Hyper masculinity and satire (Or, How Many Fucking Names Do Your Characters Need, Hideo Kojima?)

I have a confession to make. I love hyper masculine films. Fast & Furious, Transporter, Machete, anything where men behave in utterly ludicrous fashion, blowing things up, throwing cars out of planes, beating up tanks using nothing but their eyebrows, all while trying to be taken seriously. I couldn’t sleep last night so I watched all three Expendables films, and now I find it weird that people’s facial muscles are capable of mobility, mainly because I spent nine hours staring at Sly’s face and that stopped moving when the Berlin Wall came down. Hyper-masculine films are great.

Of course, as gender studies student, a feminist, and a cynic, I like to think I’m watching these films ironically. When I’m watching Vin Diesel grumble his way through another car chase, I feel like I’m watching an ironic commentary on the absurdities of extreme masculinity. Surely, I tell myself, this has got to be a joke. Look, come on, Danny Trejo just beat up nineteen men using nothing by a pebble he got stuck in his shoe and he’s 71 years old. Someone, somewhere, is having a great laugh at this, and partly, it’s me, but partly, I want to think it’s the creators of these films. I don’t really want to imagine that the Director of Crank seriously thinks that Jason Statham attaching his tongue to a car battery is an accurate portrayal of ideal masculinity. I also love when these films are subverted – one of the reasons I have an irrational obsession with the sublime Mad Max: Fury Road is because it doesn’t place masculinity at the heart of the action. Tom Hardy’s Max is a badass survivor, but is also clearly suffering from PTSD, like myself, so his masculinity is vulnerable and much more interesting. But am I just saying this because I have a soft spot for absurd masculinity, because as much as I dislike it, I want to put myself on a detached pedestal and watch it mockingly play out, and hope to God that’s what the author wanted in the first place, and that I’m the only one in on the joke?

Recently, I’ve been playing a lot of the excellent Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. I’ve never really played anything in the Metal Gear series before, (with the exception of The Phantom Pain‘s prologue of sorts, Ground Zeros). Gameplay wise, I cannot fault it. Story wise, after many hours trawling the internet in order to understand the bizarre and complex work that notoriously idiosyncratic series director Hideo Kojima has created, I can’t really fault it either, though I’m only 8% of the way into the game, and I’m also trying to recover from what is probably the most traumatic and simultaneously brilliant first hour of gaming I have ever experienced.. So all in all, it’s pretty fucking good. Also, you can sneak up behind tanks and use a highly unrealistic balloon system to send them back to your base.  Oh, and you can do the same to a puppy. And beating up your own men at your base improves their morale, which suggests their all into bondage, which means I have a fictional oil rig full of oddly attractive mercenary men and women who like spanking, and as a recently single man that’s far too much to take in one go.

Speaking of sex, The Phantom Pain is a pretty hyper-masculine game. You play as Big Boss AKA Punished Snake AKA The Legendary Mercenary AKA John because no one in a Kojima game can settle on just one name. Aided by your friend Revolver Ocelot, who sadly isn’t a six shooter wielding cat – but is voiced by the powerfully erotic Troy Baker (small mercies) – you set out on a quest for revenge after your base was destroyed nine years ago. This quest takes you to Soviet Occupied Afghanistan during 1984, and the border of Angola. And it really is uber-masculine. I mean, our hero is called Big Boss. He’s not actually that big and doesn’t boss people about that much, so I can only conclude it’s got something to do with how damn manly he is. I mean, look at him: He has a bionic arm, a face covered in scars, he’s missing an eye, and to top it all off his has a massive piece of metal sticking out of his forehead like a single, forlorn devil horn:

Big Punished Boss Snake John is about as fucking manly as you get. He is also a man of few words, but when he does speak, he’s voiced by Kiefer Sutherland, a man who famous portrays such sensitive pro-feminist radicals such as Jack Bauer. Legendary Snake Punished Boss John’s gender performance isn’t the focus of the game, or the portrayal of his character, though his quest for revenge, his ability to fight with brutal efficiency and even his relatively spare dialogue are all cultural markers of hyper-masculinity. And, like most performances of masculinity, it’s only when we compare him to the game’s female protagonist, that we see just how damn masculine he is. 
The main female protagonist is Quiet. She is a pretty interesting character in herself – apparently mute, and an extremely accomplished sniper, she has the ability to teleport, make herself invisible and also somehow survive in this outfit: 
Yes, that is literally what she wears. You can change her outfit later on in the game, but for some reason, Kojima decided that this elite sniper with super powers needs to wear a bikini and torn tights and that wasn’t a remotely problematic thing for the only woman in a very male dominated game. 
Quiet herself isn’t a misogynistic stereotype. She’s not a damsel in distress, and, as far as I’ve played in the game, she isn’t a sex object for big boss. Take her out on a mission with you, and she is a valuable ally, and indeed, in her first appearance in the game, she spectacularly shoots the pilot out of a fighter jet, thereby saving Legendary There’s A Snake In My Boot And I Think It’s Being Punished John’s life. But there is something rather uncomfortable about the hyper-sexualised outfit, compared to that of Big I’m Sick And Tired Of These Motherfucking Punished Snakes John. He goes out in military fatigues, she goes out in lingerie. What does this say about the presentation of gender to the player? Sadly, though you can change their clothes, no option exists to swap outfits. Thankfully someone’s done a mockup: 
…Quite. 
Anyway, the point being what makes me uncomfortable about the portrayal of Quiet is that she is the only woman in the game (thus far) and she’s presented as an erotic figure. Her sexual attractiveness is what asserts her as a woman. Femininity is immediately a sexualised thing for the player, whereas Big BADGER BADGER BADGER BADGER MUSHROOM SNAKE’s gender is shown through the things he does – he is manly because he’s an elite soldier, not because his buttocks are on display. 
I suppose it’s not radical to say that the portrayal of women in video games is problematic at best, and misogynistic at worse. The YouTube channel Feminist Frequency has some excellent videos on this, for those who are interested. I have certainly played more misogynistic games than The Phantom Pain, but this ultimately brings me back to the question: can we read hyper-masculine media portrayals as satirical interrogations of masculinity, and is this what the creators intended? 
Of course, there is a bigger question here, which I like to call the Nietzsche question. What is more important: authorial intent, or reception of art? Nietszche, for all of his faults, was no anti-semite, and certainly no Fascist, but as we all know his philosophy was used to legitimise Nazism. In the same way, when I watch Fast & Furious 7 (yes, there are seven of those films and no they don’t slow down or calm down), or when I am sneaking around as Big Legendary Trouser Snake with my scantily clad sniper friend, am I playing a satire or something that really does believe in these gender politics? 
With the Metal Gear series, it’s ultimately hard to know if Kojima is taking any of it seriously. On the one hand, it’s a hyper-realistic game, with stunning enemy AI, a dynamic world, and a setting that blends Cold War politics with gripping science fiction. On the other hand, at the press of a button, I can have a cardboard box dropped on my head, which has a picture of a Soviet General on it, and when I go up to random Russian soldiers in Afghanistan, they will salute this picture and start telling me loads of secrets, because obviously all Commies see one another as static bits of cardboard. Seriously, The Phantom Pain is a very odd game. If you die enough times, you get given a chicken hat that makes you invisible. You can wonder around your base and overhear soldiers having conversations about how they really want not to be brutal mercs for hire, but in fact want to run zoos.You can sneak up behind a bear and attach it to C4, then use your fulton device to send said bear face first into a passing helicopter gunship. It is total batshit. And, therefore, hard to establish authorial intent. My gut tells me that Kojima is taking the piss out of everything, and nothing suggests that doesn’t include the ridiculous gender politics of his own game. 
My final point as such is that I’m not trying suggest that we should all be ironic, post modern observes of problematic media, nor that we should ignore any media that doesn’t fit with our own gender politics. But as part of an sustained interrogation of gender discrimination, we need to look at the absurdity place before us and, before we criticise, question if what we’re really looking at is satire. 

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