Standard disclaimer: I don’t have a degree in gender studies or linguistics. I’m just an androgyne who enjoys the Mass Effect universe and picked up bits and pieces over many, many playthroughs. A fair amount of this is headcanon and conjecture, supported by in-game references whenever possible. A mix of feminine and they singular/plural are used to reference the asari, with the discussion focusing on pronouns, sex and gender presentation, and some naming conventions. This also got way too long.
The first thing to remember about Mass Effect is that we aren’t just human beings playing Mass Effect. We are humans playing Mass Effect through a human perspective. In the single-player campaign, we never get to see through the eyes of a drell or a hanar, much less hear untranslated communication between any of the alien species. Everything that you - and Shepard - hear and say is translated through a complex and constantly updated program so the Commander doesn’t accidentally call the salarian Councilor a cloaca.
The second is that Bioware doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to talking about the asari or how they work. Their explanations have bounced from straight analogue of the ‘green-skinned space babe’ while the Codex describes them as monogendered (with use of feminine pronouns), despite the fact that gender is a marker of identity. I posit that monosexed is a more appropriate descriptor, because whatever word asari use for their physical sex, they appear to have only one of them.
For those who are curious, an analogue to the asari mating practice - sans melding - does occur in nature with the parthenogenic genera of whiptail lizards, who use psuedocopulation amongst themselves to prompt their body to produce a pregnancy, all without a second partner ever introducing genetic material. The species is referred to as ‘all-female’ by [human] scientists, but that’s half my point.
A uterus or the capability to become pregnant does not mean the person involved is automatically female. In fact, there are numerous occasions scattered through the Mass Effect trilogy that make it clear the asari don’t consider themselves to be female, but allow the galactic gender binary for ease in communication.
As the species with the most economic and political power in the galaxy, you would think the asari had some control over the social structure, and to a large effect, they do. However, with the exception of the hanar - who have their biolumenescent speech arduously translated and use ‘it/they’ as pronouns - the asari are the only species in current Citadel space who doesn’t fit into a neat binary.
Why do the hanar get away with it? Well, to coin a phrase from Shepard, they look like ‘big stupid jellyfish’. The only analogue a human has to compare hanar appearance to is an animal, and one most people aren’t overly familiar with. If the loners in the galactic corner - check the Codex, they keep their homeworld extremely isolated, as the asari do - want to call themselves ‘it’, no one cares.
But the asari have primary sexual characteristics - namely a capacity for pregnancy - that every other species considers as a marker of ‘female’, and secondary sexual characteristics - enlarged breasts and a lower waist to hip ratio - that humans in particular decide marks a ‘woman’. So the feminine pronouns are applied and no one thinks twice.
In Mass Effect 1, during the potential love triangle conflict between Kaidan, Liara, and Shepard, part of Kaidan’s conflict is not just jealousy and confusion, but the fact that Liara is presumably ‘female’. Liara quietly notes, however, that ‘I am not precisely a woman’. Despite being a fairly introverted and socially isolated character, that distinction was important enough to make.
Kaidan also earlier bites his tongue on calling Shepard a lesbian during a related conversation, although no asari in any Mass Effect canon - games, books, or comics - notes having a sexual orientation. If they did, it would be fair to assume it would be more in the realm of ‘turian-sexual’ or ‘drell-sexual’ instead of ‘bisexual’. Asari Who Have Sex With Asari, etc. The word for an asari’s partner is ‘bondmate’, which makes absolutely no comment on sex, gender, or species.
Later in Mass Effect 2, talking with Aria about Patriarch was named as such after his defeat because there is no such word as ‘patriarch’ - a male leader - in asari language, thus making him a leader of nothing. Proof again of the translation convention, since it never occurred to her that would give him some semblance of power. And why would there have to be? The first species asari would have established translators for are the salarians, who are led by all-female dalatrasses. Even when the turians were brought into the galactic community, it took some time for them to become part of the Council, and the title itself is neutral: Councilor.
Anderson, in the first Mass Effect novel, comments to himself how he has caught himself treating asari differently - inferiorly - because he innately sees them as ‘women’ and is irritated because he hoped all that human sexism crap was behind him. There’s the important distinction: he sees them as women. In every occasion where an asari ends up discussing the matter, they do not see themselves as women, but that doesn’t keep the galaxy from treating them that way.
In Mass Effect 3, if Shepard talks to Matriarch Aethyta about being Liara’s ‘father’ and then tries to correct the term to ‘mother’ for both Aethyta and Benezia, the commander rightfully gets called a human-centric bag of dicks. The word we’re hearing is ‘father’ because it’s being run through the translator, but since asari language doesn’t seem to possess male titles, it’s likely Aethyta is saying the equivalent to ‘non-pregnant partner’.
It’s an important distinction for asari because in a two-asari relationship, either one can meld and become pregnant. The pregnant partner is the one who carries on a bloodline, the other simply participated in the meld. Easy enough to assume a blood test between Liara and Aethyta would result in no similarities because Benezia didn’t take a set of genes from their partnership, simply the impetus for pregnancy. In asari culture, that likely has legal ramifications, seeing as Benezia was able to sever their relationship and take Liara away. Despite Aethyta’s clear mourning of the situation, the father - non-pregnant partner - doesn’t seem to have any legal rights to a child formed by the union.
The final point revolves around Thessia. We never see Thessia in its prime or as a functioning society, it’s already been entirely disrupted by the Reaper invasion. However, the description of the homeworld describes any travel to it as ‘strictly controlled’. If that was just about the Prothean beacon, you could assume there was a Forbidden City-type situation that simply didn’t allow non-asari inside the district housing the temple, but I don’t think that’s the entire reason.
Thessia is the house of asari culture, undiluted. As a species that can meld and form relationships with any species - the majority of them having a binary structure - they have become diplomats and ambassadors across the entire galaxy, taking information and other cultures in not only through melds but centuries of experience. With their homeworld locked down, Thessia is likely one of the only places asari can speak as they are, without the concern of misunderstanding. No one to tell them they are ‘woman’ and ‘mother’, with all of the discriminatory weight that comes attached by other societies. Considering the degrees of blatant sexism - sexism that shouldn’t apply in the first place, since they do not consider themselves ‘women’ - that regularly occur throughout the Mass Effect universe, who can blame them from exercising their power to seal off the one place they can?
There is the weight of the galactic perspective. None of this is to excuse Bioware from putting the asari in a perpetual hyper-sexualized position or that EA can’t make their morning cereal without telling everyone it’s just for men, but that using our own human view to write off a fictional species as an entire race of strippers because we can’t crawl out of our own binary structure is a bit of a dick move. Pun intended.
If you managed to get to the end of this, I’d love to know why. You should be spending your valuable time on this Earth playing more video games.Tags: asari, mass effect, mass effect meta, this got long: see any time I talk about mass effect, we treat it like a duck so it's a duck fallacy,