Save Point: Soul Edge

Recently, I wanted to add some new art to my home. In looking over the many images I gathered as prospects, my husband observed, “Everything you Pinned is a magical woman.” He was right. There were women with swords and women with spears. Women with lances and women with shields. Women whose hands glowed with spells and women who wore crowns made of stars. It was an unintentional but admittedly sprawling gallery of magical women. Specifically, magical warrior women. I want to interrogate this.

Where did this fascination start? With myth, probably. Diana. The huntress, the moon goddess, with her bow and arrow and stag. My mother read myths to me as a kid. Probably, the grain of this obsession lies there. I was always drawn to this kind of imagery. This imagery and this archetype.

I grew up in the 1990s. The “girl power” era. There was Sailor Moon. There was Xena. Buffy. Captain Janeway. The Spice Girls. I felt semi-surrounded by representations of powerful/warrior/magical women. Even if some of those reflections sent mixed messages, they provided a kind of aspirational mirror. I guess we would call them role models. Characters who modeled certain roles. Of leaders, of fighters, of heroes.

On the gaming front, there was Seung Mina. I adored her from the first time my ten-year-old hands arranged themselves on the wobbly joystick and smooth, indented buttons of the Soul Edge (a.k.a. Soul Blade) arcade game. I loved Sophitia, too, with her broadsword and shield. Her laced boots that reminded me of Diana. But I was better with Seung Mina—her slashing range weapon—and I loved her long braid, her athleticism. Her movements that were somehow both graceful and ferocious. Her confidence—that smile when she won a match.

A 2016 report from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and the J. Walter Thompson Company found that out of 4,300 women in nine countries—Brazil, China, India, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Russia, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—90% said that female role models in forms of pop culture like TV and film were important. 90%.

My father and I would go to the arcade, and I would save Soul Edge for last. This is because I was determined to beat it. I knew from the Character Select screen there were only so many characters to fight your way through before something different had to happen. This line of thought helped me persuade my father to contribute a few more quarters to my cause (though, to be fair, he didn’t need much coaxing). I got better each weekend. I learned Seung Mina’s combos. Gauged the alacrity of different opponents, the exact height of Seung Mina’s jumps. The coordination necessary to bounce back from a fall. I learned to see openings and take them.

Finally, one day, I made it to Cervantes, the ghostly pirate, a non-playable character. Thus, the presumed final boss. For several weeks, he finished me off. Each time Dad and I left the arcade, I had to start back from the beginning. Had to fight my way back to the shifting, tilting port with its ominous, carved Jolly Roger. “This is it,” I would say to my father. “It has to be.” Cervantes was muscular. Hulking and aggressive. I had to learn to be fearless. To not be afraid of his glowing, chilling eyes or his twin swords that swirled around his head, manipulated through telekinesis. His scowl or his gloating when I fell. I had to learn to get back up.

In the study, 61% of the women surveyed said female role models in pop culture have been “influential in their lives.” 58% said they made them “more ambitious or assertive.” In the U.S., 1 in 9 even said these kinds of representatives helped them leave abusive relationships. In Brazil, it was 1 in 4. This means something. These are more than “feel good” statistics. These are real lives changed. By stories. By mythic women.

So this matters, somehow. It matters that in playing a young woman with a halberd, I learned something about courage. It matters that my tiny, ten-year-old hands took on a murderous pirate. It matters that when Seung Mina and I defeated Cervantes, and when he wasn’t the final boss, and when his body caught flame and turned into something else—a demon, a blazing skeleton, an evil energy named Soul Edge—I didn’t back down, even though I was grossed out and a little afraid of his fiery skull. That I glared back and charged right at him.

It matters in the sense that games are simulations—safe places to explore what you could or might do. To experience vicarious power. Even though Soul Edge was a fighting game, it was also arguably a role-playing game. Something more interactive, at least in one sense, than a role model merely watched onscreen. The gaming medium offers an attempt, if just a small one—a subjective audition for the role itself.

It matters, somehow, that these characters sunk in. Such that still, to this day, I surround myself with magical warrior women.

I mentioned mixed messages. And in returning to Seung Mina and sort of “close reading” her as research for writing this, I was surprised at how sexualized she is in official and fan art alike. Did I notice her bare thighs and exposed midriff when I played the game as a kid? I’m sure this wasn’t lost on me. I’m sure I noticed. But I was too enamored with her warrior status to let it dissuade me much. Her status as a young woman taking on enemies bigger and stronger than her. I latched onto that despite, perhaps, some subtle inkling in my ten-year-old brain that maybe I was not the intended audience, the player they had in mind. As an adult, it felt strange to scroll through Google images and see rendering after rendering of this childhood hero in suggestive poses and shrunken attire. A little unsettling, like maybe I am foolish. That some interpretations, while maybe not wrong, are pushing against a tide. I see empowering. You see sex. An object—just an image.

In literary studies, there’s one branch of thought called reader-response theory that says that texts and characters don’t have single, fixed meanings. That we decide the meaning, we assign the meaning. That meaning lies with us. In close reading Seung Mina, I think about her weapon and how in real life I panic killing bugs. Then grieve and feel guilty. How I’m fairly adverse to violence. When I was younger, surrounded by warrior women, I thought I wanted to learn martial arts. Thought I wanted to handle weapons. I took tae kwon do lessons. Took fencing lessons. Trying to be like these heroes in a literal, tangible way. In the end, though, my interests shifted, and I chose to study stories instead. The weapons, for me, became metaphors in a way that still left them appealing. A painting of a woman with a weapon signaled agency—it’s the image of the weapon I grew to like, not the actual weapon itself. Maybe someone else would interpret this archetype differently; that person might learn to swordfight. My younger self saw steel and wood; my older self, analogy. Is one of us wrong? Is there a right or wrong way to “read” a young woman with a spear?

Empowerment and role models are tricky things. Elusive and personal things. But 90% is not a small number, so there’s something vital in them. From Diana to Seung Mina to the artwork I Pinned, this archetype of the magical warrior woman is rattling around in me, resonating. Though it’s complex and messy, still we get to claim what the woman with the halberd means.