In every argument about video games and their ability to represent complex ideas, or invoke wonderful thoughts and feelings in us, is the lingering spectre of female representation in gaming. Whether it be Ivy from Soul Calibur wearing a glorified spiders web to hold back her bosom, or lets face it, every single female character in Dead or Alive or Mortal Kombat, we are constantly reminded of the practices implemented by game developers and publishers to pander to their audience. Pandering by itself is no terrible crime of course, if your audience desires flame-throwers and murderous pandas with baseball bats then it would be a smart move to include them in your game. The biggest problem with pandering to gamers with scantily clad, busty female characters is two fold, one, that it runs into the problem of isolating or degrading a good portion of the audience, and two, where is this audience being pandered to?
Now before I continue I would like to state that I do not think that no one was inspired to buy Street Fighter IV because of Cammy’s lack of trousers, or wasn’t persuaded to purchase Tomb Raider because of Lara Croft’s cup size, but I will go to say that the few that did buy them for these reasons in no way represent the majority of gamers who play fighting or adventure games. If this is the case though, why is it that this relic of previous games, considered crass and frankly childish by many, defended adamantly by developers and publishers, or at least, repeatedly flaunted in advertising and media around the game. I am all for artistic expression, and so would understand if they defended their choice to include scantily clad women in their game as a means to express their artistic freedoms, or to emphasise the extremes of the game world being represented by turning up the breast gravity to 11. Arguments falter at this point however when games that are successful regardless of this content still feature it, and to a large extent, focus on it as a means of selling their game. GTA V for example featured the ability to solicit sex from prostitutes, and receive lap-dances from strippers at the gentlemen’s club, but would GTA V sell so much worse were it to remove these features from it’s roster? I think the answer is well and truly no.
Another common defence of these practices is to state that they are simply harmless fun, something which for the most part I can agree with and accept, as again, I have nothing against the sexualisation of characters in principle as I do not have anything against it in any medium. I feel this defence falters too however, and I think the main reason for it is simply that holding sexualisation up as simply harmless fun, or an innocent pleasure, equally makes the character it is applied to harmless, or perhaps, even worthless. The vast majority of male characters in gaming are not anchored, or defined by their sexuality or they way they look, but instead look good because of what they are able to achieve. Whether it be cleaving through hordes of enemies, sneaking up on a target for a silent take-down, or by smashing through an enemy fleet with turbo lasers, many of our favourite characters become attractive or meaningful due to their ability to get the job done.
Female characters often have the double burden of having to get the job done, so to speak, and also looking visually pleasing whilst doing it. This might well be a problem in the real world, that we as a society have to tackle via education and simply ‘growing up’ as a culture, but it is a sad sight to see it as a staple of our artistic expression as well. In my first article for this site, I mentioned that when scantily clad women are used as pure titillation is it is acceptable as it does nothing except to simply, well, titillate. The problem that persists however is when female characters are being solely defined by their sexuality, as well as being valued simply because of it, regardless of whether or not it makes sense for the character to be so. Many female characters seem to not notice that they are wearing very little and act as if it is not distracting or out of place, as if -somehow- it was simply made to be the case for titillation at the expense of the characters credibility. A female character wearing a tiny thong and bra whilst discussing matters crucial to the life and death of a nation might be argued to be a great example of liberalism winning out, but I think few would be persuaded of this.
A great contrast to this is the character of Bayonetta, who fully owns her own brand of sexuality, and appears to be having a blast being a highly sexualised character due to it being on her own terms. The difference that Bayonetta represents, also represented by Juliet Starling of Lollipop Chainsaw for that matter, is that their sexuality and style of dress is something that they recognise and realise, they are not out of the loop in their choices to flaunt themselves, and instead do it because of who they are, and not because they were simply made to be as an addition to their personalities in order to sell more games. It is this that I feel is the crux of the matter, namely, agency in sexualisation. If a female character is actively participating in her sexuality, rather than being made to flaunt her sexuality regardless of her personality or the context of the current situation, she becomes a realistic, believable character, rather than a delivery mechanism for titillation alone.
Ivy in Soul Calibur should most likely be wearing full body armour due to her habit of often fighting a lot of people with swords, whips and staves. Yet still chooses to wear what appears to be a backwards hospital gown, recently attacked by a bear, without possessing a personality, or at least expressing one that would give a reason as to why. Lara Croft should equally be wearing some sort of body armour, perhaps some climbing gear, and maybe spend less time perfecting her make-up, and perhaps avoid that T-Rex. Until recently however, the raider of tombs favoured short shorts and a low cut top for reasons that never really were explained by her personality or motivation. The point I am pushing here is that for too long female characters were sexualised simply because they could be, rather than because they needed to be for the character’s personality to be realised.
In the end, I don’t believe that female characters will cease to be sexualised any time soon, and that is not a bad thing. The problem arises however when a character lacks any agency in their decision of how they express their sexuality or give reasons and possess personality traits explaining their mode of dress, or their preferences in general. In short, female characters can be sexualised, as can male characters, as long as they possess agency, and understandable reasons as to why they are so.