Posthuman = Postgender? (De)stabilising Binary Oppositions in 'Mass Effect'
As literary critic Adam Roberts observes, Science Fiction, despite being generally regarded as a popular entertainment genre, offers quite a unique set of opportunities. On the one hand, it can be used to symbolically reaffirm the conservative status quo through its storyline: the system is disturbed by an intruding Other (be it alien, monster, killer robot) which has to be destroyed by the hero in order to restore normality and protect normative values. On the other hand, it has the liberating potential to introduce radically new ideas to its audience: contact with the alien Other is depicted as a complex and fascinating interaction which leaves none of the two sides unchanged, and which can transgress boundaries we have regarded as stable beforehand. 1
BioWare’s critically acclaimed Mass Effect series can without a doubt be categorised as Science Fiction because it envisions the future of humanity as a spacefaring race within a technologically saturated universe. Since it is a role-playing game, Mass Effect allows the players to decide for themselves whether they would rather stick to a more conventional storyline (i.e. preserve ‘humanity and its values’ at all costs) or dare to transgress a number of borderlines, at least to a certain degree. What the games unquestionably do is take part in the ongoing discussion of the ‘posthuman’ – they negotiate, and, at times, question or even transgress our notions of what it means to be human. In her essay “Becoming More (than) Human”, Myra J. Seaman identifies two related, but not identical trajectories of posthumanism: the “popular culture posthuman”, which is also often referred to as transhumanism, and “theoretical posthumanism”. 2 The first is based on a Cartesian separation between mind and body and likes to imagine techno-science as a chance to overcome humanity’s physical weakness and perfect the body; and while a possible connection between material changes and the mind is not denied, the popular culture posthuman believes in the existence of an ‘essential humanity’ that needs to be protected. In contrast, the latter rejects these remnants of Humanism and casts ‘the human’ as an unstable and ever-changing concept; 3 theoretical posthumanism enjoys radical experimentation and seeks to overcome the oppressive binary oppositions that have empowered the ideal humanist subject since the Enlightenment: human/non-human, male/female, white/non-white, straight/queer, able-bodied/disabled and so on. 4
As will be proven shortly, the Mass Effect games are influenced by both trajectories; I claim that the results can be fruitfully traced in the way gender issues are depicted. According to renowned gender theorist Judith Butler, our notion of biological sex is as much a construct as its social counterpart, gender, which we have already recognised as such. Both are part of a network of self-reproducing and self-confirming discourses that forces people into performative roles either named male/masculine or female/feminine. 5 That these binaries are in no way sufficient to cover lived gender reality has become more and more apparent in the growing number of people openly switching the categories assigned to them at birth, or even trying to find new categories that match their own sense of identity. In view of that, it is not surprising that players of video games are increasingly asking for options beyond male or female when choosing/creating their game character.
Taking into account the aforementioned characteristics of Science Fiction and posthumanism, it would seem that the Mass Effect universe potentially constitutes an ideal place for imagining a future that is free of gender constrictions and oppression, but full of new possibilities and gender identities. In the following, I will therefore explore in how far the Mass Effect series utilises the subversive potential offered by the Science Fiction genre; specifically, my focus will lie on the question whether conservative conceptions of gender are reaffirmed or transcended.
Choose your gender, save humanity
Within the human society portrayed in the Mass Effect universe – at least the military wing the player encounters and takes part in – a posthuman impulse seems to be widely accepted: an ‘omni-tool’ attached to the wrist as well as ability-enhancing implants effectively turn soldiers into cyborgs, and it can be assumed that galaxy-wide interspecies communication is only possible through some kind of implanted translator. Furthermore, a small number of humans have developed a biotic aptitude due to previous exposure to so-called ‘Element Zero’; the resulting superhuman and at times dangerous abilities are ruthlessly exploited by the military, but also met with suspicion or even hostility by those not affected. As long as it remains within controllable limits, a modification of human mind and physicality is welcomed.
Appropriately, the main plot of the Mass Effect games revolves around the danger of the complete dissolution of the human race due to outside influences – most drastically, an army of gigantic sentient machines called the Reapers returns from deep space in order to ‘harvest’ the DNA of all technologically advanced organic species and then annihilate them. In addition, humanity is in close contact with numerous other alien races as well as their ever-progressing technology capable of changing/modifying bodies; both factors threaten the boundaries of an allegedly distinct humanness. The consequences of these encounters with a technical or an organic Other are portrayed as frightening and as capable of destabilising the human: the Thorian, a sentient alien plant the player comes across in the first game, infects colonists with spores that turn them into mindless drones. Likewise, the Reapers own technology that transforms and merges captives’ bodies, no matter if dead or alive, into mindless Husks fighting for the enemy. In both cases, the highly-valued human individuality and agency are destroyed, while the Reapers even cross the borderlines between alive and dead, human and monstrous.
Scientific overreaching and risk-taking – mostly done by the human extremist group Cerberus – are shown to have similar destructive effects: an experiment linking a mathematical genius’s brain to a highly advanced computer system creates an uncontrollable hybrid entity, and an attempt to harness Reaper technology in spite of its gruesome effects leads to enemy indoctrination within humanity’s own ranks. The climax of these fears can be met – and defeated – in the last level of Mass Effect 2, where the player has to face a nightmarish humanoid Reaper nurtured by countless liquefied human bodies, designed to look like a mechanical human skeleton of enormous size.
In spite of these negative examples, the human protagonist herself, Commander Shepard, is a prime specimen of the popular culture posthuman: her body is rebuilt in a laboratory two years after her death in vacuum – it can be safely assumed that she is now more synthetic than organic, more science experiment than ‘real human’. 6 Nevertheless, her role as paragon and saviour of humanity is rarely questioned throughout the storyline; in fact, the large-scale tissue replacement does not seem to have had any changing impact on her character, identity and individuality, even when these are further threatened by encounters with alien bodies, intrusive technology and immersion in enemy cyberspace. An essentialist view of the human mind as securely separate from its material form is clearly implied. Following the introductory sequence of Mass Effect 2, wherein we witness Shepard’s death, her body’s recovery as well as its revival, a customisation screen gives the player the option of completely changing their character’s physical appearance – after all, the ‘new’ Shepard is only a reconstruction, at least physically. However, it remains impossible to change or remove any of the gender markers coding Shepard as clearly male or female: beginning with the character creation in the first Mass Effect game, Shepard either sports an abundance of muscles and short hair, or a slighter body and what many fans not-so-fondly call ‘the boob armour’. This type of sexualised armour worn by all female soldiers poses an unnecessary structural weakness with regard to its practical function: protecting the wearer’s body. And while the first game still stays rather tame in that respect (see header image), characters like marine Ashley Williams inexplicably show a much larger bust in Mass Effect 3 – according to the design team, they “let her hair down and gave her sex appeal”. 7
Considering the corrosive impact of the aforementioned anxiety-laden influences on the confidence in human subjectivity, it is not surprising that the games need to supply one familiar category that is never questioned as inherent to the rightful order of things: the binary gender system and its cultural markers of masculinity and femininity. These are above all personified by Commander Shepard, but similarly held up in the depiction of all other human characters. What we encounter as well in the Mass Effect universe is the hierarchical result of this strict gender opposition: objectification of women, sexism, and a sticking to stereotypes.
Not so alien after all?
Another of the main issues in the Mass Effect universe is the more or less peaceful coexistence of humanity with other, nonhuman races. Considering the stabilising role of the human gender binary, it is also interesting to take a closer look at the alien gender configurations featured in the games. It is possible to divide said species into three groups: the non-organics or synthetics, which are generally presented as ‘the enemy’; non-allied races that mostly populate the background of the main storyline; and allied races closely working together with humanity, which can also be included in the player’s own squad on the Normandy. 8 In alignment with the player’s familiarity with these races, their gender structures also move between the two extremes of ‘what we are used to’ and ‘completely alien’. Less important races like the Hanar, the Volus and the Elcor do not just look extremely un-humanoid: their strangeness is often used as a means of comic relief (as in the all-Elcor Shakespeare production advertised on the Citadel in Mass Effect 2, which gains its comedic impact by making fun of the Elcor’s dispassionate speech patterns), and the player never gains more information on their social structures or genders. Where the synthetic races, specifically the Reapers and the Geth, are concerned, insectile body shapes, a hive mind and a complete lack of individuality as well as of gender difference are introduced, making it easier for the player to regard them as completely Other and therefore less approachable.
Predictably, in-game dialogue confirms the binary gender system of most allied races (for example the Turians and Salarians); in addition, they show humanoid traits like a comparable body structure and recognisable facial expressions. And while the player might assume that, for example, Turian genders are simply not discernible by our standards – as they all share a reptilian look and a distinctive timbre of voice – the Omega-DLC for Mass Effect 3 denies this possibility by introducing a female Turian who is slighter than her male counterparts, has a higher voice and a facial paint reminiscent of human female make-up. Sadly, her sudden appearance is not addressed in the game, and the player does neither get the option of asking about the (un?)usualness of her military career in Turian society, nor about the fact that the whole Mass Effect universe seems to be solely inhabited by male Turians. In a similar way, females of other races are clearly designed in a way that is familiar to our cultural expectations of femininity.
Mass Effect’s most highly advanced race, the Asari, are another case of gender diversity gone wrong since the radical potential of their apparent mono-genderedness is completely negated by a multitude of female stereotypes. 9 Not only are the Asari humanoid and strongly resemble normatively attractive women – thin and pretty – they also tend to go through a ‘rebellious phase’ in their youth, which most of them seem to spend as erotic dancers in establishments of varying shadiness; their usage as ‘eye-candy’ in the games and their visual similarity to the ever-present Twi’lek dancers in BioWare’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic are obvious to the player. As is explicitly stated in The Art of the Mass Effect Universe, the Asari were conceived as
[…] a race of beautiful, blue alien girls […] appearing exotic and alien while still having some human qualities, which allowed them to be desirable as potential love interests. The original inspiration of the scalp tentacles was to evoke the image of a woman emerging from the water with her hair swept back. Asari clothing was to be alluring and sexy but with a sense of class and style – more of a Hollywood red-carpet feel than that of a stripper (except for the asari who were, in fact, strippers). 10
Even their later roles in life as wise ‘Matriarchs’ or powerful ‘Justicars’ seem to come with the revealing outfit included.
A further aspect of the Asari is that their one gender is not portrayed as self-sufficient; instead, the Asari prefer to expand their own gene pool by mating with members of other species of every gender. Their sexuality gains a parasitic aspect through the fact that the offspring of these interspecies encounters are, without exception, Asari as well. And while this effect can already be read as a threat to (especially male-centered) normative reproductive politics through its complete denial of masculinity, the games add yet another menacing layer: due to a genetic defect, a small percentage of the Asari are incapable of having sexual intercourse without consuming their partners’ life energy completely. These so-called ‘Ardat-Yakshi’ either actively search for new victims to kill, thereby becoming hunted criminals of the highest order, or have to spend their lives in complete seclusion. All in all, the depiction of the Asari seems to follow a double standard: active female sexuality is acceptable as long as it can be securely contained by objectification; but there is an underlying fear of it becoming too uncontrollable and too predatory, which is observable in the image of the vampiric female sucking the life out of her victims – specifically her male victims, as male reproduction with the Asari is an impossibility from the beginning.
Considering the representation of non-human races as a whole, it can be concluded that those species the player is meant to sympathise with are not only equipped with an approachable and familiar physicality, like identifiable facial expressions or a humanoid body; they also have a binary system of gender, which seems to be encoded as the ‘most organic’ and ‘most human’ gender system. Furthermore, the usual cultural stereotypes of femaleness and femininity are naturalised as something humanity and other races have in common – not even the aliens are granted ‘posthumanity’ in a way that would question restrictive gender norms. And while this argument might be weakened by the presence of Legion on the Normandy, who is a member of the synthetic Geth and can be turned into an ally on the basis of empathy and common goals alone, the Geth’s strangeness and difference is accentuated by their lack of individuality as well as their lack of gender differentiation.
Falling in love with the Other
The Normandy’s highly advanced artificial intelligence, EDI, is another case of potential posthuman variation waylaid by gender stereotypes. From the beginning of Mass Effect 2, the talking main computer of the ship is clearly gendered through her female voice and the usage of female pronouns, and increasingly develops ‘human’ character traits like curiosity and a shrewd sense of humour (made effective by the excellent voice acting of Tricia Helfer, who, since Battlestar Galactica, seems predestined to play the role of female android). The arguably unnecessary gendering – and eventually even sexualising – of an A.I. is brought to its peak in Mass Effect 3, when EDI starts to inhabit an overly busty and patent leather-clad android body; after she is paired up with a male human, she seems safely contained within heterosexual standards. Nevertheless, the writers still managed to add another interesting and truly innovative layer to her characterisation through the depiction of said relationship with the Normandy’s pilot. Jeff ‘Joker’ Moreau sticks out of the usual crowd of side characters through his openly addressed disability – he suffers from brittle bone disease – which renders him dependent on EDI’s guidance and protection. 11 Furthermore, the respectful treatment of their developing romance comes as a pleasant surprise to the player as the games neither ridicule nor inappropriately question the possibility of human/android intimacy; rather, the compatibility of their intellects and skill-sets is emphasised, which turns Joker and EDI into a promising example of posthuman border-crossing potential.
This uncommon relationship leads to another point that needs to be discussed apart from the games’ gender representation: the handling of sexuality and sexual orientation. BioWare in general is at the forefront of gaming companies increasingly trying to meet the whole variety of customer expectations regarding love and sexuality towards each new game, and the Mass Effect trilogy itself is a perfect example of this tendency. The first game of the series offers a few human, heterosexual love interests and one exception in Liara T’Soni, an Asari who, as mentioned before, was specifically designed to be desirable and can be ‘romanced’ by male or female characters. Interestingly, this amount of choices was gradually broadened throughout the sequels as a response to player demands, so that in Mass Effect 2 it is possible to enter a relationship with less obviously humanoid aliens like the Turian Garrus Vakarian, while Mass Effect 3 even changes the sexual orientation of human marine Kaidan Alenko, who was before only romantically approachable if the player had chosen a female character. These possibilities of leaving not only heteronormativity behind, but also of physically transgressing the lines separating the human from the alien or technical Other, are certainly in the spirit of a Science Fiction that does not rely on conventional constructs, but relishes in exploration and new constellations.
It is fitting that the monumental ending of Mass Effect 3 is built around the central question of difference: it is the player’s task to decide the outcome of the cyclically repeating war between the synthetic and organic races. Besides the options of controlling or destroying the Reapers, and with them all non-organic life, a radical synthesis is offered that blends all types of DNA throughout the universe – an unstoppable transgression of boundaries whose individual results are unforeseeable, as well as an effective dissolution of the self/Other opposition and its humanist baggage, including normative gender constructs. Therefore, these choices offer not only a re-establishment of the old order and its conservative power relations, but also a radically posthumanist alternative. Unfortunately, the visual representation of this synthesis does not quite live up to the explanation preceding the player’s choice, since only minor changes have been made to differentiate the three possible ending sequences. New eye-colour and circuit lines on the skin aside, even character models remain the same, and the profounder consequences of the DNA exchange are left to the imagination. However, it is significant that only the synthesis ending shows Joker and EDI facing the future on an unknown planet together – a posthuman Adam and Eve.
In summary, it can be stated that the Mass Effect games do not make full use of the emancipatory potential of the posthuman ideas they entertain. As argued above, Mass Effect closely connects a binary system of gender with the natural and, specifically, the humanoid; the clear distinction between male and female human characters, as well as the familiar gendering of all organic alien races meant to be viewed sympathetically stand as proof for this. And while many other boundaries can be transgressed throughout the story, for example human/android, the validity of the male/female binary opposition is never questioned; in fact, it is affirmed and strengthened by gender stereotypes and identifiable cultural markers of femininity and masculinity, such as make up, high or deep voices, and a slender or muscular build – even in the depiction of alien races. Synthetic species like the Reapers and the Geth are cast as dystopian counter-images; their lack of two genders goes hand in hand with a lack of individuality and emotional capability. Therefore, it can be safely concluded that the binary system of gender serves as a discursive stabiliser against numerous threats and anxieties. Nevertheless, it would go too far to accuse Mass Effect of sticking to conservative ideals and power structures without offering means of resistance; especially the games’ diverse romance options and the potentially transformative ending oppose such a view. Furthermore, BioWare’s open communication with their fan base reveals a steadily growing awareness of gender issues and the necessity for a better representation of marginalised groups, which suggests great potential for future change in that respect. 12
Verzeichnis verwendeter Texte und Medien
BioWare: Mass Effect Trilogy. 2012.
Butler, Judith: “Introduction to Bodies That Matter.” The Body. Ed. Tiffany Atkinson. Readers in Cultural Criticism 1. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2005, p. 129-141.
Foucault, Michel: The Order of Things. An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage Books 1994, p. xxiii-xxiv.
GDC Vault Staff: Video: Sexism and Sexuality in Games. 2013. <http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/194571/Video_Sexism_and_sexuality_in_games.php> [26.10.2014].
Joyal, Amanda: “Mass Effect’s Supercrip, and the Normate Body.” Reconstruction 12.2 (2012).
Maiberg, Emmanuel: Next Mass Effect developer says games need to move beyond race, gender stereotypes. 2014. <http://www.gamespot.com/articles/next-mass-effect-developer-says-games-need-to-move-beyond-race-gender-stereotypes/1100-6418478/> [26.10.2014].
Marshall, Dave (ed): The Art of the Mass Effect Universe. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Books 2012, p. 17, 132.
N.n.: CS Special. Gender Disparities in Mass Effect. 2012. <http://me3cosmiclove.wordpress.com/2012/11/13/cs-femshepard-and-sexism-rough-rough-draft/> [26.10.2014].
Roberts, Adam: Science Fiction. The New Critical Idiom. London: Routledge 2000, p. 25-30.
Raymond, Alex: Beyond Gender Choice: Mass Effect’s varied inclusiveness. 2009. <http://www.gamecritics.com/alex-raymond/beyond-gender-choice-mass-effects-varied-inclusiveness> [26.10.2014].
Seaman, Myra J.: “Becoming More (than) Human: Affective Posthumanisms, Past and Future.” JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory 37.2 (2007), p. 246-249.
Image Sources: All screenshots are my own.
- Cf. Roberts: Science Fiction, p. 25-30.
- Seaman: “Becoming More (than) Human”, p. 248.
- Michel Foucault locates the emergence of “the strange figure of knowledge called man” at the end of the 18th century and assures us that “he will disappear again as soon as that knowledge has discovered a new form”; see The Order of Things. p. xxiii-xxiv.
- Cf. Seaman: “Becoming More (than) Human”, p. 246-249. Binary oppositions are the foundation of Western identity construction, interlaced with patriarchal power structures; the left, dominant side defines itself against a less-valuable Other on the right side.
- Cf. Butler: “Introduction to Bodies That Matter.”, p. 129-130. While I remain aware of the deep interlinking between sex and gender throughout the essay, I will from now on stick to the term ‘gender’ in order to simplify the argumentation.
- Shepard’s gender can be chosen by the player, allegedly without any negative impact on the gaming experience; however, players have noted instances of sexism in dialogue when playing as female. See the following blog article for examples, as well as for further critical observations regarding the depiction of ‘femShep’ and other female characters in the Mass Effect series: http://me3cosmiclove.wordpress.com/2012/11/13/cs-femshepard-and-sexism-rough-rough-draft/
- Marshall (ed): The Art of the Mass Effect Universe, p. 132.
- The Normandy is a spaceship used as the main base of operations throughout the three games.
- A similar view of the Asari and the depiction of alien genders is held by Alex Raymond in a blog article written after the release of the first Mass Effect game: http://www.gamecritics.com/alex-raymond/beyond-gender-choice-mass-effects-varied-inclusiveness
- Marshall (ed): The Art of the Mass Effect Universe, p. 17.
- See Amanda Joyal’s essay for a closer analysis of Mass Effect’s treatment of disability: “Mass Effect’s Supercrip, and the Normate Body.” Reconstruction 12.2 (2012). Sadly, Joker remains the only empowered ‘non-ideal’ human character worth noting, since the rest of the Mass Effect-universe seems to solely be inhabited by able-bodied and, according to their gender, thin or muscular people. Here, the humanist drive towards human perfectibility, as well as the strictly normative limitations of this transhuman vision, can again be seen in action.
- See, for example, this insightful commentary on sexuality and sexism in video games by David Gaider, lead writer of BioWare’s fantasy RPG series Dragon Age: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/194571/Video_Sexism_and_sexuality_in_games.php. There has also been a promising announcement regarding the upcoming Mass Effect 4: http://www.gamespot.com/articles/next-mass-effect-developer-says-games-need-to-move-beyond-race-gender-stereotypes/1100-6418478/