Bayonetta 2 is full of sexuality, but does that make it sexist? Nick D. takes a look at satire and sexuality in gaming’s most over-the-top game.
Bayonetta 2 is a game that was released on the Wii U to almost universal acclaim. With a metacritic score that would make most games feel inadequate, Bayonetta 2 clearly left an impression among critics. There was an exception, however. Polygon gave the game a 7.5. This isn’t a bad score, but it wasn’t quite in line with the 9s and 10s the game had been receiving from other professional sites. In the bulk of their review, they praised the game for all of the things that other reviewers did – fun, great gameplay, addicting, etc. However, they carved out the caveat that the rampant sexualisation of Bayonetta hurt the game. Since the Polygon review, there has been some discussion among gamers (read: mostly yelling) about whether or not Bayonetta is sexist, or whether Polygon is full of social justice warriors (the usual stuff). Today, I’d like to look at the sexuality found in Bayonetta 2 (though this could apply to the original as well) and take you, loyal reader, through an examination of sexual exploitation versus satire.
Sexism and sexualisation, particularly of women, is a hot-button issue in gaming that’s only becoming hotter. The video game industry has always relied on various lazy tropes, many of which are inherently sexist. The extent and nature of this sexism is beyond the scope of this article, so I’m not going to go into detail. However, going forward, it’s important to realize that there are definitely segments of gaming that are not quite as gender-equal as they should be, and there is a growing number of people that are very much not okay with that. This is important to understand because it’s the current gaming climate that even made Polygon’s accusation possible. Had Bayonetta 2 been released even five years ago, there would have been significantly less attention paid to the sexual aspects. Once again, whether this is a good thing or not would require an entirely different piece.
One thing I cannot deny is that Platinum, the developers of Bayonetta, flaunt sexuality at every possible corner. During an early game cinematic, Bayonetta rides on a centaur-esque angel, and the camera zooms in on her rear as it bounces up and down. Whenever Bayonetta decides to finish a boss, all of her clothes stream off her body as they channel themselves into a summoned demon. This often leaves Bayonetta with only a few strands of hair (her clothes are made of her own hair) to cover the bits of her some people would deem objectionable. Then there are the costumes. The police outfit is cut off, showing most of her legs. The Princess Peach and Daisy costume is equipped with a constantly showing thong. Taunting results in a sexy swirl depending on the weapon, with Bayonetta throwing off a casual one liner such as “naughty!” And that’s ignoring the bulk of the sexual-innuendo laden dialogue and the way that Bayonetta moves and reacts to enemies in cutscenes.
I dumped that list on you just to show one thing that should be entirely incontrovertible: Bayonetta is a game dripping in female sexuality. The few male characters in the game are not in any way represented the same. Accordingly, at first blush, Bayonetta 2 does indeed seem to be promoting the oversexualization of women in video games, reducing Bayonetta to nothing more than an attractive object for the male gaze, who’s only cognizant enough to throw out a sexy quip here and there.
It’s amazing how often the first blush misses the point altogether.
Bayonetta 2 is not a sexist game. It simply isn’t. Why? Satire is the answer. Bayonetta isn’t a game of harsh sexual lessons. Instead, it’s a celebration of schlock and B movie tropes all tied together with a humorous protagonist that is larger than life in all regards. Bayontta’s sexuality of all over the place: that’s a fact. Taken out of context, that would be enough to condemn the game – but there is a context. This is the same game where you can strap chainsaws to your feet and use them to glide around the battlefield, the same game which opens with a demon dressed as Santa Clause tossing you a bag full of magic guns from his car that’s riding on the side of a building as you’re fighting on a jet flying through New York City. Bayonetta isn’t about sexuality – it’s about doing everything to excess and living in the wonderful world of ‘over-the-top’, and, in this world, sexuality is merely a single component, not the entire enchilada.
Let me illustrate through an example. In that scene described above where Bayonetta rides the centaur and the camera zooms in on her butt as it bounces up and down, what I didn’t mention was the cartoonish bouncing sound effects that accompanied it. Contrast this with Mass Effect 2, where the camera zooms in several times on Miranda Lawson’s rear for no reason but to tell you that it’s there, and Bioware thought your should know about it. The sexuality in Bayonetta 2 plays with the rest of the game’s over-the-top themes, while adding a level of humor and commentary most games shy away from.
Using the Mass Effect example again, ask yourself this: why did the camera zoom in on Miranda’s rear? It was a strained camera angle that did nothing to serve the narrative. It was a serious scene, and no value was added to either characterization, or plot. More still, Mass Effect was a completely dour, serious experience, one that didn’t constantly flaunt sexuality or comedic angles. Let’s move back to Bayonetta 2. Why did the camera zoom in on her rear? I can answer this easily – it was funny and bonkers, just like everything else in the game. Taken out of context, it’s way worse than the Mass Effect example. In context, however, the Bayonetta example is small bit of crazy in a game dubbed Lord Crazy of WestInsano. The Mass Effect example, in context, is completely out of place, and is, frankly, embarrassing to watch in a game that is otherwise so amazingly crafted.
The satirical aspect is that other game developers are doing exactly what Platinum is doing with Bayonetta except that they are doing it with a completely straight face. By going utterly over the edge, Bayonetta shows us all how silly these representations are. It’s crazy that video game women are always in so few garments in combat situations. Cue Bayonetta – she does her strongest attacks as her clothes fly off. Many women in video games are there just to be a sexual object. Cue Bayonetta – she elevates herself to a sexual idol in mockery of the rest. Even Bayonetta’s proportions are there to mock oversexualized women in video games. Her legs are impossibly long, hips impossibly wide. She stands at angles that would reduce a real woman to tears and she does it all in heels. She’s ridiculous; she’s a caricature, and that’s the point.
For those who think I’m reading too far into this, Platinum has a history of satirical games. Let’s look at Vanquish. This is a game about an exo-suited 80s action movie marine badass trying to save the world from space terrorists. The action spoofs third-person shooters, and the characters are larger-than-life examples of characters we’ve seen a million times in action games, and will see a million more. The Wonderful 101 is a riff on Japanese Super Sentai shows (think Power Rangers), but takes this already ridiculous genre to the level of loving mockery. Is it so strange that Platinum would feel the need to make fun of sexuality in the industry, especially with Japanese developers such as Itagaki adding jiggle physics to everything and her mother? No.
Bayonetta 2 embraces its sexuality and, in doing so, it ridicules all those who dare to do it with a straight face. How could you possibly launch yourself crotch or ass-first at an enemy without cracking up? But games do it. Bayonetta 2 asks us all to sit back and enjoy reveling in how stupid and crazy the game industry can be with its sexualisation of women. And, by doing so, we learn something. What is acceptable in a B-movie-style game like Bayonetta has no place in a serious drama. So, is Bayonetta 2 sexist? I would say it’s quite the exact opposite.