Suddenly Curvy: Looking at Mass Effect’s EDI through Queer Theory
by Brittany B. |9/19/2016
“I will take [this body] to the bridge. Joker will want to see it.”
~ EDI, Mass Effect 3
There’s a fire in the AI core. Commander Shepard, the main protagonist of the Mass Effect trilogy, runs to find that the fire extinguishers have taken care of most of the flames. There is a silhouetted body walking through the smoke and the distinct sounds of heels clacking against the floor as the body moves closer. But who is it? The room had only housed the deactivated Artificial Intelligence unit that the crew had acquired while on Mars. As the smoke clears, the silhouette turns out to be that same unit, but the voice is different; it’s EDI’s voice that sounds from the curvaceous and lustrous unit.
This is how the gamer playing Mass Effect 3 is introduced to the new form of EDI, the Normandy’s (Commander Shepard’s spaceship that is used to fly around the galaxy) Artificial Intelligence (AI). EDI is introduced to the trilogy in the series in the previous game, Mass Effect 2 as an assumed female voice, manifesting in a non-human, amorphous blue hologram that is confined to the ship. By giving her a body—and a curvaceous, female body, at that—EDI suddenly has to understand how to function on the ship as a woman, as well as a crewmember, and still continue to function as the ship’s AI. By comparing EDI to other AIs in the game series, examining her physical attributes, and examining her dialogue through a queer theory lens, it will show that EDI is attempting to mimic her organic female counterparts in order to portray an appropriate heteronormative role for her newly acquired body.
Before diving into the realm of the game, what’s this “Queer Theory” business, other than a bizarre analytical theory lens that confuses, befuddles, and unsettles many English BLA students? In The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, the essay “Science Fiction and Queer Theory” focuses on the idea that queer theory is a representation of homosexuality in literature, much like feminism, focuses on the fair representation of strong female characters that don’t need to rely on their male counterparts. This is a misrepresentation of what queer theory wholly is. In actuality, queer theory is considered a radical feminist critique of gender and how the concept of gender plays a role in the oppression of women. The main objective of queer theory is to explore the categorization of gender and sexuality. It builds upon feminist challenges to the idea that gender is socially constructed from the nature of sexual acts and identities; whereas gay/lesbian studies focuses on the idea of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ behavior in regard to homosexual behavior compared to that of heterosexual social gender norms (this is also called heteronormative).
Monique Wittig, a radical lesbian post-structuralist and queer theorist, author of The Straight Mind, touches on what is socially expected from the male and female genders in her essay, “One is Not Born a Woman.” Wittig states that “what makes a woman is a specific social relation to a man, […] a relation [that] implies personal and physical obligation as well as economic obligation” (Wittig 1912). Wittig is suggesting that the social expectation of women is to be solely dependent on a man.
Judith Butler, a queer theorist known for her studies on “performative gender” stereotypes and author of Gender Trouble, furthers this theory by suggesting that “gender” is a role:
I suggest that gendered bodies are so many “styles of the flesh.” These styles are never fully self–styled, for styles have a history, and those histories condition and limit the possibilities. Consider gender, for instance, as a corporeal style, an “act,” as it were, which is both intentional and performative, where “performative” suggests a dramatic and contingent construction of meaning. […] As in other ritual social dramas, the action of gender requires a performance that is repeated. This repetition is at once a reenactment and re-experiencing of a set of meanings already socially established. (Butler 2551)
In laymen’s terms, Butler is suggesting that styles, or gender roles, an individual takes on to assert their gender is created or driven by our histories or societal expectations. This suggests that gender roles are derived from assumptions of the male gender regarding what is expected of a woman or what society considers being the correct gender attribute, therefore causing each gender to conform to those roles.
Having a slightly better understanding of what queer theory is, we look back to Mass Effect. The Mass Effect trilogy begins in the futuristic setting of 2183—by this time, humanity has reached the stars and has encountered many other alien species, formed alliances, and colonized other planets. In Mass Effect, the first game in the series, the gamer is introduced to two races of sentient AI machines: the Geth and the reapers. The Reapers are obscure and relatively unheard of in the first game, but the Geth are a race of machines originally created by another organic race (the quarians) as subservient machines to help the quarians with their daily lives. The Geth gained sentience and freed themselves from the quarian people after a long and bloody uprising, built ships, and moved into a part of space called the “Perseus Veil,” an area of space uninhabitable by organic life.
This segregation from organic life interaction is crucial. The Geth have no concept of gender or of individuality. They look nothing like humanoids, aside from the basic infrastructure of an erect bipedal organism: two legs, two arms, a torso, neck, and a flashlight head. They have no defining characteristics to tell one unit apart from the next, no genitalia, and they function with an integrated intelligence system—similar to a hive mind. By separating themselves from the rest of organic life, they have developed on their own and do not fall into any gender norms that are expected in any known societies.
For the first two games, the Geth are really the only other physical AIs that the gamer encounters. As mentioned before, EDI is introduced in the second game, but as an amorphous hologram.
Then, in Mass Effect 3, when EDI decides to acquisition herself a new body, the perception of what a physical AI is suddenly changes. The mechanical unit that she takes over is the Hollywood definition of attractive: curves in all the right places, legs that go on forever, an ample bust size, and accentuated hips that can’t help but sway when she walks. This sudden shift from her previous amorphous blue hologram to a sleek, sexy body causes the crew’s heads to turn and mouths to hang agape.
Wendy Pearson, author of the “Science Fiction and Queer Theory” essay in the Cambridge Companion “highlights the extraordinary particularity of this move towards a new categorization [of] not just what bodies [can] do, but of what type of bodies are capable of what sorts of actions” (Pearson 152). This is important to point out because while EDI was her blue hologram self, she and the pilot of the ship, Joker, did not get along. Joker would always threaten to shut her off and would complain about having her installed on the ship. But as soon as EDI walks out of the AI core in her new body, Joker is suddenly enamored with her. At one point, you run into EDI and she says: “I was running scenarios in my head to analyze Jeff’s behavior. I believe he has a strong affectionate attachment to me, but he has not stated it to anyone yet” (EDI, Mass Effect 3). There are several hints throughout the game that EDI has feelings for Joker, or what she has calculated to be the equivalent to human feelings. And as EDI “requires only one interaction to grow accustomed to a new experience” (EDI, Mass Effect 3), she quickly sees that her body elicits erotic reactions from the men on the ship.
Being a game, however, there isn’t too much development based around EDI’s sudden understanding of her sexuality and how she can use it to entice men as she isn’t the main or even a playable character. But Bioware, the production company of the Mass Effect trilogy, has made themselves known for their interactions with various party members within the games that they create. Because EDI now has a body, the gamer has the option to talk with her more freely. It is through these moments of dialogue that the gamer is exposed to EDI’s efforts at performing her new role as a female in an attempt to fit into society. There are two scenes in particular that showcase this:
The first scene is when Commander Shepard approaches EDI at a dance club and asks her what material her body is made up of. Eventually, her hair is brought up. EDI responds with: “It is of similar construction. For defense, I have set it to cohere into a solid piece. However, for infiltration purposes, it can be parted into individual strands. If it has recently been exposed to water, I generally can’t do a thing with it” (EDI, Mass Effect 3). EDI is responding (similar to what Butler was speaking to previously) in the fashion that she’s observed other females respond to similar questions about their hair. Whether Commander Shepard’s intention was to ask a gender-specific question, as the gamer has the choice of having a male or female Commander Shepard, the comment can appear to be a sexist remark or curious heteronormative enforced female conversation. Either way, EDI responds the same way, thinking that this is what she should say given the direction of the conversation. She is reacting to what she thinks is socially expected of her. Not only is she trying to appear more feminine, she’s trying to appear more human.
The second scene is when EDI comes to Commander Shepard’s apartment while the crew is on shore leave. Shepard has invited EDI up with the hopes of relaxing and possibly getting to know her a little better and asks her what she’d like to do for the evening. EDI says: “I thought we could experience an afternoon of acquiring material possessions for our associates. […] The extranet provides a greater variety of services while retaining entertainment value. [Joker] has lent me his credit chit on the condition that I enjoy myself and quote, ‘live it up, like a girly girl’” (EDI, Mass Effect 3). This is a fine example of the heteronormative expectation the women enjoy shopping. At this point in the game, EDI and Joker are in an awkward kind of relationship. As EDI stated above, he gave her the in-game equivalent of his credit card and told her to have fun—so, in an effort to understand this area of feminine-wiles, EDI comes over to Shepard’s apartment so that Shepard can help her go shopping on the internet for their crewmates, but she’s never gone shopping before. Again, here she is trying to fit into a stereotype that she’s observed other women do, and for wanting to fit in as a woman and to fit in among organics, she attempts to do it to form more of an understanding.
Of course these are only small snippets into the learning curve of EDI’s transition from an amorphous hologram into a sexy bipedal. But in this case, EDI is using the heteronormative definitions that she’s observed amongst her crew or in public to help her find her footing in the gender that she’s chosen for herself (even though it was really a team of six male writers who chose that sexualized path for her—but that’s a different, much more critically harsh paper, written through a feminist lens) in the world among organics. Unlike the Geth, EDI is surrounded by organic races and is therefore subjected to the heteronormative stereotypes of social gender expectations. She quickly becomes aware of the effect that her body has on organic males and uses it to get the attention of the Normandy’s pilot, Joker. She adapts her conversational patterns to reflect what she’s observed other organic females do and say to better fit in amongst her crew and humans in general. For only needing “one interaction to grow accustomed to new experiences,” EDI assimilated flawlessly into life among organics. If only that assimilation didn’t come at the cost of falling into a repressive, male-dominated, heteronormative gender role.
Butler, Judith. “Gender Trouble.” The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed Leitch, Cain, Finke, Johnson, McGowan, Sharpley-Whiting, Williams. New York: New York, 2010. 2536-2553. Print.
Hudson, Casey, dir. Mass Effect. Vancouver: Bioware Corp, 2007. Videogame.
Hudson, Casey, dir. Mass Effect 2. Vancouver: Bioware Corp, 2010. Videogame.
Hudson, Casey, dir. Mass Effect 3. Vancouver: Bioware Corp, 2012. Videogame.
Pearson, Wendy. “Science Fiction and queer theory.” The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Ed Edward James and Farah Mednlesohn. New York: University of Cambridge, 2003. 149-160. Print.
Wittig, Monique. “One Is Not Born a Woman.” The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed Leitch, Cain, Finke, Johnson, McGowan, Sharpley-Whiting, Williams. New York: New York, 2010. 1904-1913. Print.