co-written by Dayna Abel and Alice Durnell
There’s a controversy online – and I’ll take a minute to let you recover from that shock – about a prominent video game character. Game developer Brianna Wu and writer Ellen McGrody recently wrote an article for The Mary Sue titled “Metroid‘s Samus Aran is a Transgender Woman. Deal With It.” It was a thoughtful piece and celebratory and trans-positive, which of course meant that it was going to have the best and brightest of the gaming community having a well-spoken discourse about oh god I can’t even bring myself to finish this sentence.
Full disclosure: I am vehemently and proudly anti-bigotry. As a female lifelong gamer, you can take that to mean I have zero tolerance for…let’s call them the Society For Preservation Of Ethics In Gaming Journalism, shall we? Their chief export is abuse and nothing more. So believe me when I say that it kills me to write this:
They’re pretty much right when they say Wu and McGrody are wrong.
The quote being used to point out Samus as trans is from this interview. Wu and McGrody comment “It’s true! In 1994, the writers of the official Japanese Super Metroid strategy guide asked Metroid’s developers if they could share any secrets about the intergalactic bounty hunter. Hirofumi Matsuoka, who helped work on the original design for Samus Aran, claimed that she ‘wasn’t a woman,’ but instead, ‘nyuuhaafu,’ or ‘newhalf.’ This language has its own issues, but terminology used for gender in the early ’90s was as different in Japan as it was in the West.”
The issue here is that the word nyuuhaafu translates roughly to “shemale,” which is not only a slur but could have very easily been a distasteful joke, as another “secret” in the same interview is “I know where Samus’ beauty mark is.” This is hardly irrefutable proof. Some people are even interpreting it as a reference to Samus’ Chozo DNA, which is also incorrect as the sentence was specifically referring to her gender.
I’ve had the displeasure of reading counter-opinions on sites that claim making Samus a trans woman would somehow diminish her status as a strong female character, including the ugly phrase “Samus is 100 percent a strong, fierce woman. She wasn’t once a man who decided to become a woman. No, that would take away from Samus’s feminine strength.” (source) What people like this fail to recognize is that trans women are women. Period. All kinds of women – strong, weak, masculine, feminine. Trans women and cis women come in all varieties and all gender presentations. Trans or cis has no bearing whatsoever on Samus’ status as a great female character. She is a great female character either way (unless you’ve played Other M, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms).
Positive comments, on the other hand, are mostly from people excited to have transgender representation in video games, and that’s why it’s so heartbreaking to have this article be nothing more than a rallying point for assholes to ass. Everyone wants to see themselves reflected in the media they consume. Comics, my other lifelong passion, are making great strides in this direction, while video games tend to stagnate as far as diversity. Wu and McGrody make the point that “for many, confirmation from Nintendo or Matsuoka isn’t important – it’s that we allow space for everyone in these worlds we love” but in the same article refute themselves with “no matter what fans say, the intent of the creator is the only opinion that really matters.” A man who did some of the design work on Samus Aran is not a reliable source. Her creator, Hiroji Kiyotake, would be the one to confirm her status one way or another.
Don’t get me wrong. If Samus was confirmed to be transgender, that would be fucking awesome and a huge boon to trans female gamers. Creating a trans headcanon for Samus is harmless and changes absolutely nothing about the story or about her as a person, but presenting it as an undeniable fact is not only shoddy research, but a way for bigots all over the net to scream “LOOK AT HOW RIGHT WE WERE!” as if they’d just won a war. It also discredits both the researchers and the publisher when an article isn’t fact-checked. We live in an age of climate change-deniers, and that’s in the face of actual proven science. Reliability is a necessity when you make a controversial statement. Shaky “proof” of what would have been a great discovery is only going to bring out the worst of the gaming community – as does pretty much everything nowadays.
Wu and McGrody may be wrong in this instance and that totally sucks, but although their methods are flawed, I can’t fault their motives. Nerd culture is toxic lately and being a blinking arrow pointing towards voices that are seldom heard is a noble endeavor. Game creators would do well to listen and respond to those voices in the future. Representation matters.
I don’t think “wrong” is quite the right word for Wu and McGrody’s opinion. Rather, they are trying to confirm a fan theory as solid canon, and it is awkwardly built off essentially a random dude slandering Samus. Discussing the “newhalf” concept, however, gives me a reason to further discuss a confirmed trans character in gaming, one derided in the article: Poison from Final Fight.
Poison is referred to as a “newhalf” on concept art, but unlike Nintendo regarding Samus Aran, Capcom has not been coy about it. Their stance may be having no official stance, but it has not stopped them from stating things to the contrary and trying to build better ties to trans people through her. Samus as trans has to be argued for, and while I am not one to stop someone from arguing that, or accepting it as a personal canon, I just cannot care about representation that you have to argue exists. Trans folk such as myself deserve better than arguments and wishful thinking. It is insulting to leave us with table scraps.
There is also a gross misogynistic undercurrent to the whole “newhalf” concept. It isn’t just rooted in transmisogyny, but in an idea that Samus being tall and strong means she can’t be a woman. I can’t look at “Samus is trans” without connecting it to that misconception and some rando artist’s slur.
The Poison comment in the article really bothers me. Poison is oversexualized but Samus isn’t? Other M‘s director led the charge on making Samus Aran “sexier.” Why does that get a pass but Poison doesn’t? It reeks of dismissal of a more openly discussed trans character because of some weird personal distaste. I know this isn’t going to be a rebuttal but I’m distracted by how brazenly dismissive it is of Poison even though she’s a more longstanding, openly discussed character. Poison is ignored because Wu/McGrody are bigger Samus fans.
We all love to see ourselves in media. Poison is a big character for me. She’s openly trans and Capcom cares about representing trans people well. While Capcom have made mistakes, they have taken criticism seriously and worked on improving themselves. Poison is strong, sexy, in control, feminine, and doesn’t take transphobia sitting down. This all shows up in official works. In Samus’ case, we don’t deserve to be treated to table scraps of representation from an insulting comment by someone barely involved with a character. It is insulting to leave us with slurs warped into positive portrayals and grabbing onto unofficial, offhand comments made by sexist cisgender men.
I can’t think of any other decently portrayed trans characters in video games. I’m almost in tears because of how few there are, and because Poison is literally the only one with a positive portrayal. I can’t think of Samus as trans when it’s so tied to the idea of her being too mannish to be a proper woman. I also don’t want to look to the past for more representation. I don’t want to scramble around searching for interviews for characters I can relate to as a trans woman. Representation isn’t about arguments. Wu’s aggressiveness in particular regarding her article has me far more fatigued than happy. I’m not tired of fighting; I’m tired of fighting over the past. I want to see new characters, more characters, more women, more trans women, more women of color in games. I don’t want to have to make them out of flimsy arguments.