Admittedly, this is a topic that one could write a thesis paper on (and this has probably been done), but I wanted to look at one particular fact of the argument today, coming off of a conversation I had with this this site’s video host, Tomarris. With the recent release of Bayonetta 2 on Wii U, a game series well known for the over-sexualization of its titular character, I had mentioned that it was a shame a game getting such good reviews for its gameplay had to drag itself down with such juvenile humor and sexism. This led to a discussion of whether video games in general are sexist, to which Tomarris made the argument that while they certainly make unrealistic representations of people, they do so equally with men and women and are therefore not sexist. I wasn’t sure if this was true, but it was a compelling point and it made me decide to dig into the concept of sexism a little bit, both with regards to Bayonetta and with video games in general.
Bayonetta, as a character and as a game, provides an interesting challenge as part of the sexism debate. The video game itself may contain plenty of pervy camera angles, but the character itself would seem to be the exact model of feminist empowerment. This may in fact be a product of how the game was constructed. It is, by virtue of being an over-the-top action game, empowering to the player and therefore the character of Bayonetta. In the game, she kicks ass and takes names, owns her sexuality, but does not function as an object to any in-game character. One of the games producers at Platinum Games, Akiko Kuroda was quoted in one of the promotional videos saying, “So being a female myself, I think it’s really awesome to see a strong female lead, and it’s something I can relate to, I’d really like to see her continue to play a big role.” On the other hand, the director of Bayonetta 2, Yusuke Hashimoto, and the chief animator, Takaaki Yamaguchi, are both men, which may explain why the game has so many crotch shots and why the walking animation has such exaggerated hip-swinging to it. It reminded me of the PC mod a few years ago for Dragon Age, where the modders put the female animation onto the male character model to show how ridiculous it looked to have the female “seductive running” being done by a guy.
Something worth noting is that both the first and second Bayonetta games actually pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors. For those of you who don’t know, the Bechdel Test is a minimum bar popularized by a feminist comic strip that is often used now to judge the portrayal of women in film and TV. To pass the Bechdel Test, the product must contain: a) at least two named female characters who b) talk to each other about c) something other than a man. It’s not deeply scientific, but does say something about the depth of female characters in any given fiction. To give you an idea, only about half of the movies in 2013 passed the test with failures by the vast majority of big blockbuster and action movies. So in that sense, the fact that the Bayonetta universe is populated with many female characters who talk to each other almost exclusively about things other than men would seem to combine with the empowering gameplay to make Bayonetta clearly avoid sexism and in fact serve to empower women. Still, there is a rebuttal to this argument that we cannot ignore. That is, video games are a very different medium than film and TV and as such the Bechdel Test may be partially invalidated by some other aspects of the game. It has been argued before that the relationship that should be tested in the video game environment should not primarily be the one between the characters, but between the character and the player. Does the game assume and/or cater to the assumption of a heterosexual male holding the controller? Despite the intentional campiness of Bayonetta’s scripting, this is a test the game demonstratively fails. This game, as well as many others, know that the male eye is, for better or worse, drawn to certain alluring representations, and has shown little qualms about catering and counting on that guilty pleasure in their audience, despite the long held understanding that overindulging in this is seen as objectifying to women. So in the case of Bayonetta, it seems that the character is feminist, but the perspective is objectifying. But does this mean the game is sexist?
To settle this question, we need to look at a broader topic. By definition, “sexism” as a term refers to unequal treatment of men and women in some way. Such a definition requires scope by its very nature. If that scope is limited to Bayonetta, it would seem that it’s male characters are not objectified to the same extent, though one does get a crotch close up as he is almost run over by a motorcycle. On the other hand, the few male characters that there are in the game come off as bumbling, slightly stupid, and fairly useless. So as far as equality goes, they don’t seem to be faring much better than the women. It’s an interesting perspective. If we look at Grand Theft Auto, a series that is routinely criticized for negative portrayals of women, it is also true that its portrayals of men are also overwhelmingly negative. So is there really an imbalance that would allow us to use the definition of the term “sexism?” The argument is certainly not as clear cut as it has been portrayed. Bayonetta, as we’ve discussed, has strong positive and negative aspects to it. Which of these is stronger is open to as much debate as one wishes, but my instinct is that in the war between empowerment and objectivism, it breaks even or possible empowerment wins by a slight margin. I would therefore say that Bayonetta is not a sexist property. However, the video game industry as a whole, where there is an in-game achievement for looking up the main character’s skirt in Lollipop Chainsaw, may come up slightly on the other side. I think its close though, especially in the face of Tomarris’s argument. The male characters in video games are overwhelmingly rugged, handsome, muscly beacons of masculinity that may be attractive to a female player, but just make the rest of us feel inadequate. On balance (perhaps just because men are more visually oriented, or just less mature) there are more pervy, “objectifying” instances of females than males in video games and that is certainly something video game designers should be aware of. However, it seems like accusations of sexism in the industry as a whole are overblown in this light. That said, the instances of unrealistically perfect characters who are funnier, better looking, and more confident than we are, continue to be as rampant as ever in video games as well as everywhere in media because the consumer (us) doesn’t want to read, watch, or play as uninteresting, average people. So maybe we should work on that.
Another long one, but its a big topic. Have some input on the subjects of sexism, video games, or anything really? Let us know in the comments or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, check out videos on Youtube at Daily D Pad.