So, I’m currently working on a bunch of different writing projects, attempting to get some articles out the door. While this one is a bit far off, I wanted to get some of my thoughts about it out there, especially since one of the games involved — Lollipop Chainsaw — is relatively new. Strike while the iron is hot, as I always say.
I’ve been playing Lollipop Chainsaw and let me tell you, there’s a lot of interest in knowing what the game’s all about but not, in the circles I travel in, commensurate interest in actually buying the bloody thing. So after I struck a deal with Mia Consalvo — I’d buy it for the both of us and if I hated it, she could buy it off me at cost — I got a copy, and played it for a week at work during my lunch. The GAMBIT crowd, as is their wont, found much to mock about it, and I’m inclined to agree. It’s a very mockable game. I got a lot of questions along the lines of “Is it good?” and my response, pretty universally, was “Well, it’s a campy 3D brawler, so if you like camp and you like brawling this will probably satisfy you.” All well and good.
But between you and me, Juliet Starling — the Lollipop with the Chainsaw — is no Bayonetta, and the differences between the two highlight some issues I have with gender representation in games… and specifically, the representation of sexiness.
Now, I’ve written about Bayonetta before as have plenty of other smart wonderful people (Leigh Alexander, even though I used to disagree with her on the subject; Denis Farr; many others). One thing I haven’t written about, however, and would like to given the time, is the representation of the character not so much as a sexually-available woman, but as a drag queen steeped in camp. For the moment, drink that idea in, because it pervades what I’m about to argue, which is this: both Juliet and Bayonetta exist as fetishistic designs inside a general theme of sexual availability, but Juliet, unlike Bayonetta, is complicit in and subject to that male gaze-y system of desire, whereas Bayonetta — like a drag queen — adopts, accepts, and subverts that system.
Let’s start with some examples. This is the introduction to Lollipop Chainsaw, our first moment of being introduced to Juliet —
Now, let’s break this down. We’re introduced to Juliet in her bedroom… more specifically, in her bed. She is hugging a huge stuffed animal, and as she informs us in her Valley Girl-ish accent, it’s her “cumple-ahno” so she’s turning that all-important age of majority, 18. Then she does some yoga. Then while she bathes, she talks about how her favorite food for keeping up her energy is lollipops and they are making her so fat (if you need to stop at this point to throw an object at the wall, do so). The discussion of her family involves an animation of her father cupping her mother’s ass while she voiceovers that her mother is “so awesome; she’s why my sisters and I wear our vaginas proudly.” Add in some panty shots and some discussion of her boyfriend and we bring this to a close.
Now for a contrast, let’s compare this to a significant part of Bayonetta’s introduction as a character:
Some things are really worthy of note here. For starters, let’s talk about the male gaze, sort of. The camera loves Bayonetta, and that’s actually a nearly literal statement: when her nun outfit gets Sexy Battle Damage, we get some impressive zoom-in shots, and when she sheds it altogether for the black leather + magical hair (don’t ask) getup that is her standard costume, there are actual spotlights on her out of nowhere. As the angels are tearing off her clothes, she’s moaning in obvious pleasure. After the transformation and spotlights is the first time anyone in the game says her name — Rodin calling out “Bayonetta!” — and she then proceeds to use Rodin’s constant barrage of guns to do some really impressive acrobatic violence on the angels attacking her. This includes, at one point, a shot of her from behind, bent at the waist, reaching between her legs… where she then catches a gun and proceeds to use it to blow an angel’s head off. Then she complains to Rodin, in her throaty, British alto, about the quality of the guns.
Did I mention that as soon as the “Bayonetta” persona comes to the fore, we start hearing “Fly Me to the Moon,” one of her leitmotifs… and a love song?
And it goes on and on. She poledances with an angel’s spear after dodging it impacting her face by mere millimeters. She aerial tackles an angel crotch-first, straddling it with her thighs while she spins through the air, blowing other angels away with her two handguns. She dances seductively on an angel’s head while peppering it with bullets from the gun attached to her ankle. She goes through an entire pile of handguns (phalluses!), using them and throwing them away, shouting “Guns!” as Rodin supplies her with weapons again and again. When he runs out, the last thing in the container is a red lollipop, which he throws to her with a shrug… and which Bayonetta appears to be happy to accept, popping it in her mouth with an extreme closeup and appreciative “Mmm!” as the corners of the screen glow rosy pink. It then, of course, cuts to her doing more indiscriminate violence. It ends with her straddling a coffin and firing two guns held basically in front of her crotch at two captive angels, before flipping to a rock and posing as that spotlight comes back.
If it feels like I’m giving the description of Bayonetta’s introduction greater focus and detail, that’s because I think there’s genuinely more “there” there. The intro of Juliet is a weird checklist of every borderline-lolicon fantasy, from both an American and Japanese angle. She’s sexually available, cute, and old enough to be “legal” but full of the markers of feminized youth (stuffed animals, a love of the color pink and of candy). She’s more worried about being seen as fat than she is about people knowing she’s a chainsaw-wielding zombie hunter from a family of zombie hunters. She’s also a bit of a stereotypical “airhead” — not exactly stupid, but (as evinced by her grasp of Spanish and her inability to process her sister’s career) not that bright, either. Juliet inhabits the sexually available cheerleader stereotype in every possible way.
Bayonetta, on the other hand, is not sexually available. She’s sexual, that’s for sure, but her sexuality is dangerous, even threatening. It’s on display at your own peril, especially if you’re an angel sent to kill her. She’s a tease, but the promise at the end is violent, not satisfying, and her sex play-as-combat has her in masculine-coded, powerful, penetrating positions as often as she’s a woman whose body is on display. As the game progresses, we realize that Bayonetta is in perfect control of every situation she finds herself in, and the various powers that try to control her find themselves one-upped at every turn on that front. Juliet, by comparison, wanders from boss zombie to boss zombie, carried along by the tide of the story, constantly reacting.
Both of the games approach sexuality, particularly our fetishistic character play desires, through the lens of camp. But Juliet is complicit in the network of desire that has shaped her, and doesn’t approach the level of self-aware reversal that, to me, signifies commentary on it. The glitter and rainbows that accompany her zombie slaying are funny and enjoyable, but they don’t say to me “Juliet Starling is in control of this situation.” She’s still a fetish doll, acting out sexualized desire without question. Bayonetta, on the other hand, embodies more of the gender conundrum of drag as expressed by Judith Butler. She inhabits the fetishistic, sexualized space, it’s true, but at the same time she both reflects and challenges our ideas of how someone in that space should act.
This doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally find Bayonetta problematic as a character, and that was Butler’s whole point about drag — if you want to comment on the system from the inside, even through parody, at some point you have to accept and present as a given hegemonic ideas about gender. Drag both reifies and questions gender performance at the same time. But that questioning of the fetish doll heroine is a step Juliet Starling never seems to take, to my great regret. I think Lollipop Chainsaw had a lot of the potential that Bayonetta exhibits, but it falls short in an attempt to be “edgy,” a sentiment Bob Mackey has previously espoused regarding the game.
Plus, Bayonetta has a vogue battle with an impostor to prove who’s the real one, complete with random spotlight and special effects:
Let’s see Juliet Starling do that.