Metal Gear Solid: Military masculinity and homoerotica

CW: Descriptions of violence, torture, homophobia & misogyny

Big Boss dismounts his motorcycle near the headquarters of his private military force, Militaires Sans Frontières, attempting to light a Cuban cigar in the Central-American downpour. On the nearby beach, his men are going through the ropes of close-quarters combat. They’re close, forceful, and intimate with eachother — as keen to perfect the motions as they are to assert dominance over a comrade. Boss approaches them, feeling comfortable enough to remove his shirt in the process. His wide, hairy, battle-scarred chest cascades with rain, drenching everything from his dishevelled beard, to his nipples, to the taut leather straps grasping his groin. His men greet him with a respect that goes beyond military ranks — it is a slow, dignifying salute to a living legend, a happy giddiness of being allowed to serve this hero. They line up to be at the receiving end of Boss’s CQC maneuvers, they even thank him for showing no restraint with them. Their posture, attitude, and language suggests: I’m ready for whatever you want to do.

This isn’t the leading paragraph to a gay fanfiction I just wrote. This is the opening scene of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, the sixth game in Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid series. In a nutshell, MGS is hard sci-fi spy fiction with a heavy emphasis on American geopolitics and military culture. The games are about being a soldier, fighting for what’s right in a world of geopolitical systems occupied by conspiratorial villains. The only men in the position to fight corruption and ward off disaster are the enlightened soldier, the warrior-philosopher, the sweaty uomo universalis.

There is a sexual quality to Metal Gear Solid that I want to uncover. The thesis is the same as my JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure piece, meaning that I want to show readers how to look at MGS with a gay male gaze by locating and analysing the idealised masculine fantasy within Metal Gear Solid’s (visual) text. I do so carefully: the military is not an institution that is kind to LGBTQ people, or, let’s face it, people in general. Also, like, I don’t mean to exclude women or non-binary people with this analysis. If you think Snake is hot, that’s solidarity.

An important consideration to take with you is that Hideo Kojima is a Japanese man looking at the US military. He grew up in a nation that doesn’t have a strong sense of military worship. He understands the US and its military-industrial complex as a colossus, but often declines to valourise it. For instance, a recurring plot beat is how main protagonists Solid Snake and Big Boss must navigate a volatile, exploitative, and destructive political maze caused directly by the US — a state they ostensibly serve. Subsequently, they become disillusioned by that state as a result. From Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops onward, the fourth game in the series, the subject changes from ‘military’ to ‘mercenary’. Big Boss starts his own private military company, and from this moment, he actually fights against the US. This is important — the ‘victories’ aren’t in countenance with a state. It becomes self-sustaining. That is to say, soldiers fight for each other’s sakes.

The series pays countless hommages to war movies of old and new, most visibly the Reagan-era war flick. To be clear, war fiction can and most often is still very homophobic, because it draws from an extremely heteromasculine context. More on this later. However, military fiction simultaneously operates with a nostalgic distance, able to produce images of intimate bonding and bodies. That intimacy is where it all starts. In order to understand how Metal Gear Solid constructs such a masculinity, I first want to take a closer look at the greater phenomenon of the military and homoeroticism.

About military masculinity

The war movie is a genre that the American film industry has not slowed down since the 40s. Aesthetically born out of propaganda posters, these stories are monochromatically about one side of the conflict. The ‘good side’. The other side is the bad one. It is nothing more than an obstacle, and commonly to gunshots. In this formula, they die for opposing the heroic soldier. Think of The Green Berets (1968), Black Hawk Down (2001), or The Hurt Locker (2008). Games, too, reproduce this form of storytelling to the letter: Call of Duty, Gears of War, Battlefield, and the countless army shooter games that slipped under the radar most of the 2000s. This is, indeed, a form of propaganda.

One major component in any war movie is the affection, trust, and dependence between the men in a platoon. The scrum, the shared showers, the bunk-beds, the fox holes — all notably excluding women — as well as from the victory celebrations afterward. It idealises this male-on-male kinship as a net positive. It’s an imaginary site of vintage masculinity where male togetherness teeters on the border between nude intimacy and sexuality, always about to spill over and requiring redirection. This can serve as a distraction to focus on the image we’re being presented with: the male body serving the public good. Which conveniently hides the military’s fascistic context, or, boot-camp reality.

What’s better than this? Guys being dudes

In his book Bring Me Men, Aaron Belkin identifies the stark reality contrasting the cultural fantasy about the military. Where we might think of these productions as bringing to light a repressed queerness, the utility of homoeroticism is in diametric opposition to how the army uses it. The cameraderie of boot camps and squadrons mostly rely on hazing rituals that introduce homoerotic tension as a belligerent factor. As Belkin puts it, it is not ‘homosexuality’, but ‘unmasculinity’. It is an internalised pathology that is constantly renewed and must constantly be purged, a superficial homoeroticism that acts as a buffer against real homosexuality. An enemy within.

Hazing rituals, then, are manners in which a masculine anxiety is introduced. A soldier must “resolve the anxiety by cleansing the pledge of his supposed feminine identification […] promising him a lifelong position in a purified male social order.These rituals might involve feminising humiliation, drinking vodka out of a buttcrack, inserting objects into anal cavities, or masturbating on squadmates. Yet, there is never a clear point that tells privates “congratulations, now you’re masculine”. A soldier-subject is never done purging and proving himself to the oedipal mother figure of the army.

In war fiction, especially dramas, the idea of ‘unmasculinity’ is something that exists within the external, not the internal. Soldiers must pursue victory, and in order to win, they have to overcome the enemy. The anxiety of unmasculinity is located within the battle or the war itself. It’s unmasculine to lose, so the idea of masculinity turns both inward and horizontal, becomes shared. It’s a type of struggle that is associated with endurance, bonding, and physicality. Aspirational masculinity as propaganda.

Of course, we can form our own opinions about being shown a bunch of buff men doing physical stuff together. I consider this the ‘essence’ of what makes military fiction elligible for gay or queer readings. There is a latent sexual anxiety that can lead to an explicit fantasy. This might help explain why there is so much queer and gay fanfiction that employs a military ‘AU’ (alternate universe), or why there’s so much gay porn involving a drill sergeant and his privates. The anxiety of ‘is this gay?’ is answered with ‘oh, but it is!’, and is resolved through the act of sex while maintaining the social order. It’s neither an endorsement nor a co-optation of the military as a gay space. It’s not ‘queering the military’, it is identifying the sexual tension and using it to fulfil an explicitly gay fantasy. It takes the raison d’etre of the military, violence, and embraces the transgressive, rather than repel it.

With that established, let’s actually look at Metal Gear Solid now.

The male body: pain and proving grounds

Little Metal Gear lore up front: the main characters are ‘Solid Snake (MGS1, 2, 4) and ‘Big Boss’ (MGS3, Portable Ops, Peace Walker, Ground Zeroes, Phantom Pain). Also, Big Boss is called ‘Naked Snake’ in MGS3. I won’t be discussing Raiden in this piece, because no one is paying me.

Anywho, let’s take a look at the very first thing a player might see in the series: the ‘Briefing Files’ in Metal Gear Solid. A man reduced to a visual object.

We see a captured Solid Snake. He is muscular, calm, and gruff, someone you can’t easily mess with. His former employers brought him here, coerced to take on a dangerous mission: to take down ‘FOXHOUND’ and prevent a nuclear attack. Also, he’s completely nude.

The camera-style framing presents us with a recording of Snake. Being recorded adds vulnerability: you are watched without the opportunity to watch in return. As viewers, we don’t know if or how that vulnerability will be exploited. We can only watch, and since it is a recording, we can access it at any time. Our viewing pleasure comes at the cost of his humiliation — a form of voyeurism.

The focal object of the lens is a defenceless masculine-yet-capable body in a position of submission. The power dynamic of captor-captive reflects the dialogue between what is happening on-screen and our expectations — what might be done to him? At certain intervals throughout the cutscene, the player is to take control of the camera, switching between different camera angles. From his face, to glimpse at his backside, to directly peering into between his legs. We’re still spectators, but we can decide on how we watch (how we want Snake’s body presented to us). Put differently, we may project our desires on his body whenever we want.

This power play is a recurring scene in Metal Gear Solid, especially in its torture scenes. Almost every game contains a scene where either Snake or Boss is stripped and bound to a device that stretches out his body in a vulnerable position while an older man punishes his body. MGS1 has Liquid Ocelot shocking Snake, MGS2 has Solidus Snake on Raiden, MGS3 has Volgin on Boss, and so on.

As above, it’s the defiance against an external threat where Snake’s masculinity is pitted against that of his captor’s. In other words, it’s a battle, a proving grounds, rather than a prolonged act of extreme cruelty. Not exclusive to torture, the fantasy scenario where masculinity can ‘break’ is lined with bodily intimacy: debasing male pride into servitude. The ‘contest of virility’ that takes place in these moments creates tension, because it takes on the form of a mental tug-of-war. Traditional masculinity is poised to prove its worth, so a healthy fantasy can consider when it fails. Demasculation (‘sissification’) is a big fetish for a reason.

We must be aware of the role that gender plays within ‘pain’. The homoeroticism of male pain is only accessible because it is hardly instructed to be sexual, at least not in the straight male gaze. In his book Torture Porn: Popular Horror after Saw, Steve Jones analyses the dichotomous nature of violence in (horror) media. His analysis of ‘torture’ is of significance here. Naming post-Saw slasher films and body horror flicks as examples, he finds that the cinematography of male torture commonly takes on a sadistic, though non-sexual form. But the suffering of women is almost always shot pornographically, even when tortured. Women’s pain, regardless of setting, is a sexualised visual credit, as it relates to patriarchical power.

In Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain there is an omitted scene where Quiet is interrogated. This takes on an uncomfortable, predatory, and rape-y vibe. This, compounded with Quiet’s unfortunate design and many camera angles in the game showing off her curves and flexibility, eroticises the extreme sexual violence she receives. This is different from how the Snakes are treated: it’s not a contest (resistance), it’s sadism (victimisation). We see more of this in MGS4’s Beast Unit, or Ground Zeroes’s ‘Paz tapes’ (search at your own disgression). Metal Gear Solid, even with its implications of homomasculinity, is contrasted by a difficult, almost thoughtlessly negative view of women in the military. Kojima has attempted to excuse this by pointing out its hyper-male nature, or through ‘lore-explaining’ it. Both fail to account for the production of sexist violence.

The male body: from action to care

Snake and Big Boss share an 80s-style film bravado that stems from Kojima’s love of war movies like Rambo and Die Hard. Their hard, chiseled, scarred bodies represent and reveal strength, labor, determination, loyalty, and courage. This Reagan-era of ‘character strength’ is made literal by focusing on physical strength and bodily toughness, unaffected by disease, fatigue, or aging. This allows the man to instrumentalise his body — weaponise masculinity — as a vessel of power and will. This is directly characterised by Big Boss, who has had five games dedicated to displaying his Spartan spirit. All Metal Gear Solid games are in some sense about this recreation of Rambo. All, but one.

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots did something different. It made us play as an old man, an old man we know. Solid Snake has all but shriveled up; he is frail and clings to his cigarettes like a grandparent in a foster home. Simply put, the man we’ve come to respect is now dying. (It’s speculated that Kojima made Snake into an old man to get back at Konami, but personal resentments aside, I work with what we’re presented with.)

So much of the traditional masculine ideal is nestled in challenge, which is a battle reserved for the virile young men. Literally aged beyond his years (he’s 42, looks 75), Snake has outlived his manliness — into unmasculinity? The treatment of the senescent body grows out of doing struggle, and moves toward requiring care. The elderly aren’t sexualised on the same scale as 20–50 year olds are for a wild variety of reasons, but one of these reasons is the reduced ‘capacity for activity’. An older person cannot perform on the same level as they might have been able to decades ago. In sexual terms, there’s a polarity shift in what fantasies we can project on the aged body and its capabilities. Meaning that, unlike the previous two examples, homoerotic situations of violence stop being available for the elderly, as it feels more like cruelty than contestation. Age, in sexual fantasy, determines when a body stops being an inflictable canvas.

Old Snake

The situation ‘Old Snake’ finds himself in is one of feebleness. He can’t perform as well as he did in the last game, ten years ago. In Act 2, it becomes clear that Snake’s starched and rheumatic body requires massages to stay flexible. He suddenly requires care, which is different from receiving support or enlisting allies that is common between war buddies. Care lacks an external struggle — it’s domestic, it’s personal, it’s ‘feminine’.

The game’s Mission Briefings are temporary withdrawals from the battlefield into a household setting. Here, Snake can enjoy the company of Otacon and their adopted daughter Sunny in relative peace. There is something to be said about the ‘briefings’ taking place in a semi-domestic sphere — not a militarised space such as a headquarters and certainly not a brig. He’s become too old for it all, but his legacy of victory keeps demanding of him the same sacrifices. The more he returns from a battle, the more frequent his violent coughing fits. Otacon rushes to his side, with the concern of a lover and the turtleneck of a gay art dad.

Showing two men caring about and for each other is so striking and unique that we can only imagine it must be the result of a love. Whether or not you see this love as fraternal or romantic, it is not an unmasculine love. It is merely un-military. That is the new, final location of Metal Gear Solid’s homosensual affect. It settles down in the care between men, in the love of family, and in the promise of support not directed against an external threat, but shared with each other. Because Snake? He’s had a hard life.

This is continued in Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker and The Phantom Pain. More on this below.

Select your buddy

There’s a couple of characters and their relationships I want to highlight. They fell outside the scope of the analysis of the body, but still emphasise on male-on-male intimacy.

Big Boss

Most of this article applies to Big Boss, but him as a character displays a certain tunnel vision when it comes to sexuality. Women are not the object of his romantic or sexual affection. When EVA gives him a gun, he literally has more interest in that than in her over-exposed cleavage. His love for The Boss, too, is oedipal and neuter — it’s more of an ideological love. It’s something that isn’t heterosexual. The fact of the matter is, he doesn’t read as straight. I like to think Big Boss is asexual.

He calls himself a dog of war who can only exist in conflict. He seeks it out as if it gives him meaning, as if it’s all he has. The trope of the “soldier requiring war to feel alive” is a dangerous one, but as it plays out in Portable Ops and Peace Walker, Boss actually fights on the side of socialist revolutionaries. But more importantly, the battles he wages are contingent on his comrades. He needs his men to fight with him, to share in the struggle and winning together, in order to feel alive. It’s not the victory that is the goal, it’s the cameraderie of having challenged outside forces. It is the same intimacy that war fiction recreates, but without allegiance to a state. At the end of the day, with his manyfold mercenary companies, Big Boss just wants to recreate the Band of Thebes.

Ocelot

Ocelot is the most interesting and the gayest character in all of Metal Gear. Many characters, including EVA and Kaz and even himself, corroborate his ‘infatuation’ with Naked Snake. Born a Russian and working for the KGB, he distances himself from his nationality, ideology, and even personality the moment he is told to use a revolver. From that particular moment, Ocelot crushes his entire identity and rebuilds it from the ground-up as a cowboy. He starts watching cowboy movies, because cowboys use revolvers. He starts talking with an exaggerated Southern accent, because cowboys. He even starts wearing spurs, because cowboys. Cowboys, because revolver. Revolver, because of Snake. Imagine being so gay you just base your whole identity around a gift your crush gave you. Ocelot betrays about seven countries for the man.

HotMen CoolBoyz (2000)

The cutscene above is, in my opinion, one big metaphor for doin’ it. Before Snake is allowed to pull out the knife himself, Ocelot meets his eye, as if asking for consent. He curls his fingers around the handle, taking time to build anticipation. Snake playfully tells him to ‘be gentle,’ and Ocelot’s natural response is ‘Of course’. Snake’s moan is low, and Ocelot smugly looks at the bloody blade, appreciating his handiwork. Their exchange seems to revolve around a penetrative act with a heavy emphasis on mutual consent. Thinking emoji. Snake then invites the two offending soldiers over for a ‘lesson they won’t forget’.

He also stays at home to raise your dog for you.

Kaz

Kazuhira is introduced in Peace Walker as a womanising libertine, but as your second-in-command, all he seems to care about is doing his best for Snake. Having first met in battle, Kaz was standoffish and bratty toward Big Boss, who promptly “slammed him down”. It was in that moment he came to realise Snake’s inner strength, deciding that he would be able to fulfil his dream through Big Boss. Already at the start of their relationship, we have a fraternal devotion that is the result of victory in battle, a loyalty gained through physicality. This is a recurring theme in Boss’s and Kaz’s relationship — in a tape, Paz comments how the two have a lot of naked shower slap fights. Also, Boss can literally go on a beach date with Kaz which ends when he joins you in a two-man cardboard box. “Mission complete”, I’ll bet.

Their bond tightens during Phantom Pain. Kaz is captured and maimed, left permanently blinded and limp, meaning that he is robbed of the meaning-making of being a soldier — of fighting together with Boss. His dream becomes a need for revenge, which is subject to his total abandon. Only through Boss, can he achieve his deepest desire. Every time the two men are on screen together, Kaz moves in very close, always grasping his shoulder, his arm, or his face. Their mouths alligned, Boss stares back, taunting “do it”.

Closing thoughts

What Metal Gear Solid presents is a type of masculinity that overlaps with war fiction of the 80s and the visual tensions of gay porn. Kojima idolises the soldier, not the state, and means to recreate this through a politically complicated series where soldiers defect to fight the state itself. It cannot, and refuses to, escape the confines of military thinking: struggle and violence is the only way to ‘becoming’, and there is no end to this path. It reflects the boot camp mentality of purging, but sees male intimacy as a reinforcement, rather than a toxin.

It is through the visual verbiage of battle that the male body is explored, and that is its connection with gay male fantasies. This clearly isn’t without problems, as you’ve come to realise. Metal Gear Solid’s subtextual gayness operates on violence, whether it be psychological or physical, and no matter how erotically you present a torture victim, it is still torture. There is care and there is solidarity between soldiers, but the tension is military. And by that, I mean that it is heterosexual. By that same count, it is also very sexist.

It’s a strange thing — for gay and queer people, to have our desires fulfilled, we have to locate them within ostensibly straight media. And we have to give the representations (the memories!) of homophobia, the violence, the trauma, a compartment in order to access what they could mean for us. Comfort, safety, passion. But it is this power of the imagination that we can redirect violence: it can stop hurting, it can start healing.

And if all this hasn’t convinced you, here’s this video.

Has shown interest in text and frogs, known website-owner http://thefriendden.net/

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