Virmire is gorgeous. After the bland monotony of Therum and the frustrating monotony of Feros, it kind of feels like this game just isn’t interested in engaging you visually. But then you reach Virmire and you have vibrant greens contrasting with crashing ocean waves against a spectacular backdrop of lightning. You even get some scuttling indigenous life and some birds to give the place a little flair of verisimilitude.
There’s a lot going on here. The Wrex confrontation, the Salarian commandos, the indoctrination research, the meeting with Saren, and the Kaiden / Ashley choice. So we’re probably going to need to spend a few entries on this.
We arrive at Saren’s compound and find that he’s cured the genophage and is pumping out an army of Krogan. He’s also researching indoctrination. This guy has all kinds of hobbies.
Wrex finds out about the cure, and doesn’t like the idea of us blowing it up in the process of stopping Saren. So we have to talk him down. Now is a good time to talk about…
There’s something that’s always bothered me. Among fans, Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams is often referred to as the “space racist” of the teamWhich should technically be “speciest” in this context, but “racist” makes the point well enough.. Supposedly, she hates aliens. This reputation comes mostly from a few situations that everyone misunderstands.
The first comment is when, in a moment of wonder at visiting the Citadel for the first time, Ashley says, “I can’t tell the animals from the aliens!” I can understand that if she said this about humans: “I can’t tell Polish people from animals” then it would come off as incredibly prejudiced. But aliens are not humans, and the problem she’s dealing with is that she has no frame of reference. Presented with the lifeforms of the Citadel, you don’t know if one is sapient or not until you try to talk to itIt would of course help if there WERE animals around. Although if there aren’t, then her joke makes no sense, so I guess we need to hand-wave and assume she’s talking about animals that didn’t make it into the game?.
This comment would probably come off as rude or crass to a non-human, but note that she wasn’t saying aliens were equal to animals. She’s owning up to her own ignorance and fallibility, not passing judgement on others.
The other comment from her happens while protesting that so many aliens have free run of the ship. Early in the game, Ash has this exchange with Shepard:
Ashley: With all due respect, should they have full access to the ship?
Shepard: They may not serve the alliance, Chief, but they're allies. At least as far as Saren goes.
Ash: This is the most advanced ship in the alliance navy. I don't think we should give them free reign to poke around the vital systems.
Shepard: You don't trust the alliance's allies?
Ash: I'm not sure I'd call the council races allies. We - humanity I mean - have to learn to rely on ourselves.
Note how she’s referring the the council races here. She could have lumped all aliens in together, but she’s making a clear distinction between the powerful council races (Asari, Salarian, Turian) and the others. And this is understandable. Those three races are powerful, technologically advanced, and have not been kind to humanity in the past.
This is a simply practical political expediency. People do it all the time, and it’s not racism. She’s presumably okay with the Hanar, Elcor, and Volus, or she would have just lumped them all together. She’s not prejudiced against other races, she’s prejudiced against beings that have power over us. If anything, I’d say it shows Williams to be a fairly average person.
The problem here is coding. When an author wants to do some quick shorthand for “this character is a racist”, they often reveal it with comments like this. It’s kind of like parents yelling at their kids. In real life, it’s an ordinary thing that happens all the time. In a movie, a parent yelling at their kid is universal screenwriter shorthand for “this person is a horrible parent”. We’re used to picking up on these cues and extrapolating. If a parent yells at their kid in the first five minutes of a movie, we assume we’re being shown the world in its default state. “This parent is ALWAYS yelling at their kids.” I think some people get caught on Ashley’s dialog the same way. “Oh, she’s ALWAYS ranting about aliens.”
But I don’t think that’s how this is intended. I think the writer is just trying to show some tension and unease is a natural part of our culture. We had a war, we don’t get a lot of respect from the council races, and Ashley just lost her entire unit in a Geth attack led by a TurianWho has an Asari sidekick.. This isn’t racism, it’s realism.
Shepard: Standing up for ourselves doesn't mean standing alone.
Ash: I don't think we should turn down allies. I just think we shouldn't bet everything on them staying allies. As noble as the council members seem now, if their backs are against the wall, they'll abandon us.
Note that she’s in favor of being allies with aliens. Again, not a very hateful or xenophobic trait. She just thinks that aliens won’t always reciprocate. We should note that the story itself supports her view.
You got a pessimistic view of the universe, Williams.
Ash: A pessimist is what an optimist calls a realist. Look, if you're fighting a bear, and the only way to survive is to sic your dog on it and run, you'll do it. As much as you love your dog, it isn't human.
This is the line that gets her branded a space-racist. People think she’s saying the other species are like domesticated animals and that we should ditch them if trouble comes. But no, what she’s saying is that this is how they view us. She’s saying, “If something bad happened, the council races would look out for themselves first and foremost, and treat us like their dog.” And note that she’s not even mad at them. She’s just saying we need to be able to stand up for ourselves in case they do abandon us. And keep in mind they have already done so: The council scoffed at the idea of protecting Eden Prime after the Geth attack. That was fine, inasmuch as the humans put themselves in danger when they pushed so far out into the Attican Traverse, but the point is that the council did what was politically expedient instead of what what best for humanity, thus proving Ashley right.
Given that Williams has family members that were killed or disgraced in the war we fought with the Turians (a war they started) I’d say her worldview strikes me as being incredibly open-minded given those circumstances. Very few people can get through a war and remain this calm and practical regarding their views of the other side.
She doesn’t hate them, or wish them harm, or want to spy on them. She doesn’t want to take things from them. She isn’t even advocating overthrowing their power. She’s accepting of the idea that we’re ruled by non-humans, but doesn’t want us to become dependant on them. I can understand if you disagree with her worldview, but people act like she’s the KKK in space. Ashley Williams is not some hateful, xenophobic racist. She’s mildly and understandably distrustful.
I actually think her attitude grounds the setting and gives it a lot of authenticity. Movies like to sort everyone into “normal people” and “the KKK”, but it’s never that simple in real life. She reflects the attitudes of normal, honest people in the real world, who aren’t evil or dangerous, and who are guilty of nothing more monstrous than simple misunderstanding.
Ashley Kills Wrex
The final thing that earns her the reputation as an alien-hater is this encounter on Virmire. If you don’t have the charm or intimidate points to make Wrex back down on Virmire, then she seems to murder him.
It would be one thing if failing the Wrex dialog dropped you into combat mode where you were forced to defend yourself, but since the killing happens during dialog, the game is implicitly saying that Wrex wasn’t hostile yet when she shot him. I don’t know if that’s what the author intended the game to say, but that’s what it feels like given how other dialog-based stand-offs in this game work. For example, at port Hanshan when you’re dealing with the corrupt guards, the game simply exits dialog into combat, regardless of who “attacks” first according to dialog choices.
This happened to me on my first trip through the game, before I realized I needed to be min/maxing my paragade score instead of just picking whatever suited my current mood. I was pretty angry with Ash, and I would have court-martialed her (or at least kicked her off the team) if the game had given me the choice.
But on re-playing the game I noticed that she was following Shepard’s orders. Shepard actually tells her to be ready to kill Wrex if it looks like he won’t back down. He does this even if you stay in the “paragon” section of the dialog wheel. He’s the commander, and he’s the one who told her to have a weapon ready. It’s not possible to make Shepard say, “No, it’s fine Ash. Wrex won’t hurt me.” The distrust in this situation began with Shepard, not Ashley.
She’s got a massive crush on male Shepard, and Krogans are indeed the badasses of the galaxy. They nearly conquered it, after all. So even if she was out of line when she shot Wrex, I feel like:
- She did so after getting explicit orders…
- …to PROTECT her commanding officer…
- …from a non-Alliance threat…
- …a threat which is a stupendous badass…
- …and is brandishing a weapon…
- …and is extremely pissed off right now…
- …during a mission where Shepard is critical to saving the galaxy and Wrex isn’t.
If she messed up, she did so because every possible pressure was pushing her in that direction: Concern for the galaxy, justified fear of an enraged Krogan, her crush, her training that teaches her to defend her fellow ship-mates at all costs, and orders from her commanding officer.
It’s okay to be mad at Ash. Say she was wrong. Leave her to hug the nuke while you fly off with Kaiden if you want, but please stop acting like she’s space-Hitler. She’s nuanced, and games could do with more nuance.
 Which should technically be “speciest” in this context, but “racist” makes the point well enough.
 It would of course help if there WERE animals around. Although if there aren’t, then her joke makes no sense, so I guess we need to hand-wave and assume she’s talking about animals that didn’t make it into the game?
 Who has an Asari sidekick.
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