Dudes, we need to talk. It’s about Bayonetta. Now just to be clear, this is not going to be a review of Bayonetta 2. This is a discussion of the Bayonetta character and the way game commentators have addressed—or casually dismissed—her blatantly over-sexualized design.
With the recent release of Bayonetta 2 on Nintendo’s Wii U, reviews for Bayonatta 2 have been extremely positive over all, with the fast-paced gameplay being universally revered for being immensely satisfying. Few reviewers have dared to broach issue of the titular game protagonist’s design—a hyper-sexualized, dominatrix-like, warrior witch—while many have vehemently defended the sexy heroine’s design as innocuous and inoffensive. When Polygon gave the game an overall positive review and score of 7.5, it pointed out the gratuitous over-sexualization of Bayonetta, saying it’s “sexist, gross pandering, and it’s totally unnecessary”. A few angry GamerGaters saw this review as “biased and unfair” and in response, organized a campaign to try and punish Polygon for giving the game a “low score”. It would appear that discussion of the subject has not been widely encouraged.
The thing is, we dudes often respond to any utterance of feminist critique with kneejerk hostility (especially on the internet) and then attempt to derail the whole conversation. There seems to be the implication that if any problematic elements exist in a game, movie, or some other work, the whole product will be labeled “sexist”, and then it must be thrown out as unfit for consumption. To avoid having a good game negatively labeled, some dudes will jump to the defense of all aspects of the product, problematic or not. Other dudes will simply play dumb.
With the limelight on Bayonetta, the game journalism community has had a great opportunity to discuss objectification in videogames, a model example of a female character defined by her sexuality. And at least two game reviewers have actually addressed the issue. But the rest of the coverage I’ve seen related to Bayonetta 2 has been rather disappointing, with major gaming websites mostly choosing to ignore the sexist elephant in the room. Perhaps these guys fear reprisal by angry GamerGaters, or perhaps they are really as tone-deaf as they claim to be. Whether it’s a matter of cowardice or incompetence, they're missing a golden opportunity to engage in a really interesting discussion.
For those unfamiliar with the game, the player controls the titular Bayonetta, a witch who uses combinations of firearms and magic to obliterate her foes—usually angelic or demonic in nature—in an over-the-top, hack-and-slash style action game. By all accounts, it’s a great action game and it has a strong female protagonist, so this is something we can all get behind, right? Well…
While Bayonetta certainly kicks a whole lot of ass, she flashes plenty of it too. Just as the game’s action is over-the-top, so are the ridiculously sexualized actions of the protagonist. Bayonetta battles with a style not unlike a magical dominatrix, flaunting her exaggerated sexuality—and her nearly naked body—pretty much constantly. You see, Bayonetta’s skintight black costume is supposed to be made out of her hair, which is somehow essential to her witch powers. Her magic hair can also be used as a weapon during special attacks, and this means that her most powerful moves will require the use of more hair—hence it is momentarily stripped off of her body. This means Bayonetta gets varying levels of naked to deliver her most powerful blows.
These over-sexualized elements, while probably intended as tongue-in-cheek farce, are still a quintessential example of female objectification in videogames. This is where we could have a nuanced discussion of what the game does well and what it doesn’t. But instead of acknowledging that Bayonetta’s design could be one detrimental aspect of an otherwise good product, many game commentators have simply washed their hands of the issue. They either claim that there is no way to accurately identify sexism (how convenient!), or they point out that they are guys—and being guys—they do not have a valid opinion. This copout, of course, begs the question; if you are incapable identifying female objectification, have you ever considered asking a woman for her opinion? (Do you even have any women on staff?)
When major gaming sites have attempted to broach the subject post-review, they tend to completely miss the point. “Is Bayonetta too sexy?” they ask, as if the game’s critics are puritanical, erotophobic nuns. Dudes, this is the wrong question. Having sexual themes in videogames is not a problem—or at least it shouldn’t be. (It certainly would be nice if developers could give us something beyond lowbrow salaciousness and worn out stereotypes.)
The problem with Bayonetta is that she is yet another female character being exploited as a sexual object, this time to an absurd degree. From the way the game uses her body stripped down to various levels of undress as a reward for skillful play, to cinematic direction that can’t decide whether it’s telling an action story or a porno, it’s the exploitation that’s the problem. Bayonetta’s “level of sexiness” is not where people are taking offense.
Platinum Games appears to have made this game for a narrow target audience, and that’s where opinions get divisive. If you consider yourself to be an old school, hardcore gamer—and you’re also a straight male—you might not see any problem with Bayonetta. The game’s story and action are so insane and over-the-top that you probably see Bayonetta’s hyper-sexualized antics as a gag, just part of the joke. If you’re outside of this target audience, you might not find the in-your-face moments—intended facetiously or not—as quite so funny. But even if you don’t personally find anything in the game to be offensive, you at least recognize where this criticism is coming from, right?
If not, consider this: Would you feel comfortable playing Bayonetta 2 with your wife/girlfriend in the room watching? Would you feel at ease with a close female presence observing the game, or might it be a little awkward?
If it would be uncomfortable to play Bayonetta 2 in front of your significant other, ask yourself what makes this game different from a Ninja Gaiden, God of War, or Devil May Cry title? Is it the winking T&A, all the superfluous crotch shots displayed on screen? Beyond the nudity, is it the extreme innuendo that’s embarrassing? Personally, I think it goes further than that.
Speaking for myself, what makes the game uncomfortable is the fact that a female character has yet again been reduced to a cartoonish sexual object with the tacit assumption that we dudes will enjoy the show. It’s the assumption that I find more than a little insulting because it says a lot about how the developers view their target audience. They don’t appear to hold us in very high esteem.
Bayonetta is strong, dominating hero, essentially like a female version of Dante from Devil May Cry, so why did she need to be a sexual fantasy? I don’t recall one of Dante’s game mechanics calling back to his sexuality, let alone all of them. Every aspect of Bayonetta has been carefully crafted and the pandering to a perceived straight male audience is not a coincidence. And it’s a bummer that Bayonetta 2 went for such boorish, farcical over-sexualization, because it didn’t need to. By all accounts, the game is fun enough to stand on its own, no sexual spectacle required.
That's what makes this such a good opportunity to explore the problems with Bayonetta. If this was a matter of extreme objectification in a terrible game, no one would care. We would toss it aside as awful design within an awful game. But Bayonetta 2 is a good game—fantastic even. When a product's greatest flaw is a social issue, it should receive more earnest examination.
Dudes, I get that Bayonetta’s hyper-sexualization might not bother you personally. Maybe the more crass elements of the game are perfectly enjoyable for you. If that’s your opinion, that’s fine. But I hope you can take a moment to look at Bayonetta’s design from another perspective and honestly consider how others might be offended by tired stereotypes being amplified many times over. With a diverse gaming population these days, we could at least make an attempt to understand how those outside our of that narrow target audience might be disappointed by the way Platinum Games have exploited their heroine.
And it sure would be nice to see more gaming websites examine a topic like this in earnest, rather than throwing their hands up and claiming straight male ignorance. With such a controversial matter undermining otherwise universal praise, we could have had a genuinely productive conversation.