The Ongoing Saga of Commander Shepard’s Hair (Of All Things)

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Let me tell you about Commander Shepard. To me, Commander Shepard is a brave and selfless woman from a small border colony, orphaned at a young age by Batarian slavers. She fights with pure physical strength, leaving technical expertise and biotic powers to the loyal friends who follow her into battle. She prefers the raw fury of an assault rifle, though she is tactically minded enough to see the wisdom in using a sniper rifle from time to time. She is fiercely committed to ending the Reaper threat – not just for humanity, but for the entire galactic community. She loathes the xenophobic methods of Cerberus, and will tolerate them only as far as her cause demands it. Her best friends are Garrus, a pragmatic Turian who has been there since the beginning, and Tali, a young, feisty Quarian that she has taken under her wing. Her real strength comes from her love for Liara, a brilliant Asari archaeologist. Shepard remains faithful to her even while their paths keep them apart. She engages others with a cool head and sincere respect, except for that one time that she lost her shit and punched a reporter.

So, unless they’re going to put all that on the box, I really don’t care what color hair they give her.

What does give me pause is the need to have a contest at all. The whole thing has an icky beauty pageant sort of air about it. It’s as if they’re saying that the original FemShep was fine so long as she stayed behind the curtain, but she’s not really going to go out on stage looking like that, is she? Or, if you’ll allow me another metaphor, it felt like running onto the playground, ready to jump on the swings and play some make-believe, only to have one of the popular girls walk up to you and ask, “Didn’t you wear those jeans yesterday?”

(Not that such a thing has ever happened to me, or anything.)

What I find worth musing over is that nobody ever kicks up a fuss over the default male — in any game, to my knowledge. In Mass Effect’s case, there was no need to hold a contest. BioWare said, “This is the default BroShep,” and we said, “Why yes, so it is.” What would have happened if they had put the default FemShep on the box without any sort of contest or community input? Would everyone have accepted her as she is?

As much as it saddens me to say it, I tend to think not. I think we still would have seen those two camps manifest, on a smaller scale, regardless of whether or not there was a contest involved. Leaving straight men out of the equation for a moment (sorry, dudes, I’ll come back to you later), I think the reason for that is because as far as women are concerned, Commander Shepard is a way bigger concept than just a character you use to blow up aliens.

See, I believe that the ire we’re seeing over Shepard’s hair stems from the fact that most female gamers are coming off of years (decades, in some cases) of trying to be fairly represented. Yes, things have gotten much better for us, and yes, some game developers are trying to keep us in mind when they make new titles. But we still carry that history around, even if some of us don’t spend too much time dwelling on it. For me, BioWare titles like Mass Effect and Dragon Age were the first RPGs that ever made me really feel like an equal (and I praise BioWare sincerely for that). Getting my incarnation of Commander Shepard on the box – even if she wasn’t exactly my Shepard – isn’t so much about the character. It’s about me feeling included. In a way, an official female Commander Shepard is a symbol, a mascot for our place in gamer culture. I think that on some core level, giving her face equal exposure is a validation that women gamers not only exist, but that we exist on the same level as our male comrades.

When I look at it that way, it’s obvious why her appearance matters so damn much to us, even if we’re going to change it the minute we get into the character creation screen. We’re not just trying to define her. We’re trying to define ourselves.

All of this brings to mind a conversation I had with my friend Nils a few weeks ago. While chatting about player character gender, he told me he usually plays female characters in games, so long as the gender choice doesn’t overly affect the story. Why? To paraphrase, he doesn’t find most game designers’ concept of masculinity as something that he can relate to. Even though he is biologically male, and identifies as male, and presents himself in a traditionally masculine manner, he finds the narrative disconnect between himself and a female character easier to accept than that which he finds between himself and a hyper-aggressive macho man.

As a Vulcan science officer once said: fascinating.

Thinking back on that, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we had a contest for the face of BroShep. How would that play out? Would the masculine narrative disconnect finally come to light? Would there all of a sudden be squabbles over the squareness of his jaw, or how big his biceps were, or how much stubble was too much? Would we see man-fancying FemShep players voting for the BroShep they found most attractive, even if they didn’t plan on playing as him? If the male Commander Shepard was suddenly seen not just as a toy to play with on screen, but as a representative mascot for all male players, would we see the same kind of division that we’re seeing over FemShep?

I wonder.

In any case, the fact that one of the best female characters in gaming history has been reduced to a discussion of her physical appearance has left a bad taste in my mouth. But I’ll get past it. No, I’m not going to vote in the contest. I’m just going to keep watching trailers and dodging spoilers and saving up for the Collector’s Edition of Mass Effect 3. FemShep is going to be on the box, you see. It’s a step. I’ll take it.

(comic via Penny Arcade.)

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.

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