Female Characters: Gender in Video Games

Yesterday, I got into an interesting discussion with my friend @_Aquin on Twitter about female characters. It started from a couple posts he wrote asking:

“Should gender-neutral characters count as “strong females”? Ripley (the first Alien) probably could have been a dude with little change. Or is it instead the holy grail of character creation?”

Our conversation, starting with my reply to his post, went like this:

Me: It’s a very delicate situation. You can’t make a character strong BECAUSE of their gender, they have to be strong REGARDLESS of their gender. Adding ‘feminine’ traits to a strong female character just makes them a stereotype. Besides, it’s not those traits that make them female. Gender is just genetics. So the ideal is just having a strong character where gender doesn’t affect their every choice. Having a “strong” female character that says/does “LOL Girl things!” would just be patronizing.

Does a strong (well-written) character need to rise above gender or reflect it?
Can we have it both ways? Do we need to have it both ways? What are the differences?

Me: The problem is whether or not those traits are relevant enough to mention. It’s fine if a character is a girly girl, but if she’s behaving “girly” in say, a combat situation, then that’s not really showing a strong female character. So it depends on the situation.

Is the well poisoned? Would a ‘feminine’ character be derided as childishly outdated no matter your interpretation? I guess first we have to decide if ‘feminine’ is a product of society or biology. Sadly it’s probably both and we love binary.

Me: That’s the biggest problem with it. The media has been deciding what’s feminine for years and telling us that that’s the ONLY way it can be. You really can’t define “feminine” by what you know now, because it’s entirely inaccurate. I think the best way to make a character is to decide their personality and their individual likes first, and then gender last.

The conversation went on in a slightly different direction after that, but it got me thinking about the differences between strong female characters whom we love and adore, and the weak ones that make feminists cringe and teach children that women need men to protect and provide for them.

Realistically speaking, it’s a very fine line between a strong person, and a weak one. Despite most games’ claim of ‘realism’ however, this is never truly shown. Men are most often the strong ones who must come to the recuse of the weak women. Probably the most long standing example of this is Princess Peach.

Princess Peach is most known for how often she gets kidnapped by Bowser, and despite Nintendo’s best efforts to make her look stronger in other games, at the end of the day she’s still an extremely weak female character. But remember that fine line I mentioned earlier? Here’s how fine that line is: literally anyone, regardless of personal strength, can be caught off guard and kidnapped. Princess Peach could actually very easily be flipped around into a strong role model. First, she needs to show that she’s actually smart enough to learn from her mistakes and recognize her position. She’s a Princess. A political figure who is responsible for ruling the Mushroom Kingdom. Naturally Bowser is going to come after her because he wants to take over, so we need to see her respond to this by either doing more to ensure her own safety, or at the very least, refusing to do more because it would cause unrest among her subjects due to the sudden increase in security. It’s fine for her to get kidnapped, but it needs to be handled more respectfully than simply “she’s weak and stupid.”

Of course, that alone isn’t enough. How about a Mario game that introduces a new main villain? One that, instead of being a brute like Bowser, is a powerful sorcerer who has been watching the Mushroom Kingdom for some time and decided that the only two real threats to his plan are Bowser and Mario. Now let’s have him kidnap/seal in a magic dimension/turn to stone both of those perceived threats. Suddenly, with those two out of the way, he begins his attack.

Now we know from other games that Princess Peach is in fact, capable of learning and using powerful magic. (I’m looking at you, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars.) With Mario and Bowser gone, she’s now the only one who can stand up to this new threat. I bet the talent at Nintendo could come up with a fantastic set of landscapes for Princess Peach to traverse with plenty of new powerful magic abilities for her to learn, all along her way to the evil sorcerer’s tower, where after an epic magical showdown, she releases Mario (and reluctantly, Bowser) from their captivity and peace returns to the Kingdom.

See? Suddenly she’s gone from a weak dumb blonde, to a character wither her own strengths and weaknesses. And it doesn’t mean she goes back to being weak if she gets kidnapped by Bowser again just so long as the situation is set up in such a way that she couldn’t possibly have prevented it on her own. Because let’s face it, male or female, we all need rescuing some times.

I don’t see this ever happening, but I think it would be great if it did. Still, whatever you have to say about Princess Peach, it’s unfair to accuse Nintendo of only portraying women as weak, especially when they gave us possibly the most bad-ass female character of all time. I’m referring of course, to Samus Aran from Metroid.

Samus comes with her own set of issues however. And for the purpose of this article, I’m going to ignore Other M, because it doesn’t contribute to what I have to say here. Rather than focus on her “newly revealed” personality traits, I want to talk about how she’s been changed over the years. Some like to point out, that even though she’s always been shown as the galaxy’s best bounty hunter, at the end of Metroid, Return of Samus, and Super Metroid, she… strips. And what is she wearing under all that armor? A bikini. But ironically, she was far less sexualized back then. Sure, maybe you can argue that the bikini screens for the NES and GameBoy games are degrading, but if you really look at the bikini ending of Super Metroid, it’s really not. Looking closely at the under 3 hour ending of Super Metroid, Samus isn’t just some big boobed bimbo, she’s ripped. It’s not perfectly clear, but you can definitely see the muscle tone in her arms, legs, and abs. Not only that, but her breasts aren’t exactly as big as previously shown in Metroid and Return of Samus. They aren’t exactly small, but the point is that they aren’t over sized and made to draw your attention away from the rest of her.

The official guide for Super Metroid lists Samus’ height at 6’3” and her weight at 196lbs! That’s 196lbs, *without her power suit.* She might be practically naked, but then I would be too in her position. She just eradicated the Space Pirate threat once and for all, traversing harsh environments filled with hostile alien creatures. Add to the fact, that she’s running around in what is likely a very heavy armored suit. A suit with built-in climate control no doubt, but that only goes so far and it’s not going to prevent you from getting at least a LITTLE sweaty. Oh, and if you had just spent hours doing all that in heavy form fitting armor, probably the first thing you’d want to do when you were done is take if off.

My justifications aside, Samus was one hell of a woman back then. Today? Well…

With the release of Metroid Fusion, Nintendo started to changed the look of Samus Aran. Based on the ending screens of Fusion, Samus is still pretty tall. Probably close to her Super Metroid height, however the muscle tone is mostly gone, replaced by perfect smooth skin. She’s also traded in her bikini bottoms for some hot pants (short shorts), though her top is relatively unchanged. These were mostly all negative changes, and I personally saw a lot of complaints about her new “pop-star” look. However these changes pale in comparison to what they did to her after the next Metroid game released, which instead of being Metroid 5, was a remake of the original Metroid titled Metroid Zero Mission.

Now don’t get me wrong, the gameplay in Fusion and Zero Mission is solid, Zero Mission especially due to it’s more open style of exploration. But Zero Mission brought with it the worst, most over sexualized version of Samus yet, and it’s the Samus we still have today.

Zero Mission introduced us to Zero Suit Samus. Now, Samus’ body is completely covered, which you’d think would be less revealing than her old bikini. This couldn’t be further from the truth, because the horrid little blue thing is skin tight and leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. Not only that, but what little muscle tone was left in Fusion is now completely gone, and if that weren’t enough, it seems Samus has shrunken several inches leaving her somewhere around what I’d guess to be 5’5”. Oh, and in case you were curious, yeah, her breasts look to have grown a little too. Though maybe that’s only because she’s shorter and less muscular now. Perhaps they’re technically the same size as Super Metroid Samus. It’s hard to tell really, because she’s almost a completely different person.

After all this, you might be wondering if there even exists a strong female character that isn’t over sexualized, and still has some female traits. I think she does exist, and I think she’s Jade from Beyond Good & Evil. She’s smart, charming, strong willed, and reasonably dressed. What more could you ask for? Not only that but she never mentions and exclusively female issues. Does this mean she’s gender neutral? I’m not so sure.

When it comes to Jade, I really don’t think it’d be as easy to change her into a guy. At the beginning of the game, when you’re running around the lighthouse full of orphaned children, they tend to respond to Jade in a way that children reserve for a mother figure. And, BIG spoiler if you haven’t played the game btw, but at the end, Jade is literally giving life back to the the people drained by the Domz Priest. Hmmm… the power to give life? Doesn’t that sound a lot like, giving birth?

Yes! It’s exactly like that! And like birth, the cutscene showing Jade using her power to restore life is a beautiful, miraculous thing. It is a power that is inherently female only, and the same scene would be extremely awkward if Jade had been a male character.

I would love to see more characters like Jade, male or female. The Jade character proves it’s possible to create a strong female character who is sexy, without being objectified, and bad-ass without being a warrior. Most importantly, the game presents her as an individual with her own flaws that she manages to overcome.

The question is, how do we get more characters like Jade? To start, we need to work on redefining what we qualify as feminine traits. Next, we need to see that in reality, men and women aren’t actually all that different. We may have different biological functions, but who we are, and more importantly, whether or not we’re strong or weak, is up to us.

Special thanks to @_Aquin for allowing me to use our conversation for this article.