Not your mother’s feminism

A recent video game came out called Bayonetta, and it’s received a lot of criticism for, once again, sexualizing and exploiting women. She’s a woman of impossible figure – big breasted, long legged, unrealistically skinny. Most of her costume is just her hair, so when she fights, a lot of her body is revealed. She blows kisses to break seals and the targets you use in the game is in the shape of lips. She sashays needlessly and no doubt, her sexuality is the weapon you use to fight baddies in the game. In other words, this isn’t the type of game you’d want to play in front of your parents. And so the angry cries of exploitation of the female body for sexual enjoyment by men rings in the air once more.

However, over at GamePro, a female writer by the name of Leigh Alexander says games like Bayonetta – with its flamboyancy, nudity, and fluid violence – doesn’t set back women’s rights; in fact, it’s progressive. Bayonetta is over-the-top, yes, but that’s because the game designer, Hideki Kamiya of Devil May Cry fame, is always over-the-top. Anyone who’s played his games can attest to it. So what some call exploitive, Leigh calls stylized, and sometimes, a little sexuality isn’t a bad thing for women’s rights.

It’s wonderful that our entertainment medium is developing more characters that bring more to the table than their looks — but at the same time, we can accept that being mousy, tomboyish or turtle-necked is not the only way a woman can be considered admirable. Bayonetta’s elegant nakedness in the fervor of battle is not in and of itself a bad thing.

Now, I’ll admit. Just looking at the pictures of Bayonetta set off my exploitation-radar. I am definitely what you would call an old-school feminist – women should be able to wear pants, they should be able to vote, they should have their voices heard, they should be able to work, they don’t have to look like impossible supermodels, or, so help me, I’ll get all Susan B. Anthony up in your grill.

But I can’t argue with Leigh’s logic – in Bayonetta, women are the power figures and players of the world; the men simply follow the rules and hope to survive. The unique fact that Bayonetta uses her feminine sexuality specifically as a weapon means she’s doing something male game characters can’t do, and as Leigh played through the game, she had never felt more empowered by a game in her life.

Leigh’s particular point that impressed me:

I already know that women can do all the same things men can. This time, I get to see a woman do plenty of things men can’t. And I love it.

This isn’t a game I’d let my ten year old daughter play to help her feel empowered, that’s for sure. But at the same time, isn’t this something we want in games? Girl characters in games who not only can do everything guys can do, but something only girls can do? Empowering, strong female characters that aren’t regulated to just sidekicks or mere NPC eye candy? Female characters that are more than “the same thing as a man, just with breasts and a ponytail”? And while I certainly can’t say I want my daughter to grow up into some kind of vigilante that fights naked and overtly uses her sexuality as a weapon, I don’t want her to cover it up, think mousey-ness is good (culturally insert “chaste”) and all forms of female sexuality is bad (culturally insert “slutty” or “exploitive”). I want her to be comfortable with her sexuality, to know that she’s special and different than boys rather than just playing “catch-up”, that she really has power and autonomy in a world seemingly ruled by old, white dudes. Perhaps this is the new direction of feminism, and while at face value it might seem disconcerting at first, it’s really something I can’t complain about for the time being.

To read more of Leigh Alexander’s thoughts on video games and girls, along with a follow up post on her GamePro article, visit her blog Sexy Videogameland.

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “Not your mother’s feminism

  1. Wow. I completely disagree.

    In this brand of feminism, sexuality and showing off your body is equated with power. Isn’t this sort of thing exactly the kind of tripe that title IX (etc) was supposed to stop?

    Back in the ’60s it was not unusual for a woman to be fired for refusing to sleep with her boss; in essence for refusing to use her sexuality to gain power. Today we call that sexual harassment. And yet here is a video game that applauds that very thing. However you slice it, the heroine in the game represents a debasement of women. By using her sexuality to gain power over men, the source of her strength still comes from men.

    You mention to extremes: the mousy “man with a ponytail,” and the buxom, scantily clad Amazon; neither of which are representative of what women actually are. It is as if being attractive and professional are mutually exclusive, which they are not.

    Aren’t there other female qualities that we can focus on besides sexuality? What about nurturance, for example? But wait, you can’t make money off of a video game about nurturance. How silly of me.

    • Kimberly

      “What about nurturance, for example? But wait, you can’t make money off of a video game about nurturance. How silly of me.”

      http://www.cookingmama.com/

      I agree with you that “feminine” games are a harder sell than your usual violent/exploitative fare, but that’s probably mostly because men are making them. The plethora of “I want to be a Fashion Designer and ride horsies!” games out there feel more sexist than inclusive, not to mention that they’re just don’t look entertaining. But I did want to point out that if done correctly, “nurturing” can be quite popular and very fun. Cooking Mama, along with Harvest Moon, Animal Crossing, and others have been very successful.

  2. I just thought of this, too:

    If the entertainment industry made a video game about a man who used his sexuality to PWN female enemies, it wouldn’t fly. We would cry “rape!” It would be perceived as an unacceptable example of how a man is supposed to treat a woman. Yet here is a woman doing the exact same thing to a man. Just because the roles are reversed does not make it ok.

  3. Ok, last comment, I promise:

    “Bayonetta?” Really? Can we get any more phallic?

    ok, I’m done.

  4. Ted

    I would concede that if we create a game about men using sexuality to fight baddies, it would either be rape or gay rape, either ones completely unacceptable to society (and should be).

    However, I would argue that sleeping with your boss is not using sexuality to gain power. In fact, the whole situation strikes me as a woman completely powerless before a seemingly invincible male sexuality. While I’m not arguing that women should, say, use their sexuality to get people killed or to harm others, I think the other extreme – hiding it away and locking it up because it might be offensive – is not the solution either. And I feel that a lot of these problems propagate from the fact that men can use sexuality, but women can’t. After all, if a man has sex with multiple partners, he is a player. If a women has sex with multiple partners, she is a slut. This stereotype still exists in our society, enlightened as it is today.

    (FYI, I am not condoning having sex with multiple partners for either gender!)

    Neither am I arguing that this is a “good” game in any respects. First, I’ve never played it so I wouldn’t know. I’m sure the game wouldn’t appeal to me (I tend to not go for games of over-the-top ridiculousness, unless it involves Katamaris).

    However, as someone who has played video games all his life, I can attest to the very backwards, incredibly misogynistic culture that permeates it. Women are dismissed all together, used as pure sex symbols, or treated very condescendingly. The Nineteenth Amendment this is not; I would probably never let my daughters (or sons) play this game, and I think as far as women’s rights go, this deserves no more than a footnote in a Feminism in Video Games textbook.

    But coming from a culture that generally stereotypes or demeans women even more so than this game does (and it does), that’s saying something. I see this game as a tentative, awkward step in the right direction, and an interesting event indicative of the evolution of feminism as a whole.

    And I concede I may very well be wrong at this point.

    As for nurture games, we have those, but again, the very misogynistic video game culture generally bungles it. For example, Harvest Moon is basically an agriculture game with animal care on the side (and I love it specifically for its non-violence and addictiveness), but the main playable character is always male. In the versions they have of females being the main playable character, the object of the game really is to get married, and the game generally immediately ends right there. Any other types of nurture games such as taking care of ponies or something like that are characterized as *very* stereotypically girly – not that this is in of itself a bad thing, but many a tomboy I know would probably balk at getting caught dead with My Little Ponies or a Barbie Horse Caring game in their Nintendo DS. There are a few games that pull of nurture quite well (I still remember the very popular Nintendogs and Tamogachi phase) but if they do, they rarely have starring main cast playable female characters – you simply play as yourself. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you can’t look up to yourself, especially if you’re an awkward, still growing gamer girl who has to navigate a culture permeated with misogyny. There simply aren’t many games out there that have empowered women as a main character at all (in fact, I’ve been sitting here for a while now thinking and I can’t really think of a single one).

    And that really is very indicative of video game culture. So yes, she’s ridiculously unrealistic. Yes, she’s overtly sexualized, most likely very intentionally over-sexualized (some would argue to make a creative point). I think the game designers were very intentional in how they stylized this game to be *so* ridiculous, *so* outrageous. They have to exaggerate some of the feminine aspects of her, such as her sexuality, because in video game culture, most female characters could lose the breasts, long hair, and female sounding name and they would be exactly like a male protagonist – literally no other changes would be required. No change in attitude, no change in behavior, no change in dialogue. Bayonetta does something for girl gamers that previous game characters couldn’t – a confident, empowered, memorable, distinctively female character.

    Again, I will reiterate Leigh’s last sentences, which I think is the crux of her argument:

    “I already know that women can do all the same things men can. This time, I get to see a woman do plenty of things men can’t.” I think this is important – there is very, very, very, very few characters that can fit this description. That Bayonetta (of all characters) is one of the first to fit this description is both interesting and incredibly, depressingly sad.

    And that’s a really rare find. Unfortunate that Bayonetta, despite all of her *very* glaring flaws, is one of the very, very, very select few characters like this out there.

  5. Ted

    My wife just reminded me of Persona 4, which has four female characters who are incredibly developed and psychologically deep (but that’s because the entire game revolves around psychology). However, this still does not fit the criteria of Leigh’s – the main character that you play and is the leader of the group is still the unnamed male protagonist.

    However, if you stomach copious amounts of swear-age, Persona 4 is as close as you’ll get to realistic, incredibly empathetic and deeply fleshed out female characters.

  6. Kimberly

    Ted, I’m going to disagree with you on a key point of this post.

    Bayonetta isn’t the first game to do this, and video games are far from the first piece of media to have questionably sexy strong female leads.

    I’ve thought about this very topic a lot over the past few years, after reading “Killing Monsters” by Gerard Jones which has a chapter touching on this very topic. There is definitely a positive power in having a female protagonist who is both powerful and feminine – someone who can kick your butt, save the day, and do it all in the PERFECT pair of pumps. Most girls have no problem identifying with male protagonists, but a female protagonist gives them both power and feminism, which can be a tough combo to find.

    There really are very few legitimately strong and likable women in active roles as protagonists – and even fewer who are indulgently girly and unafraid to be sexy on their own terms – so when one comes along that you identify with, it really is a very powerful and positive force. Many of my favorite female protagonists fit into this category. Most notibly, Ulala from Space Channel 5, the sexy news reporter who defeats alien invaders by besting them – on the dance floor! Ulala shows a lot of skin and shakes her hips around, but because she’s so good at dancing she manages to do what no one (especially no man) could do – SAVE THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE and restore PEACE TO THE GALAXY. (Best. Game. Ever.)

    So I definitely agree with the sentiment that this sort of thing is – well, CAN BE is more accurate – a positive influence. But that’s NOT to say I don’t have bones to pick with Bayonetta based on the info you’ve shared about it. As with anything there are so many factors to consider. Is a powerful female lead a positive thing. Yes. Is a confident and sexy female lead a positive thing. Yes (with a few qualifiers). Is a ridiculously disproportioned and near-naked female lead a positive thing? No, almost never.

    Bayonetta is working WITH a concept that I agree is feminist in nature, but they’ve added plenty in there to counter the point. Overall I wouldn’t pin the game as a feminist movement by any means, but that’s not to say that if you’re a female who is playing the game, you won’t be able to look past the bad and get a positive message from the whole thing.

    Those are the Cliff Notes of my extensive thoughts on the matter. (Also, read “Killing Monsters.” Again!)

  7. Sandy

    Games that focus on Male sexuality dominate the game market:

    The of God of War franchise depicts, through the protagonist Kratos, masculinity defined by Rage, Muscles and the “use” of women for both sexual needs and fodder; as he kills Athena in a bid to kill the God Zeus. While this franchise does not blatantly try to represent Kratos as such, he is basically a walking, talking penis. To even read to into it, he constantly ejaculates verbally, or even through plot devices such as how he becomes covered in “white ash” and “penetrates” his victims.

    The majority of action games include an underlying plot of female subservience. Which Bayonetta entirely rebukes.

    I purchased the game, and while the sexuality is present, it is entirely over the top, and even more so it arrives in situations that totally overshadow the poses and gestures. For instance on chapter 5 she finds a masculine boss whom orders her to become subservient and she confronts him while posing in a semi-erotic fashion. This boss fight involves such a difficult sequence of commands to complete that the prior thoughts on her figure are shattered by accomplishment and more so the fact that this female protagonist defeated “that” in the linear narrative.

    Usually I’m not met with anything decent to say about the female protagonist. Take Silent Hill 3’s Heather for example. A good portion of the fear the game attempts to instill is “how is the player supposed to survive with this Female protagonist who reacts to the environment with a very weak female approach, as she relies on a world dictated by Men and more importantly religion and it’s issues with the immorality that it attributes to the female?”. With Bayonetta it’s “Wow, this female can deal with anything” and yet she doesn’t bring a masculine perspective to her accomplishments, she defeats her enemies with a very feminine touch, and all men submit to her. As depicted by her interactions with the male characters, good or bad.

    Bayonetta is a game where female enemies and protagonists aren’t being raped. There is no cry of “die bitch” while fighting a nurse, ballerina, mother or wife. Since those are constantly depicted in video games as enemies. By declaring this game as sexist and a step backwards, the game market will limit itself to Male Protagonists, either directly or indirectly debasing females.

    When the Female declaration “that I am a Goddess” is no longer empowering because Goddesses are slain and are not found wielding magic or pistol because her sexuality, her gender, her body and nakedness was a weakness , then shame on those who cried out against her. If Masculine nakedness defeats antagonists within Film, Video Games and Literature, why can’t Feminine nakedness do the same?

  8. I’ll address the crux of Leigh’s argument, which is, as you stated: “I already know that women can do all the same things men can. This time, I get to see a woman do plenty of things men can’t.”

    I’m extrapolating from this quote that your argument is that the feminist value of this game is that it highlights and embraces a power unique to women. And that power is her sexuality. To continue along this line (knowing full well you didn’t say this), it seems to me that Leigh is suggesting that a woman’s sexuality is her only unique source of power. Any other source of power (physical, mental, whatever), is also available to men. This game and Leigh’s review suggest that embracing this unique source of power have feminist value, is “pro-women.” Here’s why I think that is incorrect.

    That a woman’s only unique power comes from her sexuality is offensive. And nothing new. Since forever, women have known that their sexuality is really their only unique bargaining card in a male dominated society. Historically, when women weren’t allowed or treated equally in the workplace, prostitution skyrockets. And who benefits from women being forced to use their sexuality to put food on the table?

    Sexuality as power still requires approval from a man. Unless the female character has to orgasm through masturbation to “level up” or whatever, her approval as a sex object by a man is still required for her sexuality to have any power.
    And sexuality, or “what’s sexy,” is still largely defined by men. Big boobs, long hair. If the main character was an obese, bald, 75-year-old woman with a giant goiter, would her “blowing-kisses” have any power?

    The cost of sex will always be higher for a woman than a man. Sex is not and will never be an equal exchange, because a man never has to worry about getting pregnant. Marriage makes it more equal, but even if the man is committed to raising the child, the cost to his body and well-being is still much less than the woman who has to carry and birth the child. If women are using sex to get power over men, we are “paying” more than that power is probably worth.

    To me, this game is at least as offensive and “unfeminist” as every other video game that marginalizes or stereotypes women.

    • Replying to myself. I also don’t agree with the fact that “sexuality” is a power unique to women. It’s a sign that men are in charge. The only reason that a woman being sexy is powerful is because the people in charge (men) are attracted to women. The only reason a male computer game character couldn’t blow kisses or sashay about effectively is because the “power” (the game, the boss, the man-behind-the-curtain, whatever) isn’t turned on by that.

      If there’s a situation where the woman is in power, a man will use his sexuality to get what he wants. Ask Jill…when she worked at the BYU library, guys would often flirt with her with the hopes that she’d erase their fines. So Leigh’s assertion that this game shows things only a woman can do is wrong.

      • People always comment in threes right?

        I really do thing that the power of women’s sexuality directly correlates with the power of men in a patriarchal society. The more power blowing a kiss has, shows how much power men truly wield. If turning on a guy gets you a job? Then men have way too much power over who does and doesn’t get jobs. Therefore, I think that any game that applauds or exaggerates this power only further reinforces the disproportionate power (heterosexual) men hold in society.

        Women embracing their sexuality and enjoying sex is a valid part of feminism. But I don’t think this game promotes that. Blowing a kiss at a door doesn’t give me any sexual gratification. If it makes the door open, then all that means is some sick pervy bastard is behind the controls.

    • Thank you, Jamie, for this comment. You articulated my point much better than I did.

      I’d like to see more female characters like Mulan. She was beautiful, sensual, intelligent. She was effective because she saw things differently than her male counterparts (climbing up to the roof instead of using brute force to smash the palace doors, for example.). She was a good heroine not because she used her sexuality as a weapon, but because she knew how to kick good ol’ fashioned butt. That’s what most women I know are like.

      In fact, my Karate instructor regularly tells us that women are often better martial artists than men. This is because men often can use brute force to take down their opponent. “Easy, just plow right through ’em!” Women generally do not have that kind of strength so they have to compensate by doing the techniques correctly – kicking with just the right part of the foot, striking just the right nerve cluster, etc. I haven’t yet beat my husband in sparring (we’re both green belts), but I have beat black belts before.

  9. Ted

    Phew, good arguments everyone. This entire thread has been a really interesting read. It’s pretty obvious that this is a subject everyone is impassioned about. That’s a good thing!

    First off, if my comments ever offend anyone, I truly apologize. This is a sensitive topic and it’s difficult sometimes to not hurt anyone’s feelings but I hope to convey that hurting anyone is not my intention ever.

    Second, truth be told, I’m somewhat cowed. As a man, I can’t really talk about feminism in any authoritative manner – it would be like an American telling me what Korean culture thinks. Without living the actual experience of a culture, there’s no way I can feel how women feel about this issue, and so I can only guess. This is the handicap I work with and I mention this not for sympathy but hopefully for a little bit of understanding if I misspeak.

    Let the responses begin!

    @Sandy, I appreciate your comments, especially your own experience with Bayonetta. I never planned on playing the game myself, so your comments help me understand a bit more how others may think when playing that game.

    @Jamie, I disagree that sexuality as a weapon is only in the context of men giving women that power. To use a grossly reductionist and possibly inaccurate analogy, if I use a sword to kill someone, I couldn’t possibly say that the sword does not give me a measure of power and control simply because I exist in the context that people around me allow themselves to be killed with swords and thus, the power I feel is an illusion.

    Accordingly, I could not say in good conscience that an obese, bald, 75 year-old woman with a goiter could use sexuality as a weapon in the current society we live in, because she simply doesn’t possess any (in any culture that ever existed, I would venture to guess) and thus it would be as reasonable for me to ask her to fly when she has no physical capability to do so.

    Sexuality can be a weapon – it’s been used as a weapon before, and it has through both intentional and unintentional means toppled a large amount of power. If a women uses sexuality as a weapon against someone intentionally to topple them from power or to ultimately destroy them in some way, I don’t know if I could look her in the face and say, “None of this was your fault.”

    True, men can resist any type of sexual manipulation from women, this is true, just as men can also dodge a sword swing from a woman should she so use one against him. But many men misunderstand the power of the underdog endocrine system and leave themselves open.

    Now! This is very important as well – Neither I nor Leigh (I assume) would say that sexuality is the ONLY thing women have going for them that makes them distinctive from men. That would be like me seeing my sister play tennis one day and (falsely) assuming that she can only play tennis, when in fact my sister can play many sports. It is just the fact that this specific game chooses sexuality to make their female character distinct.

    As Kimberly said, this is not new, but then again, from what I’ve heard from people who have actually played the game, she is just so darn “cool” that you tend to forget the fact that she’s impossibly figured and dressed in a way that would make some prostitutes blush. But I would imagine that, from what I’ve heard (second-hand accounts) from people who have played the game, I would actually come to the same conclusion that she is actually pretty “cool” (and be very ashamed that I did).

    This would, I assume, be the same kind of human reasoning that leads to many people who watch Oceans 11 to identify with the protagonists, despite the fact that the protagonists are, in actuality, morally bankrupt (robbing a casino to get back a girl? Really?). Nobody cares because the characters are just too “cool.”

    Again, I would argue that this game is far from perfect (very, very, very far from perfect). If another game came out just exactly like Bayonetta, I would be very disappointed, but mostly in the fact that nobody built off of the idea of making another distinctive female character. Why do most games rely on the crutch of oversexualizing a girl to make her femininity distinctive? Because most game designers are guys, and, well, we can be stupid sometimes. And so while this game is far from golden, and in 20 years, (hopefully) it will appear completely outdated and misogynistic, the fact that many female gamers who’ve played this game consider the character almost progressive means:

    1. Hopefully the video game culture is slowly turning the other way as far as gender roles in games go, and

    2. That females in game culture have been losing consistently for a long time, and it’s sad that Bayonetta actually counts as some kind of progress.

  10. Ted

    Also,

    @Beth – I would agree that there is more than sexuality when it comes to the distinctive traits of a woman. In fact, women are pretty freaking awesome in a lot of things that differentiate them from males. There are two problems though, crude as they are, when it comes to video games and women: (1) will it sell? and (2) how do you translate those differences into a structured game setting? Unfortunately, game companies often take the easy way out. I would love to see a game explore those traits. However, only one (in the long history of my video game playing) I can think of actually sincerely explores those traits (Persona 4) and while they are main characters, they are not the leading protagonist (a shame).

    @Kimberly, I loved Killing Monsters and I want that book (I don’t own a copy). Someday, I shall own it and the circle will be complete.

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