The upcoming Dragon’s Crown has a pair of ridiculously oversexualized female characters. If you’ve been paying attention to the internet, you may have noticed a small circle of stupidity revolving around those characters. If you haven’t heard of it, some dude at Kotaku said some stupid things about the character designer, said character designer posted some stupid things about Kotaku Dude, everyone apologized. As a whole, the event’s not really worth paying much attention to, so of course video game media is all over this.
It did get me thinking, though. Sexism, against both genders, is very prevalent in our modern entertainment. Video games are no different. We, as a culture, need some good discussion about this sexism, yet it’s almost impossible to have. Both sides of the argument gets so stupidly aggressive whenever it comes up that even if there are good points, they’ve already burnt their bridges and ruined any hope of getting anyone to listen. Video game news sites aren’t any better. So many of them have posted so many ill thought out editorials in blatant attempts at getting hits that it’s next to impossible to tell when an honest attempt at advancing the discourse is being made.
Luckily for everyone, I’m here. I’m still pretty new at this whole blogging thing, and I’m probably not that good at it yet, so I’m not going to be able to end sexism in gaming with a single post just yet. Instead, we’re going to start pretty small, and with a subject matter I know well. Today, we’ll be talking about sexiness in games. Specifically sexy woman characters. If you know anything about me, you know I’m the closest thing we have to proof that God really did create mankind in His own image. I figure that makes me the most qualified to talk about the issue of sexualization in games.
It’s no secret that women characters tend to get sexualized far more than men in creative works. Video games are no different. In fact, when dealing with artistically created characters, rather than something live action, character designers a lot more opportunity to serve up an extra serving of cheesecake. Character designers are given a lot of freedom in creating very generous proportions, gravity-defying outfits, and fantastical fashion sense. When freed from the need to entirely stick to reality, it’s no surprise that many character designers attempt to pack their characters with more supposed sexiness than one might ordinarily expect to find.
Are overly sexualized characters a bad thing? Not in and of themselves, no. After all, the human body is a beautiful, wondrous thing. Especially mine. Sexiness in characters is a tool available for artists to use as appropriate. The problem only comes when the tool is overused. You wouldn’t expect to see a carpenter using a power drill every opportunity they could, even when it doesn’t make sense, yet we’re seeing oversexualized women strewed around everywhere in video games. That’s really what’s causing the issue that has been at the center of much discussion about these types of characters, we’re seeing too much of it, and it’s too one sided. I’ve got no issue with sexy characters. In fact, it’s nice to have something to relate to in these video games. But just because I enjoy steak, it doesn’t mean I want it for every meal.
At one point in the Katawa Shoujo review, I stated something along the lines of “I do enjoy good cheesecake, so long as it’s used appropriately.” When it’s used right, I can really get behind some good fanservice. But that’s just it, it has to be “used right.” “When are the right times, and what is the right place to be breaking out skimpy costumes and bounce physics?” you ask. Good thing you did, because that’s exactly what I’m wanting to talk about here.
So what does it take for sexiness to really fit into a work? As always, that’s going to depend on both the context and the viewer, and is going to vary wildly in the ways they are applied. I’ve got a couple ideas of common factors that make it work here; how many of these apply is going to depend on the work and the skill of the artist. Sexuality is a very individualized thing, so there’s not going to be one set of rules that apply to all situations. That said, here are some common factors that I’ve found help make sexiness fit in more with a given work.
Fitting the Tone
Imagine this. You’re captain of the warship Bomberhead, and have been tracking down an intergalactic slave ring for going on twenty in-game hours now. Your time in the game’s been full of intrigue as you slowly unraveled clues and followed them across planets, slowly learning more and more about this dark cult that’s been at the center of it all. You finally find their headquarters, just in time for them to sacrifice the slaves they’ve collected and summon their foul god. Your only chance is to put your warship in orbit over their planet and bombard it, stripping the sphere of all life. But you’re not sure. That may take out the god, but it would also spill a lot of innocent blood as well. You turn to your crew for input. Your first mate Vaar, huge, hulking, and scarred up from your countless battles with this cult. Your ship’s counselor Cecil, whose eyes have already grown dark and morbid from the strain of taking the stress and problems of all the crew throughout their battles with the cult onto himself. Your gunnery chief Syrenne, with her skirt hiked up past her waist and her large breasts spilling from her inexplicably open uniform.
Did you see the moment where the drama fled from the situation like a gazelle before a hungry lion? The most common problem I’ve noted with the UBER-sexxxxxxy female characters is that games have a tendency to keep them sexed up in situations where it’s really not appropriate to the tone. Sexiness is distracting. That’s kind of the point of it. Moreover, it elicits certain moods and feelings that clash with many narrative tones. It is really hard to get into the mood a work is trying to instill when it keeps taunting you with cheesecake and telling you to ignore it in favor of what’s going on onscreen.
Tone can, of course, change wildly between events in a plot. With it changes how much sexiness you can get away with. Fun, light-hearted moments can get away with more provocative characters than can dark, dramatic ones. Different worlds can get away with different amounts, too. Take Bayonetta. The title character is oversexed in just about every way, but there was never much of an uproar about it because you’re never expected to take anything in the game seriously. For a world that plays everything straight, however, Bayonetta’s portrayal could be pretty offensive. Fantasy and Sci-fi worlds can likewise get away with more than can modern day settings. And, of course, romantic moments have a lot more leeway than the rest of the story might. Romance novel covers wouldn’t exist otherwise.
Of course, just because you’re creating a serious, modern, realistic plot doesn’t mean you have to eschew sexy characters entirely. You may just have to tone it down to what you might see in real life. After all, just because we’re confined to meatspace doesn’t mean we never see anyone dressing boldly, and I’ve been known to wear tight shirts or smart clothes a time or two myself. Realistic works just have to keep it to fairly realistic levels, to avoid the dissonance that results from seeing an outlandish-looking character in an otherwise serious work.
It’s really hard to argue that you’re objectifying something when the trait at question actively leads to them being less of an object. When used properly, there’s narrative value to be gained from sexualization as well.
As a culture, we put a lot of identity into our treatment of sex and sexuality. Various cultures treat sexiness in various ways, but it’s still true that a significant portion of their identity comes from their relationship to sex. In a lot of ways, this has just become instinctual. This has such an effect on us that a quick and easy way to underscore the differences between a fictional cultures and the one we’re all used to is to showcase the way the fictional culture views sex. Take the old comic series Elfquest, for example.
The elves of Elfquest are very sexually open, and rarely does any character fully cover their torso. Given some of the stuff the creators have come out with it later years, it seems likely that this is done partly out of the old fashioned author appeal, but the way its applied is very effective at emphasizing how alien the elven culture is to our own. Their different views on sex and showing skin create a sort of dissonance and help to establish how different their cultures are from what we’re used to.
Of course, relying on different treatments of sexuality alone to create this sense of difference is going to fall flat if your reader follows any sort of alternate sexuality already, so it’d probably be best to work with more than just this.
Writers have been using appearances to tell us about characters for millenia. We know that someone who wears a long coat is a badass, someone with glasses is smart, and someone who uses their left hand is unquestionably better than everyone else. Of the years of consuming media, most people have come to relate characterization to the showing of skin as well. Fictional men who bare their chests and arms value strength and the physical condition. Fictional women who show off skin are typically confident and socially adept. When used in this way, the appearance of a character is just another tool for the artist to use to enhance characterization. It does depend on context, though. Just like a man who shows up barechested to a black-tie affair is out of place, so too is a woman who joins the battlefield in a bikini.
I’ll admit it, I do like looking at sexy characters. I also hate inequality. So how do we fix inequality in video games without taking sexiness away? Let’s make everyone sexy. Men, women, whatever may be in between, everyone. There’s no complaining that women are being unfairly objectified when everyone’s treated the same way.
Besides, I’m really tired of always being forced to play as unsexy dudes. I do use video games as a form of escapism, yet if none of my avatars can be anywhere near as sexy as I am in real life, what’s the point? As I prove on a daily basis, men can be very sexy too, yet this fact is often ignored by designers. Honestly, I find the fact that only women are treated as eyecandy to be discriminatory to both genders. There’s a place for the gorgeous men in our media as well.
When everybody’s dressed the same, the scantily clad characters cease being base fanservice, and it instead becomes a general art style. When it’s just the general art style, the sexualization carries a lot more integrity and isn’t nearly as distracting, allowing the work to hit its major points without the T&A getting in the way.
I’m sure there are some more common factors behind being able to successfully pull of sexualized character designs. As always, it depends on the context and tones of the work, and it’s going to be next to impossible to create rules that apply to every situation. That said, creators really should put more thought into whether their sexualized character designs truly add to the work. In my view, for every one video game that uses sexualization properly, there are dozens of others where the sexy characters detract from what their going for. It’d be really nice to see that ratio get a little more even in the coming years.