Let’s face it: Women in video games usually don't come off so well. On the rare occasions when the villain hasn't kidnapped them, developers portray them as either generically badass, generically sexy, or some combination of the two. Yes, exceptions exist, but all too often female game characters come across as written by and for 13-year-old boys.
Before any of us start feeling too morally superior for noticing the blindingly obvious, though, let’s think about men in games. When they’re not blank slates onto which the (presumably male) player projects his most juvenile power fantasies, developers portray them as either generically badass, generically cool, or some combination of the two. Yes, exceptions exist, but…well, you can see where this is going.
G4’s Abbie Heppe kicked off the most recent debate about sexism in games with her review
of Metroid: Other M
. The picture she paints of Samus Aran's transformation from empowered female to sexy-yet-vulnerable badass hardly sounds appealing. I've yet to play the title myself, so I can’t evaluate Heppe’s stronger assertions, but her argument sounds plausible enough that I started to question whether I still wanted to play it.
Still, the issue may not be so simple. The mere fact that writer Yoshio Sakamoto chose to introduce some psychological frailty to Samus’s personality is not in itself sexist. In fact, it’s a pretty good way to write a character that an audience can identify with, rather than project onto. It seems that most of what Heppe found objectionable in the game wouldn’t have been nearly as obnoxious had Samus not come across as an emotionless pillar of strength in her previous appearances.
Let’s not kid ourselves: For all her Batman-like competence, Samus has never been a particularly engaging character. She may inspire our respect, but she lacks the hook of Batman’s double life and the scars it has inflicted on him — in other words, the things that make us care about the character rather than just respect him. It’s hardly misanthropic to portray Batman as just barely more sane than the criminals he fights, so why should it be misogynistic to have Samus show some weakness?
If Other M does, as Heppe says, portray Samus as “a submissive, child-like and self-doubting little girl,” that doesn't mean the members of the development team are necessarily a bunch of sexists. It's one possibility — maybe even the strongest — but it's also possible that Sakamoto used a bludgeon when all he needed was a scalpel. Trying to give Samus a personality is a good idea — one that will inevitably involve exploring her flaws as well as her strengths. Of course, a male writer trying to explore a female character’s flaws can go very wrong very quickly if he isn’t up to the task. In short, maybe Sakamoto lacks sensitivity toward his characters rather than sensitivity toward women. Right or wrong, it’s worth considering.
I don’t have any particular interest in defending Sakamoto or Team Ninja against charges of sexism. But I do have an interest in seeing the writing in games improve, and I think that Samus’s characterization in Other M deserves consideration beyond the accusations of sexism — even if the game merits those complaints. The portrayal of men in games may not be as demeaning as the portrayal of women all too often is, but that doesn’t imply that it’s particularly good. Other M’s treatment of Samus may well be a consciousness-raising moment, but that doesn't mean it can’t raise our consciousness about more than one issue.
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