read the comments, Beware. Below this warning lies the worst of the Internet. People accusing others of being homophobic, homo, etc. People acting like they are better than someone else because of an opinion they have that differs from the other person's. Insults and hateful words being thrown around like nothing. People believing that they are saving the world with one comment on an important topic. It's the worst of the Internet; like the Avenger controller scandal. So reader be warned, a flame war awaits down there.
  • THEBIGJ3 - March 12, 2012 7:41 a.m.

    Thought I'd take a look, as comments that are so bad that someone feels inclined to warn people about them are potentially hilarious! (to me anyway). And you are right, I only read a few, as I just do not understand homophobic people and sexists/racists etc. The human race truely is doomed, as some of the comments below confirm...
  • Redeater - March 11, 2012 2:37 p.m.

    .....so leaving aside the sexist and homophobic rants below me if I may be allowed to slightly redirect the hatred and get to a more important question. Is it just me or does the default in game Shepard look nothing like the picture above? The one above kind of has a Emma Stone thing going on while the in game one doesn't really look great to me.
  • essiy - March 11, 2012 3:04 p.m.

    I've heard this from a few other people, I am currently on Mass Effect 2, so I haven't even touched my copy of three yet, but from what I can see, the default FemShep is a bit well, default... Okay, so maybe not the best choice of words, but she seems kinda bland looking. I would personally change her looks towards the top picture, she seems to have more character behind her, giving that boost to making her more likable. That, and the default one reminds me of my high school french teacher, whom routinely gave me sub par grades in said class. Personal bias or personal preference, either way, I'll be spending a while longer adjusting her appearance.
  • miked00d - March 11, 2012 1:44 p.m.

    Plus you get to stare at her arse. I'm kidding, I'm kidding! You can stare at Male Shep's arse too.
  • Redeater - March 11, 2012 2:38 p.m.

    One of the best answers I have heard about this is from a guy at work. "What do you mean you don't want to stare at a guy's ass for 30 hours? What are you gay?"
  • sailormes - March 11, 2012 11:46 a.m.

    Love it. Female Shepard is one of my favorite characters ever. Jennifer Hale does a superb job voicing her, really adds some soul to the character. There really are so many strong female characters in this series, and none of them really fit the damsel role, and only Miranda exudes overt sexuality. Having a a strong female leader (something that makes a lot of sense to me with the overall diplomatic feel of ME3), really pulls the team together. I have played as a Male Shepard too, and the experience didn't hold up in the same way. I know plenty of guys who have said the same thing, so I'm pretty sure it's not my insane feminist ideals clouding my judgement.
  • Ravenbom - March 11, 2012 11:21 a.m.

    Gender identities don't equal sexism. Neither does portraying gender identities. Sexism is degrading someone's gender identity like Duke Nukem does.
  • Kyo - March 11, 2012 11 a.m.

    SO.. uhh.. the reason why you think the best version of ME is with female shepard.. is because she's nothing special? o_O I see. Well, being a woman or man in those situations means nothing to me it's what a person does in life nothing else really matters in the long run when things are that important. So yea, my ideal ME is with the male shepard, if you think a woman being treated exactly the same and lacking anything special is something.. special.. cool.

Showing 1-20 of 77 comments

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