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?


goooooood girl said...

i like your blog......

Anonymous said...

To be fair, if Samus' identity were a joke, why would the developers continue to keep it that way? If it were a joke, her gender wouldn't be referenced throughout the rest of the Metroid franchise? It would be like the legendary ending at the original Halo, where the Master Chief takes of his helmet to reveal another ending, which was, of course, never spoken of again. Also, Samus' gender could hail from the Alien Protagonist Ellen Ripley, since Metroid and Alien share many similarities.