Normally, I try to plan my blogs out in advance, but this time, I’m working on the fly. We’ll see how it goes.
The biggest criticism I see all the time regarding the Mass Effect Trilogy‘s romances now that the Legendary edition came out is that, “Ashley is a racist, and who’d want to either date her, or even let her live past Virmire in the first game? She’s a racisty racist, who deserves to die for her racisty racism!” Man, do some people feel good about hating her. It makes them feel good to say it, because if you label something as racist, it’s now okay to hate it, right? And it feels good to be judgmental. “I’m right, she’s wrong, I’m good, she’s bad, I should live, and she should DIE DIE DIE!”
When the game first came out in back in 2007, talking about racism was, in a lot of ways, much easier than it is in 2021 where even the mention of the word racism is enough for set people off. Talking about it right now usually just devolves down to, “Racism bad! You racist! You bad!” or “I think it’s racist not to hire this person because they’re Black!” vs. “I think it’s racist to hire him if he’s Black if that’s the only reason you’re hiring him!” But there isn’t a lot of listening on either end, and people are more concerned with being right rather than finding truth.
Here’s the great thing about Mass Effect though: The times were a little smarter, everyone was less sensitive, and best of all, more people were less afraid to do deeper dives and ask deeper questions without worrying they were going to be called racist if they did or didn’t. That’s actually part of what makes it good.
So! Let’s talk about Ashley.
Ashley isn’t actually racist (she doesn’t hate or fear other humans, or feel that humanity is better than others), she’s mostly tribalistic (humanity first) and at worst, xenophobic (doesn’t like strangers and outsiders). But this attitude is the starting point of a trilogy-long arc that sees her end in a very different place from where she starts.
And in Mass Effect, there are some good reasons behind it. The whole Galaxy, in fact, is dealing with xenophobia in some form or another. She’s far from alone; lots of species hate humanity openly and aren’t shy about sharing it. Ashley just chooses to be open about the fact that when she feels she’s getting pushed, she’s going to push back. Can you blame her? The game opens with everyone around her dying in a Geth/Reaper attack where she only survives through luck. She also gets to see the spikes that transform humans into monstrous Reaper weapons that actively try to kill all of us. And this is after growing up post-Encounter war, where humanity’s first contact with an alien species immediately became an armed conflict that her family fought in. That’s not exactly “ET phone home.” Even though the war ended, it hasn’t been chocolates and roses with the other aliens, and she just feels humanity might be better off making their own way through the galaxy. It’s hard to have the warm-and-fuzzies for aliens when your home and everyone you knew just got killed by alien machine creatures.
Let’s pause for a second before anyone starts throwing stones at Ashley for wanting to put humanity first and being tribal after a devastating war and the events at the start of the game. Let me just ask this: How many people ever voted for a sub-par candidate in a recent election, state or Federal, just to prevent the “other side” from winning?
If you’re willing to use the one political power you have just to try to prevent the other tribe from winning, even if your candidate isn’t any good, then you’ve already been a part of tribalism. “Those damn Republicans!” “Those damn Democrats!” “Those damn conservatives!” “Those damn liberals!” “Those damn progressives!” “Those damn libertarians!!!” In fact, right now, you’re probably just read one of these six ‘tribes’ and know the one you’d vote against, thinking you know everything you need to know about their candidate or position, simply because they are part of ‘that tribe’. And if you’ve labeled whole groups as crazy, racist, ignorant, violent, or stupid using the words, “all”, “every”, “never” or “ever”, then I hope you see my point. It’s VERY EASY to silo up and throw stones in the name of tolerance while having an, “us vs. them” mentality, especially if you think, “well, you might be okay, but the rest of those ________’s I can’t stand!” Or, throw stones shouting, “I hate you because you’re intolerant!” *throws another stone* Be more tolerant like me!”
If this has ever been you, congratulations: you’ve also been Ashley.
Guess what? All of us have been Ashley at some point. And it’s okay, because we’re all people. Getting to know people, and accepting that nobody is perfect is the first step to letting all the “us vs. them” BS go and realizing we all have a lot more in common than not in common. If you want your problems solved, we have to learn to find mutual purpose. Mass Effect manages this through an invasion of hostile, genocidal machines looking to kill all sentient life. In real life, there’s a nugget of truth in that; unless we can see what we need to fight together, we only end up fighting each other.
All of that was to lay the groundwork for this: Mass Effect ups the ante and instead of having humanity not getting along internally, it’s a galaxy full of species who fight with each other, and a lot of them don’t like humans.
The entire first game is centered around you as the “First Human Spectre” which for all intents and purposes, is humanity’s tryout with the Council Races. It’s not too different from being the first Black man in special forces, or the first woman doctor, or the first gay police chief. All eyes are on you, but in Mass Effect, it’s the eyes of the entire Galaxy. Some people think humanity is getting special treatment, and others think that humanity is past due for being considered on a spot on the council, with evidence for both.
This is where BioWare shines, especially in the first game. When your starting line is one where most races don’t like you just for being human, it’s easier to see Ashley’s point of view of not being crazy about them, either. But BioWare smartly puts you in a position to change that, and you, as a player, can choose to have a very deep impact on healing the hurts of this Galaxy. That affects Ashley too; people miss out if they just ignore her or get rid of her because “she’s racist.” Keeping her around though lets you see her change her mind and eventually, be so won over she stops being “humanity first” and starts being “Galaxy first.”
You’re going to meet aliens from all over the galaxy and will find that some are friendly, open, and worthy of trusting, while others are just as backstabbing, cruel, and vicious as anyone you’d meet on Earth. It’s one of the better anti-stereotyping lessons you get by proxy. Individuals can, and should, be judged by their actions, but condemning entire groups based on the actions of a few of that group can lead to massive tragedies.
There is a lot of gray in Mass Effect. For instance, the Krogan are the hero species of the Rachni war, and were rewarded for their efforts by being sterilized (the Genophage) by the Turians and Salarians, who deemed them a threat. Salarians don’t really like Krogans, and Krogans hate Salarians, for obvious reasons. Where you find yourself in this debate is going to depend on whether you think the Krogan are a threat to the entire universe (which there is evidence to support) or they are victims of a heinous crime (which the actually were) that no one seems to have a problem without outside most Krogan. Some Krogan you meet fit the stereotype of violent species, but then others, like Eve and Wrex, are much more complex, and in many ways, more humane than those species who see themselves as superior to the Krogan.
Mass Effect doesn’t pull any punches: A lot of the Krogan you meet are violent, giving the side that says the Krogan are a violent species some weight. That is, until, you actually talk to Krogans and start digging deeper. Then you find that Krogan are desperate, depressed, suicidal, and near full collapse of their culture. Many of the females are so desperate to have children that they willingly volunteer themselves to be guinea pigs in inhumane experiments on the chance that it could work. The Krogan constantly fight with each other and as mercenaries because they live long lives and yet see no future, due to their forced sterilization by the Turians and Salarians .
This drives more complexity; some Salarians think it was a mistake to inflict the Genophage; some Turians think the Genophage wasn’t enough and placed nukes on the Krogan home world just in case they needed more censure. And there are Salarians willing to die to prevent the Krogans getting a cure and Turians willing to die to rectify their mistakes. Not all Krogans, Turians, and Salarians think alike, and that’s what makes them more human anything, especially since the first impressions of all three seemed to fit the stereotypes pretty well, until you actually get to know them and help them see each other.
Mass Effect makes you listen to the other characters. And just like people in real life, the more you talk to them, the more interesting they become and the deeper, more personal their stories get. If you do this enough, you actually find that you have common ground and start to see their point of view. And in the trilogy, you can help them see past their own self-interest as well.
When we first meet Wrex he’s abrasive, murderous, and rude, but he also has evidence leading to convicting Saren, the antagonist of the first game. If you make the effort to talk to him, you find out why the Krogan are hated, why they hate the Salarians who used them to fight aliens called the Rachni, and then sterilized them when they felt threatened after the war. Wrex has had a rough life, even having his own father try to kill him. By the end of the game, if you spent the time to get to know him, you get a special mission to recover a family heirloom. Doing that personal favor for Wrex comes back to reward you in a big way when he puts his self-interest about saving his people on the back burner for you, so that you can stop Saren.
This is huge! And there is a good lesson to learn here. In Mass Effect 2, Wrex has +warmed up considerably to you and started uniting his people, having followed your example, and is the first real hope the Krogan have had in many years. By the third game, I was so invested into Wrex that undoing the Genophage felt personal to me. It wasn’t just Wrex’s mission anymore, it had become my mission too. Not just because the Galaxy needed the Krogan, but because I truly felt that his people had suffered enough and deserved a chance to live, and his species to survive. And I am not alone in coming to that realization.
So why are some people willing to do this for Wrex, but not for Ashley?
Personally, I think it’s because Ashley is human, which makes it way more uncomfortable to hear her slander and uses racist slurs than it is to hear aliens say it about other aliens or humanity. Those others are alien to us, the game player, and look it. Ashley is not an alien, she’s human. She looks like us. She is a character we instinctively see as a POV character for the player. Unless you took the time to read through all the codex entries at the start of the game, you may not understand why she feels the way she does, and just assume she’s ignorant and spiteful. But she and Shepherd have been on the receiving end of violent encounters with other races, and it’s hard for them to see their former enemies in a new light, especially since they spent so much time killing each other.
However, if you actually take the chance to get to know her and let her live, you see that she changes.
Yes . . . she starts off sitting on some hate. But by the end of the first game, aside from some romantic jealousy with Liara, she has started to come around and appreciate aliens, including the Salarian commandos on Virmire, fighting by their side, if you, the player, choose to put her with them. If you listen to their comm chatter, you hear the respect growing between the two parties. It’s actually a really great and subtle moment, where her character is arcing and changing from who she was to who she will be.
And who is that? Why… Ashley becomes the second human Spectre.
That’s right! She goes from being someone who thinks humanity should come first, to someone willing to lay down her life in service of the Citadel Council, being sent on missions that concern all the Citadel races, and is an example for other humans to follow!
How cool is that!? People can actually grow and change if you let them! Who knew!?
Romancing Ashley may not seem as fun on the surface in comparison to the exotic Liara, or Tali, or possibly Garrus, if you swing that way. But at the very least, she’s a great lesson about why writing people off because you don’t like what they are saying today may not be a good idea, because you don’t know who they’ll be tomorrow. You don’t know what your influence, if you give it, can have on the trajectory of another person’s life. In
And I have to say, I like Ashley. I like her a lot, actually. It takes a big person to see the error of their ways and change. My favorite romance is Tali, and Liara certainly feels the most “canon” of the bunch. And I can’t lie and say that Ashley doesn’t have a pretty crappy stint in Mass Effect 2 if she lived and you romanced her. But if you make it to Mass Effect 3, and you let yourself be open to this person and watched as your actions have an impact on her for the better, it can be really rewarding.
In terms of character arc, there is something admirable here when you take it as a whole in the trilogy, and not just Mass Effect by itself. In terms of a trilogy, we see a character who is suspicious and angry at aliens in general at the start, slowly transform over the course of the games to see aliens in a new light . . . so much so that she’s ready to fight and die for them as one of their champions. And she feels that so strongly that the Council actually makes her the second human Spectre, an exemplar for other humans to follow. That’s a heck of a cool arc for someone who starts off not liking aliens.
There is a lot more I can say about how Mass Effect is one of the best games that deals racism by presenting it as alien xenophobia, but I’d rather you actually play the games and experience for yourself how good the writing is for every character and every NPC that flesh out the universe, and how your opinions change based on how well you choose listen.
Trust me, BioWare loaded the games with payoffs small and large. Watch out for a young Quarian girl at the start of Mass Effect 2; if you talked with Tali in Mass Effect, you’ll know why.
Ashley is a great test for 2021 gamers. In 2007, it wasn’t a big deal to give her a shot and see where it went; we knew it was a game and wanted to see where it went. We knew we weren’t racist for liking a xenophobic video game character, or ashamed to admit that we liked how she looked in white armor. But in 2021, when everyone is offended at the drop of a hat, or feels they need to show that they are offended lest they be accused of being racist themselves, Ashley Williams and the Mass Effect Trilogy might just be the game they’ve never known they needed. At the very least, it’s good practice in a safe environment to learn how to listen to other people’s lives and views, and learn to be less judgmental. And Ashley, by being xenophobic and flawed at the start, has an interesting arc and romance, if you choose to see it through.
By taking the risk and making her imperfect and a bit unlikable at the start, the writers gave the character a bigger payoff at the end by evolving her into a hero for the people she once hated. That’s a much cooler arc than if they just tried to make her love everyone at the start of the game, and then ends in the exact same place with nothing learned or gained. Instead, she’s a flawed character who reflects a journey that all of us need to take at some point, learning to see how our prejudices blind us and learning to see past them.
So yeah . . . do a run, and give her a shot. It’s amazing how people can change when you listen and give them some love.