So a while back I was invited by Mia Consalvo to take part in a podcast by the GAMBIT Lab at MIT with herself, Clara Fernández-Vara, and Matthew Weise. They were talking about a game that was, at the time, newly released and hotly controversial: Bayonetta. If you don’t know anything about the game, let me give you the five-second summary: she’s a busty, unrealistically curvy, glasses-wearing witch who fights with guns and kung-fu and British-accented sarcastic sass against a horde of monsters that look like angels while making heavily sexually suggestive comments and, in some cases, sucking on a lollipop.
If you read the previous post in this blog — the inaugural post in this blog no less — I know what you’re probably thinking: “he dove right into how terrible those ads were to women so he’s really going to let them have it for this nonsense!”
Well that’s where it gets complicated.
Part of the reason Mia invited me to take part in that podcast, I’m sure, is that my playing and enjoyment of Bayonetta were a conversational time bomb that we played hot potato with for weeks. Ever since I played the demo — a demo I loved so much I not only got it on the 360, but also on the PS3 just to experience the slightly different content in each — I was waiting with massive anticipation for a game that struck me as amazingly fun. Mia, on the other hand, played the demo and wanted to (my words not hers) cave in the creators’ skulls with a wrecking ball.
In fact, once the game actually game out in early January I frequently found myself… well, on the defensive for not only playing but thoroughly enjoying the game. Some of it was external, like my bouts of near-childlike guilt for the feeling of having disappointed Mia, my advisor and mentor, who I kept envisioning as a floating cartoon head looking at me with stern disgust every time I turned on the 360. Some of it, though, was internal. Whenever something truly stupid happened, I could hear the voice in my head, the critical cultural voice I’ve cultivated, telling me that what I was playing was awful and I was awful for enjoying it and the whole damn situation was just awful awful awful.
Then the loading screen would be over and I’d resume blowing up angels.
This is a dilemma I’ve faced before while teaching classes in media representation and I think it’s a perfectly valid thing to think about. On the one hand we all want to be both sensitive and properly active about the things we find seriously bad in the media. I, for example, blacklisted seeing Avatar because it struck me as so over the top that I tended to refer to both it and The Blind Side as “white man’s burden: the movie series.” It pissed me off so bad there was just no way I was going to see that movie. Yet I played Bayonetta and, people, let me just tell you: representation wise you’d be hard-pressed to find a more awful game than Bayonetta, which I’ll get to in a second. I played Super Robot Wars Original Generation Saga: Endless Frontier (what a name) which, since I doubt most people have heard of it, can be described in two words: BOOBS AKIMBO. However, I also loved that game (which we’ll also get to in a second). I know these things are terrible. But I love them and enjoy them and only feel a little bit sorry for that. Think how your typical university class which is generally full of middle to upper class Caucasian students of relative privilege must feel. Not only do they have to “feel bad” simply for being who they are, but they have to “feel bad” for liking what they like? That they might instead flip the middle finger to the world and resist awakening to identifying their privilege does not surprise me at all. That is a huge challenge in teaching diversity awareness that I, as a teacher, am constantly struggling with.
Anyhow, back to Bayonetta.
One of the more famous commentaries on Bayonetta’s sexuality as a character came from Leigh Alexander’s article for GamePro in which she argues that rather than being exploitative, Bayonetta’s unabashed use of her sexuality, her combat prowess, and her other attributes instead provide a female hero she can enjoy and which might make male players a little uncomfortable with how unapologetic she is. Frankly, I don’t think she could be more wrong; the article reads like apologia rather than argument, where as a woman who liked Bayonetta she had to invent a reason that the game wasn’t awful on the subject of representation of women, and latched on to the “strong female character not afraid of her sexuality” angle.
Others have taken Leigh to task for her article and in considerably more nuanced and in-depth ways, so I’d like to link to them: both Tiffany Chow and William Huber craft excellent arguments about just who Bayonetta’s sexy design is for, and the answer in both cases is: straight men. In fact, in my Digital Games and Representation class when we discussed this, there was a near-consensus that Hideki Kamiya may have created Bayonetta solely for his own masturbatory desires, which… we had a good laugh, a short but serious talk about the intentionalist fallacy, and then we moved on. The fact that in the developer blog he refers to a moment when one of the “booth girls” at the Tokyo Game Show 2009 asked him for his autograph, it got the “cherry boy” (Japanese slang for a young male virgin) in him “exicted” isn’t helping his case there, though. Anyhow: I absolutely agree with Chow and Huber. Bayonetta assumes a straight male audience, and Bayonetta’s appearance is designed to appeal to them, and attract them, not “make them uncomfortable” unless you’re referring to jeans which, suddenly, seem tighter than they were a few minutes ago.
That said, I don’t think Bayonetta as a female character is all bad, but the ways in which her power as a character and her resistance to patriarchial norms aren’t apparent just from her appearance, or from a short play of the game. They come mostly from her relationship with rival witch Jeanne, a little girl named Cereza, and the game’s primary antagonist, a man named Father Balder. Here’s where the spoilers kick in, so allow me to produce a ‘more’ cut for you.
Jeanne, a white-haired witch wearing red, shows up early in the game and hounds Bayonetta the entire time. She has similar powers (far greater, at first, in fact), a similarly cavalier attitude, and even uses a highly similar fighting style. The two characters are clearly related somehow, but Bayonetta’s partial amnesia keeps her from remembering. The truth is that Jeanne is a fellow Umbra Witch, like Bayonetta, and has been brainwashed by the legions of angelic enemies to help them in their plot. She only awakens from that control very late in the game when, after a series of clashes, Bayonetta finally defeats her completely. At the game’s end, when Bayonetta has been kidnapped by Balder and is in danger, Jeanne risks her life to rescue her, as one Umbran “sister” to another, and as a friend.
Then there’s the issue of Cereza, a little girl who looks stunningly like Bayonetta that she runs into midway through the game and, though highly reluctantly, takes into her protection. In fact, protecting Cereza becomes a major issue as Bayonetta searches for the details of her past. What we eventually find out, however, is that Cereza is actually Bayonetta’s “real self” from the distant past, brought to the future by Father Balder as part of his plot. You see, the “real” Cereza/Bayonetta as a child is timid and not very brave, but after spending time with her future self (who she calls “Mommy”) she resolves to become stronger and more brave… which results in the Bayonetta of today.
Now that, I thought, was a cool twist. Here you have a reason why Bayonetta’s ass-kicking, no-nonsense personality is justified: because she imparted it on herself. She grew up strong because she had a (questionably) good role model. By all accounts, Bayonetta isn’t a good “mother;” she practically threatens Cereza with violence at one point to get her to stop crying. But she also has her moments, where she reassures her that the first time someone sees the demonic angels, it’s “always scary,” but that she can move past it. She protects the girl with assurance and confidence. That I like.
There’s also the issue of Jeanne. In the end, it is her sisterhood with Bayonetta that drives her to nearly sacrifice her life in a rescue attempt from Father Balder. Now, without getting too deep into the game’s mythos pointlessly, the counterparts to the Umbran Witches are the Lumen Sages, a presumably all-male clan (to the all-female Witches). Balder is the last of the Sages, and the head of the angelic hordes. To say that he represents the patriarchy in some small way is not a stretch, and it is Jeanne’s act of sisterhood that allows Bayonetta one last chance to fight back against him and what he stands for, even if the final symbol of the patriarchy’s power is a gigantic sexualized woman statue of God. I’m not saying this a super-complex, feminist theory-compliant argument about sisterhood and patriarchial power. I am saying that this is a potential read of the scenario, and one that is a little more positive than Bayonetta’s base representation.
What is interesting to me about Bayonetta, though, is something I brought up in the podcast and wanted to discuss here. In her article linked above, Tiffany Chow suggests that the over-the-topness of Bayonetta as a game is an issue of camp, and I’m inclined to agree. Everything in Bayonetta is exaggerated to the point of ridiculousness, and this exaggeration is part of its charm. Even to hearken back to OG Saga: Endless Frontier, part of what I loved about that game — in fact, given its otherwise somewhat bland gameplay, the primary thing — was its sense of style: the wisecracking protagonists, the humor, the over the top-ness.
In A Casual Revolution (sorry to bring it up again, but: so many good points!) Jesper makes a point about clone games and the tension of innovation versus retention. You recognize and desire games based on their relationship to other games (similarity) but they need to have their own unique experience to offer or there’s little reason to keep investing (innovation). What has become increasingly obvious in the past few years is that you can keep the basics of a game, but if your sense of style is good, then you can repackage the old effectively. Bayonetta‘s gameplay is nothing revolutionary; it uses the same sound, fun action mechanics that Kamiya and co. mastered in the Devil May Cry series. What it lays over the top is a sexually-suggestive, entirely camp, ridiculously funny patina of style. As I put it in the podcast, I like Bayonetta like I enjoy drag queens: for the sass, the sexy attitude, the outrageousness. It should come as little surprise that, among many players in my LGBT-friendly World of Warcraft guild, Bayonetta was well-received and loved. The gays love camp, for reasons best left to others to analyze.
This approach can backfire, though. What was clear in speaking with Mia and Clara, both of whom were troubled by the game, was that if disgust/annoyance/concerns with the style are so great they break the immersion, not even the most fun or reliable gameplay will stick. I think this is something even non-gamers can resonate with. Have you ever been watching a TV show and the characters do or say something so stupid, so egregious, that your immediate, visceral reaction is to change the channel and/or throw the remote across the room and/or throw up your hands and go “JESUS, WRITERS, WAS THAT REALLY NECESSARY?!” That is the sound of your immersion breaking. Avatar broke my immersion before I even walked in the door. I was so certain that Cameron’s colonial discourse on how awesome the white man is would piss me off so much that I didn’t even bother to become immersed in the first place.
(I stayed home and played Bayonetta, so how’s that for irony?)
This is fixable, though, for given values of fixable. Toward the end of the podcast I mentioned that what I really loved about the Bayonetta character was her outrageousness and her personality, less than her sexy body (though I admit, I have a thing for the sexy femme fatales… maybe I’m not a Kinsey 6 after all?). As I put it, “You could remake the game with Bayonetta looking like a frumpy librarian, but as long as everything else stayed the same I’d still love it.” Matt Weise, in a moment of true genius, joked: “So you’d still play it if Bayonetta looked like…
Hell yes I would. “Jinkies, little angels… jinkies.” *BLAMBLAMBLAMBLAM* Oh my lord that game would be awesome. And I think if there’s something designers can have as a takeaway from this blog post, it’s that you can still do style without doing super-sexualized. I’m not going to argue that even Velma isn’t a little bit idealized compared to normal womens’ bodies, because she is a cartoon, and that is how cartoons roll. I, for example, would play Bayonetta starring, say, Camryn Manheim or Queen Latifah, two more women I think of as “sexy, outrageous, sarcastic, no longer interested in these snakes on this maternal-copulating air travel conveyance” personalities. Hell, Queen Latifah could even choreograph her own damn end-of-game dance number.
How the hell awesome would that be?