Super Metroid’s Samus Aran is [Probably Not] a Secret Transgender Woman. Deal With It.

…or, how ad-click starvation leads to clickbait by writers desperate to stir false-yet-trendy gender controversy.

Writers Brianna Wu and Ellen McGrody recently penned a piece titled, “Metroid’s Samus Aran is a Transgender Woman. Deal With It.

The subject matter of the original article is utterly trivial, although its implications are not: witness an offhand remark made by joke-telling Japanese video game designer Matsuoka Hirofumi in a May 1994 interview for the Super Metroid Strategy Guide.

Secret of Samus that only I know: Samus isn’t a woman. As a matter of fact, she’s actually a shemale.

Why would one, much less two, feminist writers feel the need to tackle and extrapolate on designer Matsuoka Hirofumi’s transphobic comment made over twenty years ago?

What makes this worthy of an article that has become virally popular across the Internet in less than twenty-four hours?

The answer is both sad and simple: transgender people are an easy target for exploitation, both by so-called “allies” and by “enemies”. More controversy means more eyeballs drawn to the article, more links pointing to the article, and ultimately, more ad clicks that generate revenue for the site on which the article has been published.

Was She, or Wasn’t She…?

To settle the matter of whether Samus Aran was actually designed as transgender or not, one point is worth noting: the designer of the character was Yamane Tomoyoshi, not Matsuoka Hirofumi. Matsuoka, then, was not the one to create Samus Aran’s life story.


Matsuoka Hirofumi

Yamane “Tomomi” Tomoyoshi

When you read the interview itself, you can also see that the participants are constantly laughing and joking.

This leads to another point that’s not so humorous, however.

In the time period when Super Metroid was released, transgender people in Japan were considered a sideshow oddity. The person who created the term was herself the proprietor of a gay cabaret-style bar:

The term “New Half” is also of global provenance, according to sociologist Mark McLelland, author most recently of “Love, Sex and Democracy in Japan during the American Occupation.”

“It all goes back to the 1950s,” he says, tracing the rise of a gei ba (gay bar) entertainment culture to the early postwar era, and the coinage of the phrase to one such bar in Osaka, Betty’s Mayonnaise, in 1982.

Transgender proprietor Betty borrowed the loanword for mixed-race Japanese, “half,” and pronounced herself, “half man and half woman, therefore ‘New Half’.”

A first-hand account written in 2008 sums up the experiences of transgender women in Japan during the 1990s:

New Halves were very popular in Japan about 10 years ago, often appearing on the awful evening variety shows that take up most of Japanese tv time, and this bar was pretty famous around then, one of the girls we spoke to was on tv quite a lot back then.

She was quite bitter about the experience, as basically they were just on tv to be stared at and mocked – picking the new half out of a line up, etc. etc.

A further pointer to the sexual essence of Samus Aran is that the character was originally conceived as male, but was changed to female “to surprise the player”, as Metroid co-creator Sakamoto Yoshio is quoted as saying:

When we were almost done with the development of Metroid, one of our staffers casually suggested, ‘Why don’t we make Samus Aran a female character to surprise the player?’ Back then I thought it was a nice idea, but I couldn’t foresee what a huge impact this would have on the future of the franchise.

Was that “staffer” Matsuoka Hirofumi? Perhaps. Note that the character was sex-flipped to female, not gender-bent to become a transgender woman.

From Transphobic Joke to Transgender Superheroine?

Given the points above, then, it’s entirely likely that Matsuoka Hirofumi was making a crude-yet-commonplace joke about a character that he played no active part in designing. Samus Aran was not transgender, but rather a sex-flipped male character that was reassigned as female prior to the public release of Super Metroid. Matsuoka’s comment could also be interpreted as a backhanded compliment about Samus Aran as a strong female character — that to be so strong, she had to “be a man in disguise”.

Now, you might be thinking, “why on Earth would two feminist, apparently gay-friendly female (women) writers think that this was a worthwhile topic to discuss in such glowingly incorrect terms?”

Well, dear reader, that is the true purpose of this two-article series, so be sure to come back for the conclusion.

Update: Click here for Part Two (click here).

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