Friday, March 8, 2013

Many & None: Gender for the Asari

An interesting discussion brought to mind the concept of Sex versus Gender. In this way, I mean to say the line between biological sex and societal gender. The people over at Penny Arcade touch on this lightly in their Extra Credits: True Female Characters video, explaining that biological sex may determine the physical construction of a female (or male) character, but it is the constant assumption of feminine gender social constructions that continues to allow the creation of cookie-cutter princesses and token girlfriend characters.

So, if the World Health Organization puts forth these definitions:

"Sex" refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women.


"Gender" refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.

Then how can we observe these in a well know video-game species such as the asari? How can gender and species play into a fictional alien species with only one ‘sex’, but many (or by some ways of thinking, no) ‘gender’ expressions.

The Codex within Mass Effect describes the asari as an all-female race, but on the updated online official information site for the game the asari are considered a “mono-gender race—distinctly feminine in appearance and having maternal instincts”. By this they mean that the outward appearance of the asari would be considered very female by human biological sex standards. While the asari do appear female, they are non-gender specific with no concept of gender differences. The primary asari in the game, a teammate and talented biotic fighter, Liara, identifies her species as “mono-gendered” (which refers to mono-sexed in the terms laid out here) and that “male and female have no real meaning for us [the asari]”.

Due to the mono-sex of the asari, they are meant to have no concept of social gender pressures. The ‘women’ of the asari are everything anyone can be; fighter, politician, assassin, engineer, stripper, broker, chef, everything. There is no stigma, no idea that an asari must dislike the idea of being a soldier because some asari must be soldiers, some asari must be anything a species, a civilization, needs to have reached the whole of the galaxy, to become the most powerful species currently on the Citadel (a place of power for the galaxy).  They have no exclusionary bi-sex or poly-sex distinctions. (They also appear to have no internal asari ‘racial’ distinctions based of their varying blue to purple complexions.)

Although they are the most common species to be seen as consorts and strippers, this falls into the created world in a rational way, not just as a joke for the sake of sexy strippers.  The asari are physically attractive to the humans (for body shape), the turians (for cranial extensions), and for the salarians (for skin color). The asari are a populace species, with a home planet and many colonies throughout the galaxy, as well as asari dispersed throughout other populations. They have had the long-term exposure needed to become identifiable as ‘attractive’ to other species. They were first of all the species to reach space and reach the Citadel. In fact, on the Citadel (at least in ME3), advertisements feature asari as the means of ‘sex sells’ sales attempts. The asari are many, and just as in the diversity of humans (or turians or any other species), an asari can choose to be a consort, a stripper, a thug, or a crime lord.

The asari are also a wonderful study of sexuality. They have no distinction between male and female in those species that have them. Due to this there is no stigma against an asari choosing to be with a male or female of another species. (The asari have the ability to ‘meld’ and thus reproduce with any species, but the child is always asari and comes from the asari mother.) No stigma means that an asari has no social restrictions as to sexuality and may choose whom to hold a relationship or intimate encounter with based purely on attraction, emotion, and/or love.

Aria T'Lok: Crime Lord, Omega

The only social restriction placed on the reproduction of an asari is inbreeding. This means that societal pressures are placed upon asari to reproduce with members of other species (such as human or turian).  Asari-asari offspring are considered ‘purebloods’ which is considered to hinder the advancing variation of the asari species. The story’s main asari, Liara T’Lok, is a ‘pureblood’ and this is given as a reason for her social outcast. Also, the creators of the asari also created a type of asari called an Ardat-Yakshi. The genetically mutated Ardat-Yakshi are dangerous, highly sexual, ‘purebloods’ which are thought to be the result of excessive inbreeding. Thus, they have created both a social and biological reason to place one restriction on the sexual lives and choices of asari.

There are others who see the asari in a different light. Mass Effect and all that it includes is open to several strains of interpretation. For a different take, check out this Gamerism.


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