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.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!
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.