Defending Ashley Williams of Mass Effect

Mass Effect, as a series, is probably known and loved more for the cast of characters Shepard pals around with while saving the galaxy multiple times than any other aspect. Other games do combat better (although I’ve never enjoyed any shooter more than Mass Effect 3, especially the multiplayer), or have better plots or storylines, but no game really comes close to having characters who grow and evolve during the series, in many cases shaped by their interactions the player has with them. Fan favorites like Garrus, Wrex, Tali (I even named my dog after her), Jack, Mordin – all of them are incredibly well fleshed-out, have real growth arcs through the series, and have real resonance. They are beloved.

There is one character, though, who is not beloved. She is rarely even be-liked. She is usually be-fucking-hated. She is Ashley Williams.

Ashley has some serious rough edges when Shepard first meets her. She’s a soldier and doesn’t mince words much. She is more than happy to speak her mind, however unpopular what she has to say might be to Shepard or the person playing Shep. This seems to really get to people. I’ve had this discussion in person with everyone I know who’s played the game, and I’ve recently started listening to ME podcasts where people talk about their experiences. Everyone hates Ashley. Many kill her off in the first game (it’s either her or Kaidan, and the fact that people choose the biotic bowl of instant oatmeal over Williams makes me incredulous), assuming that she never changes some of the early attitudes she displays. Since I seem to be the only person who likes Williams – and she’s one of my favorite crewmates in the game and default romance interest – I’ve decided to defend her publicly. In 2016. 4 years after the last game she was in came out.

Hey, I’m writing fanfic – FANFIC for fuck’s sake – about this world. Clearly I’m a little obsessed. Plus they just pushed back the release date of Andromeda and I’m playing through ME1 again to go through the whole series once or twice more so it’s on my mind. I have a problem. Also, I’d rather think and talk about this rather than read one more thing about the upcoming presidential shitshow. I need some bread and circuses for a little bit.

Anyway, here are the top things people complain about with Ash, and my rebuttals:

She’s a Racist

Probably the #1 thing people say right after you mention Ashley Williams is that she’s a racist. No, she doesn’t hate black or Hispanic or any other kind of people. She’s all about love for the human race. What she isn’t into, at the start, is alien races freely moving about the Normandy. There’s a difference there. She doesn’t trust the aliens on board the ship, specifically (and notably) the turians and the krogans. People label her a racist because she doesn’t think they should be aboard the ship. People are wrong and should feel bad. Here’s why.

For one, she specifically calls out the turians and krogans. The turians were the only alien species the Alliance, i.e. humanity, have ever been at war with. Her grandfather was the commander of the force defending the human colony and Shanxi and was forced to surrender to the more powerful turian invaders, becoming the only human to surrender militarily to an alien. This got her whole family blackballed. So she doesn’t trust turians much. As for the krogans, well, they were the last major threat in the galaxy and no one seems to trust krogans. C-Sec brings Wrex in every time he goes to the Citadel. Shepard blows away about a hundred krogan during the first game. They’re the bodyguards and mercenary force for just about every criminal organization in the galaxy. The fact that Shepard trusts the krogan is due solely to how cool Wrex is.

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Being paranoid doesn’t make you a racist.

 

Secondly, she is an Alliance soldier who has never really been around aliens before. Because she was blackballed, she had to serve groundside on human colonies. She doesn’t know aliens. She’s also aboard the most state-of-the-art Alliance vessel, and having a bunch of aliens on board doesn’t make her feel comfortable. It’d be like having a bunch of Russians on board the latest US stealth bomber. There’d probably be a few people uncomfortable with that notion.

Thirdly, if she were a xenophobe or space racist, she’d be all about Terra Firma, the Donald Trumpiest organization in the Milky Way. Instead, she rejects them as “jackals” full of anti-alien paranoia. Her distrust is rational and understandable.

In any case, her distrust of aliens never changes her duty. She’s never disrespectful to the other crew members, and Shepard can even ameliorate her concerns about having the aliens on board the ship. In fact, she becomes friends with all of them if she survives Virmire. Except, of course, Wrex, if Shepard isn’t able to calm him down on Virmire. Then she blows him away to save the Commander. But, hey, that’s her job. Otherwise, they’re buds!

Virmire_Ashley_Killing_Wrex

Hey Wrex. Bye Wrex.

 

Ashley Williams is not racist. She’s a soldier uncomfortable with aliens having free access to a top-of-the-line Alliance ship. Get over it.

She’s a Bitch

Ash is blunt, true. She doesn’t always sugarcoat her thoughts or opinions. She is strong, sometimes brash, and doesn’t take shit. So, for a lot of people, she’s a bitch. Subsequent games don’t dissuade people from that opinion, either. In ME2, meeting up with her leads to some harsh words, and in ME3 you end up gun-to-gun. People look at that, attach the Bitch label, and move on.

That isn’t fair for a few reasons. First, Kaidan acts EXACTLY THE SAME WAY in ME2 and 3. It’s the role they have to fill. So it isn’t unique to Ashley. Plus, in ME2 Shepard has been gone a couple of years and Williams had no idea they Shepard was alive, much less working for Cerberus. Remember, Cerberus is like working for the Nazis as far as everyone else is concerned, genetic purists who really enjoy experimenting on people without remorse. In ME1, the only contact with Cerberus was with the horrible things they did. On Akuze, a pioneer colony is wiped out, marines were sent in to investigate, and slaughtered with only one (or two) survivors. Shepard is one if the Sole Survivor background is chosen, and the other survivor is a marine who was captured and experimented on by Cerberus, who set the thresher maws that wiped out the unit to study how the unit would react. They pulled the same thing with a unit Rear Admiral Kahoku asks Shepard to investigate. Trying to run Cerberus down gets Kahoku killed. This is the group that Shepard ends up with. Williams (or Kaidan, if for some reason you prefer plain rice pudding to literally any other dessert in the world) is freaked the fuck out by this news, and when she finds out flips her shit. Duh. Go disappear for a couple years, run into a close old friend, and tell them you joined a skinhead group trying to reinstate Apartheid in South Africa. See how well your “trust me, I know what I’m doing” argument goes. Of course being involved with Cerberus leads to a few harsh words.

In ME3, meanwhile, the reason you’re in a standoff is because you’re coming after Udina, the human councilor and man that made her a Spectre. That is her actual assignment, protecting the Council, and Shepard busts in with a gun after Cerberus attacks the Citadel. Hey, maybe that looks a little odd. Shepard can talk her down, if they’re close. If not, she does gets shot by either Shepard or one of Shepard’s crew. For some reason, people think she’s a bitch because she’s trying to do her job.

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“Why is it whenever anyone says ‘with all due respect’ they really mean ‘kiss my ass’?”

 

If you think a woman who has opinions and isn’t afraid to share them is a bitch, I have a few people close to me that you should share that with. I will enjoy hearing the ensuing conversation.

She Likes Poetry

This is true. I’m not a fan of poetry either, but at least it’s Tennyson, not the things she wrote in 7th grade about angst and emo nonsense. It’s freaking Tennyson. It’s pretty good.

She is Religious

Also true. I am a huge non-preaching atheist. If I can get past it, so can you.

She is the Worst/Most Boring/Horrible Squadmate

I’ll ignore the fact that she’s a character that grows and changes over the course of the game, has a unique personality and background that is not cliché, especially for a female character, and has an actual story arc. Instead, let’s compare her to some of the other squadmates. Hell, let’s just start with the male humans.

Kaidan_ME3_Character_Shot

I wonder how long it takes him to get that triangle hair just right.

Kaidan Alenko. A biotic who had a rough time in training and gets headaches. That’s it. He’d be the worst if there was anything to him at all. There isn’t. He’s a ricecake without the texture. He’s unsweetened Cream of Wheat. He has less flavor than a glass of room temperature water. I’ve played ME1 seven times and he dies on top of a nuke every time. Kaidan Alenko is terrible.

 

Jacob Taylor. I had to look up his last name because I couldn’t remember. He’s ME2’s Kaidan. He’s a Decent Guy working for Bad People. He’s not as boring as Kaidan, but everything is less boring than watching white paint dry on a white wall. Jacob is fine. Fine is not an exciting descriptor. I sometimes send him through the tunnels at the end of ME2 for fun. I do not like Jacob.

ss-043

I’m pretty sure he smells like creatine and meat.

James Vega. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Sorry. The long-lost Hispanic member of Jersey Shore. He’s supposed to be, like, Shepard’s protégé, I guess, but he’s the worst. The absolute worst. I’d marry Kaidan before I’d let Vega out of an airlock. He’s ridiculous. No one likes him either.

 

Zaeed Massani. He’s OK. The best human male squadmate. Which is saying almost nothing. His character brings little to the table. Still, he’s better than the other three, but that’s hardly saying anything at all.

The other humans that can be squadmates, Miranda, Jack, and Kasumi are all great. Cool characters, interesting backstories, nice arcs. Miranda gets the Bitch label a lot too – another woman with opinions – but even she doesn’t get the grief Ashley does. It’s odd but pretty refreshing that the game has better female human characters than males, depth-wise. Cortez is the only good male human character on the ship besides Joker, and you can’t take either of them with you.

So Ashley is better than half the humans, at a bare minimum. I think she’s a lot better than Grunt (I hated him in ME2, although ME3 redeemed him as a character for me so I don’t feel quite the same), isn’t half as arrogant or insulting as Javik, and is more interesting than Samara (who’s pretty much the same character throughout, although I do like her quite a bit). Williams may not be the best character on the ship, but she’s far from the worst.

There you have it. You can disagree with me if you want, but you’d still be wrong. And should feel bad.

About Alan Edwards

An indie writer who does accounting full-time on the side.

Posted on May 17, 2016, in Kerfluffle, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. People hate Ashley? How strange.

    • Very much so. I was listening to a ME podcast yesterday and they were ripping her. Also, some of the folks I know kill her off and feel not the least bit bad about it. I find myself in the minority of people who actually like her.

  2. Gah! Now you’re getting started on Mass Effect again! Here we go…

    When I was playing ME, I didn’t like Ashley for all the reasons listed, and I did consider all the counter arguments you’ve made even while playing it myself, and I even believed it at the time, and still do. But… I just can’t get passed her attitude, religious appeals, and annoying recitations of poetry. And even though I don’t believe she’s “racist,” I still can’t help but feel she is, if that makes any sense. It’s like, if you kill my dog because it attacked you, you’re still the person who killed my dog, justified or not. Probably not a great analogy, but it’s late and I don’t wanna think too much.

    Granted, I killed her off without a second thought (not only) because Kaidan was the only option for a female love interest in ME1 – I don’t care what anyone says, Liara is a friggen girl; no straight male would do a male looking alien because he’s technically not a “gender” – but, I did youtube all the possible romances for both player genders, so I have a good understanding of what happens after I will kill her (every time).

    I kind of feel bad for male players of the game because they don’t get the same “romance” journey as a fem Shep gets with Kaidan: the only decent relationship that spans all 3 games in the ME series. The difference between the Kaidan and Ashley stand-off, for example, is that, prior to that confrontation, it’s made very clear that Kaidan has strong feelings toward fem Shep; Ashley, on the other hand, always comes across as cold to me. Does she ever say the word ‘love’? Tali is the only decent male option, in my opinion, but it’s insulting how they decided to show her face to the player. Liara is too focused on her job to give you and mind, and Jack and Miranda really only last for 1 game…

    Other than that, I feel the same way about Kaidan and Vega (lots of hate for them from everyone else) as you do about Ashley; but I really think our difference in opinion here really has more to do with guys being more sympathetic and forgiving towards girls, and vice versa.

    Anyway, I should stop here because I could go on forever and need to sleep. ^_^

    • Oops, I wasn’t logged in. Haha! It’s me.

    • Hey Stephanie! This is why I love things like this. I have the exact opposite feeling from your opinion, but your opinion also makes complete sense to me. For me, my “canon” Shepard storyline is an Ashley romance the whole way through – I really enjoy the way they interact. She isn’t gooey like Liara (who in the first game is too much like a super-naïve teenager for me to continue a romance with – although my FemSheps all pick her in game 1 because Kaidan before moving on to literally anyone else), and I like people who are who they are and if you don’t like it then you can stuff it. Miranda is fine, I guess, and Jack is a classic Rescue story. I do 100% agree with you on Tali – she is awesome and my first run where I moved on from Ash was with Tali, and it was a great story. But with Ashley I felt like it was a relationship of co-equals, even if it wasn’t a traditionally “romantic” one. To be honest, I’m not sure if she ever uses the word “love”, but her feelings are very clear. I think it’s a fun portrayal of a relationship, and certainly less syrupy than Liara. What I think is funny is that I too feel bad, but for female players who have to choose between Liara and Kaidan at first, but things get a lot better once Garrus becomes available, because he’s so cool my DudeShep would want to date him.

      I think you make a great point about the sympathy for the other gender, and it was something that I hadn’t really thought of. I guess each of us tend to be more forgiving of those we’re attracted to, and it explains the perceptions we have. That was a really excellent point. I think it goes to show how well they were able to keep characters in a game that are nuanced enough that our real-world inclinations and biases come into play, instead of giving us just a bunch of cardboard representations of what some people think a male or female should be. Vega might be a sentient bucket of protein powder, but he isn’t cardboard, at least.

      Even now, I’m doing a playthrough again ’cause I’m re-addicted to it, and I’m going to try a Jack romance to see how that works. I’d planned to pick Liara in game 1 because I find it easier to dump her – and I ended up picking Ashley anyway because I just like her better. Funny how our brains work.

      Also, thank you for giving me even more of a chance to discuss this. Hah!

    • Also, this exchange makes me want to be your Facebook friend, but I don’t fully grasp the social acceptability of these things.

      • LOL! I’d love to be your Facebook friend. I really enjoy your style of writing and your opinions and how you share them in a funny and logical way.

        Also, I can totally understand the addiction to the Mass Effect series. I only just binge-played all games for the first time last year and took off a few “sick” days at work because I couldn’t stop playing. Then when it was over, if left a hole I filled with watching youtube videos, reading some fan-fiction, and becoming obsessed with the indoctrination theory. (I don’t care if slowly being indoctrinated was the intention of the story-telling or not, but I’ll believe the theory regardless because it makes the ending not only more bearable, but actually kind of awesomely mind-blowing; even if it is still kind of a cop out.) I hope the the next ME game is just as engrossing, if not more with how detailed graphics are getting.

        Speaking of detailed graphics… I just finished the Uncharted series as well; and now I’m a little sad it’s over. Man… great games like these just make you want to try to go out and experience life, but then you step outside and realize it’s real… and then you just go back inside, curl up on the couch, and fill the empty space with the Firefly show because the atmosphere reminds you of the fantasy world that got sucked into the black hole of scrolling credits…

        Le sigh. ^_^

        • Yes! The Indoctrination Theory! That is totally my head-canon. I want it to be true and for me it is.

          I keep trying to keep my thoughts and hopes about the next ME game tamped down. I want it to be unbelievable and just as awesome as the first three, but I don’t want to put too many weighty expectations on it and ruin it for myself. It’s hard. It’s real hard.

          I haven’t played Uncharted but I want to. I’m an Xbox guy, but that and The Last of Us make me want a PS3 and now a 4, I guess. Luckily I’m stingy enough to prevent myself from getting one.

          As for Firefly… the first time I saw the whole series was a binge-watch on DVD. I’d seen the “first” one (the train robbery) when it aired but it didn’t grab me. After we finished, my friend told me that the show had been cancelled and that was all there was. I wanted to punch him in his stupid face for doing that to me.

  3. Douglas Hartman

    Thanks for writing this. Ashley is my favorite Mass Effect squad mate. It was disheartening to see how most of the fans think of her when I went to the Bioware Social Network for the first time.

    I should note that her concerns about letting aliens – or, should I say, non-Alliance personnel – on the Normandy ultimately turned out to be correct. Read the description for the quarian ships in ME3 very closely before you dock with them. It sure looks like Tali “borrowed” a few ideas from the Normandy’s stealth system and brought them back to her people. I can’t imagine the Alliance political leadership would have been happy about this, had they not all been killed by the Reapers.

  4. I was in the Citadel the other day in ME 1 and Ashley makes the comment “I can’t tell the animals from the aliens” and I was quite offended. That’s the kind of thing that turns me off Ashley.

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