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Why All the Fuss About Sexy Bayonetta?

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Ever since late 2009, early 2010, Bayonetta has been a hot subject. The game received positive reviews in general, but while the game has incredible gameplay, the apparent sexual objectification of the character of Bayonetta was troubling for at least a few. Why is it so troubling, though? Are those criticisms justified? Well, like all things, the answer is actually complicated.

So if you’ve never played Bayonetta before, it’s a Japanese action game known for its fast-paced combat, incredible scenery, and tongue-in-cheek cinematics. When the main character, Bayonetta performs some of her moves that require cinematics, you find that her clothes are actually her hair modified with magic, and you get some snapshots of her almost naked, occasionally with the sounds of camera clicks.

There’s definitely something to be said for the sexual objectification of a female character. If you’re at all familiar with feminist theory, then you’ve heard of the “male gaze,” and this game certainly features a lot of it. The camera is placed in advantageous positions to display Bayonetta’s assets as tantalizing as possible without breaking that M rating.  So much of Bayonetta is about sexy Bayonetta doing sexy Bayonetta things for the benefit of the presumably male audience, and it can really start to feel gratuitous.

On the other hand, the fact that it’s so blatant and gratuitous may key us into some of the interesting themes in the game. Is the character of Bayonetta just a sexy Barbie Doll posing herself through missions, or is she an agent of her own, wielding her sexuality as a weapon? Could it be said in her own way, Bayonetta is turning the objectification and the expectations of the presumably male audience on its head? Perhaps that finely-honed attack-sexuality is really the point behind her pistol-high-heels (seriously, they are cool as hell). Perhaps they’re making a point about female empowerment through sexuality? By being so gratuitous and blatant in the use of male gaze, have Bayonetta and the developers at Platinum Games created an amazing parody that uses a culture’s own tools of sexual objectification against itself?

Of course, there is a lot more to consider in this argument. For example, consider the fact that Bayonetta isn’t a real person, or played by a real actress. She has no actual agency because she isn’t actually real. While live-action media like film or TV has actresses that can, and often do, bring their own views and decisions to the final product, Bayonetta is merely a doll placed into those positions by developers  for our benefit.

That being the case, however, we still must ask the question of what it all means? Just because it was (probably) a majority-male developers’ decision to create Bayonetta and to pose the character as she was, that doesn’t in any way mean the game is less art. It’s still worth asking ourselves if there was any point to the over-the-top action and sexuality on display in the game. We can simply dismiss it as yet another addition to the long list of media that utilizes seemingly pointless displays of sexuality to tantalize the audience, but that is not only disrespectful to the developers, but it’s disrespectful to the medium.

Keep in mind, however, that just because a certain game was intended as social criticism, or may be viewed as criticism, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was successful. Intent doesn’t always mean the action was well-done, or even responsibly done.  Art is in service to the audience, and art only actually finds its meaning when viewed and considered by the audience. Just showing or ‘reproducing’ over-the-top sexual objectification isn’t on its own proper social commentary. There has to be a meta-commentary around it; some form of way the audience can be clued in on what is actually going on in the minds of the character, the creator, and even their own mind. Social commentary is created when that commentary is provided in the same context as the act or thought that is being commented on.

To add onto the complexity of the topic at hand, you have to consider the subjectivity behind it all. While one viewer may look at it and completely understand the commentary, another may say the commentary or the attempt at commentary falls short and ends up being insulting. Neither may be wrong. So much of our views and perceptions on the world and art are dependent on individual, personal experiences.  To say one person’s experiences or views on a subjective matter are objectively wrong is to invalidate them and their life. If there is an argument that can reasonably be made with rational arguments, then others may still feel free to agree or disagree with them.

In the end, what’s wrong or right with Bayonetta‘s sexuality is purely subjective. Some may find nothing wrong with it, others may find it to be wonderful social commentary on sexuality, female empowerment, and the state of female figures in games. Still, others may find no such commentary, and instead view it as simple pandering and sexual objectification like has been seen before. That’s okay. Saying “but it’s social commentary” doesn’t absolve it of its sins, but it having problematic portrayals and issues doesn’t mean it can’t make an interesting or artistic point.

It’s important to consider all of these views, and to try to understand each side before you come to your own conclusions. Do some reading on critical theories, play the games, and decide for yourself if you think the artist had any merit or statement to make Bayonetta is without a doubt a fun game to play mechanically, but visually or thematically it may not jive with everyone. That’s okay. I can understand that Citizen Kane is a masterpiece movie for its time, but I can still not like watching it (seriously a SLED!?!). I’m not wrong for not liking it or not watching it, and others aren’t wrong for liking or not liking Bayonetta.

About Stephen Crane

Stephen was hooked by the NES at a very young age and never looked back. He games on a daily basis and is currently trying to climb his way up the ranked ladder on League of Legends! Outside of the video game world he actually likes running and owns a rapidly growing collection of toed shoes. Stephen Crane is the owner of Armed Gamer.

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