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

KaterinLHC wrote:

I am a feminist. I do not breathe fire. I do not consume the corpses of men.

Are we all not in agreement that this is the end-all-be-all most-excellent kick-ass-est introduction? You may not, Katerin, but your writing does!

The Fly wrote:

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. :shock:

SillyRabbit wrote:

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.

Are you saying that this thread has jumped the shark? Darn, it was getting interesting. Ok, as Legion has tried to do, I will endeavor to broaden the conversation. While I completely agree with you, Legion, I think your ideas are important enough to warrent an article of their own. When will technology portray a complete human being, complex emotions, personality and all? Probably around the time that video games are an accepted art form. Please expand.

KaterinLHC wrote:

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.

I've heard 3 major complaints from women gamers. Chicken or the Egg question: Which came first? Who begat who?
a) poor iconization of women in games?
b) poor work environment for women in the gaming industry?
c) poor acceptance of womens' projects in said industry?

i.e. How can we expect more Jades and Archers and Samuses (Samii?) if women in the industry feel outnumbered and underused? Why did The Sims, The Movies, Beyond Good and Evil, and other lady friendly games all come from men?

Finally, if we did manage to gather the perfect group of women developers to create the ultimate (gender-irrelevant) game, would other women buy it?

souldaddy wrote:

Finally, if we did manage to gather the perfect group of women developers to create the ultimate (gender-irrelevant) game, would other women buy it?

You mean every version of Tetris? My girls I know just downloaded it for free somewhere...

That was a great read good job.

Besides, Samus (or rather Metroid games) comes from Japan. Portrayals of females are even more screwed up over there. Whether in videogames or not.

Some additional random females I thought could easily match Samus as a "strong" and much more developed character.

1. Oni from Oni.
2. Seimei from Otogi 2.
3. Princess Peach (OK, maybe not, but close)

Gorilla.800.lbs wrote:

Some additional random females I thought could easily match Samus as a "strong" and much more developed character.

1. Oni from Oni.
2. Seimei from Otogi 2.
3. Princess Peach (OK, maybe not, but close)

Also Carla Vicenti From Indigo Prophecy/Fahrenheit and
Yeesha from the Myst Series.

Fripper wrote:
Gorilla.800.lbs wrote:

Some additional random females I thought could easily match Samus as a "strong" and much more developed character.

1. Oni from Oni.
2. Seimei from Otogi 2.
3. Princess Peach (OK, maybe not, but close)

Also Carla Vicenti From Indigo Propecy/Farhenheit and
Yeesha from the Myst Series.

Any of the female characters from the KOTOR series
That chick from the BG series
Zelda, in her various incarnations in the later LoZ games
Mona Sax from the Max Payne series
EVA from MGS3 (but not The Boss)
Whatever her name was from the Elite Force games

Edit: And I believe I'm on record somewhere as saying that Samus' unveiling in Metroid was a gimmick, something more akin in the anals of the women's movement as the twist at the end of Prodigy's "Smack My Bitch Up" music video.

Rat Boy wrote:

Whatever her name was from the Elite Force games

If I remember correctly, your character's name was Alex and you could choose male or female, didn't matter to the game at all.

souldaddy wrote:

If I remember correctly, your character's name was Alex and you could choose male or female, didn't matter to the game at all.

It wasn't her, since in the second game you were stuck as being a male. It was the one who you kind of flirted with in the first game and in the second had the option of hooking up with.

Any of the female characters from the KOTOR series

Are you kidding me? You had a choice between an emasculating female jedi or the atypical spunky sidekick. Oh yes, strong female characters indeed!

EDIT - Oh yes, and if you decide to play as a woman you're love interest is some whiny schmuck. Either relationship was definitely written from the perspective of a bunch of software geeks who didn't seem to do so well in relationships!

Botswana wrote:

Are you kidding me? You had a choice between an emasculating female jedi or the atypical spunky sidekick. Oh yes, strong female characters indeed!

I believe I wrote "KOTOR series," which also includes the slightly evil rants of the mysterious ex-Jedi Kreia, the thong-clad Handmaiden, and that Sith chick voiced by the uber-hot Kelly Hu.

I believe I wrote "KOTOR series," which also includes the slightly evil rants of the mysterious ex-Jedi Kreia, the thong-clad Handmaiden, and that Sith chick voiced by the uber-hot Kelly Hu.

That really doesn't help your case. Lessee, the typical "wise old crone", a warrior chick who likes to practice fight naked with the protagonist, and the evil yet alluring love interest.

Seriously, all the women play out of the "stereotypes 'r us" handbook and the "romantic" storylines are a case study in geek relationship experiences.

They at least talk! That's more than Samus ever did before the Prime series.

Botswana wrote:
I believe I wrote "KOTOR series," which also includes the slightly evil rants of the mysterious ex-Jedi Kreia, the thong-clad Handmaiden, and that Sith chick voiced by the uber-hot Kelly Hu.

That really doesn't help your case. Lessess, the typical "wise old crone", a warrior chick who likes to practice fight naked with the protagonist, and the evil yet alluring love interest.

Seriously, all the women play out of the "stereotypes 'r us" handbook and the "romantic" storylines are a case study in geek relationship experiences.

Holy sh*t! No way. You mean there are unrealistic stereotypes? In entertainment media? Stereotypes that speak to the main consumer of that particular type of media? Stop the presses, mein Gott. This just in, all men are 6ft 3in tall with biceps the size of Bournemouth, dasterdly rapscallions and love ravishing maidens on the poop deck (after we've been conquered by her heart and taught to love). I mean, we're all a bunch of Fabios or Brad Pitts or but we clearly hide it. Welcome to the real world Neo. Sucks don't it? Its amusing that some people take the realism angle to such extremes (I'm guilty of this as well) that we can't even temporarily "take the blue pill" and enjoy the fantasy break from reality.

Unnecessarily sarcastic tone aside, if you're trying to argue that the roles of female characters in media is as well explored and complex as those of males then you're going to have a serious issue of evidence. Even Brad Pitt has enjoyed a range from Fight Club, to Snatch, to Twelve Monkeys, so if that's your big evidence of thinly portrayed men in leading roles ... well point for my side then. Fabio? Fabio has never been culturally relevant or targeted to the main consumer.

I don't hear arguments being made here about realism. I see questions of character development and developers making the same kind of mistakes that I suspect you might be inclined to in devising thin, meaningless characters in the pursuit of some marketing fallacy of the demographic consumer.

**edit: Nevermind. I forgot that I was going to leave the moderating to the moderators. *sigh* Being a grownup is hard.

Elysium wrote:

Unnecessarily sarcastic tone aside, if you're trying to argue that the roles of female characters in media is as well explored and complex as those of males then you're going to have a serious issue of evidence. Even Brad Pitt has enjoyed a range from Fight Club, to Snatch, to Twelve Monkeys, so if that's your big evidence of thinly portrayed men in leading roles ... well point for my side then. Fabio? Fabio has never been culturally relevant or targeted to the main consumer.

I don't hear arguments being made here about realism. I see questions of character development and developers making the same kind of mistakes that I suspect you might be inclined to in devising thin, meaningless characters in the pursuit of some marketing fallacy of the demographic consumer.

I apologize if I was overly sarcastic. Feminism and "grrl power" tends to get my goat as it were. My argument is, what sells? Its not always realism and its not always major character development (to my mind thats very much tied in with realism) either. I'm all for better character development, I just think people blow this waay out of proportion. You want more character development and better female roles? Get more women interested in gaming, even more than there are today. Once a market develops, the games will show up.

Video games have not been targeted to the main consumer for very long and its taken a generation for it to become fairly mainstream. Even that, you have the previous generation who are folks who just think games are for kids and adults who play them are losers (which lead to people like Jack Thompson). As for Fabio, I wasn't talking about him specifically but the image he represents and that is a very culturally relevent image, an opposite to Pamela Anderson'esque female video game characters in female targeted entertainment. Perhaps Pitt was a bad choice, as he has had many good roles but I was using him more for the looks issue than character development. I'm guessing many go to see his films first because he's in it, similar to say "Ooh, Jessica Alba is in that new movie, I gotta see it!".

OK so why do companies make games? To further the cause of sexual eqality? To right the wrongs of history? Sure, that's exactly why they make games. And as such you could say that the industry as a whole is a total failure really. I mean look at Paris Hilton, the model of modern womanhood and feminist extraordinaire. Paris Hilton is not only the failure of the games industry to turn all women into equals but the failure of society itself. Paris Hilton is roughly the equal of my Goldfish, how can any society face a challenge of that sort of magnitude? It's up to all of us to say "enough"

The next time you see a women in a sexy outfit, demand that she take it off immediately! The next time you see a woman reading a woman's magazine with celebrities on the cover, pull it out of her hand and smack her in the face with it shouting "sexist moron, you're perpetuating the male dominant view of women as idiots!" And the next time you see a woman in a role traditionaly reserved for women like a secretary or waitress, scream at them for being sexist morons that perpetuate the image of women as women, and not women as men, as it should be. For we all know that women just want to be men and that they feel awfully embarrased at having to sit down to pee. 'nuf said.

I agree with what Hex is trying to say while preferring Elysium's style. I don't see many of our ladies participating in the conversation. Is that out of disgust or anger prehaps? What I'd really like to see is a thread on women gamers, with only women posters, no boys running in a taking up their space. I think we'd get something very interesting in that.

But for Hex's point, or one of them, I would not be too happy to see stereotypical male fantasy games replaced with stereotypical female fantasy ones. The media in this country is frankly insulting to the entire audience, they approach from the lowest common denominator and slide down from there.

And I was trying to remember, can anyone think of an awesome game that wasn't gender friendly? I bet the cream rises to the top.

A few thoughts..

Gordon and Master Chief aren't "defined by their gender"?

What?

What ARE they defined by? Nothing. They are paper-thin characters, and have no place in a discussion like this. Same with Samus.

Indeed, Samus IS glimpse of what the homegenic future might look like - she's a female and it doesn't define her in any way. But in the big picture, she's meaningless. The fact that she is female is a mere curiosity. Ironically, she won't spearhead a revolution that would make bring the aforementioned kind of future any closer. You need something much more in-your-face to accomplish that.

The paper-thin characters like this work in certain kind of games. It's not a coincidence that Samus, Gordon, Master Chief and Doom Marine all adventure in (generally speaking, let's not start the nitpicking) fast-paced shooters.

If you want a game with actual dialogue and character interactions, you need to have deeper characters. Of course, when you want to create characters like that, you're going to have to draw from somewhere. Samus would not be an option in a game like this. WHO IS SHE?

This is exactly the problem with all the criticism feminists throw at female characters in pop-culture. They don't want the weak woman who's just the prize of the warrior, but they don't want her "neglecting her feminity either".

So Samus is the solution? This empty, yawning chasm of a character?

cmotd wrote:

The next time you see a women in a sexy outfit, demand that she take it off immediately! The next time you see a woman reading a woman's magazine with celebrities on the cover, pull it out of her hand and smack her in the face with it shouting "sexist moron, you're perpetuating the male dominant view of women as idiots!" And the next time you see a woman in a role traditionaly reserved for women like a secretary or waitress, scream at them for being sexist morons that perpetuate the image of women as women, and not women as men, as it should be. For we all know that women just want to be men and that they feel awfully embarrased at having to sit down to pee. 'nuf said.

I like this post Personally, I think there should be a reasonable balance. Some inherent attributes endowed to us by our respective genders cannot just be ignored or traded at will.

I think the sexy damzels in distress always have their place, but don't make EVERY SINGLE WOMAN a Mrs. Booby McBooberson ! There's always a place for another Ripley or Vasquez.

You want more character development and better female roles? Get more women interested in gaming, even more than there are today.

Looking at the vast majority of how women are treated in games, exactly what is there that will draw a larger female audience?

It is not that all male characters are deeply developed, but they certainly seem to have more than their fair share of roles in all forms of entertainment media. However, please reference my earlier comments about Timesplitters taking potshots at everyone equally. It's not necessarily that they are flattering to anyone in particular, but rather than the targets of opportunity are across the board. It's not that all things are equal necessarily, but rather that all things have an equal chance of being mocked.

I am not looking for the ultimate politically correct female character, but rather something that goes against the grain. To be honest, despite her visual depiction, I was actually quite partial to Cortana as well as the female commander in Halo 2. Strong women characters not defined by their sexuality, but at the same time unmistakenly female. I wish I could remember her name, but it's been awhile since I played Halo 2. Nonetheless, I remember that despite the commander having lost her father in the previous game she was not prone to the typical angst or fits of vengeance. She was a dedicated professional and a believable military officer, except for perhaps her age. She was a great compliment to other supporting characters such as the Sergeant Major and I liked her and actually cared about what her ultimate fate might be.

So often when we are presented with the female characters made safely within the confines of convention I find myself bored with them. For a medium with limitless possibilities, it often surprises me how trite many games can be. The issue of the depiction of women would be less of an issue if I didn't also think it furthers the domination of the male demographic as both producers and consumers of games.

We want to get more women interested in the hobby, but frankly I would be embarrassed to show my wife some of these games. Could I play Dead or Alive with my wife without glares? I could probably get away with Soul Calibur until she sees Ivy. I use these two examples because they are both games I enjoyed, but you could strip out the sexual themes and they would still have been great games. Soul Calibur for its accessibility and surprising amount of story and character development, and Dead or Alive for actually having level design within the confines of a fighting game. I'm not naive, I know sex sells, but to whom? I'm not so silly to think that many women don't want visual stimuli and won't appreciate the physique of the male characters. It's just that when we put a female character into S&M gear we get Ivy, and when we put a male into S&M gear we get Voldo. Doesn't this disparity strike anyone else as odd? The women get sexier and sexier, the men just become freaks. What exactly is the message we want to send to women again?

Botswana wrote:

To be honest, despite her visual depiction, I was actually quite partial to Cortana as well as the female commander in Halo 2. Strong women characters not defined by their sexuality, but at the same time unmistakenly female. I wish I could remember her name, but it's been awhile since I played Halo 2.

That was Keyes. Also the name of the one Russian woman in CoD2 was Tanya. Cortana is an interesting character because she is so maternal towards Master Cheif, a pleasant female voice that guides him through turbulent terrain. Prior to plugging into the MC she's guiding Keyes and all the while she's looking after each member of the Pillar of the Autumn that she can. Can't think of another video game character like that. The closest I can think of is Shodan, sheesh!

TheGameguru wrote:

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

I think it's too easy to dismiss all such players as deviants, though I think there must be some amongst them who are. However, being the optimist that I am, I think such behavior is the ultimate compliment to females. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. Publishers would be prudent to take note of this.

Some men might be offended by an interest displayed by a homosexual (Jenny Jones anyone?) but a thinking man would take such an interest as a compliment.

If grandpa Jones strikes up a conversation with me in the guise of a woodland fairy, I'd sooner assume him to simply be wired differently from myself rather than think that he's the next Albert Fish.

By the way, if women dominated gaming would Master Chief look like Fabio?

We want to get more women interested in the hobby, but frankly I would be embarrassed to show my wife some of these games.

We do want more women to get hooked on videogames? Really? Why do we want that? Because we want more people on crack, to grow the market, and just males alone isn't enough anymore? Or because there's an awesome shining goodness of videogames, largely untapped by females, and we need to educate them in an altruistic, missionary way so that they see how much they're amissing? Or there's some sort of "gaming divide", similar to "digital divide" which we all somehow absolutely ought to bridge with advocacy programs and federally funded BestBuy vouchers or something? Or the industry is pre-destined to doom and gloom if it can't court enough female customers fast?

Maybe I am missing out something subtly important, as always, but I don't really care in any of the above cases.

How about because I think a lot of couples would enjoy gaming together? Sheesh.

Thought it was time to lighten the mood some (hopefully it'll be taken that way...)

IMAGE(http://i2.photobucket.com/albums/y48/Poppinfresh2k5/feminism.jpg)

Botswana wrote:

How about because I think a lot of couples would enjoy gaming together? Sheesh.

Hmmm. Didn't think about that one. But what it then in fact means that you want more games for couples. Don't know about your missus, but mine wouldn't be interested to play an FPS no matter who you serve up the protagonist -- as Samus, as Gordon, or as Mario. She simply won't play an FPS or a platformer to begin with.

I would also like more co-op games to play with my GF other than shooters.

Can I also point out that stereotypes exist for a reason? I'm sure many of us (at some point in our lives, surely not now, pillars of coolness that we are) fit certain stereotypes for gamers. I don't know why people dislike the characters of Bastila and (insert blue Twilek girl's name here) in KOTOR; I've known people like them. I've also known guys like Carth, who frankly I found to be a whiner. Characterizations in games/movies/books seldom step outside of the cookie-cutter mode imho.

I too find ironic the amount of male debate about what the proper presentation of female characters in games would be. How about we lock this thread, or just lock out the guys?

I say we turn the tables on those fascist womynfolk, and start a debate about how it feels to have one's penis slammed in a door. Like to see them try to pretend like they know what THAT is like. Ha!

It hurts.

Counter-point?