Last weekend, I played Omega, the latest DLC for Mass Effect 3. It’s good. Not great. Solidly good. But while it’s not the most memorable DLC of the series (Lair of the Shadow Broker still reigns supreme in my book), there was one thing I noticed right off the bat. Omega does not give you a choice of squadmates, so for most of the mission, you’re teamed up with ruthless crime boss Aria T’Loak and chaotic good newcomer Nyreen Kandros, the game’s first female Turian. If you play Commander Shepard as a woman, as I do, this means that the entire story revolves around the heroic exploits of three ladies. Three badass, intelligent, well-written ladies, two of which have a compelling romantic history. I grinned, aimed my assault rifle, and thought, “This is awesome.”
Later, my reaction made me tangentially think of a family of comments I’ve often seen whenever conversations about female characters in pop culture arise: Why does it matter? If we believe that all people are equal, regardless of gender, then why do we care about how many women are on screen? Aren’t there more important things to worry about? Why are we creating a divide by putting a separate focus on female characters? Doesn’t that just prove that we prefer female-driven stories, and that we’d like to do away with male protagonists entirely?
And honestly, fascinating as I find gender discussions to be, they shouldn’t matter. I wish that was the case. I wish that seeing three combat-ready women on screen didn’t make my ears prick. When I launched the game, I did not have a notebook on hand, ready to tally how many women showed up. I did not crack my knuckles and say, “Ah, yes, time for my daily dose of gender studies.” All I did was sit down to play a video game, because I wanted to spend my Saturday afternoon being a space hero. When I took note of the women on my screen, it wasn’t a conscious, analytical reaction. It was the instinctive kick of my lizard brain alerting me to the presence of something it doesn’t often see.
I witnessed a similar reaction several months ago, when my partner’s non-gaming sister stopped by our apartment during a playthrough of ME3. She walked in during a cutscene on Lesuss, a world populated by Asari. She watched for a moment or so and said, “Wait, is everyone in this game a girl?” My mind was still focused on dealing with banshees, so I switched gears and took inventory. My partner’s choice of protagonist gender and squadmates had indeed resulted in an scene without men: Shepard, Liara, Tali, Samara, and her daughters. “No,” I said, “but this planet is run by an all-female species, and there are a lot of women you can choose to have on your team. It just kind of happened this way.” “That’s really cool,” she said. And it is — not just for the number of women, but also for the fact that they are all distinctive characters with a wide range of personality traits and motivations. How often do you see a scene like that in any sort of media, let alone a military sci-fi setting?
That rarity is why I find myself drawn to this topic. If you have an egalitarian view of gender but still find yourself surprised to see women portrayed as more than tokens or eye candy, this begs the question of why. If society has reached a point where gender doesn’t matter, as the aforementioned comments suggest, then why am I surprised by such scenes? The answer is that regardless of what I believe about gender (namely that we all deserve equal respect and opportunities, and that the notion of “boys versus girls” needs to die already), popular culture is telling me something different. It’s a bothersome dissonance, and the only way I know how to grok it is by putting narratives under the microscope. That’s not to say that the problem is with individual stories. On paper, there’s nothing wrong with an all-male cast, or a story that lacks prominent female characters. As isolated storytelling possibilities, those are perfectly valid. But in the context of a dominant trend that spans across media (that is, more than one medium) and genres, they warrant dissection. Nothing will change if we just ignore it and hope that the imbalance will correct itself. When has that ever worked?
Games — and comics, and movies, and books — aren’t on the same level of importance as many of the pressing challenges that our species faces, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important at all. Stories are important. Expression is important. Art is important. The human race has always come to know itself through abstraction. In world history, the kinds of stories that a particular people told are hugely relevant. When we learn about the Ancient Greeks, we learn about their mythology. When we learn about the Middle Ages, we learn about passion plays and pageant wagons. When we learn about the Industrial Revolution, we learn about early science fiction. Stories are the means by which we understand the prominent values of a culture. So when we see that our own stories overwhelmingly represent a narrow portion of the population, the underlying message troubles us. If gender no longer matters, then why are our stories showing us worlds in which half of humanity barely exists? Why are girls outnumbered three to one in children’s media? Why does it blow our minds when we first learn about the Bechdel test? Why can none but those with encyclopedic knowledge of video games name ten or more fixed-gender female protagonists? If women — or people of color, or LGBT people, or any other marginalized group — are valued equally, then why aren’t our stories being told?
If you’ve never had the feeling that part of your identity isn’t represented in popular culture, if you have an easy time of finding stories that include people who look and act like you, it can be really difficult to understand why this is so important to some of us. I get that. This is a tricky thing to relate to if you’ve never encountered it yourself. As someone who has experienced that feeling her entire life, believe me when I say that it leaves a void in you. If you often feel like the odd one out in reality, a lack of visibility in the stories that you love insidiously re-enforces the belief that that’s exactly how it’s meant to be — that you’re weird, or lesser, or unwanted. If you carry that feeling around with you, finding a story that does include you, that tells you that you’re both welcome and awesome, is a transformative experience. My favorite example of this is Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to become an astronaut, who was inspired to join the space program after seeing Lieutenant Uhura on the original Star Trek. Fictional characters make a real difference. And even if we don’t become astronauts or people of note, the feeling of acceptance that comes with seeing a hero like ourselves is still profound, especially when it’s within a medium or a setting that we already care about. When I first played Mass Effect and saw that the savior of the galaxy could not only be a courageous, persevering woman, but that she could also get the girl, I felt like I had come home. As the crew of the Normandy fought Sovereign, and later Harbinger, I battled my personal demons — my discomfort with my sexuality, my lack of confidence, my low self-esteem. Those games walked alongside me as I learned to open up to others and love myself a little more. Commander Shepard gave me armor, and I wear it still. I’m not sure that would’ve happened if she hadn’t been, categorically speaking, someone like me.
As much as I want gender to not matter, the stories I consume typically tell me otherwise, and I think that’s worth talking about. Not because women view female characters as superior to male characters, or because we want to do away with male-led stories entirely. Goodness, no. Imagine a world without Link, or Cloud Strife, or Gordon Freeman. Imagine — I’m about to make my editor’s blood run cold — a world without Batman. I don’t want those stories to disappear. All I want is a game culture (or really, a storytelling culture) in which things like Omega don’t strike me as unusual. I want to see more fictional universes that accurately represent the diversity of our existence. Making an even playing field does not mean depriving people of the types of stories that they already love. There is a place for all stories, even the ones that I don’t like or can’t relate to. I think a world in which stories only appealed to or represented me would be a bizarre, stagnant, dishonest thing.
Which is rather the point.