More Skin More Sin: Clothing and morality in character design
Part of a character designer’s job is to design characters that ‘read’ instantly. A wizard should look like a wizard. A barbarian should look like a barbarian. And a bad girl should look like a bad girl, right?
So what does a bad girl look like?
Character artists have bags of visual tropes for indicating evil; black and red clothing, secondary color triadics, spikes and skulls, Red eyes, white hair, threatening tattoos, etc etc. Those are all unisex design elements, but female characters get another potent one: skin exposure.
When Christians started blaming women’s sinful bodies for leading men astray, exposing those bodies became symbolic of inherent sinfulness. Standards of modesty rose and fell over the centuries, varying between cultures and countries. In the Victorian era it was considered scandalous to wear pants because it reminded men that those legs went all the way up and there was a vagina in between them. In general the socially acceptable level of skin exposure has become increasingly liberal over the course of the 20th century, but many christian groups still pressure women to cover their bodies lest they tempt weak willed men into sin.
Although the christian extremists may be the only ones calling for women to obscure the contours of their bodies and hide their sinful armpits the rest of secular society still judges women based on how they dress. A scantily clad woman will have assumptions made about her sexual history and appetites, her intelligence, her social status and her overall morality. Despite statistics indicating that revealing clothing has no correlation with sexual assault, sexual assault victims are frequently judged on their apparel or appearance. Women who expose their bodies, women who ‘flaunt’ their sexuality are considered more immoral. Revealing clothing is often described as ‘provocative’, a loaded term that suggests that what a woman wears is actively taunting onlookers or inciting a reaction.
In the earlier decades of videogames when they were considered mostly junk entertainment for teen boys and not a lot of thought was going into morality or ethics, scantily clad was more or less the standard for female characters. Not only was buxom and half naked a popular choice for both the developers and the target audience, it was also a lot less difficult to make a character visually read as female with only a handful of pixels or polygons if you gave her exaggerated proportions and exposed skin. It was also the 80s, a popular time for exposed skin and big breasts and even bigger hair. As videogames evolved and their graphical fidelity increased, so did concerns about dressing female characters appropriately.
When people criticize excessive female sexualization in videogames, several kneejerk excuses often come before it gets whittled down to the inevitable ‘Well it’s for boys and they like it so it will never go away.’ fallacy. Common excuses include mobility being more important than protection, different cultural standards, the importance of distracting or charming male enemies (ha ha what), and sometimes ‘She’s a villain, she’s not supposed to be a role model, so it’s okay.’
So, by embracing the madonna/whore archetype with open arms some franchises justify their over-sexualized characters by making them the evil sorceresses with gravity defying brasseries and armoring up their respectable moral women.
This is a dichotomy with plenty of exceptions, usually skewing more towards underdressed heroines than to overdressed villains. Those exceptions do not make the underlying message any less potent. In a society where we blame rape victims for not wearing enough clothing, we should careful not to get comfortable with the idea that fully clothed women are moral and righteous and nearly naked woman are evil sadistic temptresses.
Oversexualized characters whose clothing and behavior is completely at odds with their personality are bizarre. Ivy from Soul Calibur is a prime example of a verbally abusive whip swinging dominatrix whose in-game personality and word-of-god backstory are irreconcilable. Sadly, characters who have a sex drive to accompany their sexualized outfits often come with even more unfortunate implications.
Dragon Age Origin’s Morrigan is on the side of the hero. She’s also morally ambiguous and deceptive. Dragon Age 2’s Isabela pretty much never shuts up about sex. She’s also a bit of a scoundrel and betrays you midway through the game. Mass Effect 2’s Jack is an emotionally damaged borderline psychopath who wears little more than a belt for a bra. All three of these characters share another trait: they all claim to enjoy only casual sex and have no desire for an accompanying emotional attachment. However, if you romance them you’ll discover they are all wrong about what they think they want and they really do want your love. These are not one-note one-dimensional villains but they represent an ugly trend in the way female sexuality is depicted in videogames, especially when compared to the other female characters in their games. Morrigan’s emotional detachment to sex is juxtaposed against the sweet and devoted Leliana. Isabela’s foil is the faultlessly law-abiding Aveline, who is so bad at utilizing her own feminine charms that she requires the hero’s assistance to arrange a date for her. As for Jack… well, her contrast is an alien woman who is completely covered from head to toe and risks death from germs if she takes off her clothes.
As well as simply being revealing, sexy ‘evil’ costumes sometimes draw inspiration from the fashions and paraphernalia of the BDSM community. BDSM practitioners stress the importance of safe consensual play that is enjoyable for all participants, but it may look strange or cruel to outsiders. This has made sadomasochists and dominatrixes into popular villain material in the media. Add onto that the dramatic visual impact of BDSM gear and its associated sexiness and it becomes popular inspiration for wardrobe elements for fantasy and videogame characters. This appropriation adds another ugly implication; that someone who inflicts pain, even on a consensual basis, is a more appropriate target for violence. And of course, BDSM is also frequently depicted as being the ‘bad’ sex, something that good girls don’t do.
So bad girls wear slutty clothes and have kinky sex. They get killed off in our horror movies for our personal catharsis, while the modest virginal girl is allowed to live. When something happens to a good, virginal girl in fiction it’s a tragedy and when it happens to a bad, naughty girl it’s seen as some kind of moral justice.
This article has all been leading up to the perfect poison.
Okay, technically that’s Roxy. Poison has pink hair, but otherwise they’re identical. They’re also the only female enemies in a game where you walk around the streets and punch aggressive strangers in the face. Poison is a super sexy woman with handcuffs hanging from her belt and a dominatrix style cap. It’s disturbing that capcom thought that these were good signifiers to put on a woman to make it more acceptable to beat her up. It carries the implication that being sexually aggressive somehow makes a woman a fair target for violence. And of course, there’s something else about Poison. She’s a transwoman.
I’m glad there’s a transwoman in videogames, and Poison’s colorful and iconic character design allowed her to climb up the ladder from a beat-em-up enemy to a playable fighting game character. However, if you think about her origins, it’s a disturbing and ignorant design decision. Transwomen are the demographic at the most risk of unprovoked physical violence. I don’t know if the designer thought that a transwoman or a transvestite would simply have the physical strength to make it a fair fight or if like the punk enemies in the game they simply took a stereotype from the fringes of society.
Poison isn’t the only bdsm themed female enemy in a classic beat ’em up. Double Dragon had Linda Lash. Streets of Rage had nameless dominatrixes. It’s kind of a mystery to me that our parents let us play these games without looking at the screen long enough to ask ‘Why are you beating up sex workers?’
Majesco is working on a modern update of Double Dragon called Double Dragon Neon. I think the updated graphics make the violence against sexualized enemies look really distasteful. This screenshot really looks like the hero is going to the red light district to punch sex workers. In a society that trivializes violence against strippers and sex workers to a horrifying degree and dead hookers are the punchlines to jokes, is the disposable dominatrix an archetype we should be clinging to?
Having some armored up women is great. Having some scantily clad women is great. But consistently equating sexuality and sexy clothing with evil is really really bad. It draws on ugly, outdated concepts of morality and it hurts women. As always, with every trend and trope I discuss on this blog, I am not saying never ever design a sexy, scantily clad evil woman. I am encouraging designers to be mindful about this issue. Make conscious decisions. Make considerate choices. Otherwise you end up with this:
Tore Blystad, game director of Hitman:Absolution expressed shock that people were disturbed by the now infamous Hitman trailer where Agent 47 graphically dispatches a group of fetish nuns. He compared their nun habits to the disguises Agent 47 wears throughout the game with this quote: “It’s the same here with these nuns dressing as something less conspicuous, getting up to their mark, and revealing their true colors.” Their true colors. Fetishwear shows how evil they are. Unless latex and fishnets are just the most effective assassination clothing, in which case Agent 47 should have some interesting costumes in the finished game.
I don’t think I can make my point any clearer than Blystad just made it for me.