Mass Effect is a great game series but it failed to create a non-gendered alien race, let alone a matriarchal one. To be honest, I struggle to realistically imagine the full depth of what a matriarchal society would look like. In the context of Mass Effect, it means looking at the evolution of humanity without men, let alone what that might look like in an alien species. But we can form building blocks, right? We can give it a good go.
I love a lot about Mass Effect, but there’s a lot of aspects I also hate. First hate: boob armour. Second hate: the asari, only because of how they’re supposed to be, not entirely because of what they are.
So what do I mean by that? The asari are said to be a non-binary, uni-sex race who reproduce through mind-sex. They are the only aliens who can reproduce with other races and have an individual lifespan that can last thousands of years. They’re the most advanced species and were the first to discover technology that let them traverse other solar systems. Finally, they have superpowers that are basically telekinesis. Wow, think of all the cultural differences the asari must have compared to humans! hahahahahahaha.
First, I’m going to break this down into parts, as best as I can, of what immediately strikes me as bad writing for a society who “don’t see a difference in gender because they’re all the same”.
Lazy Character Design: THE TERRIBLE BUT SEXY NIPPLE
According to Liara, a prominent character in the game, she says, “male and female have no real meaning for us,” and that she is “not precisely a woman.” Despite this, the game only ever uses female pronouns (she/her) for every asari we meet. They all have breasts, hyper-feminine facial designs and typically female-sounding voices.
You could argue that the breasts are necessary for feeding new-born babies, except the only way we can even be sure the asari have nipples is when they’re pole-dancing in lycra. With character’s like Benezia, how can her dress be that low without revealing anything? If we’re shown that asari nipples only exist when nearby onlookers are aroused, that would make asari breasts redundant. I mean, we’re allowed to see all of the boob except for the SHAMEFUL NIPPLE. Come on, it’s an 18+ game, stop hiding it if you’re still going to put in sex scenes. It would not surprise me if asari breasts are only a feature for the gamer’s titillation since breasts are so highly sexualised within real-world media.
But breasts don’t have to mean: woman. I did have to ask myself if the asari lay eggs, they are covered in tiny blue scales, but the asari have belly-buttons, indicative of prenatal umbilical cords, which further implies the asari are mammals. So, okay. Mammals have nipples. Let’s pretend that Benezia (in the top right picture) never has a SHAMEFUL dress slip, because obviously the asari, being all the same, would scandalise the breast nipple and show all of their bosom APART FROM – you get the idea. If everyone had breasts, they wouldn’t be seen as scandalous. If all asari can conceive a child and there are no major biological differences between any of them, then I suppose all of them need breasts to feed new-born babies. It still doesn’t explain why all of them have hyper-female faces and voices. That is not necessary. That is so we, the gamer (or the developers), can feel comfortable about
and sexualise their breasts and child-birthing capabilities.
That’s Not How Sex-Drive Works
Except, hang on, why do the asari even need another person to procreate? How do they give birth if they don’t even conceive with penetrative sex? Why do they even have “sex” if they can selectively create a child using their MIND? Like, how do you take cells from another person by looking into their eyes and sharing thoughts? What’s the point of that if you are the one literally crafting the genetic mind map anyway? If you know what the flaws are in an embryo and what you desire to create a healthy new one, and it all happens within your own head, surely there’s no secondary partner involved? With that in mind, would they even have a sex drive as the rest of the procreating world perceives? Aaaaargh.
My biggest question for the game developers is this: why do the asari appeal to male, human standards of sexiness? Especially if they have mind-sex and probably don’t have much in the way of a sex-drive because, let’s be “realistic” here, they don’t need anyone else to procreate. I’m talking about the strip clubs and prostitutes that only ever feature asari.
They Can’t Help It If Everyone Thinks They’re Sexy
This is a race that has superseded everyone by hundreds of years, and superseded humans by thousands of years. According to the game’s timeline, humans have only had contact with alien species for TWENTY-SIX YEARS. That. Is. Nothing. NOTHING. You’re telling me that in 26 years we set up strip clubs and brothels that asari are just dying to work for?
Liara’s “father”, Aethyta, says, “We need to get our daughters working earlier, not spending their wild maiden years stripping or in merch bands.” Oh, ALL of them? The vast majority of your young-adults aspire to be pirates or pole-dancers to the point it’s a socio-economic crisis? That didn’t happen in 26 years. Asari must have been shaking their booty for objective pleasure for millennia. You’re telling me that turians, salarians, asari and krogan all get off watching asari spin around poles and gyrating for them on tables? If you’re gonna go with maiden asari are expected to be pirates or sex workers, shouldn’t there at least be strip clubs with other aliens in them? Salarians procreate quite happily, so they must find other salarians attractive. Why is human sex appeal intergalactic?
Not that I’m saying my problem with Mass Effect is “too few strip clubs.” What would actually appeal to a race of people who have sex with their mind?
In the Mass Effect 2, you overhear three people saying that the asari look like blue versions of females from their respective races. So apparently, the game developers heard fans criticising their sexy race and shoehorned in, “No! They change appearance only in the eye of the beholder! Really!” Please imagine my eyes rolling so far into the back of my head that they disappear.
They Practically Live Forever Why Do They Have To Look Sexy All The Time For Every Race? That Would Make Procreation Their Entire Biological Priority
There is not one asari who is overweight. Not a single asari wears trousers (like a practical person) unless they’re a soldier, a mercenary, or a scientist — the rest wear figure-hugging dresses or lycra for strip clubs. All asari wear make-up. There isn’t even a male-looking asari like this fan-artist’s work:
So, if the asari don’t differentiate between gender, why is there so little diversity in their clothing and cosmetic choices (only dresses or uniform) and how they display the breast? Why do they not talk about love and sex differently to humans? Why would we not adopt asari non-gendered words to refer to individuals? We just go, nah, too hard. Let’s call them women/she/her. I mean, sure, people struggle to accept transgendered people in the real world, but we’re still so arrogant and dismissive in the advanced fictional future that we have to apply a gender to an entirely “non-gendered” race just to make it easier/comfortable for ourselves? No. You know what’s happening. I know what’s happening. The game developers are selling sex to us and packaging it as ‘the powerful all-female race.’
With all of this in mind, let’s pretend the asari do, therefore, have a notion of gender. The one the game developers slathered all over them: womanness. Human womanness. In the Mass Effect codex, the asari are referred to as a matriarchy.
Now it’s time to tear down how they didn’t even do a good job at creating a matriarchy. Let me just remind you that I do, despite this post, love the asari characters Liara and Samara and Aria and Aethyta, in fact, the Mass Effect game, but it clearly doesn’t take much thought for their world-building to fall down around their ears.
Oh girl. A matriarchy.
Let’s try and approach it from a biological point of view. If you’re a female mammal, you have a menstrual cycle, which differs in species on Earth. If every single person on Earth had a menstrual cycle and was capable of giving birth, we might treat each other differently. For one: we probably wouldn’t treat the cycle as disgusting and something to be discreet about. For two: we wouldn’t have designated parental roles because even if only one of us gives birth within a relationship, we’d have grown up in an environment that doesn’t need the “protector” and “nurturer” roles, we would already accept that an individual is capable of both.
If all of us are part of the “mother’s circle” — as in, we don’t suppress half of the population into being emotionally stunted and inherently more aggressive/dominant — that means we would shape our communities differently, too, right?
The main problem with Mass Effects’ “matriarchy” is that it never shows one. All of our encounters with the asari as political figures or otherwise are within the context of the intergalactic community. We never see the asari in their own community and how they feel about each other romantically, platonically and politically within their own cultural context. How would an all-female society with telekinesis treat each other? How would they treat aliens outside of their culture, let alone differing cultures on their own planet? Even when we get to glimpse the asari homeworld in Mass Effect 3, it feels like a human Western society but we worship a goddess and women can be undisputed soldiers.
Why do we meet so few asari maidens who have civilian jobs, like archaeologist Liara? What do asari/asari relationships look like? Since they live for thousands of years, are romantic relationships monogamous? Would they agree with objectifying each other if they have mind sex? I keep bringing this up because, for humans to have sex, we have to have a sex-drive. For that to happen, we have trigger points on our body and within us. We are sensitive to touch, sight, sound, and smell in ways that stimulate us and create a reaction that makes us what to, technically, procreate. Without that physical drive, we’d die out as a species. But the asari don’t need that physical drive. They can make babies by themselves (I’ve decided). So, are there lots of single mothers? What a loaded topic that is.
There are plenty of references to the asari looking down upon other races as inferior, including looking down upon people of their own race. In Mass Effect, I have a hazy memory of over-hearing two asari saying ‘pure blood’ children are the only true asari. And then there’s also Liara’s speech about her people, where she tells Shepard that the asari seek to understand other races and embrace all of them as part of a greater galactic community. So, that’s interesting. There’s clearly a cultural divide there.
But what would a matriarchy look like? I find it interesting that in Horizon: Zero Dawn the matriarchs of the Nora tribe attribute authority to women based upon the number of children they have — more children = more authority. But if all of your children are asari who have a lifespan of thousands of years, how do you sustain such a massive, long-lived population? What social codes or laws would you ingrain into your culture, given that EVERYONE is capable of giving birth? How do you perpetuate those codes to asari who live across the vast expanse of the universe in multi-alien settlements?
In some ways, you can see why we never properly visited the asari homeworld. How on earth do you answer any of these questions?
Well, you at least try to answer them. Even if you never show these details in-depth because it’s just “too difficult”, having that structure in place will reveal itself through interacting with the characters. It’ll define how they treat others based on their upbringing and it will affect their aspirations—their life won’t simply be 1. be a pirate, 2. get naked, 3. be a friend of the universe. Sure, I could break my life into three stages of 1. childhood is about being a pirate, 2. the teens is about getting naked, and 3. adulthood is trying to be mindful of others and the world around me, but no one follows three stages to life like it’s a cookie-cutter, not even your fictional matriarchy.
Let’s Come Back To This
I’ve been sitting on this post for a looooong time now. I haven’t posted it because I can’t think of ways to improve the asari in the confines already prescribed to them. They’ve been boxed up and shipped out under the male gaze. There are some strong female asari characters within the story, but ultimately they’re still confined to be sexy and womanly. They’re still too shaped by our gender-roles and the male gaze.
To “fix” the asari matriarchy would involve rewriting (or even to start writing) their cultural heritage and lawful infrastructure. Maybe someone else has the patience to do that. Maybe I should write a post that simply asks: how do we write a matriarchy and who has already done it JUSTICE? For now, off the top of my head, Horizon: Zero Dawn leads the way on that front.
I need to read The Power by Naomi Alderman. Perhaps that will give me inspiration into conceiving a world ruled by women. For now, if you’re writing about alien women, give it some decent thought, won’t you? I’m watching and waiting.
As always, your email and name are not necessary to leave a comment, so tell me what you think and feel about the asari!