(Disclaimer: First, I am writing this from the perspective of someone who has only played the first game of the series. Second, I discuss various elements of the game which can be considered spoilers, but I refrain from mentioning major plot aspects and there are no major reveals.)
While discussing female sexuality in video games a few weeks ago in class, the character Bayonetta was brought up as an example of over-sexualization.
Someone countered saying that as a character, she is in fact “reclaiming her sexuality”. I found this to be an extremely interesting idea. Is Bayonetta a champion for females in games or is she just an appeal to the heterosexual male gamer? I want to explore this question further.
First, her physical appearance and style. She is a fighter-witch using a variety of weapons including magic, guns, demon-summoning, whips, claws, and katanas. She has superhuman acrobatic abilities – flipping, cartwheeling, jumping etc. She does this all in heels. She wears a leather bodysuit. In regard to her style – throughout the game she can be found posing, sexually taunting her enemies, and the game even includes snapchot noises of a camera going off. Here is a video illustrating some of these things.
All of these physical and stylistic aspects of Bayonetta are highly sexual. However, her personality and attitude in how she portrays her own sexuality is not that of a damsel in distress, background porn, or other female trope. Bayonetta as a character recognizes her own sexuality and embraces it. She struts, she poses, she taunts. She takes something that is typically associated with weak, powerless characters and makes it a core aspect of a character that is ready to shoot a gun into the face of God. While saying Bayonetta makes her sexuality her power is a bit of a reach, she does make it part of a powerful, confident persona. I find her sexualization to actually be empowering because of this. She “okays” the idea of a female being confident in her body to the extent of showcasing it. Her appearance and style are statement saying that there is nothing wrong with being proud of one’s sexuality and beauty.
The next aspect of her character I would like to look at is her powers. Notably, her technique called Wicked Weaves. Bayonetta is able to use her hair to summon parts of demons that resemble her or other animals to perform devastating attacks.
The thing is, as seen in the images, Bayonetta becomes naked when she performs this ability. That is because, despite what I said about her wearing a leather bodysuit, she is technically completely naked in the game. She uses her magical ability to have her hair stick to her and take on the appearance of leather. As such, when she uses her strongest abilities, she becomes naked and often starts posing. Originally, this was a gross over-sexualization to me that was completely unnecessary. However, on deeper consideration, I began thinking about what it meant for her hair to be a source of power. Without getting into the anthropology of female hair, its importance in the history of many cultures is unmistakable. The most important aspect in this situation I believe is its uniqueness and separation from male hair. Simply put, the fact that the developer’s made Bayonetta’s strongest ability something that is utterly unique to her sex spoke volumes to me. Furthermore, that her clothing was maintained by her own power and was something that she chose to put on and remove as she willed, again, really made a statement. Finally, while normally the naked female body is considered vulnerable and weak, Bayonetta is fully revealed at her strongest moments.
One final aspect I want to consider is the narrative Bayonetta exists within and her role in it. There are two parts here I consider important. First – her relationship with male characters. Without spoiling anything, essentially they are all minor characters that are more defined by getting in her way due to their own weakness or incompetence and their often need of rescue. Clearly opposing the damsel in distress trope. Second – her enemy being angels. This I find so interesting because she is setup as ‘fighting religion’. The largest religious institutions in history and today are in-part known for establishing patriarchal societies. The symbolic statement made in her killing the representatives of this institution is once again powerful.
Considering these aspects, I believe that Bayonetta as both a character and a game champions the female. Though Bayonetta as a character is not much of a role model due to the surreal exaggerations of the design, she does work to counter the sexist stereotypes and characterizations that are often present in video games.