Thursday, June 23, 2011

Asari: Bluer than your matriarch's Orion slave girls!

I was originally going to title this post "Asari: the unGender" before I realized that my whole point is that they're not ungendered (read on!).  Whatever,  I've been waiting fifteen years to make a 7-Up unCola joke; it was too good an opportunity to miss!  See, one of my all-time favorite games is Cool Spot.  If you haven't played it, it's one of the last whimsical, fun side-scrollers.  In my opinion.  I would venture to say that it's the best licensed-property game I've ever played.  I would.

Anyway, I'm here to talk about some asari.

You want to talk about asari?
The reason I want to talk about the asari is because of their gender.  As someone who identifies off the gender binary, I'm forced almost every day to consider issues of gender as they pertain to my life.  I've found that a lot of people I interact with don't think about these things.  There's "womanly" and "manly" and there are the "deviants" who act "too feminine" or "too masculine" for whatever gender we assign to them based on their biological sex. 

As an aside, I'm writing with the assumption that the reader has a basic concept of critical gender theory.  If you don't, uh.  Google "critical gender theory" and go from there.  Everything I write, as always, is only my opinion as I observe things with a critically trained, but still fannish, eye.  I'm happy to answer specific questions about stuff, but I really am not a good teacher.  I swear.  I also write this only to start a discussion on the topic, not to complete one.  My thoughts are scattered and unprofessional, for I am scattered and not a professional.

So the asari, we are told, are monogendered. Liara, the adorable archaeologist asari (see what I did there?), says "male and female have no meaning for us."

I think it's helpful to ignore the gendered pronouns and descriptors that characters use in-game to describe asari.  I have only played the game in English, I'd be curious to know what other languages use for the asari.  Arguably, we don't have words that are equivalent to the words aliens use to describe themselves.  So we end up with our words used in the best way they can be, which may be lacking such as "mother" and "father" or "matriarch", "maiden" and "matron" (which are pretty much shout outs to the triptych feminine goddess/es of many cultures).  

Basically, "the only water in the forest is the river."  (Sorry, Doctor Who reference.)

But the codex exists to describe things in our terms.  Theoretically.  And this is what we get from the codex:
"[W]hile asari have only one gender, they are not asexual like single-celled life—all asari are sexually female."
The definition of sexually female that we've established seems to be pretty simple.  Females produce ova (eggs!).  Even plant-females. But that's not how the asari reproduce, so it's not really applicable.  So if the asari are female, they are female in a way that females from our planet are not.  But... what way?  

I call shenanigans!  And here's why.

First: they have mammaries.  Or two sacs of something hanging off their chest.  If they're not mammaries, they're a pretty good imitation of mammaries, and I find it really hard to believe that an entire non-mammaried species would get implants just to fit in.  But since they don't reproduce the same way mammals do, these are apparently vestigial mammaries.  Unless they produce milk, which just makes it even harder to buy that the asari are completely different from human females.  Either way, the mammaries stand out.  Er.  You know.

Second, and more importantly: the Mass Effect series is written by humans for human consumption.  We are applying our rules, values, and social mores to fictional species.  For the most part, the people writing mainstream media think there are only two genders and that those genders are fixed, with only a little bit of wiggle room (such as "tom boys").  They also create games written for the eyes of a particular consumer.  Despite what the game tells us about gender having no meaning to the asari, it has a lot of meaning to us.  And all of the signs BioWare gives me are pointing towards the asari being, generally, feminine women.  

When I see blue-skinned humanoids with what appear to be mammaries dancing up on tables or down in laps in Chora's Den, I immediately think of one thing.

Orion Slave Girl

When I find out that the main sex worker on the Citadel is a blue-skinned humanoid with what appear to be mammaries,  who visibly only employs women, connections happen in my brain.  For comparison here, the Blooming Rose in Dragon Age 2 has a variety of sex and gender options in your preferred sex worker.  That says to me that BioWare probably knew exactly what they were doing, at least by the time of Mass Effect 2.  They were stocking a brothel with one gender, made up of feminine women.  (I know that ME2 was released first, but they were in development at the same time.  And I've been told DA:O had similar options to DA:2.)

There are more signs.  Liara's armor is the feminine version in Mass Effect, for example.  Azure.  Samara's outfit.  Morinth's succubus-like story.  The way the asari talk.  Some are big and some are small, but there are plenty of parts of the games that scream "the asari are feminine".  

There are two notable exceptions to all this femininity.  Aria T'Loak, who is ruthlessly in charge of an entire space station, and Matriarch Aethyta, who's given a deeper voice and more predatory behavior that generally invokes a sense of masculinity.  Considering she's probably Liara's father, I don't think that's a coincidence.  

My point is that even if the asari have only one sex and one gender inside their fictional universe, and even though they say that human gender concepts don't apply to them, BioWare wants us to think of them as feminine unless they are in masculine roles (the head of a criminal society or a known character's "father"), and BioWare very clearly makes them appear female.

It's a missed opportunity to show us twenty-first century humans living in a very rigid culture what it means to really not have gender be a concern, to really be an ungendered species or a fluid-gendered species or an openly multi-gendered specie, to really be a species that is completely alien to our sensibilities, and to therefore knock our sensibilities around a little and make us question what we think of as the norm.  

Is it a video game company's job to do that?  I don't know.  But they think it's their job to comment on racism (sorta) and deal with sexism (kinda).  In a game series about a galaxy full of aliens, why does everyone have to seem so human?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Dear Comics: Stop Killing People

As you know, if you read my blog or follow me on twitter (@retconning), I haven't been able to keep up with comics in the buy-them-every-week way.  I don't have the money, as I am one of the horde of underemployed people in the world.  But I follow in other ways, via comic blogs and twitter feeds, and I've kept pretty much up to speed on storylines and the various developments involving my favorite characters.

But somehow I'd missed the news that Bucky Barnes was dead.

When I finally found out, it hit my like a sucker punch to the gut.

I wrote about why I love Bucky in the role of Captain America nearly two years ago.  Not much has changed in that time.  And, yeah, I knew they were going to give the role of Cap back to Steve Rogers because of the movie.  I was okay with it.  I figured Bucky could head somewhere else, do good work, be the same interesting and intense guy he is, just without the shield.

But, nope.  Had to kill him.

Why?  Does this change anything?  Help to character growth?  Steve already lost Bucky once.  The Avengers already lost Captain America.  Natasha has lost lovers.  This isn't new.

Then I got angry.   I can understand how fans of Captain America felt when he was killed, but there was never any doubt he'd be back.  And I know what you're saying now: "Psh, it's comics.  He'll be back."


Maybe, but it was still a pointless death of a great character to "advance" the storyline of a character who hasn't done anything new in forty years.

I won't compare DC's treatment of legacy characters to Marvel's.  They both have their faults.  But DC doesn't seem afraid of letting its second and third generation characters exist next to its originals.  There are currently three Flashes: Jay Garrick, Barry Allen, and Wally West.  There are two Green Arrows: Oliver Queen and Connor Hawke.  The universe isn't worse for it, they're better, because those other characters are awesome.

Besides, Bucky isn't a second generation character.  He's been with Steve from the beginning.  He was never "Kid America", he was Bucky and then he was Winter Soldier and then he was Captain America. He wasn't a sidekick, he was a scout.  And then he was a hero.  And the he was a leader.

And now he's dead.

And it still feels pointless.

RIP, Bucky Barnes.

Friday, June 10, 2011

X-Men First Class: We Don't Need No Stinking Allegories

I wanted to give X-Men First Class some time to settle in my brain before I wrote down my opinions about it.  There have been a lot of fantastic responses on the internets regarding the portrayal of race and gender in a movie set in a time very unfriendly to people of color and women (more unfriendly than now), and they said a lot of what I was thinking.

There has also been a lot of talk about the continued use of the X-Men movies as an allegory for the struggle of GLBT people.

The day before I went to see the movie, I read a review on (spoilers!):
These gay parallels were edgy and interesting in 2003 (and in 2000, when the first X-Men movie came out). But in 2011? It hasn't just been done — it's about as far from edgy as you can get. Why not an actualgay mutant, not just mutants as metaphors for gays? Even the "assimilation or separatist" debate has long since been settled by most GLBT folks.
Ignoring that last statement, which is completely ridiculous and fodder for another post all together, I think that's a valid question.  Har har, there was a "Don't Ask Don't Tell" joke nearly a year after it was overturned.  Timely!  Don't worry though, that guy's in love with a lady (who likes ladies also, but only in the comics and not in the movies... yet), so you won't have to actually see anything involving same-sex affection.  Whew!

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internets, I started to see a lot of fan reaction from a lot of people talking about the chemistry of Charles Xavier (James MacAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender).  Not just saying they had good chemistry, or that they were great in their roles - there was that too - but sexualizing the interaction they had with each other.

What really blew me away about this was people with fairly progressive and critical mindsets walking out of a movie that's arguably about the terrible way we treat people who are different and deciding to fetishize the relationship between two men.  And a few times actually getting defensive when called on it, criticizing people who didn't hold the same opinion.

If you're a comic fan, you may remember when Hal Jordan, in A Cry For Justice, mentioned having a threesome with Lady Blackhawk and Huntress.  There was a lot of intra-community backlash, including a lot of people asking why two women can't just have a friendship without there being anything sexual about it.

I started to feel guilty about my reaction to the First Class stuff and my discomfort with the way people - mostly women, from what I saw - were sexualizing something that, to me, was platonic.  After all, I completely hone in on subtext between two women all the time.  I've been doing it since Xena: Warrior Princess, and I still do it in Rizzoli & Isles.

But then I realized: I'm looking for representation.  Representation of me and the kind of relationships that I have.  I'm not looking for two women to have sex to titillate me.  I'm looking for myself on the screen.  And I'm not finding me there.

Look at me, I'm back at my point.

I don't think we need gay parallels in movies.  I don't think we need allegories anymore.  I think we need actual legitimate, well-written, three dimensional lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender characters on our screens.

The X-Men titles have a few that could be used.  One was already in the movie. Mystique is interesting!  She can change her gender at will, and has been in at least one long-term relationship with a woman.  But we don't see any of that.  We see a girl with low self-esteem who throws herself at men.  Okay.

People like me, the people who have longed for representation in the media we love,  could use some real stories.  Maybe the X-Men movies aren't the place to get those stories.  But don't pretend.  It's 2011, and we don't need allegories any more.  We need our stories.