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.


Sam J. Miller said...

This is such a phenomenal analysis. Samus has always been my favorite video game character, and I've always wanted to do an essay or something exploring the problematics and positives of gender in the Metroid series (especially as contrasted with the Alien series)... now i don't need to.

Another interesting thing is that in Metroid 1, 2, and 3, Samus's femininity, in the form of her exposed body, is a sort of reward for the (predominantly male) video gamer... beat the game in under X amount of time, and you'll see Samus strip off that clunky suit and get all sexy... the more efficiently you win, the more skin you see (altho as a gay boy i gotta say that i tried my damnedest to beat the game in under two hours, even tho i had no interest in seeing a bikini-clad woman).

As in the Alien series, there's also a very pervasive anti-corporate theme, which becomes most prominent in Metroid: Fusion, where Samus's employers (huge, shady, futuristic governmental/corporate hybrid) seeks to use the destructive life form to develop Products from... with characteristically apocalyptic results. Can we hope, based on the deep resonance of cultural artifacts like Metroid and Alien, that they tap into popular mistrust and contempt for corporate power? For patriarchal capitalism in general?

--Sam J. Miller

Anonymous said...

There's a really good article feminists attacking Metroid: Other M here.


John said...

Alien Resurrection fits nicely with Metroid Fusion, btw.

James said...

What in this case I can say as a player and a Metroid fan. I don't really care! I've never cared about the prospect of feminism in Nintendo 80) I just was a teenager and wanted to play and that's all motivation was. Gender sameness of Samus hadn't stopped me)

Even now with the advent the opportunity to download gba emulator https://romsmania.com/emulators/gameboy-advance on the laptop, I turn into the same teenager who wants to roast a couple of aliens without any thoughts and deep thoughts on this)

It's just a game, no, it's just a cool game!

Lisa Wootens said...

Great poost thanks