One of the greatest core components to the Mass Effect series was how the games explored politics. The introduction of so many different alien species meant that the position and power of humans shifted greatly, often depending upon who it was humans were interacting with at that moment. Such fluid dynamics meant that the audience constantly needed to evaluate their own perceptions. This is particularly refreshing when scifi fans so often have a fondness for aliens and often judge humanity harshly by comparison. In this Milky Way, there was plenty of opportunity to judge everyone negatively.
One of the most popular alien races within Mass Effect has always been the asari. It’s not entirely because this fandom is obsessed with alien sex and that asari most closely look like human women (while ironically, the fandom repeatedly trashes on the human women within the game). The asari have biotic powers which are formidable in battle but also help them forge connections through mind-melding. Additionally, the asari are aloof and often seem the least political among the other races. They largely keep to themselves. In comparison, the quarians went to war with the geth, and the turians and salarians worked together to sterilise the korgan after all. When humans seem bland in a galaxy of aliens, it’s easily to understand the allure of the asari. Yet, the asari were never the wise benevolent leaders we made out.
How the asari were complicit in the failings of the galaxy
Generally, out of the council members, the asari always seem the most reasonable and the least likely to mock Shepard’s warnings about the reapers. There is also a huge focus on the asari throughout the games and such exposure can help endear audience to asaris. Cora was trained by the asari, Liara is one of the most important characters and we see her family (unlike the majority of the other characters) throughout the games, Samara also has a prominent place in the games and we discover more about the asari philosophy from her through ‘the code’. We also get to go to worlds dominated by asari, and we even witness the tragic destruction of the asari home-world. We get a lot of asari content, and except for the odd asari Eclipse mercenary, the glimpse into asari society we receive seems incredibly positive on the face of things.
The asari are one of the oldest and best established forces in the galaxy. When we first start to see the Milky Way’s politics, the entire system is a mess. There is brutal oppression. The quarians are outcast – and, yes, it is kind of their fault – but there are few attempts by the council to try to make their lot better even after centuries. The krogan were sterilised and the asari just seem to shrug. The batarians too pose a near constant threat to the galaxy as they seek to capture people into the slave trade. Illium, which is a space dominated by asari, is also accepting of and even pro- ‘indentured servitude’ where people are made to work for free to pay off their debts. The asari on the planet present this as a fair balance, because the ‘servants’ get to pay off their debts. They choose to entirely overlook the fact that it cannot possibly be a voluntary arrangement when people face poverty.
The philosophy of ‘people make their own choices’ (ignoring circumstance, including inequality) is reinforced by ‘the code’. Justicars do the work that few asari will commit to but it is a revered and respected position in society. Justicars work toward a code which is firmly rooted in asari philosophy of right and wrong, even if it is taken to the extremes. Justicars kill the wicked. No exceptions are made. It doesn’t matter, for instance, if the ‘wicked’ commit crimes due to exploitation; they must be killed. Mitigating circumstances are never considered. While we see the extreme wrongdoings of Justicar targets (such as Morinth) there are others who are deemed worthy of death who are more questionable, (such as Nihlus). People are treated as though everyone is free under a meritocracy to choose their own paths even though that is shown to not be true in this galaxy.
That supreme confidence of faith within their own codes and values seems at odds in such a diverse galaxy when everyone would have benefitted far more from listening to different arguments and evidence and not just relying on their own traditional ways. This theme came to its head during the war when it was revealed the asari had harboured secret knowledge that could have helped the war effort all along – even though they had not even attended the diplomatic summit as they dismissed efforts led by Shepard as doomed to fail.
The asari not only refused to contribute to the reaper resistance for the majority of the war effort (and argued that Earth should be used as canon-fodder so that the asari could focus on their own defences while humans were slaughtered), but also hid a prothean beacon which could have been of immense help. Shepard and the crew even speculated that the asari had kept the beacon to themselves in the first place to ensure asari dominance, something Liara protests as she still has such faith in the inherent and ‘natural’ superiority of her people, despite their repeated choices not to engage in an empowering or supportive way in politics over the centuries.
The asari represent the worst of capitalism and isolationist policies. They keep their unfair advantages to themselves and then chastise everyone else for not being at their level. The asari appear wise and thoughtful because they are in the position to be so. They have their own hidden secrets, they are never under threat by any other force but the reapers (unlike most others) and they are seen as leaders of the galaxy and rule with power that few other races are granted. What do they choose with that power? To ignore Shepard’s warnings, to sigh at Shepard’s efforts to secure alliances across the galaxy and to hide useful intel until their own planet comes under threat and they need Shepard to save them.
The question of Cora
Cora’s closeness to the asari reveals as much about them as it does about her. The role of Cora has been discussed in depth since the release of Mass Effect Andromeda, but what if we have all gotten it – and her – wrong?
Cora has been roundly ridiculed by fans for just how much she talks about the asari. It’s not really surprising that it is a topic that dominates her conversations though; being trained by asari was the only time that she felt valued and that people believed in her. These repetitive conversations though have also helped spin the threads for an important debate, which we might all be getting wrong. There has always been a social justice analysis of stories, but no longer are these conversations led solely by academics. As social justice discourse has become ever more prevalent (in part, thanks to social media), fans too have started to interrogate their favourite stories in greater detail, and Cora has helped spark the most important conversation from Andromeda.
There are questions about whether Cora’s fascination with the asari, and her role as an ‘asari commando’ was appropriation. This is an incredibly important topic and it’s great that such discussions are taking place. Fiction can provide a safe and detached space to be able to examine a lot of real world issues. This is why it’s vital that we give a thorough examination to the situation.
Appropriation cannot take place by marginalised communities. Appropriation is when majority, or more appropriately, powerful communities take parts of oppressed cultures for their own gain, entertainment and/or costume. Can it happen in reverse? Well, no. It is based fundamentally on power structures. If a marginalised community takes parts of other more powerful communities – such as language – that is assimilation. A dominant culture is reinforcing their power by making their culture so ubiquitous and expecting others to utilise it and follow it too. We must first understand truly what appropriation is before we can even begin to discuss it in Mass Effect, and there’s a key reason for this.
Humans are not the dominant or powerful society in the Milky Way. The asari are the ones who lead the way. This is crucial because Cora can both highlight appropriation and assimilation. Cora is essentially telling us two sides of very important issues.
Humans have little power in the galaxy, for the most part. Even when they are granted a seat on the Council, it really means nothing when everyone is happy to let humans die during the reaper invasion so that they can protect their own people. By a people looked down upon in the galaxy as useless hotheads, Cora is seen as a disgrace by other humans (and less human) because of her biotic powers. In typical asari fashion, they see Cora’s abilities and how best to use them for themselves when humans are so fearful of her. Cora is a victim of messy galactic politics and of humanity, who want the power of the asari but on their own terms. Because asaris are the dominant culture, and they willingly mould Cora into their image, then this does not present a case of appropriation. Cora has been assimilated into their society an expected to follow their belief systems more than the ones she came from.
However, that is not to say that the story doesn’t address appropriation at all or that Cora doesn’t bring it into focus. Cora herself may not be a clear cut case of appropriation, but the story still tackles the thorny issue . There are two ways Mass Effect can be read and they are both important to acknowledge. These are by focusing upon the events specifically in Mass Effect and how they add up, against the audience’s likely interpretation. The events specifically within the lore of Mass Effect determines that Cora is not part of a majority trying to steal or use an oppressed culture for her own gain or for the gaze of others. However, Cora is white and it’s easy to pull her into our real world dynamics, particularly when there is little discussion of inequality in scifi, and out of Mass Effect (although we sincerely must question the true allyship of fans who automatically read aliens like the asari as people of colour and don’t bother to investigate the power dynamics within a story).
Through our limited interpretations she is a warning against appropriation, but again, it is important to acknowledge the depth. Cora might not be appropriating in her actions, but it is still a lesson for us to constantly be vigilant and wary. It is good that she is raising that question. But Cora also provides us with other important call-outs, through how she relates to us, than how she stands alone as a character.
Cora’s fascination to asari can seem like exoticism, especially in a fandom that idolises aliens precisely because they aren’t human. That is an essential call out. Using Cora to relate her to the actions of fandom and draw comparisons is important. It is therefore possible to read Cora in two very different ways, but which equally give us insight into appropriation, exoticism and cultural invasion even if each route gives us contrasting conclusions. We must look at the dynamics within the galaxy we have got, but also ask wider questions of ourselves, our readings and why we have drawn those conclusions. Different answers can be right at the same time. This is still a story against appropriation.
Re-evaluating the legacy of the asari
Every single society presented in Mass Effect brought their own unique flaws, and that was largely the point of them all. They must all be held accountable but it’s also almost impossible to say that any were truly better or more moral compared to others. There were conflicts that rampage, and complicity through silence. There were desperate attempts to get greater power which were manoeuvred. The legacy of the asari is far more soaked in blood than is often presented, but they are also only as guilty as everyone else.
The truth is that the galaxy would have had a far better chance against the reapers if there was a genuine spirit of co-operation, but there was never true allyship. It is as equally dangerous to be outright hateful, as it is to sit back and allow prejudices to flourish so long as they don’t endanger your own community. The asari were isolationist and driven by their own desire for superiority than even they can often acknowledge, but if Mass Effect taught us anything it’s that anyone can be wrong. The point is to work together and even after the war, it would have been interesting to see whether the asari had ever really accepted that and whether they changed at all.