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The Identity Crisis of the Female Protagonist



Despite the growing rampancy of sexism and otherwise ill behavior in the games business towards women, we've seen a more than positive response from several industry icons and other influential figureheads stepping up against hateful speech and antipathy-charged behavior. Which shouldn't be necessary, by the way - it's surprising how the former “outcasts” of society, gamers like you and I, are willing to go to attack and slander fellow gamers like non-gamers try to take jabs at us.

It's a gradual process, sure. Wide-spread acceptance of people of all origins has always and will continue to be a social issue in all industries and markets for years to come. But, in the process of trying to solve a very evident problem before us, we are simultaneously creating an entirely new issue that could prove to be just as toxic.

Yeah, I can smell the white-knighting from here.

Right now, although I feel like most of it is unintentional or indirect, it seems like there's a lot of people, especially non-victims, who want to go out of their way to “help” this cause. In particular, there's an interesting trend of gender reversals and character manipulations of some of gaming's most precious icons. Using concept art and other mediums, fans have been able to bridge such worn-out traditions as the “damsel in distress” trope, by re-imagining their favorite characters in new perspectives.

Is there anything wrong with that? Not necessarily. Yet, far too often a simple “gender reversal” seems to be good enough to show that, “hey, women can be heroes, too!”, when we already knew that. Thus, the shallow attempt backfires – now we are in the unfortunate situation of an identity crisis. Indeed, it seems that many female characters are outright losing their identities in order to meet the gender reversals.

Let me give you an example:


(Zelda Informer: Concept Art Pitch by Aaron Diaz)

Here, a concept artist has come up with an innovative pitch for a new Zelda game, which would star Zelda as the protagonist controlled by the player and, instead, Link fulfilling the role of “damsel in distress.” Seems alright so far.

After taking a look through it all, however, things don't pan out quite well. We find that Zelda really isn't “Zelda”, but Link as a female with the name. At least, that is essentially what Zelda has become. In order to take on the role of protagonist, Zelda apparently has to be stripped of everything that makes her Zelda in the first place, and now she is simply a female Link (and, thus, Link only a male Zelda).

It's odd, because there's nothing inherently wrong with Zelda as a character. She's a princess with access to magical powers and a stealthy alter-ego. Why on Earth should Zelda lose what makes her Zelda in order to be Link? We don't like Link because he holds a sword and shield, we like Link because of what he does with the sword and shield. And, likewise, it doesn't work if you simply give Zelda a sword and a shield and call it a day. If we're getting Zelda as the protagonist, it should actually be her.

Tough =/= Manly

Although that particular Zelda concept art faded from memory, the actual topic of sexual prejudice and women overall in gaming is one I discuss quite often because, as it so happens, my favorite video game character has always been Samus Aran, heroine of Metroid fame. Ever since I played my first game in the series, Metroid Prime, I've been hooked, knowing full well that I was controlling a female character, not a male character.

Who cares? Samus is a bad ass! She's cunning, agile, formidable; a truly terrifying warrior. A walking tank, even. And, as far as I am concerned, the winner of every Samus vs. Master Chief fight I've ever played out in my head.

But, she is female. That can't be ignored. Nintendo definitely didn't ignore it. Anyone who has completed a Metroid game can definitely tell you that sex sells, and it's truthfully not very hard (heh heh) to cater to young male gamers when you've got a tall, blonde ass-kicker as your meal ticket. Especially ask anyone who completed Metroid Fusion or Metroid: Zero Mission (dem bikinis).

Of course there's something wrong with sexing up a character for the sake of sales. The curves of the Zero Suit definitely bring in dollar signs, I can assure you. Yet, at least for me, that's not why I play Metroid. She can be sexy all she wants, all I want to do is blast Space Pirates with her arm cannon.

No, it never bothered me that Samus was, and continues to be portrayed as, a beautiful character. There's nothing wrong with beauty, nor is there anything wrong with a powerful character being beautiful, as well. It's not her bust or rear-end that deem her attractive either (and, of course, we're talking under the assumption that nobody here is actually attracted to this fictional character; if you are, good on you, mate).

So, why does Samus have to be more manly looking to be tougher or, in this case, “harder”?


(Courtesy of poojipoo of DeviantArt. Source)

From Kotaku:

It always baffles me when people go out of their way to make Metroid's Samus look "beautiful". As if that matters. There's a reason her gender was kept secret for the first game, and that's because the point was she was a badass, not that she was a she.

So I love this pic by poojipoo, which gives her a hard edge that's been lacking from recent entries on the series. I mean, you've seen the things she's seen, and done the things she's done, you're going to look a little "harder" than a Barbie doll in a blue jumpsuit.”

-Luke Plunkett

Luke is right, it doesn't matter that Samus is beautiful. This I will not contest. And true, Samus may be lacking a hard edge recently (and by that, we can only mean Other M, which is absolutely the farthest from accurate representation of Samus overall as a character, by the way), but...what's this?

Is that Samus? Or...Samuel Aran?

Is this really Samus to you? Take away her beauty and is she still Samus? Give her a masculine appearance, is she still Samus? Maybe, maybe not.

What I want to focus on is this – why does this mean she is any “harder” than she looked before? The rugged appearance, the scattered cuts, is this what it means to be a “harder” character?

No, I don't buy that. I don't think a character's appearance needs to drive whether or not a character is “hard” (heh) or not. That's the fundamental problem, here. We need to stop giving appearances precedence and priority, and we need to stop letting appearances define our characters. And, furthermore, unless the character is glaring sex candy or some sort of stereotype, why should we force change on these characters, like Samus?

See, that's what I love about Samus – not only is she a young, beautiful woman, but she kicks ass harder than any male character I've ever met. While her appearance may not be what's important, it says a lot that you have to make a character more manly to give the character a harder edge.

Because, if I remember correctly, it is actually only Other M in which Samus does not have a hard edge. In all the other games, Samus is the hardest edge in the galaxy. Sure, the limitations of portraying a mute character in the earlier titles may have indirectly helped present a cold, hard impression from our heroine, but even in Fusion (in which Samus does actually speak, even if only by text) we see that Samus doesn't take bullshit and is a dynamic character that seeds concern in both the mission and rational decisions that may contradict that mission. We don't need a pretty or not-so-pretty face to tell us that. And a pretty face can look battered and brazed, by the way.

Samus was already tough, so why do we need this? If we are still putting character definition on outward appearances, then isn't that a step backward? By making these changes, are we not putting significance and priority back into appearances?

What Does This Say About Me?

Probably the most jarring thing to come from that Metroid piece on Kotaku, by the way, was this:


After looking at that Samus picture off Kotaku as shown above on the left, I clicked back to my desktop, which has the image on the right as my wallpaper. I stopped for a minute. I don't have this “harder” Samus as my wallpaper, but this gracious, long-hair-don't-care flowin' in the wind like a boss, young Samus instead. I immediately questioned if this said anything about me as a person in a negative light.

A dumb thought, I responded. I'm rationally aware that I did not put this wallpaper on my desktop to drool at, but rather because I'm a fan of the series and Samus is my favorite video game character. I also particularly liked the design choices on Samus's suit and, although Samus is actually a render upon a random space background, the overall aesthetic of the image was pleasing. Gender wasn't a factor at all. I just liked the image.

It became clear to me that rationality should ultimately prevail in this case. As gamers, we need to come to the realization that we need to be inclusive, not exclusive; tolerant, not intolerant; accepting, not...not accepting. And for that to happen, we need to start getting comfortable with change. There's going to be a lot of change in this industry. It's young, it's growing, it's inevitable.

Because, truth be told, there are better things to worry about than gender. Gender, identity, sex – these are not unimportant things. Getting past them as issues would only be a boon for our industry, not a dismissal of their importance. It's a problem that we can barely imagine Zelda as the true heroine of a Legend of Zelda game without changing her from what makes her Zelda, and find this dilemma to be of vast importance, when the games industry is constantly locked in turmoil due to a number of other issues (declining sales, the costs behind making a AAA game, always-online and DRM policies, etc.) that we could be otherwise spending our valuable and precious time on.

It's hard to write an entry like this. As a gamer, it's very disappointing to read what happens in our industry day in and day out. And, ultimately, as an industry and community we need to collectively address this current issue, which isn't a women's issue but a games industry issue, one that seems too okay with not only victimizing women, but excluding them from attempting similar endeavors as men without garnering relentless backlash.

Yeah, it's actually pretty interesting how well the plight of the female protagonist mirrors the struggles of every day gamers like you and me. Very interesting. Need I say more?


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