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.