Early film studies was underlined with a noticeable patriarchal structure. Leading men conquered the screen, the women and, through viewing the form, the audience. It was through the power of the man of each picture and plot that the ending came about. The audience looked on as the man got the girl, got the bad guy and often walked off into happiness. Society praised such imagery, contexts and conquests. All was right with the world. Or was at least if you were a man.
Laura Mulvey, in her work “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema“, proposes that in order to under the role of women in society, an understanding of the society underpinning that is represented via the visual medium is needed. Using the tools of Freudian psychoanalysis, especially in the arena of scopophilia (voyeurism), she maps out what the cinema can offer in ways that women are represented, worshiped and even sexualized within, through and by the form of film. Her work, to which she ends lamenting that “[w]omen whose image has continually been stolen and used for [voyeurism], cannot view the decline of the traditional film form with anything much more than sentimental regret”, is applicable to more than just film studies, it is also a framwork for understanding one of the most well known and treasured video games, Super Mario Bros.
Women, within the Freudian view of psychoanalysis, are placed into one primary role, the threat of castration, and, to a lesser secondary role, as Laura Mulvey puts it, the “bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.” By lacking a penis, the woman is seen as a threat to the man. As a similar but fundamentally anatomical different other, a woman stands in for a man without his manhood, his penis. The woman too is represented as bound to the man through ordering based on societal roles. Basically, the man is in constant anxiety through interaction with the other, the duality of the woman as both object of desire and threat to self as being alien to the known anatomy. This anxiety is manifest in the distance that is needed to overcome the threat to self and give into the desire. This distance however is where the root of voyeurism takes place for men.
As with any other approach using Freudian ideals, the place of the ego, the self, must be accounted for in any framework. Within the view of cinema, this is the extension, the nostalgia, of the ‘mirror-moment’, the realization of each child that the subject reflected at the self in a mirror is, in fact, the self. This “mirror phase” of development though comes at a time “when the child’s physical ambitions outstrip his motor capacity… he imagines his mirror image to be more complete, more perfect than he experiences his own body.” This first taste of an imperfect perfection, says Laura Mulvey, is “the birth of the long affair/despair between image and self-image” that drives the cinema as people imagine themselves to be the perfected heroes on-screen.
The draw of cinema is composed of these two ideas: voyeurism, looking to people as objects of desire and as analog, identification with the protagonist as part or extension of the ego, the self. Put in the most blunt terms, the viewer, on a sub-conscious level, either wants to have sex with or be the hero on the screen. For men during the time of early cinema, this was represented by the use of a woman, the desired object, matched with the leading man, the hero the audience would want to be.
Laura Mulvey summarizes the situation saying “[a woman’s] visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.” Women served as “erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium, with a shifting tension between the looks on either side of the screen” (emphasis added). The male protagonist, upon being separated from the female, becomes the focus of plot development, the “bearer of the spectator” and, via the “active power of the erotic look”, “[gives] a satisfying sense of omnipotence” to the male protagonist. The man, like the point of view of the camera, commands both the woman, the object of desire, and the audience through the ordering of that desire.
Super Mario Bros, released in 1985, is a story about a man, Mario, trying to recover a woman, Princess Peach, from a creature, Bowser. Before the game starts, the woman has been kidnapped and the game plot surrounds the process of Mario going through stage after stage as he makes his way through the Mushroom Kingdom, a region inhabited by Koopa, Goomba and other enemies that are part of Bowser’s invading army. As Mario completes a selection of eight stages, a world, he must confront a decoy or Bowser himself in a castle and is then presented with the text that “Thank you Mario! But our princess is in another castle!”
Throughout the journey, Mario can come into possession of various items. Coins, the most items, increase both his score and, when a hundred are acquired, increase his lives, the number of attempts at the current stage after a death occurs. Mushrooms, found infrequently in each stage, grant Mario an additional ability to be hit before death as well as the ability to jump farther and break blocks. Mario can also find Fire Flowers granting him the ability to shoot fireballs that instantly kill most enemies. Even rarer is the find of a Star, making Mario invincible to most hazards and enemies for a shot time. All of these items help Mario in his goal toward the next castle and finally confronting Bowser.
While it is frequently thought that the final battle with Bowser over possession of Princess Peach, according to the framework introduced by Freud and refined for cinema by Laura Mulvey, the ending confrontation is with Princess Peach herself. Bowser is yet another in a long line of challenges that Mario must overcome in his race toward the object of his desire. Bowser might have been the instigator of the invasion and the person responsible for unleashing an army on the Mushroom Kingdom, but Mario is not after him, Mario is after Princess Peach. Having defeated various decoys or clones of Bowser, Mario continues toward the goal of his desire, the objectification of Princess Peach, the movement of her from a person to an object.
The elation that players feel at the empowerment of Mario as he gains new powers, fire or star, and completes stage and worlds is based in the dynamic of control and voyeurism. Mario, as the player directs him toward greater and greater feats within the game, comes to represent the mirror-self, the perfected vision. Mario is able to overcome his own trials through the direction of the player. He shows no sign of giving up and is only stopped when the player finally makes a mistake or the game ends. Mario is incapable of making a misjudgment in and of himself. He is strong, through the use of powers, and destroys the enemies that come toward him. Mario is the analog to the player’s projected self, the best at a job and the only one able to complete the journey.
If Mario is represented the idealized self, then Princess Peach is the desired object, the erotic other represented by the role of the woman in the game. Bowser, if any gender can be assigned, is most likely male. Taking objects, leading armies and kidnapping Princess Peach are all dominance related activities, the expression of his will upon other people and objects. Mario too destroys and vanquishes, he is male. Yet, when she finally appears, Princess Peach freezes the game, stops the action.
Once the desire is reached, the power that Mario had gained and the accomplishments that he had achieved, are striped away. He is castrated from his ability to make choices and take action. From the approach of the of the Freudian framework, Mario comes face to face with his object of desire and it crushes him. The game ends not because the Mushroom Kingdom is safe, many enemies still roam the region, or because Bowser is defeated, his decoys could still be out in other castles not yet visited. No, the game ends because he must resolve the anxiety of the other, that Princess Peach in the role of the woman, and the result of which is punishment through the inverse of fetishistic voyuarism.
Princess Peach becomes less of a person as the journey of Mario continues from the first stage onward. Without story to the contrary, the case could be made that Mario had no other contact with the Princess before setting off on his mission to get her. She becomes more of an idea, an objectification of his desire, a fetish. On the extreme, he could have developed an attachment to the thought of her as he journeys. Without a foothold of some previous knowledge, it is certainly possible that he could have developed any number of rationalizations for his actions, constantly putting himself in deadly situations, toward trying to get her. If nothing else, the player must be aware of the possible eroticism that comes from directing a man toward getting a woman. If Princess Peach is the woman and she represents the eroticism for the character, the hero, then she is also the eroticism for the player, the control and voyuar of the game, as well.
The ending of the game then is equally damning for the player. While the player has directed Mario through many trials and battles, he has developed an identification of the ideal self of being Mario. The fusion of the player-character is a reflection of the ego of the player meeting the ‘mirrored’ controlled character. The player is the character. Thus, when the player-character meets Princess Peach, they both are rendered useless in the face of the woman. The final confrontation leaves Mario castrated from his ability to make any more actions. But the player too, having brought Mario to that point, is cut from the game and his own choices. When Mario loses, so does the player. Both are left impotent by the encounter with Princess Peach.