This post seeks to address the issues surrounding popular and noteworthy female characters in video games. It will consider both perception and reality, development over the history of the franchise, and the impact on the media form.
Zelda – The Legend of Zelda
This is a link to my original post regarding Zelda as fulfilling or not fulfilling the damsel in distress trope, as well as her general impact on the franchise and Zelda universe in comparison to male characters.
This source contrasts my opinion, particularly with the idea of Zelda’s independence and self-sufficiency.
“Princess Zelda has existed in a multitude of incarnations throughout the franchise and, usually, in the form of a “damsel in distress.” Even when she has an opportunity to be powerful, her autonomy is taken by the patriarchy.”
While I think my argument is stronger, the perception of that Zelda – one of the most well-known female characters in gaming – is a mere trope is still very meaningful. Her impact due to being perceived as a trope may be that female gamers are pushed away from the industry and male gamers are subconsciously validated in beliefs females are meant to play in secondary role in video games. Furthermore, because Zelda is for the most part unplayable, female gamers have trouble connecting with her positive qualities.
Later in the linked article, there is an analysis of individual games similar to the one in mine, but takes a very different perspective which is interesting.
This article presents another argument.
“Taking a step down from gods to the people, we can see a similar trend. In Ocarina of Time there are seven sages, of which five are female. The equivalents – the maidens – in A Link to the Past and Four Swords Adventures are also, of course, young females. Now, while many say this does nothing but further the number of helpless damsels for Link to rescue, I disagree.”
“I mean, the sages in Ocarina of Time didn’t go easily. Ruto, Impa and Nabooru at the least, we’re all captured as they fought valiantly against an evil that they couldn’t overcome alone. Granted, Link does overcome that very evil, but never alone. He fights together with the sages; with the maidens.”
Bayonetta – Bayonetta
Here is a link to a past post of mine regarding Bayonetta as a character
I think this interview makes some very strong points regarding the presentation of sexuality as related to Bayonetta.
Alicia Andrew says
“Its complicated, but I think desperately important, that while we understand that sexuality is healthy and has a place in our media, a lot of the backlash around the proverbial “chain-mail bikini” is because often, the female character is made to be sexualized not sexy. She has little to no perceived ownership of how her body is displayed, dressed, or presented. This mindset leads to sometimes ridiculous character designs, such as Mythril Bikinis for the epic journey to the gates of hell, and breasts on alien rock creatures.”
The most important thing I think here is choice. Whether or not the female character is presented as having chosen her sexual appearance or is being forced into the role for the benefit of the male demographic. In Bayonetta, I find that Bayonetta the character does have and does make the choice to be sexual. She has the power throughout the entire game.
Erica Hollinshead Stead touches on this in the same interview
“It felt to me as if when she utilized sexy stylization, she was making a choice to style herself that way”
But Emily Gitelman disagrees entirely
“I think the female characters in Bayonetta are presented incredibly poorly, and certainly over sexualized. They’re a male fantasy, completely. I’m going to focus on Bayonetta herself. To start with her physical appearance, Bayonetta is built like a super model, has a sexy English accent, and walks around in a skin-tight catsuit that disappears and basically gives her censor bars when she casts spells. It’s practically a reward for the player: use a powerful attack; see a naked woman. As soon as Bayonetta displays power, she is stripped of her clothing and her dignity. When her health runs too low, her catsuit also disappears. The symbolism (lip marks, flowers, butterflies) used in her attacks is very stereotypically feminine in a way that box female sexuality into a narrow category. These are calculated ways of making her seem like a Strong Female Character, but they actually undercut her agency and power as the lead character of a franchise.”
I think this touches on a particular point of tension. Is there a line between when a female character goes from embracing her own sexuality to being a sexualized object? What characterizes the crossing of that line? Does the line change if the developer is male or female?
Lara Croft – Tomb Raider
Here is a link to another poster concerning Lara Croft in the most recent Tomb Raider game
I think what is important about Lara that while she – especially in early entries in the series – is an extremely beautiful and sexual character, she is not just that. She extends beyond a mere sex object because of the depth of her character development and personality. She is unique, she has a story, and she has character.
However, I think the fact that she is beautiful has caused to be treated as a sex object outside the game. The character is featured in movies, as action figures, and various other merchandise. In most of these characters, the things that make her originally unrealistic physique acceptable are lost. The important issue here I find is outside the video game industry where her story exists, and is symptomatic of a larger issue in media portrayal.
Another thing interesting to look at regarding Lara is her visual progression.
There is a clear reduction in her sexuality over the course of the franchise and playing the games, there is a clear increased focus on her humanity and story. I think this shift of focus is powerful and symbolic of a greater awareness in the industry concerning the plight of female gamers.
In regards to the article by my fellow VGBoundaries poster: I believe that the interview with the producer represent the lack of faith (perhaps justified, perhaps not) in developers of their audience. Still, I think the developers wanted Lara to be more than a damsel or sex object, but in their creation of this greater character, were aware of their market. In this sense, I find it to be less of a problem as in these discussion it is important to remember that these AAA development teams are businesses first and artists/activists second – the ability for this group to perform the function of both in this scenario, in some twisted way, can be a good thing.