Samus Aran: The Woman Within

Samus may represent a step forward for women in gaming, or she may be nothing more than a male fantasy.

By Adam Sorice. Posted 08/31/2010 14:30 5 Comments     ShareThis

Live action Samus

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Did you know that, originally, Samus Aran wasn’t supposed to be a woman? And I don’t mean that in the Lady Gaga way.

A surprise twist at the end of the original Metroid, devised by the game’s development team partway through production, would not only create one of the most dynamic characters in all of gaming but was also the first step in a franchise that has always dared to do the unexpected.

For it’s hard to say whether the Metroid series would be as popular as it is if Samus were in fact male. A man in stoic armour seems to be a far more conventional situation to players, while the abstract femininity we attach to Samus is somewhat incongruous to the concept of solitary, emotionless exploration. The jarring of ideas is what makes Samus far more interesting than nearly any other female video game character and is perhaps the secret to the series’ ongoing and growing success.

As the final moments of her first grueling adventure faded away, leaving only the simple epilogue to roll across the screen, Samus’ space suit opened and revealed the long, flowing hair and femininity of the bounty hunter. Samus Aran artwork But were gamers witnessing the birth of a feminist icon or just another sex object?

Historically, female characters have encountered trouble in the hyper masculine world of video games. Somewhere down the line of gaming, or more accurately somewhere down the line of the evolution of society, it became a universal truth that if you were a self sufficient, empowered and confident woman you also had to be sexually promiscuous to a pathological degree.

And in an industry in which developer, character and customer are generally all male, you can understand how women may see equality as something of an uphill battle. The objectifying of women in games has been going on for so long it practically feels entrenched in the way we play games, as common as leveling up or defeating bosses.

Of course, depending on your viewpoint, this can easily be put down to any of the following –

  • Men fear strong, empowered women because these women make men feel weak. Sexualising these characters portrays them as having a weakness (i.e. sexual hunger) that can only be cured by men, thus returning the male to an alpha position.
  • Video game developers felt that games featuring independent women in the title role would alienate traditional male gamers so the characters were sexualised to entice players.
  • Men are so shallow that every woman they see offers the opportunity to create a vacuous sex object in their heads. Video games (and the internet) have offered society the opportunity to share these musings.
  • Female characters with large breasts and little clothing sell more games; we’re in a shady business after all.

Female video game characters tend to verge on the extreme opposites of sexuality, neither of which are particularly flattering or accurate. On one end of the spectrum, there are women who are portrayed as helpless damsels that lounge around in long pink dresses, waiting to be rescued by your typical hero, and on the other end you have self-reliant, empowered women who risk endless sexualisation from video game developers or the gaming community as a whole.

And Samus definitely falls into the latter of those two categories. After all, it’s rather hard not to empower someone who has a laser cannon for an arm.

However, despite industry-wide practises, Nintendo has tried to downplay Samus’ sexuality, with series creator Sakamoto even stating in 2004 that they didn’t want the bounty hunter to become nothing more than a sexual object. And even without a high degree of visible flesh present in many games in the series, developers have found ways to allow Aran’s gender to affect the outcome of her adventures, a prime example being her maternal instinct towards the Metroid hatchling at the end of Metroid II: Return of Samus.

Dead Or Alive Volleyball Artwork

Which is a lot more ambitious than most other games involving women in the leading role can boast. Whether you’re looking at Lara Croft, Bayonetta or the girls from the Dead or Alive series, you’re bound to find a host of generic strumpets around every corner. The general rule of these games is the tighter, more revealing, or more absent the clothing the better, and it’s only to the detriment of female characters’ integrity.

These characters aren’t true portrayals of women but more hollow marionettes parading as what men wish them to be. Claiming that anyone who has adjustable breasts or wears an unraveling cat suit is also an accurate representation of modern women is madness. And suggesting that they like nothing more than playing volleyball on the beach in their downtime proves that video game designers often confuse concept with delusion.

At the other end of the spectrum you have Princess Peach. It took her twenty years to get her own game, and when she did she was accompanied by a magical talking umbrella. Not remotely insulting to women at all. The game was also cripplingly easy, but I’m sure female gamers were told not to worry their pretty little heads about it or something equally offensive.

So you’d think that fans would appreciate that Samus still stands neutrally as an icon of women in gaming, unmarred by sleazy promotion or backwards thinking. It’s almost as if the bounty is a listed building or place of historical interest, the churning wheels of desperate, cutthroat consumerism unable to mar her uniquely untainted character. Nintendo has practically done gamers a public service by preserving the morals of Ms. Aran, and we should all be far more thankful.

But we’re not.

Despite Nintendo’s best efforts to prevent Samus from becoming a sex object, in the sense that she hasn’t been featured in a “Girls of Gaming” special in Playboy, it hasn’t stopped the gaming community as a whole from trying to turn her into one. It appears that her unspoiled nature seems to have had a potent “forbidden fruit” effect on fans of the series, and because of this, the web is littered with choice images of the bounty hunter, created by fans who seek to the woman truly underneath the armour.

(Regrettably for this part of the research I had to see if the web could offer suggestive pictures of Samus to those mind numbingly devoid on intellect enough to want such things. It could. If you’re more interested in the concept of such images than what I’m talking about here, please go. I wouldn’t want to hold you back.)

The blatant immaturity of such efforts as these makes Samus’ foray in a bikini at the end of the original Metroid look practically conservative. If gamers only see a pair of breasts and an ass underneath the Power Suit and intrigue that is Samus Aran, then they are missing not only a bold and ambitious character but more importantly, the entire point.

Metroid: Other M video sequence still

And on top of that disturbing foray into the bowels of the net, Samus also must battle against a wave of misogyny in the form of various “Hottest Babes of Gaming” lists. Even though the bounty hunter is generally wearing more clothes than many of her competitors on these lists, on top of doing exceedingly well, it’s incredibly infantile to boil down well-developed and much-loved characters to how hot they look. It’s something we wouldn’t dream of doing to male characters, and to lessen the integrity of Samus as a character when there is no tangible motivation to do so is shameful in more ways than one.

A journalist for The Independent once criticized Samus as a feminist icon because “…the Transformer-like suit she wears could just as easily contain a large centipede.” However, surely that’s the whole point of Samus Aran. In a medium in which you can only be a woman if you have a huge chest or need to be saved, isn’t the fact that Samus is female for no reason other than to be interesting a great thing?

5 Responses to “Samus Aran: The Woman Within”

  • 1332 points
    Andrew Hsieh says...

    I’ll admit that my knowledge of feminism or feminist theory (forgive my crude/rudimentary/wrong terminology, those in the know) is lacking, but I do very much enjoy that last question you pose, Adam. Although, if you take a look at the state of Samus Aran post-Super Smash Bros. Brawl, the game in which her Zero Suit-posterior (lovingly sculpted with care, I’m sure) was first released to the world for three-dimensional viewing, the whole situation does become a bit different. Samus may change her hair color as much as she changes her weapons, but such a sudden change into (comparatively) sexy outfits is almost too much change to bear.

    Of course, I’ve gotten used to it, having played too much Super Smash Bros. Brawl to not have been desensitized, but nevertheless– it’s just strange to see Samus Aran out of her suit. Which begs the question: is that suit just another form of the stereotypical kitchen? Probably not, because Samus is equally devastating in her Zero Suit, but … I digress.

    Anyway, I’ve talked too much here, and there’s a much better article by Leigh Alexander here about Samus Aran:

    • 697 points
      Adam Sorice says...

      Yeah the Zero Suit is definitely Samus at her most… feminine but it’s not amazingly revealing. It’s head to foot suit with no flesh exposed, which is the equivalent of a nun’s habit in gaming. And her butt? When it’s as exposed (physically and commercially) as Bayonetta’s then we can talk about Samus not staying true to her roots.

      Female video game characters shouldn’t have to dress like Peach to have morals, it’s only because the exisiting crowd of female characters are so incredibly sexualised or desexualised that there isn’t any real middle ground for normal characters to exist in.

  • 0 points
    sparrowhead says...

    Excellent article! But it feels a little strange to not explicitly mention the reward mechanic of finishing the game faster to see more of Samus.

    • 697 points
      Adam Sorice says...

      There were so many ideas and things I wanted to put into the article but I ended up kerbing a lot of stuff to get the essence of the argument into something shorter than a novella.

      Of course players generally see Samus in some form of undress at the end of any game in the series but the pictures are never lewd or degrading towards the character, are they? It’s not like you get a picture of Samus bending forward with her chest nearly hanging out her top if you complete the game VERY quickly and that’s not really the objectives of the reward either.

      And more to the point, would you say you play Metroid games FOR that picture at the end? Yes, she’s revealing some skin but they’re not particularly erotic and more to the point they’re not the main selling angle for the games. It’s more of a pleasant reward I suppose and at the end of the day, Samus is an active woman and to only portray her in floor length dress would perhaps be even more innacurate.

      So for those reasons I left out that whole argument. In the 90 page thesis version of the article I’m sure it’ll get its own chapter :)

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