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An Ode to Miranda Lawson from Mass Effect

For the woman who isn't perfect — and never had to be.

When I started therapy a month ago for the first time since the pandemic began, my therapist quickly realized I struggle with perfection. To be imperfect is one of the few certainties we have as human beings — and yet, some of us often equate the failure to meet unrealistic standards with a failure to be. I’m not perfect — I know it’s something I have never been and will never be. But I can’t help trying, and subsequently berating myself during every (not uncommon) opportunity in which I’m reminded I’m not. It’s a trait I share with one of my favorite characters, Miranda Lawson from Mass Effect.

Many years later, she still feels like the most misunderstood woman in the series. It’s much easier to find comments on her infamous back shots and how she’s a cold bitch than on the depth of her character. It’s a product of many things — of a character who is eventually so transparent with her imperfections; of a series whose cinematography is determined to conflict with what she represents; of a society eager to villainize and wither down complicated women so that they are less human and more sources for consumption, especially if they meet abstract beauty criteria. On this most blessed N7 Day, I want to reflect on Miranda, a phenomenal character who has had an immeasurable impact on me as a woman.

I played Mass Effect when I was in my junior year of high school. When I started Mass Effect 2, I saw in Miranda whom I desperately wanted to become: an intelligent, capable, assertive, and beautiful woman. In many ways, she was perfect. And she’s supposed to be — she is extensively genetically modified by her father to embody perfection. Upon meeting Shepard, she brags about being good at anything she chooses to do; about how she makes the most out of something that wasn’t her choice.

But you quickly learn this is a front and that Miranda is a deeply insecure person. With her modifications have come impossible standards she can’t meet. It’s a pressure she shares with Shepard, who has the honor and burden of being the first human spectre. But instead of camaraderie, there’s jealousy on Miranda’s behalf. “We’ve both been engineered for greatness, Shepard,” she says after Shepard has recovered from the procedure that brought her back from the dead. “The difference is you were great before we rebuilt you. I’m great because of it.”

“Every one of your accomplishments is due to your skill,” she mutters. “The only things I can take credit for are my mistakes.”

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Whereas Shepard can endure the pressure with the help of her friends and crewmates, Miranda is a lonely person. She was only the first experiment her father kept, not that he created. Her only family is Oriana, a woman created to eventually replace her. It’s Oriana she would do anything to protect — not just because she’s the only loved one Miranda has but also because their relationship is one of the few things Miranda has cultivated on her own. Her love for Oriana is something her father has neither created nor taken away from her.

It’s ultimately why she runs away and takes Oriana with her. But where Oriana is able to live a normal life with a family who loves her, Miranda’s life revolves around her work for Cerberus and her dedication to preserving Oriana’s normality. And, while vulnerability doesn’t come easily to someone like her, she trusts Shepard to recognize how important Oriana is to her. Out of a great deal of respect and admiration accompanying those tricklings of jealousy emerges a touching friendship. More often than not, Shepard finds herself being gentle with Miranda because someone has to be.

When Miranda expresses her belief that she possesses no extraordinary qualities, Shepard is one of the first people to tell her that her personality and spirit are what make her a great person. When Miranda feels stupid for believing in Niket up until his betrayal, Shepard reassures her that she is only human and that trusting a dear friend isn’t a sign of weakness. When Miranda confesses her guilt over wanting to put a control chip inside Shepard while she was still being brought back, Shepard softly lectures Miranda on not beating herself up over the past.

When Miranda makes sure Oriana is safe in Mass Effect 2 and insists on not reuniting with her because “it’s not about what I want, it’s about what’s right for her,” Shepard encourages Miranda to go to her sister. To acknowledge that she deserves family and love — and to be a little selfish, too. Where others see a dynasty, a Cerberus officer, and an experiment, Shepard sees a person who is warmer than she’s been taught to be.

There is so much complexity to her character as someone who is filled with paradoxes and walls that must be broken down. Sadly, some of it is obfuscated by how ridiculously she is sexualized on the surface. In a 2010 interview with Kotaku, project lead Casey Hudson attempted to justify her sexualization.

“She’s genetically engineered to be perfect and beautiful, and she uses that,” he said. “That’s why her outfit is sexy and tight and everything. But, again, it’s something she struggles with. She uses it, it’s been her gift, but it’s also the thing that she feels she’s stuck with … As you get to know her, you realize there’s more to her.”

It’s bizarre reasoning. Narratively, at no point does Miranda weaponize her beauty throughout the games. She accomplishes everything on her own merits, and simply happens to also be conventionally attractive. Her incredibly nuanced writing is constantly at odds with the cinematography. The games give her the room to grow, be flawed, and come to terms with her imperfections. Within that room, they also make sure to objectify her in the service of pandering to a presumable majority heterosexual male audience. They do so explicitly and shamelessly, robbing her of the intimacy contained in the moments during which she opens up to Shepard about her insecurities and traumas. Years later, that cinematography has shaped the way players perceive her. Many relegate her to being a fan-service character despite her arguably being one of the series’ best-written characters. There could’ve been something thoughtful here, connecting the objectification women like her suffer to how she sees herself as an object — a tool for Cerberus. Instead, the game’s visuals prefer to perpetuate the very objectification she’s meant to stand against.

I doubt Mass Effect Legendary Edition will change those frames which have aged so poorly, but I dream of a game that would have avoided this. One that would have always prioritized her as a character and person, and refused to portray her as anything less.

I also dream of a game in which I could have formed a romantic relationship with her as a woman. There have been long-time rumors that early on in Mass Effect 2′s development, Miranda was intended to be a romance option for female and male Commander Shepard. While I understand many things change during development for all sorts of reasons, I can’t help but lament what queer women could have had with a Miranda romance.

It would’ve been a beautiful romance in which you see two women struggle with the unrealistic expectations placed upon them. They are two self-sacrificial women who have chosen to live out their lives for other people. Women who must hold onto the scraps of their humanity in a universe that constantly denies them theirs as it approaches its potential end. Women who believe their humanity matters little when the survival of humanity as a whole depends on them. They cannot afford to show weakness or be vulnerable; they can only exist as figures of salvation for others, whether it’s a lone human woman like Oriana or billions of lives across a galaxy. But with each other, they can simply be — facades broken down, masks discarded, mistakes and all. And they can find small moments of happiness amid the uncertainty of their future.

Miranda’s character arc ends with her finally facing her father and killing him to protect Oriana. When Shepard tries to comfort her, she says, “I’m glad he’s gone, Shepard. I’m sorry if that sounds cold.” For a character who has been intensely regarded as being cold by fans, she’s the only person who apologizes for it. And she does so despite how deeply her father threatened her autonomy, happiness, and safety.

But it’s not just empathy that she excels in. Before Kai Leng took off, she had brilliantly implanted a tracking device on him. By following it, Shepard would finally find the Illusive Man. “Sounds like you thought about everything,” Shepard says, impressed.

“Not quite, but…” Miranda says before shyly chuckling as she does her nervous tick — a fleeting scratch of her chest. “Nobody’s perfect.”

Miranda represents what it’s like to be a woman in our world, where women are expected to conceal their hardships, look and act without any imperfections, and achieve generally unattainable expectations. As I played through the trilogy, I saw her come to terms with her insecurities and flaws; with the aspects of herself that made her human. I saw that the woman I quickly grew to idolize is one with many of my own imperfections and mistakes. This altered my perception as a teenage girl because I learned that, despite my own flaws, I could still be all the things Miranda Lawson is. Empathetic, brilliant, capable even when she thinks she isn’t, hardworking, loyal. Human. By the end of her journey, Miranda grew to accept and take pride in her flaws while moving forward. I’m still working on this, as my therapist very much knows. But it helps that, many years later, I still see myself in Miranda. I see my flaws and my weaknesses; my virtues and strengths. I always will. And I will always be so grateful to Mass Effect for giving me this incredible woman who reminds me I don’t need to be perfect to be good enough.

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Natalie Flores

Natalie is Fanbyte's Featured Contributor, with bylines at places like VICE, Polygon, PC Gamer, Paste Magazine, and more.

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