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.

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First post!! Yeah me. Good article. I'm not sure Samus is a good example of a strong female character. For 99 per cent of the game she is in a costume and I suspect many who don't follow the series even recognize that she's a woman. The costume strips her of all her femininity (did I spell that right?) Men are different from women, they just are. A strong female character is one that is recognizable as such. Look at Ripley from Aliens. She was a strong badass, but there was a maternal quality about her that showed when she was protective of Newt.

The other examples you gave are good. I'm also playing Syberia with Kate Walker who is a strong assertive character that uses brains rather than brawn. What's that other adventure game I couldn't finish where the surprise was the character was gay? The Longest Journey?

Game designers have to develop strong characters where being female is not an afterthought but rather than entire premise of the character. When you look at the game you can say if the lead character was a man the storyline would play out different. I suspect that in the move Aliens if Ripley was a male the character would say something like "Too bad about the kid but I have to haul ass out of here!" I kid, but you know what I mean.

As a wacko Republican I discourage the homogenization of genders often espoused by the liberal elite. Let women be women and men be men and let storylines and gameplay reflect those marvelous differences. Let making the character be female actual mean something.

I think this will happen as more women become game designers and strong female characters are not hidden behind costumes or generic stereotypes but are accurate representations of modern day femininity.

Flame on!

What Lawyeron said.

I've learned from the best mighty Conservative Overlord.

Lawyeron wrote:

I've learned from the best mighty Conservative Overlord.

...Strom Thurmond? He has arisen from the dead? ...again?

Setting aside for the moment the lack of respect I have for posts which knowingly beg for an ensuing flame war, I think that your visceral reaction only serves to support Katerin's argument -- that independent, capable women are life-changing, earth-moving forces. If a woman writing about a woman can evoke such an immediate reaction, then I think that we must consider that the article (and the game) have accomplished its goal.

That said, I think you miss the point.

Lawyeron wrote:

A strong female character is one that is recognizable as such.

This is your opinion, and I will not attempt to tell you that your opinion is wrong. However, Katerin's point is that a strong character is a strong character, regardless of their sex. The fact that Ripley, despite having quite a lot of ass-kicking to do on LV-426, still had time to fall in love and emote motherly sensitivity says more about the need for a certain mindset to be able differentiate between the boob and boobless varieties of persons than it does about the character herself. You may call that way of thinking "conservative" if you wish. I call it adolescent.

GWJ writers: please note that my use of the "em dash" is not to be taken as any endorsement of that grammatical relic, but instead as an explicit show of support for our dear colleague, who uses it quite effectively in the article above. Thank you.

However, Katerin's point is that a strong character is a strong character, regardless of their sex.

And my point was that Metroid does not have a strong enough narrative to quantify it as an example of a revolutionary female character. Rather than having the character just be physically recognizable as a female, ie. Tomb Raider, let's see some characters that are intellectually and emotionally recognizable as female.

fact that Ripley, despite having quite a lot of ass-kicking to do on LV-426, still had time to fall in love and emote motherly sensitivity says more about the need for a certain mindset to be able differentiate between the boob and boobless varieties of persons than it does about the character herself.

I've tried to parse that sentence several times, but unfortunately my limited intellect has failed me. I think what you are trying to say is that it is childish to recognize that a woman reacts differently than a man in situations (particularly stressful ones such as the scenario in Aliens). Fair enough. Read Women are from Venus and Men are from Mars and let me know if your opinion remains the same.

What I'm trying to say is that besides the fact that Samus wears sexy underwear and looks female, there is nothing inherently feminine about her. I want to see female characters that are more than superficially female.

That is not to say that I think women can't be firemen, policemen, etc. I am just affirming that there are differences between men and women beyond their naughty bits. And rather than characters that just happen to be female, such as Samus and Lara, I'd like to see more games that delve into the mystique of feminity, such as Syberia. That character is a smart female lawyer who is struggling with a failing marriage and a stressful job together with the supernatural events that surround her. She copes with marital problems by becoming more consumed with her "mission". She doesn't breakdown into tears. I'm not suggesting that that is primarily feminine.

The limitations of time and my own knowledge prohibit me from getting into great detail regarding the differences between males and females. I guess our main point of difference is that there are gamers that want to see games depict how women and men are similar and others that want to see a difference. For instance, in role playing games where they say pick a gender but "Gender will not affect the statistics of your character". Shouldn't picking a female result in a decrease in strength, but perhaps an increase in wisdom and charisma? Don't you want to see games like that? Is that really an adolescent point of view?

Good article and points.

The problem is without scantily clad women in video games how would nerdy gamers ever see that aspect of women?

Just as a counter-point, and I hope you'll excuse me from posting something fron this entry but I think it applies here.

I couldn't help myself, I had to see this young couple. Now the guy wasn't anything extraordinary but the girlfriend wasn't bad. What was amusing was here was a young lady complaining about the image video games give women, and yet she's wearing a midriff baring-low cut tank-top that is skin tight, an orange bra that is also obviously low cut, and hip hugger jeans that I'm pretty sure she had a running start to get in. Now, I know this is the fashion these days and that is a commentary for another day. The point is, here is a young lady who has dressed in a manner that shows off her...ahem...assets complaining about how video games portray women?

Again, let me be clear. I don't take exception to how a woman chooses to dress, but there are standards here. In this case it's a double. I'm increasingly surprised at how many young women are more willing to "show off the goods" as it were these days. So which is really worse here? I can't say that the image of women in many videogames is necessarily a positive nor healthy one. At the same time, at least we're talking digital representations here. Is anyone really being exploited or objectified directly? It may produce a negative effect upon a male's overall composite of women, but there is no specific desire towards a real person in most cases. I would be much quicker to argue that the accepted manner of dress of most women in their late teens and early 20's is more exploitative than what we see in many contemporary games.

It's my belief that despite what feminism has tried to accomplish, they have been unable to shake off what is really a natural male mindset. This mindset is further enforced because there are oh so many women and young girls that will do whatever it takes to fit within a certain mold if they think it will help them attract men. Women who do not have the...ahem...assets to fit into this mold often take up one of the stereotypical positions we know so well, such as wallflower or ambiguously gendered.

Other than getting the right to vote, it seems to me that the place of women in society has actually lost some of its respect. Women are treated as sex objects in many forms of media and instead of being upset about it many women play along.

If anything, game developers are following a status quo. Unable to break free from the shackle of society they would rather pander to the perceived male mindset than challenge the male player on an intellectual level. Samus' gender is irrelevant. She is good at her job and she just happens to be a woman. I have known many professionals like her in my time. That dynamic (good at what they do regardless of gender) is simply not appreciated by game developers, possibly because their field is so sparsely populated with females. It's hard to appreciate that until you've worked with a woman who is equally competent and you find yourself admiring them based purely on their accomplishments.

Yes, getting a little preachy here, my own wife is a strong and independent person. I didn't want someone whose existence centered around me, but rather an individual with their own unique identity. Despite generally looking down on the "stay at home Mom" that society generally does, we still teach women that they are not complete without a mate. It is a maddening double standard.

I get irritated with how many games portray women, but I am starting to see the bigger picture, and that is our society still has a very limited view of what women are good for. It has to define roles and what they should and should not be, even today in the 21st century. As the advertisements say "You've come a long way, Baby". Maybe so, but "Baby" still has a long way to go. Perhaps I am pessimistic, but if anything I see something of a slide back into the pre-feminist days, and it is not encouraging.

As the advertisements say "You've come a long way, Baby".

That was in advertisements for cigarettes. As if a women's ability to smoke in public can be considered progress. The statement and context is demeaning, yet undoubtedly effective as just about everyone from that time remembers it.

I'm increasingly surprised at how many young women are more willing to "show off the goods" as it were these days.

People want to look good and be admired. Human nature. Women often do so by showing less clothes and men do so by wearing more clothes, ie. Tuxedo or Armani suit. Whether by showing those more assets that reveal the physical feminity of an individual harms "the cause", I will leave that judgment to the feminists. I'm cool with it.

I get irritated with how many games portray women, but I am starting to see the bigger picture, and that is our society still has a very limited view of what women are good for.

Oh let's not get carried away now. Yes, entertainment (particularly hip hop music and Skinemax) do portray women as sex objects and that is unfortunate. However, women make up half of the work force in this country, fight in Iraq and there is even talk of a 2008 Presidential Mano y Mano "catfight" (sorry) between Hillary Clinton and Condelezza Rice.

We've come a long way baby, indeed.

...

I'm still trying to figure out what was visceral about Lawyeron's original response. He didn't resort to any ad hominem attacks, like calling her adolescent; he just stated that he disagreed and then gave his reasons why. He showed respect for the author. He even cited an example. Was that visceral? I think not.

buzzvang wrote:

Was that visceral? I think not.

Yeah, there's even a smiley at the end.

Obviously I'm just pontificating here, but I'm not sure if it's so much that the place of woman in society has lost respect. I think it's more accurate to say that there is an increasingly large group of people who have lost respect for everyone else. It just seems to me like there are a lot more people out there who are extremely insular and self-centered.

At any rate, I'm not sure you can really point to a "perfect" female character. What's wrong with a story were a woman falls in love? In Final Fantasy X, for instance, Yuna and Tidus fall in love. Does that make her less of a good character? For that matter, Yuna tends to be kind of soft spoken, but she's still the lead person for getting the job done. Again, does that make her bad?

I'd argue that as long as the female characters aren't there just as eye candy or as obvious incantations of long-held sterotypes, it's probably good that they're there. So, Kate Walker, Yuna, and even Lara Croft are all positive female characters. Sure, some may be more positive than others, but I think they're all a net gain on the question of the equality of the sexes.

I'm still trying to figure out what was visceral about Lawyeron's original response.

Me too. I think it's Fletcher who's getting all visceral on us, he's extreme like bungee jumping naked off a jet plane.

The reactions to this piece seem to be falling down along party lines so far, so it's a fair bet that no one's mind is going to be changed here. And that's okay. I've had my say, Lawyer had his -- I'm okay with leaving it at that.

What other good female characters are there in games? What about King's Quest? I think Yuna is a good character. You saw her portrayed one way in Final Fantasy X and then another in Final Fantasy X-2. What about that chick from Half-Life 2?

I think you'll find there are many characters to admire, but unfortunately they are outweighed by the eye candy.

Certis wrote:
I'm still trying to figure out what was visceral about Lawyeron's original response.

Me too. I think it's Fletcher who's getting all visceral on us, he's extreme like bungee jumping naked off a jet plane.

You can all kiss my ass. Especially you, whitey.

Perhaps I meant "immediate" when I wrote "visceral." I haven't written on the front page in a while. I'm out of practice

Oh it didn't hurt my feelings or anything. Part of my job is to have a thick skin.

I do like the article and find the subject matter to be very important. I believe that games are an art form and in order for the medium to be taken seriously it has to progress beyond melon breasted characters.

I was going to say something along the line of what Fletcher did without being quite so... blunt?

The key thing being that not all women have to always be feminine anymore than all men have to always be masculine. Certainly there are always elements of the gender in a person, but a gender doesn't define an individual: an individual is self-defining.

Ripley was definitely a strong female character. But in the first film she didn't act all motherly, and her love interest was more what would traditionally have been considered a more manly way: more of an unspoken/distant affection than her more blatant flirting in the second film.

Could Samus just as easily be a man as a woman? Sure. And that's the point. Samus was assumed to be a guy by all players of the original Metroid, right up until the ending. Then that assumption was thrown aside, primarily I'd imagine just for the "twist" ending or shock value. But it's one of those things that actually turns out to be niftier in the long run.

Why is it that most female game heroes are always using brains over brawn? And when there's a game with a male and female lead, the male is almost always the tough guy while the woman is the brainy one? Because that's playing to the stereotypes that the average gamer subscribes to.

I learned in karate (the hard way!) that women can be every bit as tough as a guy. And we had a 50/50 split in the class, with as many women in the top ranks as men. I thought that was pretty cool.

Lawyeron wrote:

I'm not sure Samus is a good example of a strong female character. For 99 per cent of the game she is in a costume and I suspect many who don't follow the series even recognize that she's a woman. The costume strips her of all her femininity (did I spell that right?)

I think that this was exactly the point. Samus is a good strong female character because we get to know her before we know she's a her, and are impressed by her competence and asskicking-ness before we get the chance to add that awful rider, "for a woman." Is the Master Chief's coolness decreased because we never see him, I dunno, swigging beer and watching T.V.?

I can't agree that Ripley going back for Newt was an example of "womanly" behaviour - a male protagonist would have done the same. Now, going back for the cat in the first Alien - that was a terrible, stereotypical bit of characterization that undermined the strength and intelligence she'd shown up til that point. Dude, I love my cats. I would left the goddammed cat, if only because someone had to survive and warn the rest of the universe about that planet.

I'd just like someone to explain to me why so many male MMORPG players play female avatars...

I thought about making a joke about samus being the perfect woman because she doesn't speak... but I refrained

TheGameguru wrote:

I'd just like someone to explain to me why so many male MMORPG players play female avatars...

Easy. I don't want to stare at man ass (simulated it may be) while playing video games

But it's not easy being both a gamer and a feminist.

I imagine it's not. Especially, if you play RPGs where every woman is issued a chain-mail bikini. Great for the tan, but not so good when that horde of orcs crashes your pool party.

hoochie wrote:

Is the Master Chief's coolness decreased because we never see him, I dunno, swigging beer and watching T.V.?

You know, just speaking for myself, I think Master Chief's already prodigious coolness would by increased by an order of magnitude if we could see him swigging beer and watching TV.

But it's one of those things that actually turns out to be niftier in the long run.

It was a gimmick that didn't really add anything to the game. Did gamers really go back and think, "Wow a woman did all that?"

But in the first film she didn't act all motherly, and her love interest was more what would traditionally have been considered a more manly way: more of an unspoken/distant affection than her more blatant flirting in the second film.

She was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for the second movie. Which performance did you prefer?

Why is it that most female game heroes are always using brains over brawn?

Because there are few women that can physically take on men in a fight. I'm not saying there are none, but it is uncommon. There is a huge segment of female gamers that are not interested in playing First Person Games due to the violence. Why do they prefer Sims 2 over Quake? If a female character doesn't appeal to a majority of females, (barring the rarities such as Katarin), how can we say this is a strong female character?

And when there's a game with a male and female lead, the male is almost always the tough guy while the woman is the brainy one?

See Final Fantasy games where the male lead is not particularly brawny and is often whiny.

Is the Master Chief's coolness decreased because we never see him, I dunno, swigging beer and watching T.V.?

What an offensive stereotypical statement! I resemble that remark!

I would left the goddammed cat, if only because someone had to survive and warn the rest of the universe about that planet.

If the alien would have eaten the cat my wife would have dived in after it even if it wasn't her own cat.

I had this huge long post typed out, and then I realized most of it was useless rambling and I wasn't helping my chosen side of the argument.

To just say it though, I agree with Kat and the bunch.

While I never played the originals (I never owned an NES! I was poor! Don't flog me!), I still remember how awesome I thought it was that Samus was a woman when I beat Super Metroid.

I thought Alyx from HL2 was a good case of a "strong woman" female players would identify with.

Game designers have to develop strong characters where being female is not an afterthought but rather than entire premise of the character.

Coming a bit late to the party, but this is the point I take exception with. It illustrates, I think, the problem, because it asks for the character to be defined by gender. It explicitly highlights the sense of separation that creates division and diminishes female characters by lowering the standards of character design. After all, how many video game male roles do you see where the gender of the character is even an issue much less the "entire premise of the character". Regardless of whether you create a strong, weak, ambivalent, slutty, or chaste female character, when you have the gender of the character as the premise of the design you are working from, I think, a flawed position both in character design and equality. Thinking of women characters as a gender first flattens them, dimensionalizes them, and makes them ultimately just woman character in X skin.

A female character should, as any male character, be defined by the personalities, traits, and flaws that move the character through the narrative. Being a woman can play a part in the portrayal, just as being a man or for that matter a fourteen armed alien overlord does, but unless you imagine that women go around their daily lives making decisions based first off their gender then it should only play its part as applicable. Samus is an outstanding female character precisely because of her anonymity and ambiguity. Her sex is completely irrelevant to the story, and so it has no need to be addressed. Would Samus be a better femal character if she had enhanced breasts or 'I Am A Woman' written across her back, so while you were playing you'd know you were playing a female character? According to the theory that gender should be the foundation concept of character design, you'd have to do just that. And then, you might as well be saying to the player, "Wow, here's a woman doing a man's job! Look how progressive we are."

Which would be ironic, as it would be a real step backward in character design. I'm not talking about politics here. I'm talking about poor character development.

A female character should, as any male character, be defined by the personalities, traits, and flaws that move the character through the narrative.

This is the approach I'd like to see more of. There is certainly nothing wrong with exploring the aspect of the main character being female, but it should not be treated as some kind of gimmick. They certainly should not demean the character just because she is female. The focus should not be on what the character is, but who they are. I don't think we necessarily define a person's personality just by their gender alone in the real world unless we're looking for broad generalizations. However, aren't we supposed to consider individuals on an, oh I don't know, indivudual basis?

It seems to me that could be the point of Katerin's rant. Instead of making compelling characters who just happen to be female, we have a composite of female characteristics acting like a protagonist.

You know, it is interesting to me that the portrayal of women in Timesplitters: Future Perfect didn't seem exploitative to me in the least despite the way they acted and their manner of dress. Mostly because they lampooned many male stereotypes in the game and were just as unflattering. I found that oddly refreshing in some way in the sense that anyone was fair game. In some ways they were almost making fun of how the videogame industry tends to treat gender, and I almost wonder if they were doing it on purpose.

I was going to stay quiet here - good thing, because Elysium elegantly summed my thoughts up for me, without me having to do any work. Good job Ely!

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