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"Mass Effect" (2009): Is Ashley Williams Racist? A Character Analysis

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Lee has an embarrassingly deep love of all things "Mass Effect." Her favorite is the original first game.

Ashley Williams as she appeared in "Mass Effect 3."

Ashley Williams as she appeared in "Mass Effect 3."

Let me start off by saying that Ashley Williams is probably one of my favorite characters in the video game franchise Mass Effect. And yes. . . she is racist. I will thoroughly explain why and how further below, don't worry.

I recall her writer, Chris L'Etoile, stating that she wasn't meant to be a racist but a "pragmatist," and I disagree with him entirely. Even if it wasn't his intention, he created a racist character.

So you're probably wondering why I love Ashley if she's racist. Read on.

Why I Actually Love Ashley

Ashley smiles.

Ashley smiles.

Ashley and I actually have a lot in common. First, she has my freaking name. Which is awesome, because I get to hear Shepard say it all the time. Second, I am also an army veteran, my dad was a marine, and I'm a tomboy.

When I met Ashley in the game, it was like meeting an old friend from the service. I thought she was hilarious. I loved talking to her and I loved that I could connect with her simply because she wasn't a sexed-up fan service character but a normal woman who didn't wear makeup or walk around in boob armor.

She was funny. She was smart. She loved poetry (I'm an English lit major). I thought her taste in poetry was bad, and in reality, her reciting (ugh) Tennyson was a nod to Babylon 5 that no one but me seemed to get . . . But I loved everything else about her.

I recognized that she was racist, but I figured she would have some character development and get over it.

From Tomboy to Femme Fatale

"Angry gorilla makeover." Lmao.

"Angry gorilla makeover." Lmao.

So as you can imagine, I was not pleased when Ashley went from cute tomboy to Miranda 2.0 in Mass Effect 3. But this was actually a part of her character arc . . . or at least this is how I explain away BioWare shamelessly sexualizing yet another female character.

No, it's not okay to objectify and dehumanize women in the media, not even in video games that were made for horny teenage boys. These being video games and not "philosophical science fiction books" is not an excuse to teach an impressionable swath of the population that women aren't people and I'm so, so tired of this argument. If you can't see why it's irresponsible and wrong to present women as virtual p*rn, then you have no empathy for women and are sexist.

BioWare is not above criticism because they make games you like, BioWare is not above criticism because they try to be "progressive," and female gamers who laugh and are "okay" with women being regularly hypersexualized . . . have my deepest sympathies.


An image from the Ashley makeover mod.

An image from the Ashley makeover mod.

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Ashley is insecure about the fact that she's a tomboy and seems to secretly want to be more feminine.This is apparent in the way she treats Tali (also a tomboyish type) and Liara (a feminine woman). Ashley sees Tali as a little sister because she can relate to her as a hot-headed tomboy, but she hates Liara for being beautiful, feminine, and composed all the time (Liara has a temper too, Ashley just never really sees it).

To be clear, I see Ashley as a "tomboy" because I did know women in the military who were girly and feminine. They still wore makeup and had "girly" mannerisms. For instance, I knew a military nurse who always had French nails (if a French manicure looked more natural, they tended to let it slide where I was). Ashley would never have French nails! At least not the original Ashley. In the first Mass Effect, Ashley is a tomboy both in style and personality, and Tali comes off the same way.

So I think it hurts Ashley if Shepard chooses to spend more time with Liara or Miranda over her. Whether Shepard is male or female, Ashley seems personally offended by this. I remember as soon as Liara joined my party and my female Shepard started to romance her, Ashley started to get more salty, as if she was jealous that Shepard wasn't paying attention to her anymore.

By Mass Effect 3, Ashley's relationship with Shepard, be it friendship or romance, is in shambles. And she seems to believe that the only way she can get it back is to emulate the women Shepard seems to surround herself with.

Samara was the definition of femme fatale.

Samara was the definition of femme fatale.

And really, look at the women in the game. Liara. Miranda. Samara. With the exception of (ugh) Jack, all of them were highly feminine, powerful biotics, and they've got Shepard's attention.

In other words, Ashley is trying to be the person she thinks Shepard wants to be around because she is insecure. And I think this is doubly so for the romance.

And even though Ashley's change is (supposedly) true to her character, I still hated it enough that I used a mod in Mass Effect 3 to keep her a cute tomboy. Because to be honest, I don't think her arc was handled well at all (also, I'm tired of women being sex objects in my games).

I don't hate that they made Ashley more feminine. I hate that they didn't implement it well. They did not do a good job showing why Ashley was behaving the way she was behaving and this is why so many fans were baffled by her aesthetic change and disappointed by her lack of content in comparison to Kaidan. It also didn't help that her original writer had left BioWare.

So that's why I love Ashley. I think she's a wonderfully written character who was like a sister to my Shepard. I enjoy nothing more than having a full female squad in Mass Effect 3, my options being Liara, Ashley, Tali, and EDI (biotic, soldier, and tech, so perfect).

Another reason I don't really care that Ashley is racist?

Most of the Squad Mates Are Racist Anyway

My adorable krogan son.

My adorable krogan son.

I find it easy to love Ashley because pretty much all of your followers are racist in some way, with the exception of Kaidan, Thane, Samara, Grunt, and Wrex (and a few others, like Kasumi and so forth).

No Wrex and Grunt are not racist, they're bitter. Racism is an irrational hatred for an entire group of people. Wrex and Grunt don't want to seriously kill all the turians and salarians. They just intensely dislike them for all the horrendous crap that was done to them.

Grunt's anti-turian ramblings in Mass Effect 2 are about him finally grasping why his people are so bitter against the turians, the amount of atrocities that were done to them, and why he should care. His comments are about him finally understanding what it means to be a krogan and what he's fighting for, though Shepard (and the player) can easily misconstrue it for actual racism.

Art of Wrex in "Mass Effect 2."

Art of Wrex in "Mass Effect 2."

"But Wrex lets the krogan fry salarians in the pit for fun!!!" you may be thinking in exasperation.

Yes, thanks to the Lair of the Shadowbroker DLC, there's video evidence that the krogan enjoy killing and torturing other aliens on their planet. But first of all, how do you know Wrex was there to witness that? Maybe he was in the can.

And second of all, when you first arrive on Tuchanka, Wrex tells you that they don't usually allow aliens on their planet. This isn't "racism," but a justified precaution after centuries of aliens meddling with their genetics.

The krogan deeply resent alien meddling, as it has led to the overcrowding and the destitution of their planet. Grunt is a "pure krogan" because he was cloned from krogan that hadn't been altered by salarian science.

Of course, in regards to the "no outsiders" rule, there are a few exceptions, like Shepard, Shepard's crew, and the poet krogan's asari girlfriend . . . but that's about it. So any other aliens who come to Tuchanka are told to leave.

Given Wrex's statement, one can only assume that the aliens getting fried in the pit were intruders who were up to no good and got caught. Because who in their right mind (aside from maybe Shepard) would come to Tuchanka, a barren and deadly wasteland of a planet, for an innocent visit?

And after what happened with Maelon, Mordin's old assistant (you know, the mad scientist guy who came there and tortured a bunch of krogan to assuage his own guilt for being racist . . . ), it's not surprising that the krogan are now pissed off.

That doesn't justify them burning people alive, it just rationalizes why they did it.

Mordin Solus aboard the Normandy SR2.

Mordin Solus aboard the Normandy SR2.

Actual racist characters aside from Ashley include Mordin Solus (whose entire arc is about confronting ones own personal racism), Miranda Lawson (yes, she was), Jacob (also racist . . .), Garrus (Yup! Listen to his banter in the first game. He even apologizes for it in the third), Tali (the geth were irrationally hated and then . . . gave the quarians a reason to hate them), and even Liara (much as I love her, Liara displays typical asari arrogance in some of the things she can ignorantly say to Shepard about humans).

Honorary mention for Javik, whose species lost to the reapers because they couldn't let go of their arrogance and bigotry.

Hell, even Shepard can be played as a racist Renegade in the first game, which is supposed to draw her in deliberate parallel with Saren, a racist turian who has a history of committing atrocities against humans.

An ongoing theme in Mass Effect is actually overcoming racism, embracing diverisity, and learning to work together as equals despite (or maybe because of) our differences.

The whole "nature demands diversity" thing is actually one of many, many reasons the ending of Mass Effect 3 was just . . .so wrong. F*ck synthesis.

Basically, practically everyone in Mass Effect is some level of racist, be it covert or overt. So why is there especial vitriol for Ashley Williams?

Ashley's Silly Paranoia

Ashley as she appeared in the first "Mass Effect."

Ashley as she appeared in the first "Mass Effect."

It probably doesn't help that one of the first conversations you can have on the Normandy with Ashley is about how she doesn't trust Garrus and Wrex. These are beloved fan favorites, and yet, she's attacking them with a paranoia that is downright silly. So it only makes sense that this would piss off fans.

Ashley's paranoia is silly because the Normandy was built by turians, so what would Garrus be stealing that the turians don't already have . . .?

Meanwhile, the krogan are completely grounded. After the uprising, they weren't allowed to fly ships. Their barren, borderline-destitute planet barely has the parts for them to build new rovers, let alone ships. What would they do with information about the Normandy's inner workings?

Again, racism is completely irrational and emotion based, not logic based. True, Tali eventually steals some of the Normandy's technology, which can be seen in the third game. But this proved to be harmless. In fact, it was completely inline with the spirit of the Normandy, since it was created through the joint effort of turians and humans.

It's funny, too. Because Tali is the only alien crew mate Ashley likes, and yet, Tali is the one who steals a copy of the Normandy's drive! Also, Ashley liking Tali doesn't make her not racist. Plenty of racists have that one token black friend who isn't like "those other blacks."

Anywho, the point of the Normandy was to share knowledge and technology, overcoming racial barriers to do so. So Ashley is basically worried about a ship's tech being stolen when it was created as a statement about sharing technology.

Again. Racism dumb.

Real World Vs Fantasy

Ashley on Therum.

Ashley on Therum.

I think Ashley gets the most hatred because she resembles a real-life white Christian bigot. Barring a bad southern accent, Ashley hits all the check boxes for this caricature. White? Check. Christian? Check. Assumes the worst of people based on their race? Check.

I'm not going to ignore reality to spare people's feelings: white Christian bigots exist.

So Ashley gets more hate because, unlike Mordin Solus (who most people don't even seem to realize is actually racist, amazingly enough), Ashley more closely resembles real life racism simply because she looks like the typical American racist.

Are the keepers sentient, though?

Are the keepers sentient, though?

And Ashley compares sentient people to animals, which has been done to racial minorities since white people and brown people first came into contact.

People will scream all day that Ashley's keeper comment is a bug, and we could argue that the keepers are a reaper construct completely lacking self-awareness, but it doesn't really matter, does it? What Ashley actually says is exactly what a racist would say: she has difficulty recognizing the personhood in sentient people.

This is dangerous because it will lead her to treat other sentients as less than people. Point in case: taking Ashley along to kill Fist means that she will try to shoot Wrex after he kills Fist . . . except killing Fist is the entire reason you're there.

Fist was working for Saren and he's trying to kill an innocent quarian girl (Tali). Why should he be spared? Because he lost the battle? Because he surrendered information? Since when does Shepard arrest people?

Ashley is jumpy and paranoid, believing Wrex is a danger that needs to be put down because she can not recognize his personhood. This incident serves as a foreshadowing for a later event, where Ashley can actually shoot Wrex (those circumstances being entirely different).

Other "totally not racist" gems Ashley can say:

  • "You want to get involved with some alien? Go ahead."
  • "Make nice with the bug-eyed monsters."
  • "I am no fan of aliens."

Ashley is Wonderfully Complex

Ashley disapproves of Cerberus in "Mass Effect 2."

Ashley disapproves of Cerberus in "Mass Effect 2."

The thing is, Ashley can be correct about a lot of stuff but it's actually . . . for the wrong reasons entirely.

A lot of people who don't believe that Ashley is racist point to her hatred of extremist groups like Terra Firma and Cerberus and believe she must not be racist just because she opposes them. These are people who likely have never dealt with so-called "benevolent racists" aka people who think they aren't racist but whose ignorance actually harms others and is, therefore, racist.