The Women of Metal Gear Solid (Part 1)

The Metal Gear Solid franchise is an odd beast. Written and produced in Japan, and primarily penned by now-middle-aged (and male) game director Hideo Kojima, they are to the world of “men’s own” action adventure what the spaghetti westerns were to the western genre: they are more “action story” than action stories, and yet at the same time are filled to the brim with complex narratives, strong characters, and dynamics that border on the operatic. What we are left with are games that, despite being aggressively marketed toward men, have a lot of appeal for women– not to mention, they are home to some of the strongest female characters in the gaming medium, though it takes them a while to get there.

To kick off the return of the game review section here at Hathor Legacy, I will be doing a four-part series on these games and its characters. All of these posts contain heavy spoilers, so please read at your own discretion.

In some ways, even though I’ll be going through this series sequentially, I’m going to be bringing you the bad news first and the good news later. These games’ representations of women start out pretty galling, but you will see that the game designers learn quickly, with the last two titles actually being downright feminist in places. It’s fascinating to see the arc undergone by this particular writer-director, and how well that bodes for a developing industry.

The first Metal Gear Solid (1998) has you playing a half-Chuck Norris, half-James Bond super-soldier codenamed Solid Snake, who has been sent to a remote nuclear facility to stop a group of rogue special forces agents. Snake’s radio support team is comprised almost entirely of women, to whit: a sexy “British” doctor, a sexy Chinese girl who saves your game data, and a sexy Russian weapons expert, who has no real purpose except to, I guess, smoke her cigarette, sexily. Snake flirts with pretty much every one of them, and the Chinese girl in particular squeals about how awesome and flattering it is. No, I’m not making that up.

Anyway, two of the three of those women are almost entirely irrelevant to the plot, while the third, the sexy doctor Naomi Hunter, turns out to be the cause of the entire cast’s suffering. You see, Naomi blames Snake for the death of her older brother, whom he was ordered to face off against years earlier. Never mind that the brother Gets Better (this is a common trope in these games), Naomi swears revenge. All well and good, except from the player’s perspective, Naomi is irrationally essentializing the situation down to murder, when Snake and her brother dueled as former friends, full of manly honor and respect for each other. So we are barely scratching the surface of Naomi’s motivation, and already she is depicted as a petty, misunderstanding little girl who refuses to accept a warrior’s code of ethics.

Furthermore, Naomi is characterized as taking a classically “cowardly” revenge: poison. Namely, she injects Snake with a virus that kills not only several of his opponents on the island (as part of a political cover-up) but will also kill Snake himself one day, all out of a bitter disregard for a contract between two gosh-darn respectable males. And then, after Snake learns of all this, Naomi breaks down into tears of regret, recanting everything and blaming her emotions. But, of course, the damage is done, and Naomi’s “uplifting” monologue at the end of the game, telling Snake to make use of the time he has, does little to redeem her: she’s still a bitter, emotionally unstable poisoner and a coward, the absolute worst thing that a character can be in games such as these.

For as bad as Naomi is, however, the two other primary female characters are even more ghastly. First there is Sniper Wolf, whom many male gamers (I’ve noticed) often hold up as a sterling example of a strong female character: she stands up for womankind, letting Snake know that “all the best snipers are women,” and she is such a dangerous opponent that no one would dream of belittling her as a warrior. Except, not really. First, this isn’t the first time that the idea of a female sniper has been played up as an erotic wartime fantasy, and Sniper Wolf herself is predictably sensual, suggestive, and completely underdressed. But we can take that in stride if the game still acknowledges her toughness, right? Wrong.

When Snake guns her down in battle, she boldly demands that he finish her off, but beside them, a secondary male character who has fallen in love with Wolf begs Snake to override her request and show the poor delicate flower mercy (ie, let her continue suffering in horrible pain), because she’s so sweet and personable and harmless, really! Again, this is a man who claims to be in love with her. Thankfully, the one time Snake does show deference to women is when they’re good fighters, and he shoots Wolf as she requested. His male companion, Otacon, goes on a sobbing tirade, and while it’s a fine thing for a “man’s game” to have male characters who can express their emotions, Otacon’s feelings come off as selfish and chauvinistic.

Edit: Thanks to a commenter, I’ve discovered my memory of this section of the game to be inaccurate. Otacon’s pleas of mercy actually come before the battle. Not that this does not serve to undercut her still, but it’s nevertheless a significant difference. As she lays dying, Otacon merely guilts Snake for being unable to save Wolf.  Still a failure to understand the woman he claims to love, but not as awful as I’d made it out to be.

Filling out the female roster for MGS1 is Meryl Silverburgh, a rookie soldier who joined the mission in an attempt to prove herself. She not only blusters that she’s a capable fighter, she also makes an explicit point of reassuring Snake that all of her sexual urges were conditioned out of her as part of training, just in case he was getting any ideas. You guessed it: she’s the love interest! And what a girl– unable to fire a gun or even disguise herself effectively, Meryl is almost immediately captured by a bad guy and telepathically manipulated to turn against Snake. First, she zombie-walks toward him and begs him to make love to her; when Snake (in a refreshing moment of professionalism) doesn’t take the bait, the telepath uses Meryl to attack him, and the only way to stop her is to punch her out. No, I’m not making that up either. And after that incident, Meryl is promptly mowed down by Sniper Wolf, captured by enemy forces, tortured, raped, and unless the player tries very hard, the bad guys kill her, and that’s that. If you do save her… well, let’s just say that that “sexual conditioning” was as flimsy as you expected it to be.

I would encourage you at this point to not lose hope. Since the commercial and critical success of this game, Director Kojima has gotten bolder and more thoughtful, discarding cliches for more innovative, even revolutionary female characters. Furthermore, the ones we see here come back in later games improved or even overhauled– especially Meryl. So take heart: compared to later installments, this is as entrenched in The Bad as it’s going to get.

Well, sort of. You’ll see what I mean in the next review.

Comments

  1. Patrick says

    Good write-up, just one clarification: is it a criticism of yours that Snake shoots Sniper Wolf as she demanded?

    Also, since I don’t know the first game: does Meryl really get tortured and raped?

  2. sbg says

    Patrick, I read that as Kris criticizing the secondary male character (Otacon?) for begging Snake not to kill Wolf as she requested.

  3. Kris says

    Patrick,

    As sbg says, my criticism was more with Otacon. I’ve noticed a trend not just in games but a lot of SFF across media where, if a man asks to die, it’s a noble thing you have to honor, but if a woman requests death she clearly doesn’t know what’s good for her (see also, the recent Prince of Persia).

    Regarding Meryl: yes, she is most definitely tortured, though off-screen. As for the rape, it’s merely implied, and I can’t recall if it’s contingent on how the player acts during Snake’s torture sequence. Of course, Ocelot might have been bluffing in any case, but we have no evidence either way on that point.

  4. DSimon says

    I dunno if it’s quite fair to say that Mei Ling is “irrelevant”. She isn’t a factor in the main plot, but the little philosophical conversations after each save call were (to me) an important part in the development of Mei Ling’s and Snake’s characters.

    Then again, this interpretation is probably distorted somewhat by my knowledge of the sequels (i.e. Mei Ling’s role near the end of 4).

    Anyways, thanks so much for covering this topic! I look forward to your analysis of Fortune and Rose in the next game.

  5. says

    I think it is awesome to see someone tackling the portrayal of women in the Metal Gear Solid series, but to be honest I strongly disagree with most of your analysis. I was going to comment on it here, but first posted a link over on the Iris Network forums and then ended up writing out most of my thoughts there. My commentary ended up pretty long, so instead of re-posting it here and overwhelming the comments section, I’ll just drop a link to the Iris thread here.

  6. says

    Firstly, I think that your assertion that the MGS series gets better for women with every sequel is off the mark. From MGS2 – MGS3, the portrayal of female characters gets _worse_. After MGS1, female characters become _more_ sexually objectified, there are _fewer_ female characters, they are less fleshed out in terms of back story and personality, and _all_ characters (except for Snake, who doesn’t have much personality to begin with) become over-the-top caricatures. I can’t comment much on MGS4, because I haven’t played it.

    I think that your characterization of Naomi Hunter is a little shallow and unfair. Hunter’s revenge motive, whilst it may be a trope for female characters in media is integral to the entire MGS series as a whole. Fortune’s revenge story in MGS2 is tacked on and irrelevant to the game and the series. Which character-bent-on-revenge do you find more acceptable — a three-dimensional character who helped bring to fruition an incredibly complex biological weapon (FoxDie) and who returns later (in MGS4, so does FoxDie) or someone like Fortune, who is introduced as a boss and simply dies in MGS2?

    I didn’t read Naomi Hunter as a “petty, misunderstanding little girl who refuses to accept a warrior’s code of ethics”. I read her as someone who had thought about the duel between Frank Jaeger and Snake and concluded that it was irrational and stupid (which it was). Reducing it to murder? Well, how would you feel about the person who killed the only family you ever knew, someone who saved you and cared for you during a civil war? I think her motivations are believable.

    On the point of using the FoxDie virus, her “cowardly” method of revenge took her _decades_ of work to reach that point. It’s not as if she just she came up with a plan on the spur of the moment. She had to emigrate to the United States from Rhodesia (Naomi Hunter is not British, BTW, she’s Rhodesian). She has a doctorate in genetics with specialties in nanotechnology and gene-therapy. It took years of education, planning, and work for her to get to that position of power in FOXHOUND so that she could even have a chance to make her plan come to fruition. I don’t think it’s “cowardly” to sustain the force of will and determination to see yourself through all of that.

    Also, Frank Jaeger/Gray Fox doesn’t get “better” after his death in Zanzibar. Jaeger is forced to live a life of agony and suffering as the Cyborg Ninja. He doesn’t want to live at all. His entire existence as the Ninja is spent in anticipation of his showdown with Solid Snake so that Solid Snake can again kill him like Snake did in Zanzibar (putting right what went wrong — Jaeger feels that he’s supposed to be dead). The Ninja attests that he is no longer Frank Jaeger/Naomi Hunter’s brother, and Hunter acknowledges this fact. Frank Jaeger himself has a revenge motive. He killed Dr. Clark (AKA Para-Medic from MGS3) who retrieved his body from Zanzibar and resurrected him as the Cyborg Ninja.

    Hunter regrets her actions and forgives Snake for killing her brother, but she also comes to an understanding about life and the will to live. The fact that she’s given the final monologue in the game, delivering some of the key underlying philosophical themes of the game (which carry over to the sequels), attests to her importance as a character in the series as a whole, regardless of whether one finds her monologue annoying.

    I do think the fact that Naomi Hunter becomes infatuated with Snake is really stupid, and it weakens her character especially in light of her forgiveness of Snake, because the player asks herself the question, “If she wasn’t in love with Snake, would she still have forgiven him?”

    Your critiques of Sniper Wolf are valid, and I agree with them. However, I fail to see why highlighting Otacon’s weaknesses as a character is related to the weaknesses of Sniper Wolf at all. Sniper Wolf almost completely ignores Otacon throughout the story. There is no indication that she shows any respect or affection for him at all. So, bringing Otacon into the picture when you’re critiquing Sniper Wolf is superfluous.

    Meryl Silverburgh’s treatement as a whole, and as the the love-interest is offensive, I agree. Apart from Sniper Wolf, she is the most sexualised of the female characters. I don’t think it’s unique to Meryl Silverburgh that she needs to be unconscious to break Psycho Mantis’s mind control, but it’s unfortunate that Snake had to knock Meryl out specifically. I don’t think there was any implication that she had sex with Snake at the end, however.

    There’s a lot of relevant critique to be made of Mei Ling, who you ignored and merely billed as the “sexy Chinese girl”. I’m _really_ surprised that you completely ignored the racial and ethnic stereotyping of Mei Ling. The wise Chinawoman (though she’s actually Chinese American, not Chinese) dispensing proverbs and wisdom every time you go to save your game? That’s kind of offensive and racist.

    I don’t see Mei Ling as sexualized at all. Snake and Mei Ling engage in some casual flirting, but it’s clear that neither takes it seriously. Whilst Mei Ling’s fangirling of Snake is annoying, she doesn’t view him as someone who will return any romantic affections.

    I also don’t think that Mei Ling is as irrelevant as you state. She _invented_ the Codec communications system and the Soliton Radar system which both Solid Snake and Raiden (in MGS2) use to communicate with their support team and monitor enemy activity, respectively.

    You also breezed over Natasha Romanenko as unimportant to the game, however she actually provides a lot of background information about nuclear and military proliferation, which is are central themes of the entire MGS series. In MGS2, she also features as an indirectly important figure because she’s the author of “In the Darkness of Shadow Moses” which provides players new to the franchise a refresher to the events in MGS1. Like Naomi Hunter, Romanenko provides key background information that adds to the immersiveness of the game and the series. I don’t believe that Romanenko is portrayed in a overly sexualised or objectified manner, either.

    Taken as a whole, the female supporting cast of Metal Gear Solid are all three dimensional characters that have believable motivations and are portrayed as strong, competent professionals. I’m not saying that there’s nothing wrong with other ways in which they’re portrayed, but I do think that some of your points are off. I also think that you’d be hard-pressed to find this many three-dimensional, significant, capable, and technically-knowledgeable female characters in another game, and that includes other MGS games.

  7. says

    Sorry to go OT, but I really disagree about Elika’s sacrifice. I think it’s made pretty clear in PoP that her sacrifice was the right and noble thing to do, and that the ending is the Prince acting selfishly, caring more about her and being with her than the rest of the world. I think Elika sacrificing herself was the expected ending and the devs deliberately went against that expectation to show how the Prince has changed (and to make a sequel of course!).

    So while the self-sacrifice double standard probably is a trend, I don’t think PoP is an example of it.

  8. Kris says

    Brinstar:

    I don’t disagree with many of your points, and I thank you for this long and thoughtful comment.

    First, to answer about the brevity with which I treated some characters: regretfully, these posts of mine can only be so long, so I had to choose which characters to emphasize. I agree with you on Mei-Ling, for example, and I wish I’d had proper space to go into her myself.

    Like I also meant to answer to another commenter, where I wrote “irrelevant to the story” I should have more exactly written “to the plot“, since Mei-Ling and Nastasha both have an impact on the gameplay and the storyverse, but not much in the actual main body of the script. You can go through the game basically ignoring Nastasha and barely paying attention to Mei-Ling, regardless of what role they play in the backstory. But Naomi’s role is right in the player’s face.

    On the point of Naomi, it’s clear you’re quite familiar with her character and very passionate about her, and while I can’t agree that I felt her rationale was articulated as well as you feel she was, I do concede that she has room for interpretation. (About her nationality, you’re quite right, but it seemed like too much of a fine point to get into given space constraints. Like Mei-Ling’s inexplicable Chinese accent, I found the Rhodesian, ostensibly American-raised Naomi speaking with an upper-crust British accent a ridiculous and poorly thought-out gimmick. I’m glad they dropped that in MGS4.) Personally, I found myself incapable of accepting either what she did or how the game portrayed her sudden change of heart, but that’s just this player’s opinion. The counterpoint you offer here does a wonderful job of showing both sides.

    As far as portrayal of women getting worse in MGS2 and 3, I would contend otherwise, and hopefully my articles in the next few weeks are able to accurately express my views on the matter. That’s not to say those games don’t have their negative points –and we’ll get into that– but in both games I found unusually strong offerings you just don’t come across too often in this medium.

  9. Kris says

    oliemoon: That’s a very cogent article you’ve put together and a very insightful read. I stand by my impressions as my own, but I very much enjoy the feedback.

    Eleniel: I admit my exposure to PoP4 has been a little piecemeal, so it could be that my reading of the Prince’s behavior at the end is unfair, you’re quite right. I’ll be taking a closer look at that game in the near future.

  10. says

    On a side note: it’s been a while since we’ve had much of a debate around here, and I just love seeing such diverse opinions expressed with respect to everyone else’s views. Great discussion, everyone!

  11. says

    @Kris
    Well I’m not sure that I would call it an article, so much as a post of ramblings. :-P

    At any rate, I am really looking forward to the rest of the series, in part because I disagree with your overall premise (that, in terms of portraying women, the series gets progressively better) with reference to the first three titles and I am curious to see how you make your case but also, because MGS2/3 only got one playthrough each from me, my memories of the characters/plot are much weaker than they are with the first game, so I am particularly open to hearing opposing views on those two games.

    Out of curiosity, since this is a four part series, I assume each post will cover one game apiece? Or will you include any coverage of the Portable Ops storyline as well?

    I really wish I had my Playstations with me right now–reading and discussing this post has me itching to go through the series again with a fresh eye! And I wish I was up to speed with MGS4 so I could appreciate the full arc of your series, but I guess that will have to wait for now.

  12. Kris says

    oliemoon:

    I wouldn’t ever say these games are consistent with how they treat women, and there are plenty of bad moments, but MGS3 and 4 particularly I found to have characters very much in touch with a feminist perspective. I suppose I’m holding those up as being such good and prominent counterpoints that I feel they need to be highlighted, if nothing else. Again, just this player’s opinion. Hopefully, even if you can’t agree with my overall assessment, you’ll see where I was trying to go with this with some of the later games.

    About Portable Ops: Unfortunately, as of this writing I’ve yet to play it, so I couldn’t feel right trying to include it. My copy’s on the way, though, and I might be able to pen a follow-up. I’m excited to have more Para-Medic in my life.

  13. teensie says

    When does Otacon ever ‘beg’ Snake not to kill Wolf during her death scene? He sort of just angsts there helplessly, aware that he can’t do anything for her at that point. But he NEVER denies Wolf’s request to be shot by Snake. He might be naive, but he’s not stupid.

  14. Kris says

    teensie:

    Hmm, ahh, you’re actually right! Taking a look at the script itself, it seems most of the pleading occurs before the battle. Her death scene just has him crying and guilting Snake for not being able to save her. I still felt Otacon’s emotions overpowered that scene, for not the reasons that I state in the article. I should amend that. Thanks for the correction!

  15. teensie says

    Thanks for the speedy response! ^^ I think Wolf is well aware of the effects of Stockholm’s on Otacon’s behalf (Snake himself considers this in one of his conversations with the guy), explaining why Wolf for the most part ignores his “love” towards her. I can see why he’d emotionally attach himself to Wolf from the rest of the captors. It’s not very clear, but I think the whole point of Otacon’s romantic “feelings” towards Wolf were to imply that he was under the effects of Stockholm’s-a trauma resulting from being taken hostage by a terrorist group. The poor guy’s already been through a lot and, prior to meeting Snake, emotionally susceptible. That sets him aside from all the adult male game characters I’ve come across. I like him, but he’s such a woobie if I ever saw one.

    As for Wolf being underdressed….at least she wears a nice thick sweater out in the field x) I’m glad they had enough sense remember that.

  16. says

    I’m biased, I know, but I think you’ve really underrated Naomi, for all the reasons Brin mentioned and more, but here’s one I’ll pick up first of all: you have a problem with her accent? That’s just because you’re a Yank, srsly. One thing I loved about MGS when I first played it when I was 15 and living in the UK was that, unlike virtually all other dubbed Japanese media I’d ever had access to, the characters didn’t all have horribly grating American accents. They sounded like people from all over the place, and some of them sounded like people I knew. I would have found Naomi, Mei Ling and Nastasha harder to relate to if they’d had American accents. I’ve since come to see how Orientalising those accents can be, especially in the latter two cases, but the fact remains that Naomi’s non-Americanness was part of why I loved her.

    The other reason was that she owned the whole plot. :P It’s worth considering that after all the other attempts to kill Liquid – after the Good Guys have sent fighter-planes after him, blowing up his helicopter, and his giant robot, slapping him around, filled him with lead and rammed into his jeep, Naomi kills him for you. By means of an action she performed before the game began, while Snake was naked, helpless and whining about puppies. If poison is a ‘woman’s weapon’, then it also beats the shit out of everything else in canon’s arsenal – and canon is all about how violence and coercion can take many different forms.

    She’s also the only character with any purely individual motivations here – all the others are complete tools, but Naomi Hunter is working for Naomi Hunter. Yes, it’s about a guy, but that unfortunate fact stems from prior canon – and I always liked that rather than being sexualised or romanticised in any distinct way, she was primarily, plotwise, a sibling, doing violence for her brother in the sort of blood-oath that’s usually reserved for men. And she gets the last word.

    (God, I have a crush. >>)

    I agree with you about Wolf and Meryl and then some, though. Wolf’s death speech, especially, was B&Bworthy and had much the same underlying plot conclusion; that if you’ve shot up a chick, it must be because that’s the right thing to do to end her suffering, because women are too psychologically weak to survive in the way male action heroes do, or whatever.

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