Garwulf's Corner

Garwulf's Corner
A Note From Garwulf on Hainly in Mass Effect Andromeda

Robert B. Marks | 6 Apr 2017 19:00
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Most of the time, the material I cover is such that the fact that all of the Garwulf's Corner installments are written months in advance of publication is not an issue. However, sometimes something happens that really should be covered immediately, particularly as decisions are still being made and can be influenced. And, today is one of those situations.

For those who have missed it, Bioware has apologized to the transgender community for their representation of Hainly Abrams, a non-player character in Mass Effect: Andromeda who drops an offhand comment about their change from male to female in one of the conversation tree options at the beginning of their first encounter with the player character.

Now, the scene doesn't feature the greatest dialogue, but at the same time, it isn't badly written dialogue either. And, while there are certainly cases where ham-fisted representations of a minority group have occurred, this doesn't strike me as one of them - and there's an important argument to be made against changing this dialogue.

The reason I say this is that I am a member of a non-visible minority that for much of the last hundred years was hated and despised to sometimes murderous and even genocidal levels. I receive the basic human rights that I am due because my grandparents and great-grandparents fought pitched battles against prejudice and bigotry to make it happen. As a result, in the here and now the fact that I am a practicing Reform Jew is little more than trivia.

Consider for a moment what it means that I was able to name my religion in the previous sentence at all - or, for that matter, mention my religion in earlier installments of the column. It means that I don't have to worry about receiving an email from my editor immediately afterward telling me that Defy Media is no longer interested in partnering with me to host Garwulf's Corner. It means that I won't encounter prospective corporate clients or employers who quietly put my resume into the garbage without ever looking at it. Likewise, if somebody is reading this who is an employee at a store I frequent, I don't have to worry about being treated with contempt the next time I walk in. And, it means that if some white supremacist reads this and reacts with hatred and bigotry, I can take comfort in the fact that they are the outlier as opposed to being the one who is speaking the words that everybody else is thinking.

If this were the 1950s, I'd have to worry about all of those things. I'd be lucky, though - my name sounds Christian and I don't look Jewish, so I could pass myself off as Catholic or Anglican with a lie of omission if I needed to - and I would probably need to. In public communications such as this one, my religion would be a closely guarded secret - the price I would risk paying for being openly Jewish could be devastating to my family and career. And I would only reveal my religious identity in conversation to somebody I knew and trusted very well.

Today, the transgender community is, in a lot of ways, where my family was sixty or seventy years ago. The conversation that Bioware is talking about changing the scene into would reflect living this reality quite well, and there IS merit to that. But, there's an important opportunity here, and it shouldn't be wasted: an opportunity to show what it would be like after the transgender community has won its victory.

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And that is a door that science fiction opens up - the ability to project forward to a time when the fact that somebody has undergone a gender reassignment is treated as nothing more than trivia. It can show what it is like to live without fear of how people will react to you if they knew that you were once a different sex.

Regardless of how the conversation tree came to be written, this is what it currently does - Hainly drops the fact that she is transgender as trivia, and Ryder treats it as trivia. It is not a revelation that changes how Hainly is seen or judged by the player character or the people around her. Hainly feels no need to keep the transformation she had undergone as a guarded secret. It's just another facet of who Hainly is, and treated as such.

But more importantly, the conversation tree as it currently stands suggests that such a world CAN exist - that this endgame without bigotry or hatred is possible. That's hope, and in a potentially generations-long battle for acceptance such as the transgender community is fighting right now, that hope is vital.

In the end, it is Bioware's game, and therefore their decision on how to proceed. But, I hope that somebody from Bioware will read this, and change their mind - that in the end, the dialogue tree will be allowed to stand as it is. After all, being able to connect with the current struggles of the transgender community is good, but being able to provide a vision of a future where the transgendered no longer have to struggle because of who they are at all is a LOT better.

EDIT/ADDENDUM: Having read a bit more on the subject, it appears that one of the issues the transgender community had with the dialogue was "deadnaming," the casual use of the character's pre-transition name, which many transgendered people find offensive. Certainly, something like this - which may very well be similar to having a minority character refer to themselves by a racial slur - is worth correcting when it happens. That said, I stand by my point: that the substance of the dialogue should remain unchanged, precisely because it presents a world where the battle for acceptance has been won, and that is a hopeful future that should be represented.

Robert B. Marks is the author of Diablo: Demonsbane, The EverQuest Companion, and Garwulf's Corner. His newest book, An Odyssey into Video Games and Pop Culture, is available in print and Kindle formats. He also has a Livejournal and is on Facebook.

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