Monday, April 15, 2024

The Jews Are In Space, But They’re Not Exactly Zooming Along

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At the end of the Mel Brooks 1981 classic History of the World: Part I, there’s a fake trailer for the sequel that, by design, would never actually exist. The highlight of the segment was a short musical number called “Jews In Space”, wherein a giant Star of David-shaped spaceship was “zooming along protecting the Hebrew race”. Brooks, a Jew himself, filled the set with men dressed as orthodox Jews and rabbis, performing a traditional dance. It’s a rather hilarious gag built around stereotypes, but without any sort of negativity. There’s just a bunch of Jews in space, flying around. Doing stuff.

Totally non-coincidentally, that’s the only instance of positive Jewish representation in space I’ve ever encountered. And that’s kind of a problem.

Enter Mass Effect, the Bioware-developed Action RPG video game franchise first released in 2007. Praised as a brilliant throwback to classic sci-fi aesthetics of the 70s and 80s alongside a modern understanding of physics and evolutionary biology, the game turned into a trilogy, and eventually a spinoff in the form of Andromeda. Fans adored the (mostly) excessive attention to detail Bioware put into the multitude of alien races, showing us their history, culture and anatomy. And, of course, the multitude of stereotypes that were quickly subverted by the narrative.

For example, the turians operate under a military-based meritocracy (in this context the military includes public works, schools, etc.) and always follow strict guidelines since they’re extremely honor and duty-minded. The first turians you actually meet are a little rebellious, to say the least, and the definition of “duty” and “honor” is different for every turian, just as it would be for a human. This is a pattern that follows for every race, which is especially highlighted in that there is widespread systemic racism throughout the galaxy based on said stereotypes.

The quarians are nomads who steal everything, except they were forced into wandering the galaxy by the Galactic Council and are pretty much self-sustaining. The krogan are mindless brutes, but that’s mostly a result of a pseudo-sterility plague deployed by the turians (but developed by the salarians) to stop them from conquering the galaxy during the Krogan Rebellions that left them aimless and depressed. The batarians are brutal slave drivers and terrorists, when in reality they’re basically victims of living in Space North Korea. Salarians are the smartest race in the galaxy, except they don’t learn from their mistakes due to their tiny lifespan and keep playing God and nearly destroying galactic civilization. Asari are considered “perfect” due to their evolutionary prowess (plot twist: they were genetically engineered by a precursor race to be that way!) and the galaxy’s diplomats, yet they use that power for control and reinforcing all of these stereotypes rather than actual social progress.

Each and every race is deconstructed throughout the trilogy rather tactfully, with one blatant exception: the volus.

To get us started, let’s look at the official in-universe encyclopaedia entry for them. It’s, uh, not so flattering.

“The volus are an associate race on the Citadel with their own embassy, but are also a client race of the turians. They hail from Irune, which possesses a high-pressure greenhouse atmosphere able to support an ammonia-based biochemistry. As a result, the volus must wear pressure suits and breathers when dealing with other species. Because they are not physically adept compared to most species, volus mostly make their influence felt through trade and commerce, and they have a long history on the Citadel. However, they have never been invited to join the Council, which is a sore point for many volus individuals.”

Doesn’t really paint the greatest of pictures, does it? Every time we see the volus, they are depicted as ineffectual. Weak. A long, sad joke of a race that can’t take care of themselves and really have no business running around the galactic community. The way they are perceived and stereotyped is no different than the way they are actually presented. The volus are basically Space Jews in the most reductive way possible.

It’s bad enough that they’re forced to interact with the rest of the galaxy in special suits, but did they really have to hammer home just how short and stout they are? How they basically waddle with a complete lack of confidence and self-awareness? There’s even a giant “nose” for the filter. These suits also just so happen to mask all of their voices as if they were asthmatic, making them sound feeble and pitiful throughout the entire series, so that doesn’t exactly help with their image.

The in-universe encyclopaedia even goes on to explain that they’re the third oldest oldest race on the Citadel, having been active for around 2,500 years, but they have absolutely nothing to show for it; nobody in their own larger government, the one they basically maintain, will actually take them seriously. Or even acknowledge their existence.  

To put this into perspective, at the beginning of the series the Citadel Council, the Space U.N., has only three members: a salarian, an asari, and a turian. The first two were founding members (because they got there first), while the turians were granted a position for stopping the aforementioned Krogan Rebellions. After the first game—barely twenty-five years post-first contact—humanity is also awarded a seat on the council. The volus, however, are all but dismissed as inconsequential despite the fact that their contributions to the galactic community are arguably just as important, if not more so, than anyone else’s.

They standardized galactic currency and got an economy made up of literally quadrillions of individuals and thousands of planets up and running, and nobody seems to care. They’re second-class citizens in a civilization that they more or less stabilized to a point where it became a proper civilization. They’re forgotten and taken for granted, essentially treated as disposable bankers because “nobody else can do it”.

Yet it still gets worse. See, when that passage from the in-game encyclopaedia said that the volus were a “client race”, it’s not just an aside. It’s literal. The volus made this deal with the turians for military protection, which on its own is totally fine. They have the cash for it, and the turians have the ships so why not? Thing is, that deal also lead to a total forfeiture of their independence. The volus are now considered to be under the umbrella of the turian hierarchy, which means that all political decisions affecting the volus are made by turians.

It’s not just outsourcing their own military needs; it’s self-imposed subservience as a result of a strangely non-stereotypical lack of business savvy—which we will be circling back to. So, yeah, an entire species manages everyone’s money because that’s all they’re able to do, and they oppress themselves by having the big strong apex predators to “protect” them and boss them around.

For those who may not be aware, this is basically every stereotype of modern Jews rolled into one bulbous species. Their design, as you can see from the image, looks strikingly similar to that depictions of Jews within Nazi propaganda, and by extension Watto from The Phantom Menace. And, curiously enough, it’s a rather frightening historical parallel to how Jews were treated during during a huge chunk of the Middle Ages.

At the time, Christianity was vehemently against the idea of money lending, seeing it as sinful and a path straight to hell. However, due to the existence of an economy, and the need for it to continue to exist so civilization could continue as well, they still needed banking to happen somehow. Long story short, they made the Jews do all of their banking since, by their logic, they were already going to hell for not accepting Jesus Christ as their messiah, so it wouldn’t make a difference. Believe it or not, this is actually one of the largest reasons why Jews are so strongly associated with money. In the case of the volus, it is essentially that exact scenario playing out, except now it’s in space.

Except what about that military protection, right? What about the fleets and soldiers the turians promised to assist the volus in the event they were attacked? Well, surprise, the volus were attacked in the third game and quickly faced total extinction. And the turians, who were trying to defend themselves from the same force as well, abandoned them the moment they became a nuisance. Just like how the vast swath of history has treated the Jews since basically forever! Historical parallels sure are fun, right?

Here’s the kicker, though. Remember when I said it was super weird that the volus had zero business savvy when dealing with the turians? Yeah, there are multiple layers to that. I’m not claiming Jews, or fictional species clearly based on them in a pretty messed up way, are all great deal makers (Watto sure as hell wasn’t), but there’s something missing from the depiction of the volus that is very noticeable: we never see any female volus.

Not one. Not a single female volus is ever depicted in the initial trilogy nor Andromeda (which, for all intents and purposes, actually just left them behind, so points for consistency I guess?). The initial reason for this was budgetary constraints, as it took us until Mass Effect 3 to see female turians, krogan, and salarians. But dig a little deeper, and what you see is kind of unsettling.

They couldn’t show female volus, because if they did they’d be showing stereotypical Jewish women. And if they did that, about half of their entire species’ history wouldn’t make a damn lick of sense. See, Jewish women are stereotypically depicted as a lot like Susie Green from Curb Your Enthusiasm (and to a lesser extent Elaine Benes from Seinfeld): loud, constantly angry, and stubborn as all hell until they get their way, which is almost always the most rational decision even if it’s delivered via passive aggressive comments and/or yelling. In this stereotypical context, the Jewish men have no spines and are constantly emasculated by Jewish women who ultimately get the job done.

And that’s exactly why, in my opinion, they couldn’t show us female volus: they’d have never allowed a deal that unbelievably stupid to have been signed with the turians. They never would have allowed self-imposed subservience. They never would have accepted being third to the Citadel and getting tossed aside like garbage. The female volus, borne out of the same stereotypes that characterized their males, would have fought tooth and nail for an equal position of political power, and they would have absolutely gotten it.

Now, to be perfectly clear, I’m not saying Bioware is anti-semitic or did all of this completely on purpose. I don’t think they are. I think this is a result of visual shorthand and common tropes based on stereotypes being too much of a driving factor in their creation of a “banker” species, and them not really knowing any better due to a probable lack of Jewish voices in the room. Sometimes this stuff just happens. It shouldn’t, and it’s pretty gross that it did. I don’t believe for a second that any of this came from a place of malice or hate; just, well, homegrown ignorance.

So, yeah. The Jews are indeed in space, but they’re definitely not zooming along. Because the writers didn’t think to include the women.

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