Making Men Uncomfortable: What Bayonetta Should Learn From Gaga

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Bayonetta. I gave up on it about a month ago, mostly because I found it tedious, incoherent, and punishing (purely from a receptive standpoint), but also because I felt embarrassed playing it. I found myself having to explain the indulgence to my partner, who, while sitting next to me on the couch or passing by the TV, would reel in horror as Bayonetta’s porn star Barbie body fought doll faced angels with stripper like finesse. From an outsider’s perspective, Bayonetta is an encapsulation of all that is wrong with videogames. But I don’t think that is entirely the case, and the shame I felt had more to do with the reception of my partner than what I was actually feeling while playing the game. In fact, quite unexpectedly, Bayonetta exhibits feminist resistances lacking from most other games; however, it is ultimately a failed project because these resistances are not adequately engaged with patriarchal hegemony. Or to put it another way, Bayonetta needs to learn from Lady Gaga.

Gaga’s Effective Parody

Consider this video (also posted below). In this interview a reporter asks, in characteristically vapid fashion, what Gaga is looking for in a man. Coldly and without hesitation, Gaga replies, “a big dick.” The reporter, a bit baffled and taken aback, attempts to clarify and Gaga reasserts that what she said is precisely what she intended.


(Sorry about the porn ad. I ripped this off another site and cannot locate a clean version.)

Alex Cho over at Flow provides a reading of this clip that is similar to my own. It’s worth quoting at length:

When a woman pop star with Lady Gaga’s visibility “has the balls” to declare in an interview that all she wants in a partner is “a big dick,” traditional discourses of gender and sexuality are shaken. On one level, she is taking a page out of a classic feminist playbook, turning the tables on men by reducing them to sex objects—indeed, even body parts—in the same way that women have been traditionally objectified. However, if we are to believe that Lady Gaga is consciously exposing the artifice of fame and celebrity through her own performativity, we can then also read this comment as targeted toward the same culture industry that catapults Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears to the top of the tabloid racks for mere genital obsession—indeed, the same culture industry that would demand the majority of Stephenson’s questions be about marriage and female reproduction.

What Cho perceptively identifies is how Gaga’s unique brand of feminism recalls earlier tactics of discursive power reversal as well as updates them in light of celebrity culture that often exploits sex positive feminism, twisting it into new forms of objectification. Gaga has made herself into a parody of the pop star, very adeptly maintaining a marketable facade of pop stereotype while exposing her persona’s limits by often making herself monstrous and threatening to the gender order.

Gaga, as with all good parody, uses imitation to gain access to audiences and then challenges them by calling into question political assumptions, values, and subject positions. What makes her particularly unique is the way in which her ire is directed acutely at patriarchal upheaval. As evidence by her big dick comment, she’s very invested in making men uncomfortable and attacking both literal and symbolic sites of patriarchal power.

Her feminist campaign has been so successful that an August 2009 concert sparked a vehement obsession with finding out the supposed hidden masculine truth of her sexual identity. Readers familiar with the foundational work of Laura Mulvey will recognize such obsession with mystery and truth as a classic symptom of castration anxiety and its attendant desire to control and suppress potential threats to the gender order.


In simpler terms, I see the continued rumors of Gaga’s hemaphrodism or transsexuality as a desperate technology of disbelief in the face of a kind of femininity that refuses to fit comfortably into its submissive role as object of pleasure. (Much to my disappointment, Gaga ended her subversively coy silence on the issue with a forceful display of her crotch in the video for “Telephone” in March, 2010.)

As a thinking and teaching tool Gaga is one of my favorite references, because, and I know this is tough for a critical academic to say, I think she gets things right. And I think Gaga’s feminism is a great example to use to work through the successes and failures of gamic representations of gender.

Bayonetta Studies, or, Whose Pleasure Is This?

In the interest then of using Gaga’s feminism as lens with which to examine games, let’s return to Bayonetta. Responding to Leigh Alexander’s defense of Bayonetta as “[taking] the video game sexy woman stereotype from object to subject” and Tae K. Kim’s affirmation of that defense, Tiff Chow argues that Bayonetta is “campy” and that “sexuality in the game is used most explicitly as decoration as opposed to celebration.” She also reminds us that the developers of the game are predominantly men and that the cinematic techniques employed quite literally slice up Bayonetta’s body into a porno-like spectacle.


I find my own position resides between these two poles. While playing Bayonetta, I was impressed by the assertiveness of the character and particularly her mocking relationship with the bumbling and submissive male protagonist, as well as her tense relationship with children. In my gaming experience, this is rare for a woman and, in the case of the parental discomfort Bayonetta displays, unprecedented. There’s no question that Bayonetta is a serious bad ass with a refreshingly devious moral code (she, very satisfyingly, is a charming demon that kills angels). From this perspective Bayonetta is quite similar to Gaga. She has the same charisma and control.

Yet there’s no question that the game industry, especially in terms of production, is masculinist and this is partly fueled by a lack of gender diversity in production. Most mass market videogames function under a regime of signification that appeals to a white hetereosexual masculine gaze. Bayonetta, as Chow points out, is undoubtedly involved in this regime of signification when examined closely. Her body is an ideal scopophilic object combining sexuality and violence into one perfect package of masculinist power fantasy. And as Chow describes, the objectification does not stop at the character model, but continues through an incessant use of close ups on Bayonetta’s breasts, buttocks, legs, and crotch exacerbated by movements and gestures inarguably derived from exotic dancing.

One could view the excess of Bayonetta’s sexuality as a kind of camp, sneaking critique in the backdoor. The problem with this position, and here we return to Gaga, is that I simply don’t see the critique. Where are the moments of resistance and discomfort? When is the gaze reversed on the player (beyond a playful wink at the camera)? When is patriarchy attacked? (And these are actual questions. Please comment if you have a perspective on this.) Without overt moments of resistance, or, intentional moments of masculinist anxiety or discomfort, both the power of Bayonetta and her campy nature simply fall back into masculine pleasure.

Chris Dahlen thinks there’s potential within this apparent objectification though. He sees Bayonetta as a kind of pop star that wouldn’t be so out place at an awards show and isn’t nearly as bad as some other game characters. In his view, men who are offended by Bayonetta and “condemn her” are “scared they’ll like her.” I certainly sympathize with Dahlen’s defense of Bayonetta because I think he’s concerned, although he doesn’t make mention of it, about the possibility of backlash over games like Bayonetta limiting artistic expression in games through a similar stigmatization of sex as has occurred with violence.

In support of his argument, Dahlen deploys a picture of Ziggy Stardust era Bowie as a political analog to Bayonetta. What’s wrong with this analogy though is that someone like Bowie is condemned not because he’s offending or challenging progressive/PC sensibilities, but because he’s violating regressive classifications; he’s refusing to play to type (so to speak) and creatively doing so under the watch of homophobes. Bowie is bending and toying with gender. He’s using his stardom and his persona as a delivery mechanism for gender alternatives. Bayonetta is not challenging any limitations because she fits perfectly into an already existing system of classification. Instead, she’s testing the tolerance of feminists. We’re not afraid we’ll like her; we haven’t liked her in her other incarnations.

Whereas Bowie embodies a boundary crossing, Bayonetta operates quite safely within acceptable patriarchal representational restrictions. If you doubt this browse message board or YouTube discussion about Bayonetta. Players are not complaining about having to play as a woman. Men often claim they prefer to play as women because of “the view,” i.e. they derive pleasure from looking at a female avatar. (Consider all of the similar examples of tough sexy women in other games, especially the fighting game genre.) The struggle is not to get men to play with women but to transform their relationship to women. Bayonetta’s sex-violence fantasy is an amalgamation of already existing oppressive styles of signification that privilege masculine desire and fantasy.


Against the Masculine Pleasure Principle in Games

Thus Bayonetta is not Bowie and it’s not Gaga. While Bayonetta does offer us a powerful and significant woman, the game does little to disrupt power structures or make men uncomfortable. It provides what little liberation it can (as noted above) while remaining most distinctly an object of pleasure for men. While Bayonetta may have gained more attitude and narrative power than a character like Lara Croft, the price is more severe sexual spectacle. It’s proportionate; the tougher a woman gets the sexier she gets. What we need is to violate this formula. We need “big dick” moments where a tough and sexually objectified woman sneaks into a game, enters a household, and then truly provokes the player. I want games that prove difficult for people in the same way a live performance art piece does. I want men’s men to shift in their seats, not to get turned on.

So while I ultimately disagree with Dahlen’s premise that critics of Bayonetta are worried about her “overpowering femininity” (since I don’t see her as offering that representation nor do I believe this is what people are upset about), I think Dahlen is getting at what a possible productive future of gender in games could be. The notion of pulling a Gaga and seducing gamers within a parody of tradition, and then turning the tables on them would make for a truly progressive gaming experience. The problem is so few games have successfully accomplished this. Why? Because of the tyranny of fun. To challenge gamers, or to introduce difficulty into gameplay, violates an implicit consumer contract between developer and gamer designed solely around pleasure and value. Gaga, whose performance extends from videos to concerts to interviews to music and beyond has more opportunities for subversion and more leeway, while games, limited to the singular digital object, have to be less risky.

Raiden as Resistance?

There are examples to turn to, however. Certainly Samus of Metroid fame, in her first incarnation, was a brilliant turn of transgender identification along with gender empowerment, and perhaps is the first example of this kind of identification in a game. But an even better example is found in the Metal Gear Solid series, one of my favorite references, and a series that admittedly has its own attendant issues of gender representation. I find the series compelling because each game challenges the player affectively and ideologically. One of the most famous controversies surrounding the series, the introduction of Raiden as the main character of Metal Gear Solid 2, is both an example of resistance to the pleasure principle of game design and progressive gender representation. Metal Gear Solid was a massive success on the PlayStation fashioning the main character, traditional masculine hero Solid Snake, into one of Sony’s franchise characters. Metal Gear Solid 2, the much anticipated PlayStation 2 follow-up, was expected to once again feature the beloved Solid Snake. Much to the fanbase’s surprise and subsequent horror, Solid Snake was relegated to a minor role in support of the new lead character Raiden, a comparatively feminine character. In a game narratively focused on power, control, and deception, and in a series which explicitly references the struggle between game designer and player, this choice is no accident. The brilliance of Raiden in Metal Gear Solid 2 is how it forces the player, who previously reveled in the hyper-masculinity of Solid Snake, to identify with a very Bowie-like avatar (to use Dahlen’s excellent example).

Nothing like this is happening in Bayonetta, but it should be.


Thanks to Amanda Phillips for the inspiration (even if we disagree!).

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14 Responses to “Making Men Uncomfortable: What Bayonetta Should Learn From Gaga”
  1. Nina Huntemann 2 December 2010 at 2:04 pm #

    Great post Tanner! I picked up Bayonetta again over Thanksgiving break to give it another go, but just couldn’t sit with it for more than a half hour. Your comments reflect my read of the game as empty post-feminist discourse that “empowers” (instead of victimizing) women through sex and violence. However, instead of shame I felt embarrassed for Bayonetta. She is so ridiculous and so obviously a fetishized object of the male gaze with no paradigm-shifting power, that I cannot look past her character, as I have done so many other female avatars. I’d rather mute the one-liners, lose the cut scenes, put her in a running suit. Then, perhaps, I could enjoy the game for its interesting (though ultimately repetitive) fight combos. Or, I could just play Devil May Cry again.

  2. Amanda Phillips 4 December 2010 at 2:10 am #

    This is a great read, Tanner, and I can’t say I disagree with your argument at many points. My response is just about finished but I’d like to offer some real leg-crossing moments from the game that somehow don’t fit into my own discussion: did you get as far as all the tentacle references? Funniest line in the game is her nudge-nudge acknowledgment that we all have hentai in the back of our heads. “Tentacles?? Why did it have to be… tentacles?”

    This of course occurs as she’s peeling off the slimey remains of a tentacle she has bested in battle. It’s a great setup for the really grotesque tentacle castrations that happen later. Iustitia, Bringer of Justice, is a many-faced Cardinal Virtue who has thick tentacles coming out of four of his mouths. Each tentacle has a second head at the end (har har), and when she subdues it she can climb to its base, attack its face of origin, and slice the tentacle off amid really gurgly gagging/screaming noises. Then she summons her own centipede demon (phallus lulz!) to squeeze him to death.

    This is very difficult to describe but check out the video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nMT60YeHFRM

    Somewhere else in the game she shoots a cherub statue in the dick to blow up a gas tanker.

    What strikes me about the sexualization is that 30 minute time limit that a lot of Bayonetta critics cite. The worst scenes of objectification bookend the game, like narrative in the 8-bit era. The hopeful part of me wants to believe this is to lure hapless heterosexual men into witnessing all this castration and then thank them for enjoying the show. But it’s probably just a money hook.

  3. Tanner 4 December 2010 at 6:01 pm #

    @amanda Clearly I would tend to think that it is about providing a comforting narrative frame instead of tempting men into a castrating experience. But there are those moments, as you pointed out, which provide moments of disruption. So I think we can safely say that critics who would dismiss the game entirely are not recognizing those attempts at struggle, and it’s important, especially in a medium so intensely masculinist, to bring these moments to the fore. As I hope it’s clear in this post though, I think that strategy of complicity with a dash subversion needs to be much more in a Gaga style parody. Complicity needs to be done only insofar as it’s eventually revealed to be a parodic delivery device for a powerful disruption of hegemonic masculine privilege.

    BTW What do you mean by 30 minute time limit?

  4. Tanner 4 December 2010 at 6:02 pm #

    @nina Thanks for the support!

  5. Amanda Phillips 9 December 2010 at 4:20 pm #

    30 minute time limit meaning most of the super offensive stuff is in the first 30 minutes of the game. I described it in my post as a litmus test… you either make it through to the other side or you don’t. A lot of the people that don’t dig her are so turned off by that first chapter that they never make it through.

  6. Josh W 19 December 2010 at 4:55 pm #

    I’m probably missing something here, but why is a sexualised visual character engaging in castration anything good?

    I heard a phrase by Frank Zappa a long time ago; “there’s no sex on TV, just titillation”.

    Surely part of the problem of visual media’s usual depiction of sex is that it avoids situations that show that media’s incompleteness; a relationship between characters that is physical but not gymnastic, on a closed line of intimacy between the two of them that you can’t really cut across with a camera angle. Instead it tends to take on incomplete sexuality shrivelled up into display and marketing. People dancing suggestively but dealing aggressively with actual physical contact is easier for the camera than people getting to know each others bodies, rhythms and personalities. Engaging with the mindset of the latter directs you out towards other human beings, engaging with the mindset of former means observing but not interacting with people, a form of behaviour better suited to just sitting in front of the TV. Even “better” if it simultaneously portrays women (or “the other sex” in general) as more dangerous the closer you get to them, further dissuading actual human contact.

    Could the character Bayonetta ever actually have sex with anyone? Could she admit that vulnerability of an honest relationship?

    I doubt it, it seems it’s all impenetrable surfaces.

    And before anyone gets daft about “impenetrable->penetration->sex” that’s not what I’m talking about. The kind of impenetrable I’m talking about is the character of Beetle from Vurt by Jeff Noon. That idea of a “hardness” of attitude that is about hit and run lubrication, getting some of what you want and avoiding engagement.

    This character does make me profoundly uncomfortable, because the game revels in something I hate about this kind of game, with characters and directorial style assuming an audience so different from my natural stance. I don’t wish to engage with a form of thinking that resolutely stays in the shallows of human sexuality, creating complexity via layering fetishes rather than the true psychological complexities of human beings, and then turns all tactile interaction or affection into violence. (Go through the game and see what kisses do, what close moments of eye contact do, etc.) I don’t like that it assumes I like it either!

    So what does this from-the-blue criticism have to do with your analysis? To me Gaga’s flirting with gender ambiguity is totally down to Bowie, because it is part of her general strategy of appropriating successful pop culture formulas and trying to push them to extreme levels. He was famous by doing gender ambiguity, so she does it, if it keeps her being talked about, she does more of it, if people get bored of it or she does, she moves on to another artist’s techniques. In other words to me she is like a spambot harvesting comments for eye catching phrases and accidentally creating meanings, although unlike a spambot when she picks them up and finds they give her success, she can emphasise them. The gender philosophy is secondary, the desire for fame and expanding celebrity into it’s most grotesque form is primary. I wouldn’t say that her dedication to what I see as her primary artistic project is unstoppable, she still plays and experiments with what she appropriates, but to my mind if the main way to understand what lady gaga does is with a history of pop artists in one pile and a print out of all the blogs and magazines talking about her in the other.

    By that logic Bayonetta is the same thing, an amplification of thousands of elements of game culture, including “everything that is wrong with it” in a gender sense, filtered not by news stories and experimental curiosity but by the particular interests of it’s creator. If bayonetta was more like lady gaga, it would tune it’s pop-culture amplifications to the reactions of those who played it and liked it, taking further and further it’s exemplification of something weird and dodgy, until it turned into a reduction to absurdity, where everyone who played it disliked being assumed to be enjoying it!

    To spell it out even more, Lady Gaga is not transgressive in any way we haven’t seen before, she’s just ploughing the same lines of provocation to a greater extent, to make you look. In doing so she shows something about our society just by giving us what we want. Marketing as art. Bayonetta makes every statement it makes that I have found in the same way; implicitly, by reflecting completely the “gamer culture” assumptions of the person who made it expanded to the point of absurdity, but never beyond the creator’s comfort zone. To make some kind of proper point, Bayonetta would need to broaden the focus to take in feedback from it’s own criticism and praise, and to go too far in implementing it.

    But that’s just my take!

  7. Tanner 19 December 2010 at 11:16 pm #

    Josh,

    I appreciate the thoughtful and provocative response (and also the reference to Vurt!).

    Let me just clarify one part of my perspective, and I think the primary place we seem to disagree: I think Gaga is something different and intelligent precisely because of how she is very self conscious of the apparatus of fame and celebrity culture which she is manipulated by, and forced to work within.

    I would agree that she is intent on innovating and appealing to a marketing schedule of constant revisions and fads, but I think she performs this iteration with the intent of parodying and critiquing it.

    A song like Paparazzi, for instance, would be the clearest example of how she both fits into celebrity culture and also shows its damaging and disturbing effects. But I believe this also permeates her simple presentation of self—she often attacks her own sexualization by making herself monstrous, fitting uncomfortably within the aim of the gaze (and often offending it or turning it off).

    Does that make any sense?

  8. Matthew "Sajon" Weise 3 January 2011 at 10:09 pm #

    Yay. Someone else who understands MGS2. There’s like… five of us.

  9. Tanner 3 January 2011 at 11:07 pm #

    @sajon You might be interested in a chapter I wrote about MGS2 http://www.the-means.com/HigginMGS.pdf

  10. Ulfur 26 January 2011 at 8:33 am #

    Wow. Well thought our article. Seen this debate all over the interwebs…. I really don’t think the creators of this game were out to make some kind of statement. It’s an aesthetically pleasing action game with a very distinct style to it. I really think that’s as deep as this gets. Seriously, Lady Gaga is an artist out to make some kind of point. Bayonetta is an action video game, and a damn fun one if you ask me.

    I think the creators were thinking something along these lines: “Hey let’s not make another hack and slash with a muscular dude flexing, screaming and breaking stuff, let’s create something fresh that hasn’t been done before.” Not: “Let’s create an action game with a thought provoking take on gender roles.”

    I can understand when you look at a game like MGS2 for thought provoking ideas, it’s a serious game with a serious story and characters that rarely joke about who they are or what they are going through. I don’t understand how you can take a spectacle like Bayonetta so seriously. There are actually not many games that are created as a challenging art piece and you seem to expect this one to be one of those few games.

    To me it’s as ridiculous as saying that Super Mario Brothers had some deep political message about Italian plumbers and psychedelic drug use, or that they should have…

  11. Tanner 26 January 2011 at 5:41 pm #

    @ulfur For me, a game doesn’t have to have the intent of “message” or “art” to still be relevant to debates in those spheres. So if Bayonetta was intended to just be a fun action game, I still think it has cultural meaning that should be understood.

  12. Nato 5 February 2011 at 10:18 pm #

    Wow, I just have to say how awesome this is. Very well thought out and great job explaining your points. You are a very talented writer.

  13. Tom L 13 October 2014 at 9:38 am #

    “Could the character Bayonetta ever actually have sex with anyone? Could she admit that vulnerability of an honest relationship?”

    Funnily enough, Bayonetta actually admitted herself that she wasn’t interested in any long term relationships. There was a scene in the first game in which a huge storm was tearing apart houses and blowing trucks into the sky. Bayonetta was standing on a bridge with a man and a child. The man asked, “You’re a mom? You?” after the child had cried out “Mommy!” (For the record, Bayonetta isn’t the child’s mom, but the child thought so.) She replied:

    “Come now, Cheshire. Do I look like I have any interest in children? Now making them, well, that’s another story.”

    The man got really uncomfortable and stuttered, “Whoa, whoa, you’re getting the wrong idea. I mean, it might be the right idea. But not, right now, right. Right?”

    Thought that was interesting and worth sharing.

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