Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Give BlondeShep a break

I was going to tweet about this at first, but I soon realized that I had more to say than would fit conveniently on Twitter. Then it ballooned into a much longer discussion.

Since the start of BioWare's Mass Effect franchise, the third and final installment of which is coming out March 2012, all promotional materials for Mass Effect have featured a single default male Commander Shepard, in spite of the fact that the game's protagonist can be customized by the player in appearance and gender. Commander Shepard's appearance has no bearing whatsoever on the game aside from the player's aesthetic satisfaction (though wouldn't it be funny if Shepard could be rejected by Miranda for being too ugly, or by Jack for being too pretty?). Shepard's gender, on the other hand, does affect the game, notably through a different set of romance experiences and through a different actor providing Shepard's voice; male Shepard is voiced by Mark Meer, while female Shepard (affectionately called "FemShep") is voiced by Jennifer Hale.

From a marketing standpoint, it made sense to advertise Mass Effect to the world using only one Commander Shepard. For people unfamiliar with the franchise, it needed to be apparent who the protagonist was, so the potential player could know what role he or she could step into. But now, BioWare has decided that the franchise is known well enough and FemShep has enough loyal fans that it is finally time to give FemShep a little love. They announced this summer that FemShep would receive some public promotion through 1) a picture on the case of the Mass Effect 3 Collector's Edition (I'm guessing MaleShep on the front, FemShep on the back, or something like that), and 2) her own trailer.

This was a triumph. FemShep fans around the globe--I among them--rejoiced. For years I'd felt the Mass Effect I knew and loved had been marginalized, hidden away as if it didn't matter. People who had only seen the trailers and never played the game would assume that everyone played as that default male Shepard. They'd never know that FemShep was just as competent at saving the galaxy as her male counterpart, or how excellent a job Jennifer Hale did giving Shepard a voice. Just the week before I learned of BioWare's announcement, I had lamented on Twitter:
#ME3 Collector's Edition: "case featuring...artwork of Commander Shepard." NO. That's NOT Commander Shepard, just some guy in her armor.
6 Jun
Thanks to BioWare's timely announcement, I was forced to write a follow-up tweet:
I have to retract my tweet from last week. ME3 Collector's Edition will have FemShep cover art as well. Yay!
13 Jun

But this brought up the pressing question: What will the FemShep used for these promotional materials look like? Of the various options available to them, BioWare decided to reveal six options for FemShep's appearance and allow people to vote on them via Facebook. From the beginning, #5--the pale, blue-eyed Shepard with battle-tousled, shoulder-length blond hair--has been the clear frontrunner by a large margin. The whole voting situation has brought up considerable controversy, and it is on these issues that I would like to comment.

Niall Slater in BitMob criticized the whole voting process and wondered why BioWare didn't just use the "iconic" default FemShep appearance that was selectable in the character design menus in Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. I have an easy answer for that last part: she wasn't iconic and she didn't look very cool. Absent from any promotional materials, not only was she not iconic, she was invisible to those who had never clicked on the "Female" button in the game's character creation menu. Even I, having started at least a dozen FemSheps in Mass Effect 1 and 2, never looked at the default FemShep for more than a few seconds. I read somewhere recently that she was a redhead; honestly, I didn't know. The reason I'd never given her a second look was that not only do I prefer customizing my characters' appearances when all else is equal, but it wasn't hard to come up with a face that I thought looked better than the default. My brother once pointed to this as an advantage to playing as FemShep: with MaleShep he was always disappointed, by feeling either too generic (with the default face) or simply inferior (with a custom face).

The reason for this disparity in quality between the default male and female Shepard appearances was the very fact that the male was used for the public promotions. Knowing that MaleShep would be the face of the franchise, BioWare hired a very attractive real-life model (Mark Vanderloo) to act as a face model for MaleShep. FemShep was designed without a real-life model, probably the same way any walk-on NPC was designed. There is something inherently superior to the Mass Effect faces modeled after real people. No matter how much I liked the way I had customized my FemShep's face, Miranda (Yvonne Strahovski) and Samara (Rana McAnear) always put me to shame. When I first learned that BioWare would make a trailer and cover art with FemShep, my hope was that they would design her after a real person. They did not. I assume this is because it would take too much time, effort, and other resources for it to be worth it at this point. It would have been nice, but I remain grateful that they're promoting FemShep and working to give her a new face worthy of that attention.

In his article, Slater criticizes the fact that FemShep's appearance is being decided by a vote. He says that putting her appearance up to a popular vote goes against her status as a feminist icon. I don't mean to pick on Slater, his is just one of the few full articles I've read on the matter (as opposed to many short tweets). But others have also argued that choosing FemShep's look in a beauty pageant, thus opening her appearance up to such scrutiny--scrutiny to which MaleShep was never exposed--is sexist. I have three things to say to this line of argument.

First, they miss the point that MaleShep was designed after a male model. He was already guaranteed to be gorgeous. If I'd gotten my way and they'd designed the new FemShep after a similarly good-looking woman, say, Piper Perabo, people probably would have complained about her being too pretty for the feminist icon that is FemShep. But if MaleShep is pretty, why is it sexist to make FemShep pretty?

Second, the Mark Vanderloo MaleShep was designed before players had any opinion of Commander Shepard. In a way, he became established as "The Real Shepard" before anyone had even played the game. Of course his appearance was never voted on. FemShep is finally getting her own promotional material because her fans demanded it. The FemShep trailer will exist because BioWare listens to their fans' opinions. Why then is it sexist for them to listen to their fans' opinions here?

Third, the vote didn't have to turn into a beauty pageant. People were voting on what they wanted the FemShep in the trailer and cover art to look like. For some, it was the one who looked closest to the Shepards they'd played in ME1 and ME2. For others, it was the one they felt most embodied how they'd always imagined FemShep, or who best fit Jennifer Hale's voice acting. And for some, it was the prettiest one. Because the sole blonde won, it is easy to accuse people of simply voting for the prettiest (assuming the blonde is the prettiest...). It is especially frustrating for those of us who have always loved FemShep not to get our way if the vote was decided by the stereotypical horny teenage boys who just wanted to see yet another hot blonde, and who probably won't even play as FemShep. This may be what happened, but that is not the fault of the vote, but of the voters.

And so I defend the choices BioWare made to orchestrate the vote and arrive at the #5 BlondeShep winner. If there is sexism here, it comes from the early Mass Effect marketing being solely for males that led us to this situation, not from these late attempts by BioWare to make amends.

That is not to say I am completely happy with the results. I voted for #3, the brunette (yes, I am terribly biased). Actually, I liked #5's hairstyle the best. Impractical as untied long hair may be for battle (though at least her vision looks less obscured than #4's), the perfectly messy, brushed aside look seemed to fit a soldier emerging from battle. It is well established that most men generally prefer women with long hair to women with short hair. Offering that hairstyle in blond but not black, brown, or red seemed unfair to me. Had they given the blonde a tight bun or the short boy-cut, and had the longer wispy hair style in black, brown, or red, would the blonde still have won? Basically, did she win because of her coloring, or because of the style?

See the six FemShep choices here

I wish the choices had been different, but I don't mind that the blond FemShep won out. People have derided her as being a "Barbie doll," but she looks like a pretty bad-ass Barbie to me. I do hope, though, that in the character creation screen in Mass Effect 3, we'll be able to use that hairstyle with a different hair color.

Addendum: You can see my Shepard here and here.

Edit 8/17/11: They have now opened up a second round of voting for FemShep. Apparently I wasn't the only one who preferred the hair style but not the color. Now we can vote whether her hair should be black, blonde, brown, or red, though her skin color is set (there may be a few freckles on the redhead option). I think this voting is supposed to last a week.
Vote here!


Professor Unpossible said...

I have to say that I think a lot of the nerdrage over this whole thing has been a result of people not getting the choice they want. When you have a character creator as robust as Mass Effect's, you can get very proprietary over your creation. It's not present with ManSheps because- as you said- his 'default' face was chosen before the game was known.

By putting the face of FemShep in the hands of the 'fans', however, you place that issue very close to home. Everyone wants to see the "real" FemShep look like their image of her, because that validates your own preferences and decisions in making her look the way you did. But for every person who 'won', and gets to see 'their' Shepard writ large, there's another who doesn't.

Nerds are- on the whole- a pretty entitled bunch. (even the good ones) We like things the way we like them, and are used to either getting our way or knowing- without a doubt- that it was never going to happen in the first place, so why get angry about it? (doesn't stop some, I'll admit) You either get your way, or you don't even get the choice.

Here, though, there is a choice- the "real" Shepard is the one the most people like. Which works for those who are the majority, but kinda sucks for the rest. The worst part of it is that it could have gone the other way- nothing was stopping "your" Shepard from winning except the people who didn't vote for her...those stupid, mean people who didn't vote for the RIGHT Shepard. *I* like that Shepard, so why don't they? There must be something *wrong* with them, to make them choose a different face. There must be something *bad* about liking that face, and not *my* face. How DARE they choose a different face. Mine is obviously the best, so they must have stupid, selfish, sexist reasons for choosing that one. After all, this isn't about standards of beauty, or the eye of the beholder, it's about what's *objectively* better. (which is MY choice)

...at least, that's what I think. I'll admit, I'm glad Shepard 5 got picked- because she's the closest to my own Shepard. She looks like she does because I like her that way; I like long hair and I'm blonde myself. She's basically a female version of me, which makes sense. Would I have been upset if a different Shepard had won? Of course! Would I claim my 'opponents' were sexist or supporting unrealistic standards of beauty or whatever BS people are yammering about? NO! Because I'm sure everyone who picked a different Shepard had decent, valid reasons for doing so- even if it was as simple as "I like this one better, I just do."

Eleni said...

Hi, Professor Unpossible :)

I don't think it's just a matter of entitled geeks whining because they didn't win, or thinking that everyone who didn't vote the same way they did is an idiot. It may be the case for some, but most geeks appreciate individuality and understand that people have different opinions. After all, I'm sure we'll still be able to import and tweak our ME2 Shepards--it's not like BioWare is going to force us all to play blonde FemSheps.

I think a lot of the bitterness is specific to the blonde. Blonde hair is associated both with the unfair stereotype of, shall we say, lacking substance, as well as being the color that gentlemen apparently prefer. Hence the accusations of her being a stupid Barbie and of the contest being turned into a beauty pageant decided by horny boys who don't care about Shepard so much as seeing a hot chick in sculpted armor. The first accusation is unfair, and the second...I don't know how true it might be, but it might be partially justified. BioWare says that 18% of players play as FemShep, so if number of players corresponds to number of voters (probably not accurate, but that's all I got), then over 4/5 of the voters were just choosing whom they wanted to see in the trailer, not whom they wanted to play as. Maybe that's where the entitlement comes in--we FemShep lovers don't want OUR Shepard dictated by people who don't love her as much as we do. Personally, I don't mind losing at all, I just think it was unfair that there wasn't a brunette or redhead with that cool, longer hairstyle--my hair color wasn't given a fair chance, or something.

As far as I can tell, #5 was winning practically as soon as the voting began, so we can't really know what the commentary would have been like if one of the others had been winning. There probably would have been some idiots saying "OMG, she's so ugly, why do you people like her???" but I would guess that there wouldn't have been nearly as many winner-specific complaints. However, there still would have been those complaints about the idea of voting on Shepard's appearance.

You're right that we shouldn't complain about losing in a vote that was decided in a democratic fashion. They made an effort to please as many people as they could. And really, we all won, because FemShep is finally getting a trailer and cover art (a step forward), and we'll still get to customize our Shepard however we want to play her (thanks, BioWare).

Anonymous said...

I voted for femshep 4. Because I, like you, am terribly biased :)

Eleni said...

Hi onepercentofone!
FemShep #4 had a cool hairstyle, too! It's true, though, about being biased. After all, Shepard is our representative in Mass Effect, so it makes sense to want her to look like us :)

Angie said...

I actually really like blonde FemShep. I think she's hott! She'd be a Barbie if maybe she was blonde, with pink armor and an annoying voice. But she isn't. She's strong. Battle-sturdy. And blonde, like oh my god. I have half blonde hair in real life - am I half Barbie?! Urgh. I don't get the hooplah over all of this.

Yeah - she didn't get an actual model, that does kinda suck. But what you said does make a lot of sense AND I agree, I bet anything she'd be considered "too pretty" no matter what hair color, style, etc. she had if her model was gorgeous. And um, why shouldn't she be?! WHY?! She's effing FemShep. She's saving asses! She deserves to look beautiful! *fist pound*

I do like the slicked back black hairstyle as well, but I'd say the blonde is my fav.

Eleni said...

Yeah, there's nothing inherently wrong with her being blonde. Yes, I'd selfishly prefer it if she looked more like ME (i.e. brown hair), but the more I look at her, the more awesome I think she looks. I mean, all six looked awesome, and if they hadn't given us the vote and had just said "OK, this is the FemShep for the trailer", I'd have been happy with any of them.

Professor Unpossible said...

I think the biggest issue here is the difference between when default ManShep was selected and when the newly default FemShep was chosen. Default ManShep was picked before the game had come out, and before people had a chance to try out the character creator and build an idea for themselves of what Shepard should look like. You either liked the default or you didn't, and if you didn't you made your own. (with blackjack, and hookers)

With FemShep, however, the 'first exposure' to her would be when you picked her face for yourself. There was no real default, so in a sense your FemShep *becomes* your default- it's your only image of her. When Bioware asked people to vote on a true default FemShep, people saw an opportunity to choose one that looks like their FemShep. (the "real" FemShep) If a FemShep that you didn't like got chosen, it's not just adding a random face, it's a metaphorical rejection of your vision of what FemShep *should look like.* Think of it like reading a really good book, one where the characters are so real to you that you can picture them in your head perfectly- then finding out that there's going to be a film adaption of the book, and they cast all the *wrong* actors for your favorite characters.

As I said, I'm happy with the results- Shepard 5 couldn't look more like my personal FemShep if Bioware had come to my house and asked to see my saved game themselves. And it's more than just seeing "my" Shepard as the "real" face of female Shepard- it's a validation of the choices I made that led to her looking like that. Even being aware of it, I can still feel me mentally patting myself on the back over it...it's an odd feeling.

To address your disappointment over there not being a long-haired brunette or redhead...that was really a flaw in the process, that there were only six options. (albeit an understandable one) We can only speculate that Bioware's Mass Effect division had prepared a lot more of them, then (through some arcane process) narrowed it down to the ones they thought would be most popular.

Professor Unpossible said...

(I had to split this up, since I apparently ran over a word limit)

Finally, I think a lot of the fuss over her being a "Barbie Doll" has to do with traditional notions of female beauty- and what it means to be feminine. For a long time in video games and films, there's been an idea that you can't have a strong, capable, independent, badass woman who's, well, womanly. That "strong women" are- essentially- men with girl parts. Characters like Lt. Vasquez from 'Aliens' or every character played by Michelle Rodriguez ever are viewed as less feminine, passive, and attractive- and are also extremely badass. It's almost like people think you can't take a female action hero seriously unless she's some sort of ball-busting, hard-hitting, "just-one-of-the-guys" type of character.

A lot of the complaints I've seen in that area essentially say the same thing: "I don't think this Shepard is MANLY enough to be a strong woman." It's a...sobering thought on how we view gender roles, and those that defy them. I.E., if a woman wants to be badass, she can't look/act like a woman or she's weak. A male action hero should be ruggedly handsome, have dark hair, and a permanent five-o'clock shadow, but heaven help a pretty blonde woman who wants to kick ass and take names.

You can actually see a little of that in Bioware's other big RPG game series right now- Dragon Age 2. Of the female party members, the "toughest" is Aveline, who's also canonically the least (conventionally) attractive. Isabela's a minx, Merrill is adorable, Bethany is beautiful, and Aveline is...Aveline. Now, she's also the only woman to find a good man and settle down (barring the MC hooking up with them, of course), but she's also the only woman party member (aside from Bethany, which would just be weird) who isn't a love interest. Coincidence? It's almost as if Bioware thought the "tough girl" couldn't be both pretty enough to be a LI, and tough enough to be...tough.

Personally, I like my female Sci-Fi heroines to be tough, badass, cool, intelligent, and beautiful. See: Ellen Ripley, Sharon Agathon (nee Valerii), Leia Solo (nee Organa), and many others.

(My apologies for writing essays, I just tend to get going on something and can't stop myself)

Eleni said...

No apologies necessary. I've on occasion written essays on other people's blogs. Discussion is a good thing :)

There was technically a default Shepard in ME1 and 2, but as I described, I never even considered using her. And as you say, we didn't even see her until we were already at the character creation screen, so we had no reason at that point to see her as "more Shepard-like" than any of our custom Shepards, so really there was no reason other than laziness (and an eye shape not available in custom) to use her.

You make a great analogy to reading a book. When a book is made into a movie and an actor is cast for a beloved role, there are always loads of people protesting. "No way, he's not nearly hot enough to play Edward!" "She's too pretty for Hermione!" etc. And those are people we've only seen through words on a page in our imaginations. With a game, we've actually seen the character--watched her for dozens of hours. So I guess it makes sense for people to protest at the new "casting" of Shepard.

It's true that a lot of "strong" female characters are de-feminized, essentially men with breasts. I can't say if that's a bad thing in every situation, but I don't think it's ideal. But it's also not ideal to have a "strong" female character who really is primarily there to look sexy, be a sex object, but happens to have been handed a gun--to make her seem even sexier (see most Bond girls). The challenge with making a GOOD strong female character is finding the balance between these: not giving her an unrealistic sexiness, but making sure she retains a realistic level of femininity. I think maybe some people just had a knee-jerk reaction to the blonde, worried she was being turned into the sex-kitten type, but really that wasn't fair. She looks plenty tough, and come on--she's Commander Shepard. If I were a Reaper, I'd be afraid.

I never thought it was because Aveline was too tough that you couldn't romance her. Three women and three men in your party, you can romance two of each (then they added Sebastian and unbalanced it, but whatever). If BioWare decided that we couldn't be romantically interested in a tough girl, then they have the same problem discriminating against dwarves. Besides, I liked that you couldn't romance Aveline--you could try to flirt, but it wouldn't work. It was nice to know that Hawke couldn't get her/his way with EVERYONE. In that sense, it wasn't that they thought people wouldn't be interested in the tough girl (they did give the flirting options), they just didn't think Hawke would be good enough for her :) And Mass Effect lets you romance Ashley, so I don't think we can say BioWare never lets the tough girl be a love interest.

Vanessita said...

Like you said, I too wouldn't mind a blond femShep if her haircut was a boyish one (the #1 haircut as a blond would be awesome, while in black it just looked too masculine), now that would be badass looks, instead of Barbie looks. In the end I didn't get the haircut I wanted, but at least she'll be redhaired =P

Eleni said...

Yeah, the short hair would have looked great with the blonde. I really liked the black hair-green eyes combo, but the red hair is nice, too, and a nice tribute to the original default.