Guns for Heels: What Bayonetta Could Mean for Female Game Characters
Female characters in video games can often be described as slight variations of one of three archetypes: the helpless, hapless damsel in distress; the coquettish, alluring vixen; and the cold-hearted, distant embodiment of stoicism. In addition, the majority of women in games are heavily and overtly sexualized for mass male consumption, thereby providing slight variations of the same visual across several different games. Many lauded video game members have taken issue with the current state of women in games and have offered their own viewpoints in order to fix it. Leigh Alexander writes in an editorial for Gamepro Magazine that characters such as Bayonetta “[take] the video game sexy woman stereotype from object to subject” in which “the game itself is an artistic representation of the concept that female sexuality is its own kind of weapon.” Others disagree, believing that “characters [should] reflect the harsh lifestyle of their world in a much more believable way” (Hamm). Both offer interesting yet opposing solutions. However, both solutions can go much further in creating believable or truly empowering female characters. The hypersexualized dominatrix invoking female empowerment is a dramatic knee-jerk response to the objectification of women in games. The normal, average woman with a matching attitude and manner is currently the method being taken for game developers wishing to inject their games with respect for females. Video game females can be so much more than either of those two proposals. The change the industry needs for their female characters is to make them more multifaceted by giving them unique strengths, weaknesses, quirks, and personality traits. Female characterization needs to evolve to better reflect where females are today, instead of the antiquated false notions of what they were and perhaps should have been in the past.
Alexander provides an interesting argument by presenting the point of Bayonetta embodying female empowerment and sexual security. Alexander argues that “the game itself is an artistic representation of the concept that female sexuality is its own kind of weapon.” She references Madonna and Lady Gaga, citing how their use of sexuality creates discussion rather than objectification. The motivation behind Alexander’s short article is to bring forth and begin to sustain the viewpoint that Bayonetta is more than just an object created by males for males—she is also a strong, powerful woman that willfully rejects the traditional notions of demure women while taking control of the virtual world she is starring in. In a twist not often seen in games, women completely dominate the game as far as the control of power is concerned. The “boys just play in” her world (Alexander). This concise article uses pop culture and quick references to past game characters in order to incite a greater discussion about Bayonetta and her creator’s motives. As it stands, Alexander is the first person to spark this debate, and it is interesting to see the different responses given.
An interesting counterpoint to Alexander’s article is given by Tanner Higgin, a professor who frequently writes analytical academic articles on race, gender, and power in video games. Higgin argues that “Bayonetta exhibits feminist resistances lacking from most other games; however, it is ultimately a failed project because these resistances are not adequately engaged with patriarchal hegemony.” Higgin begins with an analysis of Lady Gaga and her effect on the mainstream media, popular culture, and societal structure. Higgin defines feminism with Gaga, stating that she uses her femininity to create discomfort among the male gender while behaving in ways that are not viewed as traditionally acceptable for a woman. He then goes on to compare Gaga with Bayonetta, noting their similarities lie in their charisma and personality—but it ends there. Ultimately, Bayonetta fails because there are no traditionally masculine tendencies to balance out her overly sexualized and campy nature. She conforms to the masculine view of female empowerment. Higgin furthers the debate about Bayonetta and female game characters in general by delving deeper into the subject matter and applying cultural and societal analyses to accomplish something that Alexander did not—he develops a well-thought out argument that objectively explores both sides of the argument. Especially unique is his brief yet concise look into a male character that actually did break free of the ever-present social constraints in the video game industry. Higgin explores the character of Raiden from the Metal Gear Solid series and his impact on the gaming community, the ire drawn from the fans, and how he explored challenging and differing notions of the masculine gender, thereby progressing them within the industry. He adds validity and substance, thereby allowing the topic to enter the realm of academic discourse. By thoroughly critiquing and analyzing Bayonetta against Gaga, Higgin forms a statement about video game characters in general and the industry’s emphasis on the still very patriarchal representation of female sexual empowerment.
Tiffany Chow, a game designer and noted blogger, disagrees completely with Alexander’s approval of Bayonetta’s status as feminist embodiment. Chow argues that Bayonetta is nothing more than pure camp and sexual objectification and gratification for men. Bayonetta’s extremely disproportionate body and tendency to find herself naked in battle is not style, as Alexander argues; nor is it turning her character into a topic of critical academic discussion. Chow cautions that it is dangerous to read too much into a character such as Bayonetta because she was made by the male gaze for consumption of the male gaze. Bayonetta is campy, a self-aware play on everything that the male gender stereotypically find appropriately attractive—yet Bayonetta offers no more substance than that. Chow agrees with Higgin when she states that Bayonetta does not attack the patriarchal system but rather conforms quite nicely to it. Bayonetta does not challenge, but enforce. Chow goes on to state that if the creators had intended to make a statement with Bayonetta and with her design, the game as a whole would have been far more substantial than it was. As it stands, the majority of the components of the game have very little depth to them. The story is lacking, the characters are underdeveloped, and the narrative does little to present any sort of meaningful challenge to both society’s present social and gender structure and female video game characters. The creators did not see her as a powerful progression in gender but rather a pandering sexual object, Chow argues.
There is yet another argument that expands the conversation and dissects other characters, revealing what makes them appealing, why, and how they advance or conform to the current state of the female gender in games. William Huber, a professor at USC and noted academic blogger, points out that female characters do not need to expose massive amounts of flesh or present themselves as extremely sexual beings in order to be viewed as empowering. Surprisingly, Huber brings a completely new facet of the conversation to light: female characters who are hyper-feminized—that is, appear to conform to the traditional patriarchal view of acceptable femininity—often seem to have the personalities and the substance that qualify as gender progressive or challenging. Huber recommends that perhaps it is due to the fact that these characters seem to respect not only those around them but themselves as well—a respect that characters such as Bayonetta are missing. This makes for a far more compelling and believable character. Huber adds that Yuna from Final Fantasy X is obvious that her desire is for the main character Tidus, not the player, and that it is he who she restrains her sexual desire for. She was not created to pander to anyone; instead, she was created to be believable. Huber adds that a female character must be created with substance and a rich inner history first, because that is far more difficult to find in a character than the “robust sexuality” of Bayonetta.
The discussion surrounding Bayonetta brings forth an interesting problem that the video game industry is currently having: female characters in games thus far seem to conform to a superficial take on empowerment and equality. Bayonetta is an accidental and unintentional step towards finding a solution to this problem. Just as she is part of the beginnings of the solution, she is also part of the problem—female empowerment is not possible without its patriarchal sexualization. In order for games to be viewed as a serious art form, compelling characters and narratives must emerge. Video games are often derided for having obscenely sexualized and unrealistic characters, and this only hinders its expansion. Women in the industry have either become desensitized to the stereotyping or are aggressively calling for a change because women outside of the industry are constantly being barraged with unappealing representations of their sex. This alienation is harmful to video games and to those who create them. Without a shift towards more authentic and concrete female characters, the industry will not reach a wider audience. Without that wider audience, the untapped creative potential in video games will never be discovered.