"Mass Effect": Why Shepard Is the Ultimate Woman's Power Fantasy
First, before I say anything else, let me set the record straight: this article is in no way praising Bioware. Bioware did not purposely set out to create a power fantasy for women, who they didn't even believe were in the audience anyway. The only reason the female version of Shepard existed in the first game was to give male gamers an alternative.
By the time Bioware finally fully acknowledged that women were actually playing the game, the third game was coming out (so this means that, aside from some romances written for us, we went ignored in every other aspect for five years—Yeah, can you see why I'm bitter?), and they decided that maybe they should stop ignoring women in advertising and placed a cherry on the cake with their sexist and absurd beauty contest.
People keep saying a lot of women don't play Mass Effect, and Bioware has data showing that only 18% people (not necessarily women) played as female Shepard. Some women—gasp!—actually played as male Shepard. Most women play male characters because we already know the male character has better content and has been shown narrative favoritism. Women who played Mass Effect as male Shepard likely went into the game expecting the same, and as far as romance content goes, they were right.
So no. This article is in no way praising Bioware, the so-called "progressive" video game developer. The purpose of this article is to explain why Shepard is the ultimate power fantasy for women.
Mostly because I've noticed over the years how gamers and developers alike seem baffled as to what women want in a power fantasy. They assume that women want to be physically strong and masculine, but Shepard being masculine is not why she's such a great power fantasy for women. If anything, Shepard being masculine was an unfortunate side effect of the developers not bothering to give her her own animation set until the third game. (Don't misunderstand me. There's nothing wrong with masculine women. Shepard's masculinity was unfortunate because the animations weren't created for her. So they always looked awkward.)
I'm going to explain why Shepard is probably the best female power fantasy that I, as a woman, have ever experienced in a video game.
I'm going to help everyone out because I'm just awesome like that.
Shepard Was Respected and Admired
Admiration and respect is something everyone wants—yes, even women! Honestly, the fact that people are so baffled by what women want from a power fantasy amazes me. Women are people, and most people generally want to be respected and admired.
The first time I played Mass Effect, I was an Akuze Shepard, and it was pretty awesome talking to Jenkins right before Eden Prime, and the way he goes on in amazement about how great Shepard is for surviving three Thresher Maws.
Shepard can be annoyed by Jenkins' insensitivity and say, "Those are bad memories!" but you as the player are sitting there going, "Hell yeah. My Shepard is a badass! She killed three Thresher Maws on foot!"
It's even better when you play War Hero and everyone is amazed that you carved your way through 10,000 space pirates by your lonesome. People everywhere bring it up and are in awe of you. It's a pretty awesome feeling, that admiration and amazement.
Characters like Jenkins and Conrad Verner are essentially there to make the player feel awesome. That's what a power fantasy is for, and women love that too.
Because, again, women are people.
Shepard Was Sexy, Not a Sex Object
Most everyone wants to be desired, but there's a difference between flirting and sexual harassment, a difference between being sexy and being sexually objectified.
Shepard was, for the most part, flirted with (not harassed) by everyone. Everyone wanted to hop in bed with her, and it was pretty great to walk in her shoes, to have multiple people in love with her, admiring her, wanting to be with her.
If only the developers had cared enough to make her romances fight over her the way male Shepard's romances fought over him. . . . Let's be honest: everyone wants a bunch of jealous lovers fighting over them.
Characters like Thane flirting shamelessly or Kaidan's obvious crush or Samara saying she wants to throw Shepard on the floor . . . it was pretty awesome. Women dig that too. What women don't dig is being sexually harassed and objectified.
There's an on-going debate about objectification in video games. One thing people argue about over and over is whether or not male characters are objectified when they are half-naked.
They are not.
Male characters are idealized. They are not half-naked to incite the arousal of female gamers (who developers don't even believe are there). They are half-naked, handsome, and muscular so that male gamers can project onto them during their power fantasy. They are not specifically designed to titillate women.
To objectify someone means to reduce them to an object.
Male characters are never reduced to objects. No, not even when they are naked. They always have personalities and backstories, and they are never helpless victims of the plot—they drive the plot. They are treated like people.
Female characters, on the other hand, almost always exist solely for the benefit of a male character and/or a male audience. When they are half-naked purely as fan service, when they have no personality and no power over their own circumstances and can be replaced by a lamp, they are objects.
They are being treated as less than people by the narrative, and because the media can indeedy have real world repercussions, depicting women as disposable sex objects over and over to an audience of impressionable teenage boys is wrong.
Six seconds on the internet (Reddit in particular) will show that most teenage boys can't relate to female protagonists or women in general because they don't even see us as people. Pretending the media isn't partially responsible for this is ridiculous, disingenuous, or just incredibly naive.
What's great about Shepard is that she is not yet another sex object standing around in bikini armor, ready and waiting to serve a male character or a male audience, while having no power over her own circumstances and no agency.
Shepard has power. In fact, Shepard drives the plot and guides her own story. Though she was initially created for male gamers and then ignored, she is still not treated as if she solely exists to excite them.
It's ironic, really, considering that's exactly what was done to Miranda, a character who is famous for all the lingering camera angles the developers inserted in the last two games. I was disgusted by this the first time I saw it—especially being familiar with the character "Miranda" from The Tempest, for whom Miranda is named.
It was impossible to talk to Miranda without being forced to stare at her like a piece of meat. It was disrespectful to female fans—and I say this as a woman who likes other women. Just because I like women doesn't mean I want to see a female character reduced to this (fancy that!).
I wonder how male gamers would react to being forced to stare at a male character's bubble butt while talking to him. Imagine if this had been done with Cortez! There would have been no end to the wailing and the gnashing of teeth from people so comfortably used to being respected as human beings.
That being said, some people complained about Shepard's sudden growth spurt in Mass Effect 3, but I actually liked Shepard's model from the third game the best.
In the first game, Shepard was a hunchback. I hated her character model because it was so ugly and lazy.
In the second game, Shepard had a weird, square body and all her animations were awkward. To the point that there's a meme that's been floating around for years of Shepard sitting, legs spread, in the dress from the DLC Stolen Memory.
I thought Shepard's model in the third game was perfect. She could have used more muscles, but aside from that, her shape was pretty cute, and she seemed to finally discover a sports bra! She was basically sexy without being a sex object.
It is no one's power fantasy to be a sex object.
Shepard Took Crap From No One
For the people who didn't respect and admire her, Shepard (usually Renegade Shepard) always had a snappy comeback or a Renegade/Paragon interrupt to put those idiots in their place.
No one likes to have their power fantasy interrupted by being made to feel disrespected, insulted, and powerless to respond (just ask Bethesda fans).
Unfortunately for women gamers, it's nearly impossible to play a female character who doesn't have to deal with sexual harassment at some point, which is a situation in real life that often leaves us feeling disrespected and powerless.
Women have to deal with this enough in the real world without having to deal with it in a video game, but it's not so bad if the female protagonist is given a satisfying way to deal with it.
The first Mass Effect handled this wrong with Harkon, a sleazy jerk who keeps calling Shepard out of her name and disrespecting her to her face. She can threaten to knock his teeth out, but her response just isn't satisfying enough, and Harkon, even though he stops making disgusting comments, remains as disrespectful as before. He is not intimidated by Shepard in the slightest—even in the second game, while Garrus is beating the crap out of him, he is still shouting in defiance at Shepard. His stubborn fearlessness of someone who daily slaughters giant immortal robots is pretty amazing.
This is bad for the power fantasy. Real bad. Shepard is the most powerful being in the galaxy, but because she's a woman, some dirt bag in a dance club refuses to show her respect.
This was handled better with several moments in Mass Effect 2, in which Shepard could verbally smack down and intimidate almost anyone who made sleazy comments about her. A good example was during the quest to recruit Garrus/Archangel. A batarian will call Shepard a stripper—implying she can't be there to fight because she's a woman—and it's pretty satisfying to shut him up by casually threatening to shoot him. Immediately after the threat, he takes Shepard seriously and treats her with respect. It's a nice feeling and maintains the fantasy that you are a powerful being who others quake in fear of.
Mass Effect 3 actually took this a regressive step backward when they had James Vega commenting on Shepard's breasts filling out her suit and her just standing there, not saying a damn thing. That was pretty much sexual harassment.
For people who are scratching their heads, sexual harassment is unwanted sexual attention. This includes comments about someone's body. My Shepard did not want Vega or anyone else making remarks about her breasts, but talking to Vega as the female version of Shepard means enduring these comments while he stares at Shepard's breasts.
Some female gamers didn't mind it, but I did. It broke my power fantasy and was just plain disgusting to have this male character constantly making these comments.
What's more, Vega was doing it on purpose because he resents Shepard at the beginning of the game and wants to humiliate her in some way. If the player is playing the male version of Shepard, Vega instead insults his physique, mocking him about how he doesn't work out enough. In both scenarios, Vega makes personal comments about Shepard's appearance, but with female Shepard, it's sexual. It's sexual because he knows it will degrade her.
My Shepard, who always took no shit from anyone, was suddenly standing there, allowing this underling to make comments about her breasts. For men who are rolling their eyes, imagine another guy—someone who was your character's subordinate—walked up and started making comments about the size of your junk.
Get it now?
It's disrespectful and dehumanizing.
The great thing about playing Shepard was that the moments of immersion-breaking harassment and disrespect were few and far between. For the most part, people feared and respected Shepard as a powerful and beautiful woman, and it felt damn good.
It's more than I can say for the Dovahkiin.
This Girl is On Fire
So that's basically why. Shepard is almost everything a woman dreams of being (and Jennifer Hale's amazing voice acting sure helped fuel the fantasy). She is powerful, beautiful, admired, loved, respected, feared, and desired.
It is basically everything male gamers want in their power fantasy.
It's not some big mystery, and yet people continue to be baffled by this. Like women are such foreign creatures that it's impossible to understand what we might fantasize about doing and being in a fictional setting.
What also amazes me is that whenever the question comes up among gamers, almost no one mentions Shepard. Maybe Mass Effect isn't as popular as I thought.
Or maybe the female version of Shepard spent so many years ignored, it's easy to forget she exists.
© 2018 Ash