There are some fantastic female characters in gaming. The medium is getting more inclusive all the time, and we’re moving away from the sexist stereotypes of the past, even if well-intentioned games can sometimes fall into disappointing tropes. There’s still a lot of work to be done, in terms of rounding out this representation, harassment within communities, and eradicating sexist cultures from gaming workplaces, but for today at least, I’d like to focus on the positives. For me, that means talking about my all-time favourite heroine: Mass Effect’s FemShep.
FemShep might seem like an unusual choice, in that she’s not a typical heroine in the way Lara Croft, Bayonetta, or Samus Aran are. You can play Mass Effect as either male Shepard or female Shepard (colloquially known as BroShep and FemShep), and aside from the voice actor and the romance options available to you, the game plays out the exact same way. There is no femininity to play into or play against, no inherent feminist themes, no exploration on the dev team that this is a game to the viewed through the lens of a woman – because for many people, it’s not. Shepard, in theory, is a genderless character, and you choose what gender to project onto them. That’s true of many genderless characters, but FemShep doesn’t feel like that to me.
I’ve played plenty of games where you choose your gender in the character creator. Saints Row, Dragon Age, and most recently Cyberpunk 2077. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla even offered you two distinct versions of Eivor, one male and one female, that could be switched throughout the game. In all of those character creator games, it feels like the gender doesn’t really matter to the story, only to your personal experience while playing. Somehow with FemShep though, it feels more important.
It isn’t just because that’s how I played it, and I think I must be right. I’ve played Mass Effect as both versions of Shepard, although ironically my main motivation for BroShep was to romance Jack; a character initially written to be pansexual. I have experienced both versions of Shep, I’ve been Renegade and Paragon, and I’ve played different classes. I have an idea of what I consider my canon Shep to be, but I wouldn’t say many of my decisions are the ones that are objectively correct. Picking FemShep, though, just feels like the true Mass Effect experience.
Maybe it’s as simple as me loving Mass Effect, loving FemShep as a character, and therefore growing to see her as the apex of female heroes in gaming. Maybe I just played Mass Effect – and got to be FemShep – at the right time. But I do think there’s more to it than that, and the reception of the Mass Effect fanbase confirms it. While the split between BroShep and FemShep across the player base stands at two thirds to one third, it never feels that disproportionate when it comes to the hardcore fans. It’s similar to how Soldier is the most popular class, but also lacks the features many players associate with Mass Effect as a whole. FemShep is lauded as the Shep amongst the Mass Effect diehards, and when rumours recently flew about Henry Cavill apparently reading a Mass Effect script, the common consensus was that it couldn’t possibly be a Mass Effect movie, because no one in their right mind would make a Mass Effect flick without FemShep, would they? It also helps that Mark Meer plays Shepard fairly straight, while Jennifer Hale is much drier, and seems to fit with the ‘00s action heroes of Mass Effect’s era, while Meer gives us ‘80s leading man.
FemShep has been embraced as the hero of the franchise, perhaps in part because there are so many other women at the forefront of what makes Mass Effect great. Tali, Jack, Miranda, and Kasumi all offer different types of female heroines in the support roles, subverting and embracing femininity at different junctures to offer a rounded set of role models. There’s also Liara, Samara, and the other Asari, and while technically the Asari are not ‘female’ but have only one gender, their appearances, voices, and nomenclature (matriarch, daughter) are typically feminine. It makes sense in a crew with so many powerful and well developed women that their leader is FemShep.
Perhaps it’s most fitting that a technically genderless character stands out as one of the greatest heroines in gaming. With those character creators, the male option is often the implied default; in FemShep’s case specifically, she did not feature on the box art or even have a default face until Mass Effect 3. Though the character creator implies gender equality, the scales are still tipped in BroShep’s favour because the industry – especially in 2007 when Mass Effect launched – does not cater to or offer safety for all genders equally. FemShep is able to rise above these disadvantages to establish that equal footing, and in the Legendary Edition remaster trailer, was afforded equal screen time, something her voice actor Jennifer Hale got very emotional about.
Cheers to FemShep on International Women’s Day, my ultimate video game heroine. And cheers to your FemShep, too; whoever she may be. Gaming still has a long way to go, but characters like this help me believe we’ll get there.
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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