so I bought Bayonetta 1+2 for the switch and started playing 1 this weekend. most (ok maybe not most but a lot) of what you hear about this game, if you’re checking typical places for game-thoughts, relates to the extremely good gameplay mechanics, which, you know, yeah, sure, obviously.
and playing the game only a little bit so far, I’m definitely down for that. I haven’t really played games like this since the original devil may cry and its first sequel (I played a hot minute of dmc3 when it came out and was atrociously bad at it, and thus my time with skill-heavy stylistic action went dormant) but this feels tremendously like a refinement and continuation of that legacy.
except that OG DMC was goth camp — camp in the sense of earnestness jacked up just an extra notch to become silly, but still fundamentally earnest about its edgy coolness (the nu-metal-guitar everywhere, the relatively straightfaced religious iconography, Dante’s cool-but-troubled self especially in the second game)
bayonetta (and I knew this of course, it’d be hard to buy the game without noticing this) is not goth camp; it’s pure, up-to-11 glorious psuedo-religious trash and knows it and winks at it and then goes even harder at it. this game is bizarre and surreal; it has what reads to me as a particularly Japanese silliness of the kind that I haven’t really experienced in games in years, mostly because I find it embarrassing to look at. it’s like how I feel about anime conventions — happy for those involved, always ready to leave
but as this metafilter thread outlines really interestingly in the pace of its conversation, and as will be obvious the instant you look at a screenshot or a video clip, bayonetta’s also troubling as hell in its depiction of women; much like pick your Joss Whedon thing here or like I dunno maybe Dusk ‘Til Dawn, it has a version of Empowered Female characterization that’s more like a male fantasy of an empowered female; a woman who’s written to have control and even domination over her identity and her situation, but who’s contextualized and filmed to be an object of male audience longing.
bayonetta’s extra weird compared to those examples I just gave though, because it’s so fucking cartoon-y. like I’m sure this stuff is sexually appealing to 15 year old boys, but to me the various times that bayonetta’s butt finds its way to the front of the camera or the absolutely ridiculous sexual positions she puts herself in in order to fire guns in various directions is principally goofy, like if bugs bunny had “sex appeal” on his list of defining character traits.
I say this of course as a chwm who doesn’t experience consistent demeaning objectification in this sort of medium, so my opinion means about this much ||. and that’s an interesting (and necessary) thing to wrestle with, how my distance and privilege allows me to formulate a version of the game that works for me aside from, or orthogonal to, the problematic elements. this is something that comes up with frequency in most media (there’s a reason I picked TV and movies as my side examples above) but it is pretty much unavoidable if you want to play any AAA video games ever.
as the owner of a Switch and no other modern-gen consoles I don’t even play that many AAA games, but it’s still inescapable. I mean even fucking mario still, still, has this problem with the very lazy treatment of the save-the-princess narrative. and again I can justify this by putting it into the context of mario’s history and saying it’s more about nostalgia and being playful about historical tropes than it is about literally victimizing Peach every single iteration of this series, but that’s something I get to do without much trouble because I’m not the identity being marginalized by the treatment
so the other thing worth noting about the MF thread I linked above is how privilege gets worked through in the back-and-forth, and how those raising the spectre of Bayonetta’s misogyny are placed in the position of having to forgive/accept those who don’t agree (“it’s fine”) as if their take on the game must be an attack on those who like it (thus abnormalizing it, making it the “other” position to take).
and the idea of bayonetta as a queer icon is really interesting; it’s a bit like how marilyn monroe’s a queer icon despite her entire aesthetic being engineered for the straight male gaze. I pick that example because I find it equally troubling in some intersectional respects, i.e. bayonetta being claimed by the queer community elides what she means as an object created by a straight male explicitly for the sexual gratification of an audience like him.
it’s really problematic to ignore the author in cases like this because you’re removing critical context for understanding how a character or a concept can offend or upset; video games are a medium heavily controlled by its adolescent male audience and the older-but-not-grown adolescent male minds that still create many of its biggest properties. what we do with bayonetta, by reprioritizing gameplay over aesthetic or claiming she’s an icon that can exist outside of the male gaze, is not just apologize for her existence but also pretend like no apology is really necessary. which sucks.
I say all of this without thinking my feelings about bayonetta (goofy rather than sexually appealing) are false, or that I (or anyone else) am not allowed to enjoy the game
MORAL: anita sarkeesian and the early tide of gamergate feels like a long time ago, now, but it’s always worth remembering that it was basically a microsecond ago in the mental development of the medium, and we’re all complicit in that in our own ways.
MORAL 2: for a very different and much more interesting genre-y take on religion, please go read kill six billion demons, it’s an extremely good comic. or if you want something good about female representation and genre tropes, go read strong female protagonist, which is also a Good Comic