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?


  1. This was a great post and very thought provoking about my favorite games! Thanks. :)

  2. My pleasure.  Thank you for commenting!

  3. This is exactly what's always bothered me about the Asari--with some of the references points too. Bioware is clearly aware of what they're doing--I haven't played through DA2, but whatever the brothel was called in the first Dragon Age clearly covered as many bases as it could.

    The Star Trek point that it recalls to me though is the Next Generation episode called "The Outcast", where Riker falls for a member of an androgynous race (who in the show are all played by women). William Frakes who played Riker is on record for wanting them to have gone with male actors instead, thinking they weren't gutsy enough.

    And there's Avatar, where James Cameron says the Navi shouldn't have breasts at all, but he thought they looked better. Well, that wins points for honesty from me at least.

  4. I actually considered mentioning "The Outcast", but I like to pretend it never happened.  Frakes' comments aside, which were really great, that episode has pretty much zero redeeming qualities.  TBH, I thought Trek did better with the Trill (besides the first, horrendous episode wherein Beverly suffered gay panic after her boyfriend became her girlfriend).  Having a gender neutral creature rely on binary gendered hosts was super interesting.  I wish they'd done more with that species. 

    Yeah, I'd definitely give credit to Cameron for at least owning up.  Considering how BioWare has tackled issues of sexuality, it makes me think they at least have a few people wandering around who may have considered the asari gender.

  5. I had similar feelings about their depiction. Sexy dancers on space stations with lots of humans aren't really how I'd portray an ungendered species.

    Interesting observations in general!

  6. I think I could accept sexy dancers if we had more of a balance.  But the sexy dancers along with every other feminine-assigned role really didn't help me at all when thinking about the asari gender.

    Thanks for your comment!

  7. yes I agree. just mentioned it because it was so prominent... 

    Now let's imagine a Turian in briefs and a tight t-shirt doing a sexy dance... awkward much?  ;-)