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.

Comments

Thinking of women characters as a gender first flattens them, dimensionalizes them, and makes them ultimately just woman character in X skin.

I guess I'm somewhere in the middle here, because I agree that basing the character on gender flattens them, making the gender irrelevant is just as flattening. There's a healthy middle ground where women are women and men are men and neither are only that.

I don't think Samus is a particularly strong female character because she's not a particularly strong character. Which is great for a game, so you can use your own personality in shaping the story. People often play Samus and see a "strong, no-nonsense, unfeminine asskicker mercenary". The only the the story specifies is that she is an "asskicker mercenary". Almost all of her personality is supplied by the user.

I played her as an archeologist or explorer, rarely fighting anything and spending hours scanning every little detail I could find. Certainly not a stoic badass.

IMAGE(http://www.gamerswithjobs.com/files/pictures/picture-4.jpg)
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Is my hero.

While we're on the subject of how video games marginalize our respective demographics, I say we storm Castle Mario and slaughter that smug f$%k plumber..

I think Elysium nailed what I was going to mention. It's easy to think that leading female characters are being marginalized if you're narrowly comparing them to leading males while forgetting what's driving the story.

Women don't have to act exactly like men to be portrayed as strong or capable or even relatable. The context of the game is what's important and if you're talking about a shooter or even a beat-em-up, such a portrayal could only be viewed as forced and superficial. But games where you beat the crap out of people and blow lots of stuff up and unleash wanton mayhem and destruction make big bucks. If you want to shoehorn a woman into the role of Vlad the Impaler (without context) and then build a story out of it, you're welcome to try.. but people won't buy it.

I respect that there is a notable absence of female leads in video games or when they are present, they're colored with glaring cliched 'womany issues' and usually have basketballs strapped to their chests. It's just what's in demand. The money is in Biceps and Boobs.. and Dick and Fart jokes.. and chainmail bikinis and gownless evening straps. (not a typo :)) It's the same reason that the porn industry is bigger than the movie industry and the same reason why more people know who Madonna is than Marie Curie.

I don't know if there's an answer to this issue. Our Leia Organas are few and far between. If the goal is equal representation in video games, we can just hope that the growing ranks of female gamers will correct tastes over time.

Side note : To be fair, Ripley going back after Jones has nothing to do with her being a woman. It doesn't make her sappy or feminine. (IIRC, it was Bretts cat to begin with and he already made that 'stupid' mistake and got himself killed) It was a device to move the plot. Ripley going back after Newt was a storyline built around Ripley's daughter and had more to do with the plot than with her being a woman. It had to do with the hero not leaving his/her charge behind, a role that can be equally convincing whether male or female.

making the gender irrelevant is just as flattening.

I'm not saying make gender irrelevant, but only as relevant as it belongs to the character. There are certainly women who feel defined by their gender, but that is a trait of their character and is part of what describes them. The error is in assuming every woman character is equally defined by their gender. That's the bulk of my point.

What Ely said. Samus could be considered a feminist icon, pecisely because her gender is unknown. She is viewed by the player as a male figure and thus, she is not dismissed into one of the few female character archetypes that developers use. Gender is irrevelent to most genres of games, but is often injected into to female characters, which seems degrading.

Elysium wrote:
making the gender irrelevant is just as flattening.

I'm not saying make gender irrelevant, but only as relevant as it belongs to the character. There are certainly women who feel defined by their gender, but that is a trait of their character and is part of what describes them. The error is in assuming every woman character is equally defined by their gender. That's the bulk of my point.

Fair enough, though I understood your praise of Samus to be because her gender was irrelevant. It's true that to the depth the Metroid series delved into her character her gender was irrelevant, so there's nothing wrong with it. I just don't see it as a shining example of a female character when the fact that she was female was irrelevant.

Also her "dolling up" in Metroid Prime 2 and the GBA games, which seems to be the direction Nintendo is pushing her character, as opposed to her realistic looking Metroid Prime 1 appearance which I really preferred.

I just wanted to say that the whole Lawyeron vs Fletcher Fight Night is entirely unnecessary. Lawyeron's first post responded (in a non-inflammatory way) to comments that Katerin did not make. Fletcher then rebutted him for his non-existant incendiary tone. What he DID say correctly was that things fell down along party lines - Lawyeron gave the typical "conservative" response to typical far-left hyper-feminist propaganda, which just so happens to be entirely missing from Katerin's article. I know, because I'm more of a "conservative" type of guy, and I was hoping there wouldn't be any of the hardcore denial that there are basic differences between men and women. Pyroman got it pretty right just now (even though he edited my thread earlier today

Let's all just shake hands and be friends!

I'm surprised a woman-sapiens was able to write such a big article. Doesn't she have other things to do, like powder her nose or do the laundry ? I hope she doesn't wrinkle her pretty little face with all the thinking that she's doing.

Samus is more a good example of a strong character than a strong female character. She is an example to any gender, in that she goes out, gets the job done and doesn't bitch about it while she is doing it. Men and women everywhere can learn from that.

It gets old when both genders are constantly being thrown into stereotypical roles. The macho tough guy thing gets old. The princess in distress is very played. Seriously Zelda, how many times can one person get kidnapped? Put a sword next to your bed for goodness sake!

What is fun about Samus is that she does not define herself by her gender, but by her actions. That's a standard that both genders should live up to.

Duttybrew wrote:

What Ely said. Samus could be considered a feminist icon, pecisely because her gender is unknown. She is viewed by the player as a male figure and thus, she is not dismissed into one of the few female character archetypes that developers use. Gender is irrevelent to most genres of games, but is often injected into to female characters, which seems degrading.

I guess I just find it odd that feminist icons are women who have been stripped of any femininity. I know I don't look at every angsty androgynous Japanese character and go "Hurrah! Finally, someone I can aspire to!"

How exactly does it inspire women to be equals by making female characters no longer women in any appreciable sense? And note, I don't mean "women" as "weak", which is I think the main source of miscommunication in most discussions of video game women. Women are women, and I don't intend to imply Barbie dress-up games by saying that I think female characters should be as female as their character needs to be. As far as Samus is concerned, her feminimity not coming into play during the course of the game makes complete sense, it's not like women fighting aliens routinely stop to apply thier lipstick, I just don't see it as an icon.

The game just didn't deal with her femininity, so it wasn't explored. I guess I'm failing to see how this is a win for feminists. Though I don't claim to be a feminist in any appreciable sense.

even though he edited my thread earlier today

I like to call thread edits a "love tap", baby.

Last time I looked, Metroid was a platformer with little or no story or character development. The fact that Samus is a woman is irrelevant. She could be a robot or an alien or a dog or anything else and it wouldn't change anything about the game at all.

Women and men are fundamentally different, both physically and emotionally. One of the reasons why stories in games are so feeble is because of the inability to realistically portray this fact.

If the point of the article is that there needs to be more female characters in games that are something other than a victim or ho-bag, then I agree wholeheartedly. But Samus is no more female to me than the metroids she is shooting. She is about as female as Pac-man in male.

Fedaykin98 wrote:

... Fletcher then rebutted him for his non-existant incendiary tone ...

Lawyeron wrote:

... I discourage the homogenization of genders often espoused by the liberal elite ... Flame on! :)

Perhaps the misunderstanding was mine. I was rebuking what I perceived as the use of incendiary political labels alongside a trite suggestion that a flame war would be a welcome addition to the front page.

However,

Fletcher wrote:

... 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.

One of the reasons why stories in games are so feeble is because of the inability to realistically portray this fact.

Or at the very least the inelegance with which they handle the differences. The question isn't whether females and males are different. There's no question. The problem is one of from what angle the character is approached. Males are approached first as a character to the need which any given game requires character development. Females approached as gender first and then narrative specific needs second. That's the problem. There's no error in drawing a woman as a woman, and even in accentuating her femaninity where that fits the character (though, many game writers fail miserably at this, drawing upon stereotypes and thin characterization with no depth or complexity). The error is in defining all female characters by their gender first and foremost, even the ones that flaunt it.

Women and men are fundamentally different, both physically and emotionally.

The same can be said from one person to the next. The problem is when you bring inherant roles into the picture by virtue of gender, and build off that.

But Samus is no more female to me than the metroids she is shooting. She is about as female as Pac-man in male.

Which, I find, a refreshing change and why I still consider Samus an interesting female character. Her sexuality is irrelevant to the story, so her character insofar as it's fleshed is in no way interpreted through that lens. Why should a female character have to be defined by that gender? As has been pointed out the Doom Marine, Master Chief, or Gordon Freeman aren't interpreted through the lens of their maleness.

The game just didn't deal with her femininity, so it wasn't explored. I guess I'm failing to see how this is a win for feminists.

Because gender is an issue only when it's a female character in the role. Making it a non-issue, making her sexuality completely irrelevant, puts the character standards on the same level. The character was treated in the same design and stylistic terms as a male lead would have been without the preconceived notions of what a woman should bring to the table or the over-highlighted fanfare usually accompanied when a woman character breaks from traditional roles.

The setting: The GWJ Space station nerve center.

Scientist: We've found the origin of the conflict on the front page sir!

Sarge: Well, what is it?

Scientist: It appears to be part of a larger conflict going on in an alternate dimension called "Politics & Contreversy." Research indicates this war has been going on for an indeterminate amount of time, with no clear winners, and no offers of concessions from either side.

Sarge: How did it get here?

Scientist: Somebody summoned the comabatants here using the mystic phrase "role of women."

Sarge: Oh crap.

Are Sarge and The Scientist male or female characters?

Pyroman wrote:

The game just didn't deal with her femininity, so it wasn't explored. I guess I'm failing to see how this is a win for feminists. Though I don't claim to be a feminist in any appreciable sense.

This is the point, man. Feminism isn't about making women aspire to be equal. It is about not applying a gender role or standard when gender is irrelevant. Samus is an icon because she is judged purely on her merits (i.e. kicking serious ass). It matters not that she is female, she is simply a badass. I think that the basic point of Katerin's article was that female characters are often given roles and limits on what they can accomplish in videogames, where male characters are not. In most cases these are fictional characters, so there is no need for such limitations.

Males are approached first as a character to the need which any given game requires character development. Females approached as gender first and then narrative specific needs second. That's the problem.

Not being a game developer, I can't speak to the validity of this statement. And for the record, I consider the Doom marine to be a floating gun...not a person.

Duttybrew wrote:

I think that the basic point of Katerin's article was that female characters are often given roles and limits on what they can accomplish in videogames...

Can you point out some examples of female protagonists in games that are limited in what they can accomplish simply because they're women? I sure can't think of any. I don't disagree that there are problems with the way women are portrayed in games, but if we're talking about lead characters a la Samus, I don't think the issue is that women characters are somehow limited.

hoochie wrote:

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

I was going to make this point, but then I thought: I have no idea if Master Chief even has dangly bits. Seems like they'd just get in the way.

Because gender is an issue only when it's a female character in the role. Making it a non-issue, making her sexuality completely irrelevant, puts the character standards on the same level. The character was treated in the same design and stylistic terms as a male lead would have been without the preconceived notions of what a woman should bring to the table or the over-highlighted fanfare usually accompanied when a woman character breaks from traditional roles.

So it's a win for feminism because the writers weren't retarded. We should give out an award!

But I see your point, if it's rare in video games it should be pointed out and praised. I argue because I don't want this article to stand in the way of any mud-wrestling mini games Retro might have in store for MP3!

The game just didn't deal with her femininity, so it wasn't explored. I guess I'm failing to see how this is a win for feminists.

Because gender is an issue only when it's a female character in the role. Making it a non-issue, making her sexuality completely irrelevant, puts the character standards on the same level.[/quote]

Samus is a blank, the video game equivelant of Keanu Reeves, or to reference a respected actor, Gary Cooper. Samus is painted in the barest of strokes. I found more personality in the characters of Donkey Kong than Samus in the first Metroid. I think it is less accurate to say there is "more" to love about Samus than to say there is less to dislike. Hence some peoples have issue with her as a role model for this discussion. It hardly shows advanced tolerance by removing some rather basic iconic reference to a male and replace them with female references.

Still, I can hardly imagine what it must have been like for a young girl in love with her NES to finish Metroid and be surprised to find the hero is just like herself. It reminds me a little of a scene from the excellent White Man's Burden in which John Travolta urges his son to get the "white action hero" when all the really cool ones are black. Surrounded in a sea of males, those few females must really stand out to a woman.

However, I don't think the simplicity of Samus scores her many points today, this excellent article not withstanding...

So it's a win for feminism because the writers weren't retarded. We should give out an award!

Sadly, that's pretty accurate. Ah, the low standards to which we aspire.

I think this whole argument is focusing on a special case of a larger issue.

The larger issue in question is the presentation of characters in video games on the whole. Not just specific to female (human) characters.

Game characters continue to fall into largely archetypal roles, with only a few baby steps of separation from the stereotypical pattern they follow.

Why?

Well, technology is a limiting factor. It's difficult to portrey things like higher-level emotion to players. Here's a good thought exercise: take any given video game character, particularly one that you feel is fairly well-defined. Now strip away every line of dialogue or pre-written backstory, and judge the character solely by actions that occur in gameplay. What do you see now?

Plus, human intelligence is, first and foremost, pattern recognition. When you present a player with a character that is derived from a well-known pattern, players "understand" that character almost immediately. Whatever you don't define explicitly, the players will be able to infer as their brains fill in the blanks.

Trying to define a character that doesn't fall into a pre-understood archetypal pattern is a difficult task. People can rattle off some examples - the article mentioned Jade, someone else brought up the character from Syberia, then there's April from The Longest Journey, etc. What do all of the games these characters reside in have in common? They are all highly story driven, with a lot of dialogue with which to shape and mold the player's understanding of the character.

Not all games are like this. A great deal of games are not heavy on the dialogue. How do you propose to define this rich, complex character without it? You'll note that games such as this often go the stereotypical route. Why? Because then at least there IS character in the game, even if it's not ground-breakingly deep and complex. People understood Kratos from God of War pretty well from the get-go, even before much backstory was explored.

Going back to my thought exercise, what is Jade without the spoken dialogue in her game? The majority of her gameplay actions are the same things the Valkyrie in Gauntlet did. The characteristics of the Valkyrie character, however, allow us to "understand" her plenty well with no additional information. But Jade doesn't share the characteristics of the hack-and-slasher archetype. Without the dialogue, Jade would not make sense. The idea here is to understand just how much character development in video games is chained to dialogue, and to recognize what an uphill battle a non-dialogue driven game faces when trying to present a character. So many of these games rely on characters following recognizable stereotypes because, frankly, that's their best option.

JohnnyMoJo wrote:

But Samus is no more female to me than the metroids she is shooting. She is about as female as Pac-man in male.

Thanks, Johnny, for making my point better than I would have. This is what keeps Samus from being as cool a female character as Jade. Jade still has her humanity.

One other thing that kicks Samus out of the running for me is that stripping at the end. Surely I am not alone when I state that there is an unspoken covenant between a certain female bounty hunter and all eight year old boys that if they can defeat Mother Brain in less than twenty minutes they will be rewarded with respec boobies.

KaterinLHC wrote:

compulsory lesbianism

One female side character I thought was done well was a random woman in Call of Duty 2's Russian campaign. She's not in any cinemas or scripted sequences. What struck me as cool was how the game wasn't pointing out how equally proficient at combat she was. She just did her thing.

*Legion* wrote:

Going back to my thought exercise, what is Jade without the spoken dialogue in her game?

I think you could mute Jade and most of her character would still be expressed. Good artists.

Danjo Olivaw wrote:

I think you could mute Jade and most of her character would still be expressed. Good artists.

I think that's pretty optimistic, and enjoys the benefit of knowing the character already.

IMAGE(http://www.ntsc-uk.com/reviews/xbo/BeyondGAE/04.jpg)

Quite frankly, someone could look at that and easily see something far different from the Jade character we know.

Funny thing about Jade, that revealing top.

I guess I should have said animators.

Katerin, an intelligent and articulate female, has managed to explain in perfectly understandable terms why, she, as a female, thinks Samus's gender matters.

Then a bunch of dudes proceed to argue at length about whether Samus's gender matters.

Seems like there's something to be learned from the piece, if you (a) consider that Katherin is a female, and (b) while her opinion may not be wholly representative of every other female on the planet, it's certainly well-articulated, completely sensible, and arguably more representative of a feminine perspective on Samus's character than the thoughts of any of us males posting here.

So while there may be some limited value found in arguing about whether Samus is or is not an ideal character from our own perspectives, I'm perfectly content bask in the warm rays of feminine insight Katherine offers here.

See, Fly, now you've gone and marginalized me as a man. Why must I be oppressed?

Elysium wrote:

See, Fly, now you've gone and marginalized me as a man. Why must I be oppressed?

Because you're a man? I keed, I keed.

I must admit, I, as a woman, read the article in it's entirety and enjoyed it, I then proceeded to skim over the man-posts.