On Bayonetta 2 and Female Sexuality in Video Games [TW]

[TW: The first part of this post contains some content looking at rape-as-punishment-of-in-game-failure, as well as a link to a rapey cut scene.]

Recently, I had a decent-sized traffic spike on my old post about Bayonetta and the male gaze… from three years ago. (Usually that post averages 200-300 direct links per month; in October of this year it got 3700+.) Apparently, a bunch of guys on Reddit got really sore that I said nasty things about Bayonetta and hate-read the article so they could talk about how terrible I was.

…weird. And they say the feminists are just “looking for things to be offended by”.

My reaction initially was along the lines of ‘oh well – I feel pretty much everything I said about Bayonetta back then certainly applies to the new game’, so I’d planned on leaving well enough alone. But a few things caught my attention recently that made me think it would be worth revisiting. So first, some thoughts, and then a redraw.

Part the first: you can oppose #GamerGate and still be misogynist

One of the things that made me want to revisit Bayonetta is that her creator, Hideki Kamiya, has actually gained a small amount of notoriety as a game dev opposed to #GamerGate who attracted moderate levels of harassment. (And by that I mean that he was harassed by #GG proponents, but certainly not anything comparable to what women like Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian have faced.)

However, it’s very important to remember that even though he opposes #GamerGate, Hideki Kamiya is still very much a misogynist. Here are just a few things he’s said about Bayonetta in the past:

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)

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)

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)

In other words, Hideki Kamiya is someone who has zero problems objectifying women, whether in real life or in fiction. He also has designed Bayonetta explicitly to appeal to male sexuality, and has no problem equating a woman’s worth with her sexual appeal.

Still, some people point to Bayonetta as a character to be celebrated because empowerment! And choice feminism! Bayonetta’s chosen to be this way!

But that ignores the fact that Bayonetta is not real. All of the choices she makes – how to dress, how to act, who to flirt with and when – are actually being made by her creator, whose only priority is to present Bayonetta as a sexual object that is pleasing to men. Her sexuality isn’t presented as something to be celebrated – it’s something that is explicitly punished.

Part of Bayonetta 2 includes a secret fight against Rodin, a character from the first game who is a friend of Bayonetta’s. Unfortunately, the sequence that plays if you actually lose this boss fight is… suuuuper rapetastic.

If you win the fight, Bayonetta doesn’t have sex with Rodin. Sex is only something that happens if you lose. And yeah, a lot of people would argue that the flirtatious dialogue at the beginning of the scene means that it’s not rape. I mean, how can it be rape if she flirted with him, right? But that’s just victim-blaming of the worst sort. I point again to the fact that Bayonetta only has sex with Rodin if she loses; if sex can only happen with violence, that looks an awful lot like rape.

And then there’s just the whole way it’s presented. Bayonetta is naked lying face down, trying to cover herself while Rodin smokes a cigarette. All of which really just screams rape to me – especially when you consider that “rape” is (disgustingly) still widely used as a synonym for “defeat” by many gamers.

I hate Bayonetta as a character and all of the hollow, awful stereotypes about female sexuality that she represents, but I still find this sequence utterly repugnant.Yes Bayonetta is presented as in charge and blatant in her sexuality. Yes she is aggressively flirtatious. Yes she dresses provocatively. But she is not “asking for it”. No woman is ever “asking for it”.

This is categorically not what female empowerment looks like.

Maybe Kamiya isn’t a misogynist in the sense of hating women. I really can’t say – I’ve never met the guy, nor am I ever likely to have the chance to. But in terms of being someone who promotes the objectification of women and perpetuates toxic sexist stereotypes? Absolutely he is a misogynist.

Besides, have you seen her character design?

Part two: everything about Bayonetta is wrong

So here’s the image that I decided to work with:

20140615210025!Cereza_Bayonetta_2_renderHoo boy. Looking at this, I’m actually a little terrified of Hideki Kamiya, because Bayonetta isn’t even remotely human. Clearly Kamiya has a fetish for weirdly elongated, rubber-boned snake women. Literally every part of her body is wrong.

Let’s start with the easy part. Heads:

Bayonetta-heads

Bayonetta is a whopping nine heads tall. So if you at Bayonetta and think “wow, her head looks really small”, that’s because it’s weirdly tiny. The average human is 7 heads tall, with half a head variance on either side. That’s an extra two heads of height!

Furthermore, Bayonetta’s legs by themselves are 6 heads tall. So just like Hyung Tae Kim’s anatomy nightmares, you could put Bayonetta’s head on just her legs and it would be as tall as a real human. Brr. (I did try to draw that, by the way, but it wasn’t nearly as funny as I’d hoped.)

When doing redraws, parsing the anatomy is usually pretty simple. But with Bayonetta, I found myself stumped and had to resort to drawing part of her skeleton to figure out what was going on:

Bayonetta-skeleton

Oh god. My head hurts.

Looking at this, about the only thing that I can give Bayonetta’s creators for is that she does, at least, have a ribcage and internal organs. However, Bayonetta’s spine is just ridiculous – it’s bent at a 130 degree angle there. And sure, there are contortionists out there who can sit on their own heads, but even they can’t fold their spine sharply in half in the middle.

There’s also this confusing thing that happens in order to elongate Bayonetta’s breasts (we’ll come back to that in a second) that results in her having the world’s longest sternum. The average human sternum is 17cm (6.69 inches) – and is significantly shorter in women. But despite spending way too much time trying to figure out a base for an estimate, all I can say is that her sternum is just too long, okay?

Her arms are also weirdly messed up:

Bayonetta-boobs-elbow

 

To be honest, I don’t know what the fuck is happening with her right arm, other than her shoulder is completely dislocated. I can partially dislocate one of my shoulders (on purpose) and I still can’t reach backwards that far. As for the rest of her arm… Man, I don’t know. I mean, it looks like it might be correct? But the foreshortening combined with the extreme anatomy distortion makes it really hard to tell.

As for her left arm, it’s waaaay hyper-extended. Now I’ll admit that it’s actually not beyond the realm of anatomical possibility – I have a few friends with hyper-bendy elbows and they like to squick me out by bending them freakily. (Stop it bendy friends!) But a choice was clearly made to hyper extend the arm so that the foreshortened hand wouldn’t block the view of her breasts, which. Okay. I guess most dudes don’t share my squick over elbow hyper-extension, but it still strikes me as really weird.

And her breasts! (I said I’d come back to those…) I can’t get over how weird and elongated they are. They look like baguettes stapled to her torso and… just… what? What’s up with that? I mean, when’s the last time you heard a guy say “hey, look at the sub buns on that chick”? Never, that’s when. Because normal humans fetishize round breasts. Melons. Basketballs. Not baguettes.

But the thing I find most disconcerting of all is Bayonetta’s pelvis:

Bayonetta-pelvis

When I was drawing her skeleton, I was weirded out by how tall Bayonetta’s pelvis is. It just seemed out of proportion, and way too large in comparison to the ribcage. So I drew a perspective box around the pelvis, duplicated the layer, rotated it, and stuck it on top of the ribcage. And her ribcage is only a tiiiny bit bigger than her pelvis, which is just about a million kinds of wrong:
Human-SkeletonThe pelvis on this (real, not fake) skeleton is slightly more than HALF the height of the ribcage. It’s true that there is an awful lot of variance in the length of the human ribcage, but we’re not talking anywhere near enough variance to make Bayonetta’s freaky pelvis remotely plausible.

All of which leaves me incredibly stymied. Normally this is the point where I’d try to correct everything and redraw the figure over the original art with normal human proportions. But in this instance, I’ll concede defeat because really – what’s the point? When literally everything about Bayonetta is wrong, it seems easier to just point you to photos of Bayonetta cosplayers. (Who, it’s worth noting, still manage to be very sexy despite their handicap of having an “ordinary” human skeleton.)

Concluding thoughts

There’s a legal concept that I find useful in this situation – namely, fruit of the poison tree. Basically, Bayonetta is not an empowering feminist figure, because everything that she is has been tainted by the deeply-held misogyny of her creators. At no point does Bayonetta have any real agency over her sexuality because she is entirely fictional. Rather than being a celebration of female sexuality, Bayonetta is a shallow stereotype constructed out of sexist stereotypes and objectification who only serves as a mirror for the misogynist views of the people who designed her.

16 thoughts on “On Bayonetta 2 and Female Sexuality in Video Games [TW]

  1. It gets worse: Nintendo, the, ugg, publisher, really wanted to promote this game as an exclusive “Mature” title for their system that’s not doing so hot, the Wii U. That means unlockable costumes for the title character fetishizing Princess Peach, Princess Daisy, Link, Fox McCloud, and… as if she hasn’t had it hard enough recently, Samus.

    http://www.ign.com/wikis/bayonetta-2/Costumes

    NOPE NOPE NOPE DO NOT WANT DO VERY MUCH NOT WANT!

    On another note, it is surprising that there seems to be some feminists out there than both enjoy and defend Bayonetta (and not the #notyourshield type of feminists but, normal feminists, Brianna Wu comes to mind). Have you personally run into any? And why do you think it doesn’t bother them? I mean, personally, I’m more with your point of view: the words of the creator are pretty damning evidence as well as all the other horrible things you’ve pointed out. I just have a lot of trouble wrapping my head around how this is defend able, let alone worthy of praise from anything besides pure gameplay mechanics. And while there are people who do say “Story’s bad but gameplay’s great,” there are still people who identify as feminists and still find something admirable in Bayonetta. I just don’t get it, and was wondering if you had any insight.

    Keep up the good work!

    • Broadly speaking, Feminism isn’t a monolith, nor are all feminists going to come to the same conclusions about things. People have their own boundaries, limits and triggers that can be completely different from someone else. Thus, two different people can look at the same work and come to have different opinions about it.

      For this specifically, not having played B2 I cannot comment for sure, it may be a matter of “death of the author” analysis. Where what the creator says he meant doesn’t matter as much as what comes across in the text. Thus, a more strictly textual look at something could result in different opinions compared to a more broad-trend and -strokes analysis.

      And really, just because something is problematic doesn’t mean you can’t find enjoyment in it. And just because someone else enjoys something doesn’t mean you can’t find it problematic.

      • Oh for sure! And, like, I don’t want to seem like I’m saying NO ONE SHOULD PLAY THIS GAME. Like, I’m a super-huge Joss Whedon fan and yeah I get that his stuff is rapey and also pretty racist in spots, so I can’t point fingers at people who want to enjoy problematic things.

        So, yeah. Play Bayonetta if you want to! But dude, do NOT try to tell me that Bayonetta is a feminist game. Because it’s just really really not.

        • Right, I’ve definitely come to learn that feminism has a lot broader range than mainstream depictions give it credit for, and I also know you can enjoy something while still finding something problematic.

          However, as wundergeek mentions, things get tricky when it is hailed as POSITIVE feminist game despite the horrible misogynist stuff within it. When this happens, instead of acknowledging the problems the game has, instead they get construed as positives, instead of admitting the game has some good and some bad.

          As for how they view the creator, looking over some blog posts, it seems that there is some death of the author arguments, but also excuses based off Japanese culture as well as the fact that Bayonetta’s designer was a women. (Unfortunately, I don’t seem to see people taking the next step of examining whether it is a sexist design EVEN THOUGH it’s created by a women. Discussions seem to stop after that, despite the fact this blog showcases that women are just as capable at sexist art and anatomy fail as men).

          As for the anatomy, it seems to be dismissed by stating that the game is campy and excessive, so its ok that the anatomy is campy and excessive.

          And then also there seems to be a lot of focus on how Bayonetta is in control of situations and choosing to use stereotypically feminine things as powerful. Which, even with death of the author, I think gets addressed pretty darn well in the text with wundergeek’s cited rapey scene, where sex = a punishment despite all these people saying Bayonetta uses her female sexuality to be powerful.

          So, in short, I think I’m starting to get a better understanding of the other side, but still feel it is very much refuted by arguments presented here.

        • Oh for sure, I’m not trying to say they’re RIGHT, just that they’re there. Just because one is looking at the text doesn’t mean you can’t miss things (the aforementioned rapey bit).

          If I wanted to be generous, maybe some of the other reviewers see Bayonetta as a character that could be “taken back” or “re-interpreted” by another developer in another game to have more of the effect they’re looking for. But again, I’m stretching. Much like Bayonetta’s weird arms.

  2. OMG Anna, THANK you for this post. You pretty much hit the nail right on the head here. I never could buy the argument that this woman is control of her own sexuatlity (empowered!!!) when she was drawn so explicitly for the male gaze. Seriously, WTF is up with her body? Her creator is just…gross. There is so much wrong with his statements. And the rapey aspects of the game really really bother me.

  3. Even as a gamergate supporter, I’m uncomfortable that Bayonetta has been made this kind of cause celeb, but at the same time, it’s largely women gamergaters I’ve heard uphold her as an empowering figure; who am I to say what is or shouldn’t be empowering to someone else? But to me, the game strikes me as kind of gross looking.

    When I see it, I’m reminded of a japanese feminist lit professor lady who gave some guest lectures for my JP Language class, and she said that characters like this (the one I’d asked specifically about was Motoko Kusanagi) exist because in Japanese culture women tend to be incredibly demur or reserved, so some men tend to fetishize the sort of kickass women who don’t really exist in their society.

    • Again, all I can do is fall back on “it’s okay to like problematic things”. If there are women out there who can find something of value in Bayonetta – great! Good for them. I’m not telling them that they shouldn’t think that.

      BUT.

      They should also accept that Bayonetta is a mass of toxic stereotypes constructed by a team of misogynist to be a hollow reflection of female sexuality as filtered for an explicitly straight male audience.

      As for the whole “empowering b/c Japanese women are so submissive thing”… man. That makes me uncomfortable. Like, I can’t really comment because I’m super white, but things like that provoke major side-eye, because Asian women are so commonly fetishized for their “submissiveness”.

      • As for your first part, yes, definitely, and high fives.

        As for fetishization, I think this occurs because things because people are drawn to things which are considered exotic within their own culture. Asian submissiveness is, perhaps, fetishized in the west for similar reasons that assertiveness is fetishized in the east. I’m not as immersed in the culture as I was in college nor have I been as immersed in study of theory and feminist criticism as then, but by and large one of the things I found was that varying degrees physically violence, aggressiveness, and confrontational behavior exhibited by women in Japanese media elicit a certain sense of the sensual and erotic in a way that could be misconstrued by the western thought lens as being tough, no-nonsense, or even feminist. And the cultural misunderstanding goes both ways, I think, as was illustrated by the strange disaster that was Powerpuff Girls Z.

      • Y’know, I was thinking about this over the weekend, and wonder if it’s comparable at all to Second Wavers’ love of Wonder Woman despite her having been created by a rather cretinous dude.

  4. To rebut two likely complaints out of the gate:

    a) That Bayonetta’s character designer was a woman who tried to make her a wish-fulfillment character: Yes, true, but everything she did was filtered through and approved by Kamiya as game designer, and although she provides empowering reasons for why she chose certain things, Kamiya provides extremely misogynistic reasons for the same things.

    b) Kamiya didn’t work on Bayonetta 2: Also true, but the only part this is remotely relevant to is the implication in this article that he was somehow associated with the implied-rape scene in the post. Everything else is completely accurate.

    You can like Bayonetta as a game. You can even like Bayonetta as a character. This doesn’t make this article factually inaccurate.

  5. I can do the right hand position with my arms but I can also spin my arm in an outward direction for 180° so I imagine I’m not baseline on that one.

    Also I find it weird that both you and Yahtzee are in agreement that Bayonetta is not a sexually empowering feminist icon in the same week: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/video-games/columns/extra-punctuation/12596-Bayonetta-s-Gender-is-Woven-Intricately-to-The-Game-s-Plot , if from different angles of sexism.

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