Although I haven’t been getting anything productive done lately, I have been playing a lot of video games. Specifically, I just finished Mass Effect 3.
I really enjoy the Mass Effect series (it’s my second favorite after the Dragon Age series), for a lot of reasons, but I think maybe one of the most interesting is that this is a man’s story that can be played as a woman.
What I mean by that is: Mass Effect is a science-fiction story about the square-jawed, hard-boiled space trooper, Commander Shepard. You know, this guy:
Right? Generic White Guy Sci-Fi Hero.
Only—you’re actually allowed to make Commander John Shepard whoever you want him to be. He doesn’t have to be white, and he doesn’t even have to be a guy. In my games it’s Commander Jane Shepard, wiry, tough-talking redhead, who the crew of the SSV Normandy would follow to the gates of frackin’ hell and back.
Because most of the video-game-playing audience is male, the story is designed with the guy pictured above in mind. I think BioWare has said that 82% percent of players choose a male Commander Shepard. So if you decide to make Jane your heroine, you get to play through a game where you are really, truly treated just as a man would be in the same kind of story. You get to try on that swagger, you get that deference and privilege and assumption of leadership. Your competence and bad-assery are never questioned. Women of all species throw themselves at you. Men of all species give you the bro-fist. You get really big guns.
There’s something…subversive, and liberating, and just enormously fun about this. Our cultural assumptions around masculinity and femininity are so deeply embedded that I don’t know if it’s even possible to create a story so free from gendered weight unless it was done exactly this way: a story that was developed for a hero, in which a heroine is unexpectedly substituted. I mean, let me put it this way. Over the course of three games, though she’s variously: captured, beaten, stripped of command, and just frackin’ shot to hell (at one point she’s literally clawing her way forward as her own blood pools around her), Jane Shepard never endures any kind of sexual threat. I could be forgetting some throwaway line somewhere, but I really don’t think there’s anything, and there’s definitely not anything major or serious. Rape just isn’t a problem that exists in Shepard’s storyverse. Can you imagine an epic story told about a female soldier that never even glances at the possibility of rape? It’s weirdly refreshing.
I mean, it’s a cliche that when people sit down to tell a story about a “strong female character,” one of the first, laziest signifiers they’ll reach for is to make her a rape survivor. We have plenty of Red Sonja-style “strong female characters” for whom sexual vulnerability is combined-and-contrasted with some kind of superficial martial strength. And clearly the real point is titillation for the (presumably male) audience. Obviously rape exists, and stories, including fantasy and sci-fi stories, about women dealing with rape do and should exist also. But damn, is it nice to have one epic action tale where Our Heroine spends exactly as much time worrying about rape as Captain Kirk does.
Being Jane Shepard lets me try on a specifically male fantasy of power and derring-do, but I get to experience it as a woman. I dunno, I mean ultimately I don’t want to stress this too hard. I just feel like it’s something video games can do that other forms of storytelling, like books or movies, usually can’t. It’s horizon-broadening. And it’s fun.