With Mass Effect 3 on the horizon and approaching fast, BioWare is moving into the last stage of marketing for the trilogy's conclusion; they're producing the launch trailers and getting ready to shift the hype machine up a few thousand notches until it explodes into a cloud of fans, money, and success.
Recently, to the pleasant surprise of players, they announced that FemShep would finally receive her own place on the box art and in the promotional material: trailers, posters, merchandise, and all the other perks of being a galaxy-trotting superhero.
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This was rightly hailed as a great step forward for female characters in video games. Now, I can no longer count the number of strong women in my games on my fingers — someday I hope that my toes will also be insufficient for the task.
But in true BioWare fashion, one step forward often entails two steps back and a nasty fall down an elevator shaft into a mass driver. Instead of taking the obvious choice and using the default FemShep for the promotional material, they have taken it upon themselves to create six different custom versions of her and let the community vote on their favorite.
The iconic default FemShep is nowhere to be found.
At no point in the series' history has MaleShep been put under such scrutiny by the public. For now, let's disregard the fact that her waist appears to have been forced into a corset for these shots. Let's also disregard the fact that the blonde-haired, blue-eyed version (reminiscent of Team Ninja's Samus Aran, if anyone hasn't yet scoured their memory clean of that particular incident) has more votes than any of the others by a huge margin.
The real issue here is the comments on the vote page. Here are a few excerpts [all quotes left unedited--Ed.]:
"I'm torn between 4,5 and 6. 4 is hottest but 5 and 6 would work too."
"4!4!4! the most beutiful shepard"
"1 or 2, 1 because it looks like Natalie Portman, 2 is just plain hot"
"Number 4… sexy brunette"
"5 she's beautiful"
"#2!!! Redheads are hot"
To be fair, most of the comments aren't as explicit in their judgment (maybe because the entire thread is one long torrent of "5 is best from this 6 girls!!!" punctuated by the occasional confused fan asking where default Shepard is.
I can't speak on her behalf, but I'm pretty sure she didn't spend thirty years working her ass off to become a soldier, a commander, the first human specter, and finally, a hero of the Alliance only to be judged on her physical appearance and then have it altered to please public opinion.
I personally spent all of my playthrough telling the public to fuck off so I could get busy saving their lives. Hell, one of the most iconic scenes in the series is when Shepard has a choice between pandering to the public image of what an Alliance hero should be and punching a reporter in the fucking face.
FemShep was apprehended today in BioWare's head office for forcefully re-educating the Director of Marketing. Several eyewitness reports confirm that…nope, nobody saw nuthin.
A recurring theme in the Mass Effect universe is how much hate and skepticism players have to withstand from the Council, their superiors, and even the people they're trying so hard to save. When I played as a male Shepard, it was just because they were assholes. When I played through again as female Shepard, it suddenly took on new meaning.
To me, Shepard is a woman. Not just because Jennifer Hale is an incredibly talented voice actor, and not just because FemShep gets the funniest dialogue in the series with the Garrus romance in Mass Effect 2.
I've played hundreds of tough-guy space marines saving humanity…or the world…or the universe from annihilation. I've played the dangerous, underdog renegade and the imperious fleet commander. I've played struggling cops and wry sociopathic thieves. Cold-blooded hitmen and psychotic magical warriors.
When Mass Effect came along, the one thing I had never played before was a woman who had risen to the very top of a distinguished military career, defied prejudice in a male-dominated universe day after day, and even put up with denial of her achievements after saving the entire Council from certain death and allegations that she was "unbalanced." To anyone who's experienced misogyny in action (or watched Sigourney Weaver in Aliens), this all feels disturbingly familiar.
Commander Shepard v. the Galactic Council. Wait a minute….
But Shepard pulls through time and time again. Rising above this criticism, she does her job and does it better than anyone else. Countless millions are saved. This is why FemShep is so important. She isn't just a great character; she's a feminist icon. Gaming needs her (especially now that Samus Aran has been forced into high heels and a latex bodysuit), but she's being devalued by BioWare's pandering to the age-old idea that sex sells.
Sure, if you can make your main character's appearance appeal to the widest audience possible (by making her a blue-eyed blonde with pointlessly figure-hugging armor) then you're going to sell a fuckton of copies.
Gaming is moving forward; there's no doubt about it. It's maturing as an art form, but until we can drag it out of this rut, where female characters are consistently — without fail — reduced to their capacity for sex appeal, then it's never going to get much further than this.
I urge you all to let BioWare know that they're failing to recognize one of their greatest achievements. If we lose Commander Shepard, then we lose one of the strongest female characters in mainstream gaming today.
I'll leave you with one last comment I've quoted from the voting page, when discussion turned briefly to another character's possible appearance:
"This seems like a great way for Bioware to satisfy fans of Tali'Zorah. Post a selection of possible appearances and let majority rule."
I don't want to see a Tali decided by popular opinion. If you romanced her, you should have done it for her character; not for the promise of a beautiful face under that mask.