The ‘Mass Effect’ of the gender binary

Pressing Restart

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.