Breaking Down the Male Gaze: On Metal Gear’s Quiet, Controversy, and Cheerleaders
Spoilers abound; content warnings as well for sexual violence and torture.
There’s been a lot of discussion about the “male gaze” around Quiet, the mute female sniper in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, and it’s a phrase we’ve employed here a number of times in talking about video games, characterization, and both audiences and developers, though of course, the concept originated with Laura Mulvey’s application of Freud’s scopophilia (the pleasure derived from looking at eroticized images and objects, or those we consider erotic) to film. Mulvey applies this as male-centered to cinema in her 1975 essay because there were — and still are — more men than women creating and filming movies, constructing narratives around male characters and for the pleasure of the male viewer. Even now, thirty years later, we see more female nudity than male nudity, more scantily clad women than men, more cameras that linger on women’s bodies, tracing curves for the viewer’s eye.
The video game industry suffers the same imbalance of power, one that may be shifting, but the dominant paradigm is still stories for men, by men, and nowhere is that more evident than with the history of the character Quiet from MGSV. Quiet’s been a source of both controversy and speculation since she was first revealed, and since MGSV’s release, and the revelation of her backstory, I’ve seen the term “male gaze” surface often, so I wanted to start there. With Quiet’s presentation, the history of reveals and development, and the discussions around her place in the story as well as her treatment by the game’s “camera” — and with MGSV’s cinematic style, complete with on-screen text credits and titles, it mimics a film camera — it’s difficult to dissect the character without starting with the male gaze.
Spoilers ahead — but Quiet’s story has been discussed so much lately that I’d be surprised if anyone didn’t already know the details I will mention here, and I will mention them all. No related part of the narrative will be ignored.
Quiet, the mute sniper, is presented as nearly naked because she has been infected with a parasite (to save her life) that has converted her to a type of photosynthesis. Like a plant, she absorbs nutrients through her skin. She does not drink, or breathe, but rather she soaks up what she needs, and thus she cannot wear regular clothing. The bonus? Superpowers. The reality? Her body is on display, but her body in and of itself is not an issue. Bodies are wonderful, and hers is strong, enormously capable. The game’s film-style camera, however, lingers on her body with a lascivious admiration, interrupting the narrative at key moments throughout gameplay.
The amount of time her breasts spend in the center of the frame, combined with the way they move, makes concentrating on her presentation frankly difficult, and that’s a shame, because there’s some interesting detail work. In this short video below, Quiet leaps into the rain to absorb some water, stripping off extra layers to better “drink” the liquid. There’s a purity and joy in it; in the story, this is a woman who has (been) sacrificed and this seems to be meant as a moment of innocent pleasure. Later in the scene, she splashes Venom Snake and at first, he’s taken aback, but then he joins in. They play. This could be such a lovely moment, something separate, not weighted with all that they are and all they have done and will do.
And it’s completely derailed by the posing and jiggle physics. The sexy moves, the rolling and catlike stretching doesn’t feel natural or real, but constructed in an artificial sense. She is meant only to appeal. There are moments here (and at other times) too when the breast physics glitch and Quiet’s breast flattens momentarily in such a weird and distracting flutter that I’m pulled fully out of the scene. There’s also such a strangeness at seeing this nearly naked woman cavorting with a fully dressed man, but a familiarity too, because we’ve seen this before, many times. Men are allowed clothing; women are stripped. Welcome to visual media.
Quiet isn’t what I expected, in some ways; the presentation is both more complex and also simpler, at times laughably so. I noticed details: her expressions, her giggle, the way her giggle is heard and not seen at one moment here in particular. I notice the redness on her buttocks from the too-tight thong — what a detail! what artistry! But I notice what isn’t real, too. It’s performative, and it doesn’t feel like a natural outgrowth of character or story.
There’s a common refrain game critics hear: it’s entertainment! don’t take it so seriously! But all narratives, all created worlds, all systems, should have some internal consistency. There’s plenty that’s real about the strange and convoluted universe of Metal Gear Solid and plenty that’s not. But not matter how I question or try to build a narrative around it — is it a persona? Is she using her body? Is this learned behavior, a culturally absorbed notion that if she must be scantily clad, she must be a sex kitten? — I can’t accept his particular outfit or these behaviors for Quiet. She feels out of place, heavy-handed, the hand of the auteur, terrifically catering to the male gaze.
This moment, despite its gratuitous pandering, is one of the easiest to bear. In a torture scene, when Quiet is being hit with cattle prods and doused with salt water (dangerous for her, even deadly), her breasts linger again in central frame, repeatedly. Let me say that again: here is a woman — yes, a soldier, but also a woman, clad in scraps of fabric, being tortured by a group of men, and we’re presented repeatedly with her breasts, sometimes indirectly, as in the screenshot, and sometimes in a slow, lingering pan, as though we need to take a moment to establish, again, that she’s almost naked. The game’s camera spends more time reminding us of her body than the narrative does reminding us of her suffering.
And then later in the story there’s the near-rape, best described by Aoife Wilson at Eurogamer: “In a no doubt deliberate move by Kojima, the most uncomfortable and – in my opinion – woefully misjudged scene involving Quiet occurs when she’s wearing the most clothes.” Quiet, taken prisoner, is dressed in baggy pants and a tunic, and as she’s mounted and choked by one of her captors, which can only happen because she is suffocating and weak, the camera ensures you get a long glance at her breasts before focusing on her blue lips and dead eyes. As we watch this woman dying, we hear the clink of a buckle, the sound of a zipper. But when her pants are stripped away (out of sight), life floods back into her face and she’s up — and a lot of men are down.
Quiet is amazingly strong, an incredibly capable character. But she can’t be capable here without her tits out and her ass on display. When she was first revealed and a collective eyebrow was raised, Kojima promised, “once you recognise the secret reason for her exposure, you will feel ashamed of your words & deeds.” In a sense, he’s right. I do feel ashamed, but what shames me, and maybe all of us, is that this is the very image of the gaming industry, ground down to its essence. It is uncommon for women to be powerful without being on display for the male gaze.
Prior to the incident that changed her, Quiet is fully dressed, and when she’s being observed in her cell, she’ll unfasten her top like a sunbather, but she crosses her arms over her chest when she rolls, to keep from exposing her nipples, one would guess. Her stockings, too, aren’t terribly necessary, and aren’t great protection, even against bands around her thigh, so it stands to reason that maybe another outfit would be preferable, something that offered a bit more support and protection while still allowing her to breathe.
If I hadn’t seen the game in action, and with it, Quiet’s free-floating tits bouncing and flexing all over the place, I might have guessed that the magical parasites somehow changed the Laws of Breasts and prevented them from getting in the way, but no, these are just regular ol’ breasts, bouncing and flexing through every scene, and I keep thinking of the complicated architecture necessary in a good sports bra and wondering why she’s not sobbing on the ground when she goes flipping through the air. Parasites? Maybe. That doesn’t explain the tights (which she removes magically quickly). Why tights? Why not just shorts? They work for Lara Croft, after all. With that in mind, I’d like to offer suggestions for Quiet. But not just any suggestions: I want to be clear I’m not trying to remove the male gaze from this character. Kojima wanted it there, and while I may critique the impact it has on the more serious moments of narrative, I will not demand it be removed. So how could we maintain Quiet’s near-nudity while perhaps relieving a little of the pain of bouncing breasts and probable annoyance of ripped tights? While there are alternative costumes within the game, I’d like to consider this base model. (*Afterthought: she’s awfully dressed in some of those alternatives… and how does being covered with blood affect her skin?)
I thought first of female athletes. Serena Williams, for instance, puts her body through the grinder with every match, so something like this may work, a sturdy, sleeveless crop top and tight, short shorts. Women’s volleyball players sometimes wear similar outfits, or if we’re wedded to the idea of bikini-style looks, the combination seen often in beach volleyball, the bikini bottom plus sports bra would be far more practical. This site offers a wide range of looks, and different amounts of support and protection, some shown to the right in the screenshot.
How much does she have to wear? We know she can’t be fully clothed, but after the near-rape, she’s wearing the tunic and she’s just fine, recovered from near-suffocation and back in action. So maybe something as stripped-down as the volleyball outfits wouldn’t be necessary. Perhaps a pair of sturdier shorts instead. As I was considering different women athletes and sports, though, I hit upon that particular combination of athleticism and entertainment: cheerleaders and dancers.
While professional cheerleaders usually avoid stunts and lifts, the routine here, from the Dallas Mavericks Dancers, requires a lot of fast movement and strength (and, obviously, rhythm, but that’s less important for our purposes). These women are dressed in solid tops, complete with hidden support, and shorts, and they’re moving just fine.
Let it be said that, to my knowledge, none of these women are superheroes, nor do they seem to have parasites affording them special abilities. They’re just professionals dressed appropriately for a job. While we never see Quiet’s outfit fail her, that is likely by design; we cannot forget that she is a created character, and her top isn’t just going to slip off unless someone wants it to. As battle dress, however, her outfit is simply ludicrous. The Skull sniper team gives us an in-world template to work from that we may be able to combine with some of these options. Take away all the hardware and they’re still more covered, with what looks like leather bandeaus or halters, and leathery thigh-highs. Drop the thigh-highs (too much cover), ditch the thong for Mavs-style shorts, keep the top, and she’s much improved in terms of practicality. That different style of top would hold up better against chafing under her straps, and as we’ve seen from her tendency to bend over all the time, she’s not immune to a little chafing.
But that raises one last question: is Quiet comfortable? Is she meant to be? The parasites may give her powers, but she never seems comfortable or happy, except for the water scene; she is managing, but is she well? The Metal Gear universe is filled with tragedy and ruined lives and Quiet may simply be another casualty, doomed to a hard life and an unfortunate death. I’m not sure here what purpose she serves beyond sadness, for hers is a tragic narrative, but I am sure of one thing: no matter how Kojima tries to paint it, the choices for her outfit do not serve the narrative or the world it lives in, even the often strange and perverse world of Metal Gear, and all attempted justification falls under analysis of that camera, sliding again and again over Quiet’s exposed breasts.