I’ve been sitting on this post for a while, and after years of thinking of how to write it I still have no conclusive plan but to jump in and finally do it. Now, my enjoyment of the Mass Effect series isn’t a new or surprising thing, and not really having ever jumped on the Star Trek/Star Wars bandwagon, the series could very well have been my first serious venture into the sci-fi genre. However, as this blog has discussed before, sci-fi is full of some pretty shitty tropes, and Mass Effect isn’t as much of as an exception as one would hope. I think where this is clearest is concerning matters of the asari—one of the main alien races in the game, and the one that presents as wholly female. As a culture, the asari are complex and compelling; however, a lot of their biology and presentation leave me wondering if Bioware didn’t know what to do with them outside of a very narrow label.
In the universe’s galaxy, the asari are one of the longest lived races (both in terms of lifespan and time existed) and were able to gain power quickly due to the technology and information given to them by the Protheans (an even older race). Because of this, the asari are typically portrayed as the ones who will compromise—they don’t need to immediately hop into battle because of the advantages they have—and the ones who want to hear every side to a story before deciding on something. In a political setting, in any case. In a less formal setting, these things are typically eschewed in favor of presenting the asari as hyper-sexual and violent. Because what else would an all-female presenting race of aliens be, amirite? Why have a more nuanced expression of a race when you can feed into both a motherly stereotype and, to an extent, a nympho stereotype at once?
During the maiden stage of their lives (the first third of possibly thousands of years), the asari are allowed, and expected, to experience the more exciting parts of life. There are many ways this could be interpreted—for Liara, one of the player’s crewmates, it meant going on archaeological excursions—but the way the audience is shown nine times out of ten is that maiden asari join a gang and/or become exotic dancers and prostitutes. There’s nothing wrong with this in theory, of course; some asari are going to be drawn to this kind of excitement when their future years look so mellow and boring in comparison, but as someone in the audience, this is basically all you see the maiden asari doing, at least en masse. And true, playing as someone in the military on a mission, the player doesn’t necessarily see the asari who live a quieter life, but to present the image that the player would barely ever run into a young asari who wasn’t involved some way in these activities doesn’t really present sexuality or violence as empowering or “breaking the gender stereotype”. This is both because when there’s a limited number of options presented and several options aren’t even discussed or shown, it seem like a forced choice instead of a natural one, and because saying that the asari have a gender stereotype to break would be a misnomer.
Asari are shown entirely as typically human feminine presenting bodies, but they don’t identify as women. Why would they: the asari are monogendered, and thus have no need to distinguish themselves in that way. However, this in and of itself brings up an interesting question: if the asari culture shouldn’t have much concerns in the way of gender—even for procreation—why is everything so steeped in feminine qualities? Their stages of life clearly are connected with womanhood (Maiden, Matron, and Matriarch), they constantly refer to each other and are referred to as “she”, and their children are always called daughters. Again, this would be fine if there was a reason for it. True, it could be written off as “these are the closest approximations for asari words in the human language”, but there is no reason why the asari, as a culture, should be defined by strictly feminine terms. That being the case, I find it especially hard to believe there would be no asari who would correct humans on the potentially incorrect pronoun. And there’s no reason that their concept of gender would fit so easily into human consumption and that it must absolutely be referred to with typically feminine words.
Concerning this idea of forced femininity, much of the asari’s biology has evolved to facilitate reproduction between them and different species. Different races find different parts of their body attractive, and thus the asari can continue growing as a race by gaining the DNA of the other races in their own (since asari children are only ever born asari). Given this, why then have the asari bodies changed to look attractive to humans—presumably human males? At the beginning of Mass Effect the humans have just barely made contact with the other alien races, so humans shouldn’t really be on the asari’s radar as a vital population to try and reproduce with. Additionally, why has their biology conformed to a breast-having body? It’s not stated that asari even need breasts for the purposes we know them for. In terms of reproduction, asari are able to reproduce with any race and any gender, so out of the whole entire universe, it seems incredibly strange in-game, and un-creative out of game, that they would somehow adhere to a human male cishet standard of attractiveness.
The asari as a race, struggling to keep on top of the technological food chain while dealing with their inter-racial problems and galactic politics, are incredibly interesting. As far as that goes, it feels like they definitely belong in this series. However, in a game that also gave us bird-like aliens, jellyfish aliens, and various other interesting looking aliens, it seems very pandering to the male gaze to create this race that has no reason to be steeped so much in the “feminine mystique”, but is anyway. It’s a problem a lot of aliens have when it comes to wanting to present them as “attractive”, but there has to come a point where media as a whole accepts that typically feminine, perfect bodies are not the only way to denote attractiveness when dealing with a race that presents as all-female.