Gaming Social Matters: Powerful Women and Sexiness/Sexism in Gaming, as Pertaining to Bayonetta and Lollipop Chainsaw
We now live in an interesting time of dichotomy. One person’s sexism is another person’s sexiness, and this seems to be a war in which little ground is gained on either side. In the world of gaming, this is a hotly debated issues. Video game design is largely a ‘new old-boy’s club.’ While there are many interesting and talented women in the industry, for the most part the reigns are still firmly in the hands of the male. Shigeru Miyamoto, Suda51, Hideo Kojima, Ken Levine, Hideki Kamiya, Gabe Newell, and more, these names are synonymous with enjoyable gameplay and interesting titles (while we do have phenomenal female writers and directors such as Amy Hennig). I understand that much of these games that might be feminist or sexist in one way or another were largely created by men and come from a man’s viewpoint on the issue, just as this article is written by a man (who considers himself a feminist and humanist). So feel free to disagree with anything I say here women, and please inform me on how you feel.
I should present right away my point of view on sexuality. Often we talk about how sex is used to ‘objectify’ people and things, to sell them, to make a point. This is true in a lot of ways and this is the world we live in. However, to take this standpoint is to assume no-holds-barred that sex is a dirty, filthy thing. That sex is wrong, and that to objectify someone or something with sex is to make it less than what it really is. I do not hold this point of view. I find sex fascinating, beautiful, enjoyable, and appealing, and I do not think a woman being sexy is immediately sexist. There are obviously various degrees to what counts as sexism, sexiness, or objectification, but I think if you take the rule of thumb that humans are largely sexual creatures and that sex is not bad on its face, we can get over this problem and get to the root of the issues and talk about them in a new light.
Throughout the short history of gaming, I would agree that women have been painted as little more than sex objects. Sexiness is not just looks, it is also personality and presentation. Much of the time women are forced to wear little clothing (even if they are armored or in a realistic sort of game), they are presented in a one dimensional form, and are uninteresting. Thankfully within the last few years this has started to change (though throughout the history of gaming you can see examples of fine female characters). Now we seem to be upon a new trend: powerful women who engage their sex appeal without bar.
I wish to talk more here about Juliet (from Lollipop Chainsaw) than Bayonetta, but I will touch on both. Bayonetta is burlesque; Juliet is teenage sex appeal. The difference between the two is very immediate, and I will say that I have a higher opinion and regard towards Bayonetta (character and game) than I do for Juliet and Lollipop Chainsaw. Bayonetta is a powerful woman who, while exuding sex appeal, does not seem to use that sex appeal to actually appeal to anyone or anything. In both of these games the men are put on the back-burner, in almost emasculating positions while the badass women take front and center and do the dirty work. Luka is presented as weak, slow, almost entirely useless to the story and yet Bayonetta is fond of him for her own reasons. Nick is bodyless (and penis-less, interestingly enough), and Juliet constantly pokes fun at Nick being the ‘perfect boyfriend’ because he is an accessory that can be designed towards her every whim. It is rare that we see this point of view, where the woman is allowed to objectify the man and poke fun at the fact that he is basically useless without her.
The difference of age is a big deal between the games. I mentioned that Bayonetta is in burlesque style. She is sleek, sexy, a little bit on the side of the BDSM lifestyle. It is easier to poke at LPC because Juliet is a teenage girl, a cheerleader no less, and has a few of her own airhead moments. She is a lifelong zombie hunter, but seeks to have a life as a ‘normal girl’ having friends and a boyfriend. This is where our assumptions as players come in. We take what is presented. Before starting the game we do not know that Juliet has been fighting zombies since she was six months old. We think less of her because she is a pretty blonde cheerleader (a wrong on the part of the audience, people are allowed to be cheerleaders and blonde). The interesting thing I found in Juliet is that she gives as much as is given. While characters in the game will sling insults such as ‘slut, whore’ bitch, cooze’ at Juliet, she slings them right back with ‘douchebag, fucker, asshole.’ The game and its humor is wrong and raunchy, and anyone planning to play this game should know this going in. But Juliet presents herself well, early on telling the player that she and her sisters were raised by their mother to ‘wear their vaginas with pride.’
And she does, really. Gratuitious panty shots due to the cheerleader outfit and sexy posing moments aside, Juliet felt like a real character to me. She argued back and forth with her boyfriend, she had moments with her sisters, she had moments with her father, and she aggressively saved the world from the zombie invasion. Instead of being an almost silent and completely airheaded presentation of the male gaze, I almost felt like Juliet was an appropriation of mockery, sitting on a throne of typical insults and objectification and actually using them in her favor. She wields a chainsaw against vile foes and wears her boyfriend’s head on her hip. She talks about her likes and dislikes, she bickers with her family, she loves her (rather perverted) Sensei, and she’s excited about her birthday. While none of the writing in the game should be praised, it still felt like I was controlling a character.
I think this sort of role reversal is really powerful. And while we can argue about whether or not the sexiness is necessary (once again, there is nothing wrong with sex and if you wish to see a realistic non-sexualized female character, look towards Parasite Eve for PS1 or characters in the Final Fantasy series, such as Princess Garnet) it still exists. People largely enjoy sexuality and titilation, and I think the point we should get to is where we are not ashamed about the presentation of sex on either front. There should be equality. Most of us love to pine after unobtainable sexy people and bodies, and the point is to have them both in male and female terms. If we are going to have prancing cheerleaders, we need to have sexy shirtless males (but not the testosterone-addled versions like in God of War or Gears of War). I maintain that sexiness is entirely desired and wanted on a person to person basis, and while some people may not desire it at all, they are in the minority and must deal with that as it is.
So, are Bayonetta and Lollipop Chainsaw filled with sexiness or sexism? Both, to varying degrees. The point is for us to talk about it, to write about it, to tell developers what is okay and what’s not okay and not be ashamed to talk about sexuality and how we wish to see it. Sometimes we want to see sex objects, its fun that way. But it should not be the majority. We should see character, and realism, and men and women that assert their sexuality and accept it as a part of themselves and not a weird tacked on trait by a male geek majority.
I find both Bayonetta and Juliet not only appealing because they are sexy, but because they own this sexiness and could readily kick my ass. I am a male. That means in Bayonetta I am the useless Luka. That means in Lollipop Chainsaw I am the emasculated (and lacking of penis) Nick. I do not mind being presented this way at times because it alloys a new look at sexuality in gaming and gives women a moment to be the heroes. And honestly, women need more damn time to be the heroes. They are really good at it, and we cannot deny the awesomeness of characters like Samus Aran and Aya Brea. As long as we can figure out a way to approach sexuality and not immediately labeling it as ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ we can engage in conversations about its necessity and equality, and how everyone (no matter their gender or sexuality) can see themselves in games and have many choices readily available about seeing themselves presented in their favorite medium.