Bayonetta – Love the Woman, Hate the Gaze

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Bayonetta, a magical woman who wears hyper sexualised outfits and becomes near naked when using her most powerful attacks. She’s a completely unrealistically proportioned woman, with curves, breasts and a backside that no human could ever achieve. She’s crafted to a very feminized idea of perfection. Oh, and she’s constantly suggestively sucking on a small lollipop. If you’ve not played either of the games in the Bayonetta series you’d be forgiven for assuming that this was another straight forward case of female objectification within video games without any redeeming qualities.

What might surprise you is there’s actually a raging debate on the internet, respectfully carried out between those who feel Bayonetta is a feminist icon for the medium and those who think her games are defined by their pure reproduction of the male gaze. So, time to explain both sides of this debate with an equal level of depth.

Bayonetta the Feminist Icon

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Let’s start with the benefits of Bayonetta’s portrayal. Put simply, she’s an empowering female character because of the confidence with which she chooses to use her body. The provocative manner in which she uses her body is a means of control, a weapon, a challenge to those around her. She’s sexy, but she’s also a badass who knows how to handle her sexuality just as skillfully as any other weapon at her disposal.

The view of Bayonetta as a figure of empowerment comes from the level of agency we attribute to her as a character making decisions, rather than assigning that agency to the largely male creative team behind her. We make the connection that the as a character wants to tease you, to hold back just as much of herself as she wants and to weaponise herself in the manner that she does. We effectively assign her actions to a woman, a woman making her own choices about how to utilize her looks and more power to her for using her femininity as a calculated weapon.

She’s an over the top character in an over the top world. Her sexualisation is the literal source of her strength rather than something used to imply weakness. She’s the example that sexualisation does not have to come at the expense of empowerment. Her sexuality isn’t inherently bad, as she controls it in a way that acts as an internal critique of it’s own use. She is a feminine woman, but one who understands how crazy her world is and allows her sexuality to be as much of an over the top aspect of the world as everything around her.

Bayonetta as Male Gaze Reproduction

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So, why do some people feel Bayonetta and the games she appears in are detrimental to the representation of women in video games? It’s primarily due to the fact that the game’s camera in cutscenes is given agency, it’s treated as the agency of the largely male staff on the game, and it’s treated as a critique free reproduction of the male gaze.

As Bayonetta throws her guns into the air we see the camera pan up her legs, across her crotch and rise to linger on her breasts, before eventually capturing the moment she snatches her weapon from mid air. When she transforms, attacks or walks it’s the same, the camera lingers for extended periods of time.

It screams of a male creative team designing a character to be objectifiable, then using the camera to explore her to their heart’s content.

Bayonetta as a character has no agency, any agency she appears to have is that of her creators. She acts the way she does not to empower herself, but because a creative team infatuated with the idea of objectification had control of her every movement and from what perspective we saw everything she did.

The camera acts as reproduction of the male gaze and without any agency of her own, Bayonetta cannot perform responsible internal critique of the lens through which she is viewed. The camera’s gaze and the creator’s choices are not critiqued knowingly within the media, meaning she is reproduction of the male gaze without transcending that to become an example of positive female portrayals.

So, Which Side Am I On?

I fall somewhere in the middle personally. While I think the camera at times can perpetuate critique-less objectification of Bayonetta as a female character, I ultimately give her as a character agency over her actions. For me, I am able to ignore the creative process that resulted in her creation and look at her as a fictional character written with the internal consistency needed to relate her actions to an actual person. She is designed to be sexualised,but written in such as way that every little nod, every walk and every sentance reinforce a character aware you’re going to try to objectify her. She’s written to know and take advantage of her own objectification, and ultimately I find that aspirational.

I wish I had that kind of confidence when it came to my body. I wish I were as badass as her AND as good looking as her AND as confident as her when it came to who I am and how I am seen by others. She inspires me, and that’s enough for me to praise her representation.

That said, I totally understand if you disagree, the camera can be pretty leery at times.

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2 thoughts on “Bayonetta – Love the Woman, Hate the Gaze

  1. I agree fully. I do think that people on the male gaze side should remember that the long pan up shots are a serious Japanese trope. In anime, the person holding the camera would most likely have underwear on his head and be getting nose bleeds. It is not an American game and they should give some consideration to what non-westerners would be expecting in their games.

  2. I think I’d be in the middle, except the camera really is not just performing ‘gaze’ objectification; it is ‘creepy unblinking stare’. When the cutscene camera is taking a roller coaster ride around her butt and crotch it just feels intrusive. I think, for me, the instances where the camera flies around very close in a very probing way robs the character of ultimate agency. When the camera is further and she is being her incontrol sassy self, that is empowering. But the ‘close flybys’ are not her agency at work. Its as if a first person told story is snached away and some 3rd agency is at work. In those moments it robs the player of the view that Bayonetta is in control of her own image.

    I just don’t think I can land in the middle when the creator’s objective is not often so far away from empowerment.

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