Mass Effect 2 introduces the player to the perfect woman. Her name is Miranda Lawson. The back story of Miranda Lawson is this. She was genetically engineered by her father to become the perfect woman. Everything about her is designed, but as we shall discover, Miranda’s perfection is not everything it’s hyped up to be.
My reflexes, my strength, even my looks – they’re all designed to give me an edge. No point in hiding from it.
– Miranda Lawson, Mass Effect 2
Speaking to Miranda, it becomes obvious that she’s confident in her abilities, and that she apparently feels good about using them to their best effect. Miranda doesn’t have a mother, only a father whom she finds restrictive and arrogant to the core. Miranda’s father, in turn, based Miranda’s genetic template on his own DNA. She also points out that she wasn’t the first of his children, only the first one to be kept.
Her claims to perfection may be a reason why she’s so heavily sexualized in the original Mass Effect 2. The camera would often focus on Miranda’s backside when the player spoke to her, earning the game the (well deserved) moniker “ass effect”.
The Legendary Edition thankfully focuses attention away from aspects of Miranda’s body, but it’s still a physical appearance that – to me – points to some problematic implications of the world building. While some may argue that Miranda using skintight clothes is a way for her to empower herself trough her sexuality, an argument could, and should be made to point out that Mass Effect as a text exists in a context of present day. We can argue that in the future there’s no inequality and that women aren’t judged harshly by their attractiveness, but to me that’s a wishful thinking argument. It also happens to be strongly contradicted by comments from both enemies, NPCs and crew.
The Eclipse captain Enyala remarks that she was expecting Miranda to get dressed before combat starts.
I was just waiting for you to finish getting dressed. Or does Cerberus really let you whore around in that outfit?
– Captain Enyala, Mass Effect 2
To me, this is a clear indication that women who dress in a specific way are still considered sexualized, easy or sluts.
Not to dig too deeply into rape culture, but Enyala’s words lead at least me to conclude that women who are dressed in revealing outfits are deemed sexually available. Dressing in a particular way makes the women “fair game”. Rape culture in essence is based on the idea of male entitlement to women’s bodies. Dressing provocatively, getting “too drunk”, walking down the wrong street or even smiling in the wrong way to a man can invalidate the woman’s right to say no. Tell me if you’ve heard this before: “She was asking for it. She wore a short skirt/ a thong (under her fully covering jeans)/ she wore red underwear/ whatever other piece of clothing that justifies rape in the minds of entitled men, i.e. pretty much anything.”
Enyala’s comment around Miranda’s clothes and the focus in the original game on Miranda’s backside points quite firmly towards this still being a pervasive issue in the world of Mass Effect 2.
Dressing in a revealing fashion is not necessarily empowering.
Other aspects of Mass Effect 2 that reinforces not only the sexualization of characters rather than focusing on empowerment is the way women are treated in Jacob’s loyalty mission, and a minor incident in Samara’s hunt for her daughter.
There are obviously other issues that reinforce a negative view on women in Samara’s missions and story, but we’ll leave them for now.
The incident happens in the VIP area of Afterlife. A dancer is harassed by a turian. The dancers in Mass Effect are a story unto themselves, but reinforcing the idea that a lightly dressed woman equals a slut in the eyes of the game is shown in a little tableau that Shepard can walk in on. The turian in question won’t leave a female dancer (there are only female dancers, btw) alone. It’s obvious that he feels entitled to her body and will pretty much harass her about it until Shepard intervenes.
I think every woman has a story like that, regardless of how they were dressed at the time. That one guy that won’t take no for an answer and the experienced helplessness and fear that is associated with that one guy’s behaviour. 1
My point is that the visual design of Miranda Lawson sexualizes her. It doesn’t make her empowered or secure in her sexuality. I’m sure she’s intended to be those things as well, but ultimately in the context of Mass Effect that’s clearly not how the game sees her.
In addition to these two incidents there’s also the banter between Donnelly and Gaby, where Donnelly reinforces that the view men have of women’s bodies seem to be intact, despite the intervening years.
In other words, Miranda’s physical perfection from the perspective of appearance is built on the same ideals and issues that exist in present day. She’s built that way to please men. Her looks are designed to give her an edge, and the edge in context is when dealing with heterosexual men.
Miranda is not only perfect from an appearance point of view. She’s also engineered to be stronger, faster, live longer and be more intelligent than the average human.
Starting out, she gives the impression that shes’ got the confidence to accompany her perfection. Shepard even remarks in how confident she is. But of course a woman can’t get too cocky. Pun intended.
Miranda constantly attributes her wins to her genetic engineering and her losses to flaws in herself. Her expectations on herself are inhuman – or if you’re a woman in a male dominated space, entirely normal.
She brings her successes and failures up on several occasions, how she’s not responsible for her successes, only her mistakes. This is yet another significant issue with Miranda. She’s supposedly perfect, and yet instead of letting her be confident in herself, she’s brought down by insecurities. I recognize this so well from the way women are generally treated and the way we’re “supposed” to be. Miranda is perfect, and yet the game steals that perfection away from her. In part through attributing her wins to outside forces that she had no control over, and in part by letting her feel solely responsible for her mistakes only.
If you think about it, that’s what the game is telling the player. Miranda is not allowed to own her success. Her father does. According to the game, Miranda is only allowed to own her failures.
I suppose one can argue that Miranda wouldn’t be at all interesting without flaws, and that’s probably true. What I’m really questioning around Miranda is why a perfect woman had to be made by a man, and why the game takes away her agency, both sexual and otherwise, by not letting her own any of her successes.
An interesting observation in this context is that when women, or in this case women coded aliens, create offspring in the world of Mass Effect, they sometimes turn out as monsters. I wrote about this in my post about the Banshee, where an asari mating with another asari might give birth to an Ardat-Yakshi. An Ardat-Yakshi is a genetic anomaly among the asari, and one that is compelled to kill when having sex.
I find the juxtaposition between how offspring created by a man (Miranda) and offspring created by a woman (Ardat-Yakshi) exist in Mass Effect very telling. Offspring created by men alone is perfect. Offspring created by women alone is deeply flawed, perhaps even dangerous. What does that tell you?
Maybe that’s the only way a perfect woman can be stomached, if she was created by a man and if all her successes ultimately stem from that man?
- I once had a guy follow me out of the grocery store when I’d been shopping. He kept calling me until I told him to go away. He took that as an in to start asking me if he could feed me, take care of me and be my sugar daddy. I told him, in gentler terms, to fuck off. He wouldn’t leave me alone until I got to my apartment, where thankfully I managed to lock him out of my apartment. He stood outside for 20 minutes. He later found my phone number and started calling me in the middle of the night. He didn’t stop until I changed phone number.