Picking The Blonde In Video Game Beauty Contest Not A Bad Thing

Commander Shepard, the hero of the popular Sci-Fi franchise Mass Effect, can be a man or a woman; the player chooses. That kind of customisation is one of the most appealing aspects of the series, which is preparing to launch its third instalment in early 2012.

Since the series debuted in 2007, Mass Effect's box art and promotional materials have featured only a bald, tough-looking male version of Commander Shepard. As a result, the developers at BioWare have never had to declare an "official" version of the female Shepard, affectionately dubbed "FemShep" by her fans. Each of us FemShep players has been able to imagine that our own Shepard is the "real" one.

Judged solely on how the game is advertised, you'd never even know that it offered the option to play as a female protagonist. That's finally changing. In the wake of a lengthy twitter campaign organised by FemShep fans, BioWare's Director of Marketing David Silverman confirmed that the female Shepard will be featured on the Collector's Edition boxart of Mass Effect 3 and in her own trailer. All that remains to be determined is what, exactly, she will look like.

Since mid-July, BioWare has been running a competition on their Facebook fan page — a series of six possible versions of FemShep, which were posted along with the simple instructions: "Female Commander Shepard. 'Like' the one you want in game!"  Two weeks' worth of "Likes" have been tallied, and one FemShep stands tall above the others — yep, it's the blonde one.

The tow-headed "Shepard 5" has dominated the voting, currently holding a massive lead with nearly 30,000 votes. (The next-closest runner-up is the dark-skinned, streak-haired "Shepard 4" with a mere 12,000.) Shepard 5's golden locks look nothing like any of the previously available hairstyles in the game, and so she looks nothing like any of the FemSheps that players have come to know and love. That fact is causing consternation among an increasingly large number of writers, bloggers and Mass Effect fans.

"I'm torn on the choice, to be honest," GayGamer.net editor Denis Farr told me in an email. "On the one hand, I love that FemShep is getting marketing and is being displayed. On the other, the way the campaign has been run has made it into a beauty pageant, which has a whole host of issues about what we value in women (things other than for which I value my FemShep).

"Since each Shep has a story, why not have fans submit a photo of their Shep and a story? Boil down who their Shep is, why she's awesome. It would both create fan engagement, as well as show the loyalty of the fans. Then have people vote on that. It creates a story about Shepard, not an image we just click on."

In the provocatively titled PC Gamer editorial "Death to Blonde Shepard," Kim Richards makes the point that this is the first time that female Shepard will be shown to the world, and says that "it breaks my heart that the mass public have gone for such the wishy washy, Barbie faced personality vacuum that is Shep 5. The modern day world is already so much more culturally diverse than yester-year, so why don't future representations reflect this? Isn't it about time that the cliché of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed pin-up was fazed out?"

This is the 80 per cent male fan base that plays this game choosing the one they think is the most appealing, not the one that they think reminds them of Shepard, or even a soldier saving the galaxy.

Holly Conrad, creative director at CrabCat Industries, has designed some pretty spectacular Mass Effect costumes over the years. She was closely involved in the competition ("Shepard 6" was even based on her own FemShep), and was disappointed in the results as well, tweeting, "The popular girls even win in Mass Effect. #whyblondeshepwhy."

"Having a blonde FemShep is like having the generic MaleShep," Conrad wrote to me."They're typical, 80-90 per cent of players will pick them just to get the game rolling. Maybe more guys will pick FemShep now that they've voted her in. Because that's who is choosing this, not the female fans. This is the 80 per cent male fan base that plays this game choosing the one they think is the most appealing, not the one that they think reminds them of Shepard, or even a soldier saving the galaxy. The voting had no story behind it, just looks, of course BlondeShep won in a pool that saturated with people that play MaleShep."

I like Blonde FemShep fine. I even voted for her! I thought her hair looked pretty rad, and I actually liked that she looked nothing like any of the Shepards available in the first two games — she was a blank slate. And past that, her hair was awesomely tousled, probably from blowing up a Reaper ship or having particularly frisky relations with her dreamy amphibian paramour Thane. She looks nothing like my own raven-haired FemShep, but that's OK with me. The default bald male Shepard looks nothing like my male Shepard either, and I've never really minded.

The democratic manner in which the "official" FemShep is being chosen represents the very thing that makes FemShep so great — we each have our own, and we all feel pretty strongly about him or her. A huge part of Mass Effect's appeal is that I can make my own character, and in doing so tell my own story. Of course, that's also what makes it so challenging to choose a single official FemShep. No matter what winds up getting decided, they're not going to choose a FemShep who represents everyone.

I like Farr's idea of having people write in with their own FemShep stories, and holding a public campaign to choose one winner while highlighting a bunch of other finalists. It would have brought a lot of attention to FemShep while highlighting the very diversity that makes choosing an official FemShep so difficult. But of course, it's a bit late for that now. EA/BioWare needs a single female Shepard featured on the box, and so I've got no real problem with the one the voters chose.

But for the ad campaign, why couldn't they perhaps try a new approach and highlight the customizability that makes Mass Effect so much fun? Imagine this TV spot, if you will: The iconic Mass Effect theme plays as the camera fades up on a view from a starship window. "We've come so far together," FemShep's voice-actor Jennifer Hale huskily intones. "But now," MaleShep voice-actor Mark Meer continues, "we've got to finish it." The beat drops and we cut to a variety of Shepards doing a variety of Shepard-y things — blasting evil Geth, shoving chumps down elevator shafts, making out with sexy aliens — but vitally, it's a different Shepard in every shot. At the end of the commercial, the montage resolves to male Shepard standing next to female Shepard, both of them turning to look out over a Reaper-ravaged Earth city.

Not only would that ad campaign feel inclusive enough to make please us hard-to-please FemShep players, it would also highlight one of the coolest (and most overlooked) features about Mass Effect: Shepard's customizability. In one fell swoop, BioWare could thrill a huge number of fans while advertising one of their game's most distinctive features. I'm not holding my breath, but it sure would be nice to see something different this time around.

WATCH MORE: Gaming News


Comments

    I have no problem with the beauty contest style picking process, and I have no problem with "official" FemShep being blonde.
    I DO have a problem with a the fact that the only faces to choose from were basically teenager's faces. No matter what your Femshep's story is, those choices were all to young-looking to have been through all Shepard has been through. At least the 'default' Femshep option looked like a woman.

      Yeah, I agree with this. The art department did an awful job on the age.

      I'm also a little perturbed that 'default maleShep' is a masculine generic space marine archetype, but all the default femSheps are pixie-chinned faces that look about 21.

      That the male character looks 10 to 15 years older than the female character is frustrating, because it feels like both genders are catering to what adolescent male consumers see as the 'good' parts of each.

      And like you say, none of them beat the default femShep (or *any* character made with the engine), who actually looks old enough to have supposedly fought all these battles and commanded a ship for years.

    The female Shepard options were always more about beauty though. I gave mine the biggest scar I could, but it pales in comparison to the viscious scars that you can apply to the male counterpart.

    That said, the blonde Shepard was my least favourite, but I don't care, because creating a custom Shepard is where it's at (and I'll be importing my Shepards from ME2 anyway).

    To be fair, i did vote for blonde femshep, and i don't see much reason behind peoples complaints.

    The consumers voted, fairly, and the most popular one won. Personally, i didn't vote for FemShep 5 because she was blonde, but because of the hairstyle, it could have been blue, black, green, grey or any other colour you can think up and i still would have voted for her.

    The fact that the majority of them all had basically the same face didn't help either.

    So the people that bitched about wanting an official FemShep are complaining because she has blonde hair?

    Why is it not considered equally sexist/offensive to choose a male Sheppard based entirely on how tough/badass he looks?

      Because tough/badass is exactly what Shep (male or female) is supposed to look like.

    Played 1 and 2 with a heShep, and will almost certainly do the same in 3. In each case, I've used customisation - I like being able to decide what my avatar looks like.

    I did roll a femShep to replayed 2, but again heavily customised. She's no glamour queen. Putting her up as a beauty contest may well be good advertising but doesn't consider who'll actually be playing this toon once the game's out.

    He clearly hasn't seen a Barbie doll... they have perfect hair and make up, FemShep #5 has disheveled hair that looks like it hasnt been washed (it a war y'know), dark eyes like she hasnt' slept, and she looks mean... even in the disturbing positions I put my daughters Barbie in, she still looks awfully happy.

    I voted for #5 for the reason that she looked more pissed than the rest, like she had some personal mission rather than just saving the universe - which is how I've played the first two.

    I don't think it's fair saying Femshep players are "hard to please" they just would've preferred a choice of characters that don't look like they're still in high school.

    FemShep 6 looks like Uma Thurman's character in Pulp Fiction, 1-3 had the same haircut.
    No wonder 4 and 5 are the most popular.

    I voted for the ginger one with freckles but to be honest they all looked generic. Its a non issue far as anyone truly caring about femshep would go since they'll make their own character anyway.,,,,_____

    Not my prefered choice but im happy with it none the less, i think 3 or 2 was the one i hoped didnt get it.

    I personally liked the Blonde Shep, I mean I am not fond of the hair color, but whatever lol. I think she looks Different compared to the older default shepard so.. I voted for her as well so :)

    S'cool. I'll just be chilling here with BroShep. :3

    Ok am I the only one who recognises that FemShep wouldn't have long flowing hair, she's a soldier; even if she did have long hair, it would be tied up in a bun or pony tail. Long hair is just an inconvenience in battle. It'd get all up in her face while leaping over piles of bullet ridden Husks. The ability to see things is kind of important for successful battlefield operations. ah well let the boys have their pretty FemShep. I'll be sticking with my MaleShep anyway.

      More to the point, how would all that hair fit into a helmet? :)

      The longer hair options for femShep in ME/ME2 at least looked reasonably sensible for battle.

    I think it's not the fact of she being blonde, it's the haircut. I'd love to see that femshep with that haircut but red hair

    What? The blond blue-eyed white FemShep got the most votes? RACISM! No but seriously that PC Gamer article is blatantly racist towards Caucasians.

    i still think that the biggest issue was the fact that we were essentially given passport photos.

    Which means hairstyle becomes irrelevant unless it's defined up the front(which made the first 3 look samey since one had short hair. one had hair pulled back into probably a ponytail and on had hair that was pulled back with the slightest sliver coming back from behind.

    all with roughly the same faces.

    I think an interesting idea would have been to unleash the female character creator.

    allow people to create female femsheps, submit them. And then take the most commonly used features accross the board to create a frankenstein :P

    I voted for Number 5, but it was down to her badass tousled styling as opposed to the colour. I actually prefer most hair colours over blonde in reality, so figure that one out :S

    I still stand by my question of why not just the default FemShep? She's better looking in every way than any of the other choices.

      I second that, also I really don't see Jennifer Hale's voice matching BlondeShep very well. Default FemShep matches the voice perfectly imo.

      Agreed. They already had one, which a lot of people would have gone with anyway "just to get the game rolling" as he says.

      Meh, don't really care, just marketing fluff anyway. I love my emerald green eyed redhead Shepard.

    I did vote for 5 'cos I like this hair-style. It's true that I prefer red-head or brunette but I'm happy for femShep whatever she looks like (except pony-tails). And I didn't recognize that she does have blue eyes, sorry guys I don't have a magnifying glass.

    I have my femShep from ME1 (Is it weird that I made her face cca 45 minutes?) and I won't ever change her for default.

    Annoyed me that they were all basically the same face, so it just became a "Best Hair In The Galaxy" contest (no relation to Worst Dressed Sentient Being in the Universe Award).

    Would have been interested to see how old default FemShep would have fared if included.

    I love the fact that default male Shep isn't some dimestore Orlando Bloom prettyboy with flowing locks. He does look like a badass and the previous FemShep did too.

    well to be honest I thought it was going to win simply because it was memorable... which is kind of sad.

    The first 3 femsheps they listed all looked like the same person to me. I think whoever chose the 6 that would be voted on did a pretty poor job on the variety front.

    Femshep blond bla bla... I am not so much concerned about this as I am concerned that ME3 will turn out to be like Dragon Age II...

    THAT WOULD BE MY WORST NIGHTMARE *breaks out in cold sweat at the thought*

    I went with blonde FemShep, but that was because she was the only one that looked like she matches the background image - the hair is messy, a bit grubby looking, and she's got a touch of panda/racoon eyes. Every other one looks like they just stepped out of the (virtual) salon and in front of "generic space adventurer backdrop 3" - not a hair out of place, clear skin, perfect makeup.

    Blonde hair, blue eyes, pale skin - all true. But honestly, she's also the only one that looks like someone I would NOT want to piss off.

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