Sexy Videogameland: If You Run Out Of Ammo, You Can Have Mine

Sexy Videogameland: If You Run Out Of Ammo, You Can Have Mine: the perpetuation of a misguided notion.

Perhaps it is a mistake to focus on one post in order to diagnose a continuing delusion regarding videogames and the representation of women, but the timing was simply unavoidable: I had recently shown the 2nd episode of John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing,” and the way that he succinctly and tersely identifies the gender politics and the crisis of subjectivity at work in the tradition of the nude in oil painting makes it effortless to diagnose just what is wrong with the female avatar in game design.
There is a widespread presumption (especially among young consumers of popular culture) that the resolution to the problem of sexism in videogames and game culture and other pop culture forms is the so-called “strong female character,” the one that isn’t “passive,” that has “agency,” and, in the case of games, “kicks ass.” (Quotes taken from way too many undergraduates.) I had found it difficult to explain the inadequacy – even the wrong-headedness – of this approach, my perception that these depictions still ultimately served male vanities and played on female anxieties, and that the male game player – his needs, desires, and qualms – still was being overwhelmingly served in games that were supposedly being targeted to both men and women.
I realized that I could not think of a female avatar that had a male lover that was not, in some way, a player-surrogate. No matter how much ass a female character kicks, there is no one and nothing that obstructs the fantasy of her possession by the player – in fact, when the avatar is a female body, the “ass-kicking” aspect itself is partially that very occupation of the character by the (male) player.
This isn’t true for male characters, who have lovers, wives, girl-friends, love-objects: Dante has his Beatrice, Duke Nuke’m has scores of people, Gordon Freeman (implicitly) has Alyx Vance. Carl “CJ” Johnson has his girlfriends, Viewtiful Joe has Silvia, Solid Snake has Meryl Silverburgh, etc. But I can’t think of a corresponding list of love-interests for female-avatar/characters. Lara Croft has an ex- or two, but there is nothing between her and the player (odd how the film gets closer to giving her a love interest than any game does, as I recall.) The robust sexuality which Leigh Alexander praises in Bayonetta is predictable free and available. No real rival exists for the player’s affections for the character. (The closest thing to it in Bayonetta is conveniently sequestered to another dimension – and, arguably, may only have a role as a surrogate for the male player.) When the female character has a love interest, that love interest has to be made distant, ineffectual, phantasmic – in no way a substantial rival to the player’s need to possess the character.
This is what Berger noted about the nude: her nudity, her sexuality did not exist for herself, but for the owner/spectator of the painting. The nude flatters or teases the viewer, but their nudity and sexuality is not a reflection of their interiority, of their inner life, but only a reflection of the desires of the viewer. Because painting is a medium of stillness, the female nude is passive in painting. The fact that female objects of desire in games aren’t passive doesn’t change this formula, and in fact confirms it: their activity, ultimately, exists for the player, not in reference to the inner life of the character.
When I think of what approaches an exception in major commercial game titles, I come to an ironic position: that a character seen by many Westerners as the most excruciatingly hyper-feminized may actually be more liberatory and more substantial than the Lara Crofts and Bayonettas and other ass-kicking caricatures. Final Fantasy X’s Yuna, like many Square-Enix characters, is depicted (melodramatically, of course) as having a rich inner life. She doesn’t generally kick-ass, at least in the first Final Fantasy X title, but she is shown as being in the center of a profound moral and existential crisis (more so than the rather oblivious player-insertion character, Tidus.) Of course, she is still the love-interest of the avatar, not the player avatar herself. But in the sequel (which, against popular opinion, I actually loved – elsewhere I compare the transition between Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy X-2 as a reflection of the transformation of Japan from a tragic figure of war to a comic figure of post-war consumer culture) the dynamics get more complicated. Yuna moves slightly-albeit with a certain arch distance-toward the “kick ass” cliche I bemoan as a caricature. Yet, at the same time, she is a character with a love interest (or even three)- the (conveniently phantasmal) Tidus, the “its-compicatedBaralai, and the atavistic Shuyin.
The device by which Tidus may or may not be united with Yuna is complicated – it requires a level of completion in gameplay that may be more than most players fulfill, and it requires the consent of the player to see “him” again. Yet there is little doubt in most players’ minds that the object of Yuna’s desires is not the player, and that most of her rather-restrained sexuality is essentially not available “for” the player (even if glimpses of her figure are served to the male gaze with the usual sense of obligation.)
The “femininity” of Yuna – understood more as a crisis of responsibility than as passivity – offers a contrast to the “ass-kicking” yet sexually available female avatars which dominate game representations, perhaps because it does not pretend to a Colbert-like “color blindness” about gender difference, sexual politics and desire.
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16 comments

  1. David Hill

    So I was trying to bring up some thoughts or oppositions in your post. I made a little list of games where your female character has a love interest. Every single example was a game where you have the option of playing a male or female from the start. I find this post very insightful, certainly something worth consideration.

  2. David Hill

    So I was trying to bring up some thoughts or oppositions in your post. I made a little list of games where your female character has a love interest. Every single example was a game where you have the option of playing a male or female from the start. I find this post very insightful, certainly something worth consideration.

  3. Branden Bean

    I can think of only a single game with a female protagonist and a male love interest that is not a player surrogate: Valkyrie Profile.Amazing.I agree with you that Yuna is immensely respectable, and comes off as very real. Even in the first game, where she is being portrayed as the main character's love interest, she is truly just as much of a hero, if not more, than him. She is a heroic martyr, and she exhibits these qualities far before Tidus truly begins to become any sort of dependable hero himself.In the sequel, she has overcome her feelings of loss and is well into a new life; she has grown as a character. Gone is the solemn Yuna, and in her place is a Yuna that, potentially for the first time in her life, is able to have an existence a bit closer to that of a normal girl. She seems real and complex; I could look at Yuna in a given scene and tell you what's going on inside her and how it makes her human.Bayonetta is, as Tae Kim basically said, utterly lacking in a soul. Unlike Dante, she has no reason to act in the cool, sexy way she does. If she doesn't fit into her own world, how can we expect to feel that she is a genuine person, and not just some fantasy sent to titillate us?How fun to come a full 360 degrees in under 24 hours. 🙂

  4. Branden Bean

    I can think of only a single game with a female protagonist and a male love interest that is not a player surrogate: Valkyrie Profile.Amazing.I agree with you that Yuna is immensely respectable, and comes off as very real. Even in the first game, where she is being portrayed as the main character's love interest, she is truly just as much of a hero, if not more, than him. She is a heroic martyr, and she exhibits these qualities far before Tidus truly begins to become any sort of dependable hero himself.In the sequel, she has overcome her feelings of loss and is well into a new life; she has grown as a character. Gone is the solemn Yuna, and in her place is a Yuna that, potentially for the first time in her life, is able to have an existence a bit closer to that of a normal girl. She seems real and complex; I could look at Yuna in a given scene and tell you what's going on inside her and how it makes her human.Bayonetta is, as Tae Kim basically said, utterly lacking in a soul. Unlike Dante, she has no reason to act in the cool, sexy way she does. If she doesn't fit into her own world, how can we expect to feel that she is a genuine person, and not just some fantasy sent to titillate us?How fun to come a full 360 degrees in under 24 hours. 🙂

  5. deckard47

    Thank you for writing this. There haven't been a lot of strong, lengthy rebuttals to Alexander's article. Aside from that (necessary goal) you also addressed the flimsy pretense of the "strong" female character who rewrites all sexist wrongs, along with the fact that female protagonists are _always_ vessels for male rewriting, domination, and dis-identification (from the female character herself). Excellent.I somehow didn't have your blog saved in my reader (and have never read it 'til now)… I've corrected that oversight now, luckily.

  6. deckard47

    Thank you for writing this. There haven't been a lot of strong, lengthy rebuttals to Alexander's article. Aside from that (necessary goal) you also addressed the flimsy pretense of the "strong" female character who rewrites all sexist wrongs, along with the fact that female protagonists are _always_ vessels for male rewriting, domination, and dis-identification (from the female character herself). Excellent.I somehow didn't have your blog saved in my reader (and have never read it 'til now)… I've corrected that oversight now, luckily.

  7. YankeeDonB

    OK William, (Peter here, turns out I have a google account — who knew?)TO avoid spamming the message board: Yuna is an extremely interesting character in this context. I see her, in X-2, as on the opposite end of the _same_ spectrum of Bayonetta. Yuna is extremely mild and, in many ways, submissive (even when jazzed up and wielding guns). But, in X-2, she's doing her own thing. She's writing her own story.It's a nice transition from the pilgrimage in X. Yes, there are men in the background, but one gets the feeling that they're subservient to Yuna's larger goals. She's not going to just give up traveling to tend the hearth. But just as Yuna's independence nicely matches her personality, so does Bayonetta's. The latter's personality is just extremely different.It's been noted that Bayonetta is _not_ in control of her situation, so her superior confidence (sexual and martial) don't make sense.But I'd suggest that Bayonetta _is_ in control of her _immediate_ situation at all times. She doesn't know where her journey's going (but then, neither does Yuna). But at each moment she's fully expressing her own self, and that self is built on mastery. She doesn't know the distal reason why she's kicking angel ass (although proximally it's because they're trying to kill her). But she's supremely confident that she _can_. Just like she's extremely confident that she's desirable. Not everyone will find her so, but one gets the feeling she wouldn't care.It's a little dicey, of course, to have this sort of conversation about fictional characters. When discussing historical nudes, we can actually consider whether they're objectification served them well or not. But Bayonetta's not served one way or the other. W/in the bounds of the story, her constant flaunting doesn't impact her situation in one way or the other. Outside of the bounds of the story she doesn't exist.So how are real people affected by her? I agree, w/ sadness, that if the game is successful it will just reify the "objectify all women all the time" ideology of major game developers. And I think we could agree that's not a good thing.So maybe she oughtn't have been made the way she was. Even if the creators meant her as a commentary, and even if lots of people take her that way, it seems unlikely the majority will.Of course, if you go on less erudite message boards than this, you'll find _lots_ of "Urgh, I haet tis skanky witch" type comments. So maybe Bayonetta will teach developers not to take objectification too far (wishful thinking).Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking read.

  8. YankeeDonB

    OK William, (Peter here, turns out I have a google account — who knew?)TO avoid spamming the message board: Yuna is an extremely interesting character in this context. I see her, in X-2, as on the opposite end of the _same_ spectrum of Bayonetta. Yuna is extremely mild and, in many ways, submissive (even when jazzed up and wielding guns). But, in X-2, she's doing her own thing. She's writing her own story.It's a nice transition from the pilgrimage in X. Yes, there are men in the background, but one gets the feeling that they're subservient to Yuna's larger goals. She's not going to just give up traveling to tend the hearth. But just as Yuna's independence nicely matches her personality, so does Bayonetta's. The latter's personality is just extremely different.It's been noted that Bayonetta is _not_ in control of her situation, so her superior confidence (sexual and martial) don't make sense.But I'd suggest that Bayonetta _is_ in control of her _immediate_ situation at all times. She doesn't know where her journey's going (but then, neither does Yuna). But at each moment she's fully expressing her own self, and that self is built on mastery. She doesn't know the distal reason why she's kicking angel ass (although proximally it's because they're trying to kill her). But she's supremely confident that she _can_. Just like she's extremely confident that she's desirable. Not everyone will find her so, but one gets the feeling she wouldn't care.It's a little dicey, of course, to have this sort of conversation about fictional characters. When discussing historical nudes, we can actually consider whether they're objectification served them well or not. But Bayonetta's not served one way or the other. W/in the bounds of the story, her constant flaunting doesn't impact her situation in one way or the other. Outside of the bounds of the story she doesn't exist.So how are real people affected by her? I agree, w/ sadness, that if the game is successful it will just reify the "objectify all women all the time" ideology of major game developers. And I think we could agree that's not a good thing.So maybe she oughtn't have been made the way she was. Even if the creators meant her as a commentary, and even if lots of people take her that way, it seems unlikely the majority will.Of course, if you go on less erudite message boards than this, you'll find _lots_ of "Urgh, I haet tis skanky witch" type comments. So maybe Bayonetta will teach developers not to take objectification too far (wishful thinking).Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking read.

  9. William Huber

    Thanks for all your contributions – this site is a holding-zone for writing about my reflections on things, and rarely gets updated (I'm reluctant to truly call it a "blog," which suggests a kind of active monitor of web-based discourse; it's more like a public scratch-pad.)In any case, I think I have doubts about the very idea of a "positive role-model" in games, period, and I think the idea that games might provide one comes from a handful of issues and problems that have come into play in the past couple of decades:First, it is usually about children, and specifically OPC (Other People's Children,) who are taken to be lacking real-life role models, and thus the concern is that they should at least have some drawn from media. The truth, I think, is more complex: a girl who grows up without meeting or learning about real-life scientists is not really going to imagine herself as becoming a scientist, no matter how many women scientists she sees in games. A girl who sees the women in her life anxious to find a male partner at all times, dependent on men, spending their money and energy making themselves attractive to men, and understand their own success in terms of their image in men's eyes is unlikely to do otherwise, even if the game characters she's playing seem autonomous and self-defined. I suspect that gender roles are more likely to propagate within socio-economic classes and communities of cultural practice than through media representations (recognizing that the consumption of media representations are a cultural practice.) Even if media representations have a role, I doubt that much can be done with videogame representations. Compared to other media forms, videogames have less flexibility to create nuanced narratives and characters with rich inner lives: if and when they do so, they do so in excess of being games. Not that there aren't compelling characters, but even my favorite characters, such as GTA3: San Andreas' "CJ", Yuna from Final Fantasy X/X-2, the children from Final Fantasy Tactics Advance – are cardboard caricatures compared with the profound and rich inner lives of the characters from the modern novel or from mid-to-late 20th century film. There is no comparison – there are no Raskolnikovs, nothing like Molly Bloom's internal monologue in Joyce's Ulysses, not even a character as compelling as Emily Watson as Bess McNiell in Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves" or a character from a Jane Campion film.What games excel at is something else: creating activities and (narrative) spaces to navigate. Henry Jenkins discusses this well in his article on videogames as gendered play spaces. His argument is complicated and more subtle than it seems at first, and doesn't really pick up steam until the latter part of the essay – I suggest reading it a couple of times.As far as Bayonetta goes (and the "it's camp" argument, which I guess is true as it goes) – I think that there is a natural reaction that occurs when people feel their pleasures are being problematized, that we are trying to simply separate the wheat from the chaff. I might enjoy playing Bayonetta; I don't think Bayonetta is bad or evil. I think it neither liberatory nor truly exploitative – I just think it doesn't do anything truly novel, and, more importantly, it doesn't change the map of gender, sexuality and videogames: it serves the pleasures of the people whose pleasures have continuously had their pleasures catered to in games. It is absurd to think that they wouldn't: is anyone so naive as to think that the bulk of the pop culture mass market would embrace a product that systematically made them truly uncomfortable, that might exclude them? Theodor Adorno and Clement Greenberg would find that proposition risible.

  10. William Huber

    Thanks for all your contributions – this site is a holding-zone for writing about my reflections on things, and rarely gets updated (I'm reluctant to truly call it a "blog," which suggests a kind of active monitor of web-based discourse; it's more like a public scratch-pad.)In any case, I think I have doubts about the very idea of a "positive role-model" in games, period, and I think the idea that games might provide one comes from a handful of issues and problems that have come into play in the past couple of decades:First, it is usually about children, and specifically OPC (Other People's Children,) who are taken to be lacking real-life role models, and thus the concern is that they should at least have some drawn from media. The truth, I think, is more complex: a girl who grows up without meeting or learning about real-life scientists is not really going to imagine herself as becoming a scientist, no matter how many women scientists she sees in games. A girl who sees the women in her life anxious to find a male partner at all times, dependent on men, spending their money and energy making themselves attractive to men, and understand their own success in terms of their image in men's eyes is unlikely to do otherwise, even if the game characters she's playing seem autonomous and self-defined. I suspect that gender roles are more likely to propagate within socio-economic classes and communities of cultural practice than through media representations (recognizing that the consumption of media representations are a cultural practice.) Even if media representations have a role, I doubt that much can be done with videogame representations. Compared to other media forms, videogames have less flexibility to create nuanced narratives and characters with rich inner lives: if and when they do so, they do so in excess of being games. Not that there aren't compelling characters, but even my favorite characters, such as GTA3: San Andreas' "CJ", Yuna from Final Fantasy X/X-2, the children from Final Fantasy Tactics Advance – are cardboard caricatures compared with the profound and rich inner lives of the characters from the modern novel or from mid-to-late 20th century film. There is no comparison – there are no Raskolnikovs, nothing like Molly Bloom's internal monologue in Joyce's Ulysses, not even a character as compelling as Emily Watson as Bess McNiell in Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves" or a character from a Jane Campion film.What games excel at is something else: creating activities and (narrative) spaces to navigate. Henry Jenkins discusses this well in his article on videogames as gendered play spaces. His argument is complicated and more subtle than it seems at first, and doesn't really pick up steam until the latter part of the essay – I suggest reading it a couple of times.As far as Bayonetta goes (and the "it's camp" argument, which I guess is true as it goes) – I think that there is a natural reaction that occurs when people feel their pleasures are being problematized, that we are trying to simply separate the wheat from the chaff. I might enjoy playing Bayonetta; I don't think Bayonetta is bad or evil. I think it neither liberatory nor truly exploitative – I just think it doesn't do anything truly novel, and, more importantly, it doesn't change the map of gender, sexuality and videogames: it serves the pleasures of the people whose pleasures have continuously had their pleasures catered to in games. It is absurd to think that they wouldn't: is anyone so naive as to think that the bulk of the pop culture mass market would embrace a product that systematically made them truly uncomfortable, that might exclude them? Theodor Adorno and Clement Greenberg would find that proposition risible.

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