Dispatches from the Villain Fem Shep

For many, the voice of Mark Meer mixed with the name Commander Shepard is the sound of a hero. But, when the voice of Jennifer Hale is combined with the character model of female Shepard (ubiquitously known as Fem Shep), I hear something different. It’s not the stern, but compassionate voice of a hero. Instead, I hear the malice-filled snarl of an unpleasant menace.

It has nothing to do with Hale’s performance, which is far and above most voice acting in recent memory, but all to do with my own choices. My experiences with  creating my very own Fem Shep always come after I’ve already beaten the main story. My first and main character in RPGs is usually a frail, mentally competent, pale-faced protagonist.  It’s when time for replaying comes along that a troubling pattern emerges.

As a completionist, I want to see the other side of the story. I didn’t pay $60 just to save the galaxy once as a scrawny space-psychic. But, since I can’t customize my new character to be Asari or whatever fish-race Thane is, my new hero will embody the only two remaining customizable characteristics. She will be a woman and she will be a mean-spirited, malevolent, ethically troubling nightmare.

It’s entirely unintentional, but still remains a rather negative thing to do. Without fail, my male character is a hero and my female is a mean, violent, borderline sociopath. A psychiatrist might draw some rather troubling conclusions about my opinion of the opposite sex. My insistence that I’ve created this vicious lady to earn virtual “achievement” points may not help explain the situation any better.

But what’s truly amazing isn’t my accidental misogyny, but that the world of Mass Effect is devoid of it in return. Despite the fact that my enemies range from space pirates to mercenary soldiers, scarcely anyone calls my Fem Shep a bitch. There are virtually no derogatory remarks belittling my capability to fight on account of my virtual boobs. No one makes a sarcastic remark about “my gender” and driving ability when I accidentally ramp the M35 Mako upside down into a crater.

fem shep screenshot1.jpg

There was recently some controversy regarding Arkham City’s over-usage of the word ‘bitch’ in relation to Catwoman and, to a lesser extent, Batman. The biggest defense to this complaint was that this was likely how unhinged, immoral psychopaths would speak. But, in the case of my Fem Shep, sleazy hired space mercenaries and murderous intergalactic pirates scarcely touch the phrase or any similar derogatory expression. They speak with tough-talk and back it up with violence, which is likely more accurate. Even better, it’s significantly more enjoyable to interact with.

Of course, it’s not that enemies don’t have anything mean to say, but rather their mid-battle insults and tough-talk isn’t gender-specific. If you trigger every Renegade option, you’ll hear some pretty pissed-off people mouth off to you. But, the most common term uttered in disgust from disgruntled aliens is merely “human.” The fact that I’m a female commander shooting hostages in the head has no bearing on the dialog.

Of course, this world free of gender-specific hatred is probably more of a side effect of having an interchangeable hero. Much of the world adapts to your choices, but dialog must often boil down to an extremely elaborate game of Mad Libs. It’s not like the Bioware team wrote an entire second game with a female lead. She’s just one of two paths. The void of sexist talk must just come from defaulted dialog with a few minor changes to accommodate the gender change, right?

Probably, but isn’t that how it should be?

Miranda, for instance, is a woman first and foremost and the game doesn’t do much to let us get past this. She wears a skintight bodysuit that would make WWE wrestlers blush and she delivers her line as if she’s on duty as a phone sex operator. Bioware’s Marketing Manager David Silverman insisted that Miranda’s sexy appearance was engineered with the rest of her, so it’s only logical that she showcases her looks as much as her combat expertise. This may come from sensible intent, but the camera angles are out of her hands and they fixate regularly on lengthy ass-shots.

Jack, despite being basically naked if not for some leather straps, is surprisingly not sexualized. Instead, it’s her renegade nature that makes her difficult to see as anything but the unhinged maniac. Jack’s personality has its interesting elements, but she spends too much time calling herself a bitch. It’s obviously like the rest of personality, but it keeps her from being anything but what she describes herself as. “All powerful bitch.”

Fem Shep is the middle ground of both characters. She’s decked out in legitimate battle armor that somehow defies sci-fi and fantasy rules by not showing copious cleavage and a midriff. My Renegade version was powerful and gruff, but managed to still justify her actions under the umbrella of saving the world. She’s extremely sexual, considering the ultimate goal of every one of the game’s relationships is a glossy, pseudo-porn montage. But, she’s not sexualized, just sexual. Once again, Bioware manages to give you choices without calling constant, obnoxious attention to them.

I had predicted that I would become annoyed with my evil Fem Shep. I anticipated a constant stream of awkward sexuality jammed into every line of dialog. Evil options in games always feel so needlessly masochistic, so I expected to feel like a space-version of Snidely Whiplash. I imagined the clumsy gender acknowledgement would only get worse as I played my character with grisly ethics. But, what came out instead was a sturdy example of virtual complicated morals and gender equality.

Evil or angelic, female or male, the game treats you accordingly without bludgeoning you with your own identity. You will see the consequences of your evil actions, but you won’t grow horns or make civilians run in terror. There’s no glaring cleveage that make the men flock to you. In a medium where every protagonist is traditionally male, gender choice manages to not be an intrusive character trait in Mass Effect. That’s worth some serious respect. Shepard can gun down or sleep with whomever he or she wants. Your choice of sex simply boils down to which voice actor sounds best kicking a Krogan’s teeth in. For me, my vote goes to Fem Shep.