So I read this post over at ThinkProgress and I kind of couldn't believe it. This piece somehow manages to have some of the worst arguments I've heard about feminism and video games, all in one convenient location. Naturally, I had to rage-blog about it.
Disclaimer: I grew up playing (and loving) Tomb Raider, Tekken, Soul Calibur, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat…so I know a thing or two about liking problematic things, especially video games. I know that the gameplay can be fun and addictive even if the concept and execution is problematic. So please don’t think this is out of some knee-jerk reaction that gets placed on straw feminists: “I’ll be pissed if you like something sexist!” I'm not bothered by people liking sexist things (it’s pretty hard to find things that aren’t) but sorry, I’m gonna call you out on it if you’re not being 100% intellectually honest with yourself about something just because you like it. Also, the arguments here are just so flawed I have to say something—it’s not even just about Bayonetta at this point--it’s about the nature of feminism, sexism and actually making coherent arguments.
Note: I understand that there are components of Bayonetta the may be interpreted as female power fantasies or something positive like that. That’s fine, and I think this blogger makes a compelling case for that. However, she and I are also in agreement that Bayonetta also has undeniable components of sexism, objectification and the male gaze and that is ultimately what I want this author to understand. I have no problem with him liking the game and I have no problem with the argument that Bayonetta has some positive game elements and themes. However, I do take issue with the argument that these positive elements erase or nullify the negative ones--again, that’s simply intellectual dishonesty.
Note2: While I think Bayonetta has components that are oriented towards power fantasies for women, I maintain that it is not a feminist game--as I stated above, it doesn’t even get the “not sexist” label, so it’s certainly doesn’t qualify as feminist. More importantly, at least in the context of this blog post: Palumbi's arguments about why this game is feminist ultimately fail because they rely on ridiculously flawed notions of what feminism actually is.
So, without further ado, let the rage-blogging begin! My responses are below, in red (because red is for RAGE):
"...Many frowned at the hyper-sexualized protagonist: Bayonetta has two pistols strapped to her stiletto heels and carries another pair, contorting into sexually gymnastic poses or finding conveniently phallic objects to pole-dance around while she deals hot death to her foes." [Yup this is the textbook fighting fucktoy trope, sorry but you’re not getting out of that.]
"...Lead designer Kamiya didn’t help matters, admiring Bayonetta’s sex appeal and declaring “women are scary” with a mix of misogyny and adolescent confusion that’s not uncommon in Japanese gaming culture." [Yup, that’s what he thinks, and that creative/authorial intent matters and clearly has a negative impact on the conceptualization of the game; more on that below]
"...Opinions differed, but from my perusal of the debate a solid consensus emerged: Bayonetta is a really excellent video game, but it’s too exploitative for the feminist label." [No shit it’s not getting the feminist label: it doesn’t even get the “treats it’s lead character as something other than a fighting fucktoy” label]
"I knew all this going into my most recent binge. But it didn’t ring true to me. Maybe it’s my good fortune to grow up surrounded by amazing women, but I just couldn’t see Bayonetta as a victim." [Well maybe because that’s a strawman, that’s not actually what critics were taking issue with: see fighting fucktoy issue, above. It's not that critics saw her as a damsel in distress, or victim, but that they saw her as a "strong" fighting sex-object]
"The critics, I felt, were wrapped up in a confining vision of the liberated female: one where sex needn’t define any part of a woman, and flaunted sexuality is inherently a concession to the male gaze. [No, this isn't a case of a real, living woman flaunting her sexuality. This is a case of game developers constructing a fictional character's sexuality, and ultimately pandering to a male demographic. This is imagined sexuality in some wish-fulfillment, sex-bot fantasy, instead of imagining what feminine sexuality might actually look like outside of the male gaze. So yes, this type of sexuality is a concession to a male gaze: it was created by and controlled by men and is in lock-step with that fantasy/gaze and not reality] Which, it seems to me, still appropriates sex as something controlled by men." [Well yeah, that's because it is; again: this construction of sexuality LITERALLY WAS CONCEIVED OF AND DEVELOPED BY MEN FOR MEN and this is overwhelmingly the case in video games and other media in pop culture.]
"...I posit that Bayonetta is an unsurpassed experiment in radical empathy, the ultimate act of putting yourself in another’s shoes—absorbing their feelings, experiences and desires. You become another person, if only for understanding’s sake. It seems to be what most feminists really want from men: to think for a moment about the female experience as lived by women. [Wow, just wow. Seriously? A man can relate to "the female experience" just by playing a video game as a crazy-ass witch in a fictional world ruled by male sun-gods? FUCK YOU] Bayonetta achieves this kind of radical empathy in a way nobody could expect and I’ve never seen articulated. [Except it’s not "radical" or "empathy," so go figure. Also: the idea that any female character, whether a quintessential fighting fucktoy or not, can be a vicarious stand-in for the entire female experience is some fucking SEXIST SHIT.] Through colorful moments and flawless mechanics, it locates the player inside Bayonetta’s physical person and unlocks her weird, wonderful personality. [Yeah that’s what video games do—you play as someone and something else. Sometimes guys even play as women. Does it actually lead to empathy? UH, NO, NOT ALWAYS. In fact, some male gamers are actually pretty misogynistic! Even when they've played as women! Life is strangely complicated, and so is empathy, and even empathizing with women! *gasp*] There are no moral lessons here, just good fun—."
"It starts with the controls, as any action game must... The combo system requires no real memorization, because nearly any combination of Punches and Kicks (with intuitive pauses thrown in) results in some kind of face-wrecking craziness...This is the first hook Bayonetta gets in you, its first step towards putting yourself wholly in the protagonist’s thigh-high boots: it simply refuses to get in your way. [Uh, how do other games get in your way, exactly? With bad game mechanics? So if a game has good mechanics it suddenly makes the game player experience maximum empathy with their game character? WHAT] Like your own body playing some new sport, maybe you don’t understand the whole game and maybe you don’t look graceful. But you’re certainly not falling on your face. From the very first battle, Bayonetta strives to remove the barriers between player and protagonist." [The implication of this argument baffles me...at this point, couldn’t any other game developer with a fighting-fuck toy protagonist that happened to also have good gameplay mechanics claim this radical empathy argument? Under this framework, couldn't they just argue (like you are) that the good game mechanics magically remedied all the other sexist crap?]
"...Finally, there’s the game’s ultimate tweak: Witch Time. The Dodge button avoids damage, but a dodge pulled off at the perfect moment—just before the strike connects—throws the world into slow motion. Everything in the world, that is, except our heroine who reacts at full speed with boosted damage. “Not a chance!” she cries as a burst of gorgeous purple tints the screen. [BARF] It triggers a powerful Pavlovian response in the player. For a brief moment he experiences every bit of Bayonetta’s adrenaline-fueled glee. [Oh, HE. I can't believe I didn't notice it before, but you are definitely making an unexamined, sexist assumption that the default gamer is male. Beyond the fact that this sentence reveals that assumption, your entire freaking argument only examines what Bayonetta offers male gamers--after all, women don't need to empathize with themselves, amirite?] Y’all goin’ down! What follows is utter devastation, wrecking a whole squadron of angels before they can respond. Once each battle is won, the action momentarily freezes. The screen flashes fashion-shoot pictures of Bayonetta mid-killing-blow, allowing both character and player to revel in the moment. The male gaze suddenly becomes a shared perspective: let’s both appreciate how good I look! [How exactly is it shared? Last time I checked, there was just one gaze: the player watching her, and everything about the game encourages you to see her from the male gaze she was conceived from, and is entirely pandering to. This is just some extended fan service feature, come on, it's pretty obvious.] Witch Time is the last piece of the combat puzzle, the element that makes an open-ended system genuinely improvisational. Even at low health, a single well-timed dodge turns the tables on your foes. Bayonetta’s unshakeable confidence in herself and her abilities becomes your confidence in your own. [What? You’re playing as her, it’s your “confidence” and abilities that accomplish anything in the game...c’mon dude, what’s with ascribing agency to a video game character you’re controlling just to make a convoluted argument about feminism? Jesus. And honestly, do you ascribe agency like this to male characters you play as? Do you think about how "their confidence becomes your own?" Or are you just doing this in her case because she's a female character, and you're male? "Oh, how novel! She's so confident! Girl power!"] And then you fail, when the big hit draws rose petals from Bayonetta’s flesh in place of blood, you cringe with sympathetic pain. It was your fault; you missed the dodge. The controls are too good to blame, the avatar too closely linked to your will." [No, not everyone has “sympathetic pain” when they play a videogame; I’d imagine for most people it’s just like: “shit, I lost, that sucked” because THAT’S ALL THAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED BECAUSE SHE'S NOT REAL. If nothing else, please at least concede that you can't just project your own thoughts and attitudes onto EVERY SINGLE GAMER, particularly without one shred of research to back it up.]
"Once I was in her head, meshing my goals and emotions with hers through nothing more than brutal combat, I finally saw Bayonetta as more than the vehicle for “sexy fighting” she first appears to be. Her ritual trash-talking of enormous bosses tapped into my own competitive nature. [How does that negate her being a vehicle for sexy fighting? (Hint: it doesn't.) Also, newsflash: a fuck-ton of characters trash-talk in videogames, it’s not some revolutionary or deep character development tool] I never cared about costumes in games, but I’ve unlocked every outfit in this one—and I actually use them, putting genuine thought into my ensembles. [Woo sexy outfits! It’s not skeezy or objectifying because, radical empathy or some shit!] “I can’t help it if I like the little outfits,” Bayonetta explains in the prologue, and with a single self-assured line she blows up the eye-candy interpretation. She dresses for her own sake. [Hm, actually, NO SHE DOESN’T because she doesn’t actually exist or have agency, and she was CREATED by SOME DUDES to dress up FOR YOU [DUDES] I think the cheerleader outfit goes over the top. [Wow, that’s where you draw the line?] But the all-white nun’s habit? It’s the perfect accoutrement when you’re summoning a magma spider to devour a winged angel-robot on the high seas, or fighting a frantic kung-fu battle on the side of an airborne ICBM. Both those things happen, and Bayonetta tackles them with unwavering confidence and sass. As she explains to her own child-self from the past (that happens too), “You’re a strong little girl. There’s nothing you cannot overcome.” [Except pandering to skeezy d-bags, I guess!]
"...At every emotional moment, Bayonetta reacts in a way that’s true to herself yet totally accessible to the legions of dumb boys who were the game’s intended market." [Or is it maybe, that she IS that way because she was created for them? DUN DUN DUN Hint: YES, that’s exactly how it is. Somehow even you’ve seen it but don’t want to admit it because it destroys your argument.]
"...The game’s theme song? An earwormy cover of Fly Me to the Moon: a song popularized by Frank Sinatra but first performed and recorded by female singers (Felicia Sanders and Kaye Ballard respectively). To my thinking it’s a clear flag planted for feminism [WHAT? 1. How is that “clear” when most people don’t know it was first performed by female singers, and only know it as a Frank Sinatra song and 2. Even if people did know: having a theme song that women sing is NOT a fucking flag planted for feminism, jesus. Unless your definition of feminism is "women doing shit! yeah!"]—one much subtler than the sequence where Bayonetta sets off a gas explosion by shooting a peeing-cherub statue in the dick." [YUP, CUZ FEMINISM IS ACTUALLY ABOUT SHOOTING DICKS OFF, I FORGOT]
"...After only a few hours of re-immersion, I inhabited this wild woman’s skin...On the screen my girl was stylin’ in her collared velvet dress with the red flowing skirts." [“My girl?” I thought you were her, you inhabited her, shouldn't it be *I* was stylin’? Uh-oh, maybe you really did just see her as some eye-candy to play dress-up with, and not as yourself after all...]
I'M DONE. Damn, that felt good. Sorry for the snark; I don't usually write that way but this time it just felt right...