Archive for the ‘femininity’ Category

More than Pac-Man With a Bow: Part 4

March 24, 2009

“It’s like the Adventures of Link. He has to find Zelda, you have to find a house… “
“Boy, is that sexist.”
“It’s not sexist! It’s… romantic.”

- The Wizard, 1987

I’ve been invited by the Escapist to discuss the role of The Legend of Zelda’s Sheik in an upcoming issue on gender. I’ll link there from here when it goes live.

May I say, with the risk of spoiling the surprise, that dude looks like a lay-day.

- Rook

More than Pac-Man with a Bow: Part 3

March 17, 2009

“He touched my breast!”

“I touched her breast? She doesn’t have breasts! “

- The Wizard, 1987

Originally, nothing much was known about Samus Aran, the protagonist of Gunpei Yokoi’s Metroid. The instruction booklet only states that Samus is a bounty hunter, shrouded in mystery. At the end of the game, having blasted through a horde of hostile aliens, that mysterious shroud is pulled away, with Samus’ armor flickering and disappearing, revealing a long-haired woman.

Metroid’s twist ending, which outed the calm and collected space marine as female, has long been touted as the emergence of the first empowered female character in gaming. But what is often ignored is the context in which Samus emerges: One of glorified, 8-bit peepshow.


With Metroid being a non-linear game, the time it took to complete could vary greatly as players became more accustomed to the layout. Depending on the time taken, the ‘reveal’ of the ending changed slightly. Take longer than five hours, and Samus merely raises her first in triumph. Take between three and five, and Samus’ helmet disappears, revealing her long hair. Less than three hours nets you a shot of Samus in a leotard… and less than one hour rewards you with a shot of Samus in a bikini.



In space, no one can see your tan.

Samus, then, manages to be both hero and damsel, half space pirate and half space booty. In her bulky armor, devoid of female signs, Samus is functionally male – the instruction book even goes so far as to refer to her as a man. It is only when the game is finished, the threat is overcome, and control is passed over to the credits that Samus may safely emerge as female. This movement from Samus-player to Samus-object is explicitly one of orientation: As controlled during the game, the Samus is inhabited. During the credits, stripped to her skivvies, Samus is merely regarded.


The idea of Samus naked under her macho spacesuit is one that has remained with the Metroid series through its many incarnations, to the point in which it moved beyond tongue-in-cheek end gag to gameplay feature. In Metroid: Zero Mission, Samus is ambushed by space pirates and makes a crash landing… which, of course, damages her suit. Here we are re-introduced to Samus in her undergarments, a form-fitting bit of blue spandex aptly titled a “Zero Suit”.. though perhaps “birthday suit” would be more appropriate given the circumstances.

I had that nightmare again where I went to school wearing my Zero Suit.

The difficulty in representing Samus as big, bad Space Marine is a problem of competing signification: As a figure “shrouded in mystery”, Samus is free to operate outside the influence of explicitly female signs. But once revealed as female, she has endured a gradual aesthetisization and re-signification of gender: her armor has become more slender in the waist and wider in the bust and hips, her visor has gone from opaque to translucent to constantly display her face.


Where once Samus’ gender was locked away within an androgynous suit, her femaleness has been tortured into a cloying, all-encompassing presence. Like many strip-games, it may have been exciting at first, but in the end everyone is left feeling silly, uncomfortable… and more than a little cold.

- Rook

More than Pac-Man with a Bow: Part 2

March 13, 2009

“Yeah, well, just keep your Power Gloves off her, pal.”
- The Wizard, 1987

The character of Princess Peach originated as one of pure captivity: A literal damsel-in-distress, held captive by Donkey Kong, who must be saved by the heroic Jumpman. At the time, her name was simply “The Lady”, and her long hair, pink dress, and frequent shouts of “HELP!” communicated all that you needed to know about her: That this was one long haired, pink-dressed lady in serious need of some HELP.

Re-christened as a princess in Super Mario Bros., a crown was added to the number of signs that communicated her character. But it wasn’t until the North American port of Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic that she was given legs, so to speak.

While originally Yume Kojo contained characters from a Fuji TV television event, it was Marioified for a North American release as Super Mario Bros. 2. It was in this translation that the character of Lina, a young girl who could fly, was replaced by Princess Peach (or ‘Toadstool’ in the English version). Grouped alongside Mario, Luigi and Toad, each of these characters range in abilities such as their jump height and ability to lift objects.

The Princess’ performance is on par with one might expect from a formerly-distressed-damsel: Peach has the most difficulty lifting objects and had the second-worst jump height, drawbacks that were mitigated through her ability to glide on her dress for short distances.

Though the end result is a playable character that still carries the signified femininity of a captured damsel, the messages that is conveyed treats women as both an exception and a burden: “Women can play games, too… it’s just that they’re weaker and slower.” Even the benefit of being able to glide fits within this negative context. Jumping in the Mario Bros. games was difficult – so difficult that the original version of Super Mario Bros. 2 wasn’t ported for fear that certain tricky jumps would frustrate novice North American gamers.

With such footwork an early badge of video game acumen, the idea of a female character – designed in part to appeal to female gamers – who could ‘float past’ the trickiest sections of the game serves only to re-iterate notions of handicap and inability.

It can be tough hiking up your skirt to make those jumps.

With Peach as a character serving the role of the perennial victim, and her victimhood dependant on notions of female paralysis, notions of gender and ability are inevitably linked. That is, her signified femininity defines not only the ways in which she is rendered incapable, but also sets the context through which she is playable. In Squaresoft’s Mario RPG, Peach (as Toadstool) is armed with a wide variety of weapons including a parasol, a hand-fan, a frying pan, and, of course, good ol’ fashioned slaps.

In the TOSE-developed Super Princess Peach, Peach is promoted to the role of protagonist, and navigates the game through the power of her emotions. In turns angry, happy, sad and calm, (calm?) each emotion changes music tempo and alters her ability set. Rather than discard the rudimentary signs of a hysterical female, these games extrapolate them to the point of caricature.

Peach, then, proceeds as a hyper-woman: Through femininity, weaponized.

- Rook

More than Pac-Man With a Bow: Part 1

March 10, 2009

One is not born a woman, one becomes one.”
- Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

“Honey, don’cha know I’m more than Pac-Man with a bow?”
- Ms. Pac-Man, commercial for Ms. Pac-Man on the Atari 2800

In 1980, Midway purchased the rights to Crazy Otto, a popular hack of Pac-Man that featured added maps and improved random variability. They were faced with a problem: How could they re-market an update to their hit arcade game as an autonomous game in its own right? At the time, they were waiting impatiently for the Japanese company Namco to produce a direct sequel to Pac-Man, thus precluding the independent production of a “Pac-Man 2.” How could they suggest difference, without operating in deliberate sequence? From this primordial marketing slop, Ms. Pac-Man was born.

Changing Pac-Man to Ms. Pac-Man was a relatively simple process. They simply added large eyelashes. And lipstick. And a big, bouffant bow. And a beauty mark. One wonders if they came inches away from adding a corset. In case this orgy of hypersexy signs wasn’t enough of a clue, the advertisers weren’t afraid to spell it right out for you: In an ad for the 1983 Atari 2800 port of the game, a glammed-up Ms. Pac-Man in a stole and high heels boogies about, breathlessly purring “Honey, don’cha know I’m more than Pac-Man with a bow?” while impressing us with her high-kicks. This burlesque show is for our benefit, insisting that rather than being a re-packaged and cynically re-branded product (despite that being exactly what it was), we were being introduced to something new and exciting.

For a character without legs, Ms. Pac-Man has a great set of legs.

Though the use of sex to sell a product is nothing new, what’s interesting here is the spartan toolset that developers of the early 1980s had to work with to convey femininity: A splotch of pink could be female lips, or a bow, while a splotch of black could be eyelashes. (In a masterstroke, Ms. Pac-Man’s beauty mark is a single pixel.) It’s been discussed how many of the design choices behind iconic characters were either accidental or pragmatic – consider Mario’s precursor, Jumpman, who wore a hat to avoid pixelated hair, whose overalls helped to distinguish his arms at his side, whose moustache served to separate his nose and lips.

This isn’t to directly criticize the toolset available in these instances. A video game, especially in the early days of the medium, can only communicate within a finite set of fields: Between a colorful splat of pixels and a few words of sometimes poorly-translated text, any character representation must be both minimalist and iconic. But the transition from Pac-Man to Ms. Pac-Man is a good indicator of how freighted a gender discourse is bound to be in such an environment. Pac-Man is an androgynous non-anthromorph, but still, with an absence of gender signification, defaults to male. Ms. Pac-Man, thus, must become female… and to do that, she must be gussied up, a derivative Pac-“man in drag,” rather than a unique entity.

But rather than being simply an embarrassing chapter in the history of gaming, many of these early females in games have come to set an iconic standard: No longer are they simple pixel formations, but 3d-rendered extrapolations of decades-old ideas. Video gaming technology has progressed at an exponential rate, yet this standard of signified gender continues in three major areas of negotiation: How female characters navigate game-space, how ‘female’ tropes are represented visually, and how sex, as a notion, is communicated.

In the posts to come I’ll be taking a look at a few early female video game figures, to consider the ways in which these areas of negotiation affected their origins and how they continue to shape them today.

- Rook


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