Most recently I’ve written on PopMatters about a very, very, very, very troubling game called Expeditions Conquistador (PopMatters. Feb 18 2013) (it’s wonderfully designed, but more about why it’s so troubling is somewhere in the pipeline, I have a feeling I’ll be writing about that game for a while) and a more general article about why the “damsel in distress” trope is so problematic in games (“Searching for the Other Castle: Women as Objectives.” PopMatters. Feb 19 2013).). My problem with the trope is that it reduces women not just to an object for consumption, but to an abstract objective to desire. She becomes a figure to desire only to dissolve once she’s obtained.
It can be frustrating to hear a plea for better female characters when people like me (and people unlike me) always seem to find something to complain about regarding the way that femininity is mistreated in games. The trouble is that even in all the “good” women characters the tendency is to base them off the “princess in the castle” motif in some way. Yes, every text is unique and tropes are slightly altered every time they appear, but that the trope keeps reappearing even in the most committed efforts to avoid it is frustrating.
Zelda is always pushed into the margins and pacified: no matter how much the game tries to prop her up as a vital element of the world’s stability, she eventually gets locked up. In the few times when she has any competence, the game tears her down—often out of nowhere—so Link has an excuse to rescue her. Probably the best instance occurs in Ocarina of Time, when she resists Ganondorf’s rule for seven years, only to become helpless just in time for Link to be the hero, as Brendan Main writes:
Once Link conquers the penultimate dungeon, Sheik reveals himself as Zelda, returning to her original form. Mere seconds later, as if on cue, she is snatched up again and imprisoned in crystal. The message could not be clearer: Sheik may be free to roam the world, but Zelda belongs under glass. (“Dude Looks Like a Lady“, The Escapist, 6 October 2009)
No matter how capable most female characters seem, they often fall back into the same trappings.
Likewise, Princess Rosa of Final Fantasy IV abandons her castle when the king accuses her lover, Cecil, of treason. She gives up an astoundingly comfortable life because the idea that Cecil could betray his kingdom after years of loyal service to his king and surrogate father is preposterous. She, quite reasonably, suspects a conspiracy and escapes to investigate the matter further. She tracks down Cecil herself, over mountains, rivers and deserts to hear his side of the story because she can’t believe the version she was given. From this we see that Rosa is an independent and critical thinker. We see that she loves and trusts Cecil more than the kingdom that is starting to show signs of rot. She’s clever enough to know deceit when she sees it and brave enough to investigate it further. But when Cecil meets Rosa, she’s inert and comatose. The player has to hunt down a cure for her mysterious disease because she’s a princess and she needs to fall into the role of objective at some point.
Even the badass action girl is often riddled with problems (“Analysis/Action Girl.” TVtropes.). Even with ostensibly competent women, there’s an attempt to make them something to want. Play well enough and you get to see Samus in her underwear, to bring Lara Croft into modern video game storytelling she needs to become something that needs to be protected, Chell is fully capable but one of her best features is that she remains completely and politely silent. Many women characters end up falling back into something to want rather than someone to be or even someone players can sympathize with.
Again, it’s not that there aren’t any good female characters, or even that the problematic cases don’t offer anything valuable. There are many great female characters, usually in games filled with great characters in general to interact with. But after wilfully walking into the “princess in another” castle trap for so long, it’s not unreasonable to ask that a more effort be put into portraying women characters as people rather than high scores to shoot for.
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Further reading: Jay. “The representation of women in video games.” Games and Things. Mar 13 2013.
Mellbye-Stølen, Helene. “Feeble or foxy: the portrayal of women in video games.” Straight to Video Games. May 6 2013.
Lange, Amanda. “Samus is Slowly Shrinking.” Second Truth. Sep 13 2010.
6 thoughts on “Women are not Objectives”
Chell is silent just like Gordon Freeman from the Half-Life series (which plays in the same universe even) is silent. I’m a woman and I never took that to be indicative of the game makers wanting us to show “a good woman never talks”. If it were, how would we have to interpret Gordon? For neither, there is never a reason given in-game.
The creators poke fun at her muteness in part 2 (where she is asked to say something), but that happens to Gordon, too: “You don’t talk a lot, do you?” he’s asked by HL’s strong woman, Alyx.
I’d rather say Chell is a strong person, seeing how she makes her way through all that is thrown at her, never wavering. The “Lab Rat” comic (advertising the game before it came out) even says she was originally not allowed for testing because she never ever gives up.
While I agree with a number of things here I am somewhat inclined to disagree with your point about Rosa, at least with the moment of the game that you chose. If you had replaced that example with her getting kidnapped by Golbez instead of her sudden illness I think that would have worked out better in your favor. You’re right that she does become an objective in the game in the game, but I for one have never considered illness of a female character to be sexist.
Fun blog by the way. I think you may be seeing my name come up in the comments a bit more.
I think it can be somewhat justified as a means to emphasize her gender given the graphical limitations of the NES (and let’s not forget that Metroid as a game was already pushing those limits. Not really room for a lot of high-detail artwork), and it doesn’t really have to be seen as sexualization. Maybe it’s just a flashy 80’s space outfit. I can’t help but think people are jumping the gun when they make the claim that Samus is reduced to a mere sex object because of a hidden easter egg.
I really can’t see how a few innocuous pixels (which nobody was guaranteed to see and few people knew about until after the fact) somehow diminish her or cancel out the heroic feats that she did, especially when it so incidental and understated. If they had wanted to, they would have promoted the game as starring “Intergalactic Space Babe Samus Aran”, but they didn’t. Nobody bought the game to see Samus underess, and Nintendo never pushed that angle in any subsequent games. The ending screens and sequences in following games showed Samus outside of her armor, but could hardly be thought of as objectifying. It’s always been about seeing just who you were playing as, that’s all.
Really, making her a woman was a last minute decision on the part of Nintendo. They didn’t start out wanting to push some heavy-handed political argument about gender equality, but just to have a twist at the end. It seems a little silly to fault Samus for undermining an argument she was never trying to make.
If anything that’s part of her appeal. If she had just been a place-holder character for some blatent politically-correct message, she probably would have been forgotten as a preachy relic from the era of afterschool PSAs. Her feminity was the first thing to distinguish her from other video heroes, but that wasn’t what defined her.
I like the quote from the Toronto Star review of Metroid Prime that Samus “is not a woman for the benefit of the sweaty/excited crowd, and neither is she a standard-bearer nor a courageous leader in the struggle for video game civil rights. She is a supremely talented action figure, and in the closeups on her helmet you can kind of see that she wears mascara, but that is all.”
Samus wasn’t trying to convert anyone to a cause, she was just her own character.
Yes, she was sexy, but she was never sexualized or just there to titilate. I read that post you linked to, and I think it makes mountains out of mole hills. The Chozo didn’t hurt samus, and neither did the zero suit.
I appreciate where you’re coming from, but the issue with Samus is that the cute incidental gimmick of her in the pink 8-bit splotch of bathing suit is totally unnecessary and sexually exploits her gender. It doesn’t even really make any sense, she spends the game under attack in the vacuum of space; if she weren’t in her combat suit, she would die. However, the reason why the bathing suit bonus is there is to titillate a presumed straight male audience. You’re right, the focus of the first Metroid is that the robot you’re playing is a woman, and that’s awesome and I commend Nintendo for subverting the sexism of the medium. However, they devalue their own hero for being a woman.
Yes, there is the empowering reveal at the end of the game (Samus is a woman) but the bonus totally disempowers her (play well enough and you can see her exposed skin). Her body is a reward for playing well. If you’re really good at guiding Samus through her job than she’s not a badass bounty hunter doing a job anymore, she’s just some skin you might get to see. The bonus is not an 8-bit rendering of her blasting through an alien, piloting a space ship or escaping an explosion. The player is not rewarded with more tools or weapons relevant to hunting bounty, the reward is Samus showing some leg. Without that bonus undercutting Samus’s power, I’d totally agree with you: Samus kicks ass in Metroid. But that addition undoes that.
As an aside, I’m compelled to add that over nearly 30 years, Nintendo have really cheapened this character. You mentioned “Other M.” I haven’t played it myself because I’ve heard it so bad, but Samus has been diminishing before that. In fact, since she revealed her femininity in 1986 Nintendo have been disempowering her piecemeal. I’ll refer you to Amanda Lange’s excellent treatment of the subject: http://second-truth.blogspot.ca/2010/09/samus-is-slowly-shrinking.html
I’m getting sick of people stationg that Samus’s outfit at the end of the first game “proves” she’s a sex object or that she was just a reward for the player.
1) It’s not like they teased it for the player all through the game, or she did some stripper minigames to get the morphball. Samus being a woman was an afterthought, just like the Justin Bailey code and the space bikini.
2) She wasn’t really posing to the player or teasing with her body. The swimsuit was really just to emphasize she was a woman through NES hardware limitations.
If Samus wants to kick off her armor and lay around the ship in a leotard after a long day of blowing up pirates, more power to her.
I really don’t see how this diminishes her. The most thing about her is that she’s a bounty hunter. Nothing about the post-game sequence makes her look weak, and she’s not being a cocktease or striking a sexy pose.
Honestly, It wouldn’t have been all that different was had she been wearing a Hillary Clinton pantsuit. The big message of Metroid was that “the robot you were playing as was a woman the whole time” not “if you beat the game quick enough you’ll see her in a bikini.”
It was an incidental gimmick from the first game. The character’s moved on and (Other M aside) becime rightly identified as one of gaming’s greatest icons.
I would disagree that Chell’s silence is a sign of politeness or submissiveness. Many of our favourite manly heroes throughout gaming history have been admirably silent; Mario, Link, Red/Blue/Yellow (and their successors), Crono, Gordon – whereas the women they have to save don’t stop talking or crying for help. Somehow I think Chell’s refusal to speak is more a sign of impoliteness than anything. Why would she talk to robots? They’re not human, they’ve taken over the facility her father worked at, they’re obviously evil as all hell, they murdered everyone she’d ever known and loved, they’re running these tests on human beings like lab rats. Plus, there’s no cake. Why would you talk to anyone who lies about giving you cake? And like her male counterparts, her silence helps put the player in the character’s place – you can imagine her thoughts and what she sounds like, even if you’re the manliest man with the beardiest beard.
I’d say she’s one of my favourite gaming characters – she’s more than just one of my favourite female characters. And it takes a lot for me to really, genuinely love a female character, mostly because they’re often completely unrelatable to a real woman.
For one, Chell is non-white. Her racial background isn’t addressed: all we know about it is that we don’t know about it. And to me, that matters immensely. Especially in the video game industry where anyone non-white is just the beefy sidekick with a hilarious line here and there and a boss attitude – in other words, an overdone stereotype: the big black football player and the lead white man’s bro. But it’s cool, ’cause the white leader is friends with a black guy. White Guy still gets Hot Babe at the end; the Hot Babe who carries a gun for a little while and has absolutely no sense of humour or any story of her own at all. I’m ranting on a tangent right now. I’m not sorry.
Back to Chell: for another thing she has a history that is tragic in its own way, but she isn’t fragile and helpless because of it – she’s become rather bitter, stronger, and ever more determined to get the fuck out of the facility. She doesn’t waste time lamenting about her past, she just barrels onward. There is no love story, she doesn’t seek out a man (or anyone) and falling in love isn’t her triumph or great accomplishment – as it is for pretty much every other female character in the herstory of female lead characters (Mulan, anyone? Hell, even my personal favourite, Korra). Her past isn’t central to the story, and it’s subtly hinted at throughout the games simply to explain who she is, how she got to the test centre, and why she’s there in the first place.
All told, I just feel Chell is an amazing and powerful female character. You can easily exchange her with a man and the story could be told in exactly the same way without raising any eye brows or shattering any fragile gender expectations. And its done in a way that doesn’t make Chell out to be forcibly or obviously masculine either. She’s just an ass-kicking girl with a bad attitude who’s immensely determined to make it back to the surface at all costs. In other words, she’s like many strong women you meet on a daily basis on the street, in the grocery store, in the gym, at the mall. Chell’s like a real woman, and one many other woman, even men, can look to her as a strong role model. She’s silent and virtually faceless, not to objectify her but so we can all relate to her – so we can all become her. You can put yourself in her shoes, you can put your sister’s face on hers, or your mother’s, or your best friend’s, or your girlfriend’s. I’m sure even men can place themselves in her shoes – I have to do that all the time with the many games that only feature a male lead character.
I’m sorry for the unnecessarily long comment. I know you made no point at all about her not being a strong character, I just had feelings. I really liked Chell. She’s a bamf. I needed to talk about it. And her silence is by no means a sign of weakness or gentle femininity, unless you intend to imply that Crono, Mario, Link, or Ash Ketchum and all the other Pokemon Masters are weak characters for their lack of speech as well.
I might add an official entry at some point about how much I love Chell and why she rocked so damn much; plus other awesome female characters I fangirl over on a daily basis. And some female characters that probably could have been written better.