By Lesley | April 25, 2011
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.