Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Petraeus or Betray Us? A Subtle and Compelling Question

Lordy, I've done so much STUFF since I last wrote in here. I've seen four movies in theaters, started two novels, started and finished a graphic novel, and I've started writing some criticism for PopPolitics. The four movies were 3:10 to Yuma, King of Kong, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and Eastern Promises. The novel I'm focused on is Spook Country, by William Gibson, and I'm looking forward to the train ride tomorrow morning, when I'll be reading it again. The graphic novel was The Nightly News, which was intense and comes recommended.

Sometime during this whirlwind of consumption, something political came to my attention: ran a muckraking ad about General Patraeus, the commander of the Iraqi freedom defense military security awesome force (IFDMSAF). The ad makes a clever pun ("Patraeus or Betray Us?") to hook readers and put knots in conservative jock-straps, and then it basically argues that Patraeus is misrepresenting the facts to keep the IFDMSAF in Iraq.

Obviously, there's been an overwhelming media response, including the requisite posturing by editorial columnists and tweaking out by bloggers. I'm about a week late, but I think I should add my own pinch of salt to this heaping portion of mystery meat.

Here's the deal: the ad was aggressive, a very visible expenditure of the vast resources MoveOn has accumulated. Maybe it got into some peoples' heads. Maybe it just provided an easy target for conservative nay-sayers to take shots at. But seriously, "Betray Us"? What a juicy prompt for a slathering partisan frenzy of affirmation and condemnation. It takes a real message - the question about honesty and misplaced loyalty - and turns it into a bloody battle over propriety and respect, which are sort of the little bags of candy that manipulative people use to keep us distracted while the big people play.

All they had to do was put some more effort into the initial presentation. It's possible to get people engaged in a question without bludgeoning them with a rhetorical golf club. Get people interested BEFORE you make them angry... pull them into the facts before they have a chance to flatly reject your politics.

I think, in service of this goal, MoveOn needs to recruit some people from AdBusters. These guys are as radical and confrontation as you can get, but they always know how to frame an idea in a way that makes it striking and unfamiliar. I mean, AdBusters is pretty much pinned as a leftist radical organization, but if you decontextualize their work, you can see that it's interesting and intense before it's partisan. Unfortunately, their primary forum is a niche magazine that sells for impractical amounts of money.

AdBusters could frame an ad in such a way that it got attention, though, and they could definitely use their 1337 design sk1llz to drag some conservative cheerleaders into a serious, thoughtful argument. AdBusters knows how to disguise their arguments until it's just the right time for them to come out... MoveOn could use a lesson in that regard. In return, MoveOn could contribute their massive piles of Internet-generated wealth to distributing AdBusters' radical but carefully-articulated ideas, injected into the brains of the masses like heroin being forced on a helpless child by an insane homeless person.

The networkers, the designers, and the public, hungry for brain-food... sounds like a ménage à trois made in heaven, my friends. It's time to get on top of this.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Metroid, Feminism, and a Bunch of Other Stuff

As promised, I'm going to continue with the "Feminintendo" train of thought and talk a little about Metroid. As I discussed this idea with some friends, one of them brought up a good comparison to a certain series of movies, which I'll get to in a second. First off, though, why does Metroid warrant a little criticism?

Metroid is arguably one of, if not THE first video game to enact progressive gender politics. Samus Aran is an amazing character, the type almost unheard of in ANY media, much less in video games, which (according to my best buddy Roger Ebert) are deeply inferior to film. Samus, the main character of Metroid, a bounty hunter hired by the Galactic Federation, started the series as a rare example of a female without even a trace of femininity. In fact, the 80's Nintendo player didn't know Samus was a female until they beat the original Metroid.

Sean Bouchard points this out in his article "Beyond Good and Evil as a cultural critique," and he takes some issue with it:
"Although Metroid can be viewed as a cultural critique in that it puts a woman in a role typically reserved exclusively for men (indeed, in its day it was hailed as a great step forward), it does Samus a disservice by stripping her of all feminine characteristics. The message, in fact, is not that women can be as strong and powerful as men, but that in order to be strong or powerful a woman must become like a man."
I understand the postmodern feminism perspective here, I really do, but let's give some credit. Metroid was working within a subculture of violence and hero worship, the interactive equivalent to classic sci-fi, and first and foremost, Samus managed to do something critical: she represented the player (presumably a male, based on the demographic) through a whole game, and then pulled an acute identity reversal on them, right at the end. There were probably some kids out there who gained a new respect for the role of gender in their fantasy world, whether consciously or not. And by-and-by, I'd LOVE to see a fantasy or sci-fi novel that placed a female in a male role in such an uncompromising manner as Samus. The supposedly infantile video game industry took a shot at this gender hurdle when sci-fi writing was still in the throes of machismo cyberpunk plotting.

So Samus turned the gamer's ideas of the male hero upside-down by taking on a fully masculine role. Still, she couldn't escape the gender issues that tend to come as a subtext to storytelling. Even in the original game, Samus was pitted against "Mother Brain," a bizarre alien enemy that, for some reason, was gendered as a female. In a way, it seems that the whole game was a play of gender reversals... girl-on-girl action, 100%.

Since then, Samus has continued to be the badass we need to defend us against Metroids, but motherhood issues keep following her around. [METROID spoiler warning] In Metroid II, released for old-school Game Boy, Samus destroys the entire species of Metroids, except for one egg, which she witnesses hatching. The newborn Metroid assumes Samus is its mother and helps her escape the dying planet; this Metroid reappears in Super Metroid, the next installment of the series, and continues treating Samus as a parent. [end spoiler] Samus herself never buys in or relinquishes her bounty hunter role, but the Metroid's attachment reminds us that even a genderless warrior can be called upon to fill a nurturing role.

The original Metroid was released in August 1986, just a month after another media phenomenon hit the United States. This phenomenon was Aliens, sequel to the 1979 feature Alien, and according to some sources, this original movie provided Metroid with some of its inspiration. That point aside, there are some undeniable parallels between Ripley and Samus, in particular their shared Female Warrior archetype. Ripley, like Samus, is removed from her gender characteristics, so much that she seems strangely genderless; in Aliens, Ripley, like Samus, is confronting a terrifying counterpart to the Mother figure, the Alien Queen. Eventually, in Alien 3, Ripley reaches the same point that Samus reached in Super Metroid: she is the tentative mother figure to the alien itself, the eternal enemy.

Alien: Resurrection was so weird and discontinuous that I don't really want to discuss it here, but yes, it definitely deals with some motherhood issues. I'll say it again: issues.

I think, based on some of these observations, we can make some connections between Nintendo's characters and feminism at large. We discussed Zelda in the previous post, pointing out that she retains her femininity and "wisdom"-bearing role, even as she becomes a stronger, more confrontational character. In this role, she is the Feminine Mystique, the woman struggling to negotiate power while respecting her feminine identity. In Zelda, femaleness is interrogated and politicized, but it remains feminine at the core.

Samus Aran is different. Samus has kept the sex, but she's discarded the gender... a female who isn't feminine, even as she's chased around by specters of motherhood. In terms of feminist theory, she's the Cyborg Manifesto, the tract by Donna Haraway that advocates for the complete collapse and reconstruction of gender identity. The femininity that remains in play with Zelda is rendered meaningless in Samus, because she chooses to take on a man's role... and if her technology allows her to do that, what it is that makes it a man's role any more? In Samus's world, and perhaps in our own future, masculinity and femininity are mixed in such a stew that it doesn't make much sense to set them apart any more.

There are levels of meaning to video games that belie the youth and charisma of the medium, and they make it a prospect for a new great social forum. By bringing these issues to light, I work toward the critical goal of justifying twelve straight hours on my goddamn couch.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Zelda as Feminist Icon

I'm trying to finish up Twilight Princess so I can get more involved in Bioshock and, eventually, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. My gaming list is starting to look like my reading list. Both Zelda and Bioshock have gotten me thinking, though... transhumanism, referentiality, world-building, storytelling, the aesthetic possibilities of the medium. And just as Bioshock is going a long way towards proving the versatility and intelligence of the medium, Zelda has made its own contributions to culture, too.

Though the series' protagonist is really Link, the brave young fool you tend to control, the series gravitates around Zelda, the princess who's always the motivating factor, a critical element behind the scenes of the game. The disconnected continuity of the series has given her the opportunity to play a lot of roles... after all, every Hyrule is essentially a different universe, built on different rules and assumptions than the previous incarnations, but they all deal with three iconic characters--Zelda, Link, and Ganon--representing three fundamental forces--wisdom, courage, and power--the three parts of the triforce. Each Hyrule, and each great adventure, is a reincarnation of these themes, instantiated in these characters.

Link and Ganon have become more complex over the course of the series, but their roles haven't changed on an essential level. Link has always been a warrior-adventurer, representing the possibilities of the growth of spirit, struggling to resolve Hyrule's troubles and liberating its constituent kingdoms in the process. Ganon has always been the destructive element, breaking down the balance in the kingdom and precipitating its fall into chaos. Link versus Gannon, the eternal struggle, with Zelda always lingering, doing... what... ?

Well, in the beginning of the series, Zelda is a fairy-tale figure, usually a victim or a captive of Ganon. Her soul is the soul of Hyrule, and when Link saves Zelda, he is also saving Hyrule from collapse and ruin. In Zelda II, you start the game in a mythical castle chamber with Zelda behind you, sleeping the slumber of death. In Zelda: A Link to the Past, the Super Nintendo entry into the series, Zelda is a guide and an icon, but she still requires the rescue of the hero. Wisdom (in this case, a feminine attribute, represented by Zelda) may be the key to control of the kingdom, but the struggle to win it (her) is still between the aggressors, the forces of noble Courage and destructive Power.

It's a powerful metaphor, and it will undergo some serious reconstruction.

Zelda's true feminist evolution occurs in Zelda: Ocarina of Time. This game, the N64 entry in the series, is still considered one of the greatest in the Zelda cycle, and one of the greatest adventure video games. Aside from the transition into 3D, Zelda performs her own form of transcendence: she becomes an ally of Link's, a warrior instead of a victim or a prize, a champion of her kingdom. She appears as what appears to be a ninja, though she acts as more of a spiritualist; her guidance and the power implied by her abilities and her secrecy signal a profound change in her character.

Since Ocarina, Zelda's role has been permanently changed. In Windwaker, the Zelda game for the GameCube, Zelda appears [censored censored spoilers censored]. In Twilight Princess, she is a sage trapped in Hyrule Castle, a force that antagonist Zant keeps imprisoned in order to control Hyrule; you respond to her call, and in a series of critical cut-scenes, she proves that only her power can keep Link safe on his quest.

Zelda's new status as a potent ally changes the nature of the Triforce metaphor, as well... it becomes a metaphor for control and autonomy, with Power as the unstable attractor and Wisdom and Courage working together as its counterpoint. The metaphor rings true: great power in the hands of an authority is dangerous and unstable, and without reason and virtue binding it, it tends to spiral out of control.

Consider that through all this, Zelda keeps a gender identity. She's consistently the only non-violent aspect of the triforce, and even at her most powerful, she keeps sort of a "Queen Mother" role as protector of her kingdom. Through her, Nintendo has been exploring the level of power they can attribute to their feminine archetype: how is she as a child? Can she be a violent character? How does it play out when her character becomes the rescuer, rather than the victim? Whether this is for better or for worse... whether Zelda is an emblem or a stereotype... isn't for me to decide right now. But she's still representing a feminine force.

This is worth contrasting with Samus's role in Metroid, which more or less turns masculinity and femininity inside-out. I think Samus may become the subject of another blog post coming in the near future.

At any rate, I'm eager to see where Zelda goes, as a character and as a series, and Jesus, I need to finish Twilight Princess. Argorok, here I come.