This post represents my opinion only, and not that of my employer.

Kristeva’s theory of abjection provides us with an important theoretical framework for analysing (…) the representation of the monstrous-feminine, in relation to woman’s reproductive and mothering functions. However, abjection by its very nature is ambiguous; it both repels and attracts. Separating out the mother and her universe from the symbolic order is not an easy task – perhaps it is, finally, not even possible.
The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis by Barbara Creed

This post started as a post about the Mass Effect 3 enemy, the Banshee. I’ve written about the Banshee previously here, and what I wrote still stands. It is because the Banshee is tapping into so many subconscious levels of fear that the enemy works. It does not, however, stop the Banshee from being a problematic enemy.

To unpack the Banshee, I have had to dig deep into the alien race in Mass Effect known as the asari. It’s going to be a long post. There will be quotes from weird books. I might lose the plot now and again and rabbit hole here and there, but please stick around. The post also has sexy dancers, monks, the whore/ madonna dichotomy and body horror. Which reminds me.

Content Warning:
This post contains body horror, fear of women’s sexuality (it’s a whooper at that) and just general ick around the idea of reproduction presented firmly as the domain of women, and only women. This post is also, by the patriarchal nature of society, quite gender binary, meaning that it is supposed that there are two biological sexes, men and women, and two genders, men and women. Nature is not that simple. Society, unfortunately, still believe it is.
End Content Warning

I should also point out that this post only takes into account the characters in the game. There is a book in the series of novels that does reinforce the body horror of a Reaper invasion in a human man, Paul Grayson, who is used as a test subject by the Illusive Man. The novel is written by Drew Karpyshyn and is called Mass Effect: Retribution. There’s also a comic focusing on the Cerberus takeover of Omega, Mass Effect: Invasion that introduces the Adjutant in a similar fashion.

The Banshee is a masterful enemy. But it is also problematic as heck, and the issues are severely compounded by it’s origin, a monogendered race called the asari who present with a genetic flaw, the Ardat Yakshi; a sort of monk like path any of them can take (if they survive), the Justicar; and to top it all off, one of few enemies in Mass Effect that gets this kind of introduction. One of the other being the husks on Eden Prime, impaled on the dragon’s teeth. The dragon’s teeth flood the impaled person with nanites, while the pain and fear increases adrenaline production. This in turn speeds up the nanites. This process is hinted at in the game, but never fully explored.

If you count the late to the party introduction of the Illusive Man’s manipulations of his own troops1 there are three enemies that are introduced with a comparable level of body horror and fear. One could argue that the Adjutant is one of them, but it doesn’t quite reach the same detail and it is not an enemy that is widely seen in the game. The Adjutants only appear in the Omega DLC.

Mass Effect is not the only series that use fear of women’s sexuality to create an impact on the player. In Dragon Age, there is the Broodmother, which I’ve also written about. Of these two, the Banshee – by virtue (or perhaps sin) of its origins is the only enemy with so many layers of double standards.

BioWare is by no means the only gaming company that uses these psychological horrors. The Zerg and Sarah Kerrigan in StarCraft and StarCraft II by Blizzard come to mind, and I’ve written about at least Kerrigan before (and I would be lying if I said I don’t have a post in the works about the Zerg), but the Banshee is particularly interesting, because of the many layers it uses to create horror in the player. There are of course many more games that are problematic, but might not rely on the abject horror to such a large extent.

The Asari – Space Babes

Well, I’m not human, am I? Anthropocentric back of dicks.
– Matriarch Aethyta

The humble, or not so humble, origins of the Banshees rest in an alien monogendered race called the asari. The asari present as women, and to add to that specific male space fantasy, they spend their youth either as exotic dancers or mercenaries. They can breed with any race in the universe through a form of mind melding, which is how they have solved for the issue of genetic incompatibility. A child born to an asari will however always be another asari, regardless of who the partner is.

The possessed or invaded being is a figure of abjection in that the boundaries between self and other has been transgressed. When the subject is invaded by a personality of another sex, the transgression is even more abject because gender boundaries are violated.
The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis by Barbara Creed

In the context of abject fears, it makes sense that even Ye Olde Basic Asari has terrifying aspects to her, as well as the more male-fantasy-fulfilling ones. One such aspect is the fact that asari can read minds. In fact, the way their sexuality works, as implied above, it’s all very centred around telepathy and joining their consciousness with the person they are sexually engaged with.

In Mass Effect, the fear of this union is stated more than once by Shepard when they are trying to make sense of the jumbled information left by a Prothean beacon that was assimilated by Shepard by accident.

Shepard can be reluctant to have both Shiala, who provides Shepard with a cipher, and Liara, Shepard’s potential companion, rooting around in their brain. A renegade Shepard is more averse to this than a paragon Shepard, but it’s still obvious that this is an invasion of the mind. Liara, in addition to being attracted to Shepard, is also unable to control her invasion and alludes to seeing things that maybe she shouldn’t have.

It should be mentioned that asari go through three stages of of maturity. The Maiden stage, the Matron stage and the Matriarch stage. The Maiden stage is the adventurous stage, having asari shaking their asses or killing their way through the galaxy. The Matron stage reinforces their housewifely duties, and they start having babies and caring for them, and the Matriarch stage is basically the asari sharing their wisdom and taking care of the entire race. Kind of like a grandmother with massive boobs. 2 Provided of course that you don’t take the “other” view of women that is implied in the choice of three stages in asari life. Crone. Benezia is ultimately (despite her beauty) a representation of the crone. She is death. But I’ll return to Benezia later in this post.

The mother’s offspring (…) represent symbolically the horrifying results of permitting the mother too much power. An extreme, impossible situation – parthenogenetic birth – is used to demonstrate the horrors of unbridled maternal power. Parthenogenesis is impossible, but if it could happen (…) woman could give birth only to deformed manifestations of herself.
The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis by Barbara Creed

Let us trot out the first issue with this space fantasy. If an asari and an asari have children with one another, the result can be a genetically defective creature called an Ardat-Yakshi. This means that asari looking to have sex and procreate with other asari are frowned upon. It’s a taboo, because Ardat-Yakshi are problematic, but I’ll get back to that in a bit. Even if the result of a union isn’t an Ardat-Yakshi, it still seen as something bad. I get the feeling it’s like incest. Not something you should really be doing. All such children are called purebloods, and they face both slurs and discrimination within asari society. The pureblood taboo in a race of what certainly looks like female coded aliens becomes not only a punishment for not wanting to find “real” men (meaning fathers that aren’t asari) but a selfish and above all self-inflicted punishment. This prohibition to breed within the race, as it were, gives voice to the fear of parthenogenesis – a situation where women have no need for men. But, the game also seems to argue, the female coded asari are weak. The process which they use to create life happens mostly in their minds, and as we will see in an example later on in this post, their minds are sometimes too weak to handle the process, and what they give birth to are monsters.

The asari are in other words a busty amazon race looking for men (well, the assumption on the part of the creators, I would assume) to procreate with, because they can’t or shouldn’t have children with each other.

To top it all off, Mordin Solus offers a theory that asari aren’t limited to their looks when it comes to their “attractiveness” across races. They also affect other races through a neurochemical process, making them look good through chemistry, basically. Kind of deceptive, when you think about it.3

She may have had absolutely no intention of tempting him – she may not even realise that she has caused any lustful thoughts at all but she is still guilty. Both the man and the woman have sinned even though what happened was quite beyond their control.
The Gospel According to Woman: Christianity’s Creation of the Sex War in the West by Karen Armstrong

This is a notion that has been present for thousands of years, and it also presents the unwary (presumed) man with the perfect excuse, should he fall for an asari (or, you know, any woman, really). He simply couldn’t help it. They made him do it and they may not even have been aware that they made him do it, because it’s built into their bodies.

This, together with the nature of their reproduction, lies at the center of the problematic triumvirate of asari/ Ardat-Yakshi/ Banshees. Each layer shed reveals the true nature of the asari. Liara appears pure, naïve, innocent and in the first Mass Effect, very unaware of human relationships. Bring on the second Mass Effect and we meet Samara and Morinth (and a hardened Liara) to show that asari – in all their blue innocence – are dangerous in ways the player may not have expected. Finally in Mass Effect 3 when the shell has cracked entirely, and the core of these beautiful women-coded aliens reveals itself, it is in the form of the Banshee. It was there all along. You were just blinded by the (artificial) beauty of the asari. And honestly, you couldn’t help yourself for falling into their trap.

The One Good Asari – Liara T’soni

So we do have one shining example of a good asari. Her name is Liara T’soni and she’s one of Shepard’s companions. When the player meets T’soni, she’s helpless, trapped in a force field created by the civilization she studies, the Protheans. She’s disconnected from her powerful mother, Matriarch Benezia, who has ended up in the hands of Saren, the antagonist of the first Mass Effect game (or, you know, the stand in antagonist for the real threat).

Liara and Benezia are polar opposites in the game. Benezia, full breasted Matriarch in the claws of Saren and the Reapers due to almost total indoctrination, versus Liara, barely a Maiden who has eschewed the ways of other young asari to pursue a career of archaeology instead of shaking her ass in a shady bar on the Citadel.4

In comparison to other asari, and in particular to her mother, Liara is “pure”, and can therefore be accepted into Shepard’s flock of willing women. From the first moment Liara appears on screen, it’s painfully apparent that she’s the main love interest for either fem- or broshep. She’s a damsel in distress for Shepard to swoop in and rescue.

For that to work, Liara has to be guileless and innocent. After all, who would want a dangerous merc or a dancer as their first foray into a relationship with an alien?

The Ascetic Asari – Samara

From the time of Hippocrates to Ambrose Pare, it was generally believed that monstrous offspring were created by the maternal imagination.
The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis by Barbara Creed

Samara is a mother. Samara is also a Justicar. The reason why Samara has sworn herself to the dangerous and ascetic code of the Justicars is because her daughters – all three of them – are Ardat-Yakshi. So in other words, in order for Samara to repent for the sin5 of having procreated with another asari – identity unknown – she has foresworn sex, worldly possessions and a life of her own to follow an obscure asari code that pretty much paints the world in black and white for her.

To repent, Samara gives up everything that makes her a woman, apart from – apparently – form fitting outfits with more cleavage than not and wedgies in abundance. But speaking to Samara, it’s clear that she has chosen this path in particular to make up for past mistakes. The only way Samara knows how to make up for those mistakes, is to give herself over to a selfless and ascetic existence, denying herself even the smallest pleasures.

Making matters worse, she’s hunting her own daughter, Morinth, who chose to give in to her urges and become a murderer rather than to seclude herself in a cloister together with her sisters.

What we have are pureblood asari, sinning by having sex with their own kind, giving birth to monsters. It sort of reminds me a bit of Lilith. The name Ardat-Yakshi even means Demon of the Night Winds in an old asari dialect. So their daughters have no choice but to either become voracious sexual demons or ascetic nuns, forever chaste. The Ardat-Yakshi, I should mention, also get high from killing, meaning they get addicted. To killing. By sex.

Samara pays for her mistakes by becoming a killer monk, wandering the galaxy like a samuraj, righting wrongs in her own black and white way in order to repent that she was once happy and had kids. But she had kids with the wrong person, meaning not a man. Just as the quote above hints at, the idea that the mother’s imagination is ultimately to blame for any monstrous offspring is ancient. It was believed that women who saw things like furry men while pregnant would give birth to hairy babies and so on and so forth. The mother’s influence on her offspring was clear. Add to that the fact that asari actually embody this idea through that they mind meld with the person they want to have the baby with and map out the genes they want to “use” for their baby and all of a sudden, Samara seems to be very selfish and very naïve to have wanted to have a baby with another asari. She chose her partner. She literally imagined the monsters she gave birth to. No wonder she feels guilty and needs to repent.

Samara broke the taboo and because of that all her daughters have become Ardat-Yakshi, presumably because Samara wasn’t strong enough to prevent it. And because of that, Samara has pretty much sworn off everything pleasurable as punishment for her transgressions.

While with Shepard, she’ll confront her daughter Morinth and kill her. Shepard can also let Morinth kill her mother. Shepard can also have sex with Morinth, but predictably, that sex is lethal.

The Crone – Benezia

Irrational, scheming, evil – these are the words used to define the witch. The witch is also associated with a range of abject things; filth, decay, spiders, bats, cobwebs, brews, potions and even cannibalism.
The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis by Barbara Creed

Benezia kind of deserves her own post in this context, but I will briefly describe her here.

She is the mother of pureblood Liara, and as such has already committed a sin, something Liara mentions on a few occasions. Despite being a spiritual leader for other asari, she has made choices that invite the “sin” of the asari into herself and into asari society, by way of her role as a mentor to younger asari.

Because of this, I believe, she is also described as weak in the face of the Reapers, and although we do see other characters indoctrinated by Reaper mind tricks6, she comes across as more susceptible. She can’t resist the Reaper indoctrination, despite being a strong biotic and a strong willed asari, a spiritual leader of her people.

Depending on the path Shepard takes, the Paragon ending of Mass Effect allows Shepard to convince Saren that he has been indoctrinated, and he can end his own life as a result of that. He has that choice. Benezia is not that strong. I admit I’m digging pretty deeply here, but it is still a symptom of what the rest of the game say about the asari (and to some extent about women). Women are not as strong as men, therefore they are a danger.

Benezia is supposedly beautiful, the game even comments on how she turns the heads of men, and how she uses that ability to infiltrate Noveria and start breeding a race of spideresque aliens called the Rachni. It’s not surprising that Benezia is associated with the Rachni. It’s not surprising that the first contact that Shepard has with Benezia is in the context of helping Saren out, by scheming and manipulating. Those are traits associated with witches, after all, and what is a witch but a crone? And so we come full circle.

The Ardat-Yakshi – Death By Sex

(…) the definition of sin/ abjection as something which comes from within opens up the way to position woman as deceptively treacherous. She may appear pure and beautiful on the outside, but evil may nevertheless reside within. This is the stereotype of feminine evil – beautiful on the outside/ corrupt within – that is so popular with patriarchal discourses about woman’s evil nature.
The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis by Barbara Creed

The Ardat-Yakshi – offspring from pureblood asari unions – is a genetic anomaly among asari that literally embodies men’s fear of women’s sexuality. It is a fear men have carried around for ages. Having sex with an Ardat-Yakshi is lethal. You die, they get high (and addicted to killing). In addition to this the Ardat-Yakshi exhude a stronger version of the asari hormones, a pheromone mix that make them literally irresistible.

Whatever else the Banshee and asari are or are not, it certainly taps into a deep well of both fear and desire. The fear of the Other and the desire of women and women’s bodies. I don’t know who created the asari or the Ardat-Yakshi or the Banshee but it really did turn out to be the perfect storm of patriarchal fear and fantasy fulfillment and punishment of women all rolled into one. Perhaps that’s why the Banshee terrifies us so efficiently.

The Ardat-Yakshi who choose not to kill become nuns. They go into monasteries. If this is not the madonna/ whore embodiment I don’t know what is.

Basically this is a mix of both wish fulfilment – an entire race of women or people seemingly having the most “important” elements of women (boobs and what is referred to as an “azure” presumably meaning vagina or similar) are roaming the galaxy looking for other races – presumably men – to have babies with. If they don’t, they’re punished through their pureblood offspring that may – and the mother’s guilt in this process is heavily implied – become monsters, going on killing sprees that can last centuries.

They kill by luring people to have sex with them, the sexual partner dying in the process. The only way for an Ardat-Yakshi to be safe is if she’s entirely ascetic which plays into the Christian world view of women’s sexuality. The only safe woman is a woman who has given it up. An Ardat-Yakshi has to abstain entirely, or she will turn into – to borrow a phrase – a sexual sharknado, that can’t and won’t stop. This is what happens when women’s sexuality is completely unrestrained, the game seems to say, and the only way to stop them is by tossing these wild women into a monastery.

Which brings us to the Banshee.

The Ugly Truth of the Asari – The Banshee

What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil form of nature, painted with fair colours!
Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger

Let’s recap. Asari is a race of women presenting aliens who are sexually attractive through deception (neurochemistry). If they have sex with one another with the purpose of having babies, they can give birth to monsters, and it is more than hinted at that this form of parthenogenesis is to pretty much bring that monster into being if the asari giving birth is too weak to prevent it (remember the mind meld aspect of their sex lives).

The monsters themselves have the choice of becoming chaste forever or go on sexual killing sprees, where they can’t help but kill with sex. And they become addicted to it, like junkies jonesing for a fix.

In addition to these indignities, when a Reaper gets their hands on Ardat-Yakshi, they turn them into Banshees.

Kramer and Sprenger would have been relieved to see a Banshee, I think. At last woman’s deceptive outer shell is stripped from her and we can see her the way she really is. Or the way Kramer and Sprenger in all their misogyny believed that women were. I should explain myself. Kramer and Sprenger wrote the Malleus Maleficarum in 14-hundredsomething, a very influential book that led to nearly three hundred years of persecution of women (and some men) by supplying eager officials with the various ways to recognize a witch. A witch, a crone… which bears a striking resemblance to a Banshee.

The Banshees are the manipulative and scheming nature of asari come to life. They’re naked. Their breasts are large and pendulous, surrounded by blue machine-like veins, and they’ve got bulging stomachs and long claw like fingers. They’re crone-like in their appearance and if you get to close they’ll lift you up, pierce you and discard you like yesterday’s trash.

They howl as they approach, which is probably where they got their names, and they use eerie movement schemes like teleportation to get close to you before they unceremoniously kill you. The last thing you see are teeth in your face as they pierce you with their claws.

In contrast to the asari, or even the Ardat-Yakshi, this is not a creature that invites to sexual encounters. It is the asari stripped bare of pretences. Or should I say, women, stripped bare of pretences? What is the Banshee but an awful icing on the cake of the layers that create the asari? It is such a perfect reflection of how women are viewed in general (not overtly, no, but subconsciously). We’re whores or madonnas, given to sexual abandon or chaste and ascetic nuns, in control of our bodies and our minds. We’re scary, because what if we start having babies on our own? What if we devour the men we have sex with? What if?

It wouldn’t have been so bad, I think, if the playing field had been at least a bit even, by introducing other enemies with the same care and attention, but none of them go into the same level of detail or receive the same level of build up as the Banshee does.

Unfortunately I don’t think it’s an accident that the asari have the Ardat-Yakshi problem, or that the Banshee is layered on top of that. The turian, krogan, salarian and even the quarian races are less problematic. On the other hand, all of them present as male up until Mass Effect 3, with the exception of the hermetically sealed, and thus harmless, quarians.

The Banshee is problematic precisely because it is so layered and so intricate and so detailed. So much work has gone into this enemy compared to the others that it stands out.

To be honest this post hasn’t really been about Banshees but about the implied underlying message of the Banshee. “Look” it seems to say “this is what happens to women who don’t have men around to look after them. Is this really what you want?”

  1. I say “late to the party” because it’s only by the time the player gets to the Illusive Man’s base that the true horror of what he’s doing to his troops hit home. Even then there’s no real connection to that horror, no one viscerally being transformed by Reaper code to become one of Cerberus’ soldiers. There are hints, but in comparison those hints are weak and never in the player’s face in the same way. Karpyshyn’s book is the only other media that even comes close (and in some way overtakes) the Banshee introduction.
  2. Asari live for a thousand years and apparently one way you can tell their age is through the fact that their boobs keep growing throughout their lives, explaining the massive bust on Matriarch Benezia in the first game. When I say explaining, I mean “explaining”.
  3. It’s also kind of weird that asari follow the human standards of female beauty so closely. Strange how the 21st century ideals of body and face are reflected so well in the asari…
  4. Or killing people for money, running slaves or drugs as most mercs seem to be doing in the Mass Effect universe.
  5. Which, you’ll remember, she has no one to blame for but herself. Ultimately, she was to weak to ward off the monstrosity she created with her mind, not once, but three times.
  6. Which is also kind of interesting, because the Reapers are just like asari in some respects. They are the ultimate abject enemy. Reapers invade and change not only the bodies of individuals but also their minds. A definite reason to return to the Reapers and their invasion at some point.