Jan. 15th, 2010

A friend of mine linked to an article about Sega's Bayonetta, claiming she's a straight-up empowering figure for female gamers. And while I value my friend's judgement, I have to disagree in the strongest possible terms here. I'll focus on Leigh Alexander's argument here, obviously not having played the game myself.

The author clearly takes a devil's advocate position, but the argument is based on little more than an audacious bluff. I actually find myself agreeing with large parts of it: I'm really not in favour of censorship, and I'm the last person who'll play gender role police. But the rest of it is held together with string.

Hypersexualized femininity is nothing new. While the 90s were the decade of Xtreem, the 00s take it even further in terms of femininity— a casual glance at the pop charts will show that it's being distorted into fanservice, and pop divas are held up as 'strong women' as well. There's a strong role model element attached to the portrayal of women in media, one that's just not there when it comes to men. Women's bodies are much more obviously commodified, for one, so there's certainly no repression of this particular brand of femininity elsewhere. Much of their lyrical content is put out by male songwriters, for another. We're often blind to this because we think of 'male' as the default.

"[C]ontext is the most important consideration in judging whether an element is appropriate or not," Leigh Alexander says, but there's some sleight of hand going on here. Whether it's appropriate or not isn't the issue— is it empowering? On the face of things, Alexander makes a sex-positive feminist statement, but when you spell it out, it sounds a lot like it's empowering when male programmers and designers stylistically oversexualize a female character on your behalf! It's hard to see where the empowerment comes in, and the designers have a strike against them already: if direct statements are made 'on behalf of' they're not genuinely empowering anyway.

Alexander claims that "Bayonetta takes the video game sexy woman stereotype from object to subject", and she does, but that's only trivially relevant. The game context is completely artificial, so it's uniquely malleable. There's no idea that Bayonetta has achieved anything to become who she is or obtain her powers, and conflict with the Enemy makes a poor substitute. And computer games of this sort need a protagonist and often have a main antagonist; of course neither of these are portrayed as powerless! (By contrast, a side character cannot end up more powerful than the main character and the antagonist or solve the player's problems for him; that's why there's such a throng of cute female sidekicks and healers. Might be fun to subvert in a highbrow indie game?)

So if it's not empowering, what is it, then? I'm inclined to accept part of Alexander's argument here: it's a loving paean to the games industry's fucked up portrayal of femininity. It's deliberate, and there's probably a myriad of motivations underlying it, but in essence, this is a parody. The same school of thought inspires drag queens. (Come on, 'Bayonetta' is a drag queen name.)

And frankly, I'm fine with that. These portrayals exist, and anything that holds those preconceptions to the light is a good thing. Bayonetta's personality sounds like a finely tuned trait mix intended to highlight them, so it's not empowering in itself. Any inherent empowerment is left as an exercise to the player. Or, to quote Alexander again,
To prohibit a character like Bayonetta, and rush to cover her up in disapproval, is a rejection of her particular brand of femininity. Why do that? Because she makes men uncomfortable? If men feel uncomfortable with Bayonetta, maybe that means she succeeds.

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Julianna Lacroix

July 2010

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