Since the beginning of time, one question has plagued the minds of gamers. Many have reached varying conclusions upon this ponderance — conclusions which would soon clash. An ancient battle on the issue erupted between feminists and Real Gamerz™ — a battle which continues to rage on to this day. So now, in a time of darkness, we tackle the age-old question: is Bayonetta sexist? Yes. The answer is yes. Bayonetta is completely, absolutely sexist, and anybody who says otherwise is wrong. This is because though Bayonetta — the character — is certainly canonically powerful, she is in no way empowered. Every fiber of her being as a narrative device is dedicated to objectification — in other words, she has no meaningful agency.
Bayonetta, and its sequel, aptly titled Bayonetta 2, were two games released in 2010 and 2014 respectively. The games were designed by Hideki Kamiya and published by Nintendo and Sega. Both games follow a hypersexualized protagonist — who is also named Bayonetta. The franchise met a backlash upon its debut for what some femiNAZIs saw as ‘objectification’ — whatever that means. Real Gamerz™ saw that this was, of course, ridiculous. How could Bayonetta (the character) be objectified when she is so powerful? Just because a female character is sexy automatically means that the game is misogynistic now? Does that make me misogynistic for liking the game? No! Bayonetta can’t be sexist! I’m not a sexist! I’m a Good Person™!
Yes you are, champ. But you’re also very, very wrong. And that’s okay, because your mistake is an easy one to make. And it’s one that a lot of feminists have, in my opinion, also made. It is a mistake, though, and to understand where these Real Gamerz went wrong, we need to explore how fictional characters are framed in media.
Framing is a vital aspect of storytelling. It is also one which often goes overlooked. Which is a shame, because framing can fundamentally shift the meaning of a work, and consequently, the audience’s feelings on an issue. Think about it: when you watch a movie like Captain America, how do you walk away feeling about America? I wouldn’t know, because I haven’t watched the film — but I would imagine that you’d be feeling pretty patriotic. And how would you feel after watching Triumph of the Will? You would definitely be a Nazi by the end. I obviously haven’t watched that one either, because I don’t want to be a Nazi, which is 100% what I would turn into if I watched that movie.
Okay, obviously these are pretty stretched examples (I mean, patriotic after Captain America? Come on.) But propaganda exists for a reason: it works. As Dan Olson of Folding Ideas discusses in his video titled Triumph of the Will and the Cinematic Language of Propaganda, propaganda films use the same grammar as any other film. They frame subjects in a certain light, just as any other film would (00:08:22-00:08:28) — they just tend to crank the dial up to eleven, instead of the usual two or three. The framing in propaganda is amplified, and it’s a lot easier to identify than in most media. So, considering that messaging can often be subtle, how do we parse the ultimate meaning of a work? Well, we need to establish some dimensions of fiction which may be useful to consider.
First and most obviously is the canonical side of a text (‘text’ meaning any creative work.) This is essentially What Happens In The Story. It’s the in-universe explanation of events. Luke can blow up the Death Star because there is an exhaust pipe leading straight to the main reactor. I’m not a nerd. Shut up, Kyle. The next side of a work which we must consider is how it is framed. Luke blows up the Death Star because it is the climax of his hero’s journey, and he must finally save the galaxy from the antagonistic Empire. Essentially, the canonical side of a text refers to what exists on the metaphorical ‘page,’ while the framing is how we feel about what’s on the page — or more accurately, it’s how we’re supposed to feel. Like how I’m supposed to feel patriotic about Captain America defending freedom, being a Cool Guy, and, I assume, winning the world championships in Ultimate Frisbee against a gang of hippies — again, I haven’t seen the film. It’s based in the 60s, right?
The main problem with a lot of the arguments I’ve seen against Bayonetta being sexist is that they either grossly misinterpret how framing works, or ignore it altogether. When someone argues a plot excuse for how a character is presented, their argument tends to fall under the first category of ignorance of framing in general. For instance,
“Why is that lady wearing only her underwear?” Asked the gruff, cool man from Konami’s Metal Gear Solid 5.
“Oh, her? She breaths through her skin. She’d suffocate if she wore clothes.” Replied the nerdy, reliable expository scientist.
Or, for example, why is it that Bayonetta is left naked during some attacks? Well obviously, it’s because her hair is her weapon, but also her clothes, and it can’t be both at the same time — duh-doy! These are not only really bad answers, they’re also wholly invalid ones.
It is glaringly obvious that the real reason that Bayonetta is left naked, or that the Metal Gear lady (yes, I know her name is Quiet) is wearing lingerie, is that someone in the development process thought it would be hot, and maybe increase sales. There is no denying that this practice frames women as eye-candy, because it makes us, the audience, feel like we’re supposed to treat them like that’s what they are. It’s as if we’re watching the characters strip for us because the creators thought it was what we wanted to do. This is exactly the same thing as objectification, regardless of whether there’s a flimsy canonical excuse for it or not.
The other argument that tends to crop up around Bayonetta is that just because a character is presented as sexual doesn’t mean that they’re objectified. In fact, many have argued that, because Bayonetta is powerful, and seems to derive her power from her sexuality, she is actually a role-model for female empowerment. Such was the argument made two years ago by Austin_4e on GameFAQs’ Bayonetta isn’t sexist she’s sexualized thread.
- Austin then proceeded to underline his utter pwnage of feminists, Anita Sarkeesian, and a social media website with a series of four gifs of young asian women giggling.
Austin is correct is saying that having an attractive and sexual character is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, many feminists have argued that it can be a good thing. And some feminists have even argued that it is a good thing in the case of Bayonetta. But we have to remember how very important framing is in fiction, and we have to be careful to not mix up how something is framed with what happens. When the framing is considered in depth, these arguments tend to hold little water.
It is true that a character’s sexuality can be famed in an empowering way, but such is not the case for Bayonetta. In the game, Bayonetta’s sexuality is presented as “for” the player. For instance, some of her speciality attacks in the game are meant to mimic caricatures of BDSM — an acronym whose letters I definitely understand. Okay, Kyle? The ending credits of the sequel also rewards the player with Bayonetta performing a pole dance. That’s not to mention that the camera is constantly caressing Bayonetta’s body. To mimic Anita Sarkeesian, these elements all frame Bayonetta’s sexuality as existing not for her, but for you. ‘Oh my gawd! She is killing monsters while stripping for you! So empowering! #feminism!’ Yes, her sexuality is powerful; she’s powerful, but that really doesn’t matter at all when it’s only for the player.
This really gets at the essence of an empowered character. Bayonetta is fundamentally disempowered because she does not exist autonomously in the story. Would Bayonetta still do a bunch of random sexy stuff if there was not a camera — or a player — to watch her? Maybe. That would admittedly be pretty funny. But the way Bayonetta is presented in the games doesn’t imply that she’s acting of her own accord; rather, the framing of the games heavily implies the opposite. Everything about Bayonetta assumes the presence of a straight male audience, whereas most other stories at least try to give the impression that the protagonist is, y’know, a person.
Essentially, in Bayonetta, female sexualitiy is more powerful than anything else — and also exists solely for a straight male audience, making the men watching the women be (infinitely powerfully) sexual degrees of magnitude more powerful. Any ‘empowerment’ which Bayonetta is granted within the universe of the game dissolves if it only exists for men to watch.
And remember, art is NOT a nuanced field. There are NO other valid interpretations of the Bayonetta and its messaging, and if you disagree, well then you’re just a dumb idiot. Kyle.