Objectification Hall of Shame: Part 1

•July 20, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I grew up on paperback novels with buxom, toned women with metal bikinis on the covers. I wasn’t supposed to be reading these, my sister who was three years older than me was the one borrowing them from the library. But I was a voracious reader, and these nearly naked warrior princesses appealed to me, so I discreetly read and replaced them so that no one would be the wiser. I remember reading a particular passage in which the young male protagonist asked his companion why she didn’t wear more clothing. She replied with some spurious fluff about agility being more important than defense and what if she was on a ship and fell into the water and needed to swim? I nodded my prepubescent head sagely, willing to extend my suspension of disbelief to the idea that she couldn’t just change her goddamn clothes if she got on a boat. Regardless, I am still personally fond of the occasional sexy fantasy armor. It can be fun, it can be hot, it can be well designed. It can even suit a character’s personality and reflect something about their powers. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.

There are many women whose opinions that I respect who believe that skin-baring armor should be done away with entirely. I personally think there will always be a place for it. But sexual objectification is like dessert. If you eat it for every meal, you’re going to get sick. A healthy mental diet should contain plenty of diverse representations of women, and then occasionally for a special treat you can break out the stiletto heels and the battle-thongs.

I am for sexy armor. Not all the time, not even the majority of the time, but sometimes. I’m also for both men and women wearing it. Equal opportunity objectification. But sometimes, a costume just goes too far, clashes with its wearer’s personality and distracts from the gravity of the plot.

Welcome to the Objectification Hall of Shame!

This is Rachel from Ninja Gaiden. She’s working part time as a dominatrix to make her way through law school. That’s okay, that’s empowering… wait, what? She’s not doing that? She’s on a quest to mercy-kill her sister who was possessed by a demon? Well… why the hell is she wearing that? It’s not a bad look for a goth-industrial fetish night, but it’s not what I’d pick to wear when I go out for cathartic revenge.

Here’s a design from Hunted: The Demon Forge that really impressed me. The first half a dozen times I saw it I assumed she was wearing a very skimpy tube top, but as you can see, her shirt is actually made up of a few strips of bandages. She’s trusting on a few haphazard windings of linen to hold her in. That, my friends, is the most dangerous game. Despite the structural integrity concerns, there’s actually a nice rhythm about this costume. If it was made for clubbing instead of dungeon crawling I’d dig it.

This one is from Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within and is so ridiculous that even Penny Arcade made fun of it. I’m fairly certain it’s impossible to actually put this armor on unless you weld it into place, like some sort of gruesome avant-garde chastity belt. It’s revealing and offers no real protection, but at least it also chafes horribly.

This one is from Armored Princess.

That’s a… generous definition of armored. I don’t really know why character designers decide to go this far, I don’t think that this looks sexy at all. There’s a general rule in fashion that if you’re going to show off a ton of your cleavage, you should consider covering up your legs to balance it out. Maybe if they’d kept the cleavage but brought her shirt down all the way and given her some pants this would register as sexy in my brain. Sadly, some video game artists seem to be of the opposite opinion, that if you don’t show absolutely every soft part of a woman’s body that she’s never going to be considered sexy… even if those parts are all that you’re showing.

Okay, what the fresh hell is this?

This is showing off inappropriate levels of skin, but it isn’t even sexy. It’s from Torchlight 2, but I don’t know what they were thinking. I have a special sadness reserved for costumes that are regressive and sexist but not actually attractive. She looks like she’s ready to go to the Lawrence of a Labia for a quick gynecological check-up.

God, that last one is just depressing, can we get something fun up in here?

Aw yeah, that’s better. This is from Tera Online. That’s some couture objectification. If Alexander Mcqueen made ridiculous sex armor, this is what you’d get. I’d actually wear that jacket. Not if I was going to go hit someone with a broadsword, but maybe to Burning Man, where you can leave your tits hanging out all day and no one gives a damn. Can we get some more of this kind of armor?

Awww yeah. Now, this stuff is absolutely absurd, but in a weird way I respect the lengths they’re going to. They’re heading out into uncharted exploitation territory. No unimaginative battle bikinis here, no sir. And while many objectifying outfits look like they’d need to be held in place with double sided tape, this one looks like it would require a team of telepaths focusing all their mental energy on holding on your boob-plates.

There is a ton of amazing, ridiculous armor in Tera Online. Unfortunately, even though they go a little further than most franchises in showing some male skin too, the gender divide is too extreme for the creative costume design to be truly enjoyable. My longing for a game universe where everyone of every gender dresses in ridiculous lingerie all the time like it’s no big deal remains unfulfilled. If you’d like to see more, there’s an excellent blog post by Go Make Me a Sandwich here:

And an even better one here:

Anyway, that’s all for this Objectification Hall of Shame roundup! See you next time with even more boobs.

Oh, incidentally, the paperback novel covers did end up giving me body dysphoria. Oops.


Where My Girls At? : Androcentrism in Videogame Development

•July 19, 2012 • 1 Comment

I’m going to be talking a lot on this blog about characters who are only female because their sex is central to their character, about a lack of diverse female representations, and how female characters fall into certain stereotypes. The beating heart that all these smaller sexist arteries and veins spring from is a concept called androcentrism.

Ms. Pac-man is really just Pac-man’s stage name when he does drag. Unless you believe that the application of boots, heavy makeup, and a giant bow makes a boy into a girl.

Despite the many, many people who like to insist that sexism is over we still live in an androcentric society. We view men as the neutral default and women as a stranger and more specific variation of the man.  It’s present in our language, in the marketing we use to sell products, and in our visual iconography. A stick figure with split legs can be interpreted as a man or as gender neutral, but a stick figure with a skirt is female only. A round circle with a slice cut out of it can be read as a man, but additional feminine signifiers are required to turn it into a woman.

A brotherhood can have female members, but a sisterhood with male members would be viewed as strange. A group of men and women can be reduced to ‘guys’, but never to ‘gals’. It’s even present in our jokes. If a joke starts out with a man walking into a bar, the joke doesn’t have to revolve around his gender. But if the joke starts out with a woman walking into a bar, her gender is almost certainly going to factor into the punchline. This is because jokes are generally stripped down to their most basic information. If you tell a joke about an doctor, and his occupation has nothing to do with it, the listener is going to wonder why you bothered to specify unnecessary information. It’s the same way with ethnicity and gender, because white men are viewed as the neutral default in our society.

So a man is seen as general, and a woman is seen as a specific kind of man. This means that most designers or artists don’t need a specific reason to make a monster or character male, but they need a justification to make a character or monster female. At the same time, female characters or monsters appear more conspicuous to the audience compared to males. This is why it’s been decades since Samus’s initial reveal and yet it still remains a narrative trope to ‘surprise’ the audience with the fact that a powerful character is female. No one is surprised when a mysterious character of unspecified gender is male, because male is the natural expectation.

Brotherhood of Steel, yeah okay, way to make me feel included.

These androcentric expectations result in players rarely batting an eye at video games with all male or almost entirely male casts, while most game with all female casts are designed and marketed as eye candy for men.* A game with all male characters is simply a game with all male characters. A game with female characters is a bullet-point on the box, a specific selling point.

This one has mud wrestling, just like the fighting games with men in them do!

These games are fairly rare. Usually limited to the fighting game genre or the occasional niche top-down bullet-hell shooter, they’re obviously designed to appeal more to men than to women. With few exceptions, the range of characters either resemble a dating-sim lineup or a catalog full of glassy-eyed models selling sexy halloween costumes.

I’m glad that logo is covering up her crotch, otherwise this would be downright indecent.

I could spend an entire post talking about how weird these games are, but the fact is that they’re niche titles within niche genres. Despite the omnipresent claim that ‘sex sells’, these games never seem to have any staying power in the market. The majority of the videogame market is now over 21 and many consumers no longer appreciate the type of blatant pandering that assumes their sex drive is still that of a horny teenager.

No really, sex sells, which is why this is a highly respected classic that people actually remember existing.

Unfortunately games like this still do damage, because they reinforce the idea that if there’s more women in the game than men, they must be there as eye candy. This contributes to a trend in video games where women usually appear in media images surrounded by a plurality of men. The inverse of this rarely happens. And if you imagine in your head the reverse, it seems strange. There’s no logical reason it should, except that it’s what we’re used to seeing. Having only one or two female characters in a game full of men is seen as completely normal, but if you reverse the genders, suddenly it’s notable, suddenly it’s something that requires justification.

So you could remove all the women from this image and it would still be seen as normal…

…but this would be unusual. Even if I’d had more faces to copy-paste.

Granted, Gears of War did attempt to justify why there no women in the first two games, but it was a horrifying justification about breeding camps that made any pro-choice woman’s stomach turn. Generally games don’t bother to explain why there aren’t many women, because they don’t have to.

Which isn’t to say that a lack of female characters goes unnoticed, particularly by other women. Unless I’m playing a defined protagonist, I always prefer to have the option to play as a woman. I don’t exclusively play as women, but I probably choose a female avatar about 70% of the time when given the option. When I was in junior high I was quite keen on a game called Heroes of Might and Magic II. There were several reasons for this, the foremost being it had a huge demo and my parents didn’t appreciate my inclination towards videogames. You could recruit female heroes in the game, which I really liked, but I remember viewing the troops with some consternation. Out of all the human troops, only the archers were female. The only supernatural creatures that were female were fairies, ghosts and medusas. The last strategy game I played, King’s Bounty had only Dryads, Fairies, and the obligatory Succubi.

For extra annoyance, they also dressed in really cheap looking stripper costumes.

It’s a fairly consistent pattern that goes back to looking for justification to make something female. Warcraft III’s Night Elves have a decent share of female troops, because people love sexy purple girls. Uh, I meant to say because they have a matriarchal religion. But elsewhere, they are lacking. In historically based strategy games, there’s a reason for all-male armies. But these are fantasy games. Is wizards killing dragons really more plausible than female knights in armor? Is that really what’s going to break your suspension of disbelief?

The most unusual absence of women I’ve seen recently has been while playing Diablo 3. At first I thought it was just my imagination, but as I paid closer attention I realized it was true. Every single villager corpse you find lying around the fields and dungeons is male. There is a model of a female corpse strung up as decoration that is used in several locations, but the corpses that you encounter constantly, whose pockets you are constantly rifling through for loose gold, are always male.

“Are you serious, spider-queen? This is the equality you want? The right to be corpses?” But it’s weird not to have them, it implies unusual things about the world. It implies that the vast, vast majority of the population is men, and that they are the only ones venturing out into the world. It might be less conspicuous in a game where there weren’t so many other obvious omissions of women. Despite the leader of the Iron Wolves being a woman, there are no other women in the Iron Wolves. There are no female guards at Bastion’s Keep, there are no female guards in Tristram. Hell, there’s an all-male coven with a female leader. It’s a bizarre decision, made even more bizarre by the fact that none of it should have been very difficult to implement. Models for female townspeople already exist. A simple retexture is all it would have taken to diversify the corpses. A more generic-looking version of Asheara could have been used to diversify the Iron Wolves.

But there’s only enough double-sided tape in Caldeum to hold up Asheara’s outfit, so I guess they couldn’t recruit any more women into the Iron Wolves.

The lack of female cultists is the most glaring omission. It’s as if Maghda has some trust issues after Adria left and has been stamping ‘no girls allowed’ on the coven recruitment fliers. The cultists are veiled, and it would be easy to modify the design to look more feminine. But that isn’t even necessary, because there are several different cultist models. It would have cost no extra time to make the summoners women, just a different voice actor and a slight adjustment of proportions. The dark summoner concept art even looks distinctly feminine, although the in game model is clearly male.

Check out those hips. And is that boob-armor I spy?

But even simple additions to a video game have to be a conscious decision, and when something makes no real difference to the gameplay, it’s easily overlooked. this is why video games can be a particularly difficult medium in which to confront this double-standard. Every character in a video game has to be diligently created down to the last detail by 3d artists. Every motion they make is controlled by the animation artists. Shortcuts like motion capture and 3-d scanning still require heavy amounts of clean-up and fine-tuning by the artists. Similar character can often reuse art assets. Characters that share the same skeleton and have similar builds can often use the same animations. However, the higher the visual fidelity of the game, the more difficult it becomes to share assets and animations, especially across gender lines.

An extra complication comes from the consumer demand for female characters to be more attractive than male characters. While men can get away with shaved heads and textured stubble, women are expected to have realistic and attractive hair and eyelashes. This isn’t to discount the amount of effort that goes into crafting a Nathan Drake, but I’ve never seen consumers complain that Nathan isn’t attractive enough. In contrast, even the most beautiful female models I’ve seen in video games always seem to have some vocal detractors.

Killzones, Battlefields and Modern Warfares mostly breeze by without complaints about all-male or nearly male casts. An unusual exception to this usual apathy was Brink. Maybe it was because the game focused so heavily on character customization. Maybe it was because its science fiction setting made it harder to justify the lack of female characters. Personally I think the fact that the developers admitted that they would have liked to have female characters if it was financially viable made them an unfairly prominent target. The level of outrage against a lack of female characters directed at Brink was completely disproportionate when compared to similar games like Team Fortress 2.

Admittedly, I was also disappointed that I couldn’t play a woman in Brink, but the scale of what they were attempting to achieve in terms of character customization made them an unfair target. I constantly saw detractors erroneously claim that adding female characters would have been quick and easy. I saw people claim that it was as simple as ‘morphing’ the male models to be female, despite the fact that every morph target is created by hand by an artist, not some automatic process the computer does for them. Adding proper female characters would have nearly doubled their character art budget for the game, and I seriously doubt the people who clamored for an easy fix would have been satisfied with one. Which is better, no women at all, or women who are conspicuously half-assed compared to the men? Female representation is worth fighting for, but I don’t think anyone should ever diminish the effort and time that it requires to make it happen.

However, there are a lot of games that COULD add female characters just with a head-swap. Under bulky modern military gear, men and women don’t look noticeably different at all below the neck. So depending on the game, its art style and its setting, new bodies and new animations may not be necessary at all. In that case, all that’s needed is new heads and new voice acting. Possibly new facial animations if the new female head ends up too different from the male.

They’re even considerately wearing gloves so you don’t have to replace the hands!

I get it. Getting told that your gender inclusion is less important than including destructible walls sucks. You’re understandably angry and you want to lash out at those cheap hacks undervaluing your gender’s presence.  But every video game starts out with a list of essential key features and then a bunch of other features that the developers would also like. When time starts to crunch, some of those features have to go. And they’re going to get pulled out like jenga blocks, where whatever affects every other part of the game the least is going to get whisked away first. And here’s where androcentrism comes to bite women in the ass again, because having male characters is considered essential, but having female characters is not.

So that is some bullshit right there. And some of the reasons developers will give for not including women are not going to be completely honest. So do complain, but be informed. Make it clear that you understand what you’re asking for. Nothing makes it easier for a sympathetic developer to disregard your opinion than erroneously telling them how fast and easy it would be to do something. The fact is that most consumers have very little idea how time consuming video game production can be. Their first instinct when confronted with the lack of a feature is to blame the development team for being lazy. Another popular demand is for the development team to simply hire more employees, but having too many cooks in the kitchen comes with its own complications. Outsourced art has to be implemented by in house artists. The more in house artists, the more difficult communication and art style matching becomes.

Videogames should have more women. Not because it’s easy, but because it’s important. And not just because it’s the decent thing to do, but also because it’s profitable.

Female gamers have always existed, but they’re becoming increasingly numerous, and they like having the option to play as a girl. I always loved FPS games, but I was apprehensive about approaching games that focused on online deathmatches against strangers. The game that changed that for me was Unreal Tournament 2k4, and one of the main things that attracted me to it was the number of non-stereotypical, badass looking female characters and the fact that they actually used them in their marketing. Gamers have responded extremely positively to Bioware’s increasing dedication to their female protagonists. League of Legends is extraordinarily popular and reaching an audience far wider than its niche genre used to appeal to. Part of that is its unique business model, but the number of female champions is very appealing to women, even when most of those female champions are half naked. The conventional wisdom in marketing has been that if you don’t appeal primarily to teenage boys, your game won’t sell, but the opposite has been increasingly true. Especially in hardcore competitive genres that are naturally unwelcoming to new players, having female characters that aren’t just eye candy sends a semiotic message to female customers that they might be welcome too.

I know it always means a lot to me.

*I’m not including videogames with all female casts that are designed to appeal to young girls. Those are their whole own bag of sociological nightmares and there is no way I am willing to do the research necessary to talk about them because they are too depressing.

More Skin More Sin: Clothing and morality in character design

•June 30, 2012 • Leave a Comment

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.

Good Girl / Bad Girl

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.

“Check out my sinful manruiners!”

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.

heh... battle-jerks...

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.

Good Girl / Bad Girl

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.’

Good Girl / Bad Girl

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.


“What the fuck am I wearing?”

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.

Bad Girl / Good Girl

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.

Good Girl / Bad Girl

Good Girl / Bad Girl

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?’

Linda Lash as she appears in Double Dragon Neon

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?

Not to mention the blaxploitation stereotype in the upper righthand corner…

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.

B.I.T.C.H: Bayonetta in Total Control of Herself

•June 26, 2012 • 3 Comments

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.

“I’ve got a fever, and the only cure is more dead misogynists.”

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.

And here she is depicted by Albrecht Durer sitting on a moon

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.

Bayonetta’s father, draped with the corpse of an albino peacock, the animal that the christian church used as an icon of immortality under the misconception that the body of a peacock did not rot after death.

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.

How Charming : Nymphs and Hags

•June 26, 2012 • 1 Comment

Part of the problem with fixing a sexist subculture is digging up sexist roots that are embedded in thousands of years of human history. Folklore and mythology  are full of the idea that somewhere out there in the woods or the water or the air are hot supernatural ladies just waiting for mortal men to bone and/or murder. In the world of art history “But it’s just classical mythology” has been used for centuries to justify sculpting and painting hot naked women and showing them off in polite society.

Oops, sorry I murdered you with my feminine wiles!

Fantasy games often turn to mythology for their first source of inspiration, so it’s no surprise that these nubile nymphs, sirens, dryads, nereids, sylphs, rusalkas, selkies, glaistigs, and all their dangerous yet frolicksome kin were easily embraced into the fold of expected fantasy monsters. Their casual nudity presents a definite appeal, as does the ability to texture a female character model green and claim that it’s a whole new species. Their descriptions run together in the mind, eternally young, graceful, alluring, far more beautiful than any mortal woman. Being an all-female species make them favorably inclined towards handsome male adventurers, and you don’t have to go into much depth to get some players imagination going with that idea. Their differences seem to derive solely from their natural environment and just how much their beauty might drive you insane.

Because despite their graceful airs and potential for woodland orgies, the nymph archetype also reflects a dark thought by men about women.

It’s cool guys! We’re totally mythology so our sexual romping is suitable for framing in your chaste victorian sitting room.

The nymph archetype is created as an object of heterosexual masculine longing. But even as heterosexual men long to have her, they fear being controlled by her. The nymph, this graceful perfect plaything has the power to blind a man who looks at her or circumvent their will. Her spiritual sisters all possess charms as well, in the forms of both spells and manipulation.

This stereotype emerges in real life as well: the trope that men become stupid around beautiful women. The concept of the ‘ball and chain’ or the ‘pussy-whipped’ man. And the femme fatale concept emerges again as well, the dangerous sexual woman. Sirens might drown you. Dryads might make you fertilizer. The man makes himself vulnerable by engaging their sexuality and effectively puts himself at their mercy. They can be treated like magical playboy playmates, down for impromptu bubblebath orgies, but at the core of their identity they are made of sexual anxiety. This desired beauty becomes a threat, the lure to a trap.

“Geez guys I really want to go out and have drinks tonight, but Aureliaia says I have to guard her tree.”

Nymphs are another archetype that I feel has its place but is currently overused. If you pick up a random monster manual and flip through it there’s a good chance the only women will be beautiful yet suspicious fae creatures or succubi. If you populate a videogame with monsters and only think to put the sultry nymph-types in for females, you’re perpetuating an unfortunate trend.

But everyone loves beautiful sultry ladymonsters, right? That’s why there’s so many! There isn’t an even darker, more problematic counterpart to the nymphs…

Oh hello there.

hay guuurl how you doin?

The hags. They all stand as a miniature pantheon reflecting the assorted nymphs. We got hot sea bitches, we got ugly sea bitches. We got ugly nature bitches, we got hot nature bitches! The ugly ones hate beauty and the beautiful ones hate ugliness. I don’t think I need to tell you which ones are super evil. But the Nighthags have a similar unpleasant twist: they’re also monogendered. They have to find a man from another race to fuck, which they accomplish through the means of shapeshifting into a hottie. Sometimes they kill the man after mating. (Hi there black widow archetype!) Then they usually dump the kid on a foster mother and show up when their daughter starts menstruating to turn her into a hag too in the worst version of puberty imaginable.

Hags echo the same fear as the nymphs, that women who want to have sex with you will manipulate and control you, but Hags don’t even have the decency to be actually physically attractive.  So now we’ve got a disproportionate number of hot lady-monsters who want to bone you, except half of them are secretly ugly and tricked you with magical beer goggles.

That’s kind of screwed up.

The Spider Queen Archetype : 8 Legs of Deadly Love

•June 19, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Hi, welcome to the first post of my blog. I’m going to be posting on a variety of subjects related to female representations in videogames and gamer pop culture.

I chose the name Obligatory Spider Queen to reference a trend in female monsters in videogames. See a spider? There’s a good chance a spider queen is nearby. It’s a little strange considering spiders aren’t a species of insect that lives in hives or has queens.

Spider queens come in many shapes and sizes, from monstrous to lithe and seductive. They are one of the few monsters who is sometimes gendered female without any visual indication of secondary sexual characteristics although more commonly they appear with a voluptuous hybrid body.

The spider queen from Doom 3.

She goes back to the archetype of the black widow who devours the male spider. In the victorian era, male scientists observed a species of spiders eating their mates and applied the term widow spiders. Popular culture quickly made the elegant looking black and red spider the symbol of a dangerous sexual woman. But the scientists failed to address an aspect of their experiments: the female spiders they tested were all starving, and rather than rushing head first into a sex-for-death exchange, male black widows can detect well fed females and prefer to mate with those if the option is available. Despite this fact and the accompanying fact that sexual cannibalism is common in many species of the insect world the reputation of these particular female spiders as sexual predators stuck. In Hanns Heinz Ewers’s short story the Spider he writes about a possibly supernatural female apparition, constantly weaving, who torments the residents of a boarding house with their attraction to her. The residents all end up hung with a spider crawling out of their mouth. The narrator speaks of watching a male and female spider couple, followed by the female devouring the male. Spiders were embraced as a symbol of the fear of being controlled by sexual, aggressive women.

A Drow High Priestess From Drow of the Underdark

I find the spider queen archetype to be extremely interesting. It’s a relatively recent phenomenon for a monster archetype. Search western mythology for spider human hybrids and you’ll find little else but Arache, the pitiful cursed weaver*  Lord of the Rings features the menacing Shelob, but she’s actually a little unique as spider queens go because no emphasis is placed on her either her sexuality or her capacity for reproduction. Dungeons and Dragons created the popular Drow Elves, an evil matriarchal society of seductive witches who love treachery and non-consensual BDSM. Their culture and their visual design are full of black widow imagery, they can transform themselves into human spider hybrids and they seem the most likely source of inspiration to the artists and designers who came after.

Chaos Queen Quelaag from Dark Souls ramps up the attraction/repulsion contrast.

Too often in video games monsters are only made female when it’s decided that they’ll be sexy sex monsters or because they make babies. Spider Queens combine both to become a potent symbol of male sexual anxiety, sexy women who want to suck out all your bodily fluids and then lay their eggs in your corpse. I don’t think spider queens should go away. Good art can be made that focuses on sexual anxiety, that shines a light on our uncomfortable subconscious thoughts about sex and gender.

I’d just like to see them deployed less carelessly and I’d like to see more archetypes of female monsters that aren’t dependent on psycho-sexual imagery.