Do you know Samus Aran, the main character of Metroid? First released in 1986, he is dressed in a helmet and armor during the whole game. It is only at the end that the player realizes that she is a woman, making her the very first heroine of the video game. A nice feminist breakthrough? Remains to be seen. If the player finishes the game quickly in under an hour, the full armor disappears, revealing a Samus Aran in a bikini, and in her underwear (yikes!). A kind of “reward”…
Are women better represented in video games today? A study by Jessica Tompkins, Teresa Lynch, Irene Van Driel and Niki Fritz attempts to answer this question through their article “Kawaii Killers and Femme Fatales: A Textual Analysis of Female Characters Signifying Benevolent and Hostile Sexism in Video Games”, released in 2020 in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. By analyzing 11 playable female characters from U.S. and Japanese console and computer games, the researchers show that, while sexualizing clothing seems to be a requirement for all characters, sexism can take different forms.
Hostile sexism is characterized by the domination of men over women, who are perceived as manipulative and dangerous, and the disregard of women who seek equal status with men. Hana Tsu-Vachel (Fear effect 2) is an example of a femme fatale who uses her sexuality to achieve her ends. In the opening scene of the game, she appears in lingerie, strolling towards a man. An ellipsis later, she calls her boss to say that she has killed him. This scene reveals that “seduction is the deadliest weapon in Hana’s arsenal”, as the authors state in their text. In Bayonetta, the heroine’s physique is often highlighted through close-ups of her buttocks, crotch and breasts. Finally, Rayne’s (BloodRayne) intensely sexual appearance and sadistically violent nature evoke “deadly eroticism,” as the project manager so aptly puts it.
Image: Bayonetta and Rayne’s fighting poses and movements are reminiscent of an erotic dance
Provocation, deadly eroticism, female dominance over men, and violent sexuality fuel this sense of competitive gender differentiation. The authors also emphasize the autonomous character of the protagonists. Their detached relationships with men evoke a rejection of the dominant paternalism.
The article of Tompkins and colleagues also highlights a much more insidious sexism in video games. Benevolent sexism portrays men as protectors, leaders, and responsible for women as submissive recipients of these qualities. This sexism also often relegates women to a secondary role, emphasizing their value as romantic partners of the male gender. Under the guise of promoting a positive and desirable position for women, benevolent sexism portrays them as weak and dependent on men through a heteronormative lens.
The study shows an example of benevolent sexism with, Yorda, from the game ICO, which is totally dependent on the male character Ico. The latter is able to fight, climb and move objects, which Yorda is unable to do. In this game, Ico takes care of Yorda, the two characters embody “complementary gender differentiation”, and heterosexual intimacy is suggested between the two characters. Similarly, Juliet Starling in Lollipop Chainsaw is a high school cheerleader addicted to men: in the introductory scene of the game, “she raves about her boyfriend, becomes consumed with this mutual affection, and makes sexually suggestive remarks”. Despite the confidence and authority she exudes, Juliet is still portrayed as a sexual object. Her buttocks and breasts are the focus of many film sequences. By constructing her object status, the play reverses Juliet’s dominance and mitigates her autonomy.
Serah Farron from Final Fantasy, Neptune from Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory, or Alyssa Hamilton from Clocktower III all wear more sexualized outfits when they reveal their great power, confirming previous studies showing a positive link between female sexualization and power in video games. Serah receives her powers along with her revealingly tight dress, and Alyssa trades in her schoolgirl uniform for a short, one-shouldered white dress during her confrontation with the game’s main antagonist.
Image: Neptune’s simple outfit is abandoned in favor of a hyper-sexualized outfit during battles.
Among the study of these 11 games, it was relatively rare for women to match their male allies, and rarer still for them to help other women, though examples do exist, such as Juliet being supported several times by her older sister as a sniper.
Tompkins and colleagues’ studies are of games dating from 2007 to 2014. Despite some progress and a slight trend towards gender inclusivity and feminism, the study showed that during this period, the study showed that sexism is still prevalent in video games, which are still primarily targeted at male consumers.
This study supports data from other articles, which indicate that the digital game industry may be experiencing a positive cultural shift in the representation of female characters although some sexist representations, sexual objectification, and marginalization of female characters from male characters persist.
Tompkins, Jessica E., et al. “Kawaii Killers and Femme Fatales: A Textual Analysis of Female Characters Signifying Benevolent and Hostile Sexism in Video Games.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 64.2 (2020): 236-254.
Lynch, Teresa, et al. “Sexy, strong, and secondary: A content analysis of female characters in video games across 31 years.” Journal of Communication 66.4 (2016): 564-584.