Thursday, January 21, 2010

Bayonetta Is Neither Feminist nor Relevant

by Danielle (guest writer)

After watching the demo of Bayonetta, subtitled First Climax, I did not come away with the feminist outrage I half-expected the game would inspire. The game seemed silly, pulling out old tropes about broken commandments and a femme fatale. I mean, the name of the demo is First Climax; it didn't really seem possible to take it seriously.

Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean the game isn't sexist - and here is where I point out that I have not played the entire game, so I cannot testify to any character development that may occur. Judging from the demo alone, Bayonetta uses her sexuality almost as a literal weapon, which I suppose does set her apart from her forebears. The femme fatale has for the most part been seen as a negative force, using her wiles to undermine the male hero. (The interest in retelling old stories that has soared lately has changed this somewhat; Lilith, after all, has gone from being a demon to being something of a feminist symbol.) In addition to all this, there is a heavy sadism theme in the demo. Bayonetta has "torture attacks," one of which involves an iron maiden and another which has Bayonetta spanking her opponent before guillotining them.

The opening cut scene does nothing in the way of hinting at any personality beyond this, nor does it forward the plot in any real way. It features Bayonetta sashaying down the aisle of a train, into a metro station, and out to a garden. Then you're right back into a crazy action sequence.

Speaking of fighting, I would be remiss if I did not bring up the hair. Bayonetta's hair forms her outfit - which is actually pretty modest, all things considered. Her hair also forms her attacks, though, leaving our poor heroine unclad when she fights except for a strip of hair/clothes down her middle. Another attack creates a monster out of her hair, leaving her nude and covered with a swirl of hair circling around her. It is basically a drawn-out striptease, promising that if the player does well, he'll get to see more. (I say "he" because, let's face it, this is a market advertised to and dominated by men.)

It is easy to say that Bayonetta provides an unrealistic depiction of women, but it's okay because the men are unrealistic too! The problem with this argument is that men are not held up to unrealistic standards presented in video games - or movies, magazines, television, etc. In fact, it's easy to find examples of shlubby dudes who get the attractive lady in the end. Women, however, are held up to these standards. So every example of a woman like Bayonetta - even in a silly video game - is another standard of beauty being imposed.

I get that this sort of game is not going to be everyone's cup of tea. Main character and sexism aside, I'm not super interested in fighting games like this. Honestly, it doesn't seem all that much worse than other games that are out there. If anything, it seems a little sillier. In a time when the video game medium is rapidly maturing and becoming more mainstream, there is no reason to sacrifice character for crazy action sequences. In a mature field, there is simply less and less room for adolescent titles like Bayonetta.


  1. Gaming's increasing maturity doesn't make games like Bayonetta less relevant.

  2. Well, it does, actually. When you focus entirely on style over substance and use tropes and titillation instead of advancing gameplay, mechanics or plot, your game loses any special relevance.

    That doesn't mean it isn't fun!

  3. I thought it being fun was relevant enough.

    Most advances in gaming haven't impressed me anyway.

  4. Well, I suppose we should have defined relevance going into this! I mean, on a personal level, something that is entertaining is certainly relevant as well. I meant in a larger sense, in terms of the artistic and social merits of the game, since that's the major concern of our little blog here.

  5. Nothing about Bayonetta feels realistic. Bayonetta herself is so perfectly proportioned that she could never be the cultural yardstick for ultimate feminine sexuality; it's like looking at a GI Joe or a Barbie and saying it's asking us to measure up.

  6. The point is that women are being asked to measure up to unrealistic images of what the female body looks like.

  7. parkerscott,

    It's particularly interesting to me that you list GI Joe and Barbie as your counter-examples, since those two figures are such archetypes. Sure, society doesn't expect children of either gender to become just like these figures, but they are idealized versions of the stereotyped roles of men and women in our society. Men should be strong and go to war. Women should be beautiful and busty and care about simpler things.

    I can't even imagine how many papers, articles and books there are about how GI Joe and Barbie represent our expectations of gender dynamics. Even now, in a time when we have made such advances towards breaking down gender barriers, I doubt that many families buy their boys Barbies or their girls GI Joes.

    Also, I object to your assertion that Bayonetta is perfectly proportioned. She looks like a crazy giraffe lady to me. Too much leg and neck.

  8. Bayonetta looks like a scary monster lady.

    [some small spoilers below as a warning]

    As for the game itself, it is completely sexist. There are stripteases, pole dances, BDSM attacks, gratuitous breast jiggles...the whole nine yards. That said, I do think Danielle hit the nail on the head when she said the game isn't meant to be taken seriously. I've played the whole game, and while it's certainly offensive I didn't exactly find myself often feeling offendED because the entire appeal of the game is just HOW preposterous it is. That's not to suggest it shouldn't be critized for its shortcomings, but I think it's worse when you see this kind of stereotyping and exploitation in a game that takes itself seriously. It is an actively silly game, but it is absolutely meant to appeal to the stereotypical male hardcore gamer by showering them with sex and violence.

    I do want to say that I'm usually a fan of the "all style no substance= bad" argument. However, Bayonetta is a self conscious mash up of other video games (most of which its designers worked on) and in many ways tries to function as a kind of fun tribute to a more classic, nonsensical, traditional style of game development that is going out of style as more cinematic takes on gaming become more popular. The game has hidden 8 bit versions of its own soundtrack and also songs from classic games like afterburner and space harrier that are unlockable. Bayonetta can turn into a panther and as she runs Okami-style flowers grow in her path. In terms of design, the game is among the best I've seen this generation. It's immensely fun and despite it's ridiculous flaws I can't help but appreciate a game that actually shows as much imagination as this game (which is exemplified through combat, enemy, and level design NOT through cutscenes or content). The game's worth playing, but it is definitely guilty of the accusations this article makes.

  9. Thanks for bringing these points up - it's good to hear from someone who has played more of the game!


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