Little bit of background; I didn’t get much chance to play the first game at the time of its release, just a handful of hours with a friends XBox 360. And my first impressions were rather… poor, to put it mildly. It really struck me in that limited exposure to be your typical male sex fantasy romp, the main character spending extended periods half-naked (or barely covered by flowing hair) didn’t help matters.
So, imagine my surprise to be talking about the game’s sequel with friends and hearing the claim that Bayonetta is actually a very positive feminist character. With the circumstance of owning a Wii U and the inclusion of both games in one package, I decided to give it a second chance, and play through both games in their entirety.
Are the Bayonetta games actually very strong feminist models below the surface? The conclusion I’ve reached is, yes… ish.
Now, bear in mind, no two models of feminism are the same, so there is a lot of “Your Mileage May Vary” when it comes to assessing any given work. On top of that, within the Bayonetta games, there are really two levels to analyze, which muddies the water even further.
Firstly, let’s talk about Bayonetta herself.
One big problem that I tend to have with “strong” female characters is that writers tend to mistake “strong” with “masculine”; creating a character that is basically a man with larger breasts. And while its true that there are certainly women that fit that personality type, it tends to be the default way that writers tend to go when they want to create a female character that is more than window-dressing. “Femshep” of the Mass Effect series suffers from this issue. While it’s certainly true that she’s a soldier by trade and that profession tends to lead to a certain mentality, when you play both the male and female versions of the character the illusion really gets torn apart and you discover that “Femshep” is literally “Broshep” with a female rig and textures.
(And yes I used the word “literally” as it is defined, not ironically or in bad grammar.)
Bayonetta, on the other hand, embraces her femininity. She openly likes “girly” things, and makes no apologies for it. She gleefully parades in lavish dresses, accessories, and happily shops for “heels.” She openly admits cockroaches are terrifying. But her feminine traits are not a weakness. They’re a personal choice. She takes all the feminine stereotypes, owns it, and turns it on its head. If you have a problem with it, she will kick your ass and make you call her “Mummy.” No one in the setting disrespects her womanhood and gets away unscathed. She flirts openly and intimidates with her openness towards her own sexuality. She commands respect and gets it, while being completely and unabashedly “girly.”
There is a lot of girl power in the character, and it is definitely something good to see. That the feminine does not have to equal weak is a message that needs to be delivered more often, and a lesson that a good many writers could do to learn.
But now we get to the surface, the image that is thrust into the public eye, where everyone’s first impressions lie… and that’s where it gets dicey.
While it’s true that much of the time that she’s half naked, it’s usually in the middle of combat, and the player’s eyes (even the horny male) is focused on much more visually demanding things, and while even many of the cutscenes where she’s effectively nude with just curtains of swirling hair are usually very short and largely tame, there are more than one instance where she is laying on her back with her legs spread open and nothing but a thin wisp of her hair covering her erogenous zones while she winks playfully that are absolutely for no reason but to titillate the stereotypical horny male gamer. And while it is true that there are elements of feminism that say embracing sexuality in such a fashion can be empowering, it’s a very flimsy rationale for those few pretty blatantly over-the-top scenes. Perhaps it’s one of those “Your Mileage May Vary” moments, but if so, it doesn’t get very good miles to the gallon for me in this particular case.
The game itself is amazing (especially Bayonetta 2, which is my favorite of the year so far), and Bayonetta herself is certainly a huge step forward from the usual portrayal of strong female characters in video games (and even in most media for that matter). If you can look past those astonishingly small number of instances of blatant pandering, there is certainly a lot of merit to the argument that the titular character is indeed a very powerful and inspiring female character model.
But if you can’t look past them, I can’t say I terribly fault you. It is kinda unfortunate that such a very good character is packaged in with some (admittedly few) depressing moments of pathetically shallow eye-candy.