The Samus Mystique
I am a feminist. I do not breathe fire. I do not consume the corpses of men. I do not propose mandatory abortions, or the abolition of pornography, or compulsory lesbianism. Instead, consider me that type of feminist who hopes that one day, men and women will no longer hold preconceived notions about the other gender's abilities, intelligence, or behavioral habits. I want to live in a world where it is acceptable for both men and women to teach kindergarten, build a house, or play video games.
But it's not easy being both a gamer and a feminist. Often I'm dismayed, frustrated, and even belligerent. You know why.
It's because female characters in video games generally suck. This is no secret. Women like Jade from Beyond Good and Evil and Cate Archer from No One Lives Forever are a rare breed, and instead, you get the usual support staff: healers, witches, mages, and clerics. There are the gawping floozies, who are obsessed with winning the affections of the male protagonist. There are the firebrands, all sex and heat, whose only personality characteristic is their generic feistiness. In between are the whiny little sisters, nagging mothers, and cranky grandmothers. Indeed, in video games, my entire gender appears to be neatly organized into maidens, mothers, and crones--or worse, virgins and whores.
Look, developers--stop this. All of those "characters" are unnecessary. You've already made a perfect female character. Now, please, just make more of her.
Who? Samus Aran, of course.
Samus Aran, heroine of the Metroid series, feminist icon of the video gaming era. She's what most women aspire to be, and hope to teach their daughters to become. Even Elizabeth Cady Stanton would like her.
Confident, intelligent, and competent, Samus Aran exudes self-assurance as if it were perfume. She has good reason, too: she's a technical genius. Sure, the suit does all the work for her, but she still knows how to operate the machinery (it's not exactly a coffee maker). Not only that, but she can single-handedly pilot a spaceship, upgrade weapon electronics, and manage demolitions like an expert. Her talents are significant.
Yet, more importantly, she knows that she's capable. Never does she whine in her Space Journal, complain to Mission Control, or angst about Ridley over tea. She trusts herself to get the job done; she believes in herself. In this world, we could use a few more women--and men--who felt the same way.
Her independent streak is legendary: Samus always works alone. She explores caves, shoots enemies, and investigates secret passages, all on her own initiative. Her story does not revolve around her being kidnapped or needing rescue. Instead, she is a proactive force in a dynamic world; she does not react to her circumstances but instead interacts with them. She demonstrates a lesson not often taught to young girls, which is that working by yourself can be powerful, gratifying, even joyous.
Partially because of her independence, Samus, unlike nearly every other woman I've ever encountered in video games, is a consummate professional. She does not mix business and pleasure. At no point in the series does she fall in love, have sex, or pine for that handsome Space Pirate next door. Of course it would have been easy for the developers to add in a love interest--perhaps a doomed shipmate, or a mysterious Chozo stranger--but they never did.
I think this speaks of the level of respect with which the developers regard Samus Aran. They see her role as to do her job as a bounty hunter, not to fall in love. This isn't to say a woman falling in love in a video game is inherently bad, but these days, it seems like all we women do in video games is fall in love (and occasionally heal someone). I find great satisfaction that what matters in a Metroid game is not that the heroine nets her love interest, but rather that she completes her mission successfully. Samus judged not by her interpersonal skills but by her abilities and her talents. Samus is a woman, but her sexuality is irrelevant.
This isn't to say that Samus neglects her femininity; indeed, she is more stereotypically female than she might first appear. She displays motherly, nurturing instincts to the abandoned Metroid larva in Metroid II and Super Metroid. She apparently buys cute undergarments to wear underneath her Varia Suit and flirts with the player (only after the credits roll and her job is complete, of course). She even has impeccable fashion sense: that pink leotard she wore in the original Metroid may seem dated today, but when the game came out in 1986, it was the height of fashion.
It's more that Samus is a woman like any other, but in the Metroid universe, the fact that she is female neither adds nor detracts from her ability to do her job. In our world, where women are still discouraged from entering hard sciences, mathematics, police force, construction, or the military, this is a very potent idea.
An entire generation of children, mostly young boys, grew up with a Nintendo, playing through Samus's various adventures. Sure, the first time they saw Samus take off her suit, it was a big novelty. Once the surprise subsided, however, the kids kept on playing. These kids grew up being subtly taught that it's okay to have a competent female heroine, one who does not need saving, but instead saves the day herself. Boys were being taught to look up to a girl. In the end, they learned it's just no big deal that she is a she, that women are heroes, too.
That sort of attitude spreads. And as a non-man eating, non-fire breathing feminist, I find that to be a very comforting thought indeed.