This was written at like 3am so it’s probably not very coherent.
I love this video game. Started playing it again recently and went online to do some research (I’m finding my second playthrough at a higher difficulty tougher so wanted to watch some tips videos on combo related stuff). Now I remember the controversy about the Tokyo subway advertising campaign for the game, which was pretty much tantamount to affirming street harassment as acceptable. If you didn’t see it, a PR company marketing the game put up a picture of Bayonetta covered in little stickers, inviting Tokyo subway users to take the stickers off as a souvenir, eventually revealing Bayonetta to be practically naked. Pretty grim at the best of times, but particularly offensive when you consider the particularly high frequency of harassment and groping of female Tokyo metro passengers. Insensitive doesn’t really cover it.
But beyond that, videos were coming up regarding debate of the game itself - and man is it depressing. So much of it fell into two distinct categories. Firstly, you had creepy male gamers spouting the kinda reactionary, sexist crap that you’ll be aware of if you have spent more than a few minutes on a popular online game server. Any critique was responded to with a bloated, extended form of the “HERP DERP GB2 KITCHEN” style attitude that keeps the negative image of videogaming as a boys-only club populated by basement dwellers in the cross-hairs of the mainstream (and despite lots of positives to counter that, that reputation is still fairly well deserved in many spheres of gaming, particularly the online FPS and competitive fighting scenes).
The counters to that though were, from the “popular” videos I watched criticising Bayonetta at least (in terms of the portrayal of the female protagonist, not the gameplay etc.), depressing too. There’s so much worthy of discussion in Bayonetta - if you play through it, there is a lot to discuss there and it’s not particularly clear cut. There was no nuance - it reminded me of the response of some Christians to the release of the Life of Brian. Just like those letters almost inevitably included the caveat of “whilst I have not seen the film…”, most critique was delivered from the perspective of clearly having not played the game or looked at it in much detail. Focusing on the fan art is a bit of red herring when you consider that sad fuckers will use photoshop to do *that* to practically any female protagonist on any media platform. It’s horrible. But that’s a critique of male internet culture - that’s not a discussion of Bayonetta - the video game.
But because it was a video game, it’s not treated with any nuance - because most of the critique relies on the assumption that video games are a worthless creative medium. Video games that collide with sexualisation are immediately written off as titillation without detailed discussion of the content, unlike films. Don’t get me wrong - video games are a relatively immature medium (in both senses of the word - it’s in its relative infancy compared to most popular creative media like film or literature and you don’t need me to give examples of how most *popular* video game offerings fall into trite stereotypes and crass machismo).
For me personally, its position as a video game meant that outlets that would normally talk about sexualisation and gender in the mediums of film and literature with detail, references and an open-mind, fell into the trap of borderline puritanism. There’s no discussion of why or what was meant by having a strong, fiercely independent and sexualised female protagonist - rather the medium was noted and there seemed no point in discussing it. The argument was that the woman was sexualised in a video game and thus negative. There are academic articles written on A Clockwork Orange or Pretty Woman with nuance and care - even when being angrily and justifiably critical. When it comes to video games, unfortunately, really worthwhile and important points get drowned under a seething patronisation of the medium, which takes us more into the territory of “ban this filth” rather than Radio 4’s “Front Row” (that’s not the cultural high watermark obviously, but you catch my drift).
Despite how it might sound, I really don’t think the burden falls on those criticising games like Bayonetta in such a ham-fisted way. Like football and other forms of male-dominated mass culture, video games tend to get the reaction they deserve because of their offerings to mainstream society. For every Ico there are 100 Call of Duty clones. For every female character like the principled, relatable and human Jade from Beyond Good and Evil, there are 100 others who are hastily written in as fawning and faceless with no role beyond bolstering a male protagonist’s status as king dick of dick mountain or as opportunities for violence. Video games are often ridiculed as they frequently offer up the ridiculous. Or the predictable. Or the crass. It’s the industry and gamers’ responsibility to rectify this - from the content that is offered up by developers to making online gaming a space where female gamers can compete and cooperate as equals without fear of (frequently sexually violent worded) abuse. There are some brilliant initiatives from all sides on making this happen, but video gaming as a medium is far, far away from addressing these kind of problems.
I would argue though that it is beginning to - not necessarily at the AAA game level, but more than ever we are seeing games that are wonderful, expansive and involving - which frequently shatter the familiar bi-moral compass of “good versus evil” in exchange for glorious shades of grey. The medium debatably is not at the stage where it can necessarily deserve opinion from people that does not reek of scepticism and cultural superiority. Maybe it hasn’t had the “Citizen Kane moment” that film has. But it’s a medium so widely consumed, variable and deep that it deserves some more genuine critique than it’s getting - if only because mobile and social gaming mean that it is frankly too big for even the biggest cultural snobs to now ignore. We don’t judge film as a medium because of Michael fucking McConaughy - so perhaps people shouldn’t critique video games with the existence of the “hot coffee mod” at the front of their minds?
Anyway I’m tired, I probably should have thought this out better before just vomitting it out off the top of my head. My point when it comes to Bayonetta is not me defending it on the basis of the brilliant gameplay making criticisms of the portrayal of women irrelevant or any dumb shit like that. There’s a lot wrong with it, there’s a lot right with it - I havn’t made up my mind on huge swathes of it but I think it’s interesting to try and work it out.
It’s a wonderful game on a playing level - but I have not really made up my mind about the political implications of it. When I’ve talked to male and female gamer friends about it, overall opinion tends to come down on the game actively taking the piss out of male expectations of female gaming protagonists. She’s a fiercely independent single mother destroying legions of angels to protect her daughter, with whom she has a ridiculously complicated relationship. It’s that relationship that shows cracks in her defensive, confident exterior - revealing her struggles with coming to terms with becoming a parent and her estrangement from her “old” family. Any attempts at flirting or voyeurism by male characters are treated with absurdity and an air of the pathetic - Bayonetta always making a mockery of the sad men in her life, presenting them as drooling nerds while she gets on with the hard work.
In the most popular youtube video criticising the game, it is dismissed as pathetic teenage male fantasy on the basis that she enjoys eating lollipops and wears high heels. The fact that the game mainly involves her using those high heels to fling bullets into the face of a giant mechanised version of the angel Gabriel who has denied her access to her daughter sounds batshit - but I think something batshit is worthy of discussion. The lollipops, as mentioned before, behave like a substitute to a cigarette in ‘classic’ movies - as an accessory to looking cool and in control. You can’t ignore the sexualised subtext and the game doesn’t side-step it - but rather uses it (to my mind) as a damning critique of the traditional male gamer. Reflected in the characters of her male accomplices, they watch on gooey eyed before Bayonetta toys with them and puts them down in the most funny and immasculating ways possible - which is particularly interesting when you consider the aesthetic context of many of the combo moves, which have a definite air of BDSM, torture and the role of the dominatrix about them. It seems to be intended with the subtext of calling out the pathetic sexual longings of male gamers rather than pandering to them. If fans of the game miss that and run with it, then that’s their problem - not the game’s. But fundamentally, in critique of any other medium’s output, where outside of a nutty religious ‘media watch’ site would you get criticism from apparent ‘progressives’ on the mere fact that Bayonetta is essentially sexually provocative? In criticising a game, that’s seen as enough - but there’s no discussion that I can see of her agency upon her sexuality, what casting her like that means or implies or is trying to say. That’s because to these people video games have nothing to say. And that’s horse shit.
My point is that criticism was frequently of the fact that Bayonetta was portrayed as “sexy” and violent - and just that in itself. You wouldn’t get away with that with other medium, and rightly so.
It’s just a shame that the marketing of the game (separate from the designers of the game, bare in mind) was so pathetic and sexist. Part of me wishes, like the game itself, that it was designed specifically into baiting sexist male gamers, raising their expectations then writing them off as pathetic as they spend the next 20 hours in control of a fearless, complex and interesting female protagonist. But maybe I’m being naive.
There’s a million things worthy of discussion in the game - and this isn’t even mentioning the “photo finishes” or dwelling on the BDSM aspect which is a massive subtext to the combat and so on. I wouldn’t know where to begin really - but that’s the point - and it should be written about as such rather than just sneering at it on the basis of some promo trailer videos and the fact it’s playable on the playstation rather than streamable on Netflix. It sounds a trite thing to say but the implications of Bayonetta are…complicated. But for people to at least recognise that it is complicated would be a great start (sorry, I’m still not talking about the gameplay).
As for the whole hair finishing move thing? Well I havn’t a fucking clue how I feel about that.