Games

Samus Aran Has Always Been Sexualized

Image of Samus Aran is reprinted with the permission of REIQ.

Whether intended or not, the progression of achievement in Metroid resembles a kind of virtual striptease. Playing well results in seeing more flesh.

Abbie Heppe's review of Metroid: Other M over at G4's web site provoked a bit of debate a few weeks ago. It's an interesting review that goes well beyond a discussion of game mechanics by considering the significance of the presentation of Metroid series protagonist, Samus Aran, within the context of the newest game's plotline. Much of the discussion surrounding the review concerned Heppe's focus on the infantilized version of Other M's Samus: "Other M expects you to accept her as a submissive, child-like and self-doubting little girl that cannot possibly wield the amount of power she possesses unless directed to by a man" ("Metroid: Other M for Wii", G4, 27 August 2010).

Heppe offers a number of interesting examples of this phenomenon throughout the review, to which commenters to the thread responded in various ways. Some agreed with Heppe's criticism of the game. Some merely found it refreshing that a game reviewer would consider such issues at all. Some dismissed the criticism given that Other M is "just a game" and, thus, unworthy of gender analysis. Still others noted that the presentation of women as submissive and child-like is simply indicative of developer Team Ninja's standard approach to female presentation (after all, these are the folks responsible for titles like the voyeuristic Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball) and that Nintendo's choice to place development of this newest iteration of the Metroid series in their hands would, of course, necessarily lead to this kind of representation.

I am, likewise, unsurprised that Team Ninja would present Samus in such a way. Their "aesthetic" and "themes" are pretty obvious. However, what did surprise me is the sense that many players had that Samus is a female figure in gaming that has previously been presented in a non-sexualized way. Even Heppe herself says as much about the bounty hunter when she calls Samus, "the most iconic (and nonsexualized) female characters in gaming history".

The Metroid series is one deeply embedded in discussions of video games and gender, an idea that I doubt that Heppe would deny. However, sexualization was also part of the gender issues raised by Samus's body since the very first game in the series.

What I refer to, of course, is the famous multiple endings of the first game and their curious and seemingly almost inadvertent plays with gender issues. Every version of the story of Metroid's development that I have ever heard include the detail that Samus's identity as a female bounty hunter was almost an afterthought. Apparently, at some point in the development process, a staffer simply suggested that it might be cool if Samus were female ("Metroid: Zero Mission Developer Roundtable", IGN: Gameboy, 9 February 2004). Indeed, Samus's gender is never made apparent in the game and is, in fact, kept from the player throughout. Samus's body armor looks masculine, eschewing a more feminine shape for a broad shouldered and narrow waisted masculine type of figure. Additionally, Samus is referred to in the original game manual as "he". It would seem that the manual was either written before the decision to change Samus's gender or that it is deliberately deceptive in order to provoke a response from players at the game's endings. Either way, it did provoke a response.

Samus's gender identity is presented as a revelation at the conclusion of play, though that revelation is an earned one. Metroid includes five possible endings that are contingent on the speed with which a player takes in completing the game (the first is achieved for simply completing the game in over 10 hours, the second in under 10 hours, the third in under five hours, the fourth in under three hours, and the fifth in under an hour). It is the third ending that may be the most famous of the five because it is the first of the endings to include the revelation of Samus's gender, as Samus stands on the surface of the planet Zebes and her helmet dissolves to reveal the face of a woman. The ending tended to provoke a response that might be viewed positively by female activists of the Riot Grrrl variety. The largely male (and largely very young) demographic of NES players tended to be surprised, "Hey, I kicked ass, and I'm a girl!", suggesting a the potential for a kind of gender equity for video game warriors and that little boys might think of women's roles as warriors in a slightly less traditional way.

However, at the time of its North American release in 1987, most players of the game had probably seen the second ending (completion in under 10 hours is not exceptionally difficult), which simply shows a fully suited-up Samus raising a hand in victory and some smaller amount of others had seen the third ending. If they had not, rumors at school of Samus "being a girl", likely drove many players to try for another playthrough to verify this "unlikelihood". It is notable to remember that in a pre-internet world that most gaming secrets were ones passed around via word of mouth and that many players were left unaware of multiple endings and the like if they didn't have a friend or two who likewise were gamers.

While I had seen the third ending, rumors of a "bikini ending" and "bikini code" were generally felt to be an urban legend at my junior high school. I disbelieved the whole premise until a friend of a friend passed along a note card with the "continue game" code that represented a game played in under an hour for me to try out.

Indeed, the final two endings of Metroid reveal Samus's gender in a dramatically more sexualized way. In the fourth ending, Samus's suit dissolves and leaves a victorious Samus in a long sleeved leotard of some sort. In the fifth ending, the dissolve results in an image of Samus in a bikini. Once again, the revelation of Samus being female and kicking ass is there, but these final two endings also put Samus's body on display as a kind of visual reward for playing well. Whether intended or not, the progression of achievement in Metroid resembles a kind of virtual striptease. Playing well results in seeing more flesh.

Modern gamers may not think much of a bikini clad 8-bit image of a woman, but this was probably the most provocative image to appear in a mainstream NES game (barring maybe Super Macho Man's pulsating pectorals in Mike Tyson's Punch Out!). Frankly, it is probably the first foray into mainstreaming sexuality in console gaming and may have opened the door for the idea of providing provocative visual rewards for good play (including the games made by folks like Team Ninja). Certainly, the imagery presented in Metroid is tamer than that of, say, Dead or Alive. Basically, this is Victoria's Secret or the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition version of presentation of the female body. It isn't the Hot Rod Magazine or Frederick's of Hollywood approach of modern gaming's DoA or Soul Calibur series. In any case though, it is hard to deny that Samus's gender was revealed both to surprise little boys but also to become something to admire as flesh, not merely as an icon of female equality.

Certainly, Samus is not the most egregious example of objectification in gaming. However, the developers of Metroid: Zero Mission claimed that "We've tried to express her femininity a little more without trying to turn her into a sex object" ("Metroid: Zero Mission Developer Roundtable", IGN: Gameboy, 9 February 2004), yet, the imagery of the original Metroid endings have been recreated in later titles. The bikini remains and her flesh "improves" (now rendered in better resolution and greater detail). The skin tight Zero Suit "expresses femininity" I guess but, also unsurprisingly, has been fetishized by fans -- probably because a skin tight body suit is kind of provocative and the body in it has been pretty clearly put on display.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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