Here at The Border House, we have mocked and derided the latest round of excuses from game developers about why we can’t play as women in their games. While most of the reasons are disappointing or sometimes laughably stupid, there is one excuse that has been implemented in the fiction of two high-profile games and has incredibly disturbing implications: all the women are busy having babies.
It sounds stupid, I know. When I encountered this little world-building tidbit the first time, with Mass Effect‘s Krogan, I dismissed it as a convenient excuse for why there aren’t female Krogans in ME–which is what it is, since there are no female Krogan to be seen in either ME or ME2, despite Shepard having to travel to the Krogan’s own homeworld in ME2 (where all the women are supposed to be!)–but it is also so much more. It just took reading this excellent post by Maddy Myers about the Gears of War comic to realize what a nightmare Epic and BioWare are so casually evoking.
Gears of War apparently uses the same excuse for why there aren’t any women on the battlefield (yet) as Mass Effect does for the Krogan–they are too busy making babies, trying to repopulate Earth. In her post, Myers gives a succinct run-down of why this is ridiculous:
If the humans ever hope to keep up with the Horde, maybe they should learn their creating-babies-in-a-lab technology and get some women out there on the field. They’re sacrificing half of their potential troops for no reason! And even if women are “too weak” to fight hand-to-hand, maybe they could fly some bad-ass fighter planes or massive mech armor, Samus-style (or take some of the magical steroids that the guys appear to have been taking). But, no. Apparently, women need to be human incubators instead. Because men can’t be bothered to raise children. And because women most certainly shouldn’t be fighting.
But what really disturbs me is thinking about the actual implications of a society where all the women are drafted (or just strongly encouraged? Is there much of a difference?) into being nothing more than incubators. The result is systemic mass rape and reproductive slavery, in the name of repopulating the planet. I am baffled that BioWare and Epic (though honestly, Epic much less so because of their terrible track record with female characters) would so casually throw out this little factoid without even remarking on what a serious fucking human rights violation this is*. The situation is dire, yes–both the Krogans in ME and the humans in Gears have had their populations devastated, and keeping the species going is important. But at what cost?
Bodily autonomy, which includes the right to decide if and when to become pregnant and give birth, is a basic human right, and yet it is still something women are struggling for around the globe. Many conservative Christian groups in the United States–groups that have and exercise the power to influence lawmakers in many states, like influencing Senator Bart Stupak to hold up health reform in order to roll back abortion coverage, or putting personhood laws on ballots that attempt to give fertilized egg cells the rights of a full human being–advocate against not only abortion but any form of birth control in an attempt to force women into one role: babymaker.
These people are extreme. They do not represent mainstream thought about birth control and women’s rights. And yet these facts about the worlds of Gears of War and Mass Effect show that the idea that a woman’s most important purpose is to bear children is still an idea that is deeply entrenched in our society. In talking about how the one known female Cog, Alex Brand, was allowed to join the military because she’s infertile, Myers goes on to say, “What if a woman just didn’t want to make babies, and wanted to serve humanity in another way? Can the developers really not imagine a scenario where a woman wouldn’t want to to choose this path?”
I hope the reason is a lack of imagination; the only other option is that, in this universe, fertile women are being forced to bear children against their will, and this is considered a necessary hardship that must be endured entirely without critical examination or comment, let alone resistance by the actual incubators women in the story. And what that says is that, if the situation is dire enough, it is acceptable to take away the most basic rights of women, a message which is absolutely unacceptable and reprehensible.
* In Mass Effect this is a footnote in the codex; if any of our readers can elaborate on how this is spoken of in the Gears of War comics or games, I would appreciate it.