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Female Gamers Speak About the Bayonetta Franchise (Part 1 of 2)
October 25, 2014, 23:10:39
My alternate title of "Is Bayonetta sexist?!" would probably have gotten way more hits. But nah, not going to go there. I sort of hate articles that ask controversial questions in the title that you know darn well they won't give a definitive answer to.

Anyway, I'm going to keep this intro short and sweet because really, this feature is not about me or my opinions. This is about the opinions of female gamers, writers and developers.

In respect to the various conversations in the industry lately about the representation of women in video games, Bayonetta has become a bit of a fascinating franchise to me. On the surface, it would appear to be a sort of cut and dry contender for one "side" of that debate (feminists, social justice types, etc.) to line up on "sexist" while another side (to be honest I'm not sure what they call themselves?) lines up on "not sexist". And that is certainly what I expected to see. For instance, prominent feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian is definitely not a fan. However, I have many friends who identify as feminists, the majority of which fall loosely on the "plenty of games have problematic / sexist representations of women" side in these debates (more or less), and as talk of the franchise started heating up due to the upcoming (at the time) release of Bayonetta 2, I began to notice that the opinions, even from self-described feminists, are divided on the Bayonetta franchise much more than I expected that they would be.

I was vaguely thinking of writing a feature on this interesting phenomena when one of my female friends posted a comment on Twitter about how men should step back and let women lead these conversations. And you know what? That made a lot of sense to me. So I decided to seek out the voices of women instead. And not just feminist voices, which are certainly important, but the voices of any woman who wanted to speak on this topic, because everyone's voice is important.

First, a disclosure of my admittedly not very in-depth methodology. I started by going through my own channels, posting on Negative World, Facebook and on Twitter looking for anyone who identified as a woman to lend a voice. Because it seemed like a topic of some relevance to the bigger issues going on in video gaming right now, I also posted in both the #gamergate and #stopgamergate2014 Twitter tags, although neither of those posts led to any responses. And those few spots are the only places that I looked for respondents. I did not reject any respondents, so what you are reading here is the totality of everyone who wanted to get involved. There is probably some bias involved in me mostly sticking to my own channels, but we ended up with a wide range of opinions represented, so I think that we turned out to cover a pretty solid variety of viewpoints here.

Let me clarify that this was not an attempt to represent what women as a gender think about Bayonetta. Frankly, if I were to try to get some kind of general consensus, I would have tried to talk to a lot more women with a much more exhaustive research plan. And then I still wouldn't consider it enough to try to make a broad claim like "this is what women think about the Bayonetta franchise!" So please remember not to read anything more into this other than "this is what these individual women think about the Bayonetta franchise!"

I ended up with seven women who responded to the questions that I sent out, and what you will read below are their responses, full and unedited (outside of minor formatting / corrections), with no commentary from Negative World or myself attached to the feature (though of course comments will be welcome.)

So let's get to it!

(Ed. Note: All respondents were asked to provide some way that I would refer to them, with the understanding that they could use a real name (full or partial), pseudonym, or reply anonymously.)

#1. Tell us a bit about yourself. Do you have any experience working in the video game industry (writer, developer, etc.)? What is your experience with video games? What is your experience with the Nintendo platforms specifically?

Alicia Andrew: I've been a developer for roughly 9 years, mostly indie studios. Currently I work at Game Worlds, a company I founded to teach kids 10-18 game development and software development. I am a hard core gamer who happens to think System Shock 2 is the best game of all time. My first console was the NES and I played it from age 7-13, every day for hours. I unfortunately missed out on the N64 era (to my secret gamer shame). Now I'd say the PC is my home.

Emily Gitelman: I'm currently a student. I grew up around the video game industry because my parents and many of their friends are developers, community managers, writers, etc. Some of my earliest memories are of playing video games, and it's something I truly love. I have interned for game companies and intend on entering the industry after I graduate. In the spring I wrote my thesis on gender and video games. It was titled Beyond Princess Peach: Gender Issues and the Boy's Club Hegemony of Video Game Development. I mostly play Nintendo games when I am at friend's houses because I don't own any Nintendo platforms.

Erica Hollinshead Stead: I have worked in the games development industry in different capacities for four years. Before that I was somewhat in the "periphery" of the industry, doing gaming related social media, blogging, etc. I have mostly worked on projects in the PC/Xbox?Playstation realm. I've never personally worked on a Nintendo project, or had any professional dealings with Nintendo.

Kimberly: I've been console gaming for most of my life. My parents picked up an NES system when I was fairly young; we were primarily a Nintendo family. I remember saving up and buying my first game for the SNES, which I played over the next few months whenever the system wasn't in use by one of my siblings. These days I own a variety of games across several systems.

I identify myself as a feminist and feel that representation of women in games can be problematic. I prefer games with good writing and those with fun and unique stories. I love finding characters (male or female) that I can identify or empathize with.

Laura: I have very brief experience in the games industry. I worked QA/Support for a major games company for about 6 months, while teaching myself to program. I now work as a software engineer in the general tech sector, but I have many friends working in the game industry and would love to work in the industry again as a developer.

Lily: I'm just a few days short of twenty-five, and I've been out as trans and a lesbian for soon-to-be five years. I used MMOs, especially Final Fantasy XI, to present as my identified gender starting with Runescape when I was twelve. I kept it pretty hidden from my family and felt guilty the entire time. It sucked, but it made games a place of blissful escapism for me. I still have friends from those days who I've told the whole story to.

I don't have much experience in the industry. The best I can claim is that I was a writer for an indie game that fell through. We got the engine complete, but we could never find an artist or anything of the like, and eventually we realized the project was just too ambitious for two people to work on. Beyond that, I've dabbled with various ideas and tried some things, but I kind of think someone should laugh in my face if I ever claim to have actual, serious experience in creating video games.

I've been playing video games since before I can remember. I'm the youngest of four, and my three older siblings all played. I have some really early memories about the NES, but the earliest game I have any real clarity of is Super Mario World and being tricked by my siblings into thinking I was playing it when I really wasn't. The first game I've ever beaten was Hyperzone -- a very mediocre SNES game. I bothered to learn to read because my siblings had managed to convince my mother to get Sega Channel, and I was enamored with Shining Force 2 but couldn't understand what was going on.

I hate to admit to myself that I'm a Nintendo fangirl, but it's hard to deny. I made the most out of the Wii and hoped that games that were totally going to be mediocre would somehow turn out good. I had a Wii on release, I had a Gamecube on release, I can still remember the Christmas when my dad got me an N64. It was kind of adorable, really. He got me Ocarina of Time and pretended to not realize that it needed a console. Turns out the console was just in its normal box under his coat. He asked me to get his coat, and I didn't even notice. It's one of my fondest memories.

Vivian "SJ" James: There was a period of time I worked in games press. Mostly reviews, occasionally articles or opinion pieces. My experience with video games is substantial, I'd think. I probably play them more than is healthy, but I enjoy most any genre, with a personal preference for horror and action. I've owned and played a lot of Nintendo consoles. I think my first was an NES, then a Gameboy Color, eventually I got a Gamecube and I've kept up to date ever since. I have a Wii U that we got this year and lately my girlfriend and I have been playing Hyrule Warriors on it.

#2. What is your experience with the Bayonetta franchise? Have you played / do you plan to play the original game? Do you plan to play the upcoming sequel? Do you like / dislike the franchise?

Alicia Andrew: I have played the game all the way through twice (second time on Hard), and will run through it a 3rd time (NOT ON HARD) before jumping on to Bayonetta 2 (excited girl squeal). So yes, absolutely I plan on playing the sequel. I like the franchise, a lot. I will probably buy a Wii U just to play the damn game.

Emily Gitelman: I have played snippets of the original Bayonetta game, and watched Youtube play throughs. I did that specifically for research when I was writing my thesis. Bayonetta originally caught my eye because of the ridiculous part of the game where Bayonetta's hair-clothing disappears when she does a magic spell. I thought it was really gross and problematic, so I wanted to learn more about it and write about it. I don't plan on playing the next game, because I really just expect more of the same. The creators of Bayonetta have been really forthright with their blatant sexism and over sexualization of Bayonetta and other female characters in the Bayonetta franchise, and I can't respect the game because of it. It's just not in good taste.

Erica Hollinshead Stead: I played the original game on PS3. I plan to play Bayonetta 2; I even bought a Wii U mostly for that purpose. The original Bayonetta is one of my favorite games of that generation. I loved the gameplay, but everything from the lore to the aesthetics to the humor seemed like it was made for me. I loved the way they took classic images of angelic beings and were able to retain their beauty yet make them ugly at the same time. I loved how they combined the relative seriousness of the religious references for enemies with the over-the-top, Austin Powers level stylization in Bayonetta's character/attitude/line delivery. I like to call it "madcap badassery". And, to address the elephant in the room: I liked Bayonetta's looks and outfit. I liked the goth and sexy look, and I liked that it was combined with unexpected glasses (this was before the glasses-as-sexy thing was super saturated remember) and the high updo, rather than perhaps more expected bombshell hair and makeup. I have been known to dress both dark and/or body consciously at different points in my life, and Bayonetta was a (perhaps slightly exaggerated) version of something I would have gravitated towards in real life. The addition of the glasses and distinctive hairstyle, to me, provided the hint that this character might be sexy, but was an individual rather than a series of straight male fantasy check boxes. I also liked that her costume, although tight, wasn't made of strings cutting into her skin or crawling into crevices. My degree is in fashion design; I understand what works and doesn't work so well in garment construction, and her outfit didn't require too much suspension of disbelief for me. I could believe that she would actually have chosen to put on that outfit in the morning. Of course there's also the matter of the mythology associated with her outfit- its actually made of hair and disappears during some of her moves! This actually worked for me as well. (I deliberately used the word "actually" there because people seem to be surprised by it.) Hair is connected with power in some traditional witch myths, and sexuality/non-adherence to societal "decency standards" is sometimes connected to witches as well. And as a person who comes home and loses the pants at the earliest convenient moment.. associating shedding clothing with a surge of freedom/unrestricted power doesn't seem a stretch to me.

Kimberly: When the first Bayonetta game came out, I heard some of the controversy, but most of the coverage I saw was either negative or shallow (more on this below). Because I lacked time and funds during that period, I let it pass by without playing it. I assumed the game was more fanservice than anything else.

As the second game gets closer, the debate has kicked back up. I stumbled on some really positive sentiments towards the games that I'd missed the first time around, especially about Bayonetta as a positive character. After a short bit of research, I decided that I will definitely be playing both games when Bayonetta 2 comes out later this month.

Laura: I have not played the Bayonetta games and I do not plan to. I'm too disgusted by the portrayal of the main character in the trailers and other advertising. It's not how I want to see women represented. I'd rather play a game that had a male main character or no female characters at all then deal with female characters that make me feel like developers think of all women as sex objects or plot devices. The trailer for Bayonetta 2 has what I can only refer to as a 'vag shot' for crying out loud. No, I do not feel like the developers of that game have any respect for me as a woman, and that's upsetting.

Lily: I've beaten the first Bayonetta on Infinite Climax. I really, really loved that game. It was great, it came out right before I did. (Hah.) And I loved it. It was a bit of a reminder of the complexities of gender and attitude that I think a lot of people don't really ever have to pay attention to. And really, the first game was just something fresh in a landscape that was catering more and more toward shooters. Endless shooters. I'm picking up Bayonetta 2 on release night. So, yeah, it's safe to say I like the game. A lot.

Vivian "SJ" James: I played the first Bayonetta back when it came out, so it's been a while. I definitely plan on checking out the sequel, and will probably use it as an excuse to replay the original. I'm not sure if I like the franchise, it'll depend a lot on how Bayonetta 2 is, but I definitely want to like it. I want to have awesome franchises starring powerful women that I can just enjoy myself playing.

#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.

(Ed. Note: In order to keep the discussion in a single place, comments will be closed on part one of this feature. Please head over to part two where comments will be open.)

Continue to Part Two.

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(Ed. Note: In order to keep the discussion in a single place, comments will be closed on part one of this feature. Please head over to part two where comments will be open.)

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