After putting it off long enough for Bioware to officially call Mass Effect 3 and it’s parade of DLC finished I’m finally doing my complete, long awaited, final all inclusive playthrough of the series. Now, I’ve made it through the series before, with three separate characters even, but this was my first crack at it with the inclusion of ME3‘s DLC content. As I made my way through the Omega DLC I became aware of something potentially notable that I’d like to share with you all. Saren Arterius, the antagonist from the first Mass Effect, was actually transgendered.
Okay, I’ll give that thought a moment to be heard and immediately dismissed. I get it, it sounds way too far-fetched to even be worth a second glance. You’re already moving to hit the back button and find some other more deserving blog to read, but hear me out. Haven’t you ever noticed that Saren looks a bit, different? Not in an “oh my god what the hell” aspect, although the cybernetic implants he’s sporting by the endgame certainly push that bar. More in a “different than every other turian we encounter throughout the entire rest of the series,” sort of way. Ever wonder why?
Well I did, but I never really found a conclusive canon answer. From a design standpoint it makes sense, make the villain visibly distinct so that the player can easily identify them. I get that, but it’s a bit immersion breaking if that’s the only reason. Turians are basically defined by their avian-like appearance, most notably by their large metallic carapaces and fringe. Not only is Saren’s carapace much smaller than those of the other turians we encounter, he is the only turian who’s most prominent fringe extends from the side of his face, rather than the top of his head.
Now we’ve reached the “so what?” portion of my observation. Okay, you’ll acknowledge that Saren looks a bit different for no readily explained in-game reason, but what does that have to do with the price of eezo on Illium? For the longest time I had no answer to that question, then while playing through the Omega DLC I met a new turian named Nyreen Kandros.
Nyreen was touted as the first female turian you encounter in the Mass Effect universe. I’ll spare you my thoughts on that little nugget of trivia for now, but as soon as Nyreen removed her hood and I was finally able to get a good look at her, something suddenly clicked. She had prominent side fringe.
I had to do some internet matlockery, but it seems like she also sports a much smaller carapace than her male subordinates. This is only really noticeable when she’s wearing her non-armored outfit, but worth mentioning because the only other turian to have such a clearly defined neck and shoulder line is Saren.
Science time! To be fair, we don’t exactly have a huge sampling of female turians at our disposal to draw a particularly unbiased conclusion. It’s entirely possible that Saren’s facial differences are based on some genetic predisposition found in a minority of turians. That’s long been the speculated belief among fans of the series at any rate. It’s possible that rather than being a female trait this fringe variation is based on some lesser known abnormality. Hard to say without a proper sampling of the females of the species, but while we are lacking in data there there is certainly no shortage of male turians for comparison.
Male turians are everywhere in Citadel space and while their colors and markings may vary, none display the biological variations present in both Saren and Nyreen. We might not be able to say that the differences are a female quality, but we can speculate that they are, at the very least, not a prominent male feature.
Speaking of differences that aren’t prevalent in turians, Saren and Nyreen are also the only turians present in the series who are able to use biotics. Now, it is mentioned in the codex that biotics amongst turians are rare. Turian biotics are viewed with distrust and shipped off to special Cabals for their training, so this point probably has little to do with gender and more to do with Saren and Nyreen both being members of a marginalized group within their species.
So, assuming that what I observed about female turians, based on a sampling of one, is accurate than it’s possible to assume that Saren was either born with a female identity or at the very least had female characteristics. Things get a bit muddled for me here because, honestly, I’m not knowledgeable enough to comment on trans* issues. I’ll try to highlight a few thoughts as best I can about the implications of Saren being a trans* character, but I may get things wrong or inadvertently come off as insensitive towards trans* issues. I apologize in advance if that is the case.
If Saren Arterius is in fact transgendered, why was no mention made of it in the codex?Well, why would it have been? Saren clearly identified as male and had done so for many years. Aside from cases of blatant speciesism, most of the council races seemed to have evolved past the need to concern themselves with differences and instead focus on cooperation for galactic good. By ME3 we learn that even humans have given up on stigmatizing LGBT issues, given how openly Cortez speaks about the loss of his husband. If humans can evolve beyond petty gender issues than surely the more highly evolved council races wouldn’t have a problem with a trans* Spectre.
Saren was a villain in Mass Effect, does that mean Bioware was attempting to demonize trans* people? Do we hate them now? No, not at all. As I mentioned right off the bat I think Saren’s gender identity was never an intentional focus for Bioware. He was supposedly the first turian they designed, Garrus came later, so at the time his physical differences from other turians weren’t as apparent. It wasn’t until every other turian NPC was based on Garrus’s design, for the sake of simplicity, that Saren really stood out.
Furthermore, Saren may have been the game’s antagonist, but while he had a reputation for being ruthless in his methods, he honestly believed he was working with the reapers in order to prove the value of organics and save the races of the galaxy from extinction. Shepard and Saren could have easily had their places in the story reversed. Some might argue that the synthesis ending does just that, but that’s a topic for another time.
At this point, regardless of if you accept my hypothesis or not, you’re probably asking yourself what this knowledge of Saren would change in the Mass Effect universe. The truth? Not much. It’s an interesting idea, but even I admit it’s at best a flawed argument. At this point it would be so easy for someone from Bioware or the trans* community to dismiss it with hardly a thought. I get that it’s far-fetched and that the story is already written and done. Regardless of Saren’s gender identity, the series remains unchanged.
So, why bring it up at all? Good question and one I struggled with when deciding if I wanted to actually write this blog. I was worried that I was only making these connections because there have been so many LGBT issues brought up in the gaming industry lately that it was more on my mind than usual. That may very well be the case. I also worried that by pointing out what I had observed I was, in a sense, participating in some sort of trans* shaming practice. Never my intention and truthfully I’d just assume stay out of the whole miasma of equality issues in the games industry. It’s a sore topic that seems to only bring hurt whenever it’s brought up.
I guess in the end I decided that my fear about taking a position, about speaking about LGBT issues which I don’t feel qualified to lead discussions on, was secondary to the need for such discussions to happen. Maybe Bioware did unintentionally make Saren Arterius transgendered, the only thing that makes this noteworthy is that it had no bearing on his character. He wasn’t a stereotype, or foil for Shepard’s cisgendered character to overcome and dominate. He made mistakes for noble reasons and paid the ultimate price for it. He was a well rounded character with motivations that didn’t stem from his gender identity. In short, he was exactly the sort of LGBT character that more games could benefit from. For me, that validates the need for this blog and the reason I think Saren should be recognized as a trans* gaming character in the industry.