Quick hit: Shepard ain’t white: Playing with race and gender in Mass Effect

I’m going to admit, I haven’t played Mass Effect 2, but I’ve definitely been hearing good things about playing the main character as a woman. There’s lots of good reasons your leading lady may be awesome, but I was particularly taken by this description of how privilege plays a role in making this fun and maybe a little subversive:

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. The white dude is just a jerk, but there’s often a built-in extra rage factor against the woman of color, for daring to be “uppity”, for failing to know her place. This distinction is often unconscious and unrecognized, but it’s there.

In Mass Effect, no matter what my Shepard says or does, not only is the dialogue the same as it would be for the cultural “default”, but the reaction from the other non-player characters is the same. (The only exception to this is the handful of times that Lady Shepard is called a “bitch” — I suppose Dude Shepard may get called a bitch too, but I doubt it. I find it fascinating that they would record specific name-calling dialogue in this way.) Brown Lady Shepard waves her intimidation up in a dude’s face and he backs the fuck down, just like he would if she were a hyper-privileged white guy. My Lady Shepard faces no additional pressure to prove herself because of her background; if she is dismissed, it’s on the basis of her assertions, and not because she’s a queer woman of color from a poor socioeconomic background — even though that’s exactly what she is.

Read the whole post at Two Whole Cakes. (Seriously, do. Otherwise you’re missing out on the tale of how default animations make Lady Shep in a dress either odd or awesome, or how getting drunk has an entirely different context. Contains spoilers, no doubt, but nothing too specific.)

7 thoughts on “Quick hit: Shepard ain’t white: Playing with race and gender in Mass Effect

  1. Torvaun

    I would assume that the times that Female Shepard gets called a bitch are the same as the times Male Shepard gets called a bastard. I haven’t tracked it though, so I can’t say for sure.

  2. lian

    Interesting, I could have written that post :D (were I way more eloquent!) That is to say, I concur.

    Pat Weekes (a Mass Effect writer) recently hosted a discussion on that very topic at his LJ — writing gender-neutral Shepard, yay or nay? — at his LJ: http://pats-quinade.livejournal.com/229049.html

    Currently I’m most keen on the reveal of who they’ve come up with for the femShep trailer — there will be an official female-featured trailer after all as a reaction to years of fan lobbying, heh — but I’m rather pessimistic that it won’t be a woman of colour. Keeping my fingers crossed anyway :*

    For anyone who’s played the game, and very, very a propos to the linked post: you need to see the incredible “The Many Faces of FemShep”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0McQvKVrzk
    (…if you haven’t already, it has deservedly made the rounds.)

    (the others: don’t if you still plan to play — massive spoilers!)

    1. lian

      Apologies, and amendement to the above video link:

      …anyone who has played the gameS, plural — **Spoiler warning for ME1 and ME2!**

  3. Jen

    Makes me think of Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica, who is awesome not only because she is the best pilot on the ship and is tough and breaks rules and gets into fights, but also because she gets treated with the same respect that a man would get if he acted like that. It’s not a coincidence because Starbuck was a man in the original series, who was re-written as a woman in the re-imagined series.

  4. Natalie

    This is exactly what happens with my “brown lady shepherd” as it’s put here. It’s super sweet. In addition, she gets all the credit she deserves for saving the galaxy. I won’t spoil it here, but after you save the galaxy in ME1, people often love and respect you for it in ME2.

  5. Jayn

    I noticed the same thing when playing Saints Row 2. Some of your dialogue changes depending on what voice you choose, but I haven’t noticed any different reactions from other characters. I think even the ‘bitch’ epithet stays regardless of gender. The only place I’ve noticed a difference was in the Ho’ing diversion. The females partners to a male character have some pretty interesting things to say. The male partner to a female character just moans :/

    (The one thing that does bug me is that you get told a few times that you look different from the first game, where playing female wasn’t an option. Yeah, I did something with my hair–and my penis.)

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