B.I.T.C.H: Bayonetta in Total Control of Herself
Bayonetta has been a very polarizing character for videogame journalists. Some argued that her portrayl was ultimately more positive than negative. Others disagreed, and while I personally embrace her, there were also excellent arguments made that she was too problematic to be positive. This isn’t an issue where I’d try and convince someone to change their perspective to match my own if they disagreed with me. Especially for a woman, whether or not you embrace her as a feminist icon or consider her to be a sexist mistake is going to be based on which of the game’s mixed messages speak to you the loudest.
However, Bayonetta is one of my favorite games and she’s one of my favorite female characters so I want to write about what spoke to me the loudest.
To me, Bayonetta is a uniquely female power fantasy.
The male gaze is there. It’s undeniable. But there’s also something a little different. Her proportions are superheroic and her breasts are only as big as her head because her head is small in proportion to her body, an artistic decision that’s often used on male characters to make them more imposing but is seldom employed for female characters. This exaggeration actually gathered a lot of complaints from male gamers who thought it reduced her sex appeal. Her outfit is skin tight and cleavage exposing but it’s also incredibly detailed and high concept. Her earrings, echoing both the shape of a cat and a high heel and the celestial ornaments hanging from her sleeves speak volumes about her personality. Most hypersexualized costumes say very little about the character wearing it, feeling more like generic stripper-wear to me but I really believe this costume suits this character as an individual. And what’s more, I find this costume stylish. I would love to own such a costume. Bayonetta’s visual design is by Mari Shimazaki and was more inspired by haute couture runway fashion than by strip club apparel and it really works for me.
So I liked her visual design from the beginning, but actually playing through the game for the first time was different. The male gaze is so over the top it gets groan inducing and that’s before the point where an angel disguised as the main character spreads her legs at the end of a dance panel and turns into an angel with jiggling breasts that you’re supposed to have to finish off with a medieval bondage horse. You can see why I’m not eager to tap anyone on the shoulder and say ‘No no, my interpretation is more important than that!’ But when I beat the game I was cheering and as I started to replay it on harder difficulties, skipping most of the cutscenes I started loving the game.
Because under the fluff and noise, this is a game about murdering the patriarchy with its own tools of oppression.
Take the high heeled shoes that you’re expected to suffer for the visual enjoyment of men and make them implements of murder. Take the long hair associated with gentle passive womanhood and strangle the crap out of them. Do it with your BFF, who you appeared to be forced into competition with by the patriarchy but who was always truly on your side. When your clothing comes off to reveal your naked body, you’re the opposite of vulnerable, tearing massive enemies limb from limb.
This is a game where you play as a witch fighting angels and you kill the father who wants to use and supress you with a lipstick bullet. This is a game where the heroine flat out states “I don’t like babies but I enjoy making them.” It’s a game that appears to be about nurturing a child but is actually about defending yourself.
I want to be this witch. I want to run up the sides of walls in the moonlight and shoot angels with my awesome heels and look totally amazing while I’m doing it. I want every pose I strike to be ready for an issue of Vogue. I want to stand back to back with my sister and smash the corpse of god into pieces after I throw it into one of the most potent symbols for masculine gods: THE MOTHERFUCKING SUN.
This is a revenge fantasy where you hack institutionalized Christianity into bloody pieces.
I said that my interpretation would be about what spoke loudest to me, and as a result, my interpretation relies heavily on some magical symbolism that may be unfamiliar to you. I am not a practicing witch. I am an agnostic and I don’t believe in magic. But I do believe in the value of archetypes.
An archetype that appears sometimes in various mythologies and narratives is that of a masculine sun god and a feminine night goddess. The male aspect represents order and stability; the female aspect represents chaos and change. The night goddess is often associated with nature, while the sun god is associated with artifice. They are both meant to exist in balance, and the aspects both exist within every person, male or female.
If you’ve read Alan Moore’s “From Hell” then you know exactly what I’m talking about ( The movie completely removed these themes.) The comic ‘Marshall Law’ also explores similar ideas.
The idea, in a nutshell, is that while the archetypes are meant to balance, patriarchal institutions have a tendency to arise that try and dominate or obliterate the feminine aspects of polytheistic religions and replace them with the worship of a single god, a god identified with the sun. Judeo-christianity is one of these institutions. The figure that should be the christian night goddess, Lilith, is perverted into a monstrous figure. Adam’s first wife, made out of the same earth at the same moment instead of from his rib, who left him in The Garden of Eden because she wanted to be on top during sex for once. After leaving, she has sex with an archangel with more modern sexual notions and gives birth to a shitload of monsters. She and her offspring are often described as beautiful maidens who seduce men and hurt pregnant women.
Eve being the one who fucked everything up was bad enough, right? Of course, Eve was the popular one to slutshame because the medieval church didn’t even want the laypeople to know Lilith existed. But even as women are being told that they are the reason that they are inherently awful and sinful and that they lead men to satan just by having vaginas the night goddess archetype survives underground. Devotees sneak vaginal imagery into cathedrals architecture. Even the sanitized virgin mary is frequently depicted with a halo of stars.
But forcing the goddess underground wasn’t good enough so the church set out to actually torture and exterminate her priestesses, who were, of course, witches. And the people they deemed to be witches were more often than not not even intentionally her priestesses. They were just women trying to control their own bodies, women with knowledge about the natural world.
The imagery is all present to support this being Bayonetta’s dominant theme. The game is covered in lunar imagery. The subtext of shooting your enemies with gun high heels is debatable, but when you’re killing angels with the devices used to torture witches is pretty clear what the message is. And then you have the angels themselves, creatures who appear externally beautiful and chip away to reveal anatomical monstrosities. The implication is clear: these creatures who appear to be pure artificial constructs unbounded by the weaknesses of the flesh are forgeries. Medieval philosophers believed that if you could somehow create a new man without the sexual involvement of a woman, that man would somehow be more pure, free of the inherently sinful and earthly female contribution to the baby, a creature of the mind rather than the body. Bayonetta appears to consciously reject this notion of pure sexless beings, presenting the angels as charlatans hiding their fleshy mortal frames behind immaculate decorations.
Today self-described witches have religious protection, but the attempts to use religion as justification to control women’s bodies rage on. Positive representations of witches are increasing, but the dominant iconic image is still a caricature of an evil hag or a villainous seductress. In videogame culture, these medieval ideas about evil slut demons still permeate our media. The image of the christianity in videogames is quite different. Examples of corrupt or problematic churches aren’t too hard to find, but the dominant ideal of the Paladin, this holy moral warrior who abstains from sex is far more entrenched in our games. For once, Bayonetta presents the battle from the other side, where witches are the heroes taking righteous vengeance against their oppressors.
So, I am not the type of witch who lights candles and casts spells. But if witches represent women who want control over their own bodies, women who enjoy having sex on their own terms, women who refuse to be pushed around by the religious whims of a bunch of sexist old men…
…well then fuck yes I am a witch, pass me my gun shoes.