Samus Aran, the protagonist of the Metroid series, wears high heels in the new Smash Bros. game and artist Natasha Allegri reacted by creating fan art of the rest of the Smash Bros. cast in the same footwear.1 The reaction comes not, I would venture (perhaps presumptuously), because she has anything in particular against heels, the heightening thereof, or a well-known character’s wearing them. The reaction comes against the context of the high heels. You see, Samus has always existed as a point that argued against videogame high adventure’s trend of exclusively representing masculinity. Samus was a hero as much as any other Nintendo (and, by extension, videogame) hero. Equality was the stinger, so if she wore heels, than it only makes sense for everyone else to wear them too.
Smash Bros. is a fighting game, and high heels are designed to be fashionable, not manoeuvrable, as would would want from fighting attire. The subject of women’s fashion and how it relates to women’s occupation was recently discussed on this blog.2 In short, it’s complicated, and women’s experiences with fashion are different from men’s. Sure, women can do anything that men can but they face greater challenges and are viewed differently when doing things. So when a character’s context demands certain qualities and but their design emphasizes the viewer’s pleasure from the character as an inert object, it sets up a conflict between whether they are there to act or to be observed.
Design choices are rooted in a simple question: Why is this here?3 Something like an outfit—or, for our purposes, footwear—can convey power, delicacy, wealth, pragmatism, sexiness or whatever. This is true for any form of design, artistic or not, because earthlings with their squishy brains codify everything into neat categories so they can interpret meaning. And meaning is always there because when it isn’t it’s put there by a thinking observer. Whether or not an audience explicitly asks “how does ‘this thing’ impact this story I’m witnessing” the audience still connects it to the larger context and interprets meaning from it. Therefore, as a creator, it’s pertinent to make the kinds of design choices that will communicate the things that you want to communicate. Nobody can catch all meanings they want or filter out the ones they don’t, and even they could, where’s the fun in that? I’m getting off topic.
Samus’s high heels don’t appear to serve any purpose, not in the story (which doesn’t really exist in Smash Bros., not that that’d be good enough on its own anyway) like Chell’s longfall boots in Portal and, more importantly, Samus’s heels don’t convey anything about Samus that the audience should interpret. These heels are just the latest step in the process of diminishing Samus. Not only has she actually become physically smaller,4 but in the course of her almost twenty years of videogame protagonising, Samus has lost a lot of the verve she once had as a wild-west space badass dressed in a tank.
Look at the picture immediately above from the Super Metroid instruction manual and compare it with how Samus looks in any of her more recent appearances. Note how she stands with her legs at shoulder width, toes pointing outward. See how sturdy her pose is and how solidly she’s planted on the ground? She’s wearing a skin-tight body suit and she’s definitely feminine, but notice how creases emphasize her muscles? She’s athletic, her hair is a cloud of tangles, her arms flexed outward to give her greater size. She’s in an active pose: her design emphasizes her strength and power. Compare that with the artwork at the top of this article. Look at how soft she’s become, how the contours of her body are rounder and how diminutive she is. She’s paler, her eyes wider and brighter, she sticks her butt out and she looks like she’d be easy to push over. Again, the problem isn’t that she’s more or less feminine, but that her femininity is accented in a way to be enjoyed by a presumed straight male viewer. Later iterations of Samus are built not to convey power, or really to convey anything, she’s a spectacle. It isn’t even that more or less skin is exposed, it’s just as important to considered what about the character is being emphasized and why.
I don’t have a lot of personal history with the character. I was aware of her and I was aware of how well-liked the Metroid games have always been. But I hadn’t played any until 2012, when I played Metroid Prime. Like with many of the prior games, Samus doesn’t exude any of her personality in Prime: she doesn’t speak to anybody and the player isn’t privy to her inner monologue. However, also like previous Metroid games, there are data entries and prologues to give the world some context. It’s never clear whether these were written by Samus herself or if they come from an omniscient third-person author. But I always liked the idea that all text came from Samus’s personal notes with the implication that even if she is putting her voice to something, she’s putting her words down in so detached a way as to resemble an encyclopedia entry.
I like that. I like that her flipping and blasting through lava and frost planets in pursuit of a space pterodactyl is just another day at the office. When she documents the flora and fauna in Metroid Prime, she’s taking notes of the bare necessities that she (and the player) needs to navigate her environment. She’s not keeping a diary. There is always a bit of mystery to her personal life, the player participates in her life at work and what happens to her at home isn’t really important enough to show. I’m aware that there are comics and cartoons that delve into her personality, but for my money I always liked that Samus was a small private part of a sprawling, mysterious universe. Metroids must be blasted, Samus is the best at blasting them and the imagination can fill the gaps.
This speaks to how irrelevant Samus’s gender is to her work. The big reveal at the end of the first Metroid is that the player’s orange cyborg is a woman in a suit of space armour. Samus’s womanhood is a gotcha moment. Samus is feminine—she wears makeup in the Prime series, for example—and that doesn’t really have any bearing on what she does. Samus does what she does because she’s clever, courageous and independent, and as the ur-woman-hero of the medium, it’s significant that those qualities are not expressly disassociated with her gender as they have been for most other women in games.5 Samus was the best for the job and that’s all anyone needed to know.
A lot of rhetoric on character diversity has emphasized the ease of representing under-represented people: if a character’s gender and race has no explicit impact on the plot than there’s no reason why a character needs to be a man.6 For instance, Deus Ex‘s JC Denton could be a woman, and while the subtext would definitely change, other than pronouns every line could be reproduced exactly.
I think a lot of players, especially girls, latched onto Samus because she could have been another man, or she could have been a robot, but seeing a woman in the position of a space explorer and laser gun fighter was profoundly egalitarian; something akin to a young girl seeing a keynote speech from a well-known woman in a male dominated profession. So to see Samus since the original Metroid almost a foot shorter, showing some leg and wearing high heels is like that same young girl reading the tabloids about the outfits worn at that keynote speech.
Granted, even the original game offered the player the opportunity to dress Samus in swimwear, but even now Samus is held as a female character done right. Ever more mistakenly so. The reveal at the end of 1986’s Metroid that she’s a woman speaks to how arbitrary gender is to fantasy adventure. Adventurers could be any gender, so why not show that? When Samus is on the job—which, again, is the only time a player sees her—she’s a figure of ingenuity and power. Bit by bit more elements of voyeurism and pornification have coopted what she was supposed to represent.
Of course I’m not saying that a game can’t explore femininity and that every adventurer must be gender neutral or that gender can’t expressly colour a game’s narrative. I’m saying that Samus began as a figure of gender equality in videogame adventures. A flawed one, sure, but one whose flaws could be forgiven because of her rarity. But in the two decades since her introduction, Samus has been hurting so much for company that it’s been easier to fetishize her and shrink her than add more characters like her.
What purpose do her high heels serve? They make her hotter.
[UPDATE: I’ve been informed that someone presented a lecture on this subject at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference in Chicago. Clearly I’m not the only person who’s been thinking about this.]
1 Plunkett, Luke. “Samus’ New High Heels Are, Well…” Kotaku. Apr 9 2014.
2 mrsdawnaway. “It’s a Man’s World: The Implications of Makeup in Mass Effect.” bigtallwords. Mar 14 2014
3 Bee, Aevee. Worldbuilding is often heavily trope-driven… Mammon Machine. Feb 28 2014.
4 Lange, Amanda. “Samus is Slowly Shrinking.” Second Truth. Sep 13 2010.
5 Myers, Maddy. “Samus Works Alone.” Re/Action. May 9 2013.
6 Alexander, Leigh. Mattie Brice & Jenn Frank. “Writing The Unsung Experiences: Gender In Game Storytelling.” Game Developers Conference. Nov 5 2012. Lecture; Allan, Samantha, Mattie Brice, Todd Harper, Christine Love & Zoe Quinn. “How to Subversively Queer Your Work.” Game Developers Conference. Mar 20 2014. Lecture.
Further reading: (trigger warning for discussions of sexual assault) Anthropy, Anna. “You OK, Princess? Rape Imagery in Metroid: Other M.” The Border House. Oct 21 2014
Dulin, Tuvia & MenTaLguY. “Metroid: Other M – The Elephant in the Room.” Moonbase. Oct 23 2010.
Jeffries, L.B. “Tools for the Job: Asserting Femininity in Super Metroid.” PopMatters. Oct 5 2009.