This piece examines Metroid, specifically how Samus Aran is a phallic woman; how the space she explores is weaponized and vaginal; and how its overseer, Mother Brain, is an Archaic Mother. To summarize those terms, a phallic woman resists sexist conventions by behaving in a masculine (often war-like) fashion in Gothic stories. An Archaic Mother is a powerful, ancient, female mythic figure tied to abject images of motherhood and/or numinous authority. Her power is womb-centric, stemming from her actual womb, or the womb-like space she uses to attack the hero.
This post was written to be a companion piece to our latest Dreadful Discourse podcast, "Episode 8: Phallic Women and Archaic Mothers," which you can watch, here.
I've written about Metroidvania for years, including my master's thesis. Into the present, these games have me constantly thinking how women are symbolized in society. A few days ago, my partner and I were exploring the University of Florida's campus. We saw many buildings. One of the oldest, the chemistry building was decorated with alchemy symbols. One was the symbol for Venus, a circle with a cross extending from the bottom. I immediately thought of the male counterpart: Mars, a circle, with an arrow extending outward at a 45-degree angle.
Venus is the goddess of women and peace (the healing cross); Mars is the god of men and war (the loosed arrow). Traditional symbols like these reinforce sexist values: women as soft, weak—incapable of "phallic" violence and war. To turn this concept on its head, I'll be examining Metroid. Though Samus wages war as men do, she and Mother Brain are unquestionably female, including aspects of their weaponry and power. Vaginal weapons, vaginal power. War vaginas.
"Phallic" and "vaginal" are, themselves, nebulous phrases. They're traditionally sexist terms, but can also serve as gendered concepts (masculine/feminine) or literal observations ("That looks like a dick!"). They're also tied to war and monsters, which generally have alien, weaponized components in Gothic stories. Thus, to discuss Metroid's phallic women and vaginal spaces, we'll need to distinguish between human weapons and how they tend to manifest, versus those in the animal kingdom, especially insects. The reason being Metroid was inspired by Aliens' xenowarfare, which had insectoid qualities.
Unlike insects, humans predominantly wage war with technology. Emblematized weapons of the killing sort have historically been phallic: missiles, and hand-held melee weapons (spears, swords, etc). Weapons of the vaginal sort, like nets and buildings (negative space), tend to trap, hold, or imprison. When I say "phallic/vaginal," I'm largely referring to shape, but shape becomes less important when examining natural weapons. However, shape and function tend to coalesce in Gothic stories, espoused through outmoded traditions in order to emphasize their tyrannical elements; so, it becomes vital to explain all of these factors individually before delving into Metroid.
The myth of male superiority—and so-called "manliness" in general—is propagated through visually phallic, man-made weaponry. A phallic woman might pick up a spear and go to war, becoming transgressively autonomous in the process. There are other symbols of female rebellion and power, but these are seldom technological (excluding buildings, but we'll get to that). Instead, they belong to the body itself. Not only are these bodies generally female; the weapons they boast can appear visually phallic while also being sexually female. If that's the case, then men literally can't use them (the following examples were provided by my partner, Lindsay, an entomologist and mythology enthusiast):
Mythical weapons can symbolize female rebellion and power. Take Medusa's snakes: Functionally her snakes aren't female-exclusive, or man-made; they're purely cosmetic. Medusa kills her victims with a petrifying gaze. Gothic tales treat this freezing effect as a shock response: The female "snake" is viewed as a symbol of antagonistic power, threatening traditional masculinity through castration fears (robbing the phallus of its mythical power) expressed in patriarchal myths like the gorgon. The snake can also be overtly phallic. Benisato, a female villain from Ninja Scroll (1993), attacks with venomous snakes, including one hidden inside her vagina (a man could arguably cram a "snake" up his bum, but homosexuality is often seen as "female": othered, ridiculous, impotent).
The second symbol of female rebellion are natural, entomological weapons. These can vaginal, tied to sexual reproduction. Insect brood mothers are a natural example of the Archaic Mother, using their powerful wombs to birth hostile armies. There's also phallic-looking weapons with female functions. The ovipositor of parasitoid wasps injects an egg into an unlucky host (the life cycle which inspired the xenomorph in Alien). However, all female Hymenoptera (wasps, bees, ants) have an ovipositor, the stinger of which is a modified version thereof. Stingers inject venom, but also eggs. It can stab and kill, but no male can have it. Like the womb, it is forbidden to men ("womb-like," vaginal spaces have a forbidding alien atmosphere, which we'll explore in a moment).
Insects tremendously impacted popular monsters like the xenomorph and later, Samus. Amazons are monsters, and Samus is only half-human. The other half is avian, but my point still stands: Humanoid insects (or animals more generally) are the site of alien depiction, but also behaviors humans typically abject. Unnatural strength is a thing to be feared, especially when viewed through a sexist lens. Though Samus is not insectoid, she still has levels of strength that mirror female insects. Hymenoptera are female dominant. Males are small, weak; they only exists to mate, and cannot work nor soldier—not unlike the submissive male roles in imaginary Amazon societies.
Samus is a phallic woman; she represents a threat to the traditional binary (fostered by civilization well into the 20th century) by waging war as men do: with phallic, technological weapons. Samus is essentially a space Amazon. Her phallic-looking beams and missiles penetrate the darkness and explode. Appearance-wise, though, her helmet extends backward, not unlike the xenomorph's penis-shaped dome. Her helmet is less standard-issue, and more an armored headdress that announces her masculine, phallic qualities. Tribal, primitive, savage, she's the warrior princess; Mother Brain is the queen.
Mother Brain is Samus' hideous double, the game's Archaic Mother. Mother Brain looms over the Zebes ruin. Her brain-in-the-jar variant represents the mad scientist, a semblance of disembodied humanity kept alive by rampant, forgotten technology. It's an archaic notion all on its own. Another archaic component, however, are her female aspects of godhood. Such power is outlined by Freud in his essay "Medusa's Head," detailing ancient, female creator goddesses that predate Western, Patriarchal models (a la Zeus, Odin, the Christian god, etc); these goddesses strike fear through their exclusive power over life and death: the womb. This sense of alien, forgotten time was often framed as female by Freud and his ilk; in the words of Simoine Beauvoir, "Woman is other," except in reverse: the Other is female.
Curiously Mother Brain has no womb, but she does use her fortress to trap Samus inside. She's the freak dictator rarefied by Promethean technology (she destroyed her makers, the Chozo). In Super Metroid, Mother Brain summons a body when cornered. This allows her to duel Samus, responding with a wide arsenal of powerful weapons. This fearsome cache rivals the best Samus brings to bear. In fact, everything Samus wields up to this point has been stolen from Mother Brain (whose pirate friends looted from the Chozo). This includes Mother Brain's unstoppable Rainbow Beam, which ultimately destroys her after Samus steals and turns it into the equally amazing Hyper Beam. Fucking rainbows, y'all.
In terms of vaginal space, Zebes is Mother Brain's "womb" (what Barbara Creed would call "murderous"). There, a sense of contested ownership over ancestral space is maintained, recursively carried out through violent dynastic exchanges. What Mikhail Bakhtin refers to as the chronotope of the castle is effectively a constantly historical reminder of dreadful, bloody lineage. The perfect past of the Gothic heroine is reconfigured as a nightmarish echo chamber of older and older scraps for the crown; giant, funeral effigies (the Chozo statues) offer Samus the means to join in: become the destroyer (this whole paradox overshadows the Chozo's noble-but-doomed attempt at peace in space).
Mother Brain and Samus might be female; they conduct themselves as men historically have done, establishing dominance through salvos of missles, bombs and other deadly munitions. Their immediate, duelist weaponry (their bombs, blades and bombs) aren't literally or cosmetically vaginal. Instead, the vaginal attacks come from the space itself. Like the Gothic castles of old, Zebes attacks the mind, overwhelming the player's imagination through a series of poorly-lit doors, chambers, puzzles and traps. These sexist conventions historically limited the role of female characters. Gothic heroines were lost in a dark, spooky castles; their evil doubles, the hag or the harridan, were relegated to nightly wanderings (see: Betha, from Jane Eyre).
These conventions have aged and endured, colored by murky symbolism. Often, areas in Metroid are subterranean—buried underground, waiting to be disinterred. An old tomb is typical enough. However, a Zebes tunnel can also be organic, the digestive tract of a giant monster. The ruin, the dungeon, the belly of the beast—these frame and color the female experience in Gothic stories. Metroid is no exception. Within a greater mold sits a smaller giant: Mother Brain, proceeded by her minions and generals—dragons, the likes of which a knight in shining armor would slay. And Samus does exactly that, opening the way to the final Promethean puzzle: the so-called "Queen of Dragons," Mother Brain.
To face such a goddess amounts to a return, a completion of the cycle: birth, death, consumption. Animals eat their babies. For them, the mouth is a symbol of consumption, but also danger (teeth bite). The vagina symbolizes birth; for a mother goddess who births and eats disposable babies, bodily openings symbolically conflate. The vagina becomes a site of trauma attached to childbirth and... food. If Samus doesn't fight back, Mother Brain's giant mouth will literally gobble her up. She's not Samus' biological mother, she's an impostor, but the feeling of cannibalistic infanticide cannot be totally ignored.
This involuntary consumption is aped by Mother Brain's "womb," the so-called Metro-oid. This vaginal space adopts chiastic qualities, forsaking the purely terrifying attacks (traditionally associated with the vagina and limited female power) for a more literal and horrifying vaginal attack—to eat, crush or devour like a Mother Goddess's maw (the one that eats you when you "come home"). This includes vaginal teeth, but also stomach acid. Pits found throughout Zebes contain powerful acids that burn through Samus' suit faster than lava, eating her alive. Combined with a "graveyard feel," this digestive embroilment extends to live burial. Samus isn't simply buried; she's digested among the dead.
Another "vaginal" take is the web. Metroid's complex network of chambers offers a weaponized net. Infrequent combat lures Samus inside. Once underground, she feels captured—imprisoned within the web-like fortress. While Gothic stories don't always conflate the human and the animal, many rely on frightened, awestruck explorers traversing dark, hazardous spaces. Samus is that explorer; Zebes is that space; Mother Brain is that hazard, waiting for Samus to die with spidery patience.
Zebes is vaginal both for harboring a female tyrant, and exuding her hostile will unto Samus; it also intimates birth trauma (and straight up death) in ways comparable to the Alien franchise. Samus, meanwhile, is phallic—both through her weapons, and her liminal position as a female character in a traditionally male situation: the impostor female hero subverts sexist conventions by staying inside the suit of manly armor (which has become increasingly sexy over the years). Male eyes are fooled, and Samus can take the path least traveled: not just investigating the Gothic threat (with a candle or a torch), but killing the absolute shit out of it.
In doing what storied men have done for centuries, Samus doesn't become a man. Her struggle is female because she's a woman underneath the suit. She can relate to Mother Brain—through her female biology and identity. Mother Brain, meanwhile, isn't just Samus' ancient foil; she's arguably the Patriarchy's boogeyman (a large role of the Archaic Mother is to paralyze male power). The uncanny hag horror is brought to life through her ghastly appearance: an ataxic gait, an impossibly long neck (not unlike the doctor's wife from Evil Dead 2).
Mother Brain is literally a one-eyed monster. An infantile crone, she screams like a banshee, drools like a baby and stares piercingly at Samus with a huge, cloudy eyeball. This petrifying stare is its own vaginal weapon: an "eye (vagina)" of confusion that renders Samus numb— through ancient hysteria, but also numinous power (the Rainbow Beam). Samus' surrogate parenting comes in clutch; bereaved of the bug-like Metroid larva, she recovers, turning the gaze of the Destroyer back onto itself. Mother Brain's severed head falls to the ground, turns to stone, and crumbles to dust.
Here, Samus is more than a classical Perseus; she's Athena. In the Medusa myth, Athena is an androgynous figure, both masculine and feminine; she forges a shield, but gives it to Perseus. In Metroid, there is no Perseus, no male hero armed to the teeth. Only Samus. Samus kills Mother Brain, but also intimates her by stealing her power. I see this cycle as hereditary in a Bakhtinian sense: told through the castle, Zebes. It's written all over the place, including Samus' pilfered gear.
Barbara Creed has a more symbolic, mythological approach. She writes,
"When Perseus slew the Medusa he did not – as commonly thought – put an end to her reign or destroy her terrifying powers. Afterwards, Athena embossed her shield with the Medusa’s head. The writhing snakes, with their fanged gaping mouths, and the Medusa’s own enormous teeth and lolling tongue were on full view. Athena’s aim was simply to strike terror into the hearts of men as well as reminding them of their symbolic debt to the imaginary castrating mother. And no doubt she knew what she was doing. After all, Athena was the great Mother-Goddess of the ancient world and according to ancient legend – the daughter of Metis, the goddess of wisdom, also known as the Medusa" (The Monstrous-Feminine, 1993).
The lack of a solid bloodline doesn't matter. The symbols remain, Samus wears them, and men will fear her. Small wonder, many artists (usually men) have stripped her down to nothing. No armor, just a baby-blue catsuit. The Archaic Mother isn't castrated; she's infantilized, tantamount to statutory rape—the sort facing most Gothic heroines, chased around by decrepit, horny men since 1746.
Whether clothed or nude, Samus is the fatal portrait unaged. Her Japanese creators have re-sexualized her, post-Super Metroid, to constantly pander to men (so-called "female empowerment"). I'm less inclined to shout "sex positivity" because the permanent lack of a power suit goes against Samus' original, core design. She was never a sexpot. She needs her armor, but also the castle to explore and conquer. More to the point, if Samus were as legitimately threatening and unyoked as Mother Brain, she'd be equally as terrifying to sexist men afraid of powerful women.
No amount of stolen, phallic weaponry will turn Samus into a man. Armed to the teeth, she continues to inspire and champion feminist thought in videogames. The omen is there—Mother Brain, Queen Bitch of the Universe. Will Samus become her, or usher men to more enlightened views of what powerful women can actually be?
Not if she's reduced to a mere sex object. Cry havoc, and let loose the vaginas of war.
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