The Double Standard of the Sexualized Video Game Characters Debate
Since its inception, video games have been the source of countless debates and controversies. One of the longest on going debates has been the presence of sexist character designs. On one side of the debate are people arguing that female characters with disproportional breasts and butts and/or showing a lot of skin are sexist and need to be changed. The other side argues freedom of artistic expression is more important.
Here's the thing: the objectification and over sexualization of female game characters is sexist. However, calling for censorship is not the answer. Rather, people upset with these character designs should vote with their wallets and not purchase the game. Essentially, let the market regulate itself. People can also write to the developers expressing their distaste, support games with characters that aren’t sexist, or any other response that doesn’t call for censorship.
But regardless of where you stand on this debate, there is a glaring double standard that needs to be addressed:
Real women can be sexy, but not fictional women.
A great movement that has been happening within feminism is the liberation of female sexuality. For decades, the female body itself had to be kept hidden because the idea of female sexuality was so taboo that any shown skin would be a scandal.
Thanks to the work of pioneering feminists, it has been slowly, but surely becoming more acceptable for women to embrace their sexuality. The idea of body positivity, loving how you look and wearing whatever you want, has also been brought to the spotlight in recent years. However, these ideas have not been extended to women in video games. With games, if a woman is sexy or showing "too much" skin, the game designers are sexist for creating such a character.
The popular argument is the male gaze; female game characters of this nature are performing for men. Their sexuality is not their own. While this certainly applies to characters who are created for the sole purpose of pandering to an immature audience by sticking boobs and butts in the player's face, the male gaze argument doesn't hold up when it's a player controlled character.
Video games are an active medium. Player interaction is essential. And the player’s window into the game world is the character. When you play a game, you step into the shoes of the character. You take on that role. Once that happens, once you become the character, the male gaze cannot apply because the character is not performing for the men sitting there watching, she is performing for herself. A perfect example of this is Bayonetta.
Bayonetta is confident, sassy, and flaunts her sex appeal throughout her games. She’s often pinned as being a sexist character for being too sexy, but why? Why shouldn’t a woman be able to celebrate their own sexuality? What’s so shameful about the female body that a woman must be fully covered all the time least their design be sexist?
Another character whose design has been called sexist is Lightning from Final Fantasy XIII. She is in many ways the opposite of Bayonetta. She’s withdrawn, harsh, temperamental, and sometimes downright cruel. There isn’t anything inherently sexy about her personality or character in general. Except for the fact that she is wearing short shorts? I have a pair of shorts that length and I like to wear them because they are comfy and I look good in them. A woman wearing short shorts. The horror!
But why? Lightning is focused, grounded, and sharp. Lightning is consistently shown to be, in many ways, the most capable out of the group of heroes.* But no, let’s reduce her entire character to a pair of legs. That’s not sexist or anything.
Sexism does exist in games. There are such things as problematic, sexist character models. However, the debate revolves almost exclusively around two things: the size of the woman’s butt and breasts, and how much overall skin they are showing.
In Bioshock Infinite, lead character Elizabeth's outfit caused a stir because it was deemed revealing and so sexist. The problem with this argument is it completely ignores the context. Elizabeth starts out wearing a conservative dress and only changes because her original gets soaked in blood. She outright says that the new dress was the only thing available for her to change into and is noticeably uncomfortable in it. She starts out the game naïve and innocent, which gets destroyed as the game goes on. Changing into the more revealing dress that accentuates her breasts represents Elizabeth's sudden and depressing transition into a world weary adult. The outfit is supposed to be a jarring change and look uncomfortable. This is another example of why context is so important. The debate needs to move toward in depth character analysis and away from knee-jerk reactions to women showing skin and a wide-sweeping gesture to all characters that fit a poorly defined description of what is and isn't acceptable and label them sexist.
Women of all shapes and sizes wear a variety of outfits in public because they want to and/or because they want to destroy the stigma associated with the female body and sexuality. Fellow feminists will embrace and support these women, but then recoil in terror at the sight of a female game character wearing shorts. Video games have come a long way. Yes, they still have a ways to go, and yes there are instances of sexism in games, but we need to move passed the lazy association between showing skin and sexism, and move towards more thoughtful debates about how women are portrayed in games.
I focused entirely on female characters in this article. I'll be looking at popular male characters portrayals in a future article. (Unfortunately, I haven't come across many non binary characters. If you have, please say so in the comments so I can check the game(s) out and maybe write a follow up piece down the line.)
*Note: I’m basing this only on the first game because I haven’t played either sequel and so do not feel that I can accurately comment on her character in those games.