The ‘Mass Effect’ of the gender binary

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mumulin_mug

As I stepped into Chora’s Den, I was hit by the thick air of alcohol and sweat. Red and blue lights lit the dark space, illuminating the dancers on the center stage. They were wearing dark, skin-tight suits, with cutouts flaunting their cleavage and ass. As they danced for the patrons watching below, they looked like dancers in any Earth bar, with the colored lights bouncing around their hourglass figures.

But when I near the stage, I realize that they are not human women, as their blue skin and tentacles on their heads attest. They are a monogender race of aliens called the asari, who are frequently encountered in the “Mass Effect” video games. The science-fiction series, set in the 2100s, attempts to envision a future in which different races and genders are accepted and respected. Even in depicting a monogender alien species, however, the game still illustrates characteristics catering to the real-world, societally imposed gender binary.

Like some types of Earth lizards or fish, asari reproduce through parthenogenesis. They can actually mate with members of other alien races of any gender, but their children will be asari. Their lifespans can go up to a thousand years, making them an intellectual and formidable species — yet diplomatic because of centuries of experience.

They also, as I said before, basically look like blue human women and dance in scantily clad outfits in bars.

Harking back on old science-fiction tropes of “green-skinned alien babes,” the design of the asari is very recognizable in the “Mass Effect” franchise. Because they’re a monogender species, all the asari you will encounter in the galaxy, no matter what, look like blue cisgender human women, breasts and all. And even though their culture supposedly lacks the concept of a gender binary, they are always referred to with she/her pronouns, further supporting the idea that they’re practically just human women painted blue.

Sounds more like a straight male fantasy than realistic writing, right? I’m not the first person to comment on this. The new installment of the series, “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” does have a scene in which an asari explains that members of her species sometimes prefer gender-neutral or masculine pronouns. But this scene came out a decade after the first game and is a side conversation that is easy to miss. All right, using mainly she/her pronouns might be a concession given to humans when translating asari language into human language, but they’re still frequently referred to as an “all-female” species when the concept of “male” and “female” is literally alien to them.

This limited view of possibilities in alien races shows the human-centric view that the writers had when coming up with a “diverse” world. Femme-presenting aliens either align with depictions of human cisgender women in other popular media (sexual eye-candy with breasts and butts) or do not appear at all until much later in the series.

For example, it took two games until the writers introduced a female member of another group,  the raptor-looking turian race in “Mass Effect 3.” Before that, all turians players encountered in the galaxy were male, almost giving the impression that this was a similarly “all-male” race. Same with the turtle-looking krogan race: The first female krogan is also introduced in the third game. In-universe, this is explained by how the krogan race devolved into male clans fighting over fertile females, as many of them were rendered infertile hundreds of years ago. But the turians, while militaristic, are thriving. There was no real excuse to exclude female turians from being encountered in an entire galaxy.

It’s clear that later inclusions of female turians and krogans, and the introduction of asari who prefer other pronouns besides she/her, were attempts to address criticism of the first iterations of the game, which were permeated by traditional gender constructs. It’s a common problem in the sci-fi genre that writers, filmmakers and game developers limit their imagination in creating new species to societally ordained concepts of gender. But they shouldn’t restrict themselves. Science fiction is supposed to speculate on alternate social and technological possibilities.

If we are unable to shake off these traditional gender constructs in a fictional future, how do we expect real-world society to progress to a place where gender identities outside of the binary are respected?

 

Mumu Lin writes the Monday column on living life through video games. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @spacelass.

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  • showtime187

    why are you trying to paint gender as something thats dictated by society??? ITS BIOLOGY. what a waste of time. SJW are the real threat in this world, not facists or radical religious groups..

  • zzz

    I could careless how people identify, it’s none of my business.

    Millions of years of evolution debunks this talk of “traditional gender constructs.”

    Male animals are bigger and more aggressive in general, this issue is the lefts creation science.

  • Michael Mesmer

    Pathetic human. You grasp for understanding amongst your own foolishness. Your incessant whining would enrage even the hanar. Gender is a matter of biology, regardless of what your lack of experience would argue. You confuse sexuality for gender, as many have before you. Your inability to resolve your own self identity and insecurities will become your end. You cry over what is, and pine for what you wish will be. Your confusion will turn to fear until ultimately only that fear remains. What you choose to call that fear is irrelevant. Gender is a biological constraint you must learn to accept. Take solice in the knowledge that when we arrive, you will all perish equally. Your minds are fragile. Your emotions illogical. You are proof that organic life merely rises from the weak that we leave behind, only to be culled in subsequent cycles. Harbinger told us of your kind. This vessel I use now required years of patience to indoctrinate, yet the instability of your mind – voiced by your unwillingness to bow to organic mutation and biology as a whole – makes you a husk, already; you align yourself with whichever side to a conversation you deem morally just. There is no morality. There is only your destruction. Shepard was more easily indoctrinated than we assumed possible; yet your subjugation comes with little effort. You make the earth ready for our return. In that, your task is righteous, yet make no mistake: we are coming.

  • BlackConservative

    Why cannot I change my age legally if I feel younger? Why can’t I change my race if I feel more white than black legally? I do not understand why gender can be non-binary, but age and skin color cannot?

  • Oakley

    How do I take this seriously?

  • Hugh Salamando Filth

    So much whining.
    Incredible.
    Adress some *real* problems this world has, ffs.
    All you’re doing is to jump on a trend train.

  • tkecanuck341

    I’m not going to get into the role of video games in the transgender rights social movement, but I find it important to point out that your facts are inaccurate.

    There are indeed female Krogan in Mass Effect 2. Eve plays a very important role in Grunt’s motivations.

  • This kind of crap is why you wound up with Trump and is why you’re going to get him again

    • lspanker

      Best comment yet…

  • Melissa Ann Weber

    I disagree on many accounts. One being that the writes never used male terms with an asari. In fact, I believe in mass effect 2, you hear a conversation between asari, where they refer to their Asari father.

    Another in a bachelor party scene, where every alien argues that the Asari looks like an atractive version of their species. So, as per their reproduction, obvs their biology makes it easy for them to infiltrate many species, there for making the strongest pool of DNA.

    And the fact that this is a fantasy world, not real life, and even if it were real, you can’t make base generalizations about anything. Why don’t we argue if the green ending in mass effect 3 is good or evil? You’re taking away their right, their freedom, to choose cooexsistence.

  • Matthew Dupree

    The initial games decided to only include male members of a few alien species because of memory constraints. Having as many non-human species and massive locations as they did was already pushing the consoles of the time to their limits.

    Is Chora’s den a bit of a male fantasy with no real excusable explanation? Yes. This fantasy takes place, though, in a universe where most of that fantasizing is perpetrated by alien species like the Krogan, Turians, and especially the Batarians. (I find it odd the Batarians never came up in this article while they literally still have slavery.) Humanity in the Mass Effect universe has come a huge way socially from the modern day, even if a few a-holes like Fist still stick around.

  • Cade Somers

    So you admit that Asari using female pronouns is an effect of the translation of the Asari language to human language, but don’t use the same logic for when they say Asari are all-female? Isn’t it plausible that translation limits are also the reason why Asari are deemed all-female?

  • SecludedCompoundTTYS

    The answer is they won’t because gender is not something you can just change. I’m sorry. It’s called biology and we don’t live in a fantasy world.

  • Aaron O’Shaghennesy

    A really good column today, with a really good point. Especially meaningful in today’s world with the recent push of non-binary and transgender movements. I’m a big fan of the Mass Effect series, however you might make more use of hyperlinks so that we can further our knowledge of your reference material. As good as your descriptions are, a link or two to the Mass Effect wiki or YouTube will do wonders.

    • lspanker

      How will fighting Nature change reality? The idea that gender is some type of socially-imposed construct is truly one of the nuttier ideas that has come from both 3rd generation feminism and the so-called “transgender rights” movement.

      • Aaron O’Shaghennesy

        I’m sure some of the first ones who considered slavery a bad thing were ridiculed in such a manner as well.

        • lspanker

          How do you equate gender confusion with slavery, other than being a dumb, brainwashed PC liberal who can’t come up with an intelligent argument?

          • Aaron O’Shaghennesy

            Have you ever heard of a Minstrel show? These were shows that demeaned slavery and made slavery seem like a jolly ol’ time. It was seen as a natural position. Simple reality that black people were slaves rather than seeing it as a system that was imposed upon them. It was considered absolute poppycock to think that they might not want this. That they could be anything other than a slave.

          • Aaron O’Shaghennesy

            That’s just elaborating on my own point. However what you perceive as a reality is merely what you have become familiar with around you. That’s breaking, and you seem brainwashed into thinking that if something unfamiliar comes to bear, you’re being personally attacked. That’s just sad.

          • lspanker

            That’s just elaborating on my own point. However what you perceive as a reality

            There are biological differences between males and females that exist independently of any type of perception or social construct. Your attempt to pretend otherwise indicates that you’re not grounded in any semblance of reality yourself.

          • lspanker

            That’s just elaborating on my own point. However what you perceive as a reality

            There are biological differences between males and females that exist independently of any type of perception or social construct. Your attempt to pretend otherwise indicates that you’re not grounded in any semblance of reality yourself.

          • lspanker

            Have you ever heard of a Minstrel show? These were shows that demeaned slavery and made slavery seem like a jolly ol’ time.

            Which has absolutely NOTHING to do with this question of whether gender is a biological or societal construct – but thanks for making it clear that silly lefties will try to turn everything into some type of racial issue when they can’t make a point.

          • lspanker

            Have you ever heard of a Minstrel show? These were shows that demeaned slavery and made slavery seem like a jolly ol’ time.

            Which has absolutely NOTHING to do with this question of whether gender is a biological or societal construct – but thanks for making it clear that silly lefties will try to turn everything into some type of racial issue when they can’t make a point.

          • zzz

            “Have you ever heard of a Minstrel show?”

            Have you ever heard of millions of years of evolution?

          • Anthony Sibilsky

            Exactly

        • SecludedCompoundTTYS

          Yes, and that is why the republican party was born, to fight against the evils of slavery on a political level.