Two prominent voices this month started dissecting aspects of Samus’s portrayal over the years. The first was Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian, who explored one of Metroid’s recurring mechanics in a recent video. In many games, particularly the early ones, the faster you beat the game the more naked Samus will appear in the ending, with usually the best ending involving a two-piece bathing suit. While this was originally lauded as a neat twist on video game heroes at the time (surprise! The hero you though was a male in a spacesuit is a girl!) Sarkeesian points out that the female reveal sort of pales as Samus’s increasingly naked body is used as a reward for male skill. It doesn’t diminish Samus as a character, but it does sort of diminish the games themselves for using this sexist convention.
Then Brianna Wu and Ellen McGrody wrote a piece for The Mary Sue asserting that Samus is not a ciswoman but a transwoman (disclosure: the article linked back to a piece I wrote on portrayals of black women in gaming). Their evidence is interesting. When interviewed for the official Super Metroid strategy guide and asked to share unknown trivia about the hunter, Hirofumi Matsuoka, who worked on her original design, said Samus was a “newhalf”, a somewhat vulgar term that is close to the English term “shemale.” I’ve seen some fans argue that this refers to Samus having blood from the alien Chozo race in her veins, but Wu and McGrody also mention how Samus was originally portrayed to be 6’3” and more muscled in her appearance.
I don’t know if Matsuoka was serious or making a crude joke, nor do I know if Samus is trans or not. The theory is interesting, regardless, and does actually shed some light on some of the themes of the original trilogy. I’ve always felt that Super Metroid was basically about a fear of motherhood, but if Wu and McGrody are right those themes might indicate regret of the inability to bear biological children. There’s a fascinating conversation to be had.
Unfortunately, entitled male gamers really don’t want that conversation.
Wu and Sarkeesian are always big targets for the raging bro-gamer crowd and throwing gender identity into the mix is just asking for the worst of the worst to come crawling out of the woodwork. Wu in particular set Twitter ablaze with transphobic slurs and anger in response to the article. While this is par for the course, there’s something in particular about Samus.
You see, Samus is the constant go-to for any argument about portrayals of women in gaming and sexism in gaming culture. If you question the number of female protagonists you’ll get a list that will virtually always start with Samus as a counter-argument. Never mind the fact that studies show men perceive gender equality when it hasn’t been reached. As long as they have Samus everything is fine.
Samus works because she’s a virtual saint. I mean, pretty much everyone agrees that her portrayal in Other M is kind of sexist and messed up, but then again everyone agrees that game is in general messed up from start to finish so we’ve all kind of agreed to forget it. No other female hero has her pedigree. Lara Croft will always be haunted by her cartoonish, sexual appearance in early games, Zelda and Peach are damsels too often, and the anti-feminist crowd is hesitant to use Chell since Portal 2 is a feminist masterpiece.
Samus as a good example of a badass woman who can hold her own in a video game and never needs rescuing is something the average entitled male gamer can hold up as proof that it’s not all bad in games. Just as people deny widespread systemic racism in America still exists in America because why would a racist nation elect a black man as president, so do certain gamers deny sexist tropes exist in meaningful numbers because Samus couldn’t exist if that were true.
But then Sarkeesian drops in and says yes, Samus is awesome, but developers use her body as a trophy to be won and can you really see a badass bounty hunter putting up with that unless there was a sexist system above her to shore that sort of thing up? And then it’s Wu and McGrody injecting dreaded SJW-gender politics into a character that is sacred. How dare they call Samus trans. Samus is a good girl. I swear some of the tweets I’ve seen on this remind me heavily of stories gay and trans people have told me about relatives refusing to believe them when they came out. It’s saddening.
I understand the backlash. If even Samus, the Madonna with missiles, isn’t the bastion of strong femininity that is the shield against charges of sexism, and if she might possibly fall outside what the average male gamer considers “normal” in a gender sense, then who would be left to lead the list? The cultural war in gaming over the last several years has largely been about fear of change in the entitled class. It’s been about dismissing social criticism and insisting everything is fine. Critiquing Samus is tantamount to saying that gaming has a problem right down to the foundation, and entitled male gamers are still really, really invested in that not being true even though, you know, it is.
Jef has a new story about robot sharks out now in Lurking in the Deep. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter.