When it comes to Metroid: Other M, a topic often is broached that is... somewhat volatile. The specific nature of the problems in this work almost beg for the topic to be broached. But it's not an easy topic to talk about; merely naming it turns off a lot of people's minds. And yet, to not discuss it would be a grave omission, almost to the point of tacitly approving of this aspect of the game. To not even entertain the question with regard to the work is to discount the importance of the topic, to mark it as an irrelevance.
That topic of course is sexism. If you don't want to read a discussion of this subject as it pertains to this story, or if you feel that any such discussion is unfair, feel free to skip this.
Before talking about sexism in this story, we must first talk a bit about sexism itself. The topic is difficult to talk about, made moreso by various people who have strong opinions on the subject. Discussions of sexism often encounter the following elements that destroy any attempt at a rational debate:
- People who don't believe sexism even exists at all. Discussing anything with someone who doesn't believe it exists and will not be swayed serves little purpose. I will not take the time to try to prove to anyone that sexism exists.
- People who claim that, "if you don't see it and I do, then you're wrong." While I certainly understand what inspires this claim (ie: attempts to talk to the above people), nobody in the history of the human race has ever been convinced of anything by such argument.
- People who try to derail the topic of sexism against women by bringing up some similar instance of sexism against men, or how the particular incident in question is also sexist against men. As though something else being wrong has any impact on this particular thing being wrong. This also includes the perspective that any discussion of sexism against women is by definition sexist against men.
- People who think that sexism must always be a conscious act that requires deliberate intent and malice. Thus, if intent cannot be proven, then sexism isn't present.
- People who feel that sexism must be blatant and obvious. Thus, if there is any doubt about whether a work is sexist (even if the only doubt comes from some of the above), then it isn't.
Discussions of sexism in this game are sometimes confronted with a "why bother" attitude. The story is crap. We all know it's crap; I've spent ~300KB of text detailing how crap it is. So why does there need to be a discussion of sexism on top of that? Isn't being crap "good" enough? Is it just because Samus Is a Girl?
Um... yes it is. This isn't just any game franchise; this is Metroid. Samus Aran isn't just "a girl;" she is one of the oldest female videogame protagonists, and probably the oldest female protagonist who's actually a character (Ms. Pac-Man doesn't have character. She has a bow). Indeed, the ending to the first game was a giant slap to the very idea of sexism: that badass character who slaughtered her way through monsters and Metroids was a woman all along. And if that surprised you, that only showed your sexist idea of always thinking of faceless characters as men (or that you read the instructions where they blatantly lied to you).
So yes, it does matter. This isn't Nintendo fucking with any franchise here; this is videogaming legacy.
Identifying sexism is non-trivial, except in the most blatant and obvious cases. Once upon a time it was quite easy because it ran rampant; sexism was open and acceptable. Once blatant sexism became far less acceptable, sexism became a matter of less conscious acts. Sexism therefore becomes a more subtle thing, hiding behind seemingly innocuous ideas rather than revealing itself openly.
Because of this, sexism these days is often not found directly. You generally can't look at a single event in a work and say "see? Sexist!" It's surprisingly like Mary Sueism; no one thing is generally enough to conclusively demonstrate sexism. As with Mary Sues, it is the pattern indicated by a work that shows sexism or not.
This is what often leads people away from discussions of sexism. They see it as little more than an effort to read something into a work that was never intended by the writers. I feel that this position misses a very key point:
This goes to this difference between saying that the maker of a work is sexist and saying that the work itself is sexist. It is possible to write a sexist work without thinking in terms of being sexist. Indeed, most modern works that lean towards sexism are more likely this than being deliberate (some have even reached this while trying to be feminist). This is generally due to more unconscious, reflexive sexism present in society than any deliberate, "I'm going to hate at women in my story!" intent from the author.
As stated before, this isn't a personal hit-piece. I'm not here to decide whether He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is actually sexist, nor will I be calling out the culture he comes from for any sexism. I'm here to talk about the work that he had a large part in crafting. This is about whether Metroid: Other M is sexist.
There is one thing I would say on authors though. A good author is ultimately one who is good at communication; a well-written work communicates exactly what the author intended. Similarly, a bad author is generally weak at communicating, often accidentally communicating things that were not meant to be said. So if sexism is communicated by a work, then either the author meant to do it, or they suck at their job.
Well, it could be both.
Anyway, if sexism is indicated by a pattern in a work, then there needs to be a series of occurrences within the work that each lean towards sexism. Does Metroid: Other M have such a pattern?
What, are you kidding?
Part of the sexism of the game is introduced with its very name: MOM.
"A woman is not complete until she has a child." This concept is one of the oldest elements of sexism: that women exist only to give birth. In this way, motherhood has often been associated with sexism. It's a historical quality. Fiction (and non-fiction) have confined women to motherhood roles so often that some see any attempt to give a woman children or otherwise associate a woman with being a mother as inherently sexist (I don't agree). It's part of the whole "female success is family" thing; it's even one-third of The Three Faces of Eve.
Naturally, this does not mean that any discussion of motherhood is automatically sexist. As previously stated, sexism requires multiple data. And even then, the mere use of motherhood as an element in a story doesn't indicate sexism. After all, Aliens used motherhood as part of Ripley's character development and growth. It's all about how the element gets used. So let's look at how this story uses it.
There are three female characters in this game: Samus, Madeline, and Melissa (who is in fact a robot, but we'll consider her anyway). So let's look at them and how they relate to motherhood. Though before we start, the following must be noted. The game has 3 female characters; all of them have a relationship to motherhood. That fact alone is disconcerting...
Samus: The game deliberately rewrites Super Metroid. It creates a maternal relationship that was never previously shown before. It invents the idea that Samus thought of the infant Metroid as a child, and then rewrites Super Metroid to comply with this vision.
And then... the story does nothing with it. This is never used as part of Samus's character outside of her own personal monologue, and that one moment when she hesitated in shooting an infant Metroid. And even the latter didn't actually affect anything in terms of plot and character. By the end of this story, there is no sense that Samus has gotten over "the baby's" death or has otherwise dealt with the issue. So it isn't a part of character development or anything.
The only thing that this does is fit into the general motherhood motif that Other M has. This forces the motherhood idea onto Samus, just so that she can have such a connection just like the other two women in the game.
It is the forced nature of the motif as applied to Samus that pushes towards sexism. It doesn't evolve naturally from the story; it's deliberately tacked on and serves no other purpose to the narrative. Samus is a woman, ergo she must have motherhood characteristics.
Madeline: This one is pretty innocent seeming. Madeline adopts Melissa as her daughter. Of course, Madeline as a character has very little characterization in this story, so there's nothing to say why she feels so strongly for this machine she helped create.
But therein lies the issue: her maternal feelings for MB are Madeline's only character trait. Yes, this is a consequence of Madeline being introduced at the end. But it says something that this is all that she is in terms of character: Melissa's mother. She's supposed to be the facility's director, a position of power and importance. But this is only significant in that she can infodump on us. We never get the sense of her being anything beyond a researcher, who adopted a robot as her daughter.
Melissa: Samus puts forth the idea that Melissa gained a soul from her interaction with the infant Metroid. That fact says something about both of them. Consider the obvious inference:
A woman is not mere incomplete without a child, she does not even have a soul.
That's not me reading into anything here; that's what the game is saying. Samus believes MB was a mere machine until she gained a daughter. Now yes, MB is in fact a machine, but what other explanation could there be for MB becoming conscious through this except "the Power of Motherhood?"
And the fact that it's Samus who says this says a lot of things about Samus Aran that I don't even want to think about.
Even better, what is the terminology used to describe motherhood? The "ideal relationship." Motherhood isn't merely a reasonable role for any woman who chooses to take it. It is fetishized and endowed with powers; not only can motherhood make robot women into full human beings, it is fundamentally ideal.
So yes, this is a sexist portrayal of motherhood. Every female character has motherhood elements to them; they even deliberately broke Samus's backstory to do it, for no reason other than this. Motherhood is the only role that one of our characters even gets, despite the opportunities for others. And it idealizes motherhood as being the proper role for a woman, to the point where it turns one person from a mere automaton into a feeling being.
But again, one data point does not make a pattern. So lets look at some other data points.
People often talk about so called "strong characters," especially in relation to women in fiction. Having "strong female characters" is generally considered good, a sign of moving beyond sexism to having a balanced fictional portrayal or somesuch.
But why is that? What is a "strong character?" It doesn't really have anything to do with strength, rebelliousness, or things of that nature.
Narrative is a non-linear combination of three elements: plot, character, and theme. A strong character is one who's actions directly affect the plot. Strong characters drive the plot directly; they are the most important characters to the plot. And while other characters may affect them in some way, those characters only affect the plot in the way that they effect the strong characters. Bruce Wayne and the Joker are strong characters in The Dark Knight. Alfred is a well-drawn and important character, but he's not strong because he never does anything that directly affects the plot.
Strong characters are the agents of the plot, the movers-and-shakers of the story. The ones the plot is built around. The reason the "strong female character" is a litmus test of sorts for feminism is because... there really aren't that many of them. Which means that females in fiction, by and large, only have an indirect effect on the plot. This speaks to a more passive, supportive role for women in general, which ties into the whole "feminine" ideal that many would like to see women not forced into.
So lets go around our three female characters again and see which ones are strong.
Melissa: She's the main villain. She's in control of some of the enemies and monsters. So in theory, she does directly affect the plot. But in reality, she affects the plot primarily in that she started it.
In terms of her in-story actions, they're limited to three things: she sends Samus off to Sector Zero (which, rumor has it, contains unfreezable Metroids, but those are not facts in evidence). She kills the Deleter, but that happens off-screen. And she touches off the last "boss battle," if you want to call that farce a boss fight.
Yes, she's the main villain. But she wasn't a very good one. She wasn't particularly clever or powerful; she was taken out by a freeze pistol and bullets. And the cleverest thing she did was sending Samus to her presumed death.
Is she a strong character? Technically yes. But just barely. It says something that the main villain is so... not present in the story. That she does so little that it doesn't really feel like the story has an active villain so much a series of random plot threads and events. She's only the main villain by default: she's the last one that is dealt with.
Madeline: In story, Madeline does exactly one thing that affects the plot: she shoots Melissa. Granted, she's only on-screen for about 15 minutes of this 2+ hour story, so she has an excuse.
The thing that drags Madeline down are what we find out about her. Her only actual characteristic is her relationship with Melissa. And the only real on-screen characterization she gets is when they drag Melissa off in a flashback. She's supposed to be the director of the facility; this should be an important post. Yet she is completely without any form of control over what happens to Melissa? She apparently didn't even know that they were coming for her, that the decision was made to reprogram her, because it seemed to come as a surprise. And when it happens, she just hangs her head like a good little woman while the menfolk take her surrogate daughter off to scrub out her brain.
That scene would have worked a lot better if it were done differently. Madeline could be in a room with the other researchers who eventually convince her that Melissa's becoming too unstable, that this procedure needs to be done. Melissa could be listening at the door or via some eaves-dropping device (thus removing the plot-holes of her super-strength and not having a kill-switch). Then, when she hears Madeline agree with them, she would call forth her armies and take over.
In this way, Madeline becomes genuinely responsible for the actions that would have been committed against Melissa. But no, in order to make her innocent of this, to absolve her of responsibility for the attack on Melissa, the writers make her weak and ineffectual.
It's funny how often that happens. In order for a character to be strong, they have to be responsible for things. Innocent characters aren't responsible for things. So most of the time that a character is made innocent in a work, it happens by taking decisions out of their hands. Thus they cease being active agents of the plot. This is in fact one of the ways latent sexism tends to appear. The desire to make a female character more innocent or otherwise protect them also strips them of agency.
On the whole? I'd say not a strong character.
Samus: But those are the minor leagues; those two barely qualify as characters (which of course says something since one of them is the closest thing the game has to a main villain). But Samus is the protagonist. OK, she's the main character. OK, she's the viewpoint character, the player character. She is certainly a strong character, right?
So let's list Samus Aran's accomplishments in the story:
- Opening a door.
- Fighting lots of random stuff. And yes, the Metroid Queen counts.
- Bring Madeline back to the GF.
That's it. As for the things she didn't do that happened in the plot?
- Confront and capture/kill Ridley, who killed Anthony due to her failure and has been theoretically established as her personal nemesis? No; the Metroid Queen kills him.
- Prevent the Deleter from killing anyone? Nobody but herself. Adam saves himself with his Mary Sue powers. Anthony wasn't a target. Most everyone else the Deleter tried to kill are successfully killed.
- At least confront and capture/kill Deleter, who killed a bunch of people Samus theoretically knew and cared about? No. MB straight up murders him, off screen.
- Destroy Sector Zero? Hell no; Adam did that.
- Stop the ship before it went... wherever MB was sending it? Nope; that was Anthony.
- Defeat the main villain? Nope; Madeline and the GF grunts solved that problem.
Samus never actually does anything of significance. She doesn't drive the plot with her actions; the plot goes on and sometimes she happens to be nearby.
Indeed, it's interesting to note that one of the aspects of this, her inaction in the MB "fight," is another example of removing agency to make a character innocent. The game wants to paint MB sympathetically. But if Samus killed her, then she would be killing a theoretically sympathetic character. So instead, they strip her of any active agency in that fight so that she won't be responsible for killing the sympathetic villain; it's Colonel Smugsalot who does that. And again, removing responsibility to protect a character only serves to remove their ability to affect the plot.
But it's rather worse than that. It isn't just that Samus is not strong; she's actively weak.
This is best exemplified by the way the Ian scene is handled. As previous mentioned, she doesn't get character development or growth. She doesn't reflect on her past actions and change her ways. She does everything now exactly as she did then.
Her weakness as a character is primarily shown in the way the conflict is resolved. It's not merely that Adam came up with the plan at the end. He forced her to follow it; she didn't have a choice. He didn't discuss it with her as equals, or otherwise have a rational exchange of ideas. He didn't convince her of something using logic or reason. He deliberately shot her and left her weak until he could carry out his plan. And she thanks him for doing this, for taking away her ability to make a decision. Samus is completely robbed of any genuine agency with regard to the plot.
In this story, Samus Aran is nothing more than someone else's tool. That's all she's shown to be. She does what she does because Adam tells her to. And if she doesn't do it, then he makes her.
The Ridley scene is another example of making Samus weak. And really, I can keep going, but I've already run that list once. It's called "Metroid : Other M's story."
OK, having the main character not be a strong character, and indeed being pathetically weak, is bad in terms of storytelling. For obvious reasons. But is it sexist just because this main character happens to be a woman? Technically... no. But that's not all there is.
Samus doesn't belong to Metroid: Other M exclusively. This isn't like Zelda, where every Link is a new person. Samus already existed in 8 previous games; she's not someone you can just graft a new personality onto. We as the audience have a pretty good understanding of who Samus Aran is supposed to be.
And this isn't it. So, is it sexist to take a character who in all previous incarnations was a strong, active agent of the plot, and then turn her into a pathetic and ineffective weakling? Just because it happens to be a woman?
If that's not enough for you, then let's talk about fanservice. But first, an admission: every Metroid game always had as its reward the chance to see Samus in less than neigh-invulnerable Chozo-built magitek powered armor. The only exception being Metroid Prime, where we only got to see Samus's head. The point being that it's not like Samus hasn't been sexualized in the past.
This game takes it to new heights with the Zero Suit. Yes, this was introduced in Zero Mission, but consider the differences. In Zero Mission, she's wearing it because it's literally all she had after crash landing. And what does she do while wearing it? Does she pose for ass and bust shots? No. She stealths her way through a fortress filled with things that can kill her very easily. Thus proving that she doesn't need the armor to be badass. She makes the suit; the suit does not make her.
In Corruption, we see her out of the suit very briefly at the start of the game. From then until the end, she's armored up. In Smash Bros. Brawl, she's out of the suit for a long period, but it's still a callback to Zero Mission: she's going after it. Being out of the suit is just an alternate form for her; she's still a badass either way.
Every single scene of Metroid: Other M where Samus is in the Zero Suit is one of two things. The first being the needless sexualization; she frequently poses for fanservice shots. Her entire introduction is this way, whether it's shaking her hips for the doctors in her medical room or whatever. And lets not forget the high heels they added onto her suit in this game for no purpose other than this. Sure, some of Brawl's camera angles were rather suspect, showing a bit more attention to her than was strictly necessary. But they were nothing on the level of Other M.
However, that I could live with. It's the second way that's far more infuriating. If Samus is in her Zero Suit and she's not being sexualized (and sometimes while she is), then she's being shown to be weak and frail. Contrary to every other Metroid game. Whether it's in flashbacks where Adam is being... Adam, or when Adam shoots her, or when Ridley shows up. When that damned Zero Suit appears, something is happening that is incredibly damaging to her character. It becomes like a Pavlovian response after a while: you see blue and rage happens. Every single scene that isn't about showing off her assets is about showing off how pathetic she is.
It goes even farther than that. Samus is supposed to be tall, period, somewhere around 6'3". Not in this game, where she's a more traditionally feminine 5'4" or so. Of course, that's her height outside of the armor; in the armor, she gets to be tall again. Not only does this not make sense (since we see several scenes of the armor appearing and disappearing. No height gain/loss is ever shown), it removes any possibility of her being physically imposing over most people while outside of the suit.
Because in Other M, the suit makes Samus.
Also, let's not forget: Other M goes out of its way to remind us constantly that Samus is a Girl. Whether it's in flashbacks where she's almost never armored up, or contriving ways to knock out her suit, the game constantly shoves this fact in our face.
What was a reveal in the first game is now shoved down the audience's throat. Even worse, remember what I said: the Zero Suit is often connected to the worst scenes of character assassination for her. So when her character is being assassinated, we are also being reminded... that she's a woman. Or to put it another way, when she's at her most visibly female is also when she's at her most visibly weak and vulnerable.
The game that most revels in her sexuality and her femaleness, the game we see her out of her armor the most, is also the one that strips her of her agency, that removes every shred of strength and dignity that the character ever had. What are we to make of this seemingly isolated facts?
Fanservice alone isn't sexist. Making a previously strong character weak and pathetic alone isn't sexist. Reminding the audience that the character is female alone isn't sexist. But when you combine them all into one, when they all happen to the same character, in the same story, at the same time, it takes on suggestive overtones. The fact of being female and being used for fanservice couples with the lack of agency and weakness. Being female and being fanservice thus become indicative of the weakness of the character; she's weak because of those things. Thus leaning towards the sexism.
Compounding this is the fact that Adam, and the other male characters, never have this sort of thing done to them. Adam is never encountered sans-armor; the most you get there is sans-helmet. Adam never is used for fanservice or otherwise objectified sexually. And Adam never is stripped of his agency to the plot or otherwise weakened as a character. Something similar goes for Anthony; he may be "killed," but at least he did save Samus's life before going down. Also, he did the exact opposite of pussing out before Ridley: he called Ridley out while holding an empty weapon.
So all of these things happen to the "main" character, who is female. And none of them happen to the supporting characters, who are male. Is it a simple accident that the female character, despite being the player character, has virtually nothing to do with the game itself, yet supporting characters, who are male, have significant agency over the plot? Are all of these things just a coincidence?
Samus and Adam
This section pretty much writes itself. Adam and Samus share a relationship that is based on him dominating her physically and mentally. This is what the game shows about their relationship. Adam verbally abused her while she was under his command. Possibly physically too, but we didn't see that. But then she left. Once they met again, the relationship reasserted itself. Adam established dominance right away with a simple look; from then on Samus was his. Right up until he shot her and killed himself.
The only time Adam ever gives Samus anything that isn't an order is when he sacrifices himself. And even then, that comes hot off the heels of him shooting her in the back. So even when he does something for her, he makes sure to remind her who's the boss.
This is the difference between Adam's "Any objections, Lady?" and Anthony's "Princess" remarks. Yes, the latter sounds demeaning, but it's clear from the rest of his dialog that he actually respects Samus. He recognizes the skills, and they have a friendly, respectful relationship. Like that time she punched him after he saved her from Furizard. From Anthony, "Princess" is just him joking around. From Adam, his "Lady" comment is clearly intended to be condescending. We never see any form of understanding or respect or anything from him towards Samus. Indeed, shooting her in the back without even so much as a word of discussion suggests the exact opposite of "respect" for her.
Now, all that would just be bad. Having the main character of a work engaged in this kind of relationship isn't a pleasant thing. Where it gets actively offensive is the fact that Samus likes this relationship. She never sees it for what it is; this is simply how she believes a true father would act. Indeed, nobody else seems to have a problem with it either. Granted, they're just mostly faceless people, but nobody sticks up for her.
It's one thing to introduce such a relationship to the audience. It's quite another when the work clearly says that this is a good, positive thing for the characters. It portrays Adam's death as a real tragedy for Samus. She heaps endless praise on him after his passing, never recognizing the dysfunctional nature of her relationship with him.
So the game presents a relationship wherein the female is subservient, mocked, and abused by the male to the point where she almost never even thinks of disobeying him. And it says that this is a good thing, that this is how a father would treat his daughter. That's certainly icky and objectionable. But does it point towards sexism?
Yes! Yes it does! This isn't just some arbitrary relationship that's skivvy or suspect. This isn't simply a female character behaving submissively to a male. This is nothing less than the Platonic ideal of sexist male/female relationships. This is what sexist men want in women, whether wives or daughters: obedience. They want beings who are subservient to them, dependent on them, and think only of serving them. Abuse, whether physical or verbal, is the primary tool to keep the womenfolk in line.
All for their own good, of course. The men aren't abusing women because they're spiteful or fearful or just pathetic assholes who don't see them as actual human beings. Women can't make these kinds of decisions; they're too emotional or whatever. So the men have to make the decisions for them, to save them from themselves. For their own good.
After all, is that not at the very heart of why Adam shoots Samus? He doesn't trust her to make the right decision. He believes that she's too childish to decide what to do in this situation*, so he robs her of her agency, making the decision for her without giving her the chance to disobey or even comment on it. To save her from herself. For her own good.
In this relationship, we have the affirmation of everything the feminist movement has stood against. This is the very definition of "the Patriarchy," the pure, distilled form of the male sexist ideal. Women cannot be allowed to have genuine agency because they always do the wrong thing with it. So men have to control them.
In this sexist ideal, the women think only of the needs of the men in their lives. Their own needs are irrelevant next to that.
They often recognize these failing in themselves. They realize that they are fragile and weak.
They realize that they're too <insert attribute here> to be able to make reasonable decisions.
Of course the women in this sexist ideal not only accept being controlled, they are grateful for it.
So yeah, incredibly fucking sexist.
So what we have is a true pattern, not just an isolated incident. Indeed, items 2 and 3 are really made of a lot of little individual data points. So it isn't just three data points, but many data points which lead in three basic directions. This is a clear and consistent pattern evident throughout the work. Again, this can't be explained away as just really bad writing; the pattern is too consistent for that. This is clearly part of the work.
Whether the author intended it or not, Metroid: Other M is sexist.