Sunday, December 21, 2008

I Am Tired of Hearing that Samus Aran is Some Kind of Videogame Feminist Icon

I don't get any pleasure out of saying this - but don't you think it is patently clear that the Metroid protagonist Samus was made female as an afterthought and as a joke? I mean, isn't it plainly the case that the Japanese programmers who made the original Metroid in the mid 80's made Samus a girl so they'd have a Ha-Ha twist ending? You win the game... the hero takes off his helmet for the first time... and surprise! It's a girl!

I have to bring this up because in the 20 years since the surprise ending of Metroid, Samus has evolved into a bona fide Videogame Feminist Icon. She's constantly trotted out as a prime example of how videogames provide strong female protagonists and role models for girls, and have been doing so since day one. And the more I read these gushing homages (like this one) to a great shattering of the videogame glass ceiling, the more of a fraud I think it is. I mean, isn't it clear she wasn't conceived as female?

It's actually a serious point. If she wasn't intended to be a female character, and her female identity was thought up and added as a postscript for a cheap "gotcha!" moment, then where does that leave the people who say that she represents gaming's first strong female protagonist?

Here's the original Metroid director, Yoshio Sakamoto, talking to in 2007: "We were partway through the development process, when one of the staff members said Hey, wouldn't that be kind of cool if it turned out that this person inside the suit was a woman?" Exactly. The character had already been designed and scripted, and then they gave her a gender. And let's remember, this was a game that had a secret password to let you play as Samus in a leotard, and a bonus ending showing you Samus in a bikini. This is not the Marie Curie of videogames. This is joke territory, replete with 8-bit titillation.

Apparently I'm not the only one who feels that the empowered-woman reputation of Samus is sort of at odds with the way she's actually shown in the game. Here's Gamespot editor Greg Kasavin in the article "Samus' Suit Was Made by Men":

"Metroid, the perennial favorite sci-fi series from Nintendo, has a female main character. This was first discovered by surprise at the end of the original 1986 Metroid game, in which, if you finished the game having met certain special conditions, you'd see a brief cutscene of Samus Aran's red and gold armor magically disappear to reveal a shapely, scantily clad woman, who then waves at you. It comes as a bit of a shock, and why shouldn't it? Samus doesn't sound like a woman's name. ... While I wouldn't go so far as to say that I disapprove of this--I like the series, after all, and it's targeted at people like me--it also rubs me the wrong way. I don't appreciate that Samus being a woman is a punch line. Ironically, Metroid is often cited as one of those games that's quite progressive in its portrayal of women. It's obvious, I hope, that I happen not to think so."

Yes yes, this is all a big nitpick, but I've had to listen and read about the historic nature of Samus and her inspiration to girl gamers everywhere for 20 years. I've had to listen to how videogames were ahead of their time, morally serious responsible citizens because Nintendo had strong female protagonists like Samus Aran. And you know, if some young person out there is genuinely inspired by the example of Samus from Metroid, a retroactively designated woman, then shucks, I have no desire to piss on their parade, but how about we set the record straight for everyone else?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

These Entertainment Weekly Best-Of Lists

This year, Entertainment Weekly published a whole issue of lists. Best 100 Movies of the last 25 years. Best 100 books, music albums, TV shows, etc. We all know that magazines use lists like these to sell copies (because if nothing else they allow you to show any celebrity photo you want, without the annoying burden of reporting any actual news) - but I had never seen an entire issue that consisted of nothing but lists.

In general, I like best-of lists. They're good conversation starters and fodder for debate. They're good old, empty calorie fun to read. So I'm reading these new Entertainment Weekly lists, and I'm enjoying them, but.... something wasn't quite right. There was that nagging little tingle on the back of my neck. That slight, barely perceptible sound of fingernails on blackboard or a violin out of tune. I knew that something about these lists was seriously wrong. And now, I think I've got a good grip on it.

Here's the thing. You've got the Academy Awards, right? Or the other top tier film award societies. The groups that genuinely try to reward the best films of the year. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, you've got something like the People's Choice, or better yet, the MTV Movie Awards, where someone like Tom Green can win Best Tongue or something like that. So you've got two completely different standards of seriousness.

The question is, where on this continuum of seriousness does Entertainment Weekly purport to be? Where is their disclaimer? I think the problem I have with them is that they clearly are claiming membership in the A category, putting on airs of total seriousness, while making B category choices.

Let's lay it all out on the table. And just to be clear, I have no problem with the B category. I have no problem with the MTV Movie Awards and handing out golden popcorn buckets to rappers and teenagers and Eugene Levy. My problem is solely with Entertainment Weekly's posturing.

EW is actually playing a very artful game here. I give them credit. I'm sure if I pressed them on naming "Speed" as the 40th best film of the last 25 years, they would respond with something like this: "Of course our standards are different than the Oscars. We don't dismiss all popular entertainment out of hand. Other critics won't consider the Matrix, Spiderman 2, Steven King, etc. because they reject crowd pleasers. We strip away that pretense and analyze everything on the merits. We're not afraid of looking at mainstream entertainment and calling it high art." That, I think, would be the EW retort.

And it's such a sensible, smooth, compelling explanation that it almost fools me. It sounds true, doesn't it? Think about it. Movies like The Dark Knight and Lord of the Rings - big blockbuster movies really can be high art, right? Maybe EW really does have the right idea?

But no. It's a lie. Here's what's really going on. And now that I've figured it out, I'll never be fooled by an EW list again. EW, when making these lists, is limited to pop culture product that the average Joe has heard of and seen. And that's it. They have to choose popcorn blockbusters to round out these lists because that's all they will permit themselves to consider.

Roger Ebert has a list of his own best movies of all time, and it's chock full of films you're never heard of. In his top 10 is something called Aguirre: Wrath of God. Now, maybe Aguirre: Wrath of God actually is one of the top 10 films of all time. But Entertainment Weekly could not ever, in a million years, acknowledge that. Why? Because you've never heard of Aguirre: Wrath of God, and if a magazine told you it was the 5th best movie of all time - then you'd feel just a little stupid. 'Cause you consider yourself a little bit of a movie buff. Hell, you subscribe to Entertainment Weekly after all - clearly you're into movies. And the 5th best movie of all time is something called Aguirre: Wrath of God? Kind of a let down. Kind of makes you feel dumb. This is the taboo that EW can't break. They can't risk making you feel dumb in this way, and so all risky and obscure choices are off the table.

Now that you understand the logic of the EW list, you can look at every category and finally understand the choices. The only category where I can bring any personal expertise is the best video game category. And looking at this list, I can say with certainty that each one of these 50 games is a mainstream, blockbuster best-selling hit. Every game there is a super safe choice. There are no misunderstood masterpieces. No brilliant Japanese imports that never found a US audience. Instead there are games like Guitar Hero, whose greatness lies solely in the immense number of copies it was able to sell. This isn't a list of the 50 greatest games you've ever heard of, it's a list of the 50 games you've ever heard of.

Look, EW is welcome to this shitty approach to the ranking of film and TV and music. It's nice that there's someone out there validating my enjoyment of Ghostbusters. But we need a disclaimer EW. We need you to acknowledge that you are limiting the candidates for these lists to movies found in the surplus inventory stock room at Blockbuster.

Oh my God, did they really list The Bourne Supremacy as movie #29? Was that the middle one? Man, I'm feeling a little nauseous now.