[This piece contains spoilers for Mass Effect: Andromeda. For folks unfamiliar with the Mass Effect Universe, at the bottom of the essay, I’ve included descriptions of the species mentioned in the main body and alternate image text.]
This is the continuation of my previous piece found here. The previous sections illustrated both the pervasiveness of the creators’ biases, and the consistency in tone that establishes humans as the default and any non-human species as forever the “other.” These next sections describe some of the specific ways that Andromeda‘s non-humans receive the minority treatment: tokenized and seen as if their identities are monolithic along an artificially and narrowly-defined axis.
Asari, not Asari
Cora Harper was originally meant for the title of Pathfinder before your father passes the role to you, moments before his death. She is an experienced and capable soldier who was part of a cross-cultural military exchange that placed her in service with Asari Commandos. She ensures that you (and everyone else) are aware of her service record.
Upon meeting Peebee (also known less commonly as Pelessaria B’Sayle), your Asari squadmate, Ryder is given the option of asking Peebee if her name is a traditional Asari name. This moment is all too familiar with someone like myself whose name is not anglicized—as this type of moment is all too common for me. I’ll even shorten my full name to something more recognizable, and yet people will still ask me ridiculous questions about where my name came from, or why I only use a nickname. It’s exhausting and has been going on for as long as I can remember.
Upon asking about her name, Cora steps in to say that she’s never heard of it. Peebee remarks in such a way that raises a slight eyebrow at Cora, but quickly moves on. However, this marks the start of a relationship between the two that is best described as antagonistic.
The two go back and forth as Cora seems to believe that Peebee should feel certain ways about missing Asari, and Peebee goes so far as to try calling out Cora on her claims to Asari culture. When this happens, Cora denies stealing Asari culture, and becomes defensive. Cora states that the military exchange was for the benefit of both species, even though none of that excuses her behavior.
Dialogue between the two presents missed opportunities and a lukewarm message about appropriation and micro-aggressive behavior. Peebee eventually backs off and accepts that maybe Cora’s fixation on Asari culture isn’t all bad, because by comparison it’s new to humans and humans don’t live as long as Asari. Throughout all of this, Cora makes zero attempt to apologize for her behavior, and Peebee ends up apologizing to Cora for “pushing her buttons.” This unfortunately weakens the writing for both characters and brings zero resolution for their conflict.
Cora’s dismissive attitude towards Peebee seems agitated by her not accepting Peebee’s disassociation with Asari life and culture. Peebee’s identity isn’t directly invalidated, but there is no acknowledgement that she isn’t any less Asari for the choices she has made. This drew parallels with finding validity in a diaspora identity—the endless attempts to reconcile heritage and current life. I had no expectation that this theme might be explored, but there is so much potential.
Cora is so convinced of her knowledge and adoption of Asari culture and life that her personal loyalty mission involves rescuing the troubled Asari flagship—in which she meets her Asari commando idol, Sarissa Theris, who wrote the books on Asari doctrine and strategy that she reveres. In the end, due to the choices that Sarissa made to protect her people, Cora can react in such a way that makes her express that she doesn’t believe Sarissa to be as Asari as she should have been.
The Very Model of a Monolithic Minority
As an Asian American, my life up to now has been the model minority myth realized: I could play the piano before I could read, my extracurricular activities involved robotics, and I went to engineering school just like my parents did before they emigrated. One of the hardest aspects to face in today’s media is seeing that the same stereotypes that denied me my own identity as an adolescent are still in use in media that is branded as progressive and inclusive. When I see the Salarians, I see my years of expectations of my academic capacity, solely based upon a monolithic understanding of what it means to be Asian. I see their oblique, angled eyes and see hateful stereotypes recreated thoughtlessly.
Many Salarians seen through the game take up roles in laboratories, and your Salarian crew member Kallo is one of the engineers behind your ship’s design and your pilot. The way that Ryder can interact with Kallo is reminiscent of the ways that people react to ethnic groups they’ve never met.
When asking the ship’s doctor about the crew, Ryder refers to Kallo as “their Salarian.” Just use his name, Ryder.
Same Treatment, Different Galaxy
Mass Effect is not kind to the Krogan. Much like how Cora never lets you forget that she served as an Asari commando, there are two subjects Mass Effect never lets you forget about the Krogan: they’re good at fighting and the Genophage brought them near extinction. The Krogan were once used by the Salarians, given advanced technology to assist in the extermination of a mutual threat, but later betrayed when proven to be a threat to galactic peace. The Salarians created a genetic mutation called the Genophage that limited the viability of Krogan pregnancies, and the Turians deployed it, believing there were no other options.
The Krogan cultural VI speaks similarly to many other Krogan met throughout the universe. Their war scarred past and declining present are often a running thread throughout, especially since some have been alive since the Genophage was released.
The Krogan are objectified by other species, even if they are not explicitly being used as soldiers. There are instances where phrases such as “hit as hard as a Krogan” are uttered. During the final string of battles, if you have Krogan allies, you hear over the communications that “the Krogan are Kroganing.”
The acting director of the entire Andromeda Initiative, a Salarian named Jarun Tann, is openly hateful towards Krogan and still calls upon the history between their species as justification for his words.
You aren’t ever given an option to tell Tann his attitude isn’t okay, you cannot oppose him or his mentality directly, and your actions truly only spite him, at best. Tann’s attitude and position as part of the model minority furthers the terrible precedents and history that allowed the power dynamic to exist in the first place.
When you meet Kesh, the Krogan Superintendent of operations on the Nexus space station, you’re given the opportunity to ask her about the Genophage in your first private conversation:
Upon reaching a Krogan colony, you can meet a Krogan who seems especially sensitive, and less aggressive. This can be seen as a moment where we explore the diversity among the Krogan, but rather than just accepting it, Ryder can point out how unusual it is.
As if things weren’t difficult enough for the Krogan, the kett discovered that they could genetically alter captured Krogan and turn them into hostile kett behemoths.
Bioware has more than proven they are capable of writing tragedy, but it doesn’t help build the means to dismantle oppression and its associated baggage. The Krogan can and should be allowed to be more than their injustice.
Deactivating the Monoliths
Andromeda exhibits patterns of perpetuated, normalized ostracizing treatment of people who do not belong to the same group as the focal and dominant one. I don’t know if there is a great fix for this, because it reflects the ability to exist in a world with your identity primarily unexamined and unchallenged due the creators’ internalized biases stemming from their particular intersections of privilege. Based on the instances I’ve raised through this entire essay, here are some suggestions:
- Character development and teachable moments need not be so stratified. If a character learns, adapts, or admits fault later on, the initial presentation of a hard issue does not need a shallow, awkward, forced, or immediate resolution. Shallow exposure teaches only shallow empathy.
- Presenting “both sides” of an issue leads to a mild message. Make a statement or don’t. If an offended party continues to tolerate the offender for the sake of creating an artificially complex grey area, that weakens the characterization on both sides and normalizes microaggressive behavior.
- The above also applies to outward bigotry. There cannot be acknowledgement of “another side” when that side actively endangers and harms the already disenfranchised. We’re tired of being expected to learn how to navigate around people like Cora or Tann.
- Diversity is not a checklist. Representation will never be perfect, but focusing on pleasing everyone will end up pleasing no one. When you try to please so many, you are also leaving yourself open to that many more pitfalls. Try to instead focus on a handful of clear, well-developed, and attainable goals. Remember that visibility is only one step towards normalizing diversity.
- Many crave the dissolution of the “self as default” narrative. The sense of the default must evolve to the point that diversity is normalized. This can and should dissolve the concept of the default over time.
- Stop giving villains dark skin. Stories that code morality into racial affiliation are especially trope-filled and insensitive. We already know that bad people doing bad things is bad. Tying in villainy to race with no examination of the systemic context is a non-intersectional ideology that harms the racially marginalized.
- Make sure that no one on your team thinks Avatar was a good movie. Many of us are tired of non-humans being coded as people of color (visually, audibly, and culturally/thematically), with their struggles ambiguously acting as proxies for real life pain. You’re confirming existing biases and reinforcing that we aren’t equals. You’re telling us that our lives are lessons, and not our own to live. You’re telling us that we have to get past our unique experiences to get closer to YOUR default.
Good can be drawn from widely varied representation—some people are given opportunities to see pieces of themselves never previously mentioned in any form of media. Just as the consumers must take in the good and the bad, it’s my hope that the creators acknowledge where they have failed along with where they have succeeded. Inclusion solely on principle is also akin to leaving bread crumbs for the folks who have long been receiving nothing when the privileged have been given loaves. We can be excited that we are finally invited to the table, yet still simultaneously outraged at the discrepancy in the portions we are served.
Many of us are exhausted of being tasked to speak for the entirety of whatever groups we might represent. Seeing that tokenism still runs rampant as one of the primary forms of diversifying media is disappointing. I would implore companies like Bioware to raise their levels of awareness and commit themselves to creating content that still resonates with its fans, but also shows that they are able to hold themselves accountable for the values they try to uphold. Media on its own can never exist in a vacuum and must be cognizant of the current sociopolitical climate.
Please be well and don’t tokenize your friends.
Mass Effect Species Quick Guide:
[Asari] Blue skinned bipedal humanoids who are skilled at using telekinetic-like skills known as biotics. The tops of their heads taper backwards into tendrils in the place of hair. They may live up to 1000 years, and as such, are known for a tendency to prefer diplomacy and long term solutions.
[Krogan] Scaly, shelled, and physically imposing bipedal reptilians who are known for being both aggressive and adaptable. Krogan have redundant internal organs that allow them to survive situations and injuries that would kill most other species. Like the Asari, the Krogan are also capable of living for 1000 years or more. One of the key features of their physiology is a massive shield-like plate that protects the top portion of their heads.
[Humans] We’re pretty terrible to each other and everyone else. Sometimes we’re okay.
[Salarian] Salarians are a wiry-framed bipedal amphibious species with a pair of large oblique eyes and two horn-like protrusions atop their heads. Due to increased metabolic activity, they live roughly 40 years. They are known most for their intellect and scientific prowess.
[Turian] Turians are a bipedal species who adapted to the solar radiation of their home planet by developing a thick protective exoskeleton along most portions of their body. Their appearance and body structures have been described as birdlike, despite the absence of wings or beaks. They’re known for having a militaristic culture, and are considered the galactic peacekeepers of the Milky Way.
[Angara] Angara are the only known sapient species native to the Heleus Cluster where the Initiative arrived in Andromeda. They are bipedal mammals with broad shoulders and fin-like folds of flesh that extend from the sides of their heads down to their chests.
[Kett] The kett are bipedal humanoids covered in bony white armor over most of their bodies. They seek control of the same ancient technology that the player uses to terraform new planets. They build their armies through a process called exaltation where the kett take genetic information from other life and incorporate them with their own genes, transforming other lifeforms into kett forces.