The Bayonetta franchise is getting a lot a buzz recently because of the release of the second game. The series has been that has spurred a lot of debate among gamers for being controversial in regards to how the franchise depicts sexuality and its female characters. Many contend that the character of Bayonetta is a sexualized male fantasy that poorly reflects on female characters in games, while others argue her sexualization and character design is empowering and purposefully over the top. Having not played the games until this current release, my opinion is purely speculative, but the good people over at Negative World have put together a great article in which they interviewed female gamers and developers to share their insight about the character and the franchise.
One specific question that gets to the heart of the debate:
#3. How do you feel about the way that the Bayonetta franchise presents its female characters, especially the lead playable character, “Bayonetta”? Do you think there are problematic / sexist elements involved, or “over-sexualization” of the females? On the other hand, do you find Bayonetta, as a “strong female lead” to be an empowering character in any way?
Alicia Andrew: As a developer, sexualization of characters is a topic that’s come up in some great discussions. I use Bayonetta as an example of “sexy” done right. A lot of the discussion about female representation seems to get stuck at whether its appropriate for a character to be “sexy”. Some people see the discussion around the dislike for the “chain-mail bikini” as a form of censorship or a push towards characters they see as potentially boring or downright prudish. I see the discussion as more nuanced than just an issue of cleavage. In my opinion, it’s an issue of ownership.
Its complicated, but I think desperately important, that while we understand that sexuality is healthy and has a place in our media, a lot of the backlash around the proverbial “chain-mail bikini” is because often, the female character is made to be sexualized not sexy. She has little to no perceived ownership of how her body is displayed, dressed, or presented. This mindset leads to sometimes ridiculous character designs, such as Mythril Bikinis for the epic journey to the gates of hell, and breasts on alien rock creatures.
To me, Bayonetta owns her sexuality. It seems, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that the tight pants, the flirty quips, the languid posing, are all that character’s choice. Bayonetta, the character, enjoys her sexuality. She is choosing to display it in this manner, and is inviting you in on the fun. It’s wonderfully refreshing to have a character that seems in control of her sexy bits. She’s not a inanimate object with breasts heaving in the wind, but a woman flirting. To me that’s sexy done right.
To clarify, I’m not saying that we should take away titillating armor mods in Skyrim, or anything of that nature. But if you want to have a female character be more than just decoration, AND you want her sexuality to be part of that character, then creating that sense of ownership is important.
In this I think Bayonetta has done something great, and a lot of female players have responded to it. Initially I had no interest in the game, filing it into the “another game with heaving breasts” category. A friend of mine talked my ear off about how much she loved it, and why. I gave it a shot, and loved all of it. If I had the height, I’d cosplay the hell out of Bayonetta or Jeanne.
Emily Gitelman: I think the female characters in Bayonetta are presented incredibly poorly, and certainly over sexualized. They’re a male fantasy, completely. I’m going to focus on Bayonetta herself. To start with her physical appearance, Bayonetta is built like a super model, has a sexy English accent, and walks around in a skin-tight catsuit that disappears and basically gives her censor bars when she casts spells. It’s practically a reward for the player: use a powerful attack; see a naked woman. As soon as Bayonetta displays power, she is stripped of her clothing and her dignity. When her health runs too low, her catsuit also disappears. The symbolism (lip marks, flowers, butterflies) used in her attacks is very stereotypically feminine in a way that box female sexuality into a narrow category. These are calculated ways of making her seem like a Strong Female Character, but they actually undercut her agency and power as the lead character of a franchise.
It’s insulting to think that Bayonetta could be viewed as a positive, empowering character because she is plainly a sex object. When Hideki Kamiya, the director of Bayonetta, and Yusuke Hashimoto, one of the producers on the project, were making the interview rounds, they said really sexist things about women. In an interview with 1UP, Hashimoto said that Bayonetta couldn’t be over sexualized because she didn’t have large breasts (which is obviously not the only facet of over sexualization). In the same article, he said that Bayonetta isn’t “all about showing skin,” but she’s constantly on display as a sex object because of her tight outfit, posture, and husky voice.
Basically, the men in charge of how Bayonetta is portrayed have made their opinions about how women should look and dress and be visually appealing to themselves and other men make it entirely obvious that Bayonetta is treated as a sex object. Because of that, I definitely don’t find Bayonetta to be empowering. In fact, she is the opposite.
Erica Hollinshead Stead: I somewhat ventured into this question’s territory above. I don’t think that something can be “certified” non-sexist, to use a phrase I read somewhere and can’t remember where. I also don’t know if I necessarily go in for the “strong female lead” thing. Certainly, I want a world where most female characters aren’t the embodiment of weakness. But I’m not sure that “strong” makes top of my list of adjectives I want to use to describe more female characters. If I were to throw out some words that might top my list, it would likely be something like “individual”, “unique”, “complex”, “well defined”, maybe even “multi-faceted”. I feel like Bayonetta meets a few of these.
Tangent aside, after having played the game, I do not find Bayonetta’s character problematic. Its a complex set of factors that lead me to that conclusion, one being that Bayonetta has, in my opinion, unique aspects to her aside from sexuality/sexualization. Even just appearance wise, Bayonetta has a specific aesthetic aside from “sexy” – I feel as if I could choose clothing that she would like at a mall – not just any old sexy thing from Victoria’s Secret is going to be her taste; just grabbing a garment because it is revealing wouldn’t be her taste. I also think the humor and tongue-in-cheek aspect of the dialog is context that matters. Bayonetta feels very “in on the joke” if you can say that about a fictional character; it felt to me as if when she utilized sexy stylization, she was making a choice to style herself that way. Its certainly subjective, but to me, Bayonetta felt like a full character who was self-styling herself as a cavalier vampy goth badass, rather than a shell of male fantasies.
I think that its the environment that Bayonetta the game exists in that causes the perception of Bayonetta as sexist more than Bayonetta the character in the game. It is a world in which developing a full female character IS often sacrificed for sex appeal and stereotypes, and a realistic gender ratio is often traded for a single token girl that only provides a single vision of women. But I do think its important to leave room for the possibility that sexy doesn’t always equal bad. For me, many of the things cited as “bad” about Bayonetta could be charges leveled at me. If Bayonetta’s hip pop and tight outfit are bad, then how can I not be “part of the problem” if I gravitate towards tight (or god forbid revealing) clothing, and tend to stand with my hip popped, AND want to create and see characters that are similar to me in that aesthetic? I want to see more female characters who aren’t sexy in that way too, but it doesn’t mean I never want to see a character who fancies herself a pin up.
I have seen some marketing pieces for Bayonetta that I do think lack the full picture of Bayonetta’s character, and so I understand how one could see them and be concerned. Its hard to contain all of the nuance in a still image for example. But, having played the game I do not find the game itself problematic.
It’s a great piece and one well worth reading, so please go check it out. You can also go purchase Bayonetta 2 (which includes the original) and formulate your own opinion. Controversy aside, it seems to be a thrilling game to play. As always, please share your opinions and perspective.