Under the credo that it’s better somewhat late than never, I’ve decided to take a look at the recent shitstorm that has surfaced around the voting results for the female incarnation of main character of the Mass Effect series.
It all started about a half a month ago, when on Facebook fans were asked to vote for whichever female Shepard they wanted to be the default model for the character in the upcoming third release. After the voting was said and done the blonde haired, blue eyed Shepard that had come to be known as FemShep Five stood victorious over her counterparts.
People were not amused.
Whether through trolling or ballot stuffing or other shenanigans - or, hell, let’s face it, an honest victory on the backs that those that thought she’d be a good fit - the Mass Effect community was given the face of five as the new default face for their hero if they choose to be female, a choice that apparently one in five gamers made during ME2 according to this fact sheet.
Vitriol abounded as people complained about the “bimboization” of a character that regardless of gender is portrayed in the game universe as one of the most competent and determined people to ever have lived. But thus comes the question: why does it even matter?
A lot of people have already weighed in on that topic, and I believe that Sophie Prell’s article on Destructoid does sum up one of the major reasons why some people are off put when she says:
“It's not because FemShep 5 is blonde and therefore perceived as stupid and incapable of being a badass. It's not even that she upholds the stereotypical Caucasian beauty ideals of a long blonde-haired, blue-eyed buxom babe; that's merely an aside, a symptom of the larger problem, which was the construction of the vote itself. No male hero has ever been or ever would be dragged into the limelight and forced to defend himself like this. Hell, even if he was, there's no justification that could possibly be truthful to his nature as the idolized protagonist, and that's why FemShep 5 is so wrong.”
While I do agree that this argument has some merit, it’s not what actually bothers me about this entire thing. No, what bugs me about this recent debate is that it really has proven how meaningless such things are, and not for the reason you might be thinking of either.
People are going to say that it doesn’t matter what the defaults for each Shepard are, because you can ultimately make them however you want to make them. I say that that’s really no excuse. The six female Shepard models are, in and of themselves, a cadre of raging stereotypes that have been applied to female characters from time and tide. Let’s break down the list, shall we? (be sure to visit the link to the face book page just so you can play along)
- Shepard number one: the classic tough but still ruggedly beautiful tomboy
- Shepard number two: copy/paste number one, but with red hair to show she’s fiery!
- Shepard number three: the vaguely Asian-esque face for that bit of foreign allure
- Shepard number four: the gruff, tough, ghetto girl that doesn’t take shit from anyone
- Shepard number five: the Aryan princess, aloof and unobtainable
- Shepard number six: the Noire-esque Russian spy type face that spells trouble
Are you offended by my summations of these pictures? Well, you should be! Because really that’s precisely all that they are. There’s no diversity here, just the same old rehashed shit that people have been seeing and not caring about for years. The only reason that people have given such a great amount of crap about this choice is that it’s being presented to them in such a bald-faced manner that they can’t choose to ignore it. Looking back at Prell’s comments, I actually have to disagree with her assessment regarding default male Shepard. At the time of his release, there was simply no emotional investment on the part of players. But just take a look at him, it’s the exact same thing: almost all the default male facial models are that same old tired “oh look, he’s ruggedly handsome in an authoritarian sort of way” thing that literally every single male protagonist in 99.9% of video games already looks like. Sure, if you choose a male or female Shepard, you can distort their face and make them look really strange and somewhat stupid (if more original than the majority of the models out there) but it’s also still just a male or female head on an uncustomizable male or female body.
So I ask: why can’t we have more freedom of choice? Why not have the choice to have a pudgey or even outright obese Shepard, male or female? How about a gaunt, sickly looking bag of bones? Or, here’s a thought, how about something that might actually be average?
Sure, people play games to escape, and part of the escapism is becoming someone else, even a more heroic and idealized version of yourself. But if you tout such customizablity, and cause such and uproar over what is ultimately a trivial and really let’s face it inconsequential choice, you’re just pointing out that you’re shitting on the cupcake and calling it frosting.
It’s probably not why the majority of people are pissed off about this issue. Hell, it’s probably not even one of the reasons that more than a handful of people are angry about it. But it’d be the reason that I’d be mad about it if I gave enough of a toss to care to begin with.
Afterword: Just so that we’re not confused here, I’m in no way, shape, or form saying that sexism isn’t a problem in video games. Hell, it’s still enough of one that it will probably be a theme week for posts at some point down the line. I believe that in this case though, it’s really just the same old stereotypical crap on both sides of the fence, which is why I can’t inherently get as wound up over it as a lot of the other people that have weighed in.