Bayonetta and the Male Gaze
June 3, 2011 124 Comments
Bayonetta is hands-down my least favorite character in any type of gaming ever. I hate her more than Ivy, more than Princess Peach, more than Other M Samus put together. She is one of the most blatantly sexualized and objectified characters in all of gaming. So it never fails to baffle me that she manages to generate a fair bit of controversy. That might sound counter-intuitive, but controversy is something that requires fervor on both sides of an argument, and I really don’t see how anyone could possibly defend Bayonetta as a positive role model. And yet, people do. So I’m going to take a look at both sides of the argument, and then weigh in with what I feel is some compelling evidence.
This is an issue I feel strongly enough about that I don’t trust myself to accurately summarize the arguments for Bayonetta as a positive character, so I’m going to let some other people do the talking for me for a moment. First, a defense of Bayonetta as a male fantasy:
She’s sexy, sexUAL, funny, ungodly strong,supremely confident, always composed, fiercely independent and often (chidingly) protective of others.
She’s on top of every situation, kicks an apocalyptic amount of ass and, though sexual, does not (as far as I can see) ever use her sexuality in an instrumental way. Instead, she relies on a personal power that would make Satan himself wet himself.
Are women actually offended that the modern man fantasizes about a woman like that? Are these poor qualities to put on a pedestal? If we think Bayonetta is an awesome character, are we somehow hurting the collective female consciousness? (Gamepot forum thread: Granted, B is a male fantasy…but is she a bad one? Are women offended?)
Also, an argument that Bayonetta is an empowering figure for women:
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. (Bayonetta: empowering or exploitative?)
Lastly, we’ll throw in a dose of “people who hate Bayonetta are just slut-shaming” for good measure:
I’ve learned something from this. If you are a God of war that wants to screw 2 concubines at once for red orbs it’s kosher. If you are a game designer that wants to include the function of jiggling the tits of the supporting female protagonists in a ninja game it’s okay. (Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2) If you are a shirtless devil hunter doing a rant about your newest thrusting and penetrating weapon you’re fine! Yet heaven forbid if a woman in a game is the main heroine and expresses she is comfortable with her sexuality!
Up until this point I thought we were making progress. I believed we could accept games as the enjoyable unrealistic fantasies they were, not compare them to reality, and let females have just as much mature rated kinky fun in video games as men did. (Bayonetta at her witch trial(It’s not feminists trying her by the way) – How some people take stuff [sic]to seriously and don’t realize how sexist they are being)
Those are generally the three main points that pro-Bayonetta advocates like to hit when they’re arguing for Bayonetta as a positive character in gaming. I don’t agree with any of these points, but I wanted to give the pro-Bayonetta camp a chance to speak for itself rather than trying to put words in their mouth.
First of all, I think it’s important to consider the context in which Bayonetta was created. Bayonetta is not a real person, and as such we have to consider the source as well as the character herself in considering whether she is a positive figure. Bayonetta is the brainchild of Hideki Kamiya, a Japanese game designer who has been pretty open about describing Bayonetta as his idea woman. Furthermore, in reference to Bayonetta, Kamiya has said some pretty sexist things:
Well, if I had to pick one, I would say it is the scene where Joy first appears in the game, with Bayonetta and her impostor getting into a pose battle. That was my way of expressing the feminine notion that, to one woman, all other women are enemies. Even women walking by each other will check out what the other is wearing, and might smolder a bit with antagonism. Women are scary. (source: Bayonetta dev: to one woman, all other women are enemies)
Hair attacks are something that only a woman can do, it’s a woman’s beauty. So that’s why I came up with the hair idea. (1up.com: Bayonetta developer interview)
I strongly feel that women outside should dress like her. Like, when she does a hair attack, you’d see the skin. I want women to wear fashion like that. (1up.com: Bayonetta developer interview)
[in reference to Devil May Cry sequel being done by someone else] I wanted to do the sequel. I used to want to do the sequel, but now it’s like, some other guy’s chick. It’s not my chick anymore. And my chick got fooled, and played all around from all over, so I don’t want her anymore. I’m only concentrating on my current chick. (1up.com: Bayonetta developer interview)
But anyway that’s how we’re creating Bayonetta’s moves and all that, and that’s actually the most fun part of this game, thinking about all that stuff. So you will be able to see what everybody in the team likes in a girl from the finished project. (1up.com: Bayonetta developer interview)
[On whether her outfit really is just hair] Yes, completely hair. That means that she’s actually naked, but naked because that’s just hair, that’s not clothing. She has strong magical powers, she’s using her strength, her magical power to keep her hair on her body, to make it form an outfit. So when she gets weak or something, she might just lose her magical power, and if that happens…you know what that means. (1up.com: Bayonetta developer interview)
So. Bayonetta is a sexy character who technically goes around naked designed by a guy who is pretty sexist and coded by a studio of men who are all spending their time thinking about the types of sexy moves they want to see Bayonetta do. This for me is the biggest nail in the coffin.
If Bayonetta were an actual person, then it would make sense to proclaim that her sexuality is a choice and that she’s an empowering female figure. But she’s not a real woman. Everything about her was designed to be sexually appealing by a man who in his own words thinks that all women should strive to be as sexual as Bayonetta. These are not the words of someone who was looking to create a character that would turn stereotypes on their head, nor are they the words of someone who is genuinely interested in creating empowering female characters. Kamiya’s sole concern in creating Bayonetta was to create an action character who was his ideal woman and designing her for maximum sex-appeal for the straight male viewer.
It all comes back to the male gaze. (Seriously, please visit that link if the male gaze is a concept you’re not familiar with.) When looking at fictional characters like Bayonetta, you can’t disregard the creator. It’s not enough to say that she embraces her sexuality, because at no point did Bayonetta ever get to make a choice. Her creators made the choices for her. So I totally agree with Jonathan Holmes in his assessment of Bayonetta:
she’s an empty shell of a character; a shell made from here creators’ sexual fantasies, negative stereotypes, and misconceived notions of the female gender.
As for the people who claim you are somehow sexist or slut-shaming when you hate on Bayonetta, the same point applies. Bayonetta is not a person with agency, she’s a fictional creation devoid of any free will or choice. It is not slut-shaming to decry Bayonetta as a hollow stereotype whose sexuality is nothing more than a harmful perpetuation of the stereotypes surrounding female sexuality. It is a judgement on the designers and writers who created her to be what she is. Bayonetta is not for women, plain and simple. She is designed by men for men. As such, I feel no need to pretend that she’s a positive role model.
The compelling evidence
Sometimes, a picture is worth 1000 words. Moving pictures can be worth even more than that. So I took it upon myself to edit some clips together that illustrate Bayonetta at her most sexual and pair it with some appropriate music. (Although I realize that my choice in songs will date me, alas.) Therefore, I submit the following as an argument for why Bayonetta typifies the male gaze: