Is Bayonetta 2 Sexist, and Should You Care?

Is Bayonetta Empowered or Exploited? Could She be ... Both?

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Bayonetta is about to shoot a monster in both images, yet somehow the messaging is a little different. Nintendo

Bayonetta is sexy. Clad in sleek, skin-tight clothes, she strides in her gun-boots like a model on a catwalk. She is fit and impossibly flexible. She is cool and witty, strong and capable, loyal and, under her mocking exterior, kind and caring.

She’s also naked a lot and tends to stand in contorted positions calculated to show off her curves. So much so that Polygon’s reviewer game the game a relatively low score due to its “sexist, gross pandering.”

This has led to debates on whether Bayonetta is sexist, and whether it even matters.

Some Background: Women and Video Games and Insane People

Many gamers don’t feel this is a conversation worth having, yelling "SJW" at anyone who broaches the topic. (SJW stands for Social Justice Warrior, and seems to have replaced “politically correct” as the pejorative term for those on the left who want to discuss culture and politics. I find it a weak jibe; “politically correct” was effective because it brought to mind didactic socialists who spend hours haranguing you about privilege, but for me, “Social Justice Warrior” paints a picture of Martin Luther King and Emma Goldman astride galloping white steeds, golden swords held aloft.)

Some gamers do more than yell "SJW." Recent times have seen crazed gamers sending death threats to women who talk about these issues. It is as though you went up to a table in a café and said “is this seat taken?” and the reply was, “I WILL KILL YOU AND YOUR CHILDREN AND YOUR DOG!”

Women characters in games get so much scrutiny largely because they are so rare. Look at the most popular game franchises. In the majority only men are playable. In some, like Call of Duty and the vast majority of sports titles, women play no part, while in others they fulfill the role of damsels in distress. Games that have both male and female protagonists and don’t dress the women in bikinis are unusual, and lone female protagonists are a drop in the gaming bucket.

The reasons for this are open to debate. Some argue that most gamers are men and that when women play games, they eschew triple-A titles for casual games. On the other hand, the AAA games women do play in great numbers, like The Sims and Final Fantasy, are games in which men and women are given more parity (in Final Fantasy women often wear skimpy clothes, but so do the men). Would Call of Duty do better with women if it had lots of women soldiers? It’s hard to say, but there are an awful lot of women gamers out there.

When women do appear in games they are generally big-breasted and skimpily clothed, making women feel like they’re not the intended audience and reinforcing stereotypes of women as valuable only for their looks.

Answering the Second Question First: Does it Matter?

So what, some gamers cry, it’s only a game! Anyway, women do sometimes dress sexy, so why not in games? Guys are also often physically exaggerated as muscular hunks, isn’t that the same thing? And there are smart, powerful, fully-clothed female protagonists like Rebecca Chambers and April Ryan and Faith Connors and Chell. You just have to look for them.

So what’s the big deal?

To answer that, let’s talk about the film portrayal of African Americans in the first half of the 20th century.

If you look at a single movie from the 1940s with one black character, and that black character is fearful, and childish, and stupid, and poorly spoken, you could easily say, so what? After all, the same period included plenty of stupid white characters, like Lou Costello or The Three Stooges. And it’s not like there are no stupid black people in the world. And Paul Robeson made a few movies in England where he played intelligent black men. So what’s the big deal?

But for every Lou Costello, there was a Clark Gable or two. For every Stepin Fetchit, there were three more just like him. This encouraged and reinforced the prevailing belief among many white people that they were the superior race.

If there were all sorts of women protagonists in games, from stubby plumbers to mud-covered soldiers to scary gangsters, the occasional sexy woman wouldn’t be out of place. But if you name every woman who has ever been the non-sexualized protagonist of a game, and then name every sexy, underdressed women from a single Dead or Alive game, which list would be longer?

If most women in video games are sex kittens or frilly incompetents, you reinforce existing sexist views. So yes, representation of women in games is important. Which brings us back to question number one:

Is Bayonetta Sexist?

Is Bayonetta sexist? As a proud SJW, I could just say yes and be done with it, but it’s not as simple as that.

As I mentioned above, Bayonetta has many admirable qualities. In this, she shares a place with the most popular female game protagonist of all, Lara Croft. Lara is a studious, acrobatic heiress with an interest in ancient civilizations and an expertise in melee and ranged weaponry.

She’s also a big-breasted woman in short-shorts.

We tend to focus on the latter aspects (at least until the most recent game, which shrunk her chest and gave her jeans), because story is a tiny part of a game. Lara is only smart and knowledgeable in a few cut scenes, but big breasted all the time.

Still, isn’t it wrong to dismiss smart, capable women because they have big breasts and wear tight clothes? In an entertainment space where women are so often the victims who must be avenged, or the prize that must be saved, shouldn’t we welcome women who are neither with open arms?

Bayonetta is as smart as Lara Croft and far more powerful. She is quick witted and intimidating. She takes no prisoners.

Her clothing is tight and sexy, but to be fair, she’s a witch with a sense of style, so you wouldn’t expect her to wear a uniform or a pair of jeans, and when her hair is in place she actually shows less flesh than a lot of other female video game characters.

So what’s the problem?

That’s not an easy question, and to answer it you have to consider that there is a difference between a character’s personality and utilization. Which makes this a good time to talk about Princess Zelda.

Princess Zelda is royalty. She is kind, she is wise, she is brave.

But her purpose in the Zelda games is not to be wise or brave, but rather to be the passive, kidnapped girl who must be rescued by the boy with the destiny. No matter how wonderful Zelda is, she is a plaything for the developers. She has no agency. She is a prop.

While Bayonetta has agency in the story, she is still treated as a prop by the game camera, which often leers at her, zooming in on her ass as it glides under that tight dominatrix suit. Bayonetta can best any evil angel, but she is powerless against that camera, which can objectify her for cheap thrills, even when it distracts from the story and the character.

That is a primary difference between how men and women are portrayed in video games. Men are never leered at in games. Master Chief isn’t seen stepping out of his space suit and into a pair of boxers while the camera glides along his glistening chest. Games don’t bother to check out Sam Fisher’s ass. If a guy’s private parts are being highlighted, it’s likely to be an out-and-out joke.

Every time the camera leers at a woman, it makes a very simple statement: this game is for guys. We are guys and we have made a game for other guys and look guys, isn’t this girl hot? Watch me make her bend over so you can look down her top. Cool, huh?

Some men have dismissed these complaints as being anti-sex, but that’s untrue. As a character, Bayonetta owns her sexuality in an empowered way, and that’s fine. But the camera has the ultimate power, and it says, here is a hot chick for you guys to ogle.

Out of context, it’s not a big deal when a game with a lot of broadly comic cut scenes and a tongue-in-cheek attitude shows purposely cheesy pin-up shots of its heroine. But in the context of female underrepresentation and over-sexualization, Bayonetta is part of a pattern of sexism in video games.

Bayonetta 2 is an absolutely brilliant game which I highly recommend, but it’s still important to be aware of the message it is sending, and to realize that a strong, sexy Bayonetta would be just as compelling in a game which never zoomed in on her ass. 

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