Writing In the Margins: Bayonetta 2, Sex Criticism, and Power Dynamics

I won’t pretend that this is even remotely an objective look at literally anything and rather a bag of cats that I’ve had going around in my mind for a week now. It’s almost 4 AM my time and this is nothing but one of those dreadful, self-absorbed noodlings on personal experiences and feminist theory. But isn’t that the point of discourse of in our community?

All of this started because I started seeing (whether some phenomenon or actual increased usage in just specifically my circle of Twitter acquaintances) sex positivity and sex negativity being mentioned in the last couple of days. It feels good to see feminist discourse happening in the video games community because I think it is sorely needed after the last 3 months. Admitting that we’re allowed, as feminists, to disagree with each other, feels like a positive first step in healing and growing a community where we’re not letting harassment cause us to constantly have reaffirm each other’s humanity to disgusting people versus having diverse discussions about the nature of our critique.

This seems, of course, all related to Bayonetta 2.

(Here is where I admit I have not played either 1 or 2 to any great degree. As a cultural work though, I feel it has quite a lot of innate context just from the the design and mechanics.)

Not only have I seen several comments painting Bayonetta 2 as enjoyable because of a sex positive viewpoint, but I’ve also seen sex negativity specifically float around as the opposite of that. If you enjoy Bayonetta, you’re the champion against sex-negativity. I find this really hurtful and reductive, especially as someone who tends to fall closer to sex critical or sex negative. I feel that reducing one’s ideological stance to your feelings on literally one video game character undoes a lot of the real nature of sexual discourse in feminism.

This is where I pause and say that you should all read Maddy Myer’s incredibly awesome look at Bayonetta 2. I don’t agree with all of it but I think it’s a really important line of conversation to have and it has a lot of nuance and angles to look at. This is the kind of stuff that games criticism should touch on and we should always make room for. Here’s also where I draw a circle around this conversation with salt , because, straight men, I do not actually give a shit how you feel about any of my thoughts today.

I think I should backtrack a bit and maybe elucidate on why sex positivity/negativity are particularly unsettling concepts to flatten out. For one, neither sex positivity nor negativity initially started as feminist dialogues. Both were schools of thought that date back pretty far in history and eventually came into the fold of critical discourse later on. Sex positivity was a celebration of sexual behavior without moral judgement and sex negativity was the fairly prudish opposite of that, crying that sex was a root of many different problems. Neither are particularly interesting at that basic level and I believe that they became much more interesting once feminist and other social justice movements got started. Much of what was dubbed the “Feminist Sex Wars” were a struggle between two wings of feminist thought – one that openly embraced the Free Love aspect of the 60s and 70s and the other wing that became much of the second wave’s anti-pornography collective. Again, both have really interesting things about them. Second wave also had issues with not just a lack of regard for sex workers but also trans women as well, which is why a lot of sex negative critique is largely not useable. However, moving past that into more 3rd wave and more intersectional analysis of feminist critique, we can see why both approaches are valuable.

I do not see sex negativity or positivity as wholly bad positions. I also don’t see them as opposites necessarily, either. If sex positivity in feminism is embracing women’s agency and sexual empowerment, then sex negativity is critiquing the structures that make enacting that agency and empowerment an issue. I think both together make up a body of sex criticism that looks at the ever-present issues of misogyny, abuse, rape culture and sexual performance, sexuality that is part of our work as a whole. Looking at one without the other, in my mind, does a disservice to large concepts and methods. Both, taken to logical extremes, also have sufficient issues. On the one hand, sex positivity performed in an uncritical way can ignore people who struggle with sexual behavior due to abuse, rape or other traumatic experiences. It can gloss over how sexual performances by women in our society can be co-opted by patriarchal concepts (Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy, while a problematic text, rotates around this idea.) However, it’s also a way for women to embrace their own sexual agency that can be uplifting. It can define what that agency means. It can widen the way we perform our sexuality in our culture and ameliorate those who have been marginalized in a sexual way.

Sex negativity, when taken to this same way can be incredibly harmful to sex workers, focusing on how damaging things like porn can be without respect for the women who work in the industry. It can be incredibly narrow about sexual performance that does not happen in a male-dominated space or with the involvement of men. It can fall back largely on white supremacist concepts of sex that were enforced by colonialism and hurt women of color. However, sex negativity also pokes at the meaning of consent in a society that is founded and enforced by men (Andrea Dworkin’s work has a lot of this), it can tackle power dynamics that surround sexual performance as well.

Both things are incredibly essential to a larger critique of sexual practices and themes. Reducing them to “sex positivity means you think sex is good, sex negativity means you think it is bad” is hearkening back to those roots of the theory and inimical to progress in feminist discourse. Sex cannot be all good or all bad and even framing it in that way is reductive.  As someone who finds herself incredibly critical of sex, seeing these views crop up in gaming, which is still perceived as male-dominated, is alienating. It also falls back onto actually very misogynistic concepts that reduce women on some level to “bad” or “good depending on one’s views on sex. There’s two flavors of this, one being the more contemporary idea in nerd culture that fun women are sexy and cool, and bad women are frigid and stuck-up. The other older idea is the whole virgin/whore dichotomy, which chides women for being lascivious and sexually impure. Both remove the ability for women to act authentically with their sexual behavior and defines it in a moralistic way. The former is the one I see the most happening lately, especially given that nerd media, like video games, portrays women as sexual beings for men’s benefit only versus any of us. Maddy’s article squarely tackled the idea of male gaze being outdated and I largely agree with her. However, I don’t think that negates that there is definitely a very heterosexual male way of looking, especially in media.

A digression, if you’ll allow me.

One of the points that gets brought up in Maddy’s article regarding how rigid the idea of male gaze is that it does, rightfully ignore that the potential audience that is looking could potentially be queer women. Queer women are often a subset of participators when it comes to media consumption that are overlooked when it comes to women being sexy. It seems to follow logically that we’d be in the same general demographic as straight men when it comes to consuming sexualized women in media – except that it really doesn’t. I’ve felt very pushed aside when it comes to seeing the same images of women that are obviously styled for straight men due to the fact that they both reflect their interests (versus mine) but also have a double effect of how those same men perceive me. Many images of sexualized women are reliant on a larger context that derives from a very male-dominated, heterosexual society and it’s very hard to escape that, no matter who you are. Sexualized women are often portrayed as enticing due to their objectification, lack of agency as well complacency. To say that queer women don’t internalize both the idea that this is what we should find sexy in women, as well as ourselves would be faulty. But to say that that’s where it ends is faulty. I don’t find how women are created to appeal to straight men to be representative of my tastes, especially now as a feminist. It relies on too many problematic and frankly, harmful elements for me to feel comfortable.

The personal aspect of this is that as a queer woman navigating internalized misogyny, sexism and my own sexuality as a nerd, I spent a lot of hours sucking up to male friends by joining in their ogling and chatter of women in a sexual way. One of the easiest ways to fit in with nerd guys as a woman is to be “one of the guys” and being a queer woman who also finds women sexually attractive? That’s like a huge stat bonus. Being bisexual also meant I was technically available, so the possibilities were endless. It’s a fantasy of men to subsume a queer woman’s identity – have her enjoy his sexual overtures but also indulge in objectifying women alongside him. Nerds eat that shit up and so it was one of the ways I got my “cred” and tons of attention. It’s one of the most persistent strains of biphobic misogyny as well, that bisexual women are just attention whores and faking it for men. The fact that you are encouraged to do so for men’s validation is besides the point, right? (Heh.)

But when I really thought about it, especially after I broke out of that part of my life, my sexuality was confusing. I didn’t find women attractive in the same way these men did. I didn’t really want to degrade women or treat them like garbage or sex dumpsters. I wanted them the same way I wanted men – meaningfully, in a fun way, as a fellow human being, in a romantic, emotional or sexual way. In short, I wanted to treat them the way I wanted to be treated.

However, that directly deals with how we as people talk about ourselves, but what about applying these things to media? This is where it gets trickier and why Bayonetta is so contentious. Sexualized images in our media are both subject to the same things real people are but on a much different level. The easiest way to think about is that a fictional character does not have agency. A fictional character does not act on her own steam, she does or says whatever the author (or authors) want her to do. This is why when nerds fall all over themselves to say, “Oh she’s such a sexy, strong woman, look how empowered she is!” I roll my eyes a bit. The author has made a character perform in that way and it means that it’s not immune from criticism in quite the same way a real woman would be regarding her own choices (which are still subject to criticism, I must interject, but it’s still her choice to do those things.) This is why media is such an intriguing topic to engage on a feminist level – we have to both account for the potential author’s intent but at the same time reject it past a certain point. Looking at media on a critical level as a feminist means both picking apart what makes it problematic but can also be celebrating how to derive meaning and enjoyment from it.

This is where we turn back to Bayonetta. She is both the product of a woman designer, who had her own goals for her, as well as a product of our feelings towards her as a character. Her contentious position in videogames comes with a much larger context and that is why so many different people have different opinions about her. I don’t think you have to be looking at it from one particular way to simultaneously hate it or enjoy it and the idea that to embrace Bayonetta means to completely embrace sex positivity does both the character and the concept a disservice. Because from where I stand, I believe it is possible to look at her position as both a potential power fantasy that we rarely see in videogames but also positioned squarely in an industry that allows so few woman characters to exist at all that it’s hard to ignore the sexual elements. It’s an industry in a society that still is controlled on many levels by men, especially sexual performance. Sexual nuances to characters are never apolitical in this climate and they go over about as well as sex in our society. We all have our personal experiences and struggles to consider when wanting to engage with this kind of content and that’s where my fallback onto sex criticism comes – I want women to feel free to reject or embrace as little or as much of Bayonetta as they choose. She’s the product of many people and is both a fetish object and also a rejection of the dehumanization that often occurs. She’s a mockery of masculine ideals of sex appeal and also panders to them at the same time. Bayonetta is both strong and is also subject to the whims of her creators. She flirts with kink and domination while also potentially being a man’s idea of what that means. It’s a confusing bundle of many things and that’s why there is so much disagreement.

In that way, I do agree with what Maddy said – I don’t think she’s solely positioned within the debunked male gaze, but I don’t know how we are supposed to perceive her. Women finding joy and excitement from her, as much as loathing or criticism, is valid. Until we start seeing a landscape more thoroughly populated with nuanced portrayals of women, more of whom are sent out into the world by women authors, I believe we will continue to have this conversation. I embrace it and would love to see more of it, as long as we’re not shutting out other avenues of criticism.

 

This is How It Should Be

Adults on a concrete surface hold colored controllers in the air and move around.

Adults play Johann Sebastian Joust outdoors at BitBash Chicago.

 

The last three weeks have utterly destroyed me.

Granted, I’m not someone who had a hate campaign targeted at me, but watching women I considered to be at the forefront of games criticism being picked off, harassed, doxxed or quitting really took a number on my own sense of safety as well as my desire to be a writer in gaming. This slow-moving avalanche of misogyny reminded me of some awful things in my past and left me struggling to articulate feelings of helplessness as a woman, feminist and creative person.

In spite of all that, I was excited to be attending an indie games exhibition in Chicago called BitBash. Underscoring that excitement, however, was a touch of nervousness – what if I wasn’t “cool enough” to be there and what if there was drama? Still, I thought that getting a break from the constant misery-reinforcement on Twitter and various blogs was a good idea. I was also going to hang out with Gita, someone who’s work was incredibly enriching to me but also was a kick-ass lady to be friends with. In addition to that, she was also okay with hanging out with a weird Internet woman (me.)

We met up on Saturday and took a car over to the Threadless warehouse space in the Western Loop area of Chicago, not knowing what to really expect. We showed up and were greeted by a pretty welcoming sight: people milling around in the front parking lot playing games and having a good time. We had gotten there early enough so the food trucks hadn’t quite been set up yet, but late enough to make clear that the space was full of things to do and see. We had pushed our arrival later in general, as BitBash had warned of lines, but for the most part it was just the right amount of people and we had no problem getting in and milling around.

One of the first games I got to experience was Johann Sebastian Joust (Die Gute Fabrik), which Gita had excitedly mentioned wanting to play since we got there. When I had read the description, I was confused, having no experience with the original game, and it seemed very abstract. Watching a bunch of people play it though, made me realize how fun it was. Even though I didn’t step in (I have a really intense performance anxiety), watching everyone flail around and move to get other people to shake their controller, appropriately controlling their speed to the slowed-down or sped up orchestrations, was incredibly entertaining. Adults playing and having a good time outside is infectious and isn’t something you see often, especially since many of us focus on hobbies that keep us inside, aloof. Not to be outdone by just peers, I even saw a group of grown men attempt to compete with a tiny little girl who was just as excited as them to play.

That kind of experience was indicative of what I noticed over and over again while we were there: everyone showed up. Gaming events have always felt very overwhelmingly white and male and this didn’t. Granted, there still were a lot of white dudes there, but many more people were that didn’t fit the profile. A highlight of this was notably how many women there were. Given recent events, it made the event feel incredibly safe. Looking around, I saw tons of women: working the event, playing video games, as well as sitting around chatting with each other. In general, it was a diverse array of nerdy people with splashy t-shirts with Metal Gear Solid or Doctor Who, hipsters with knit caps and flannel, as well as people who I’d probably see in my office. It wasn’t even the typical young, single crowd either. There were older people, parents with kids, and couples of all varieties. It surprised me, even as someone who’s crowed that “gaming is for everyone.” Seeing it happen as a bunch of people coming out to have a fun time really knocked that idea home for me.

Other than attendees, Threadless itself was another high point. The space was incredibly inviting for not just play but also relaxation, which I relished. I’m someone with a chronic illness and having half of it outside with benches and grass meant that I could take breaks to sit down, read my phone or generally enjoy the nice weather. Gaming tends to present a level of stimulus for me but adding in crowds of people (and it did get crowded inside at times) meant that it becomes a touch overwhelming, so being able to take a moment was appreciated. If I had to grouse about anything, it’s only that it needs a bigger space next time. Lines for the food trucks also presented a problem, as standing for long periods of time on concrete made comfort impossible. Overall, though, it felt nice that there were spaces to chill out and socialize if you needed a break. Gaming could do well to recognize this for other events, as I know I am not the only person who might need this sort of things.

Inside the store’s floor and warehouse proper is where most of the games were being exhibited. I milled around, elbowing my way past throngs of people, as most of the cabinets or laptop setups were close together. I regret to say that I did not play most of the games that were at the exhibition, but one that caught my eye was the Choosatron by Jerry Belich. The idea of a game being a Choose Your Adventure register printer was really unassuming and creative to me. I picked a story that revolved around the machine’s assurance that I was dead. Quietly, and with satisfaction at the simplicity of it, I folded up the tape of my story and put it in my pocket. I still have it.

Most of my time was spent watching other people play the games and that was fine enough for me. Something about games is intensely private for me, whether it is putting quarters into a machine no one is playing or sitting at my computer fiddling around in Diablo 3. The idea of people leaning over, waiting their turn and watching me gave me the creeps and reinforced this idea in myself that I’m still terrible at video games. However, this was mostly my own anxiety talking. No one was being rude or aggressive at any point during the event. Dying was a mirthful moment, and messing up got the usual face-palms and backslaps from friends. I got to watch one of the game’s creators (I believe) even cheering on participants who made a point of knocking over tables in Tango in Paradise Simulator (Andy Saia) by chanting, “TABLE TABLE TABLE!” loudly. While I was a touch sad I didn’t get to play Max Gentleman (Hats Productions) or Tango in Paradise, Crypt of the Necrodancer (Brace Yourself Games), getting to be a part of the overall experience was worth it to me. Everything about the space and experience was rewarding and gave me some part of myself back that I had lost along the way in the past month.

As Gita and I took a car back to her apartment, both of us remarked how positive the day had been. Both of us had felt a need for something like that and we had gotten it in spades. It was an enriching event that felt like the way games should be: fun and for everyone. Everyone from adults to kids had a good time, including two little girls that had just come from tap recitals and someone’s grandmother watching the Joust.

It was a renewing Saturday. It would have been even if in the wee hours of the night, Zoe Quinn hadn’t revealed that this feverish nightmare had been online misogynist brigades actually conspiring. It washed away a lot of the perpetually sour, negative feelings I’d had over the past couple of weeks and gave me at least one bright spot amid all of the rubbish. In the larger aspect, it felt like this is how I imagined things. I know it’s a little high-minded to wish for a utopian world where gaming could be for everyone, without harassment or guile or oppression, but for a few hours in a warehouse, maybe it was.

 

Ninja Pizza Girl and The Thorny Tangle of Girlhood

As far as indie games go, Ninja Pizza Girl has been on my radar for a while. I saw a video with the creators a while back and it seemed quirky, in a fun sort of way. The idea of an entire family starting their own indie development house is cute, especially with the father’s daughters pitching in to help with story and art. So when Polygon had an op-ed from the creator about the game, I took notice.

The crux of it is Jason Stark, the head of Disparity Games, relating precisely how and why Ninja Pizza Girl came to be. He talks about how the concept came straight from his childrens’ mouths but more importantly he  also describes the stumbles in his own assumptions about not only game design but also about his daughters’ growing vulnerability as they move into teen-hood and beyond. It was a bit of insight that I found intriguing, not so much as a gamer, but rather as a woman. It’s incredibly commonplace that men in the world, even ones closest to us, do not realize that women have these hidden narratives that they’ve never stopped to consider. It never occurs to them that our lives are in any way unique or different from theirs. The idea of relating this back to game design and story development is a smart one. Video games are one of the avenues of interactive media that could do so much better at peeking into the kinds of stories women navigate and centralizing them as important. We’ve seen so much discussion lately about the lack of women protagonists in games as well as a lack of women in the game industry. Allowing more women to be game creators as well as seeing ourselves represented not only reinforces the notion that we are human to the world, but lifts the veil on how our experiences might differ.

It is in this vein that I welcome Ninja Pizza Girl into the world – I believe that teen girls are one of the pockets of womanhood most needing of stories to be told (though I still feel the market is only making baby steps and still trends towards white, affluent and the like). It’s the father’s own admission of fault in taking his wife and children for granted and not listening enough that reminds me of the interview that we did on Justice Points with Fullbright Company’s Steve Gaynor and Karla Zimonja. Steve said that one of the things he took the most care to do when crafting Gone Home‘s narrative was interviewing queer women about being teens, as it was not something he had personal experience with. Jason not taking this tactic from the start is something he admits fault to and through the course of the article, outlines his own steps to rectify this. This is good – men realizing that they need to listen to the women in their lives in order to actually understand them.

It was this listening that informed Jason’s decision to turn the enemy of the story from rival pizza ninjas that you kill to something far scarier – other teens working for a pizza corporation that would tease and humiliate you. The bullying and how you deal with it is what determines how much of the game you spend in a more gray, colorless world of your own depression or in a world full of joy and brighter hues. I find this mechanic, as well as some of the ways the game rewards you for handling it (running away is definitely an option) really interesting. As someone who was very viciously bullied from middle school onward, the idea of centering a game around bullying as not only a narrative struggle but a combat mechanic seems a very unexplored but necessary “hook.” What really woke me up to the fact that being a teen girl now was significantly different than my experience was the mention of the protagonist, Gemma, having to fend off bullies phone-cam recording one of her ultimate embarrassing moments. The cultural touchstone of recording video with your phone is not lost on me, but it shook me out of my own reminiscing. I never, ever had to deal with other people, people who were seeking to hurt me, recording things without my knowledge and distributing them to a very, very large audience. With the recent news of Jada and looking back to something like Steubenville, it’s on my mind that teen girls being brutalized is aided and immortalized by the advent of digital technology. It was literally not something I had to deal with when I was a teen. It feels like more so now than ever, we need to start seeing young women as people and less as props for tormenting.

It was these types of things, along with the story of a parent humiliating a teen girl to suicide on Facebook, that hung around my head as I read. I was wondering if Stark would talk about mens’ role in being both abusers and harassers to teen girls, especially given the opening anecdote, but it never came. It seems the idea of bullies in the game (as well as the article) stops at a generic “other teens” but specifically mentions his own daughters dealing with the politics of other teen girls. This quote specifically jumped out at me:

Little girls start learning psychological games at the age of eight and master them by the age of fifteen.

It specifically refers to his youngest daughter losing some of her female friends due to internal politics, something I think a lot of us can relate to, but Jason lacking an understanding that many of us have now. It was this quote in particular that made me somewhat skeptical of his ability to grasp the subject matter that he was building his game upon.  While he may recognize that the things his daughters are going through actually happen, the larger context for them is missing. It’s a pretty common narrative that women are intensely catty, psychological torturers and “girl bullying” is a phrase I’ve oft heard over the years. With the aid of the Internet, there’s been a lot of scare stories about a bunch of girls smearing the reputation of another girl for some real or imagined slight. What I never heard was recognition of is why this stuff happens; to truly understand why girls bullying each other, you have to admit that sexism is real and is internalized in women from a very early age. When girls hit puberty,  we suck the light out of them. They lose enthusiasm for math, science and just about anything else. They have the world’s sexual expectations thrust upon them without being asked if they want it or understand it. Girls become increasingly hostile and political among each other but it’s for reasons that Stark didn’t note, which implied a well-worn narrative. Girls tear each other down due to internalizing the messages that we as a society tell them every day from the moment we decide they are girls: that they suck. Not only that, but that every other girl is an enemy because there is a valuable and finite resource called “men’s attention.” We reinforce notions that women are catty, will steal your “man” and cause you not to trust them. We teach them to be docile, to not speak up and that their problems aren’t worth hearing about, let alone resolving in a straightforward or assertive manner.  We break them apart because it keeps them compliant and without a support network.

All of these things are why, despite chipping into Ninja Pizza Girl‘s funding, I will be keeping a close eye on how the game will play. Because for all of the things I think it could do right, Jason Stark’s good intentions but ultimate lack of experience with the narrative of growing up as a girl still will be lingering there. I don’t think ill of him for this, but it makes me wonder how this could have been done by someone who had to jump and fly away from her own bullies way back when.

 

Interlude: Oh, But It Is Social Justice

I know that the dust has barely settled on my post about leaving WoW but I felt the need to say something, especially with this week being E3 and pretty much dropping jewels at my feet to talk about. There’s several large stories that I’d love to cover in more depth (and probably will on Justice Points) but given the lack of time this week, I just wanted to highlight someone who was saying these things, especially regarding Ubisoft’s admission that they did not include a woman in their upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Unity multi-player (or even as a main protagonist).

Ashelia is someone I don’t agree with sometimes, but I feel this article in particular hits a lot of right notes. The only thing I really disagree with though is this:

Honestly, it’s not even about women’s rights or so-called social justice at this point, either.

I hate criticizing women in games journalism but I feel this sentence really bears harping upon. I don’t want to speculate about why this was put here, but this is a common admission from quite a few women over the years. This isn’t unique to just Ashelia’s work, basically. But it is pretty untrue, in my opinion. I get not wanting to be seen as one of those “crazy” “feminists” that scream and cry about inclusion in video games, despite espousing feminist virtues for the other thousand words in the article. Not embracing that identity is someone’s choice, but to say that not including women in video games isn’t a women’s rights or is “so-called” social justice (by the way, social justice is an academic term that became more popular in the 1970s but has roots in pre-20th century discourse) is just flat out wrong in my eyes.

People seem to want to restrain caring about women to a couple of subjects like voting rights, the wage gap and possibly parental leave but do not think it includes media representation. As someone who has been hammering on these topics for almost four years now, I say that it does! How we feel about ourselves, whether we see ourselves as important absolutely demands that we see ourselves in the media we consume. It validates ideas that people internalize – if you fail to include women (or people of color, disabled people, trans people, etc) you are saying that they are not important, that their stories are less worthy of recognition. The fact that video games is one of the fastest growing forms of media (as well as experienced by an audience that’s 48% women) means that this absolutely is a crucial place for representation and diversity. This means that it is absolutely a social justice issue.

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This week has kinda gotten away from me, but I wanted to just say that I will be tackling some of E3’s offerings in the coming days.