This one is for the LADIES: Bayonetta vs. School 26

By | April 25, 2011

Bayonetta, looking all tall and hair-swirly, in a shiny bodysuit and with impossibly-long legs. Also GUNS.

It was only after I'd uploaded this image that I realized it's totally all "HERE IS MY VAG!" I wonder what that says about me.

Back in March, the disappointing (and at times enraging) PAX East panel on “female characters” started out by sinking itself hip-deep in the question of whether it’s “okay” for female characters to be “sexy”, and it only seemed to leave that mire a few times in order to discuss how annoying certain female characters are. This was a shame because there is so much of consequence to say about how women are characterized in video games, and the sexy thing is really a non-issue: of course it is okay for female characters to be sexy. Sexiness is pretty subjective anyway, and the real conflict comes not when female characters present according to exaggerated standards of sexiness, but when that is all they do. I don’t have a great tolerance for sexy-lady characters myself. The sexy-lady is there primarily to be eye candy for the mens, and so I often hold such tokens (and the games they’re in) at arm’s length, but that isn’t because I am anti-sexy. It’s because I want my female characters, sexy or not, to have a purpose and a personality beyond their jiggly bits.

Having said all that, I’ve been surprised by how much I’m enjoying Bayonetta. Bayonetta is a third-person “action” game (aren’t pretty much ALL videogames about “action”? I’ve never understood this genre) that dropped early last year. You play as the titular* character, a Very Sexy Lady Indeed, who is also a witch that kills angels. That’s really all you need to know, as I’ve been playing it gleefully for a couple weeks and I’d still have to consult the game’s epic Wikipedia entry to explain the story. Visually, Bayonetta the character offers a heavily-stylized version of femininity; even her posture is exaggerated: boobs up, ass out, back impossibly arched between them. Given my own lens on such matters I inevitably read her as a high femme, though that’s probably not what her creators intended. We all know what authorial intent counts for around here.


Bayonetta appeals because she combines the caricature of sexiness so common amongst female videogame characters with an unexpected degree of autonomy and agency. If Bayonetta whimpered and squealed and did what her male betters instructed, she’d just be more flavorless jerk-off material, but instead she’s surprisingly complex: Bayonetta is aggressive, stubborn, and occasionally soft-hearted. When she is angry she doesn’t feel compelled to justify her anger; when she is kind she doesn’t apologize for it. Those of us socialized as female are accustomed to both justification and apology, we are taught to explain ourselves. Bayonetta confronts the cultural assumption that women’s emotions are dangerous and must be accounted for, and she does it in such a natural manner that it’s taken me weeks to unpack it in my own head. Why do I like Bayonetta so much? Because Bayonetta performs the ubermensch fantasy that attracts so many men to video games, but in a lady-friendly way. Bayonetta subverts the assumption that games are for men, and she uses an over-the-top feminine persona to do it. Bayonetta’s magic is that she is sexy, and smart, and powerful, and confident, and she can take care of herself no matter the circumstances, and she does all of these things at the same time.

Also, she wears glasses.

Bayonetta drew some heavy criticism upon release as just another sexist portrayal of women. Even watching the early cutscenes, my husband knee-jerkily condemned the game as offensive. When I asked for clarification, he said, “Look at how she’s spreading her legs!” I replied, “She has guns strapped to her feet, with which she is shooting angels, though.” The exchange is a pretty solid metaphor for how Bayonetta deals with the standard stereotypes. Last year in GamePro, Leigh Alexander defended the character:

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.

Over at I Fry Mine in Butter, s.e. smith recently posted a how-to on evaluating disabled characters in pop culture, which I have bookmarked and will probably consult once a week for the foreseeable future, or until I commit it to memory. I often flounder when trying to assess representations of disability, because as a currently able-bodied person, I can’t rely on my individual experiences to instruct me on whether a character is problematic or positive. Bayonetta sets a similar trap for many well-meaning male gamers, and their privilege prevents them from seeing it before they’ve been ensnared: these men look at Bayonetta and suspect, instinctively, that they’re supposed to be offended, but because they are not equipped with a methodology for assessing the character beyond her oversexed appearance, they’re left to sputter and flail over their vague sense of outrage. And certainly, many male gamers without those good intentions will still see Bayonetta as yet another disposable female object… but they’re idiots, so who cares what they think.

I suspect that Bayonetta’s metafeminist impact is a happy accident, as it’s probably impossible to create a character that manages to be at once so campy, so fun, and so subversive on purpose. An intentional effort would likely betray itself with heavy-handedness and subtext, though I’d be happy to be wrong on this. That said, there are women out there specifically making games for women, and attempting to address the gender divide. Silicon Sisters is one such example. This Vancouver-based, woman-centered game development studio was founded on the principle of making games for women, by women.

Sounds like a good idea, right? I recently received a review copy of School 26, the iOS game that is Silicon Sisters’ first outing, and was super intrigued to see what women-made games for women might look like. School 26 is aimed at girls age 12 to 16, and tells the story of Kate, a teen with nomadic parents whom she’s trying to convince to put down roots at last. Kate’s parents agree to do so, if Kate can accumulate a certain number of close friends at this, her 26th school.

School 26 is a game about social engineering; even the press release is clear on this point. In order to succeed, Kate must respond with appropriate reactions to her new friends’ multitude of problems in order to gain their trust—and holy crap, do they ever have problems. Before you know it there is binge-drinking and bullying and drug abuse and classism and homophobia and and and! Through it all, School 26 gives its player a chance to experiment with negotiating the minefield that is adolescent society.

Having a pretty clear memory of this era in my own life, I recognize the importance of learning to read people’s feelings and expectations in order to “succeed” socially, or at least to avoid becoming isolated. (I went the isolation route by choice in middle school.) And yet, there is something about this that sits uncomfortably with me: School 26 does not reward authenticity, but rather one wins—or at least gets the happier ending–by responding to events according to the desires of those around them.

In terms of group dynamics, men tend to define themselves by what they do, or by other concrete indicators of social status, while women tend to define themselves by the relationships they have, or by their memberships in communities. So while School 26 fits right in with most young women’s priorities, I can’t help but feel it risks exploiting feminine conditioning in a problematic way. Some of the characters in School 26 pull some incredibly asshole moves, and yet in order to win them over, I continually felt pressured to respond in the ways they expected—and occasionally to be awfully manipulative—but not to rock the boat by calling them out. One dude character repeatedly hits on Kate with the most hackneyed pick-up lines ever, and yet Kate is expected to smile and wink and respond like she’s flattered, when I would have preferred her to tell him the first time, in clear terms, to knock it off. (Unfortunately, there are no options for either groin-punching or ego-evisceration.)

None of this is to suggest playing School 26 isn’t occasionally fun. It’s entertaining, often thought-provoking, and surprisingly deep. As a self-help manual for socially-awkward girls who are hungry for practice in dealing with their peers, this game could be invaluable. That said, I am uncomfortable with the game’s failure to criticize the social expectation that girls learn to assess the feelings of those around them and work as hard as possible to please everyone, or at least to be an effective “influence”, and that this is the most important aspect of building and maintaining friendships. This is a game in which the players “win” by figuring out what their friends want them to do, and doing it, or at least appearing to do it. Sure, those skills might help you survive the 9th grade, but without a thorough knowledge of who you are, relying on it for your whole life sets you up for some deeply unsatisfying relationships, if not a lot of therapy.

Where Bayonetta is a standard action game—a genre candidly aimed at male-identifying gamers—retrofitted with a feminine hero, School 26 is a game whose whole concept, top to bottom, is intended to appeal specifically to young women. It seems ridiculous to compare them, and yet both games, one by accident and one by design, have the capacity to connect with female-identifying players in ways that many games just don’t. Bayonetta is radical because it represents an autonomous sexuality and physicality that is rare among female characters; School 26 is radical because it explicitly targets feminine gender socialization in the way that most mainstream, big-budget titles underscore the masculinity for boys and men. Both games are equally important not because they answer our questions about gender and video games, but because they pose them. Are all highly sexualized game characters bad for us? Is it more important to learn to get along with others, or to steadfastly stick to your own perspective? And wouldn’t it be nice, once in awhile, to meet a non-male character whose gender wasn’t a plot device in the first place?

For my part, I guess I’d prefer a game that further inflates my self-confidence over one that requires I employ practical skills for quietly fitting into a world that is often unfair. But we all know I’m not real good at the latter in real life either.

* HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA


23 Comments

Ashley on April 25, 2011 at 4:23 pm.

I have noticed a rise in sexy digital/cartoon babes. I’m not yet sure what to think about this. And for the record, I didn’t notice that the pic was all “Here’s my vag” until you said something either.

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Awlbiste on April 25, 2011 at 4:24 pm.

I am so glad I didn’t have to feel inappropriate when I laughed at “titular.” Additionally whenever I read or say the word lady, I draw out the a in my head: laaaaaaaaaady. It sounds much fancier that way.

“Also, she wears glasses.”

I’m sure it’s my own internal bias as a glasses-wearer, but whenever I see a main character in anything that also wears glasses I like them a teensy bit more.

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Acceptable on April 25, 2011 at 4:40 pm.

Really interesting, school 26 sounds a bit disappointing but Bayonetta more awesome than I thought.

Also, Chell in Portal (and Portal 2) is a noon-male character whose gender is not a plot device :D

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Adri on April 25, 2011 at 5:15 pm.

I work in the game industry (actually making games). I can tell you that women who work in the game industry absolutely think about how female characters are represented, it’s just that so often demographic wins out over principle.

I fucking LOVE Bayonetta. I have a fully articulated Bayonetta action figure on my desk. I was a hold out until I played it, but, like you, immediately identified that this is a character that while wildly exaggerated, was operating on her own agency (unusual in ANY medium). The first time the burly male bartender/advisor showed up, I rolled my eyes, here it comes, the man behind the babe, but she put him in his place and, as it turns out, he’s a support character. Brilliant.

Here’s a really thoughtful interview with the character’s (female) designer: http://xbox360.gamespy.com/xbox-360/bayonetta/1013849p1.html

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Lesley on April 25, 2011 at 8:06 pm.

Thank you! GameSpy seems to be down but I will definitely read it when it comes back up.

Also: damn, I want a Bayonetta action figure.

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Imbrium on April 25, 2011 at 5:30 pm.

Did you ever play Longest Journey? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Longest_Journey) It was a point-and-click adventure game released in 1999, and the main character, April Ryan, is one of my favorite characters from any video game. She comes across as wicked smart, very snarky, and while her gender and sexuality aren’t utterly ignored, they’re not a plot point, either. It’s ancient (in video game terms), but I highly recommend it.

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Lesley on April 25, 2011 at 8:05 pm.

I actually haven’t, though I played the sequel years ago. I’m a total sucker for point-and-click adventure games, though the genre seems to have stalled a decade ago.

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G on April 25, 2011 at 5:54 pm.

I love Bayonetta too! The first time I walked into the living room where my (ex-)boyfriend was playing it, I rolled my eyes and sighed and said “Seriously, Chris? Seriously?” But then I sat down and saw how stylish it was, and how amazing, independent and powerful her character was, and it totally won me over. I mean, she’s got guns. On her feet.

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Lesley on April 25, 2011 at 8:03 pm.

It’s the guns on the feet thing that really makes it special, right?

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Ariel on April 25, 2011 at 5:55 pm.

I have to say, you’ve made me reconsider my anti-bayonetta stance. I’ve become so frustrated with a lot of characters in gaming, so I just took her at face value and assumed that she was another unnecessarily oversexualized fanboy money grab. And I refused to play the game. But now, I’ll at least give it a glance, especially since it seems to be dirt cheap in a number of places.

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Lesley on April 25, 2011 at 8:03 pm.

I went in with low expectations, I admit, and I haven’t finished it yet, but I am still impressed! And yeah, I got it used for super cheap.

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Tombrokaw on April 25, 2011 at 7:31 pm.

Authorial intent counts for nothing?

Could have fooled me based on your rant about weight watchers appropriating that song, “feeling good.” You sure were offended over something that doesn’t count for anything.

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Lesley on April 25, 2011 at 8:02 pm.

That whole post was about how authorial intent is intangible and fleeting! The original version of the song took place in a very specific context, and then Nina Simone reshaped it (as she did lots of songs, both popular and obscure) away from its original purpose to suit her own, and then Weight Watchers bought it and worked their evil on it. (And somewhere in between apparently Muse recorded a very popular rock version as well.) I wasn’t bitching about the idea of re-purposing a song; I was bitching about the context Weight Watchers placed it in. That’s not the same thing as saying they shouldn’t be allowed to do so. They can, and I can complain about it.

Also, I wouldn’t say authorial intent counts for nothing; I just don’t think the author’s intention should be valued as highly as it often is, to the exclusion of other interpretations and analyses and perspectives.

So have you played Bayonetta?

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Lurker du Jour on April 25, 2011 at 9:53 pm.

Flailing in glee! Thank you for this. I don’t participate in gaming fandom, partly because I hit my (low) tolerance for complaining about straw-feminists supposedly complaining about female characters being hot. Realizing the difference between “hot, and [fill in other cool stuff here]” and “hot, and… that’s it” is important to me. Dangit.

(aren’t pretty much ALL videogames about “action”? I’ve never understood this genre)

I know this is rhetorical, but: Tactical RPGs, a.k.a. chess with fireballs and swords, or alternatively robots. Good times. (It also gave the world Agrias Oaks, one of my old favorites.)

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Arwen on April 26, 2011 at 1:11 am.

I totally saw Vag First. What’s that say about me? *g*

Interestingly, I thought of Gaga when you were describing Bayonetta – both have an embodied/empowered performance of the sexy-drag that isn’t always comfortable or terribly sexual, and both express violence authentically.

I’m in Vancouver, connected with the gaming community, both men & women at Radical, Relic, EA, Rockstar, etc. (Although, actually, only dudes at Rockstar. I’m sure there are women somewhere there. Although I don’t, as a general rule, enjoy Rockstar gaming, so maybe not.)

As a software engineer, I considered going into that industry – only with kids, and a husband in the same industry, the question really became what would you do with the kids if both were finalling? Which I think may be part of the problem of gender parity; those last two weeks can be killer hours. (I’d be interested in seeing parity regarding film crews, actually, which have similar work schedules.)

But working on interesting female characters, and supporting getting women into the industry is certainly part of the intent of people I know, men & women, working in these companies. Well, feminists working at these companies. (Caveat; I have no idea about Rockstar.) As a programmer I have been treated pretty darn equitably. But overall vision, and the bottom line, are places of vulnerability when creating in gaming.

First, it seems the bigger a company gets, the more overhead it has, the more that it does what was already done: the bottom line can cause big houses to stop taking risks. If massive jiggling cans and a wee submissive giggle sold, well, do ‘er over! And this sort of bottom line consideration does mean grind time, and grinding while finalling is not something I would have looked happily at even before I had kids.

But also, games are team efforts. You can have a characters that don’t cohere, and end up cardboard, because there’s a collision of vision. And suddenly, this character everyone thought was going to be so cool ends up coming out sexy-face diminutive-giggle. I think, in part, it’s because there are still fewer central-casting action-heroes that are women that everyone can “make something like”, be on the same page about.

Whereas with actors, you’ve actually got a woman embodying the role she’s given, sometimes straight up, sometimes subversively – with games you’ve got one crew making her physicality and one crew scripting the story and a voice actor maybe & then the overarching script (which may be one of those “something like sold last year” bits.)

They do all come together, and I’ve had lots of good game play where i didn’t feel pushed aside by gender roles (MacGee’s Alice, ONI, Beyond Good & Evil, … Even, hilariously, the online social network game Echo Bazaar, which does some very amusing things with gender, although my references are old because I’m An Old Lady With Kids and Less Gaming Time) – and I also have hope that as we get a greater library of female action heroes, we get increasingly robust characters to build on when the big companies are dumping “another like this”.

Sexy I think will often be part. These characters are usually exaggeratedly fabulous in most aspects; few are soft, Tercel driving, middle aged accountants who forget where they put their car keys every time they turn around. But the how of that sexy is whether or not it’s embodied, and that depends, I think, on teams and time.

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Arwen on April 26, 2011 at 1:12 am.

CRAP, that was longer than I thought!

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Dragonflywer on April 26, 2011 at 4:01 pm.

I kust wanted to pop in and agree about Echo Bazaar; I was pleasantly surprised when the option for my female character to seduce another female character came into play. I mean, it’s a tiny little thing, but I’ll take it.

Also, despite the fact that I have teensy amounts of time to dedicate to gaming (sadly), I really want to play Bayonetta now. If nothing else, just so I can shoot angels with my feet.

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Sereena on April 27, 2011 at 7:29 pm.

I’m not a FPS fan, so even though Bayonetta seems quite awesome, I won’t go there. I’m an RPG fan. I’ve recently finished the Dragon Age games and have found them fantastic because, as a female character, I can have sexual relationships with males and females, even visit brothels and choose my own. Its not done in a cheap sleezy way either. I really enjoyed having to build up the relationships between my allies and with the right responses, it could lead to a sexual thing. However, RPG’s generally don’t have “sexuality in your face” like the Bayonetta character. While the females generally have quite an impressive pair of “girls”, that’s about it. You customise them to how they look and I find that loads of fun. I like the fact that, other than my character having a gravity defying rack, that’s about the only sexual thing about her, she’s there to fight and explore and have an occasional fling! Anyhow, I love my gaming and I applaud any positive female role models in games. I used to be a huge Tomb Raider fan until they spoiled the series (I just adored Lara Croft). Anyhow, more positive female characters in gaming is always good!

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A on May 2, 2011 at 6:09 pm.

Wasn’t Bayonetta designed by some very tongue-in-cheek lady feminists?

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Susan on June 21, 2011 at 5:49 pm.

This really made me reconsider my stance on Bayonetta. I still think pole dancing as a special attack is beyond ridiculous, not to mention the lollipops… and the poledance during the credits….

But I wonder if my discomfort with Bayonetta may have been more centered on the discrepancy between her oversexualized image and her take no prisoners personality. Would I have been less irritated by her if she had fit the stereotype that states that overtly sexual women are also cheap and vapid, and therefore not powerful or dangerous.

Something for me to think on, anyway.

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Southpaw on June 23, 2011 at 4:01 am.

I don’t think she’s designed by feminists. Or maybe she is, but with dudely instructions. The lady designer said this: “I had lots of discussions with Kamiya-san regarding what he feels is sexy from a guy’s point of view, and what he’d want from the character. [laughs]”
(http://xbox360.gamespy.com/xbox-360/bayonetta/1013849p1.html)

And there are some choice quotes from that Kamiya feller in this article: http://gomakemeasandwich.wordpress.com/2011/06/03/bayonetta-and-the-male-gaze/

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Southpaw on June 23, 2011 at 4:07 am.

Okay, I jumped the gun a little bit there. She says she likes the look too. But still, the Kamiya guy has said a lot of sexist things and he’s the one who came up with the character in the first place.

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Halloween Jack on October 13, 2011 at 5:18 pm.

I kind of rolled my eyes when I first read about Bayonetta and found out that her skin-tight black costume is actually made out of her hair, and that when she forms weapons out of it, part or all of her costume disappears. I changed my mind when I saw that, when her costume totally disappears, you’re not really paying attention to her body (and the swimsuit areas are still concealed, anyway) because her hair turns into a giant dragon-demon-thing that picks up a similarly enormous angel and smashes it into the side of a castle. And it just keeps getting more awesome from there.

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