You guys likely know of the Facebook poll where Bioware is seeking popular opinion on which of 6 Femsheps will be the poster girl for Mass Effect 3's marketing materials. The blonde rendition of Femshep currently has a commanding lead of this popularity contest. However, the popularity of Blonde Shepard has kicked a figurative hornet’s nest of faux-feminism and catty comments. The discussion surrounding this choice is dragging a fantastic character down and doing a disservice to Female Shepard.
The six images you see above you are the entries in Bioware's popularity contest for Female Shepard. Shepard #5 currently sits at the top in the fan polling on Facebook. Though Bioware hasn't officially decided on the winner, based on votes alone BlondeShep would appear on the Collector's Edition tin.
A wave of internet backlash has crashed over the "bimboification" of the Space Badass. Rock Paper Shotgun refers to the choice as a "blond, blue-eyed, most trad-sexpot". Fans have taken to calling her "Barbie Shepard". One of the most visible, and most caustic, examples of internet rage comes from PC Gamer's Kim Richards, who wrote an editorial titled "Death to Blonde Shepard". In a tone more befitting of a community blog somewhere, Kim writes that Blonde Shepard lacks "character, originality and a bit of attitude" and calls her a "wishy washy, Barbie faced personality vacuum". Because blondes can't have character, I guess.
It's clear that Kim views a blonde space soldier as a valley girl in battle armor. However, the replies to this attitude have also shown their faces on the internets as well. Blogger SageQueen - a Bioware Social Network regular, Mass Effect guide writer and longtime FemShep fan - has written a piece about the "debate" as well. As a blonde woman, SageQueen has dealt with the same stereotyping that is being thrown at BlondeShep. She calls out, in particular, the PC Gamer article, and I have to say I agree with SageQueen on this. You're more than welcome to be disappointed in this design choice, and to express it as well. But by judging a character as a "sexpot" or a "personality vacuum" based solely on her features, you're judging your readers with those features as well.
The guys at Penny Arcade have made their voices heard, as well. In typical Brahe-min fashion, Tycho writes, "It’s genuinely bizarre what people are trying to get away with here. They’ve rendered the shopworn 'blond joke' with post-modern foofaraw, and finished it with an organic Açai reduction. It’s ridiculous. I wasn’t aware this was something we still tolerated? I always forget which people we may stereotype safely; it’s entirely possible I missed the latest communique."
Now, I wouldn't be much of a lore nerd if I didn't point at that, out of the choices, a blonde Shepard would be one of the least likely possibilities. In the Mass Effect world, naturally occuring blond hair and blue eyes are quite rare due to the gradual homogenization of human DNA. Kahlee Sanders is a rare example of a natural blonde in the universe. Hair bleaching and gene therapy do occur, but I can't imagine a Shepard that would do either of these.
However, much of the reaction and discussion are missing the point of Female Shepard. We don't like Shepard because of her looks. To the contrary, the strength of Commander Shepard as a character doesn't come from her looks or her personality, but her resolve. Through 2 games, we've been with Shepard as she received a vision of extinction from millenia ago and sought to prevent it. We watched as she learned of a cycle of obliteration from a Cthulian race of starships, and reacted with defiance. She has held the fate of colonies and species in her hands and has never backed down. Commander Shepard is a character with the fate of the galaxy on her shoulders, and she does not falter. Shepard sees what needs to be done and, even with a slim hope of victory, does it. This is the draw of Shepard, and her gender or features do not enter into the equation.
Furthermore, Shepard's character also comes from our attachment to her and her choices. We decide whether our Shepard is selfless or ruthless. We decide if Shepard grants the Rachni reprieve or destruction. We decide if Shepard will save humans no matter the cost, or if she fights to preserve humanity as well. We've been shaping and following Shepard's story for 4 years. Shepard's willpower draws us to her, but her true strength comes from our investment in our telling of her tale.
To claim that a blonde woman can't be this character reeks of the same sexism that says that a woman can't be this character. In fact, the prototype of the female video game heroine was Metroid's Samus Aran - a blonde bounty hunter who single-handedly saved the galaxy several times over. Other blondes have served the role of strong female protagonist as well, including Final Fantasy VI's Terra Branford - a half-esper/half-human magic user, Eternal Darkness' Alexandra Raivos - a college student who defeats a Lovecraftian evil (fun fact: also voiced by Jennifer Hale), and Parasite Eve's Aya Brea - a tomboy cop who saves the world from certain destruction.
The funniest part is that FemShep wouldn't have time for all this prattle - She's got a galaxy to save. The character of Shepard stands for, among other things, the irrelevance of gender in making a strong character. FemShep doesn't save the galaxy despite her gender - her gender doesn't play into her abilities at all. With the internet blowing a gasket over the complexion of FemShep's marketing look, we've lost sight of her strengths and achievements.