The most recent episode of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, “Lingerie is Not Armor” (2.3), follows up on its predecessor, “Body Language and the Male Gaze,” with a specific example of how videogames exploit the male gaze in order to—I guess—attract potential consumers in the coveted 15-35 straight, white male demographic.
I am a personal anti-fan of the metal bikini which shows up ad nauseum in fantasy games, particularly in World of Warcraft and often on night elves. But the metal bikini is just one example of idiotic female outfits, including snipers with boob-windows built into their outfits (Metal Gear Solid), booty shorts worn to investigate ancient tombs (Tomb Raider, prior to the 2013 reboot), and really tight bodysuits (Catwoman in Arkham City). And that’s just the first things that popped into my mind.
Sarkeesian uses a commercial featuring a cat-suit clad Joanna Dark, and then shows a mock-commercial which makes fun of this trope by featuring a hyper-masculine cartoon character, asking what he’s going to wear while he saves the world. It’s cute. And not entirely inappropriate, given some of the old commercials I’ve seen, particularly for old Tomb Raider games in the 1990s and early 2000s until Crystal Dynamics rebooted Lara Croft with pants.
Sarkeesian goes on to feature a particularly egregious perpetrator of the metal bikini trope in Soul Caliber (2008), and I have to say, I cannot imagine anyone—except possibly a BDSM mistress who really likes wedgies—actually wearing that outfit, much less in combat, since it would have to literally be superglued on to make those little stringy bits of fabric stay in place while moving. It’s awful. But, you might be tempted to say, that’s from 2008! We totally know better now.
But, clearly, we don’t. (And by “we” I mean the designers catering to that imagined pubescent male demographic that somehow all publishers think is a goldmine.) The next game on the list is from 2014 (Ultra Street Fighter), and features a street fighter in a thong.
And then we go through an actual rapid-fire list of awful outfits from a variety of games and genres over the last twenty years. And that’s just a handful of what must be nearly hundreds of games. (Admittedly, it also includes a clip from The Witcher 2 in which one of the characters is actively mocking another for not having on enough armor for combat—clearly satire rather than intentional titillation.)
And then there’s Bayonetta (2010). I know there are a lot of people who really love that game. I know there are a lot of people who believe that the way her sexuality is used—literally, in the embodiment of her hair, which is both her clothing and a weapon—is empowering. I don’t get it, at all, and neither does Sarkeesian, but I do know that there are some interesting arguments to be made about it, so I’m not going to condemn it outright here. However, Sarkeesian does point out that Bayonetta participates in a kind of misleading cultural practice of equating female power with sexuality—the femme fatale—in which sexuality becomes the key for women to access power. What this also means is that women who don’t exploit their sexuality lose power—or, rather, that women’s sexuality becomes aligned in such cultural artifacts with power to such a degree that the only power women are permitted must be sexual. And that is a problem, not explicitly within the context of the game, but because it presumes that women in power must also be highly sexual beings who used that sexuality to gain power—therefore, colloquially, “she must have slept her way to the top.”
Now neither I nor Sarkeesian is saying that Bayonetta makes the argument that women can only achieve power if they sleep their way into it—what we’re saying is that the pervasiveness of depictions like that in Bayonetta creates certain presumptions in the collective social consciousness that makes that presumption a part of our cultural capital. Women can only reach positions of power if they’re willing to bargain their sexuality for them—either by literally prostituting themselves for it, or by being willing to inhabit sexualized positions for the benefit and pleasure of others (usually men) by wearing sexy outfits or behaving in ways which maximize others’ perceptions of their own masculine virility.
Sarkeesian shows a series of female athletes in a variety of attire to demonstrate that context is the key—there are women in track, for instance, who wear not as much clothing as women in Judo, but that makes sense. She also makes the point that the problem of clothing is that it isn’t the amount of clothing so much as it is the sexualization of clothing that isn’t appropriate in context. She also presents several examples of sexuality that isn’t problematically sexualized—and then some which she believes are (although I’d argue that some of the latter are less problematic than she suggests). The overall point is that it isn’t sexuality that’s the problem—it’s the exploitation of sexuality and “sexiness” that causes issues.
This is not a problem, by the way, that can be laid at the door of videogames. Videogames are as much a symptom as they are a perpetuation of the problem—this happens on tv, in film, in books, in music, etc. It’s a ubiquitous part of modern American culture. But just because it happens everywhere does not mean that we should just shrug and accept it—I’d really prefer to see less of it, thank you very much. And we are—tv shows like How to Get Away with Murder are showcasing powerful women who aren’t exclusively featured for their sexuality (although Viola Davis is pretty hot), nor are their achievements attributed to being the wife/girlfriend/lover of a male in power.
Sadly, though, many videogames continue to demonstrate that they’re still stuck sometime in the 1980s or 1990s by featuring outfits like Quiet’s in Metal Gear Solid V, which is clearly a practical sniper’s outfit. The argument that “she picked it” (which she didn’t, since she’s a digital construct) just doesn’t fly with me—not only is Quiet’s outfit impractical in the extreme, but it’s clearly only there for the pleasure of a presumed-straight male audience. The assertion in the game that “she breathes through her skin” is about as idiotic a justification for overt sexualization that I’ve ever heard (and Sarkeesian says pretty much the same thing). If you’re going to make a person or alien or something that breathes through its skin, great—but don’t use it as a justification for putting exposed breasts in media.
The idiocy of some of the “reasons” for these outfits only compounds the idea that their presence in games is a kind of aesthetic temper-tantrum being thrown by male developers for the benefit of male players who don’t want those nasty feminists ruining their games by putting clothes on the female characters (clothes which, by the way, have nothing to do with the gameplay or content 99.99% of the time).
Just for the sake of argument, let’s say that you’re making a game which takes place entirely on a resort beach. In that case, it would be realistic for all the women to be wearing bathing suits—many of them bikinis. Even then, however, I might suggest that such a game is intentionally choosing a situation in which it is “allowed” to sexualize women (depending, of course, on the game) so that when someone like Sarkeesian points it out, they can wave their hands and say “But it’s normal to wear a bikini to the beach! You’re just being an uppity feminist!”
Here’s the thing. In some cases, there are “legitimate” excuses for why a female character might not be wearing a lot of clothing (and no, “breathing through her skin” is not one of them). She might be at a beach, or she might be a Victorian prostitute, a Restoration-era actress, or on a tropical island in booty shorts and a tank top. Irrespective of the justification, we live in a culture where the objectification of women is a serious social problem, and when games create justifications for perpetuating that, they are not only participating in that culture, they are exacerbating it when they do so in an intentionally exploitative way—when a bikini is a reward (as at the end of the original Metroid) or the outfit is far more revealing than necessary (I’m not listing all the examples of this) or there is no need to include random prostitutes or bikini-clad-women other than to throw in a little bit of cleavage (also not listing all the examples of this).
Does this mean that women in games should all we wearing blocky business suits and button-down shirts or full body armor? Not if that isn’t appropriate attire. If you’re a combat specialist—like, say, the women in Halo Reach or Gears of War 3—then yes, body armor is a good choice. If you’re a spy, however, then it might be appropriate to wear an evening gown and heels on occasion. If you’re Lara Croft in Siberia, you ought to be wearing a parka (thank you, Rise of the Tomb Raider), but when you get to the thermal valley, something like a tanktop and cargo pants is more appropriate.
And yes, there are male characters who are sometimes put into equally stupid outfits—but not nearly as often. In fact, the relative infrequency with which male characters wear ludicrously revealing clothing is so scant as to be barely worth commenting on (although a banana-hammock is also really not appropriate combat-wear, either). But in Western culture, men are not the primary targets of objectification and sexism, so when male characters are featured in stupidly revealing clothing, it doesn’t do the same kind of social harm, and that’s why when we talk about the problems of metal bikinis, we aren’t talking about the guy in the steel thong.