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Opinion: Being sexy and not sexist - a look at Bayonetta and objectification

July 11, 2016 | By Katherine Cross

July 11, 2016 | By Katherine Cross
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More: Console/PC, Design, Video



It clicked for me with the instantaneous certainty of a camera shutter.

In both Bayonetta games, the titular character has a signature move called "Breakdance," a ballet of bullets and elegant kicks that acts as an area-of-effect attack, which culminates in a valedictory spin and feline pose before the bespectacled heroine looks straight at you and awaits the click of a camera, whose aperture snap completes the move. What clicked for me was that her performance for the camera was not only conscious but acknowledged and even owned the camera.

When we talk about "the male gaze" in media, we often liken the camera--whether in film or in videogames--to the gaze of the assumed-male viewer/player. It's why most movies and games (Bayonetta included) perform leisurely toe-to-head pans of attractive women, mirroring a gaze I've seen directed at me by men many a time in the street, sizing me up like a cut of meat on a rack. The Bayonetta games seemed to fall into the same pattern, offering a 3D avatar for men to control and consume; but there was something in the way she seemed to make the camera her own that resisted such a simple conclusion.

***

I am a feminist critic but also a sociologist, which is why I approached my writing about Bayonetta with one question aforethought: why is she so popular with some women and self-identified feminists, to a degree one does not see with other objectified bombshell female video game characters? 

"Bayonetta's presentation, which is undoubtedly a heavily sexualized one, nevertheless expresses her character in a way that separates her from the crowd of interchangeable, uninteresting portrayals of heterosexual women that clutter gaming."

Something was different here, and it would have been insulting for me to chalk this phenomenon up to "false-consciousness" or internalized sexism; why Bayonetta specifically and not the others? If false-consciousness obtained, after all, you would see it with all sexualized women video game characters. Yet many of these women players, who often rolled their eyes at sexy video game cheesecake, instead found their gaze bent to Bayonetta's whims like the "Breakdance" camera lens. Why?

 

The answer lies in the nature of objectification: what it is, what it isn't, and how we can represent sexual agency in fiction using externalized cues. Bayonetta's presentation, which is undoubtedly a heavily sexualized one, nevertheless expresses her character in a way that separates her from the crowd of interchangeable, uninteresting portrayals of heterosexual women that clutter gaming. By contrast, Bayonetta's presentation says something about who she is. To understand this, we'll need to get a bit philosophical.

***

"Objectification" is perhaps one of the most bandied-about terms in feminist media criticism, with good reason. We speak of objectifying images in much the same way sports commentators must talk about points; their ubiquity necessitates the discussion. The ability of a camera to shape how we as a society see women, and gender more widely, should not be underestimated, and the concept of objectification is crucial to understanding how. But it is a notoriously slippery word whose meaning is difficult to pin down in a sentence. Often the simplest definition that can be given is "to reduce someone to an object." It is a serviceable definition but one that still begs questions to an inquiring mind: is there only one way to do so? Is it always bad? How, then, do we define ‘object'?

Feminist philosopher and legal scholar Martha Nussbaum has helpfully supplied us with a characteristically rational and orderly answer. "I suggest," she writes in her essay ‘Objectification,' "that at least the following seven notions are involved in [treating someone as an object]:

  1. Instrumentality. The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his or her own purposes.
  2. Denial of autonomy. The objectifier treats the object as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.
  3. Inertness. The objectifier treats the object as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.
  4. Fungibility. The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable (a) with other objects of the same type and/or (b) with objects of other types.
  5. Violability. The objectifier treats the object as lacking in boundary integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into.
  6. Ownership. The objectifier treats the object as something that is owned by another, can be bought or sold, etc.
  7. Denial of subjectivity. The objectifier treats the object as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account."

This list is doubtlessly familiar to most women who experience routine objectification in the streets. From 1 to 7 we see differentially related facets of the sexual harasser's mindset. But applying this rubric to videogames is trickier because we move from the realm of actual human beings to portrayals of human beings. It is not enough to say, as many criticism-shy gamers insist, that videogame characters are "not real" ergo no rules apply; that sort of thinking ignores how representations of human beings are still instructive and can instill empathy, rage, or other emotions (just ask anyone who's ever shed a tear over something that happened in a game). 

But it is true that we cannot simplistically say "this character does/doesn't have agency," because they are not actual people in the strict sense of the term--and throughout we must recall that they are someone else's intentional creation from start to finish, rather than the jumble of oddities and serendipity that make up actual people.

We have to apply Nussbaum's rubric, instead, to representations of agency.

This is the best we can hope for: all videogames, and all art for that matter, are the product of their creators who can make the characters that populate their worlds do whatever they please. Looked at one way, this is the utter annihilation of agency. But if we allowed that to be our only perspective, then we could not credit a single portrayal of any character in any medium with positive qualities at all, nor discuss the ways in which fans appropriate and reinterpret the meanings of their favorite characters. We could only see characters as slaves to the will of their creator; what a dreary world that would be.

With gaming, then, we must settle for the fuzzy but more useful standard of judging how characters are represented as having agency, particularly within the universe in which they are portrayed. From here, we can then judge if they are being, say, used instrumentally by other characters, or perhaps denied autonomy.

But as is often the case with media, the audience has to be taken into account as an interacting participant as well. Videogames, in particular, are vulnerable to giving players the sense that they own the characters they play--and this can be quite toxic when it comes to portraying sexualized women, inculcating the idea that female characters are little more than sex dolls made to jiggle for the player's pleasure, or mere trophies. Certainly they're instrumental for the player, if nothing else, in that way.

These are complex issues but they have the benefit of being more specific and lending charges of objectification more philosophical heft.

I would, however, argue that one of the most useful lenses for understanding objectification in videogames is what Nussbaum calls fungibility, or interchangeability, and it's where we come back to Bayonetta.

***

In a long-ago column in this space I critiqued, in passing, how games like Bayonetta often used cutscenes to portray externalized, visual sexuality in a way that was interchangeable; that is to say that the cheesy crotch shots of Bayonetta said nothing about her and their ultimate purpose (the titillation of the player) could just easily have been served by any "properly" proportioned female avatar. Most of these bog standard poses are filled by countless female characters in games who are deliberately positioned to show off as much of their derrieres as possible, a convention that stretches (pardon the term) from film, to comics, to most genres of video gaming.

"What makes Bayonetta special is that every inch of her style-- from her clothing, her posture, her walk, her signature moves, her weapons-- all say something about who she is."

What links them is their lack of fundamental expressiveness. What is this woman using her sexuality to say? Nothing except a haze of static, truthfully. My column argued that games' reliance on the visual often pushed them into using visual rhetorics (i.e. appearance; clothing, poses, etc.) to convey women's sexuality, but that it banged the same note over and over again in doing so. Real women use visuals to express our unique sexual selves, often, and yet even when we're "on trend" we nevertheless usually do so in ways distinct to us. 

How we are sexual says something about who we are. Videogames are uniquely poised to capture that and use it as another dimension of character expressiveness.

And Bayonetta happens to be quite the proof of concept.

***

What makes Bayonetta special is that every inch of her style-- from her clothing, her posture, her walk, her signature moves, her weapons-- all say something about who she is. She is not terrifically fungible, then, except in a few prominent cutscenes where her sexy posing and blatant fanservicing veers into the realm of the predictable. Bayonetta is at her characteristic best when she does something you do not quite expect, whether it's spanking an angel or standing cross-armed on the wing of a fighter jet. This is where her personal expression weaves together with the setting's over-the-top fantasy and becomes resonantly thematic. Many of her BDSM-themed/inspired moves fit into that category; she is the dominatrix whose gun-toting-boots you walk in with style and whose whipping hand never seems to grow tired. She's the domina superheroine I wish I was able to grow up with, truth be told.

Her personality comes through via a sexual expression that weaves into combat, which weaves into kink, which weaves into the story; confident, icy, quietly smoldering with concern for the few people she cares about, will not suffer fools gladly, classy, is proud of her body, unashamed of her sexuality, and wears an impish smile that feels inspired by the infernal realms whose denizens she commands. With her hair.

It's equal parts outlandish and characteristic. When the camera does not laze on her crotch, fluid motions seem to be Bayonetta's ways of sexually speaking, she is represented as being in complete command. She seems to resist all seven of Nussbaum's objectification modes throughout much of the game (save for fungibility and instrumentality during certain cutscenes).

The camera snapshot that caps her "Breakdance" move is one that feels like a moment Bayonetta allowed it to steal, one she commands as celebration for her completed power move; she does not feel commanded or coerced by that camera, rather she yearns for it, and its flippancy is another expression of her power in the situation--scholar Todd Harper's analysis of that moment is worth reading, and inspired some of my thoughts here. Even in the midst of a mortal battle against celestial foes, she finds time for the sexy selfie beloved of so many from my generation.

Nussbaum uses her 7 point metric to both push back against overly-simplistic feminist uses of the term "objectification" and to specify her criticisms of outlets like Playboy. There, she suggests, there is a "generalizing approach" used--whether with women tennis players or women in Ivy League schools--that specifically effaces the individuality of the women portrayed, turning them into fetish classes collapsed into a conformity meant to satisfy the presumed tastes of Playboy's readership. This, she says, "depicts a thoroughgoing fungibility and commodification of sex partners and, in the process, severs sex from any deep connection with self-expression or emotion" (emphasis mine).

By contrast, this is why so many women like Bayonetta. Her sexuality does express herself quite uniquely; her performance as ballerina-cum-succubus-cum-witch feels distinctly her much of the time. In some ways, even her imperfections--the way she is authored by a man to please other men, forced submit to the possessive camera--are redolent of our own experiences with forces greater than ourselves. Sometimes the game's camera flatly objectifies her, as she distorts herself into a porn-ready, fungible image of nubile womanhood; other times she takes control of that camera.

But she lacks the ability to say no to the camera altogether, nor to the tugging of her designers' strings. In this she is everywoman; sometimes badass, sometimes completely out of control, always fighting with the strictures of society.

I find myself gritting my teeth as fanservice obscures her character in favor of something far more tedious, but when she comes back she reminds me of why I liked her despite my lukewarm first impressions. 

Is she an important first step in the representation of women? Well, yes and no. Even if Bayonetta manages to pass Nussbaum's test for objectification more than not, the bald facts of her existence still demand that we reckon with why she was drawn the way that she was. She is not the only, much less the ideal, face of women's sexual independence. But there are elements of her character, both positive and negative, that give us indications of how to build beyond her and do better.

First and foremost, Bayonetta is a reminder that it is possible for women to credibly identify with "problematic" characters, and that the reasons for this should be understood on their own terms. We have to move beyond simplistic binaries of "good" and "bad" characters in our criticism; a character represented with a sexist gaze need not be wholly defined by it either.

Secondly, what Bayonetta as a character does remarkably well is that much of her performative sexiness feels unique to her, projecting a sense of her distinctive character, making moves and uttering cheesy one-liners that are difficult to imagine coming from someone else. She is not a terrifically deep character, but nor is she a cipher admitting any and all possible interpretations or fantasies. The line between "cheesecake" and representing a self-sexualization that women can relate to lies here. Where Bayonetta's objectification is rank and eye-roll inducing, it's because it feels like an imposition on the distinctions of her character; made-to-order poses that express the clear wish of the designer rather than credibly representing something true to Bayonetta's character.

The cutscenes and the power moves are distinguished by Bayonetta's awareness; the crotchshots feel voyeuristic, while the "Breakdance" concluding snapshot feels like something she willingly and knowingly gives, which describes the better part of her dance through Bayonetta 2's story. The erotic Gesamtkunstwerk she stages throughout the game is decidedly not something you could easily substitute in another random female character for. 

Only Bayonetta can, well, be Bayonetta--and I'm eternally grateful for that.

But what does all this mean for designers, writers, and artists? Is there, at last, a final lesson to be drawn from the morass of articles and philosophical hand-wringing (my own proudly included) about Bayo? 

The biggest takeaway, I think, is this: do not be afraid of sexual women. 

Yes, Virginia, there is a way to render characters as sexy without being dehumanizing--and though there will always be one small cadre of feminists or another to protest this at every turn, that should never be cause for despair nor for a retreat into the tired old excuse "no matter what we do, they'll complain!" If you care to look, you may find the "they" doing the complaining consists of entirely different people each time with widely disparate political commitments--even if they may all call themselves "feminists." The goal, at any rate, should never be to create a game that won't inspire complaint; no matter who you are trying to please, this is simply impossible. Complaints and debate, whether substantive or spurious, perform a useful function. They enable a frisson of discussion and reflection that can only benefit future work.

"Objectification" is not merely a matter of cleavage or even a sexy pose. When Blizzard changed one of Tracer's sexualized poses in Overwatch because of an outcry among some female gamers, the change was accepted by a majority of feminists even though the new pose was, in a sense, just as suggestive. Why? Well, because the classic pin-up pose that Tracer was given in the revision had a playful lilt to it that better matched her whimsy. The original pose was of a smoldering variety that might have befit Widowmaker, but not the jaunty soldier who's as quick with a joke as she is with her pistol. Some people continued to complain, but overall most feminists and women who cared about the issue at all went away satisfied because the pose expressed Tracer's character. It seemed like something she would do, not a marionette pose created by a designer treating her like a sex doll.

And yet, in spite of that distinction, the pose retained its sexual air. This result is very far from the content-free cliche offered by anti-feminists, which claims we want women characters to wear "burqas." If anything unites us, it is that we want them to be people. Their sexiness should not be simply copy-pasted from popular sources, but rather it should be the subject of careful thought about what this character with this background and this personality might do if they wanted to appear or be sexy.

This does not require "high-literature" levels of characterization either (nice as that would be sometimes). Bayonetta is a pulp character, essentially. She would not be out of place in a penny dreadful or a cheap comic thriller. Her games are not a psychological study, nor rich in social commentary, nor otherwise vicissitudinal explorations of character and self. And that's okay. In such a game you can still have a character who is distinctive and who, if they must be sexual, does so in a way that reflects and expresses who they are.

That is part of what makes Overwatch so appealing to so many, I think. This is no one's deep, cerebral game. It's a multiplayer shoot-em-up, plain and simple. But each character has a brief backstory that is brilliantly expressed in his or her design and suite of abilities. They're simple yet broad enough to be almost perfectly Jungian archetypes that any player can see themselves in. In every discussion I have had with people about Overwatch, I find that the characters they play are as much a matter of personal identification as their play-style or skill set.

Character is not a luxury. It doesn't just have to be the province of beautiful, deep, "artsy" games. Your game can be a pulpy dime store novel and have a character that stands out for all the right reasons.

Character lays the groundwork for sexualization that is expressive rather than silly; humanizing rather than objectifying; sexy to women as well as to a narrow claque of boys.

By the way, all of this applies to male characters too; just something to think about. It's not hard to wonder sometimes what the male Bayonetta might look like.

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.



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