Landry’s Rants: Sexcapism

11 Feb, 2010

I’m a comic geek much more than I ever will be a gamer. That should be abundantly clear to anyone who has ever read anything I have ever written anywhere. Subsequently, I tend to look at the gaming industry through comics colored glasses. Or more to the point, I happily conflate potentially unrelated issues that crop up in the world of comics that quite possibly no one ever cares about in relation to video games. Previously I have examined how games might evoke a more emotional reaction from the player through subtlety. I also considered the connection between gamers and the literacy impaired. Today, it’s all about escapist fantasy.

So… recently I was exposed to Bayonetta. I mean that mostly literally. The female protagonist of this pixilated flesh parade seems to exist for one primary reason. Sex. Now, I’m not saying sex is bad. By my experience, sex is pretty awesome. It ranks very highly on my top ten of most awesome things ever. Fortunately this article is not about sex. Because if it were, I might go on at length. To the point where anyone who continued reading might grow (more) uncomfortable.

Back to Bayonetta. Bayonetta on the surface seems to exist entirely as a sexual object. Something for sad and lonely people to look at and make complicated erotic Photoshop images of. And as much as I enjoy my secret hobby of making erotic Photoshop images, the over-sexualization of fictional characters for no reason beyond the obvious pornographic-like appeal is something worth questioning.

Anyone with any experience in the comics industry knows full well of the epic, war-like debates over the proper presentation of the female form. Witchblade. Lady Death. Fathom. That’s a few of the most extreme examples (though they are hardly the exception). Characters like the aforementioned have incited many comic fans of both genders to near blistering levels of rage, or… something that is decidedly not rage. Anyway, the arguments are about what you would expect. One side feels that women are being used as objects rather than as individuals. The other side feels that these characters should be sexy, and that being sexy doesn’t detract from the other, arguably more worthy aspects of said characters. A common rebuttal to this is that outside sexiness, the characters are often a cipher. That the female characters exist as a pair of walking T & A and not much else. So there goes the “worthy aspects” argument.

As I said, the arguments are fairly epic. And if you really want to pursue them they should be easy to find through a simple Google search. In fact, here’s a notable one.

Getting slowly back to the point: In video games we have watched an interesting evolution in the female form. From Ms. Pac-Man’s single curved form to Princess Peach’s ankle length skirt. I presume most everyone reading this will realize what a revelation Lara Croft was to young gamers. And frankly, if you have to ask why she resonated so strongly…

I’ve heard it argued that hyper-sexual female characters exist as a form of escapism and fantasy. Not just for men to lust after, but for women to “become”. I think that the choice many people make in avatars for customizable games speaks in favor of this argument. While one side may feel that super sexed characters are demoralizing, I rarely see anyone choose the sad dumpy characters (or the average, natural proportioned characters) when they can instead present a strong and exceptionally “beautiful” face to the world. Now, in a previous article I pointed out that I hold no degree in sociology. This hasn’t changed in the last month. Additionally, I hold no degree in psychology. However, it does not seem to be an outlandish suggestion that people enjoy escapism. And that when they choose to escape, they might just want to escape into a form that is strong and beautiful and even hyper-sexual.

This brings me to Bayonetta. A game I have not played and have very little room to comment on. It might be the best thing in the world. It might be garbage. It’s certainly highly sexual. But while the sexual aspects are almost impossible to ignore, what initially drew my attention wasn’t the clothes that were actually hair or the kiss based targeting system or any of the other blatant physical lures. No. What grabbed my attention was one thing. The glasses. It was the same thing that I noticed the first time I saw bespectacled MIT physics grad Gordon Freeman from Half-Life. And the two characters invoked the same reaction from me. Escapist-empowered nerd fantasy.

And there is nothing wrong with that.

About the author

Landry Walker

I’ve been working on comic books, toys and various art and writing projects for more than fifteen years, typically collaborating with artist Eric Jones. My creator-owned comics work include Filthy Habits, Skank Dick Skank, X-Ray Comics, Little Gloomy and Kid Gravity. Additionally, I have been hired to work on properties such as Kim Possible, Tony Hawk, Dave the Barbarian, Duck Tales, Scooby Doo and Tron. I'm best known for writing an all-ages reinterpretation of the classic DC Comics character Supergirl entitled Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade, and am currently writing comic book versions of Batman: The Brave and the Bold and The Incredibles. Also: Gamertag = Kid Gravity

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14 Comments

  1. Seluhir
    February 11, 2010

    I’m really not sure where you’re going with this rant lol…

    On the subject of Bayonetta though… she is the way she is to be sexy, no question about that… but she’s a character who revels in it – ie. she creates her own sexuality, she’s not one of those sexy characters who would be demeaning to women… she has a deep personality, she’s very empowered, in fact her character is almost a feminist. Its an awesome mix of sexcapades and feminism that really makes her so appealing.

    And the accent… mm mm.

    and clothing made out of sentient hair is pretty cool too……… talk bout easy access.

    • Landry Walker
      February 11, 2010

      The basic point is that something that may appear as an act of sexual exploitation for the sake of titillation alone may serve a powerful role of liberating escapism for some.

      The problem with pointing to a wholly fictional character initially created by a guy as someone that “creates her own sexuality”, is that the character is fictional. She is a cipher, defined solely by what people put into her. She might be a male fantasy tool (to which I think we already have plenty), or she might be a great example of liberated sexuality. Depends upon what the player is seeking. Gamer intent dictates who and what this character is. If you’re into her because of “easy access”, well… I think that equates more to male power fantasy than to escapist role-play.

      • Seluhir
        February 11, 2010

        Well the last comment was mostly joking…

        I think the attitude and story are probably the most interesting and intriguing parts to be honest. The character has a very unique personality.

  2. Mats Paasche
    February 11, 2010

    The attractive female form will always be sexualized by the opposite sex, it is human nature…without it reproduction wouldn’t be nearly as pleasant. The same thing can be said about the attractive male form to females. What sets games like Tomb Raider or Bayonetta apart is the developers pushing this factor into overdrive with revealing clothing, poses and overly perfect features, for no apparent reason other than to “get you off.”

    And I actually don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with that, I think it can diminish the quality of the game due to practicality arguments distorting the sense of realism. But in and off itself I have no problem with people playing games to “get off”, same thing goes for Porn and all other forms of legal adult stimulation.

    Yep, it’s objectifying women, it is. And while the creators certainly have to take on some responsibility of that, the real “culprits” are the people (men) allowing themselves to basically become bigots. Don’t blame the gun people, blame the shooter.

    I prefer female characters like Alex from Half Life or Faith from Mirrors Edge because to me it seems more real, therefore it reinforces my escapism. This doesn’t mean that Lara Croft or Bayonetta are somehow worse or less moral if they provide the same thing for someone else; for the opposite reason.

    • Seluhir
      February 11, 2010

      I’ve known women who act with the same sort of flair as Bayonetta does… obviously the added cockiness from the magic takes it to an extreme… but I wouldn’t call her attitude entirely unrealistic. There are women who have that attitude, they’re hardly common… but they’re not unrealistic… the only part that makes her at all unrealistic is the magica nd stuff. But it wouldn’t be a fantasy game without that.

    • Landry Walker
      February 11, 2010

      I agree on all counts. It is objectification but objectification itself does not automatically make something “wrong”. My main contention is that the discussion over what is or is not acceptable from an objectification viewpoint often obscures other aspects. People using these depictions not for gratification, but for escapism. As you say, don’t blame the gun people. Blame the shooter. A scantily clad female character can be pornographic, or she can be empowering. Largely dependent on the individual behind the “wheel” and what they bring to the table.

      • Seluhir
        February 11, 2010

        I kind of disagree with his take on Bayonetta. I don’t really consider her personality or attitude to be unrealistic. I’ve known people with attitudes that, if only they had magic powers, would be identical. Women who have that sort of sexual openness. Obviously the magic powers really pushes Bayonetta’s cockiness over the top… but the personality archetype definitely exists.

    • Seluhir
      February 13, 2010

      I don’t really see Bayonetta from a personality standpoint as being THAT outrageous. I’ve known women who have the same personality archetype – I mean, the whole magic/guns/etc. do push the cockiness aspect a bit out of all proportion… but the personality is a real archetype. Its not unrealistic, its just exagerrated.

  3. Eliot Hagen
    Eliot Hagen
    February 11, 2010

    I love Bayonetta. So much so that I’ll be spending the money to get the action figure when Squenix releases it (yes–Squenix Play Arts releases Capcom-licensed figures)

    • Landry Walker
      February 11, 2010

      Looking at her design, my main concern with that would be whether or not the figure will stand well on it’s own. I hate when toys I buy have to lean on something to stay on a shelf.

  4. TenchuX
    February 11, 2010

    This is a great article!

    I can resonate with, “I think that the choice many people make in avatars for customizable games speaks in favor of this argument.”

    I know when I make a custom female character for a game I make it look in a manner that’s attractive to me. Which is a fit but thin, blue eyed, Scandinavian looking chick. My alternate Shepard for Mass Effect in the picture thread is evidence of that.

    That said… while I like a pretty face I think having a variation of “dull” characters from both genders (in the universe around me) is important for me to be immersed in a believable world – this echos on what Mats said about Alex etc. I’m a big believer in realism. Probably one of those crops that would have died in an early Matrix program.

    Game wise, if it comes down to me making a female character who’s important to the story I’m going to make her attractive. I want players to gain a physical attachment to the character. Though I’m not sure about stacking DD’s on her with some ass implants etc. That’s for more of an outlandish type of game… which leads me into Bayonetta.

    The game isn’t really a believable universe. So for Bayonetta I think the over-sexed character fits in fine. The bosses I saw were in very good shape – muscle-toned etc. It wasn’t trying to really say “this is how women should look” to me at least. More or less it was… here’s a hot chick… you can see a lot of skin when she removes her hair suit, “woo”… now kick some ass with her. I can see how people can find it sexist… and it is to a degree. Still it doesn’t bother me given the type of game it is and its M rating.

    Bayonetta is also a completely new IP.

    It wasn’t like they were taking Catwoman (an already established character – albeit in many forms since the original inception) and implanting some giant breasts in her next to other identically proportioned superhero women who looked like they were posing for the cover of Maxim.

    In the grand scheme of things, sex sells. It’s just a fact. Lets not forget how much of a male dominated market comics and video games are. Especially for the types of games that include these brand of hyper-sexual women.

    This type of hyper-sexing of women (and men) exists throughout television and movies as well. It’s prevalent in practically all mediums of entertainment. Sex has just become a more common theme over the years.

    Hell, just look at Samus Aran with the Zero Suit.

    Funny fact too. The TOP MOD for Dragon Age: Origins is? Better sex cutscenes. It has nearly 120,000 downloads too (and this is just for the PC). The second top mod edits tons of characters in the game to make them more attractive. The third ranked mod allows you to have nude characters with varying sizes of bodily features. Granted I have no idea why you’d want to run around naked in that game over wearing kick ass armor. Talk about an overkill of sexcapism.

    I’d end on a note about preferences but you pretty much nailed how I feel here.

    “A scantily clad female character can be pornographic, or she can be empowering. Largely dependent on the individual behind the “wheel” and what they bring to the table.”

    I may have run on a bit of a tangent in some places… but yeah, these are my feelings about this. Very good subject to bring up!

  5. LiuBei
    February 13, 2010

    Very enlightening (including the comments). I have a friend who who would likely feel offended by these aspects of games/media in general. Looks like I have some ammo to make her think a little more openly about it if the conversation ever comes up (which is pretty likely).

  6. Lavode
    February 19, 2010

    Of course sexiness doesn’t detract from the character as a whole, but in many media, sexiness for female characters is like spam. They can be dark and evil and sexy, sweet and kind and sexy, cynically antiheroic and sexy… you get the idea. Male characters, on the other hand, often get to be just dark and evil or just sweet and kind, and their sexiness is in the eye of the beholder – they usually don’t provide a lot of fanservice. They may be attractive, but it’s seldom an important aspect of their character.

    Bikini-wearing female characters aren’t a problem per se, but when more or less *every* female character is designed to be titillating for the male audience… it gets old quickly. The “sexy female character as female wish fulfilment” is an interesting theory – it may be true for some women. Some others feel as though we’re a pair of boobs to look at – and sometimes even comment on – in our daily lives. Personally, I want games/books/movies etc to be a place where I can *escape* from that feeling of being a sex object.

    That’s one thing I like about Dragon Age:Origins. While it does have some fanservice, it also has Wynne (who probably wasn’t designed as fap material) as a major character, and a lot of minor female NPCs who do the same jobs as the men and don’t wear bikinis while doing them (like Ser Cauthrien).

    And yes, I registered just to respond to this post. Don’t think too badly of me.

    • February 19, 2010

      “it may be true for some women. Some others feel as though we’re a pair of boobs to look at ”

      Sure. I would certainly never suggest the motivation or desire is universal. Simply that when it IS the motivating factor, there isn’t anything wrong with it.

      Personally, I’ve endeavored to provide an alternative to the “women must be sexy at all costs’ in my comics work. Not that I think that there is anything wrong with presenting women as sexy, but that there must be a more well rounded, more diverse approach. In that we agree.

      Where we might disagree is in regards to the observation you make about male characters. In almost all instances of heroic fiction, regardless of the media, the male protagonist will be portrayed as tall and absurdly muscular. Skin tight clothing is common, and provocative displays of male sexuality are abundant. Men lifting things, flexing muscles, dominating their enemies…

      I will agree that when women are portrayed as hyper-sexual, it’s much more obvious. Mainly because men respond to sexual imagery in a less complicated manner than do women. But that doesn’t mean men aren’t given a similar treatment. With men the focus of sexualization is more on what they do rather than on how they look while they do it.