Blog Post

Castrating the Straight Male Gaze on Bayonetta (or at least making room for other ones!)

First, a disclaimer: I'm nearly a year late to the party on Bayonetta. There are several reasons for this, and almost all of them boil down to grad school. I rediscovered the game recently while doing research for my prospectus, stumbling into Chris Dahlen's blog about Bayonetta's sexuality as a weapon. I usually don't dig oversexed vixens for my female characters, but something about Dahlen's piece piqued my curiosity. Black Friday sales made it a good time to purchase the title. My obsession took me through the game in three feverish days, and this behemoth post also emerged in remarkably short order.

The Cliff's Notes version of Bayonetta would sound something like the following: an unrealistically proportioned hypersexual witch hunts down angels using magic powered by her hair, which also serves as her primary means of clothing. The more powerful the attack, the more hair is shifted from modesty to destruction. Bayonetta brutally dispatches her heavenly foes to the bubbly sounds of J-pop, interjecting bondage-themed special attacks in between more traditional gun- and swordplay and pistols shooting from her heels.

You read that correctly. Bayonetta has handguns attached to high-heeled boots.

The blogosphere had a lot of conflicting feelings about Bayonetta's overt sexuality. Leigh Alexander wrote in defense of the character, arguing that the game's brand of stylized sexiness turns the female from object to subject - a move Alexander finds "tremendously empowering." Tiff Chow offers a more sedate perspective, claiming that the game doesn't celebrate sexuality so much as use it as window treatment. William Huber, on the other hand, singles Alexander out and comes down strongly against the kick-ass girl motif, which he finds "still ultimately [serves] male vanities and [plays] on female anxieties." Reading this final perspective inspired me to enter the conversation, even at this late time.

The major complaint I have about Bayonetta-as-scopophilic-object readings is the androcentric, heteronormative views that inform them. I am suspicious of the suggestion that the female avatar body is more possessible than the male avatar body, because it refuses the possibility of a system in which a human operator may not be male or straight or sexually engaged, in which the female avatar body may be a point of identification and insertion into the game world rather than a virtual inflatable doll. I am reading mostly from Huber here, who suggests that the absence of a male love interest renders the female avatar fully available to her (straight male) player, and that the presence of love objects for male avatars renders them conveniently inaccessible to similar player desires. In this view, the absence of evidence of heterosexuality, which in other situations may be a promising sign of independence or even queerness in a woman, guarantees heterosexual union for the straight male gamer.

Conversations about women's sexuality so often devolve into binaristic debates of good and bad, so I hope to nuance the perception of Bayonetta with my perspective on the game as a masculine-identified female queer game studies academic based in a literature program. Many of the arguments I'm tempted to make have been covered by Alexander, Chow, Farr, and Dahlen and their commentators, but one thing I find lacking in the discussion of Bayonetta is attention to the narrative details of the game and how Bayonetta relates to the player. Most perspectives take Bayonetta as an avatar in isolation, with some effort by Kim and Alexander to reconcile her position relative to other female game heroes. I want to take that further and look at how the game intervenes, perhaps in spite of the designers' intent, on the scopophilic lens with which most commentators consider Bayonetta.

There is a weird bookending phenomenon in this game that makes me feel like the sexuality is the hook and the sendoff, like narrative in the 8-bit era. After all, the most flagrant violations occur in the game's first chapter and during the credits. The first 30 minutes seems to be a litmus test for whether you throw away the game in disgust or get sucked in. In my wildest feminist fantasies, the sexual hook tempts the unenlightened into a journey that features a female hero that many rightfully identify as having more substance than most in video games.

While her sexuality is "predictable free and available" (Huber), it is also deadly to any who might accept the invitation. Many blog commentators are correct in noting that her advances (catcalls, bondage attacks, Climax finishing moves) are made toward the angels alone. The trope of the black widow is troubling in itself, but Bayonetta's sexualized deadliness is the basis for justice in a world corrupted by patriarchal power grown out of control. There is a hesitance to take the narrative of Bayonetta seriously, but for me it changes the tone of her sexualization.

Call me postmodern, but nonsensical plots don't bother me much. The relevant part for this discussion is the 500-year-old conflict between the all-female Umbra Witches and the all-male Lumen Sages, who orchestrated the mass extinction of the Witches and then manipulated history to bury their existence in myth. Lumen Sages are mediums for the heavenly forces above, while the Umbra Witches commune with the forces of darkness. The idea that these two clans must exist in perfect balance for the safety of the universe is heteronormative at best, but the association of the Lumen Sages with the Catholic Church turns the incomprehensible into something that I would consider actual resistance.

The majority of in-game action occurs in Vigrid, an isolationist European city-state ruled by the theocratic Ithavoll Group, a conglomerate whose spiritual leader is a Lumen Sage from so long ago. From its gleaming baroque architecture to the pious citizens and armed guards roaming the streets, Vigrid embodies patriarchal church authority. The angelic forces challenging Bayonetta descend amid the sounds of a Handelesque choir and organs. Each type of foe is classified according to a slightly modified version of the Celestial Hierarchy (called the Hierarchy of Laguna), is clad in golden armor, and attacks with weapons like trumpets and staves. Many of them wear boyish angelic masks and speak with booming male voices. I could go on to make the case, but the symbolism is quite heavy-handed.

Given the obvious connection between the fictional Vigrid and the real Vatican, the shadow of the Church's historical oppression of women (and queers) on the basis of sexuality makes Bayonetta's over-the-top moveset quite appropriate. She dismantles the Laguna hierarchy with the very sexual energy that its real-world counterpart leverages as a means of control. As a sex-positive feminist and lesbian to boot, I found this intensely satisfying. Bayonetta's most erotic poses coincide with her deadliest attacks. My favorite example of this is the infamous crotch-shots in one of the game's opening cinematics (start at 6:17).

After being suggestively stripped of her nun disguise while battling angels in a cemetery (the only time as far as I can remember that she makes moaning noises in the entire game), Bayonetta bends over to catch guns tossed by a sidekick. Gratuitous slow-motion shots ensue. As soon as the pace picks up, she launches herself, legs spread wide, into the nearest angel, mounting his face while killing his buddies. The angel survives this particular attack, but comes back for more and receives a face full of bullets from her newly-equipped heel guns.

This combination of sex and violence can be (and has been) read as the ultimate homage to male desire, but the specific character of that violence is important here. Her Torture attacks turn tools of the Witch Hunts (from Bayonetta's fiction as well as real world history) against her attackers. The Climax finishers reassign all but wisps of her tresses to a powerful attack, concealing the evidence of her womanly castration while turning her hair into a powerful, twisting phallic column that summons a demon from Hell.

Many of these demons are phallic in their own right, such as the serpentine Scolopendra (3:01) or Gomorrah the dragon (0:00). Others execute castrating attacks, like Hekatoncheir who dismembers Temperantia (1:14) or Malphas who repeatedly penetrates Fortitudo with its razor sharp beak (0:33). Then there is the battle against Iustitia, whose four tentacled faces meet gurgling, bloody, leg-crossing ends at Bayonetta's own hands:

Her sexuality is not merely violent; it is the monstrous sexuality of the castrating, devouring, vengeful woman. The combat of the game is steeped in male anxiety, and Bayonetta's exaggerated physical proportions takes her to the very edge of the uncanny. I have seen as many comments online about the freakishness of Bayonetta's proportions as about their sexiness.

Even if you do read her appropriation of the masculine principle of brutality as pandering to the audience, it's important to note that Bayonetta's relationship to cameras and seeing is not straightforward. Twitchy combo-driven combat mechanics ensure that Bayonetta as an avatar is usually a blur. The camera only slows to witness her most powerful, though not necessarily most sexual, attacks, and the photo-finish freeze frames that end a sequence of battles more often than not obscures Bayonetta in an explosion of bloody body parts. In terms of the game's diegesis, Bayonetta is completely invisible to everyone during sexy combat time except those meeting their doom. Even stalker Luka makes numerous attempts to freeze her image with his camera and fails (3:01).

Bayonetta has full control over the visibility of her body in her own world, as she has the freedom to move between dimensions at will.

This leaves the question of the gamer's perspective. Is her isolation just a peep show for the straight male player? Alexander maintains that Bayonetta is aware of the camera at all times. Higgin sees a few sly winks to reverse the gaze, but not much else. This is a question that I hesitate to answer with any certainty. Yes, you can walk her slowly around a non-combat arena to see the seductive swishing of her hips, but there is a real tension between the difficulty of viewing Bayonetta's body during player action and the ease of watching in moments of machinic action. At the same time, the player's control over Bayonetta ceases at the moment the register switches. Higgin has a point here: Bayonetta's moments of agency come at the price of pure objectification. He is also correct to observe that the bookends serve as a "comforting narrative frame" for the containment of her excessive power. Does this make the project a failure? I don't know. I tend to think the very need for a comforting narrative frame is a victory in itself.

Huber identifies boy-toy/stalker Luka as a potential straight male player-surrogate in the game, which I find plausible for various reasons, but especially because of his reference to dalliances with female characters from other Capcom games. This is a key place to look for Bayonetta's attitude toward her controller. Luka's obsession with Bayonetta is the Oedipal situation kicked in the crotch: as a child, he thinks he sees her murder his father, and this sends him on a life-long quest to find and expose her (as a witch), during which time she spends more time looking after him than making advances beyond the sensuality that is a part of her personality and a direct response to her patriarchal environment.

Their repartee can be considered flirtatious, but I'm not convinced she ever considers Luka more than a child. He is introduced in the game as a shameless, unsuccessful flirt who constantly struggles to get Bayonetta even to use his real name. I read the sexual tension between them as largely contained in Luka's fantasy. For example, in Chapter 5 (video above), Bayonetta launches herself at Luka unexpectedly (6:02). They fly through the air. Time slows down. Luka takes the opportunity to cop a feel. Bayonetta clutches his face to her bosom. They land, Luka on bottom and Bayonetta steadying herself with a sexy flourish, as the platform on which they had been standing gets destroyed by a falling pillar. Bayonetta leaps off of him without another word to battle the incoming foes that he can't even see. During Chapter 14, Bayonetta plays lookout while Luka flies their helicopter (0:29).

Upon being commanded to look, his response is a breathless, "Oh, I'm looking..." as another fantasy slow-motion sequence focuses on water dripping down Bayonetta's breasts.

Then they get blown apart by missiles.

Both of these examples emphasize the disconnect between Luka and the reality of what's going on around him. There is even the cliched near-kiss that ends in Luka's embarassment. Bayonetta never acknowledges his distractions, and is always more focused on slaughtering the next set of angels than paying mind to his desires.

I know it's a tough sell that Bayonetta might be disinterested in Luka's lust for her (there is that line about getting the right idea at the wrong time), but that feels like the point to me. Most people, especially the particular straight male gamer demographic that the game targets, are conditioned to accept that the sexy vixen is always playing for a straight male gaze. But let's not forget what Eve Ensler told us about short skirts - sometimes they are just for the wearer. For all of Luka's earnest efforts (really, two entire rosemary bushes to put on top of her coffin??), the closest he gets to Bayonetta's body is the grabass in Chapter 5. Bayonetta has big girl things to take care of, and this game leaves the player surrogate unfulfilled and looking more like a child for thinking she was ever within reach. If we're thinking about parallels between Luka and an assumed straight male gamer, it seems clear that the joke is on anyone who really thinks Bayonetta is dancing for him.

In fact, the game narrative codes heterosexual union as deviant and dangerous, even if its mechanics remain mute on this point. Bayonetta's very conception is a violation of the separation between Witches and Sages that plunges the world into war. Father Balder, the Lumen Sage at the head of Ithavoll and Bayonetta's father, seeks to unite his body with that of his daughter in an incestuous bid to resurrect the creator of the universe. He accomplishes this by luring her childhood self into his lap, and the resulting abomination nearly collapses the separate dimensions of their realities. Bayonetta (and the world) is only saved when her sometime rival Jeanne, another Umbra Witch, assists her out of the bodily union.

She finally won my heart eluding the trap that almost no female hero in any medium manages to escape: maternal bondage. When Father Balder reveals that the little girl entrusted to Bayonetta is, in fact, herself as a child, all of the tumblers click into place. Protecting Cereza unlocks Bayonetta's capacity to care for herself, not her ability to ensure the futurity of the species by creating a new generation. Her growing affection for the girl is actually directed inward, her combat skills put to use for her own advancement and not that of another. While she does require assistance to survive the endgame, it comes in the form of another Umbra Witch, a female figure with whom she is much more evenly matched intellectually, sexually, and in terms of actual power.

I'd like to pause here for a moment and recognize that none of the above analysis is without problems. The black widow, the inaccessible woman, the oversexed tease, the kickass chick these are all representations that have been used to oppress and objectify. Sexism, racism, and homophobia in the video game industry are serious concerns, and I doubt that the designers of this game had many thoughts about women's lib while making the character models. I don't think this is cause enough to chastise the women who recognize something empowering in her. Bayonetta certainly defied all of my expectations and passed many of the tests I put in place for female game heroes: a brutal, multi-faceted warrior, she ended up on top, single, childless, and with only a female companion to thank for her victory.

The balance of the successful female hero is so, so delicate. I think Bayonetta might have been an accident, and I fully expect her to be reclaimed by the hegemony in the upcoming sequel. All it takes is one kiss.

Tanner Higgin's comment on Twitter that the Bayonetta controversy is all about the clash between visual aesthetics and narrative is spot-on, and I will defer to his thoughtful post on the visual logic of the game. Ultimately, the story of Bayonetta and Jeanne reminds me of the 1970's softcore lesbian vampire film, The Vampire Lovers. Based on Joseph Sheridan LeFanu's Carmilla, the film adds vampires to the second-wave separatist lesbian feminist fantasy and turns the male gaze upon it. The girls are allowed to have their fun for a time in front of the camera, but the reality of patriarchal supremacy and the goodness of God eventually comes crashing down upon them. The difference in Bayonetta is that the bad girls actually win, and the kernel of feminist (lesbian?) resistance remains in their story despite attempts by the camera to strip them of it.

We should always push for more empowering and radical representations in mainstream gaming, but I don't think Bayonetta's carefully applied jiggle physics should disqualify her for consideration in this category. To say that she's a puppet without any fangs for the system is patently unfair. Taken in light of the narrative and player-avatar dynamics that refuse heterosexual union, there just might be more to this witch than meets the eye. I concede that it depends on who gets the joke and for that reason may not qualify as sufficiently radical, but even Gaga-style satire is only effective when people get it. I maintain that Bayonetta may be dancing for those of us who can appreciate a nice, wet tentacle castration.

Thanks to Tanner Higgin for indulging me in this conversation. :)


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