The Mass Effect series, in theory, could just be a typical gaming franchise: sci-fi setting, choose-your-own-adventure style dialogue trees, tons of action, and bearing the DNA of Star Wars and Star Trek as much as it does H.P. Lovecraft or The Dirty Dozen. Gamers semi-lovingly refer to the two versions of the protagonist Shepard as Broshep and Femshep, a useful shorthand that jabs at the athletic, jocklike nature of the male Shepard character, and reflects a critical preference for Jennifer Hale’s performance as Femshep.
These nicknames serve as the gateway to a more stunning realization -- through the agency of Femshep, The Mass Effect franchise invites gamers to view the world through the lens of a so-called "female gaze," redefining how we think about characters that appeal to women and challenges how we think about sex and sexuality.
To understand a discussion of "female gaze," we first need to the original film theory, Laura Mulvey’s “male gaze." This theory from her work Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema posits that classical American cinema puts audiences in a masculine viewpoint, making onscreen females the object of desire, both as components of plot and narrative and as how they were presented and shot through the physical camera. Think Megan Fox’s Mikaela leaning over Bumblebee in the 2008 Transformers film.
If Mulvey identified our current male-focused media as representing “male gaze,” then “female gaze” would be an emphasis on images depicting female pleasure and empowerment. In theory, a simple role reversal would accomplish this, but as Anita Sarkeesian argued, just making male characters the new damsel in distress isn’t enough to overturn the way our media constructs stories around male empowerment.
The Mass Effect series occasionally indulges in these techniques whenever the gamer glazes over Miranda’s skintight ass or invites the player to watch the an Asari pole dance in Chora’s Den. But the first Mass Effect especially focuses from a male lens. Femshep’s fairly typical relationship with the game’s only male love interest, Kaidan Alenko, and a somewhat shoddy relationship with the pansexual alien Liara doesn’t escape the pull of the traditional male gaze dynamic.
But when Mass Effect 2 rolls around?
Let’s take a look at how we can identify Femshep’s love interests as properly focused under the female gaze by first understanding how male gaze looks. From here, we’ll be mostly looking at physical components that are more relevant to Mass Effect 2’s female gaze, even though the emotional narrative is what makes nearly all the male romance options so compelling.
We usually see the various ways that media sexualizes women through choices in camera, lighting and positioning. The physical act can involve twisting and contorting women’s bodies, applying soft lighting and camera focus, or the use of revealing costumes with an emphasis on the usual lady parts. Batman: Arkham Origin’s Copperhead highlights these points below.
But the male gaze isn’t just about female disempowerment, it’s about male empowerment as well. So what does traditional media say makes men so attractive?
Well, you usually see large muscles…
Powerful stances with rigid positions…
Steely or cocky gazes, and sometimes with a weapon in hand...
For male audiences, it’s definitely a pleasurable image, just not a sexually pleasurable image. These pictures say you can be powerful and sexual at the same time, just by being tough and strong!
Yet, if you look at the swoon-worthy love interests in media marketed for women, you might have noticed that men don’t often look quite like that. Here’s where Mass Effect 2's female gaze kicks in.
You’ll notice less muscular figures with soft lighting and focus, and tighter, sometimes more revealing costumes.
And by contrast, the men of Mass Effect are attracted to a woman that fills what we usually think of as those aforementioned "masculine" characteristics.
From here, the female gaze is seen as a strong-stanced, muscular, weapon-wielding woman, where the male gaze would normally place our woman in lesser clothing and more contorted positions.
You can see how the gaze changes not just through the personification of Shepard, but through both Femshep and Broshep’s romance options.
There are clear physical differences between the master alien assassin Thane and genetically-perfected human Miranda, but both can be equally reduced to romantic objects when the gaze lenses are applied with full force.
And because audiences are always used to viewing through the male gaze, the perception of what is truly "feminine" can be skewed. Because we’ve been using different angles and directions and other features to make female bodies appear pleasurable beyond reality for men, we lose a perspective of what real femininity actually is.
Through the male gaze, you also lose what women find attractive. Artists like Prince or David Bowie have their own unique performances, winding us towards a different view of what sexuality really is.
While Mulvey’s (admittedly heteronormative) essay is meant to undermine and subvert a system that grinds against women with the sledgehammer of media, it’s not an essay meant to explicitly condemn the portrayal of sexuality or the idea of human attraction. Sex, romance and queerness are all essential elements of the human experience, but it’s gaming’s monolithic representation of those elements that inflicts damage on the gaming community.
The gaming industry doesn’t need to remove these themes from gaming entirely, but would benefit from portraying what sex and attraction means for different kinds of characters, both in and out of game. By reflecting on Mass Effect 2's use of the female gaze, and the popular response to it, game developers can start widening their relationship with their audience and create more inclusive experiences.
Gamers playing as a opposing-gendered Commander Shepard could be argued as engaging a queer experience. Incorporating character traits that make male characters attractive to women could radically shape up the field of generic videogame heroes in mainstream gaming. Instead of a swath of hegemonic power fantasies, game designers can take advantage of the dynamic physical designs that allow Thane, Garrus, and Jacob to all be equally attractive romantic options -- not just to appeal to female audiences, but to create more unique, fleshed-out characters in video games.