Game: Bayonetta (2010)
Species: Umbra Witch
In Her Own Words: “Come now, Cheshire…look at me. Do I look like I have any interest in children? Now making them…well, that’s another story.”
Bayonetta is outrageous. She is about eight feet tall, her high heels are a pair of guns, she’s thousands of years old, she likes to punish her enemies by bending them over her knee and spanking them and, best of all, her impossibly long hair forms a catsuit that she can also use to summon a mighty demon at will; should the situation call for it. And given that she spends much of her time fighting angels (apparently not the good guys here, but whatever), the situation calls for it frequently.
When the game was released in 2010, our heroine miraculously avoided being swamped by a tidal wave of criticism on account of her appearance, behaviour and absent clothes, perhaps because the quality of the gameplay itself was so unprecedentedly high.
Still, she did not escape it entirely. IGN’s Meghan declared her “incredibly shallow”. A fair point, but that lament on the IGN blog, entitled “Bayonetta: Post-Feminist Heroine or Objectified Floozy?” ascribed intentions to Bayonetta’s creators that simply are not in evidence in the game, or indeed anywhere else. “Why women are expected to […] be spoon-fed the notion that Bayonetta is irreverent/empowering and beyond criticism makes little sense to me”, Meghan says, implying that the character is meant to provide a lesson to women, and thus exists not on her own terms, but to make a case for the acceptability (or even preferability) of overtly sexualised female game characters.
Similarly, Zero Punctuation’s Yahtzee complained that “the level of the sexualisation going into this game is nothing short of shameless”. Again, a fair point, but then he continues: ”Talk about it being ‘ironic’ all you want, but that doesn’t change the fact that someone is rubbing themselves off to it, even as we speak.”
Wait, what? Who said anything about being ironic? How exactly does one be “ironically fetishistic”? Surely you’re either fetishistic, or you’re not? I think it’s pretty safe to say that Bayonetta, with her naked combos and BDSM finishing moves, is pretty fetishistic, but where’s the irony? Even if she was using her preposterous sexuality to make some kind of political point or satirise depictions of women in games (if she was, it’s lost on me), that does not make her fetishism “ironic”.
Secondly, is people jerking off to Bayonetta a problem? If it’s in the public eye, people are going to jerk off to it. It’s not within anyone’s power to prevent something or someone being jerked off to, and it isn’t their responsibility either. It’s an adult’s responsibility to prevent the sexualisation of minors and to prevent them gaining access to sexualised content, but it’s hard to see the problem with an adult character in an M-rated game being used as wank fodder by the masses. Yahtzee’s statement also overlooks the extreme likelihood that less titillating characters, such as the Uncharted series’ Elena Fisher, are being used in the same way.
An especially vitriolic attack on Bayonetta came from an article entitled “Bayonetta and the Male Gaze” on Go Make Me A Sandwich, which declared that “Bayonetta is not for women, plain and simple. She is designed by men for men. As such, I feel no need to pretend that she’s a positive role model”. Again, the first part of this statement has an element of truth, Bayonetta was conceived by a studio of men led by Devil May Cry’s Hideki Kamiya (though the details of her design are actually the work of concept artist Mari Shimazaki, a woman), and she personifies a certain kind of male fantasy (though I’d take issue with the assertion that that means she can’t be “for women” as well), but the second part of the statement is a non-sequitur; why should anyone pretend that she’s a good role model?
In fairness, the article is written in response to a selection of articles that argue that by being shaped like a fully-grown woman as opposed to a teenager and “owning” her sexuality (and using it to beat up bad guys), Bayonetta is “empowered”, like all women should strive to be. I’d disagree with this opinion too; Bayonetta isn’t a role model at all, she’s a work of fantasy in a game for adults that showcases flamboyant character design at its very best.
It is not the responsibility of games, or any other type of fiction, to portray an idealised version of the world in which good things happen to good people, society is universally fair and just, and no man, woman or child is ever regarded in a way they would not wish to be. And thank goodness for that, because it would make games very boring indeed.
I happen to love Bayonetta’s frivolity, but even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t want to hide her away. I don’t want to hide any video game characters away. Not even the rubbish ones. Not even the offensive ones, because if we hid away everything we didn’t like, designers would only design things we definitely would, and the gaming landscape would become flat and featureless.
If this ever happened, the hyper-sexualised, über-violent dominatrix type that Bayonetta typifies would be one of the first characters to be thrown on the scrapheap of offensive tropes, never to be seen again. This is because unrealistically-proportioned bloodthirsty nymphomaniacs, whether as protagonists, enemies or NPCs, are a pet peeve of many gamers and critics.
For many, this is because such characters are often conceived through sheer laziness (Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within’s Shahdee, for example, was clearly squeezed out by the “Random Armour Bikini-Clad Bitch” generator), and they dislike them for the same reason they dislike grizzled space marines armed with assault rifles. This is a position I can certainly identify with, though in Bayonetta’s case it’s an unfair criticism, even if at first glance she does seem like just another Barbie in steel underwear. Anyone who’s actually played the game will know that Bayonetta is a cut above the Ivy Valentines of this world, just as Marcus Fenix is a cut above Master Chief.
Yeah. I WENT THERE.
For others, however, the problem is more ideological. These are the people whose reviews I quoted earlier in the article, people who object to the way such characters are “objectified” by the player, even when, like Bayonetta, they are supposedly the star of the show, in control of every situation. “Objectification”, of course, is a very bad thing as far as female video game characters are concerned, because it positions them as mere slabs of digital meat for players to control, gaze at and use as fuel to throw on the flames of their fantasies.
The only problem with this viewpoint is that the relationship the player has with the character is largely down to the player, and if the player wants to view the character they’re controlling as their ward/minion/submissive, that’s really their business. Forget for a moment the fact that Bayonetta’s so overtly sexualised (if I can manage that, so can you), and there’s little difference between her and God of War’s hulking protagonist Kratos, for example, or indeed any other protagonist in a third-person game.
If you’ve ever used a video game character as a tool to get to the top of a leaderboard, repeated certain actions needlessly because you liked watching the accompanying animation, flung them into a pit of spikes in frustration or (gasp) had impure thoughts about them, you’ve objectified them. If you’ve never done those things and you always pretend that the character on screen is you, then, well, you haven’t. Either way, that’s just the kind of player you are, that’s just the kind of relationship that you personally have with characters, and you can’t blame the game for it either way.
Recently, Crystal Dynamics’ Ron Rosenberg caused a PR storm when he suggested that “when people play Lara [Croft], they don’t really project themselves into the character, they’re more like, ‘I want to protect her.” The suggestion that players would view young, attractive, female Lara Croft not as their avatar in another world but as a impotent creature without agency that they had to watch over enraged many critics: this was objectification at its worst.
But why? Why shouldn’t a game cast its lead character as vulnerable and dependent upon the player, thus using their protective instincts to make an emotionally involving game? Didn’t Limbo do that? Could it be that Rosenberg’s statement only caused offence because he was talking about an adult female character? Isn’t that double standards on the part of the audience, not Rosenberg himself?
Of course the statement simply won’t be true for the countless players who actually do assimilate themselves into the character of Lara Croft (and, as everyone knows, he said some other unfortunate things in that interview, but we’re not going into that now), yet I struggle to see the ideological problem with suggesting there will be players who form an altogether different relationship with the character on screen.
The objection people have to the new Tomb Raider, with its Bambi-eyed heroine, and the objection they have to Bayonetta and its lingering legs/tits/ass/crotch shots, is that those games encourage you to look at the character on screen, rather than become them; but so what? Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the fact that no-one ever complains how attractive and charming Nathan Drake is, and ask what precisely is the problem with female video game characters (who, let’s remind ourselves, don’t really exist) being put in that position?
There’s an argument that suggests that the historic imbalance between men and woman, particularly the depiction of them, and particularly in video games, is reason enough to condemn any game that puts a woman in any kind of submissive role, be it towards another character or the player themselves. I don’t buy that.
By tiptoeing around female characters and ruling out ingenious creative approaches for being too good at fighting, not good enough at fighting, too good at the wrong kind of fighting, too attractive, not attractive enough, too stupid, intelligent but not in a good way, too stereotypically feminine or not woman enough, designers are eventually going to retreat to the point where female video game characters are a homogeneous parade of scientists, conservationists and starship captains, who would be as much a blight on game design as the gasping throng of stripper assassins that everyone’s so quick to condemn.
That doesn’t mean that this incandescently creative industry doesn’t need more Faiths and Chells: thoughtful, independent women in trousers who the player is forced to identify with from a first-person perspective, it just means that memorable characters are never going to emerge if the industry’s too scared to go out on a limb.
Bayonetta was one of the most inventive, well-executed games of the last decade, and that’s mostly down to the freedom Platinum gave themselves when designing its lead character, because, you know, a woman who can do all those things with her legs is going to be a bit racy. Every character she meets in the game (except young Cereza) is completely bowled over by her light-hearted and bountiful presence, every monster she confronts is bewildered into hopeless submission.
Yes, this objectifies her, and yes, someone, somewhere, is probably “rubbing themselves off” to her (thanks Yahtzee), but it also gives her an immense, otherworldly power. We’re always being told that sexuality is one of the most powerful forces on earth, and here’s a character that takes that to extremes, and takes it all in her stride. Whether it’s a worthy or accurate depiction of women only matters if you think art and entertainment should act as our moral guardians, leading by po-faced example and warning us away from anything the least bit unsavoury.
It’s creativity, not conformity, that we should be demanding from our game designers, and great characters of any variety (male, female, anything in between) are never going to evolve from a sterile culture in which designs must jump through a set of ideological hoops in addition to the labyrinthine nest of licenses and marketing considerations that already terrifies most large developers away from the very idea of creating any new IP.
If we want a more diverse and daring game culture, we need to reward originality and look at new designs as a whole, rather than as something objectionable with some gameplay attached. Take away Bayonetta’s sexuality, and you take away who she is, leaving a pale, watery game, and perhaps a pale, watery industry, behind.