It’s A Man’s World: The Implications of Makeup in Mass Effect

Originally published on Big Tall Words, March 14, 2014. Subsequently re-published on the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association (UK & Ireland) Blog June 4, 2015.

“Human sperm cells were seen with the earliest microscopes in the seventeenth century. The human egg is several thousand times larger, but — despite earlier postulates — it was not visualized until 1827. […] For something to be found, it must first be imagined and sought.” (Duffin, Jacalyn. A History of Medicine, (Toronto, ON: Toronto UP, 2007), p. 249.)

Videogames are not a space for women’s voices when parts of women’s experiences are not addressed or taken seriously; like scientists dismissing out-of-hand the possibility of the ovum’s existence, game developers are dismissing out-of-hand the chance to engage in meaningful dialogue with women about even their most banal experiences (like wearing makeup). How, then, can we expect games as a medium to look at the more profound aspects of women’s experiences? Until game developers imagine and seek to include women’s experiences in games (and until gamers stop complaining about their inclusion), we can’t.

Makeup is a choice in the character creation in Mass Effect. From that point on, it is a permanent feature of female Shepard’s appearance, which is not realistic.* Attitudes towards wearing makeup vary depending on the person wearing it*, but regardless of one’s opinion, etc., makeup remains a choice. It is not a permanent feature like jaw width or ear size. Attitudes towards makeup also vary tremendously depending on a person’s class and culture. Additionally, makeup has different meanings depending on where someone situates themselves on the gender spectrum. Mass Effect treats makeup like bone structure: it is fixed, and the game implies that the player (and the world) should give it no thought.

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But makeup doesn’t work like that. Makeup deserves to be thought about, talked about, written about. We live in a culture that objectifies women, viewing them as figures to be admired above all else. This culture values and praises women who meet a certain standard of beauty — one which involves heavy makeup — to the exclusion of all others. When pop culture media (like videogames) uphold this standard without question, the message can be immensely damaging, not only to women and girls, but also to society as a whole. So, while makeup may seem like a minor aspect of videogames, it’s not.

Every person you meet who wears makeup will likely have a series of (usually banal) statements when it comes to makeup. Everyone who wears makeup (usually, but not exclusively, women) knows the time and effort involved in putting on degrees of makeup. Some people spend an hour every morning applying layers of foundation, eye shadow, lipstick, and blush. Some people take five minutes to daub on some concealer and a bit of mascara. But regardless, one will change their look when they choose to or when circumstances demand it. So why can’t we change Shepard’s makeup?

Mainly, I wear makeup to work. I imagine that I have this in common with most women, regardless of profession. Shepard is no different; she may be working in a predominantly male field (as a ranking military officer), but it makes sense for her to wear makeup to work just like I do (even though I work in an office that employs mostly women). Also, her job being athletic does not preclude her wearing makeup. Professional female athletes (like hockey players) wear makeup while they’re “at work,” as well. My issue with Shepard wearing makeup does not stem from the belief that female soldiers (or firefighters, or police, or hockey players, etc.) do not or should not wear makeup, since that’s absurd. My issue is that the makeup is a permanent feature of her face.

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If we only ever saw Shepard in a professional capacity (i.e. while she’s “at work”), Shepard being fully made-up all the time would be excusable. Shepard’s job forces her to divide her time between the Alliance (Cerberus in the second game) and the Citadel Council. As an Alliance marine/Cerberus operative, she flies in and out of hot zones, fighting bad guys and protecting civilians. As a Council Spectre, she may shoot bad guys and protect civilians, but she also meets with diplomats and negotiates with politicians. In both of these roles, it would be feasible to expect Shepard to wear makeup. But Mass Effect is not only about Shepard in an official or professional capacity. If it were, if it were more like Gears of War, for instance, and Shepard were nothing but an object by which the player shoots enemies and blows things up (in other words, if she were Marcus Fenix), the permanent presence of makeup wouldn’t matter.

In the case of Marcus Fenix, we only see him doing one thing (shooting bad guys) all the time. We never really see him “off-duty,” and we only see him “on-duty” for more or less one day. In a game like Gears of War, we are offered one (intense) day in the life of a soldier in the COG (Coalition of Ordered Governments). Mass Effect is very different. For one thing, Shepard is “on-duty” for a lot longer than one day. More importantly, however, Mass Effect shows that Shepard is a person, while Gears of War treats Marcus only as a tool for the player to use. Mass Effect allows us to build Shepard as a character by giving the player choices. For instance, if a player chooses to complete some of the innumerable potential side quests, the game gives the impression that Shepard is choosing to help passersby or collect items, which contributes to her characterization. If a player chooses to interact with her crew or pursue a romantic relationship, that choice also reflects upon her as a person.** The game shows us Shepard as much (possibly more) when she’s “off-duty” as when she’s “on-duty.” Mass Effect is as much about Shepard as a person as Shepard as a soldier/Council Spectre. The same simply cannot be said of a game like Gears of War.

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As such, we see Shepard in many circumstances where there is no logical reason for her to be wearing makeup, especially as the series progresses. Most notably, each game contains a sex scene and its immediate aftermath (unless, of course, the player chooses not to pursue a romantic relationship). Makeup tends to, um, smudge during sexual encounters, yet Shepard’s remains immaculate. In the second game, we see Shepard immediately following extensive surgery. She wakes up from the dead with perfect makeup. Did Miranda meticulously apply her eye shadow, blush, and lipstick while Shepard was unconscious? (That’s a bizarre thought.)

At the beginning of the third game, she is forced reluctantly from planet Earth when the Reapers attack without warning. She rushes to Mars and then the Citadel, seemingly without a moment in between. Given these circumstances, is it really feasible that her makeup is still perfect when she gets to the Citadel, especially after experiencing a vicious sandstorm on Mars? Maybe she had time to reapply it while the Normandy travelled, but that would mean that Shepard had somehow stored makeup on the Normandy before it got impounded. (Even if she had, it would have been long expired and unsafe to use after a year… unless it was some kind of special space mascara. Discussions of futuristic makeup technology aside, I think you get my point.)

Over the course of the third game, it also becomes apparent that Shepard isn’t sleeping well. She is plagued by nightmares. The crew worries for her. Garrus even says “I’m starting to see some wear and tear,” implying that her lack of sleep is showing on her face, but all we see is her perpetually perfect makeup. After Thessia’s destruction, she can hardly bring herself to answer Hackett’s call. Why would she bother to apply makeup? Though she’s going through hell, we never see Shepard cry, but isn’t it possible that she does? Isn’t it possible that, in the face of the biggest threat ever known to the galaxy, her makeup smears a little, and she can’t be bothered to fix it?

In thus analysing the presence of makeup in Mass Effect 3, it dawned on me how much better the third game would be if Shepard’s makeup changed based on the sombre context of the third game. Imagine if we did see the “wear and tear” that Garrus mentioned. In the Batman Arkham games, Batman’s suit gets torn, his cape becomes tattered, and his clean-shaven face develops a thick stubble. The changes in Batman’s appearance emphasize to the player that it has been a long, tough night. Bioware could have taken a cue from the Arkham games and demonstrated to the player the true impact of this brutal war. Why didn’t they?

The presence of makeup at the times that I mentioned above broke the spell of the game for me. Everywhere in the third game, people are dying. They’ve lost their homes, their families, their livelihood. Everyone says it’s the end. The game keeps insisting that the galaxy will not emerge from this war unscathed. But Shepard’s makeup does. It makes no sense, and because it makes no sense, the game seems to contradict itself.

Shepard’s perfect makeup has ramifications, however, beyond the game itself. The presence of makeup can impact a player’s perception of Shepard as a person. As I mentioned above, makeup is a choice; it involves work, and it carries a wide array of associations and implications depending on the person who chooses to wear it. I can only speak for myself here, but I perceive the desire for constantly having perfect makeup as coming from an inherent insecurity about one’s looks or from an inherent vanity: both are rooted in the desire to be perceived as attractive in the eyes of another. Therefore, when the game forces Shepard to have immaculate makeup at all times, I find myself sometimes associating the presence of that makeup with Shepard being insecure or vain. That realization broke the spell of the game for me because the game praises Shepard continually: she’s strong, brave, loyal, and committed to saving as much of the galaxy as she can. In short, she seems neither insecure nor vain. But her makeup can be perceived to send a different message.

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For example, let’s say the player chooses to pursue a romantic relationship with Kaidan. In the cut scenes, Shepard is shown to have perfect makeup right before meeting with Kaidan in her cabin. Given what we know about makeup being a choice and possibly being associated with insecurity, we can analyze its presence. Why is she wearing makeup? Perhaps she is trying really hard to impress him. Maybe she’s insecure about his affections and trying very hard to be beautiful so that he will continue to love her after they have sex. After they make love, Shepard is awake before Kaidan, and her makeup is impeccable. Is she so vain that she doesn’t want him to see her without makeup? Or maybe she fears she’d be too vulnerable without it. Perhaps she’s embarrassed about having sex with her lieutenant. Her makeup can be seen as a mask here, a way of putting the sex act behind her and moving forward; perhaps she is using it to re-establish the chain of command.

When Mass Effect refuses to acknowledge the implications of makeup, it says to me that no one on the development team ever considered the implications of wearing makeup. It says that they do not understand, nor do they care to examine, the implications of wearing makeup as clearly as someone who actually wears makeup (i.e. a woman) would. Mass Effect sees a man as the default. Maybe the developers assumed everyone would play as a male Shepard. Maybe they assumed that those playing as a female Shepard were male and therefore they designed the character with the male gaze in mind. Maybe the male gaze is so pervasive that it never even crossed their minds that they were catering to it.

Regardless of why they ignored the implications of wearing makeup, by doing so, the game fails to take into account my voice as a woman. As someone who wears makeup, I can raise these issues, but because the game doesn’t seem to take them into consideration, I am shouting in an empty room. The game perceives me as a minority, and I begin to think that I am, that no one else who plays videogames knows about makeup the way I do (read: I am alone as a female gamer), and therefore, I (and my opinion) don’t matter. I begin to wonder if my Shepard should have been a man because then I wouldn’t be pestered by such troublesome questions. I begin to wonder if there is something wrong with being a woman.

Here’s where I return to my epigraph from The History of Medicine. Scientists looking to discover the secret of procreation perceived women as passive participants in the process, vessels to hold the male seed. Thus, no one ever considered that perhaps the woman’s anatomy played a role in creating life. Even though the ovum is much larger than the sperm, the sperm was discovered much earlier because scientists bothered to look for it. How much different would games be if, when designing characters, the game developers bothered to take into account the opinions of makeup wearers?

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So, Bioware, I ask you: how difficult would it be for Shepard’s appearance to change over the course of the game? In the second and third games, facial scars appear or fade depending on a player’s Paragon/Renegade score, so why not have her makeup change as well, like Batman’s face and clothing in the Arkham games? Alternatively, how hard would it be to allow players to change Shepard’s makeup? Games, like all forms of art, strive to break away from the banality of life, so I understand that players may not appreciate having a mini-game in which Shepard rolls the mascara brush over her eyelashes. I feel it’s also important to note that many games that do directly involve the player making decisions about the protagonist’s appearance are considered “casual” games and are usually marketed to women and girls. Adding a “casual” aspect may not go over well with the target market intended for “hardcore” games like Mass Effect (read: men); however, I’d like to remind readers (and Bioware) that not all gamers are male, so why shy away from taking a chance to integrate women’s experiences?

If Bioware isn’t willing to incorporate the actions of applying/removing makeup (which, I’ll admit could be rather boring), why couldn’t we click on the mirror in the captain’s cabin and bring up a “Remove/Apply Makeup: Yes/No” dialogue box? The image could fade out and fade back in. Or the mirror could bring up the character creation screen (like in the Dragon Age 2 “Black Emporium” DLC) and feature new Shepard in future encounters. Or perhaps Shepard could have a default ‘no-makeup’ setting upon re-boarding the Normandy. Major cut scenes taking place off the Normandy (Council meetings, Citadel scenes, etc.) could feature Shepard with makeup, and Normandy conversations could be makeup-less. Would it really be that hard?

If you’re a person who chooses to wear makeup (most of the time, that means you’re a woman, but not necessarily), you understand that makeup is a choice. When a game like Mass Effect ignores the implications of wearing makeup, the game developers are de-valuing the experience of wearing makeup; they are stating that the choice to wear makeup does not matter. Therefore, they are de-valuing one (albeit small) part of being a woman, while reinforcing the belief that videogames are (or should be) made with the male player in mind. When developers are hesitant to introduce changes that may appeal to different demographics, the perception of gaming as a space where women are not welcome becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Women gamers may feel unwelcome or alienated by the game’s omission and devaluation of their experiences, however banal those experiences may be. Furthermore, the game thus upholds the belief that women, even powerful, kick-ass women like Shepard, are viewed primarily as objects to be admired, and therefore cannot not be pretty. This view is damaging to women and men, and I wish my favourite game franchise would take a step towards changing it.

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*Note that when we first create the character, and at the beginning of each of the two sequels, we can choose to have no makeup. But it’s also unusual or unrealistic for a woman to never, ever, ever wear makeup. (I have friends, for instance, who never wear makeup in an everyday capacity, but they have still worn it a handful of times for theatre productions, weddings, cosplay, photo shoots, etc.)

**More than one person I know has justified their Shepard’s actions through a complicated analysis of the character’s thought processes, preferences, moral code, past behaviour patterns, etc. For instance, one player’s Shepard decided to save the Rachni queen because she thought that it was the right thing to do, while another’s Shepard might have saved the Rachni queen because she thought that it could be useful for the Rachni to owe humanity a debt.

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