This month, the female characters in Dragon’s Crown and the announcement of Lightning’s bigger bra size in Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII have us all feeling embarrassed about videogames. Next month, I assume that game critics will be up in arms about some other lady character’s costume design. No one will be able to agree on whether the next Bayonetta-inspired or Lollipop Chainsaw-esque game is an example of third-wave feminism and sex positivism and empowerment, or whether these portrayals of women set a bad example for either children, or people who don’t take videogames seriously as art, or both.
The fictional women in these videogames chose their own impractical outfits; their predominantly male designers would no doubt assure us of this. (I like to imagine the critic’s conceit of Death of the Author as being personally inflicted by Lightning on her designers: “do you know how hard it is to go bra shopping?” she’ll scream as she swings her sword through their throats en masse.)
Yet, some of these women—including Lightning—are playable characters, even protagonists, so I can understand the gist of the “it’s female empowerment!” argument. (This analysis of how to identify objectification in photography may not be about videogames but still manages to illustrate why perspective and agency matter.)
Empowered though they may be, Lara Croft, Elizabeth Comstock, Lightning, Jill Valentine, Samus Aran, and Choose Your Favorite Lady Videogame Character could probably all fit into the same size dress, give or take. These women are slim, light-skinned, and full-chested.
To summarize, two aspects matter to me when it comes to analyzing whether or not she has been sexually objectified:
• 1.Is she a playable character? If not, does she seem to have any personal agency?
• 2.Does her physical appearance in any way deviate from the normative standard set by the female characters I’ve listed above?
Usually the answer to both questions is “no”, especially that second question. Other forms of media also tend to represent limited types of “acceptable” women’s bodies; the documentary Miss Representation provides a beginner’s guide on misogynist patterns in popular culture. Videogames have a problem that movies and TV shows don’t, though: They need the player to feel some attachment to the character that they inhabit in-game. And what if that player isn’t a woman? How can a marketing team sell gaming audiences on a woman with agency?
Some videogame marketing teams answer, “let’s not even try to include a prominently featured woman at all”. But if a game does have a female character who’s either playable or who has agency in the story, she’ll often fit into the Madonna/Whore dichotomy: Either you want to protect this woman, or you want to have sex with her. Bonus points if you manage both (e.g. Anya Stroud in Gears of War, Sheva in Resident Evil 5). Sometimes, female characters do manage to seem human, with the help of good writing, but the overarching tropes remain, particularly the limited body diversity and skin paleness. Even the strongest of female characters can nearly always share clothes with her less-than-fully-realized counterparts from other videogames.
But what about the men? They get a raw deal in videogames too, don’t they? Look at the impossible muscles on display in the Street Fighter line-up, or in shooters like Gears of War and in Halo. Alternately, look at the fey bishonen grace of Cloud Strife and Link. Or maybe look at the performative, class-clown-meets-bad-ass antics of Solid Snake or Deadpool. Or the forbidden, alien hotness of Garrus and Thane of Mass Effect. Each of these “types” has its own legion of lusting fans. Some characters—like Ben in The Walking Dead—don’t fit into any “type” I recognize, yet still have a following.
I see myself as an expert on the sexual objectification of men in videogames, because I’ve been engaging with the topic for years. From 2008 to 2011, I created an annual round-up of the Sexiest Videogame Studs introduced that year, across all platforms. I didn’t start thinking that hard about gender roles until 2010, and by 2011, I began to notice some faults in videogame culture, in games and in other forms of media that I loved, as well as in the rest of society at large.
Most of all, I took issue with condemnations of women’s sexuality; I still do. I started reevaluating why characters like Ivy of Soul Calibur and Lara Croft (before the reboot) had made me feel uncomfortable growing up, and I read about performative femininity and sexuality. I listened to smarter folks chew on the Madonna/Whore narratives that appear again and again and again in videogames. Throughout that time, I looked for similar patterns among the physicality of the male characters that I had studied, but I came up disappointed.
A lot of intelligent and well-considered thought has gone into how attractiveness standards for women work across different cultures, as well as in videogames. Yet I’ve seen little writing about standards for male attractiveness, in games or otherwise. I think it’s because, as the befuddled forum-goers said in their thread about Ben in The Walking Dead, no one knows what makes a man attractive, and “his personality” is an answer that confuses rather than explains the situation.
I used to think the question of what was physically attractive in a guy would be pretty easy to answer…that is, until I began to compile my Sexiest Videogame Studs lists. I realized that I cared a lot more about how a person acted than how they looked, and I also realized that I would be lucky to find even one male character per year that would read as hot to most people and also was a compelling character. If the matriarchy had really taken over and misandry had begun to run rampant in games, then I think my task would’ve finally gotten easier.
Each year, I would consult any and all friends who self-identified as being sexually attracted to masculinity—from fans on forum threads to non-gamer friends who knew nothing about the “personalities” of the guys I showed them—and compare their wildly divergent opinions with my own. The resultant lists feature a surprising amount of diversity, considered how white-washed and slim most videogame protagonists are (regardless of their gender).
The main problem I struggled against every year was coming up with 10 men. I had to find 10 new dudes who had been introduced for the first time in a videogame that year; I couldn’t just list Sephiroth over and over again. Finding five attractive men per year was relatively easy, since I operated on very loose standards of attractiveness—I had to, after all, in order to make the list at all. I could always justify that one or the other of these men had a big fan following and link to a few Deviant Art pages. But after the first five or so, pickings got slim. The last five men on every list often had no fan followings at all, and most of them were jerks as well.
I would spend days “researching” on my own by looking at lists on Wikipedia of every single game released that year and slowly Google-imaging every single male character in each game. This grueling process reminded me each year how few men in videogames were attractive. For every Nathan Drake, there were a hundred faceless fighters or space marines in masks. The hot guys were the exception, every single year.
Gamers who dig on dudes have been making do with what they have for a long time. Our lists of crushes include a huge variety of unconventional folks like Garrus, who continues to have a surprisingly graphic following from folks who are deeply invested in what his genitals look like. I would also argue that a lot of male-centric fan service in games seems to cater to a gay male audience rather than a straight female one, but that may be because no one has any idea what a straight female audience wants (if anyone figures it out, please alert The Pornography Board, am I right, ladies?).
I think that might be the wrong question, though. The straight female gaming audience does okay with the dudes we’ve got (although more acknowledgment that we exist in the minds of marketing teams would be fantastic). As for straight male fans? You all must be so bored. Instead of asking what women want, when the answer is clearly “we want a lot of different kinds of things” (seems healthy and normal), why aren’t you straight dudes curious about how same-y your answers are?
Researching attractive men in videogames has given me some insight into how diverse women’s tastes are expected and allowed to be. A list of hot women in videogames would almost certainly be full of the same old, same old. Even Mass Effect, which provided its guy-lusting fans with Garrus and Thane (as well as some human men that no one remembers; I suspect this was because of their boring personalities), gave folks who like ladies Liara and Miranda. Leave aside their personalities for the moment and instead pay attention to what they look like. Then, recall Garrus. See what I mean when I say straight men don’t get much choice when it comes to body diversity?
The problem with Lightning’s cup size, and with the sexy ladies in Dragon’s Crown, is that we see these exact same dimensions everywhere, and Lightning’s upgrade is just yet another effort to blend her into the pack. Maybe straight guys think they’re biologically predisposed to like a woman who looks like that and no other way, but that’s a lie. Look at this very corny article about how standards for female beauty have changed over time if you don’t believe that there’s no hard rule (heh) about this. We think these women are sexy because these are the women we see performing sexiness in media right now. That’s right, straight dudes: this is the version of “sexy” that’s popular, and you’ve been brainwashed into thinking it’s the only possible one.
Having an attractiveness standard at all, especially one that everybody else you know coincidentally shares, is not only boring but exclusionary. Doesn’t it creep you out that you’ve been brainwashed? It’s too late for you, but it might not be too late for your kids! Save sexiness standards, for the sake of the children!
We see these same problems in other media, but in videogames, we have the tantalizing illusion of choice, as well as the opportunity to empathize with unexpected, unusual stories and protagonists … and unexpected love interests, as well. Our cultures, and their faults and exclusions and closed-mindedness and boringness, make themselves clear in these game designs.
It’s well past time for people to start making demands. Not for less sexiness per se, but rather, for more choices and for broader definitions of what sexiness might mean. That could mean a woman in a dominant role and a man in a passive one. It could mean a romance between robots! Or a whole orgy of aliens. Or a woman above a size 6. Let’s shake things up a bit.
Maddy Myers writes the biweekly Hyper Mode column for Paste Magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Kill Screen and at the Border House. She also blogs at her personal website Metroidpolitan and tweets @samusclone.