Friday, December 16, 2011

Ashley Williams

Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 both have a spot on my list of the top ten games of all time. In all honesty, they might both have a spot on my list of the top five games of all time. I love Mass Effect for the depth of its characterization and the consistency of its world-building; Mass Effect 2 falters a little on those axes, but makes up for it with incredible gameplay and epic cinematic payoff. One edge that the first game has over its sequel is much more screen time for one of my all time favorite video game characters: Ashley Williams.

I could yammer on for a while about how great Ashley is and how she keeps surprising you throughout the whole first game by quoting Tennyson or revealing a spiritual side or telling you an awesome story about her sister beat up her pushy boyfriend. I could tell you how emotional I found her appearance - however brief - in ME 2, and how awesome it was to find this today. That's probably not especially interesting, though, so let's talk about what people on the internet like to hear: something that makes me angry.

So in the first game, Ash is (I think) a pretty hot lady. Here she is talking to her favorite commander.

That's Ash in the Alliance Navy uniform she wears around the ship (she wears non-uniform high-tech armor on missions). I know you can't see the front especially well, but please note that a high-neckline, appropriate (as I believe) to a military uniform, is visible.

This is Ash's new look from ME3:

So a few things different here. She's got sexy new hair. You know what? Great. Seriously. Hair cuts are a great way to express that a character has changed. In ME1, Ash is a grunt, a low-ranked front-line soldier with (so she thinks) a career full of bad assignments ahead of her. She wears her hair in a severe (presumably regulation) bun. In ME3, we've been told a little about Ash and we can guess a bit more. She's an officer now, a lieutenant. Beyond that, she's a Spectre, meaning that she has the full backing of the Council, the most powerful political body in the galaxy, as their trusted agent. We know from ME2 that Ash is now a special forces veteran, and we can guess that she's a renowned hero for her role in ME1. A striking hairstyle is a great way to communicate the character's new role, how much prestige she's gained and how it might make her feel.

But why is she wearing her uniform like that? Is it a useful visual shorthand to communicate something about Ashley to the player, like the hair? Based on the little we know about the plot of ME3... No. It doesn't communicate confidence and prestige in the same way. In visual media, skin and breasts doesn't communicate "powerful professional woman" in the same way that great hair does. Sex and power can be connected, obviously, but as a professional soldier with political connections, that's a little outside of Ash's storytelling archetype.

Let's look at how one very powerful political woman in the real world chooses to present herself:

Hmm. Not so low-neckline. Actually she seems to be making an effort not to appear sexual - almost as if being sexualized might make it harder to take her seriously as a leader. Well, it's only one example.

Well, none of those women are in the military. Maybe female soldiers dress differently.

Wow, they actually look a lot like Ash in the first game.

Point is, Ash's uniform doesn't communicate prestige and authority, and it doesn't communicate professionalism or a military background either It doesn't seem to communicate anything useful about the character, really. The Ash we get to know in ME1 is a consummate professional who is entirely devoted to her career in the Alliance military. Her uniform is an important and empowering symbol to her, and frankly, I don't think she would choose to wear her uniform in a non-regulation way. Especially not a sexy non-regulation way, as her military service is intimately bound up with her late beloved father in her mind. Basically, in this setting, on this woman, that outfit doesn't make any sense.

So, why is she wearing her uniform that way? I put the question the Casey Hudson, lead designer of Mass Effect 3, on twitter today. I have a lot of respect for Casey. He's incredible at making games - literally world class - and from everything I've heard him say he seems like a very cool, intelligent guy. That may help to explain why I went out of my way to avoid being antagonistic in the below tweets:

I don't expect Casey to respond, for a few reasons. One is that he is very visible and I am not, and why would he draw attention to a critical question that nobody else will ever see? I don't mean that cynically; his job is to make ME3 successful, and he's very good at his job, and that probably precludes publicly answering me.

The other reason is that it's a rhetorical question, and he knows that as well as I do. Because on some level  we know the answer, don't we? Somebody somewhere who had some kind of say in the art direction of ME3 thought one of two things:

  • Ash would totally be hotter if I could almost see her tits.
  • This game will sell more copies if men on the internet see a character with prominent breasts and a sexy costume in the screenshots.
I really can't think of anything else that makes sense. Certainly not one that could be fully explained in 140 characters over twitter. So ultimately, why ask the question?

Because I believe that thoughtful people know how lame any answer that avoids those two bullet points will sound, and that even if they can't or won't admit it, they get a little uncomfortable pondering the issue. And maybe that will, over time, lead people to avoid having to ponder the issue, by not sexualizing fictional women when sexualizing them is not in the interest of the story or the character. And maybe some day I can not have to feel a little embarrassed on behalf of my favorite games and characters, knowing that everybody knows how crass the decision-making on some of the small details about them really was.

Let me close by noting that I know I'm being very nitpicky and going after small details. I'm doing that because I like to lay my argument out there and try to unpack all of the baggage in it as much as possible. Furthermore, let me add that Bioware is a great developer, and while they are not without their sins in continuing the tradition of sexism in video game culture, they also have put forward a huge number of excellent female characters and woman-friendly games. It's honestly because I count them among the good guys that I'm thinking about this so much - because I think they can do even better, which is not something I believe about every company that makes games. I love Mass Effect, I'm totally excited for Mass Effect 3, and I look forward to kicking a whole lot of reaper butt with Ash backing me up.

I just wish I wouldn't have to think about all the sexist baggage attached to this particular costume while I'm doing it..


  1. Well I'm not sure how much of the spoiler information you heard about the upcoming ME3, but Ashley's role and her duties are much different now. She's not just a soldier. She's much more. And the position she finds herself in certainly allows more freedom to look the way SHE pleases as opposed to always looking efficient and soldier-like because of militaristic regulations.

    I'm a big fan of Ashley in the Mass Effect series. She's smart and tough and sexually assertive. She's capable on the battlefield as well as being able to stand up for what she believes.

    I find it ridiculous, the idea that if a woman looks sexy she is no longer powerful or smart or capable. The women you chose to compare her to are a) much older and b) wear very conservative clothing. It's hardly a fitting comparison.

    There are plenty of smart, beautiful, amazing women who demand a lot of respect and get it and they ALSO choose to be sexually attractive. This is a situation where you can definitely have your cake and eat it too. I don't understand why people don't get that.

    It would be different if her new uniform had over spilling cleavage, a thong or tiny skirt or blatantly screamed "I AM SEXY AND ONLY THIS." It's not a bikini for crying out loud and the heavy armors Ashley was in in ME1 were just as skin tight.

    Speaking of armor, Ashley does have it for the third game. And it's fully functional armor befitting the bad ass soldier she is (

    The real crime, if there is one is if Bioware decides to completely assassinate her character which 1) has nothing to do with the way she looks and 2) Is highly unlikely in my opinion.

    Take Miranda from Mass Effect 2. She was the femme fatale. Much of her appeal rested on the fact that she was beautiful and curvaceous. But that's not all she was. In fact it ended up being secondary as a character trait to the rest of the work Bioware had done. BIOWARE WRITES STRONG WOMEN. Knowing this, I feel like you should probably give them the benefit of the doubt.

    Casey Hudson and the rest of the team have actually answered several questions about Ashley's new look on Twitter and on the forums.

    It's certainly perfectly valid for you to say you dislike the new look, but I personally feel saying you dislike it because it's too sexy is kind of, well... insulting. It implies that you think a woman's value or power is lessened if she's not wearing a turtle neck and slacks. If I apply makeup to go to work or a social function or have done my hair nicely or am wearing a great pair of heels, that suddenly negates my value as a person who should respected? I don't think so.

    Every woman, even tough ass military types like to take care of themselves and look good. When I see Ashley's new uniform here I don't think she's on the prowl for a one night stand. I think it looks like a uniform.

    Did they change her look a bit to to enhance her visual appeal? Probably. What exactly is wrong with this if you don't mind me asking? Most of the characters in Mass Effect are pretty ridiculously attractive and most are wearing skin tight suits.

    There is absolutely something to be said for wanting to appeal to people in a sexual way. But Bioware does it WELL. There are plenty of things that don't and lots of things I will roll my eyes at as a woman especially. But not this.

    Ashley is fine. Her casual outfit is fine. Her hair is fine. Perhaps YOU need to examine why YOU have the sexist baggage about it that you do.


  2. (responding to the previous poster) You haven't fully examined the entirety of Ashleys character, her previous dress, the ideas of professionalism, especially in military environments, and sexism in gaming in general. I'll follow up with a longer post, but the gist will be that you're overcompensating for your own insecurities about dressing sexily, and the appeal of Ashleys character was that she was sexy without needing to conform to the current media concepts of a sexy woman, which is embodied by inflated breasts and character inappropriate makeup

  3. Just want to call attention to the further discussion here:

    The above anon (Badpie) posted their response to their Tumblr as well, and others responded in kind.

  4. Hi Badpie,

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. I'm sure I'm not up to date on the latest spoilers; I think I mentioned everything I do know in the post, i.e. that Ash has been promoted and she's a Spectre now.

    I certainly didn't mean to suggest that sex appeal and power are mutually exclusive. The argument I was trying to make was only about using visual art in the service of storytelling. Every aspect of a character design should communicate something about the character, and to me, a low-cut top doesn't seem to communicate any of the things that are important about Ash. Jack, from ME2, would be a great counter-example. She wears very little throughout the game, but her costumes design aren't sexist (in my opinion) because they communicate the aggressive sexuality and fearlessness at the heart of that character.

    I'd also like to stress that I don't have an objection to attractive characters. Not in the slightest! I say bring 'em on, and Mass Effect has a number of great ones. I always found Ash incredibly attractive in ME1. She was a beautiful, powerful, unique woman. And heck, you could even tell she had a great body under that ME1 uniform. All of that is fine. It's great, actually, and I have no objection to it. And as I mentioned in the post, I also have no objection to Ash's new hair. It both looks good and communicates something important about the character.

    What I object to is art design that abandons the principle that every detail should say something important about the character, and just throws in details that don't emerge organically from the character or the story. Even worse, I object to such art design that presents women, but not men, as sexual objects - and please note I say sexual objects, not sexual beings.

    A great resource about art design as an aid or hindrance to storytelling - and its relevance to sexism - is A good place to start might be his post on bad superhero redesigns here:

    I think most of the other points I would make have already been very eloquently argued in the tumblr response JD linked to above (thanks for that, JD!). So let me just reiterate that I love Bioware and I think they make wonderful games that are ahead of the game development community curve in terms of gender equality; they aren't perfect, and I hold them in high enough respect that I think they're worth criticizing.