Bayonetta 2 is coming out soon and I’m so excited I could punch a hole through the world with a fist made of my hair. The first Bayonetta is one of my all-time favourite games. It was ridiculous, baffling, spectacular and an absolute blast to play. The reviews for the sequel are already looking very positive, with the exception of Polygon, which was very critical of the intense sexualization of the main character.
Of course, with the frenzied state that misogynerds are in at the moment, they’ve decided to lash out at Polygon for pushing their “Social Justice Warrior” agenda. Because nothing says “I’m really fighting for ethics and transparency in games journalism” like trying to silence the opinions of games journalists.
Polygon’s criticism of Bayonetta is completely valid. The game is sexualized in the extreme. I have no doubt that Bayonetta’s primary intended function is to titillate straight male gamers. However, I believe there is more to Bayonetta than this. What straight male gamers don’t realize as they salivate over Bayonetta’s endless legs and shapely behind, is that Bayonetta is a Trojan Horse. Inside her sexy body is an army of dangerous feminist ideals waiting to burst out.
Despite being a man-hating, Anita Sarkeesian-supporting SJW feminazi, I have always chosen to interpret Bayonetta in a feminist light. Apart from all the implied nudity, spread legs and cleavage shots, Bayonetta has many positive characteristics that are rare in a female video game character. Despite her sexualization, she retains a sense of control over how she is perceived. She is allowed to be powerful and strong without sacrificing her femininity. And while she may be a sexual fantasy for straight male gamers, she also doubles as a power fantasy for female gamers.
I like to compare Bayonetta to an equally batshit game, Lollipop Chainsaw. In Lollipop Chainsaw, you also played as a sexy woman wielding crazy weapons. But there was a key difference in the way Lollipop Chainsaw’s protagonist, Juliet, was portrayed compared to Bayonetta. She lacked control over her sexuality. You could pan the camera down and look up her skirt, and she would glare at you and try to block the camera with her hands. The game even rewarded you for doing it. Rescued NPC’s would make comments about her breasts and she was given no ability to retort. Despite her skills with a chainsaw, Juliet was rendered completely powerless when it came to how she was viewed by the player and the characters in the game. Playing Lollipop Chainsaw made me feel like a sleaze.
Bayonetta, on the other hand, seems entirely in control . You aren’t sneaking a look at her butt against her will, Bayonetta is shoving her butt right in your face whether you want it or not. She poses for the camera, winking and blowing kisses, flaunting her goods for all to see. It’s lewd and ridiculous, almost satirical. You see what you see because she wants you to see it, or doesn’t care if you see it. Sure, this may just be part of the voyeuristic fantasy, but Bayonetta is still given far more control over her sexuality than most female game characters could ever hope for.
In the fine tradition of Japanese magical girls, Bayonetta’s power is tied to her femininity. She goes shopping, enjoys pretty outfits and sucks on cute lollipops. She oozes butterflies when she dodges attacks and bleeds rose petals when she’s hit. She is unashamedly girly, and yet this is never presented as a weakness. In most video games, girly girls are confined to the role of damsels in distress and strong female characters reject femininity and adopt more masculine characteristics. When Lara Croft was rebooted as a more realistic woman, she was made weaker and more vulnerable in the process. The producer said they wanted players to feel like they needed to “protect” her. It was as if they were afraid that male gamers would be uncomfortable playing as a female protagonist, so they tried to convince players that they weren’t really playing as a woman, they were just the big strong man holding her hand. Bayonetta does not give the player this option. Bayonetta doesn’t need anyone’s protection. If you’re going to play this game, you’re gonna have to strap on your big boy heels and accept that you are embodying a woman, lipstick kisses and all.
When you argue that female video game characters are always sexualized, you inevitably will get an outcry of “WHAT ABOUT THE MENS!?”
Yes, male video game protagonist are often muscular, good looking guys. But they are not attractive for the benefit of straight female gamers (because of course we don’t really exist, right?). They are attractive for the male gamers who are playing them, so that they can feel like they are fully ripped hunks of A grade man meat for a while. It’s a power fantasy. I would argue that Bayonetta can also be a power fantasy for female gamers. She’s smart, funny, beautiful and strong. She’s confident in her body and in her sexuality. She cares about her friends and doesn’t take any shit from her enemies. She even passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors! These are all great qualities, the kind you would find in an inspiring Disney princess . This princess just happens to swear a bit and get naked a lot. Playing Bayonetta makes me feel like an ass-kicking goddess. It makes me feel like I can strut down the street with guns on my feet and conquer the world. I’m actually eagerly awaiting the day that my eyesight deteriorates so that I can buy myself a pair of Bayonetta glasses and get my prescription put in them.
So I’m afraid I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with Polygon on Bayonetta. Note the key word in that sentence is respectfully. Criticizing Bayonetta’s sexual imagery is completely understandable. But the beauty of mature critical analysis is that multiple interpretations can exist at the same time. Personally, I choose to accept Bayonetta’s sexualization as just one facet of a character who I find empowering. Her agency, femininity and her strength are all characteristics that female video game characters are usually robbed of.
Right now, as the gaming community struggles under the weight of a misogynistic shitstorm, we need all the lady heroes we can get.