Sci-fi and fantasy have long explored topics related to the borders of consciousness, of technological beings that almost breach the threshold of humanity. These genres beg of us to ask: what makes us human? What is the purpose of life? These are the riveting philosophical questions at the heart of Nier: Automata. These aren’t the questions I want to talk about though.
What I want to talk about is the assignment of gender roles on these human-like robots, and how Nier manages to subtly subvert the traditional notion of gender as applied to these non-humans. When we speak about gender, we usually explain it in terms of evolutionary needs. We say that men had to hunt because women were at home with the children, that, decades later, men have to work in the office because women need to take care of the home. Nowadays, with such vast technological expansions, the need (if there ever was a need) for such strict, gendered lines is vanishing.
Nevertheless, in the genres of sci-fi and fantasy, although robotic characters have no reproductive need for gender, they are still frequently assigned one anyway. To my pleasant surprise, as I was playing through Nier: Automata this weekend, I noticed that the game, while gendering some parts of the androids’ identities, still did its part to subvert your expectations.
Logically, androids in Nier have no gender―sure, they may have a concept of it, based off the teachings of their human creators―but they have no practical use for it, biologically. Gratefully, then, Nier: Automata does not gender the relationships between these droids in ways beyond looks and pronouns. In a conversation between the main character, 2B, and her operator (think secretary) 6O, 6O asks 2B for some love advice. While 6O presents (and identifies) as a woman, the romantic relationship in question is with another female android. Refreshingly, this is not presented as a weird, nor is it presented as a central part of the operator’s character. In fact, it’s not really mentioned again directly. In some emails sent to 2B, 6O mentions her romantic aspirations, but never goes into detail. Like any other minor character in Nier: Automata, it was a one-off, a moment of comedic filler in a larger, darker universe.
Outside of 6O, the game’s central characters also do their part to subvert your gendered expectations. 2B, to her own credit, is a strong, no-nonsense android, a real Jerk With A Heart of Gold. Conversely, 9S, her male sidekick, frequently needs to be saved, and is seen as equally capable to 2B, if not a little less capable.
One criticism of the game is, quite obviously, 2B’s revealing clothing. Is it blatant fanservice? Sure. However, unlike games like Lollipop Chainsaw, I found 2B’s sexualization significantly less intrusive. Outside of her clothing, nothing about her personality, dialogue or combat moveset is made with the intention to sexualize or objectify her. No long, arduous camera pans from bottom to top. Is it ever answered why the human race decided to make their android warriors a bunch of scantily-clad action girls? No, of course not. But really, with such good story, fantastic combat, and a surprisingly progressive take on gender, I can’t find the time to care.
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