Bayonetta takes the video game sexy woman stereotype from object to subject, and it's tremendously empowering. The title character uses the mantle of her sexuality as a power source. Between Bayonetta and her equally fierce rival, Jeane, it's a women's world -- the boys just play in it. The Umbra Witches aren't to be messed with. With this unique theme, the game itself is an artistic representation of the concept that female sexuality is its own kind of weapon. This stylized love letter to femininity is signed and sealed with all of the game's tiny details, from the kiss-shaped aiming targets to the subtle grace of Bayonetta's butterfly-shaped shadow.
Leigh Alexander (quoted above) recently explored some issues surrounding Bayonetta on GamePro, game designer Hideki Kamiya's spankin' new action game that features an incredibly powerful but also over-sexualized female protagonist. The game has been getting awfully high praise (with a metacritic score of 91) and since I started playing it last Friday it's certainly been entertaining enough to keep me coming back for more. But from where I'm standing, I'm still not entirely convinced by the discussions afoot applauding Bayonetta as a shining example of female sexuality in games. Hit the jump for my two cents.
Per Leigh's assessment, despite Bayonetta's super sexual characterization she claims that "This time, I get to see a woman do plenty of things men can't. And I love it.", arguing that this portrayal showcases an empowering and confident view of female sexuality. This theory is supported by her colleague Tae K. Kim, who was initially put off by Bayonetta's ridiculous characteristics but on second thought claims that "...she has far more substance than characters who are memorable solely for their looks -- think Lara Croft and the Dead or Alive fighters -- yet she's far more "fun" than respectable characters likes Samus Aran and Uncharted's Elena."
Personally, I don't buy it. Bayonetta is pure camp to me, which well explains the extremities of everything from her disproportionate body to her saucy one-liner dialogue. Because of this campiness, I can't even begin to think she is a character of "substance" to any degree. Sure, there's the fact that she can beat the living daylights out of any angelic demon which of course makes her totally kickass to play as, but at the end of the day what's clear to me is that her sexuality in the game is used most explicitly as decoration as opposed to celebration.
Sexuality as a weapon is nothing new in terms of women characters in gaming. We've seen this countless times before, and the only way Bayonetta is any different is that there are a lot more combo moves, rose petals, and photoshop flares sprouting out of her kicks and twists. This is artistically in parallel to the game's High-Def Rococo approach to everything, and that being said, functions in the same way. I guess that it could all be interpreted as a joyous explosion of girl-shaped confetti in a celebration of female sexuality, but I really can't see this as an empowerment of the female sex when it's all for show.
Furthermore, most of the cinematic shots are more often than not jaw-droppingly exploitative of Bayonetta. Take the countless times the camera zooms into her crotch while she's bent over poppin' caps, or when she straps up a booby angel in one of her climaxing bondage torture devices that leaves her feminized enemy quivering in ecstatic destruction. I think it's still important to consider that this is a game made by men, from the male perspective, for the male perspective, which is why so many of the cinematics seem awfully, well, porny. The fact that the gameplay and characterization of Bayonetta is such a spectacle in this way leaves it hard for me to interpret her as someone to cheer on as she crushes monsters' necks clamped between her thighs.
Anyway, I think I've made my point. Perhaps if the Bayonetta's storyline and narrative were more compelling I'd be more convinced that Bayonetta's sexuality is substantial and worth recognizing, but I think we can all agree that that's not the case. This isn't to say that I'm not thoroughly enjoying the game, it's a helluva lot of fun for all it's ridiculousness and overwhelming detail. I just think that if we're going to applaud sexuality done right for a woman character in a game it should start with the recognition of someone like Chloe from Uncharted 2, not a sexy librarian with a guns on her heels and a taste for blood rose lollipops.
P.S. I was going to also tie in how Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin's comic character riot grrrl Tank Girl has the same symptoms as Bayonetta, but I have to get back to work. Maybe in another post.
Mini Update - If you're interested, I go into a little more follow-up about Bayonetta vs. Chloe from Uncharted 2 in the comments section on Infinite Lives.
Additional reading on the topic:
- William Huber - If you run out of ammo you can have mine: the perpetuation of a misguided notion
- Chris Dahlen - Her Sex Is A Weapon