Monday, 11 March 2013

In which a feminist obsesses lengthily over Mass Effect

At the time of writing this, it is 7.30 on a Sunday evening and I am sitting in the second floor lobby of my university department building, “writing” my thesis, where I’ve been for three and a half hours now. Being able to use “writing” without the scare quotes would be a bit of an exaggeration- I only managed to add about 200 words to my wordcount today, although in my defence I also taught myself how to use Automap and I did write more than 200 words, I just also had to delete a lot of things. Anyway, it’s safe to say that a statistically very significant amount of my time over the past couple of days has been spent here, or in the department library (which is closed today- how I miss 24/7 library opening hours…), or for a few hours in what can only be described as a personal cell in the university’s main library. Coupled with the fact that I’m also working an internship over the other side of town (more on that at a later date), you might think I have very little time at the moment for silly time wasting.

And you’d be right, of course. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been wasting my time anyway. Two months ago, after a fateful conversation with an old friend, I found myself coming five years late to a video game trilogy that has probably now become one of my favourite things in the entire universe. I have since sunk several weeks of my life into playing- and overanalysing!- Mass Effect.

Let me preface this by saying I love video games, but I’m also pretty selective in what I play. Like with films and TV shows, I have an enduring obsession with a few esoteric things that I’ve come into contact with, whilst having absolutely no knowledge about the “core” stuff I probably should know about if I want to identify as a gamer*. I’m also aware that I could be opening an enormous can of worms by even daring to open my mouth about video games on a feminist blog, and that there’s a whole host of awful, scary issues surrounding women in this realm of culture which I’m mostly not even going to touch this time around. Excitingly, the long-awaited “Women vs. Tropes in Video Games” series started last week, no doubt to the chagrin of game playing misogynist Youtube commenters everywhere (especially since she disabled comments oh my god how dare a woman not be open to abuse from all people at all times), so if you want to follow a series that’s going to give a way better specific analysis then I suggest you keep up to date with that. Here’s the first one!**

Because, you know what, all I want to talk about is Mass Effect. And as anybody who has ever picked up Mass Effect knows, this basically just means that I want to discuss intergalactic alien sex. This is a game which sold its final DLC off advertising stating “you will get to have sex with your favourite fictional character again!”, so rest assured there’s a lot of boning going on. Apart from this, there are two other brilliant things about it:

1)      It’s a hugely immersive space opera set in a richly populated galaxy with a really fascinating history and your interactions with this world actually matter beyond a linear plot path and you meet lots of interesting characters whose lives and struggles also become invested in over the course of the series (and you can also sometimes have sex with these interesting characters).

2)      You can totally play as a GIRL oh my god.

Yep, the Mass Effect trilogy is pretty brilliant at giving you a really wide range of customisation over who your character is. So whilst every runthrough of Mass Effect has a Commander Shepard, and Commander Shepard always saves the galaxy, pretty much everything else in the game is down to you. Right down to your gender, appearance and your first name.

Shepard! Ah-ahhh! Saviour of the universe!
This is incredibly exciting in a way it’s hard for me to fully articulate. It’s not really to do with character identification, although I can see why that would be amazing for some people. Being able to play a game where everybody completely accepts that the most famous and capable person in the galaxy is a woman who grew up orphaned on the streets of Jakarta**** doesn’t make me any closer to being a late 22nd century Indonesian space marine myself, but the fact that she exists in this universe and I can make her exist just makes me feel that much more well-disposed to the rest of the game.

Commander Shepard, like all good RPG heroes, spends most of her time wandering around solving other people’s problems, whether they want her to or not. As this is a space opera, the problems reflect this. Examples are:

·         We have accidentally unleashed a horde of extinct bug-aliens on our ice-world science facility!
·         We are being mind-controlled by a weird plant and also robots are trying to kill us.
·         I am a robot and I want to learn how to live in peace and have feelings, please kill the other robots who disagree with this aim.
·         I hope nothing goes wrong when we set up a nuclear bomb in this alien breeding facility!
·         Our space-wizard academy is under attack from guys who want us to use our space-magic for evil.
·         Humans are going missing from space!
·         Some scientists are doing morally questionable things.
·         Some mercenaries are doing morally questionable things.
·         Gosh, that’s a very big worm and it appears to be shooting acid at us.

As mentioned, this is also a very characterisation-heavy game, and you make plenty of interesting friends and allies along the way! Your squad’s relationships are also pretty important to the game:  

·         My daughter is a sex vampire who I have dedicated four hundred years of my life to hunting down.
·         My dad is trying to kidnap my clone sister who I already kidnapped away from him once.
·         My mum got seduced by a spaceship into helping the bad guy.
·         My dad has spent the last ten years sexually abusing mentally degenerate young women on a remote planet.
·         My dad is dead from robots.
·         My son seems to think that becoming an assassin is a good career path, I can’t imagine where he got that bright idea from.
·         My parents are Canadian and also Canada Canada Canada [not much you can do to fix this one]

 There’s also an overarching plot about saving the galaxy from giant robots but honestly, the game never cares about that as much as it probably should. If you want to hear more flippant summaries of Mass Effect plotlines you should check out MSPixel, which does it much better and with more pictures.

Actually I'm pretty sure I just shot her.
So! Off Shepard goes, swanning around the galaxy with her adorable cheesy space husband (optional) asking inappropriate questions of strangers, either being pathologically nice or pathologically rude to everybody she meets***** and passing the Bechdel test with flying colours whilst she’s at it. In the meantime, the rest of the galaxy exists in a super weird mix of gender tropes. I think it’s probably fair to say that because this is a game that gets so much right so much of the time, the moments it gets wrong become that much more frustrating, and their treatment of women is no exception. One moment, annoying gender stereotypes are being magnificently subverted (your first two squadmates in ME1 are a straightforward shoot-everything soldier woman and a male space-wizard), and then in the next moment they’re suddenly ignored or played straight (all the human authority figures are male; one of your squadmates in Mass Effect 2 is a literally topless woman who… apparently keeps bullets away with space magic?)

I mean aside from anything else, doing strenuous activity in a leather nipple-strap just can't be comfortable. Also did I mention people are constantly shooting at you? Normalising female toplessness is a great project but I don't think it should be pioneered on the battlefield.

And then there’s the aliens.  Now, I have utmost respect for the fact that, whilst making this game, somebody clearly sat down and went “I think we should make sure that sexual reproduction isn’t inexplicably the same across all these different species”. Unfortunately, I have a sneaky suspicion that this thought happened after somebody had decided that there was no money to make different gendered character models for the majority of species, and that they needed a guilt-free way to fill space bars with alien strippers without being creepy or exploitative.

So, we get the Asari:

Liara, I'm about to badmouth your entire species. Cover your delicate ears.

Who are a female-presenting monogendered species with a thousand year lifespan and also the most advanced race in the galaxy. Like all blue aliens, they reproduce using Deep Emotional Bonds and can make babies with any other species. This means that everyone else in the galaxy- including people who otherwise have literally no sex drive- think that they’re the hottest thing ever. Given that asari just look like blue human women with tentacle heads, this is the game asking you to believe that human women are literally universally attractive. The asari also divide their own life cycles into “maiden-mother-matriarch” stages, becausenaturally as females their entire existence is based on their relationship to reproduction at any given time. Asari maidens have three career paths open to them: commando (completely awesome), exotic dancer (… less awesome) or archaeologist (because the game wants you to have a young, innocent space waifu on your squad and having her be a commando or a stripper would make her too powerful). So there are various bars across all three games filled with asari writhing on poles in skintight clothing, because hey! That’s just what they do between the ages of fifty and three hundred! Don’t judge!

I could probably write an entire separate essay on why this guy is so cool and  why it is so cool that he is cool. But let's not make this any worse than it already is.
Moving on. The salarians are the aforementioned no sex drive species. They reproduce by laying big clutches of eggs and only 10% of their population is female. The game doesn’t have any voiced female salarian characters until the third game, and then they look just like the male ones. I’m pretty much cool with the salarians, actually.

The one on the left is widely considered the most attractive woman in the Mass Effect trilogy. No, she never takes off the mask.
I’m also cool with the quarians- the only quarian you meet in the first game is hardcore female engineer (and Shepard’s bestie) Tali’Zorah, and although they do then introduce male quarians in future games, the ratio of male to female characters remains pretty even. They also have a much better ratio of women in authority than any other gender dimorphic species in the galaxy.

Heh heh heh.
The krogan are ultraviolent space tortoises who got forcibly sterilised by the other races a couple of thousand years ago for being too ultraviolent and having too many babies. This sterilisation means that almost all female krogan give birth to stillborn babies and “fertile females” have basically become commodities that the male krogan go to war over. Despite this being one of the most important plot lines in the entire series, you don't find out firsthand what krogan women are like and how they have dealt with several thousand years of dead babies until the third game. This is apparently because they had to spend five years trying to design a character model that you would plausibly believe is a female space tortoise.

 Eventually they opted to have her wearing a lot of clothes so you can’t see she basically just looks the same as a male space tortoise.
Other minor races include the four-eyed angry space totalitarians, floating pink jellyfish, tiny ammonia-breathing mole people, sad eyed lizard people who blink sideways and these giant grey elephant things called elcor who talk in monotone and precede every sentence with a description of the tone it should be spoken in. Every member of these alien species are presented and voiced as male. But then, you don’t meet that many of those species, so it might be a fluke- besides, the jellyfish are using weird technology to translate their speech from bioluminescent flashes and neither the ammonia moles or the elcor have normal human speech patterns either so who’s to say they are male just because they sound male to humans?

Which is fine, if frustrating. But my suspension of disbelief regarding the lack of space women was completely shattered by the one species I haven’t covered:

Oh HAI Nihlus!

This is a turian. Turians are metal faced space avians with mandibles. Apart from these obvious physical differences, they are supposed to represent a species that is very similar to humanity in terms of their life cycles, whilst also being culturally very different (they are imilitaristic and very disciplined and most come across to humans like they constantly have a stick up their arse. Cloaca. Whatever.) They have complete gender equality and both male and female turians are expected to serve fifteen years in the military. They make up a huge proportion of the galactic military, the police force of the city you spend a lot of your time on and just the galactic population in general.

And for five years, every single one of the turians you meet whilst saving the galaxy just happens to be male. It’s explicitly not a case of humans not being able to tell the genders apart, because when they finally did design a female turian for the second-to-last DLC package, she looked and sounded different enough to make it impossible that any of the others you’d seen from the previous games were also women. Specifically, she looks somewhat like she has breasts, because this is the only way to make an audience accept that a character is female (unless you cover them entirely with clothes like Eve the female krogan. But I digress.)

A highly realistic metal faced space-bird lady!

So the people making this game were faced with a difficult logistical choice based on the fact that they could only make a limited number of character models. They knew they wanted a species of gender-equal metal-faced mandibirds, but they could only have one model (technically they do make two but... oh, you know what, just go play and find out). They had to decide: is it more likely that an audience will believe that some of these identical looking characters are male and some are female******, or are they more likely to swallow the idea that there are female birds out there in equal quantities to the males but they just literally never bump into them? They weighed this choice up, and decided that the latter was more credible. People playing this game are apparently more likely to believe that the women are invisible than that they might not be sexually optimised.

To me, it’s stuff like this that really highlights how far we have to go. As much as Mass Effect has shot straight to my heart in the past couple of months, and made me happy in ways both related and unrelated to my unrepentant feminist cogitations, it still terrifies me that we produce culture where the non-existence or invisibility of women is considered acceptable or a necessary trade-off. “Geek culture” has some pretty severe problems understanding the existence of women in reality, most recently embodied in the furore over “fake geek girls” at cons. But women do exist in geek culture, and we exist in the real world too, and believe it or not we are central to our own lives! If companies do want to make video games set in universes where women don’t exist, then that remains their (shitty) decision to make. But please. Don’t set something up as egalitarian, then refuse to put in anything female unless it looks good with tits. I’m not suspending my disbelief any more.

(Whoops, I barely talked about sex at all! Never mind. Next time.)


*Luckily, I don’t actually want to identify as a gamer, just like not everybody who watches films regularly is a “film buff”. I just… play video games sometimes.

**Brief comment on the video itself: it’s clearly starting the series on a really basic, obvious note so I’m pretty optimistic about it in general. One video game which it made me think about, and do hope she covers in the future (although I think it’s possibly too obscure) is the super-pretentious-arty-oh-so-subversive “Braid”, which bases its storyline on messing around with the Mario concept in the most super-pretentious-arty-oh-so-subversive way possible*** Ostensibly, you’re on a quest to rescue a princess (or are you inventing the atomic bomb?) but oh! Cunning subversion of the damsel in distress trope- and spoiler- ahead! Actually you’re the one trying to kidnap her! Yeah, the biggest super-pretentious-arty-oh-so-subversive twist they could come up with is that your damsel in distress needs rescuing from a different random sprite (and also might be a bomb). She still needs rescuing (or, uh, inventing) in the first place, though. Silly woman.

*** It also has some genuinely amazing mechanics to do with time manipulation and I really do recommend it. If you can stand the pretentiousness, that is.

**** OK let’s be totally clear, the game doesn’t actually ask you which earth city your  newly created fictional character spent their childhood in. That’s just a symptom of the rather absurd amount of time I have spent thinking about who I want her to be (I could literally tell you her entire fictional life story, I am that lame). Also I’m fully aware I didn’t spend nearly enough time making her facial structure fit with the fact she’s from south-east Asia, but she’s also from the late 22nd century so  let’s just assume there’s been plenty of racial mixing between now and then.

*****Another example of why my Shep is not a self-insert: she is pathologically nice. I am not.

****** I also just want to point out again: they’re based on birds. Lots of birds have colour-based sexual dimorphism that could have allowed different looking female turians without having to make another character model. But no. Boobs. Are important. Remember this.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Not at all funny, ever

Hello again! I’m out of hiding at last! Where I’ve been is boring, why I’m back is interesting so let’s skip the schedule slip self-flagellations (three cheers for alliteration) and dive straight back in. Full disclosure is that it’s been so long that I’ve sort of forgotten what I’ve already written about and when, so if any of this starts to sound familiar then I congratulate you for knowing my own blog better than I do, and maybe I’ll proof read some day and take out the repetitions. I’ve also been doing my thesis for far too long so I’m officially Bored With Referencing so if it ain’t coming straight out of my head, I’m probably not looking it up this evening. Which may make things more interesting. Let’s see.

Alright! Several months ago, I promised a man that if he took a time machine into the future, he would be able to read my post about sexist humour. Given my utmost faith that he does in fact own a time machine and did in fact take that trip, today is the day when I finally save the universe from any potential time paradoxes and write the post that I assume he read.

Let’s start by outlining some obvious facts. Fact number one is that feminists have no sense of humour. The one exception to this rule is the eternally infallible feminist icon Caitlin Moran, who as we all know has been single-handedly keeping feminism alive recently through her unique ability to simultaneously make people laugh and talk about women in a (uh, mostly) non-derogatory way. No other feminist laughs, or is funny. No exceptions.*

Women as a subject matter, on the other hand, are regularly quite funny. Perhaps the greatest monograph on the hilarious idiosyncrasies of women is this piece by one Biben Laikhuram in the Times of India, which I believe truly captures the essence of our existence in a way no other article could. Perhaps due to our status as half the human population of the planet, it seems that women are constantly involved in all sorts of interesting and amusing human interactions! So it’s no wonder that sometimes people want to make jokes that acknowledge the existence of women.

Taking these facts together, we arrive at one inevitable conclusion: it is impossible to Do Funny about women without being a sexist (unless you’re Caitlin). This is why women must exist with a constant flood of degrading and dehumanising jokes- the only other option would be cutting women out of humour altogether, and that would just be much worse. Plus, women make things classier, and sexier, so jokes about them are also always very classy and sexy. It’s all very simple, really. End of post.

…OK, so the above is pretty fanciful even for me. But you know, honestly, if some male humour authority came up to me and went “look, Adrienne, we see you are annoyed about sexist jokes, here’s how it is”, and then gave me that explanation? It would actually be a bit of a relief. Because at present, the only apologies for the flood of “hilarity” at the expense of women go along the lines of “hey, sorry, but it’s funny.”
And it honestly is a flood. I’ve been buried under a mountain of work and thesis and obsessively playing Mass Effect for the past month, and even then I’ve not been able to escape. Here’s a very brief list of things that have happened over the last few days that are funny if you’re a sexist**:

o   Selling t-shirts with slogans like “Keep calm and rape her” and other similar designs on

o   Opening the Oscars with a song about a man watching films with boobs in.

o   Calling 9-year-old Oscar nominee Quvenzhane Wallis a cunt.

o   The existence of Silvio Berlusconi (OK, to be fair his existence is not a thing that has happened over the last few days but there was an election last week so he gets special mention. What a man.)

o   My Mate Jim telling me nobody will like it if I do a future guest round about feminism at our pub quiz because all the questions will be boring and hard, and about a million other interpersonal incidents.

These aren’t all of equal severity, of course. When My Mate Jim tells me a sexist joke, the joke is that he’s saying something that he does not actually believe and knows is sexist because I am a feminist and it will annoy me. He also knows that I know this, and that my “annoyance” will be mostly performative and he will probably come out of the experience with limbs and friendship intact. And the whole thing usually happens without me having to perform an over-analytical game theory breakdown, because we are friends, I trust him***, and we can mutually and unconsciously negotiate boundaries on a regular basis. Of course, I’d rather exist in a world where it wouldn’t even make sense to say a sexist thing as a joke, but in the interim I’ll negotiate my intra-patriarchal friendships however I like, thank you very much.

Of course, this only holds true for people I know personally- a group of people which, happily, does not include the perpetrators of any of the other actions on that list. When we interact with telly programs and politics and adverts and with the rest of endless barrage of information that we process each day, for all we may be more “connected” these days, it’s still mostly a one-way street. Sure, I can e-mail or tweet at pretty much whoever I want to tell them I didn’t like something, but unless there’s a critical mass of other people complaining along with me, it’s unlikely to have any impact. We consume so much more information than we could ever hope to produce, every day- challenging everything becomes an impossible task. And if we don’t challenge it, it’s assumed we accept it.

She's nine years old and she has an INCREDIBLE collection of  handbags which are also stuffed dogs. Why would you ever say something that nasty about her even as a joke I can't even

And the horrible truth is that the more sexism our society consumes, every single day, the more it affects us, in both obvious and unconscious ways. The uncomfortable truth of our modern world is that, no matter how savvy or discerning or antiestablishment we think we are, our world is constantly being shaped beyond our knowledge by people who have made an art form out of knowing how to make us do what they want. And whilst us feminist types may (depressingly) be outside the curve enough to identify and fight against a lot of the sexist bullshit that is being reinforced****, it’s also scientifically proven that said sexist bullshit makes men behave in more sexist ways.

Here’s a different way of thinking about things. I want to concentrate for a bit on Quvenzhane Wallis and the completely reprehensible tweet the Onion published about her during Oscar night- a tweet which they apologised for, only to then post an article satirising their own apology, meaning now I frankly don’t know what to think.

I’ve got two points to make here. One is that, to me, this is by far the most awful and inexcusable thing on that list. She’s a nine-year-old girl, whoever thought it would be in any way acceptable to call her the most misogynistic and sexualised slur in the English language (at least from an American perspective) as a “joke” needs to have a serious think about their lives. I mean, do you remember what it felt like to be nine? If you were a bit of a weirdo like me, here is a reminder.

OK, so that’s a rather over-emotive video (and I am reliably informed the bit about depression and medication is very poorly researched and not very good at all), but you get the point. Unlike adults, who are well-equipped with a whole host of ways to try to brush off and rationalise and explain away the negative things that happen to us, even when they don’t feel right, when we're kids, we know about how the small things matter, and that they matter regardless of intent or context or how wonderful the person saying them might be to everybody else. When you insult a nine-year-old, by calling her a cunt- or, before then, with the numerous “hey, the alphabet called” jokes which were more ambiguously on the line between “just silly” and “pretty damn racist”- you’re sending those insults towards a child who, no matter how unfazed she seems in the public eye, is going to process them in a different way to how an adult would. And on top of the fact you just bullied a kid, you’re also going to throw sexism into the mix? Wow. Classy.

Point number two is more general. See, when I grew out of my weird nine-year-old phase and into my weird teenager phase, hanging out in a big comprehensive school with a group of similarly weird friends, the way insults were traded around the playground changed. People rose to the very top who were exclusively male, very charismatic and constantly making offensive remarks about everyone around them. They were smart enough that they could get enough other people onside to stay in general favour, and manipulative enough to be able to gaslight or  if you did try to respond.

And my god, it worked for them. So much so that even if you were sometimes a victim, you still spent the rest of the time laughing at their jokes- because, as long as it’s not me, it’s OK right?***** So you would be complicit in whatever persecution they were involved in at any particular moment, despite a constant sense of fear that at any second, you might end up in the firing line again for any reason whatsoever. They were never, ever actually your friends, but pretending you were OK with them was usually better than the alternative.

Too often, that’s what it feels like to consume mainstream media as a woman. In fact, it pretty much sums up my feelings for consuming media as a fat person as well, and I’ve no doubt it’s the same or worse for those who identify with other minority (or “minority”) groups. Living in a world of pervasive sexist humour, where women and our troubles are things to be laughed at whenever the charismatic, manipulative man at the top decides its our turn to suffer for everyone else’s amusement, means you never quite get rid of the feeling at the back of your mind that, however entertained you are by something, it might turn unpleasant at any moment. It’s why, no matter how many arguments I hear for why shows like South Park or Family Guy are good, I just can’t get behind the idea that “equal opportunities insulting” can ever really be done right- particularly not when it’s just being done by rich white American men. Ironically, until this, the Onion was probably the only example of doing “equal opportunities insulting” that I would have completely supported. That they apologised- and apologised well, until yesterday's article at least- is something, but that’s still a lot of trust to lose.

What these people say matters to our societies far more than it should, given that we can’t actually make the personal connections necessary to be able to really understand their intent. But we can, as a society, hold our humour to some basic moral standards- yes, even if also find the thing funny. I know a world in which it’s unthinkable to joke about a nine-year-old being a “cunt” may sound like a humourless feminist dystopia, but bear with us. There are still one or two things to laugh about that don’t involve oppression.

*FEMINIST NOTE: I’m afraid this means that if you have ever laughed whilst reading this blog, or found it amusing in any way, you have negated my identity as a feminist (and possibly also your own). For shame.

**LOGICIAN NOTE: this is “if” you’re a sexist not “if and only if” you’re a sexist. Actually I can’t prove that every sexist finds all these jokes funny either, but rhetoric > logic, yo.

***To all mutual friends who just raised an eyebrow at that: shush. I would trust the man with my life. Perhaps not with small animals though.

****Usually as a means to an end, I might add. I’m not yet cynical enough to think that media are sexist purely because the people in charge hate women; they just want you to keep buying certain things, metaphorically and literally.

*****On a tangent, this is also why it’s scary that the Onion has been defended by other feminist writers who appear to think that we can only focus on a certain number of sexist Oscars incidents and that being angry about the boob song is more important.****** So now we’re laughing along as long as it’s just one black nine-year-old in the firing line and not us Empowered Mature Feminist Types? I don’t care how you personally feel about the boob song or the word cunt, being complicit in this is a shitty position to take.

****** Honestly, I watched the boob song and I was more baffled than anything. Was it just funny because he said “boobs” a lot and that’s a naughty word? To me the depressing bit was that they added prerecorded footage of the actors looking humiliated, as if they needed to reinforce the fact that the joke was at the expense of women, rather than including them. If they’d started from the assumption that Naomi Watts and Charlize Theron would also want to celebrate their boobs, it’s plausible they could have arrived at something, er, not stupid. Think about it, Oscars people!