Is Dr. Robotnik, the principal bad guy in the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise, a feminist? According to his Wikipedia page, yes; yes he is.
It sounds like an obvious Wiki-hoax, but this statement is supported with several sources, including profiles of the moustachioed character in game manuals for Sonic Adventure 2 and Sonic Heroes, where Robotnik is listed under the alternative name Dr. Eggman. A scan of the Sonic Heroes page posted by a Reddit user several months ago states, "As well as having an unfeasibly high IQ of 300, Eggman is a romanticist, a feminist, and a self-professed gentleman."
This revelation is surprising, to say the least. Did Sonic's arch-villain come out as a feminist at least a decade before Taylor Swift, Emma Watson, and others cemented the feminist label's place in mainstream pop culture? Why would a character whose main purpose is to be the baddie wave the feminist flag? How did this happen? What does it all mean?
One Reddit commenter suggested that the text could be a mistranslation from Japanese, and is actually meant to suggest Robotnik is a "womanizer" (obviously pretty different to a feminist), but another responds that the two texts are actually not the same. Our source (Motherboard writer Emi Jozuka's mum) confirmed that the Japanese version of the Sonic Heroes PS2 game manual doesn't mention either of the above and in fact doesn't say much about Robotnik's character at all.
Does Robotnik treat women as equals? Does he come off as someone who would advocate for the rights of women?
I reached out to Sega and Sonic Team in an attempt to clear up the issue but haven't had any response yet. So let's take a look at what else we know about the egg-shaped antagonist and explore what must be one of gaming's oldest mysteries: Is Dr. Ivo Robotnik a feminist?
Reaching a conclusion may be harder than you think, given there doesn't even seem to be an official consensus on what the character's real name is. But let's see what we've got to work with.
The natural place to start would be Robotnik's view towards women and gender equality: Does he treat women as equals? Does he come off as someone who would advocate for the rights of women?
My most intimate knowledge of Sonic is from the first Mega Drive game, in which there aren't any female characters that I can recall. But the games and TV shows since have introduced a cast of girl hedgehogs and other female characters, usually depicted with clichéd long lashes and pink-and-purple effects.
In her series Tropes vs Women in Video Games, feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian takes issue with one of the most prominent female characters in the Sonic world, Amy Rose. She uses Amy Rose as an example of a "Ms. Male" character—a female version of an already established character only discernible as different through stereotypically "girly" attributes.
Amy Rose is a pink hedgehog who wears a dress and is largely defined by her unrequited love for hero Sonic rather than any personal qualities. "Despite her clearly defined goal to marry Sonic, he treats her as little more than an annoyance," one instruction manual reads. Sarkeesian also points out that Amy Rose is "damseled" in the 1993 game Sonic CD, where she's kidnapped by the evil Metal Sonic in another sexist gaming trope.
All in all, there's a clear gender divide in the Sonic world, with male and female characters rather bluntly stereotyped and most of the prominent roles going to the guys throughout the franchise, including that of Eggman (literally called "man").
So the Sonic world might not offer the most promising female characters, but what's Robotnik's take on all this?
Robotnik doesn't seem to have much to do specifically with Amy Rose, though his robot army targets her along with the other good characters. Amy Rose is kidnapped or held hostage a few times though, which is a pretty gendered peril in video games. So far, not very feminist.
As for other female characters, Robotnik doesn't exactly seem to hold them in the highest regard. At one point in Nintendo DS game Sonic Rush, Blaze, a purple cat princess complete with high heels, takes on the Eggman in her mission to save the Sol Emeralds. "I never thought a girl could be so tough!" Eggman says. She can't be tough because she's a girl, huh? That doesn't sound like a very feminist outlook.
One Sonic wiki suggests that Robotnik is romantically interested in women (at least in the US animated TV series Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog) and was crushed by his unrequited love for a woman named Lucinda. Things take a dark turn. "Robotnik seems to prefer robotic female companionship because they can be used as a personal slave rather than an equal partner," the Wiki description states.
Oh dear. That doesn't sound very much like someone who respects a woman's autonomy and supports equal social rights, does it?
In one episode of the cartoon, Robotnik builds a robot wife, Omletta, notable for her large chest. (Robotnik is also alleged to have commented on female bat character Rouge's breasts at one point in the series. Hmm.) According to a write-up, Robotnik does indeed attempt to treat Omletta as a slave, but when water gets into her systems, she turns against him in retaliation. He apparently makes a different robot wife, RoboWife, in another episode. Her likes include "cooking."
From Robotnik's interactions with women in the Sonic universe, it certainly doesn't seem too likely that anyone would accuse him of being a feminist.
And really, that's entirely unsurprising. After all, a much more dominant trait in the character is his lust for world domination, which certainly overshadows any suggestion of fighting for equality. In the earliest games, the main plot is based on Robotnik attempting to enslave all of the world's animals as robots. Sounds a bit of a patriarchal goal, no?
Perhaps Robotnik likes to think he's a feminist but falls very short in the execution. Perhaps this is a woefully misguided interpretation of what a feminist character should be. Perhaps it was all just a rather unfortunate mistake.
Next up: To what extent can Robotnik truly be considered a romanticist?
xx is a column about occurrences in the world of tech, science, and the internet that have to do with women. It covers the good, the bad, and the otherwise interesting gender developments in the Motherboard world.