Making Men Uncomfortable: What Bayonetta Should Learn From Gaga

Tanner Higgin's picture

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Bayonetta. I gave up on it about a month ago, mostly because I found it tedious, incoherent, and punishing (purely from a receptive standpoint), but also because I felt embarrassed playing it. I found myself having to explain the indulgence to my partner, whom, while sitting next to me on the couch or passing by the TV, would reel in horror as Bayonetta’s porn star Barbie body fought doll faced angels with stripper like finesse. From an outsider’s perspective, Bayonetta is an encapsulation of all that is wrong with videogames. But I don’t think that is entirely the case, and the shame I felt had more to do with the reception of my partner than what I was actually feeling while playing the game. In fact, quite unexpectedly, Bayonetta exhibits feminist resistances lacking from most other games; however, it is ultimately a failed project because these resistances are not adequately engaged with patriarchal hegemony. Or to put it another way, Bayonetta needs to learn from Lady Gaga.

Gaga’s Effective Parody

Consider this video (also posted below). In this interview a reporter asks, in characteristically vapid fashion, what Gaga is looking for in a man. Coldly and without hesitation, Gaga replies, “a big dick.” The reporter, a bit baffled and taken aback, attempts to clarify and Gaga reasserts that what she said is precisely what she intended.

(Sorry about the porn ad. I ripped this off another site and cannot locate a clean version.)

Alex Cho over at Flow provides a reading of this clip that is similar to my own. It’s worth quoting at length:

When a woman pop star with Lady Gaga’s visibility “has the balls” to declare in an interview that all she wants in a partner is “a big dick,” traditional discourses of gender and sexuality are shaken. On one level, she is taking a page out of a classic feminist playbook, turning the tables on men by reducing them to sex objects—indeed, even body parts—in the same way that women have been traditionally objectified. However, if we are to believe that Lady Gaga is consciously exposing the artifice of fame and celebrity through her own performativity, we can then also read this comment as targeted toward the same culture industry that catapults Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears to the top of the tabloid racks for mere genital obsession—indeed, the same culture industry that would demand the majority of Stephenson’s questions be about marriage and female reproduction.

What Cho perceptively identifies is how Gaga’s unique brand of feminism recalls earlier tactics of discursive power reversal as well as updates them in light of celebrity culture that often exploits sex positive feminism, twisting it into new forms of objectification. Gaga has made herself into a parody of the pop star, very adeptly maintaining a marketable facade of pop stereotype while exposing her persona’s limits by often making herself monstrous and threatening to the gender order.

Gaga, as with all good parody, uses imitation to gain access to audiences and then challenges them by calling into question political assumptions, values, and subject positions. What makes her particularly unique is the way in which her ire is directed acutely at patriarchal upheaval. As evidence by her big dick comment, she’s very invested in making men uncomfortable and attacking both literal and symbolic sites of patriarchal power.

Her feminist campaign has been so successful that an August 2009 concert sparked a vehement obsession with finding out the supposed hidden masculine truth of her sexual identity. Readers familiar with the foundational work of Laura Mulvey will recognize such obsession with mystery and truth as a classic symptom of castration anxiety and its attendant desire to control and suppress potential threats to the gender order.

In simpler terms, I see the continued rumors of Gaga’s hemaphrodism or transsexuality as a desperate technology of disbelief in the face of a kind of femininity that refuses to fit comfortably into its submissive role as object of pleasure. (Much to my disappointment, Gaga ended her subversively coy silence on the issue with a forceful display of her crotch in the video for “Telephone” in March, 2010.)

As a thinking and teaching tool Gaga is one of my favorite references, because, and I know this is tough for a critical academic to say, I think she gets things right. And I think Gaga’s feminism is a great example to use to work through the successes and failures of gamic representations of gender.

Bayonetta Studies, or, Whose Pleasure Is This?

In the interest then of using Gaga’s feminism as lens with which to examine games, let’s return to Bayonetta. Responding to Leigh Alexander’s defense of Bayonetta as “[taking] the video game sexy woman stereotype from object to subject” and Tae K. Kim’s affirmation of that defense, Tiff Chow argues that Bayonetta is “campy” and that “sexuality in the game is used most explicitly as decoration as opposed to celebration.” She also reminds us that the developers of the game are predominantly men and that the cinematic techniques employed quite literally slice up Bayonetta’s body into a porno-like spectacle.

I find my own position resides between these two poles. While playing Bayonetta, I was impressed by the assertiveness of the character and particularly her mocking relationship with the bumbling and submissive male protagonist, as well as her tense relationship with children. In my gaming experience, this is rare for a woman and, in the case of the parental discomfort Bayonetta displays, unprecedented. There’s no question that Bayonetta is a serious bad ass with a refreshingly devious moral code (she, very satisfyingly, is a charming demon that kills angels). From this perspective Bayonetta is quite similar to Gaga. She has the same charisma and control.

Yet there’s no question that the game industry, especially in terms of production, is masculinist and this is partly fueled by a lack of gender diversity in production. Most mass market videogames function under a regime of signification that appeals to a white hetereosexual masculine gaze. Bayonetta, as Chow points out, is undoubtedly involved in this regime of signification when examined closely. Her body is an ideal scopophilic object combining sexuality and violence into one perfect package of masculinist power fantasy. And as Chow describes, the objectification does not stop at the character model, but continues through an incessant use of close ups on Bayonetta’s breasts, buttocks, legs, and crotch exacerbated by movements and gestures inarguably derived from exotic dancing.

One could view the excess of Bayonetta’s sexuality as a kind of camp, sneaking critique in the backdoor. The problem with this position, and here we return to Gaga, is that I simply don’t see the critique. Where are the moments of resistance and discomfort? When is the gaze reversed on the player (beyond a playful wink at the camera)? When is patriarchy attacked? (And these are actual questions. Please comment if you have a perspective on this.) Without overt moments of resistance, or, intentional moments of msculinist anxiety or discomfort, both the power of Bayonetta and her campy nature simply fall back into masculine pleasure.

Chris Dahlen thinks there’s potential within this apparent objectification though. He sees Bayonetta as a kind of pop star that wouldn’t be so out place at an awards show and isn’t nearly as bad as some other game characters. In his view, men who are offended by Bayonetta and “condemn her” are “scared they’ll like her.” I certainly sympathize with Dahlen’s defense of Bayonetta because I think he’s concerned, although he doesn’t make mention of it, about the possibility of backlash over games like Bayonetta limiting artistic expression in games through a similar stigmatization of sex as has occurred with violence.

In support of his argument, Dahlen deploys a picture of Ziggy Stardust era Bowie as a political analog to Bayonetta. What’s wrong with this analogy though is that someone like Bowie is condemned not because he’s offending or challenging progressive/PC sensibilities, but because he’s violating regressive classifications; he’s refusing to play to type (so to speak) and creatively doing so under the watch of homophobes. Bowie is bending and toying with gender. He’s using his stardom and his persona as a delivery mechanism for gender alternatives. Bayonetta is not challenging any limitations because she fits perfectly into an already existing system of classification. Instead, she’s testing the tolerance of feminists. We’re not afraid we’ll like her; we haven’t liked her in her other incarnations.

Whereas Bowie embodies a boundary crossing, Bayonetta operates quite safely within acceptable patriarchal representational restrictions. If you doubt this browse message board or YouTube discussion about Bayonetta. Players are not complaining about having to play as a woman. Men often claim they prefer to play as women because of “the view,” i.e. they derive pleasure from looking at a female avatar. (Consider all of the similar examples of tough sexy women in other games, especially the fighting game genre.) The struggle is not to get men to play with women but to transform their relationship to women. Bayonetta’s sex-violence fantasy is an amalgamation of already existing oppressive styles of signification that privilege masculine desire and fantasy.

Against the Masculine Pleasure Principle in Games

Thus Bayonetta is not Bowie and it’s not Gaga. While Bayonetta does offer us a powerful and significant woman, the game does little to disrupt power structures or make men uncomfortable. It provides what little liberation it can (as noted above) while remaining most distinctly an object of pleasure for men. While Bayonetta may have gained more attitude and narrative power than a character like Lara Croft, the price is more severe sexual spectacle. It’s proportionate; the tougher a woman gets the sexier she gets. What we need is to violate this formula. We need “big dick” moments where a tough and sexually objectified woman sneaks into a game, enters a household, and then truly provokes the player. I want games that prove difficult for people in the same way a live performance art piece does. I want men’s men to shift in their seats, not to get turned on.

So while I ultimately disagree with Dahlen’s premise that critics of Bayonetta are worried about her “overpowering femininity” (since I don’t see her as offering that representation nor do I believe this is what people are upset about), I think Dahlen is getting at what a possible productive future of gender in games could be. The notion of pulling a Gaga and seducing gamers within a parody of tradition, and then turning the tables on them would make for a truly progressive gaming experience. The problem is so few games have successfully accomplished this. Why? Because of the tyranny of fun. To challenge gamers, or to introduce difficulty into gameplay, violates an implicit consumer contract between developer and gamer designed solely around pleasure and value. Gaga, whose performance extends from videos to concerts to interviews to music and beyond has more opportunities for subversion and more leeway, while games, limited to the singular digital object, have to be less risky.

Raiden as Resistance?

There are examples to turn to, however. Certainly Samus of Metroid fame, in her first incarnation, was a brilliant turn of transgender identification along with gender empowerment, and perhaps is the first example of this kind of identification in a game. But an even better example is found in the Metal Gear Solid series, one of my favorite references, and a series that admittedly has its own attendant issues of gender representation. I find the series compelling because each game challenges the player affectively and ideologically. One of the most famous controversies surrounding the series, the introduction of Raiden as the main character of Metal Gear Solid 2, is both an example of resistance to the pleasure principle of game design and progressive gender representation. Metal Gear Solid was a massive success on the PlayStation fashioning the main character, traditional masculine hero Solid Snake, into one of Sony’s franchise characters. Metal Gear Solid 2, the much anticipated PlayStation 2 follow-up, was expected to once again feature the beloved Solid Snake. Much to the fanbase’s surprise and subsequent horror, Solid Snake was relegated to a minor role in support of the new lead character Raiden, a comparatively feminine character. In a game narratively focused on power, control, and deception, and in a series which explicitly references the struggle between game designer and player, this choice is no accident. The brilliance of Raiden in Metal Gear Solid 2 is how it forces the player, who previously reveled in the hyper-masculinity of Solid Snake, to identify with a very Bowie-like avatar (to use Dahlen’s excellent example).

Nothing like this is happening in Bayonetta, but it should be.

Thanks to Amanda Phillips for the inspiration (even if we disagree!).


Publication date (from feed): 

Thu, 02 Dec 2010 15:30:59 +0000