Gender and Sensuality in Metal Gear Solid 4


In the last two years, a conversation regarding sexism and sexist depictions of women in video games has been spurred in thanks largely to Feminist Frequency’s series of videos Tropes vs Women in Videogames. Arguments range from those that suggest that the use of certain narrative tropes can be harmful to gender relations to those who argue that certain depictions regardless of narrative or ludic context can be considered as sexist to those who suggest that representations don’t matter because video games are fiction. I have read and reflected on each argument extensively and have come to agree strongly with some and less so with others, but I always try to keep an open mind and while I may not agree with every argument made, I understand why opposing interpretations exist and am able to recognize their merit.

Despite being familiar with the topic, I have been reluctant to comment on the issue largely because people with more insight than myself in regards to gender have made brilliant arguments on either side of the discussion and I feel that there is little that I can add. What humble contributions I might make to the discussion is that rather than focusing on the medium of video games as a whole, commentators would do well to focus on a specific subset of games, such as AAA games or action games, or maybe even on individual games. I feel that an in-depth look at individual works would serve as stronger evidence for whatever arguments being made regarding gender in games than briefly mentioning that one game has one sexist scene or another game has a female lead. But there is something that I find incredibly puzzling regarding the debate regarding gender and sexism in games, and it is the curious omission of a certain game from the discussion: Metal Gear Solid 4. As reluctant as I am to make value judgments on objects, if one is discussing sexism in games, it seems to me that Metal Gear Solid 4 should be at the forefront of the discussion because of the way it treats its female characters.

Beautyandthebeastunit0Metal Gear Solid 4 is a story about Solid Snake, a legendary soldier, in his quest to stop his brother Liquid Snake from taking over the world using the Patriots AI system. Liquid Snake has in his army four major female generals called the Beauty and the Beast Unit, or BB Corps, where each woman is depicted as a deeply traumatized victim of war who has been placed inside a mechanical beast and tricked into believing that if they kill Snake, all their fear, pain, and sorrow will vanish. These “beauties”, the Laughing Octopus, the Raging Raving, the Crying Wolf, and the Screaming Mantis (the unit commander) are all depicted as incredibly beautiful and voluptuous women with unblemished skin (despite their back stories suggesting that they went through a number of tragedies) whose combat prowess lie in their command of their robotic beasts.

stars_bbcorpsNow, I would suggest that if this was all there was to it – women who are “beautiful” (whatever that means) and who drive giant beast robots – an argument could be made as to whether their depictions were sexist or not. If this were the case, I could see one side arguing that it represents exploitation and their figures set unreal expectations of beauty for both men and women, while I could also see the other side arguing that it’s a game and a fiction, that characters are designed to be visually appealing, and that within the context of the story it all somehow makes sense. And, I think, if this was the only thing in MGS 4, both sides would have a strong claim. However, MGS 4 goes well beyond that, and in doing so it places some moments of play as perhaps the most demeaning towards female characters in any game. It is also the existence of these moments that make me wonder why the game has avoided scrutiny regarding gender representation. The situation that problematizes the issue of gender in MGS 4 is as follows:

As the player, Snake, travels the world trying to stop Liquid, Snake will come face to face with the four BB Corps commanders. Snake will have to use a number of strategies and weapons in order to defeat them. This in itself is not, I think, problematic. Two generals and a “legendary soldier” face off in battle, and gender is irrelevant. They both attack each other with all they have, and ultimately one character (the player) ends up as the victor. What IS a problem, however, is what happens next.

SOUTHAMERICARESEARCHLAB_7Once the player defeats each of the BB Corps commanders, the beauty will jump out of their mechanical suit of armor. She will shriek and let out a terrifying scream (framed with a low angle camera set behind the female character gazing upwards at her buttocks), after which she will walk slowly towards Snake, avoiding any gunfire, until she embraces Snake. This is the first problem in regards to how the game treats these four women. After Snake, whom the BB Corps commander believe is the source of their anguish, finally defeats each commander in combat, these women commanders will slowly and seductively walk towards Snake to hold him in an embrace.

Those familiar with the game will no doubt mention that this embrace drains Snake’s life and try to explain it away with the electric effects of the (excessively skintight) suit that interfaces the female user with their mechanic beast. However, even if we concede this, the most questionable moments happen after Snake and the four Beauties – that is their name once they are outside of their beast mechs – have been in battle for a couple of minutes. Snake and the Beauty are placed in a white room where only Snake and the Beauty exist. In some instances, the Beauties will crawl towards Snake while making seductive noises. If at this point the player has found the camera item, the player will be able to point at the Beauties. The Beauties, upon being pointed at with the camera, will pose seductively for the player / Snake. They will do this as many times as the player points the camera at them. Furthermore, if during these “white room” moments the player uses the in-game iPod item and plays the song titled “Oishii Two-han Seikatsu”, the Beauties will dance for the player / Snake.

Now, let’s recap.

Snake fights women whose core purpose in life is to kill Snake. These women fight in giant robot machines. When Snake defeats these women, they jump out of their machines and are shown to be wearing skintight suits. These women then try to smother Snake by hugging him tightly. If Snake doesn’t kill them, then they are both teleported into a white room (presumably the subconscious of the female characters) where Snake can take sexy photos of them and make them dance.

And, ultimately, after all this, the player has one of three choices: (1) knock the Beauty unconscious, (2) kill the Beauty, or (3) wait for time to run out in the white room so that the Beauty can burst into flames by herself.

These scenes are ripe for analysis, and the game, if analyzed thoroughly through mixed ludic, narrative, and aesthetic lenses, would likely help further conversations regarding gender representation and games one way or another.

So, again, my question – why hasn’t anyone mentioned MGS 4 in their analyses of gender and games?

*Note: This is not a review of MGS 4 (which I enjoyed immensely), nor is it a full-on work of criticism or a commentary on the aesthetics of the game. It is simply an acknowledgement that the battles against the BB Corps once they are outside of their mechanic suits show some things that can be interpreted as controversial (to say the least) and an invitation to those whose commentary on gender is more distinguished than my own to consider how these battles mix narrative, aesthetic design, and rules of play to create a scene as well as to unlock the meaning of said scenes via interpretation.


About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on March 16, 2015, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I agree that the white room scenes are ridiculous, but they’re not really offensive. Now, take a look at Quiet from MGS5. Her outfit outright makes NO damn sense. I have no problem with a sexual look, as long as the context makes sense. All she is wearing is a very skimpy bikini, ripped panty hose and some army boots. That’s it. I don’t get it.

    According to some reviews, she is actually the most interesting character of the game, but that her look is total nonsense and a shame considering what her character has to offer. So it doesn’t sound like there is any actual purpose to her look besides Kojima-san’s craziness. Oh well, just like you did with MGS4, I plan to enjoy this game immensely despite her ridiculous outfit.

    • Thanks for the comment, it was quite thoughtful!

      I understand where you’re coming from and to a large extent I agree. Games are certainly about enjoyment (or at least they should be compelling), and I personally have no problem with “sexy” character designs (although I do understand why more puritan perspectives might be popular). The design of Quiet from MGS 5 makes no sense, sure, and as you say it was likely Kojima designing whatever came to mind. I’m actually more interested in how the design intersects with the narrative and play. In MGS 4 there is an actual break from the game (both in play and narrative) so that the player can make the beauties dance. Those white rooms are (to borrow a term) dissonant from the rest of the game.

      If in MGS 5 we have Quiet running around and sniping and doing whatever it is she’s supposed to do except she’s wearing a mystical anti gravity top, more power to her as a character. If Snake can only beat Quiet by sneaking up behind her and punching her because of the environment, whatever. Some might call something like that misogynistic and I can see why they would have that interpretation, but as long as it makes sense within the context of the game and the initial contract between the player and the game, then that’s just how it is. If we are to consider games as art, they should be able to explore difficult topics.

      But if after you beat Quiet she somehow conveniently “snaps” and gives Snake a lap dance for no reason, that to me would be the gratuitous and unnecessary scene.

      *Note I haven’t played MGS 5, so I’m just going on hypotheticals*

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