These games were not written specifically with a woman, much less a woman of color, as the protagonist. At best they were written to be gender- and race-neutral, or at minimum they were written as the cultural default (i.e., white and male). Either way, the story lacks the encoded racism directed at characters of color in even the best of media representations. When Brown Lady Shepard is rude, or curt, or dismissive, the reactions she receives from others are not to her gender or her race, but to her words. Why? Because the character was written with the expectation that most people will play it as a white dude, a character for whom reactions based on gender or race are inconceivable. He’s “normal”, y’see. In real life, and in most media representation, we are culturally conditioned to respond differently to a big ol’ white dude with no manners than we do a woman of color doing the exact same thing.I have a completely unprovable feeling, deep down, that someone at BioWare knew before posting a single picture which of the six Shepards would win the contest, or at least knew that the redhead and the blonde were the two most likely candidates. What I can't help but think, when I read Silverman's interview, is that "throw it to the fans" was BioWare's chance to avoid the responsibility for that choice. As pleased as I still am that there's going to be any female representation in the marketing of Mass Effect 3, this feels like BioWare's way to have their cake and eat it, too. The character being chosen is exactly one that the team who came up with the default male Shepard could have picked entirely on their own, but this way they get to absolve themselves of doing so. It's what "the fans" wanted, after all, and if many of those fans represent the absolute worst of the misogyny inherent in gamer culture, well, it doesn't actually matter. Astonishingly, Jerry "Tycho" Holkins, of Penny Arcade, was right, when discussing this. (The gents at PA have a less-than-stellar track record of dealing with gender issues.) [caption id="attachment_5948" align="aligncenter" width="400" caption="The comic makes a perfectly good point - it's just the wrong point entirely for the discussion. "][/caption] Tycho wrote:
"It’s one of these online shitstorms in certain quarters now, people don’t like how it shook out, or who might have shaken it out. That’s the trouble with democracy, huh? The wrong people are always voting."
And it's true: none of us can really look at fans of a game voting and honestly claim that some should have a say, and others shouldn't. If you're going to let the player base have a say, then all players should have an equal chance to raise their voices.The question is: should the player base really be having a say at all? Writer Dennis Scimeca has wisely observed:
Gamers who play as FemShep are intensely attached to the character. She has inspired numerous fan videos on YouTube both inventive and hilarious. Websites have been created to celebrate her. She has even taken a symbolic role in the social justice community. This devotion is what made an open vote on her official depiction so puzzling to me. That devotion comes from only 18% of Mass Effect players. Allowing votes from the other 82% who have no vested interest in a depiction of a female Commander Shepard feels like disrespecting the dedicated fans who made this marketing campaign happen, by drowning their voices in the noise of the mob.I've realized: that's the crux of my discomfort. At first I thought it was personal -- I felt like something special to me was being invaded by an unruly horde, and I felt that it was on me to grow up and get over it, because I have no personal claim on any of it. To a certain degree that is, admittedly, true, although I never needed or wanted to see specificallymy Shepard on the box. But the thing is: it doesn't really matter which Commander Shepard is chosen. The actual problem runs far deeper than this leading lady. The problem is that once again, as seems to happen so often in our society, a female body and a female appearance have become a matter of public debate and public determination. Shepard may be a digital construction, rather than a real woman, but she has still just become the subject of a popularity contest -- and, yes, a beauty pageant -- for a majority male audience. The issue is not that Commander Shepard is a blonde; the issue is that she is and remains FemShep. That's what the Penny Arcade strip missed. She is still the other. When Shepard is a woman, she is not a default anything and BioWare won't position her as such. Can you imagine if she had always been on the box, and if DudeShep were the one a fan campaign had finally brought to prominence? Where is the world in which we the fans vote which one of six beefy men to put on the reverse cover? The frustration I personally feel is not one of betrayal or of disgust; BioWare is, ultimately, a software company. Their job is to turn a profit and to sell as many units of their games as possible, and I certainly don't begrudge their actions. My frustration, rather, is of lost potential. Lesley was right: Mass Effect was a chance for something different. For so many players, FemShep has beensomething different. And this marketing change was a rare opportunity for something new, for something special. Instead, we have this supermodel. She doesn't invalidate the Commander. She does, though, return many of her players, who had hoped just this once for something other than the stereotypical Hollywood wet dream, to the margins. Alas, we players of the badass lady are in the minority, and minority voices are easily overridden. Perhaps there should never have been a vote to start with, but as there was, I can't cry about its outcome. Of course ultimately, it's all so much chaff in the wind. Neither the trailer nor the collector's edition box art affect the game one tiny bit. They never would, never could, and never did. But BioWare was so, so close. The FemShep campaign took us all three steps forward, and the FemShep Facebook vote took us two steps back. We're still a step ahead of where we were, to be sure, but it could have been better still. I hope to see a "next time" where it can be. [Originally posted at Your Critic Is In Another Castle]