Metroid: Other M and the Vulnerable Female

Cover Image ganked from Wikipedia
Before I get started, I should just forewarn anyone (if anyone bothers to read it that is) who plans to play Metroid: Other M that this post is full of spoilers.

Metroid: Other M is Nintendo’s second relaunch of the Metroid series, and takes place chronologically after Super Metroid and before Metroid Fusion. Samus Aran, the protagonist of the series, has evolved a lot over the last decade since the release of Metroid Prime and Fusion, and Samus occupies an interesting position in video gamedom as being one of the few, strong female protagonists the medium offers. Unfortunately, Metroid: Other M is a step backward for Samus.
Nintendo’s decision to give fans of the series a look at Samus’s past is well intentioned as she has always been somewhat shrouded in mystery. All that was really known about Samus prior to Other M is that the Space Pirates orphaned Samus as a young child and she was rescued by the Chozo. The Chozo trained her as a warrior and gave her one of their enhanced Power Suits. After leaving the Chozo, Samus became a soldier in the Galactic Federation under commanding officer Adam Malkovich, and eventually left in order to become a lone wolf bounty hunter. Other M explores Samus’s past with the Federation, her “relationship” to her former CO, and the thoughts and emotions she has regarding the events of Super Metroid. However, Nintendo’s intentions to explore Samus’s past transforms Samus from the powerful, if reserved, character she was in the early 2000s into a far more vulnerable and troubled woman.
Samus’s newfound emotional doubts and weaknesses and the presence of male characters that have remained mostly absent throughout the series, further problematizes Samus’s in-game appearance and she falls prey to Laura Mulvey’s notion of being an object of the male gaze (found within her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”). To be sure, Samus has always been objectified throughout her 24 year video game history. Ever since the first Metroid, the series rewards players for completing the various games within certain timeframes or completion percentages with a fan service shot of Samus without her armor and scantily clad.
Parting shots of Samus, from left to right: Metroid (1986), Metroid II: Return of Samus (1991), Super Metroid (1994), and Metroid Fusion (2002). Image ganked from Metroid Database
Yet Other M goes a step further thanks to the male presence within the game. Now players meet a Samus who is not only vulnerable, but also subject to male authority. Samus’s finds her former CO, Adam, shortly after the game’s onset who agrees to allow her to help him and his team of Galactic Federation troopers find survivors and solve the mystery behind a distress beacon sent out by a GF research “Bottle Ship.” However, Adam’s “condition” for allowing Samus to assist his team is that she follow all his orders unquestionably and only use her full arsenal of weapons and abilities when Adam allows her. Thus Samus, who by this point in the series timeline has saved the galaxy several times without the assistance or intercession of male authority, is disempowered by the presence of Adam who destroys the threat she imposes on the male hegemony both he and the player represent.
As if all that wasn’t enough, Samus feels as though she disappointed Adam when she left the Galactic Federation and part of the plot involves her redemption in Adam’s eyes. So Adam first disempowers Samus, then he becomes the male figure that the once fearless bounty hunter seeks to impress. Accordingly, Samus’s character develops through her relationship with the male characters. Contrary to the depiction of Samus as a traumatized, vulnerable, and indecisive woman, the male characters are steadfast, confident, and strong. Samus (re)gains her own confidence through the influence and sacrifices of the male Galactic Federation soldiers. For example, for the first time in the history of the series, Samus hesitates when facing a resurrected Ridley although by this point in the Metroid timeline she has already defeated Ridley in numerous forms in previous games. In Other M, Samus has a flashback of the Space Pirate attack on her homeworld that implies it was Ridley that murdered her parents, and this memory turns Samus from the fierce, cold hunter she was in previous games into someone paralyzed by fear and trauma of loss.
Character artwork for Ridley as he appears in Super Metroid. This image also ganked from Metroid Database.
Were it not for the actions of Samus’s friend and former comrade, Anthony Higgs, who nearly loses his life trying to protect her from Ridley’s onslaught, Samus would be unable to overcome her fears and past in order to defeat the enemy she has already conquered on multiple occasions. Therefore, Samus is not only subject to the will of male authority, but she finds strength and solidarity in the male characters that allow her to develop and progress as a “stronger” character and once again become the galactic savior she was in times past.
There are two other female roles within Other M‘s story to consider as well, Madeline and Melissa Bergman. Madeline Bergman is the scientist aboard the Bottle Ship in charge of the research and development of biological weapons modeled after and cloned from the now extinct Space Pirates. These weapons include genetically and bionically enhanced Space Pirates, the eponymous Metroids, as well as a cyborg, called Melissa Bergman by her creator, whose artificial intelligence the researchers modeled after the evil end boss of Super Metroid, Mother Brain (OMG they have the same initials!).
Samus fighting Mother Brain at the climax of Super Metroid. Image taken from this place.
As one might expect, Mother Brain’s advanced A.I. and telepathic capabilities lead the little female cyborg down a path of anger and destruction, and Melissa becomes the real threat to male hegemony in Other M through the power she wields as the telepathic controller of the various enemies aboard the Bottle Ship and the threat her powers pose to the Galactic Federation. It becomes the job of Samus and Melissa’s creator, Madeline, to put a stop to this hegemonic threat. To be fair, it is Galactic Federation soldiers who actually kill the cyborg, but it was Madeline who shot Melissa with an ice beam making her vulnerable to GF attacks. Thus Madeline and Samus, who was protecting Madeline from Melissa at the time, become complicit in ending the danger Melissa represents to the galaxy and the male hegemony within the galaxy.
The depiction of Samus and the other females places Metroid: Other M firmly within the lines of sexist representations of women that the series has always somewhat resisted. Prior to Other M, Samus was a strong, if mysterious character even if she became objectified at the conclusion of almost every game. I say “almost” because there is one exception found in 2002’s Metroid Prime. After completing Prime with a certain completion percentage, Samus removes only her helmet and not her entire Power Suit. There is no skimpy clothing or sexy pose to be seen under her armor; there is only a helmet-less and introspective Samus surveying the scene of her last battle against the game’s final boss. Longtime (and most likely male) fans of the series have a tendency to consider the ending of Prime as the worst in the series because it does not objectify Samus in the voyeuristic way that previous and subsequent games have. Furthermore, there is no male presence in Prime that forces Samus into subservience. Seen in this light, Samus’s depiction in Prime is her strongest as it presents her as an empowered female more than capable of surviving on her own and without a male presence in hostile environments. Of course, her role as a female avatar for a primarily male audience somewhat complicates Samus’s presentation in Prime, but that is perhaps another topic for another post.
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