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from bounty hunter to busty babe: the sexualisation of samus aran

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Super Smash Brothers 4 has elected to add a Zero Suit clad Samus Aran to its line-up. Her new design includes a pair of jet pack high heels. This raised a few questions for me: if the developers felt that Samus needed jet boots to make her stronger, why take her out of her Power Suit in the first place? If her more powerful moves no longer cause the Power Suit to disintegrate, what motivation does she have to take it off? Just how dumb do you think we are?

For those who don’t know Samus Aran, she is the protagonist of long running video game franchise Metroid. She caused a stir in the gaming community back in 1986 when Metroid was first released. Obscured in a suit of futuristic, robotic armour, players assumed that they were in control of a male character. It’s still considered one of the biggest twists in gaming history when Samus pulled off her helmet to reveal she was a woman all along.

In the 1980s female characters mostly played the role of damsel in distress; being snatched up by the villain and stored in a castle somewhere to patiently await the player’s heroic rescue. Having a female hero who didn’t need a man to save her, who went out and saved the world herself, was a pretty big deal. Several more Metroid games followed and Nintendo took the radical approach of not utilising Samus’ gender as a means of attracting more gamers. She was one of only very few female characters to not be exploited for sex appeal. Her gender was so downplayed that even by the 90s many gamers still thought she was a man.

It’s true that there were some hard to obtain bonuses that allowed one to strip Samus of her Power Suit to see her briefly in a two-piece, a ‘reward’ aimed at her male fans. But the majority of her screen time was spent armour-clad and blasting her way through enemies. Even out of her suit and in a two-piece she was portrayed as a tall, strong and athletic woman standing in a tough and confident pose.

Then Metroid: Zero Mission arrived in 2004, bringing us what came to be known as the Zero Suit. The Zero Suit is the bright blue, skin-tight cat suit shown above which appeared in a section of the game where Samus is forced to forgo her Power Suit. Since this title the Zero Suit has made an appearance in every Metroid game, giving gamers plenty of opportunity to ogle.

In 2010s Metroid: Other M, which not only featured extended shots of the Zero Suit, Samus was turned from a powerful and confident woman into a meek, subservient one. She actually refuses to use her most powerful weapons early in the game because a man with no direct authority over her told her not to. Plus she has an emotional breakdown in front of an enemy; one that, I would just like to point out she has killed several times in previous games without incident. The idea of adding emotional depth to Samus is not entirely unwelcome but it is a problem that here emotion is equated with weakness.

In promotional material following this title it is clear that Samus is meant to be sexually appealing; her muscles have been traded in for soft curves and her assertive stance swapped out for what is referred to as the ‘Escher pose’. She is more commonly seen out of the Power Suit than inside it, a complete turnaround on the old advertising campaigns. Compare this ad for the 2003 release of  Metroid Prime with this 2010 ad for Metroid: Other M. The difference is startling.

This brings us back around to the latest offense to Samus Aran: the high heeled jet boots. Let’s consider why real world women choose to wear high heels. Any girl who’s had to move quickly in a pair of heels can tell you it’s not easy. It is well documented how wearing high heels can cause long term health effects on your feet, ankles, knees, hips and back. But they can make us feel sexy and there is nothing wrong with that. However, Samus Aran is not a real world woman; she is a representation of a woman. Her aesthetic choices are not her own, so it can’t be argued that Samus ‘wants’ to look sexy when she has no choice in what she wears.  Her designers want her to look sexy and pander to the male gaze.

Studies have been done on the effects of hyper sexualising female characters in video games. They’ve found that not only do they cause self-image problems in women gamers, leading to a higher likelihood of self-objectification; they also affect how we view real world women at large, linking to higher Rape Myth Acceptance. With 47 per cent of people who identify as gamers also identifying as women, this is a pretty big problem.

What does it mean for us as gamers and as women that one of our most iconic heroines has been distorted like this? The number of female protagonists is still low; 4 per cent of the top 25 games last year featured female leads. With the majority of women in video games either feisty sex kittens or feeble damsels it’s particularly distressing to see a character as strong as Samus turned into an object. It’s hard not to feel resentful, particularly since no classic male character would ever be treated like this.

2 thoughts on “from bounty hunter to busty babe: the sexualisation of samus aran

  1. While the broad strokes of the article are true, there’s a few minor details that should be noted. Unfortunately, it’s inaccurate to say that Samus was never exploited for her sex appeal. From the very start, the faster a player beat a Metroid game, the less Samus would be wearing in the end credits. But it should be also noted that those moments were so brief that no matter how fast you beat the game, they ended up making less than one percent of all the time spent playing. It’s also worth noting that while there was something at least a little troublesome from the start, over the years it began to fall to the wayside, with the critically and fan acclaimed “Metroid Prime” games dropping that aspect altogether. The somewhat simultaneously released Brawl games, on the other hand, went in the direction of sexualizing her further. And then Nintendo decided that was the direction they wanted to go in with Other M. My point is that this wasn’t a straight line from positive to negative, there was a seed of something negative from the start, but for the most part it wasn’t heavily followed up on until recently, and even in the last decade there were extremely positive things going on at the same time as more negative things.

    It also seems a missed opportunity to focus entirely on the “high heeled rocket boots”. Let’s be clear here: Other M gave Samus a beauty mark and high heels that served no function, while portraying her in a way many found objectionable (“emotional depth” is a poor excuse for portraying a character having a terror-induced breakdown, something no comparable male hero has done). Smash Bros. 4 gave Samus larger breasts than Smash Bros. 3, while adding the beauty mark and high heels from Other M, and trying to at least come up with an excuse for the latter. The problem is less the heels (although that would be problematic itself), and more that this is her first appearance since Other M, and Nintendo implemented all the sexualization from that game, giving us a clear impression that they listened to none of the criticisms people directed at it.

  2. She wasn’t sexualised in Nintendo’s marketing of Metroid before the Japanese advertisement for Metroid: Zero Mission with Morishita Chisato in the Zero Suit. The marketing strategy before that was to present Samus in her Power Suit.

    It’s true there has been a mix of positive and negative for Samus and I don’t intend to misrepresent that here, I was just pointing out that there has been a slow shift in Nintendo’s marketing strategy. The negative now largely outweighs the positive and we can point at the Zero Suit as where it all started to go so wrong. In the ad I mentioned above the focus is on Chisato’s body in the Zero Suit, yet the marketing campaigns before Zero Mission featured only the Power Suit and excerpts of gameplay.

    Excluding Other M Samus is still presented as strong and capable in Metroid and SSB in-game, it’s advertising and design in which she is being objectified. The heels are a problem, but they are just the latest symptom in an ongoing condition.

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