Scotty Plays Bayonetta - Sex, Gender and Gunpowder

This is an article I've been cautious to write given the subject matter and my heterosexual male standpoint. However, if this medium that I love so much is to mature we have to be able to discuss tricky topics like this. At the end of the day, what I write here is just one dude's opinion and holds only as much weight as you, the reader, gives it. That considered, let's talk about Bayonetta.

I do not own the rights to any of the imagery depicted in this post. Bayonetta is the property of SEGA and Platinum Games © 2010. Please support the official release.

This is a game I have experienced in two very different parts of my life. The two perspectives I viewed Bayonetta through emphasize the level of subjectivity involved with interpreting game content.

Bayonetta was released by PlatinumGames way back in 2010. I rented a copy over a weekend because my friend Teo had said it was like Devil May Cry. Back at the start of the decade, little Scotty would have been about sixteen and pumped full of teenage hormones and anxieties. With that in mind, the title character of the game is this lovely lass:

On top of the high-caliber heels, dramatic poses and skin-tight catsuit, Bayonetta has a highly flirtatious personality. Multiple maneuvers players can execute finish with Bayonetta striking some kind of pose. Most fights conclude with 'photo-finishes,' complete with lingering frames shutter sound-effects. Even Bayonetta's clothing is made by magically weaving her own hair which reveals more and more of her body as she uses it to cast powerful magical attacks. Sounds like one hell of a mix for an overly-sexualized female protagonist, right?

Sexualized, definitely. Objectified... well that's the point of this discussion. Everything I've mentioned so far sounds like all the components of Bayonetta's character were conjured up by a group of sweaty, deprived men in a dark office block with poor air conditioning. But Bayonetta is a much more complex character than she initially appears. Bayonetta's designer is a woman: Mari Shimazaki, but even this only contributes so much. Bayonetta's designer could identify with any gender and it wouldn't make a difference because the point I want to make is that Bayonetta's character can be interpreted in a multitude of ways, none of which should be considered more "correct" than another. Authorial intent only counts for so much in productions with so many people involved, especially in a society as interconnected as ours. If Bayonetta's director Hideki Kamiya wants to say sexist things about the game's protagonist, he can, and be viewed by the community as a misogynist accordingly. Likewise, if Shimazaki or Hellena Taylor (Bayonetta's voice actress) want to view her as a model of female empowerment, they can, and who are we to tell them otherwise?

Culture is the amalgamation of people's thoughts and actions and social trends. We simultaneously define and are defined by culture. Therefore to judge a cultural artefact from a single perspective is folly. In my research of Bayonetta I read a number of articles from a range of opinions. Some people loved the game and found it empowering, while others despised the game and found it offensive. Both sides had a variety of reasons for their stance most of which were pretty convincing. Having done my homework and played the game through, I find myself on the side of those who think Bayonetta to be a good game.

Just because I think Bayonetta is a good game, does not mean I can't see the aspects of it that are problematic. As well known feminist Anita Sarkeesian reminds us; it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it's more problematic and pernicious aspects. In this regard, I agree with Sarkeesian. I do not however, agree with her stance on Bayonetta. Sarkeesian has mentioned the franchise in a couple of videos now and it is evident she is does not approve. But to acknowledge one of my favourite posts I read on a forum discussing the game; 'we feminists are not a hivemind. It is entirely possible for two people to identify as feminists and not agree on everything.'

What many people opposing Bayonetta have acknowledged is how poorly the advertising of the game was handled. Multiple times I came across people too disgusted to even give Bayonetta a chance. When you look at the original release trailers and supporting advertisement material, can you blame them? It's looking at material like this that makes me question my enjoyment of the game.

But enough talking about talking about the game. What is the deal with Bayonetta?

Bayonetta is a 'spectacle fighter,' which readers of my first post in this series will know I am a fan of. I find the fast-paced, high-adrenaline combat of this mechanical genre both exciting and satisfying, as such games generally have a high skill cap and a lot of room for mastery. Bayonetta is no exception. I played through the whole game with my flatmate Mitch on normal difficulty and it kicked both our asses. Now that I've got the hang of it I'm itching to play it on hard but alas, these articles don't write themselves...

Anyway, Bayonetta quickly introduces its title character; the gun-totting, angel-slaying Umbra Witch who takes it upon herself to restore balance to a world where the forces of Good have gotten a little too comfortable hanging out on Earth.

Throughout cutscenes and gameplay, Bayonetta is portrayed in a very sexual manner. But what separates her from the Sonya Blades, Cammy Whites and Tifa Lockhearts is that she is depicted to be in control of her sexuality. At no point is she ever shamed or ridiculed for the way she dresses or behaves. The only male character that shows any form of sexual attraction towards her is Luka, who Bayonetta flirts with but never actually engages with romantically or sexually. It is worth noting that despite this flirtatious relationship, Luka never gets mad at Bayonetta for 'leading him on' or anything of the sort, nor is Bayonetta punished for such actions. She is completely free to express her sexuality to male characters without consequence.

Another factor that contributes to the interpretation of Bayonetta being in control of her sexuality is the overt display of BDSM imagery, where Bayonetta is always depicted as the dominant figure. The torture attacks she executes (bah-dum-tsh) on enemies represent medieval torture devices such as iron maidens and racks, yet the sexy way she operates them make it easy to draw comparisons to their sexual alternatives. This is most obvious in the torture attack used on the 'Joy' angels.

The reason I draw specific attention to the 'Joys' is that they are an example for showing that despite this potential for a positive representation of female sexuality (and a particular type at that), the game is not above fan-service. Even though I found Bayonetta to be a charming and fun experience, there are points within it that are clearly targeted at a heterosexual male audience (or the minority of trans and female audience members attracted to women which leads to some interesting questions on who exactly Bayonetta is attracted to) that made me roll my eyes. Bayonetta is melodramatic and campy but sometimes the creators try to get away with a bit much. It's these sorts of moments in the game that made younger Scotty look over his shoulder in case one of his parents was watching (and in all honesty made me uncomfortable to play the game further).

For the most part, I found Bayonetta to be completely over-the-top, which helped me be more forgiving of its sexualized protagonist. Everything in the game is maxed out on hyperbole. Even Bayonetta's femininity is completely exaggerated; from the pursed lips lock-on to the giant stomping stilettos. Bayonetta is goofy and playful and it's hard to take her (and the game) seriously all the time. Some truly ridiculous action sequences take place that had Mitch and I giggling and cheering at the screen like children because we (and the characters in-game) were enjoying the spectacle so much.

Beneath the flirting, the witty one-liners and the sass, Bayonetta displays deeper qualities audience members from anywhere on the gender spectrum can identify with. Bayonetta exhibits protectiveness, honor, dedication and individualism, all of which are integral to the progression of the story and her development as a character. Her relationships with Cereza and Jeanne are both genuine and complex, and develop externally from male input. The one time Bayonetta is made vulnerable, it isn't Luka, Rodin or that fat guy whose name I can't remember who save her. Instead, Jeanne is the only one capable of rescuing her friend (who then proceeds to kill a God, might I add).

So yeah, there is a lot going on in the game that needs to be considered. When talking to my partner about the sexual nature of Bayonetta she asked "is it all necessary?" To be honest, I don't really know. Bayonetta could stand as a character without her sexualization (Jeanne for example), but without it the game would lose a lot of its flair. The melodrama of the game helps pull it away from being just another generic case of sexploitation. Bayonetta's sexiness is a core part of who she is and if people find that to be sex-positive and empowering then they have every right to feel that way.

Additionally, part of me isn't so sure whether the game's industry is mature enough for a serious version of someone like Bayonetta. Game development is still too much of a boy's club and we need more women making the leading decisions if we're going to tackle controversial topics like this. Women should be free to express their sexuality through the wonderful medium of games without being written off as 'slutty' or men who engage with it being branded as 'misogynistic.' People are more complicated than that.

To reiterate, this is simply the opinion of a single person. You are under no obligation to agree or disagree with me (though I would love to hear what you think in the comments). It feels a bit like I've said a lot without really saying anything. I guess with a topic such as this its hard for me to pick a side because both parties have valid points. I just hope that by talking about these sort of things, we can help push games as a medium into exciting new territory where more and more people can share and relate to experience they have with their favourite games.

That's enough from me. If you are interested in reading some of the articles I included in my research, these are some of the better articulated ones: