The Women of Metal Gear Solid (Part 4)

Note: this article contains major spoilers.

In today’s fourth and final installment of our series looking at Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid series, we’ll be addressing the latest game, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (2008). As the game was co-directed with Shuyo Murata, and with significant input from American localizers, it’s a little difficult to tell how much of the game comes from Kojima’s own head and how much comes to us from other contributors; likewise, the title is a mixed bag of the very awesome and the utterly despicable. Nevertheless, it makes a gallant effort in places, particularly in redeeming some of the series’ earlier failures.

Metal GearThe first thing we need to address is quantity. Previous MGS games have all featured women in the single digits, rarely if ever passing the Bechdel Test. In MGS4, we get dozens: the strongest enemies the player faces off against on the field are a group of highly-trained female soldiers known as FROGs. I personally see no problem in the heroes mowing down female opponents in exactly the same way they do male flunkies: anonymity is one form of equality, and the sooner games stop treating The Female as an exotic, the better. As an added bonus, the FROGs are dressed in practical head-to-foot armor, only earning a point off for their over-detailed chestplates.

In another departure from previous games, the majority of MGS4’s boss characters are also female. However, these four bosses, known as the Beauty & Beast Unit, are about as far from inspiring as it’s possible to get: dressed in skin-tight suits and viewed from every erotic angle possible, the B&Bs are described in-game as tragic, PTSD-afflicted damsels whose feminine natures have been overtaken by ugly, beast-like fighting personae. Yup: super model comeliness characterized as a sort of virginal purity, “violated” and made “ugly” by the horrors of war. Whether you kill them or defeat them nonlethally, the game congratulates Snake for ending their suffering, as the women curl up into fetal positions on the floor.

An easter egg in the game even allows you to take photographs of the Beauties while they pose sexily for you, because that’s not further demeaning them at all. Players need to face up to it: these are not characters, they are masturbation material. At best, they are a clumsily-executed leitmotif to accent the game’s themes, and at worst, they contradict the forward strides made by other female characters.

A returning character from the first Metal Gear Solid (1998), Naomi Hunter both exceeded and fell far short of this player’s expectations. While Naomi helps save the day, we only hear about it from other characters, with most of her own screen time devoted to having sex with Otacon in clear earshot of Snake and hooking up with a Depraved Bisexual Stereotype for an arcane, Machiavellian purpose. Honestly, of all the women in this game with significant face time, Naomi is the one who once again frustrates me the most. Like MGS1, it isn’t that she’s a bad character necessarily; I just feel that the story’s execution of her is severely lacking. To give you an example: we hear that Naomi set into development the computer virus that saves the world, but what we see is a woman clinging smugly to Vamp’s arm soon after sleeping with Otacon. Likewise, when Naomi is speaking seriously about something essential to the story, Snake hints at us to press the POV trigger to try to get a peek up her skirt. (And even if we don’t indulge, he certainly does.) What does the game really wish us to make of her?

There is some more unequivocally good news, however. Olga’s daughter, Sunny, is shown to be a seven-year-old computer programming prodigy, kicking around in hand-me-down combat boots just as gaily as she plays at cooking. Her adopted parents, Snake and Otacon, don’t appear inclined to impede her personality one way or another: she has just as many conventionally “boyish” as “girly” affectations, seeming to pick and choose whatever qualities she feels drawn to; only Naomi makes an effort to counsel her on how to supposedly act her gender, and only the utilitarian advice seems to stick.

Then there’s Meryl. When we last saw her in MGS1, she was little more than a recurring sexist joke thinly done up as a character. And given the litany of abuses she suffered (torture and rape among them), no one could really fault her for falling apart at the seams. In MGS4, however, she has turned into a stable, seasoned career soldier. She seems to have recovered from her past traumas, and old sexual tension with Snake is largely dealt with by their first meeting, after which we see she is the cool, capable commander of her own elite unit. She even possesses sensible battle attire and realistic upper body mass– a shocking thing when you compare her to the twig-like, underdressed creature in her last appearance.

Over the course of the game, Meryl develops romantic feelings for her subordinate, Johnny Sasaki, who spontaneously proposes to her in the heat of a firefight in the last chapter. Meryl, annoyed, rebuffs him; when Johnny asks if it’s something he did, Meryl counters that she simply prefers to do things her way, and with that, she drags him behind cover and proposes to him instead. Stunned, Johnny stutters out a yes, after which the two go right back to mowing down enemies. As this is going on, Meryl rants that she wants “a real wedding, with flowers, and a cake;” and adds rapturously: “It’s what I’ve always wanted, ever since I was a little girl!”

We catch up with the two in the epilogue, where we find Meryl getting all dolled up for her white wedding– with her gun holster still buckled around her hip. It’s quite obvious that Meryl, like Sunny, feels welcome to act however masculine or feminine as she likes, no matter the occasion. Her fellow strong women, Olga and the Boss, both come across as aggressively desexualized; with Meryl, the game is letting us know that this isn’t the only option open to a woman in the Kojima story universe. Meryl is the same as the gun-toting manly men that grace the series’ game covers; the only difference is, sometimes she feels like being a pretty princess too, and that’s okay.

Had Metal Gear Solid 4 stopped short of the B&B Unit, I’d have a far more positive feeling about its female offerings. As it is, the inclusion of the B&Bs’ male gaze garbage seems at cross purposes with how much the game seems to want to say with Meryl and Sunny. Nevertheless, given that the B&Bs represent what is essentially standard of video game females, the fact that we even have a Meryl or Sunny (or Olga or Boss) to talk about is frankly spectacular, and note should be made of it.

On the whole, the Metal Gear Solid series’ women are far from perfect, but they provide us with far more than we might expect from the packaging. No woman is just a damsel in distress or eye candy devoid of substance, and I hope these articles have done a little to highlight what I feel are the more successful characters.

Next week we’ll be turning our attention to the 2008 multiplatform release, Mirror’s Edge. In the mean time, thanks for reading, and as always, your comments are welcome!


  1. DSimon says

    To the list of good female characters in MGS4, I’d also like to add Mei Ling. Off-screen between the first game and the last, she became a respected naval leader, while still maintaining her offbeat personality. I particularly liked the scene where her lieutenant asks her for advice on keeping it together during battle; it’s made clear that she’s earned his respect and admiration as his commander, without an “… even though she’s a woman” rider.

    On another note: what’s your opinion on Drebin? And, on Rose’s return in 4?

  2. Kris says

    I liked Mei-Ling as well! I wish I could have gone into detail all of the women in this game, particularly her and EVA. I was a little put off by her stock character mannerisms, admittedly, but that scene you describe was what sold me on her as well, no question. I also like that she represented the good that still existed among normal American armed forces, since everyone else was in a specialized unit (Rat Patrol), with the UN (Campbell), or freelance (Snake, etc).

    Rose I felt was a decent enough portrayal, if you ignore the stupid boob-jiggling easter egg. (Ugh. No. Just… no.) She seemed to reach out to Raiden, rather than in MGS2 where she appeared more concerned with him conforming to her ideals. I’m a little bit more optimistic about her ability to handle Raiden’s issues while pursuing a domestic role now, but it could just be my impression. I also like how she talked back to Snake without hesitation, heh. On the whole, though, there’s not a lot of data to go on, so it’s a little difficult to draw a definite conclusion about that family’s future.

    I wrote another set of articles on a gaming website looking at portrayal of men in these series, and I did go into Drebin a bit there. Although I found him intelligent, meditative and empathetic, I found the “black guy as Mephistopheles” trope rather, er, in opposition to the idea of this series as a “deconstruction” of the action genre. Your mileage may vary, of course. Certainly, he came through to become quite the ally by the end, and his function as a narrator was different than how most people of color in this game are presented (ie, quickly killed off).

  3. says

    I’d had many of these same thoughts about MGS4 myself, but with an additional one about both Mei Ling and Naomi; their emergence from being codec characters to on-set cast members who do their asskicking in person involved them both becoming 10x whiter than they were in MGS1. Why. the. fuck. (I need to do a full blog post on racism in MGS sometime. It won’t be pretty.)

    Much as I loved the FROGs, their disembodiment troubled me; their bloodlessness, their un-human ways of moving. I am past tired of the way cyberpunk stories (in all mediums) present female embodiment as being fundamentally different from male embodiment, as if a human body by default has to be male, and anything with a vagina is An Issue that requires Plot Points. I preferred the she-goons in MPO, who were on the same maps as male ones, killable and capturable in the same way, and generally had bodies in the same way the male goons did. Also, Ursula has a giant robot 😉

  4. says

    Hi there! I just finished this game like 10 minutes ago ^^;

    Totally agreed with you about the FROGs! This is only the second game I’ve ever seen that actually had female cannon fodder enemies… I THINK the other was Heavenly Sword, but of course those were the lithe, ninja-esque enemies, ’cause everyone knows ladeez are fast and weak and men are slow but strong! Grr. Not so with the FROGs.

    I felt like the B&Bs could have been interesting. I felt so awful for them. Their anguish was so over the top, even for Metal Gear. I’d heard about the easter egg but didn’t do it (I don’t even know how); all I kept thinking was that you would have to be one sick asshole to listen to these women’s stories and then think, “you know, that was tragic and all, but I’d really like to take some sexy pictures.” Vomit. Also: whoever animated them? Boobs are not sacks of water. They just don’t jiggle on their own! Jeeeez. Anyway.

    I could not make heads or tails of what Naomi was doing or what her motivations were (looks like I’ll be reading the database a bit!). I was freaking in LOVE with Meryl in this game, though. She rocked so hard. “I want to do things MY way!” OMG LOVE.

    Great article!

  5. says

    (did my other comment get eaten?)

    I totally forgot about EVA! Any further thoughts on her? I thought it was great they had an old woman kicking ass. And she was a lot more sympathetic in this one as opposed to 3, though there was a lot of emphasis on her as a mother–both of Snake and Liquid and of the resistance fighters (who she constantly referred to as “children”).

  6. Metal Gear Salad says

    I found these articles really interesting. I think games get overlooked for analysis as part of the fabric of our pop-culture.

    I’ve always felt that the Boss was one of the best ‘strong’ female characters I’ve seen in any media, nice to see that being recognised.

  7. Katrina says

    Wow! These articles are wonderful! I am practically in love with The Boss, and I’m glad to see a great article on women in Metal Gear. I’m doing a panel at a convention next weekend on why women play these games, and this gave me some extra food for thought beyond my own conclusions.

    And EVA! I didn’t really like her when I first played MGS3 (possibly because she was far overshadowed by The Boss), but MGS4 made me go back and replay MGS3 with the intention of liking EVA (by the way, I LOVE your assertion that she may have “raped” Naked Snake in a bizarre way, and that assertion has even more truth if you’ve played the original Metal Gear and know that “Dr. Clark”, or Para-Medic, was the one who made this scientific “rape” of Naked Snake possible). I actually understood her a lot more. In MGS3, she was conforming to a stereotype that she had learned in “charm school”. She was conflicted throughout the game between the “femme fatale” that she felt she had to play and the strong woman she knew in The Boss, who had been one of her instructors as a teenager. There is AMAZING amount of nuance in MGS3, and the more I play it, the more I see.

  8. says

    Very interesting series of articles you wrote on one of my favorite video game franchises. Well written, informative, to the point, and certainly thought-provoking, as clearly evident by some of the comments in the ensuing threads.

    It is also refreshing to see any video game article written by a female; not being one, it’s a rare treat when I see someone not male take a very academic and intellectual approach to video games. Personally, I think the video game industry as a whole needs more women to balance out a clear male tilt; more developers, more writers, composers–anything, really.

    In reading your articles, I found some of your points very agreeable–Meryl in MGS1 being a flimsy love interest, and the single intent of the B&B group in MGS4 (blatant eye candy), for starters–and also found disagreement with some others–the character of Rosemary in MGS2, for instance. I had always felt that her actions in MGS2 were explained by the fact that she’s an AI, manipulating Jack. Since I haven’t played MGS2 in years, you’ve made me want to go through it again (whiny CODEC conversations and all) to see if I can see some of the views you’ve presented.

    I was directed to this article by my wife, who’s the non-gamer of the relationship. I asked her for some help in guiding me toward reputable, reliable sources on the subject of sexism in video games. Why? Because I feel that the double standards, inequalities, and accepted societal norms for females in games needs to be addressed. While there have certainly been improvements, still, the game industry clamors for equality but fails to provide it (Jill Valentine in Resident Evil 3, for instance–what’s the practical purpose of running around in zombie-infested Raccoon City wearing nothing more than a tight tube top, miniskirt, and knee-high boots; or in the latest Parasite Eve game, The 3rd Birthday, where as Aya Brea takes on more damage, the more naked she gets?)

    There are some shining examples, I think, of good female characters in gaming (Samus Aran, Lightning from Final Fantasy 13, Alexia, a fiercely independent antagonist in Resident Evil: Code Veronica, just to throw out a few), but the inequalities need to be corrected. Good, strong, independent, free-thinking female characters should not be an exception.

    It is to that end where I’m addressing this issue in an upcoming podcast (hence, me asking my wife for help in researching the issue). A few months ago, I began a bi-weekly video game-related podcast, called Downloadable Content (episodes can be found on the iTunes store). The intent of the episodes is to provide a forum for open, honest, academic and intellectual debate and discussion about relevant topics in the gaming world. I’m in the middle of planning to record an episode (probably in early May) dealing with women in video games, and this series of articles will be a good help. I’m hoping that when comes time to record, I’ll also be able to have good debate and discussion, much like most of what I’ve seen on these articles. Well done.

  9. Irene says

    Interesting articles. I see I’ve come far too late to the discussion, but I’m currently playing Portable Ops and thought about commenting anyway.

    I agree that there’s much women objectification in these games, however I tend to forgive it in this special case, on the basis that there’s also a lot of male objectification as well. One may argue that sexual objectification is bad, regardless of gender, but at least I find this refreshing for a game. Just to give some examples, in MGS2 Raiden is captured and stripped completely naked (for no good reason), and afterwards the player has to make him run around naked to find his clothes. He’s touched in the crotch by a male character at some point (in a rather gratuitous way); an incident that happens to Big Boss as well in MGS3. In this last game you can play as a shirtless Snake (which serves no purpose, unless you want to be easily spotted by the enemy), and Mayor Raikov is shown wearing just a thong. In Portable Ops Big Boss is again stripped naked while a prisoner and we’re given a close shot of his crotch as seen by Elisa (in a curious reversal of the “male gaze” trope). The skin-tight outfits apply to men as well as women, for example Snake, Gray Fox or the highly sexualized sadomasochistic outfit of Psycho Mantis (who, by the way, was drawn naked in some artwork accompanying the game). I could go on with examples, but this is just to show that sexual objectification may not necessarily be a matter of sexism if both genders get equal or similar treatment.
    Granted, EVA’s outfit was awful, but leaving besides this, is she such a bad character? I think that she has many interesting qualities, independence and strenght, though this is overshadowed by the outstanding qualities of The Boss, of course, and the stupid, stupid bikini.

    I also find interesting the contrast between Solid Snake and Big Boss in their relationships with women. While Solid Snake fits better in the macho stereotype that will flirt with any woman who comes near him, Big Boss seems to me rather shy or oblivious, more the sexual object for some female characters (Eva or Elisa) than the sexual predator, and his relationship with women falls often in the friendship/mentor area, not the love interest one. This is also refreshing. Though I haven’t played every single game in the series, so I don’t know if this dichotomy holds true always.

    Another thing I find revolutionary in these games is the appearance of gay characters, and even if this hasn’t to do with women, I think that sexism and homophobia go often hand in hand, so it’s relevant. Granted that many of the gay/bisexual guys are villains, but at least they are worthy opponents and not stereotypical whiny “queens”. Hell, there’s even an optional mission in Peace Walker where Big Boss can date and have sex with Master Miller on the beach. Making the manly, admired hero do this, in a series noted by its homophobic teenage boys fanbase, is a bold move as ever there was one.
    I sometimes get the impression that Kojima wants to do something really brave with these games, like the inclusion of Olga, The Boss or the gay charcters, but in the last minute feels afraid that he will lose his teenage boy fanbase, so decides to include some bullshit like “sexy photos of B&B”.

    Well, sorry for centering too much on the men of MGS in a post about women. But I felt that the female characters had already been quite well analyzed in previous posts, and that whenever someone wants to adress women portrayal in media is necessary to adress as well men portrayal in that same media, to see in which points the portrayal is equal or not.

    P.S. You said that Meryl was raped in MGS1, but I don’t recall anything similar. Reading the script, it doesn’t seem to be even hinted at.


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