Tell me if this scene sounds familiar to you:
A tough, brave female hero — space marine, Lady Knight, or otherwise — storms a fortress, weapon in hand. She encounters the treacherous Mid-Boss inside, who laughs in her face at the sight of her.
“I’m here to stop you!” cries Hero Babe, brandishing her weapon threateningly.
“Oh yeah, sweetheart?” Mid Boss chuckles. “You and what army?”
A few cliched come-ons later and Hero Babe has lopped off Mid Boss’s head. Hero Babe — and her skin-tight outfit — is now sexily drenched in Mid-Boss’s blood while his severed head rolls to center-screen, frozen in abject horror.
Hero Babe sighs. “And one more thing — don’t call me ‘sweetheart,’” she mutters to no one in particular. Then she saunters away, world-weary from ending sexism forever.
You know what I love about the Mass Effect franchise? I spent hundreds of hours fighting the Reapers as a female Commander Shepard and unlike nearly every other piece of fictional media with a female protagonist I’ve ever loved, Mass Effect almost completely spared me from the tired old bullshit I just outlined above.
Today is Commander Shepard’s birthday, but it’s also mine. So Happy Birthday, Commander Shepard! I’m paying tribute to Shepard for the best gift she’s ever given me: the ability to inhabit — and even become a trusted, respected hero — in a fearless female body.
One of the greatest strengths of the Mass Effect trilogy feels almost like an accident: FemShep uses the same animations as Male Shepard. Therefore: FemShep’s body is never just sexy window dressing. She runs with purpose, rather than with a male-gaze enticing saunter. She doesn’t dance seductively — she plods around the dance floor like a tipsy dad doing the Electric Slide at a family reunion. Commander Shepard, hero of the Citadel and the first human Spectre, can’t even sit gracefully in a dress. The sum of all these parts makes me feel like FemShep finds performing femininity as occasionally baffling and nonsensical as I do. I’d enjoy having the ability to bring more nuance into my fictional gender presentation, but when I first played Mass Effect, I threw myself into the role of a soft butch queer woman ready to fuck her way through the stars and punch every Reaper along the way. It was a refreshing change of pace from playing sexualized heroines seemingly designed to alienate me.
It’s delightful to live in a female body whose ability to succeed at her goals isn’t determined by how well she meets a standard of beauty. Unlike Andromeda’s 22-year-old newborn baby Ryder twins, Shepard isn’t a fresh-faced young thing at the start of her journey — she’s a 29 year old Marine who’s already made a career of surviving the insurmountable. But like Ryder, you can make Shepard as ugly as the day is long, and she’ll be judged by her actions, not her weathered complexion, gristly unibrow, or floppy jowls. Physically beautiful or otherwise, Shepard is infinitely worthy of love and respect.
And when FemShep barks orders at subordinates, threatens mercenaries, or makes tough calls, people take note. Men Don’t Explain Things To Her. Jennifer Hale’s voice acting strikes fear into the hearts of the criminals on Omega, but no one calls FemShep a bitch. Sure, plenty of characters question Shepard’s judgment, but they do it because she’s being a short-sighted Renegade or a soft-hearted Paragon, not an emotional woman who’s probably just, like, on the rag or something, yeesh. At worst, Shepard’s adversaries treat her like a raving conspiracy theorist, harping on about some all-destroying race of sapient machines from the farthest reaches of dark space. And obviously, at best, they treat her like the galaxy’s sole hope against the chaotic forces of evil and destruction.
But arguably the greatest relief the Mass Effect franchise has offered me is that the worst things that can happen to FemShep are also the worst things that can happen to a male Commander Shepard. If she fails, she faces a few different gristly fates: death, obviously, but also indoctrination, husk-ification, or the annihilation of galactic civilization as she knows it. But husks (blessedly) don’t have genders. There’s no inherent sexism to total galactic annihilation. There’s no special hell for Jane Shepard.
For example: Shepard doesn’t worry that she’ll be inevitably captured in the Deep Roads and transformed into a Broodmother, forced to pump out dozens of blighted demonbabies against her will (like a female Warden in Dragon Age: Origins).
She doesn’t have to worry about her husk-ification bloating her reproductive organs until she resembles the ghastly fears some men have of the female body (a la Banshees).
She doesn’t even have to worry about the ever-present threat of sexual violence, from drinking too much Ryncol on a nefarious trash planet or from her close friends and associations. It’s not in the script of the game, so at least in Shepard’s story, this threat blessedly doesn’t exist.
All Shepard has to worry about is failing and dying, just like her male counterpart. There’s no terrifying body-horror ending centered on twisting Shepard’s uterus into something horrifying and alien. The shadowy cabals that plot against her are strangely egalitarian, when it comes to humans. Shepard gets to be Commander Shepard, hero of the Citadel and the First Human Spectre first, and a woman second — if at all, to be honest. Shepard can be female without ever having to be a “woman in society” as we know it in 2017.
Admittedly, the Mass Effect series is still full of trash and sexism.
Case in point:
- Miranda (don’t @ me y’all)
- The Handmaid’s Tale hellscape Krogan women suffer through, and the narrative’s exposition that uses their pain as motivation for Krogan men while keeping them out of focus through the first two games
In fact, a minor character in the first game hey-there-sweethearts a FemShep early on in the plot. You can’t lop off his head and bathe in his blood, but the conversation follows the example I outlined at the top of this article. While this is the only cringeworthy “hey there sweetheart” dialogue in the first game and one of just two throughout the entire series, it shows that even the all-powerful FemShep can’t fully escape the black hole of casual misogyny. I guess that even in a galaxy full of dextro-amino cat-dinosaur-boyfriends and mystical space evils, we still needed the “realism” of crusty sexist lowlifes in a seedy backroom bar.
Many of Mass Effect’s “egalitarian” “victories” probably shouldn’t feel so revolutionary. Extremely rare gendered insults shouldn’t feel like a win. Getting through the game without facing sexual assault shouldn’t feel like a win — not back when Mass Effect 1 was released in 2007, and not here and now, 10 years later. And isn’t celebrating the freedom of singularly privileged women the kind of bullshit that opened the floodgates of our terrible world in 2017? How much can we celebrate FemShep without getting too complacent about her victories?
But in spite of the dark times we live in, I can’t help but look to her for inspiration anyway. Maybe things will even out before her birth on this day in 137 years.
I have lived every day of my 28 years in a female body. One of the things this body has taught me is that if the world decides that you’re female, you don’t get to forget about it. Our gendered society builds in safeguards to remind you, in case you step out of line. These safeguards go beyond catcalls or harassment, beyond your clothing choices and ideal body image and standards of beauty. They also show up in subtle ways throughout your day — from the guy who explains your favorite writer to you as you try to read on the bus to the bathroom signs warning you not to drink if you think you could possibly, maybe become pregnant someday. They show up in the fear that any male stranger, or even loved one, could physically overpower you in a confrontation. They show up in the endless safety tips your mother might have tried to drill into your head about not stopping to pick up a stranger on the side of the road. All of these things combine to form one message: You are small. You are weak. Prepare. Resist. But do it quietly.
When I step into Commander Shepard’s armor, I am allowed to forget those messages, at least a little bit. I can defeat any adversary with enough luck and skill (alternatively, enough skill points in my favorite abilities). If Patriarchy bothered to oppose me, I could just Biotic Charge it into dust. I can lead a path to victory, and my crew would follow me into hell. As Shepard, I can never be, and will never be, reduced — to a sexual object, a background prop, a victim, a plot point, to anything smaller than a hero. And as long as it falls within the dialogue tree, I can chart my own course.