This two-part series examines the historical lack of choice regarding character appearance in videogames—namely clothes. Part one examines these issues as they pertain to women; part two, for queer people. My blog is about horror, but also metal, sex and videogames. This series is a feminist exploration of that trend.
Note: When I write "clothes," I mean in the literal sense, but also the character's total onscreen appearance—their physique, dialogue, move set, etc. For women, such personas seldom represent actual female desires—either of the character, or any women who controls her. Instead, they represent how women are controlled by their male peers through the forced assignment of clothes that sexualize women in unfavorable* ways.
*For a good meta example of this kind of domination, refer to Doki Doki Literature Club. This "dating sim" highlights the horror of female characters imprisoned in a highly controlling and sexist system—one they cannot escape, and one that forces them to appear sexy for horny, uncaring men.
When it comes to wearing clothes in videogames, women cannot consent. Consent requires choice, and female depiction in videogames historically demonstrates a lack of choice regarding character clothing. For women, clothing doesn't represent actual female players and their wants; it represents desires prescribed to them by men. These serve as a form of control—specifically to female players through their characters. This article explores the wearing of in-game clothing as a mode of control levied against female players by sexist forces.
Characters, though especially their clothes, ostensibly appeal to player optics—how they want to be seen. Traditional female characters have little to do with female desires in this regard. Instead, these characters are "visual treats" for a male player-audience to enjoy. This logic applies to female game events more generally. The more substantial an event or character is, the more sexualized they tend to be (see: the "best" ending for Strife, when Blackbird, a female operative, is offered to the male hero as a sexual reward).
The problem is, female players have to exist in the same gameworld. Their own desires are either ignored, or inaccurately portrayed. Either through her own avatar or the NPCs she encounters (see: the Daggerfall witch covens), a female player is forced to see how men want her to appear. This goes beyond escaping the traditional, passive roles like the damsel-in-distress. Female heroes are invariably sexualized no matter the type. The women who play them must put on the girdle, or see other women fetishized for men. Any sense of autonomy is bridled.
Before we explore the choosing of clothes in videogames, it's important to acknowledge the asymmetrical act of wearing clothes more generally.
Often, heroes are semi-naked to advertise qualities about themselves. In a sexist system, these qualities are limited. Yes, Ayla (the female prehistoric chief from Chrono Trigger) can wear a loincloth like Tarzan; she won't be seen as Tarzan—neither the man, nor the luxury he enjoys, of non-sexualized nudity. Exposed, the muscles of men serve as a kind of armor—one where the genitals are always hidden, and the body is invincible. Historically the inverse is true for women. Their bodies are soft; non-sexual areas (the buttocks, stomach, nipples, etc) are treated arbitrarily as sexual displays.
A famous exception is the Amazon, a warrior woman with "armored muscles." Historically the Amazon was portrayed in battles against men; in videogames, an amazon's power is also on the backfoot. A threat to traditional sexual roles, her menace is generally tempered. Samus Aran is undisputedly martial, but her "phallic" tendencies are overshadowed by caregiver principles. Her evil counterpart, Mother Brain, lacks these "motherly" qualities. Mother Brain's body is barren, ugly and hard.
The "masculine" nudity of men, and of the Amazon, has little to do with sexual reproduction and everything to do with empowerment and worship. Female nudity is generally "feminine." This includes Samus, whose body under her power suit is relatively soft and fragile. Feminine nudity is the historical default for women—nakedness that's either nurturing or masturbatory in a non-consensual manner.
A frequent defense by sexist men is the illusion of choice: "She chose this outfit!" (see: "What is Woman?" (de Beauvoir + Metroid)"). Characters, however, chose nothing. They only appear as if they have. Female videogame characters are wearing clothes for the player to observe, but this concept by itself means little in terms of female-character autonomy. The developers gave the character her clothes, because they determine the game's visual content. Samus Aran can no more change her clothes than Mona Lisa her smile.
This may seem obvious for female characters; they were never alive nor sentient. Avatars are a possible exception, because the character's outfit can potentially be changed by the player. However, if extra clothing is made available, it can still be sexist. In MMORPGs, equipment wore by both sexes will transform on women's bodies to appear sexier (metal bikinis). There are also secret outfits—hidden or unlockable "eye candy" for male players. Samus Aran's secret bikini is the classic example. The entire game is built around acquiring it.
Gender attitudes are reinforced by developers who stock the player's wardrobe. If a developer is sexist, so is the wardrobe; if a character's clothing is sexist, the player must bear it. This being said, while male and female players see their characters on-screen, women experience sexual control much more frequently through a restricted wardrobe. This generally isn't why women like to play games. Rather, they seek empowerment beyond societal norms. Limited clothing options force female players into sexist roles—roles present in society at large.
Consider the fighting game genre: Street Fighter has always included female fighters. These women are always outnumbered, and much about them is sexualized—their clothes, but also their bodies, their attacks. After all, "clothing" is more than clothes; it's every visual aspect of a character. Choosing Chun Li from the roster lets female players kick ass as a woman (the "strongest in the world," no less), but only if she plays by the developer's patriarchal rules. Wanna fight? Put on the outfit. Shake that ass.
To be clear, the problem isn't sexual content; it's how female characters are sexualized. Unfairly. Not only are sexualized female characters the default in videogames; they're generally the only option. Body types are often singular, lacking heavier or skinner options representative of actual female bodies; they're also inconsiderately endowed—with breasts, buttocks and thighs that are way too large to be comfortable (think Ivy, from Soul Caliber):
Not always. A tongue-in-cheek dating game, Monster Prom allows for non-traditional characters and interactions (one character is non-binary and another is a robot). In fact, they're not only possible, but celebrated. Monster Prom shoves how gaming avatars (and their clothes) can be sexual, so long as the choices aren't restrictive in a sexist manner. As Luke McKinney puts it, "There's nothing wrong with sexuality. There's everything wrong with sexism." Games need characters that sexually cater to other groups, including women.
Progressive themes can be explored by attentive male developers. Breath of the Wild, for example, features the Gerudo—the Hyrulian version of an Amazon. Chief among them is Urbosa, a muscled warrior who wields lightning. She and the Gerudo serve each other, not Link (who had to dress as a woman to infiltrate their camp). This reversal was arguably the authors responding to a growing demand for expanded representation in games. Their presence illustrates an important idea: Men can make content in games that doesn't cater to patriarchal men. In other words, male game developers can be feminists.
Feminist game developers allow for other types of characters to be represented. Jill Valentine doesn't have to wear a tube top and miniskirt in Resident Evil 3 (no matter what Under the Mayo says). She can wear clothing that's more masculine, or, simply put, different. The key to female empowerment is actual choice, and expanded avatar options that allow for an increased manipulation of sexual and gendered components beyond strict, sexist guidelines.
Videogames that cater exclusively to men aren't going anywhere, but they can become less sexist. Sexist examples include a presence of dubious sexual content, or the total exclusion of women, a la Doom Eternal. Certain visual styles can likewise reinforce harmful gender norms (see: "moe"). Often, these patterns are viewed as a form of "regained control," or reversal, effectively returning to a time when games were "better" (when women wore less clothes to sexually please men). Fortunately awareness towards problematic traditions is tenacious; its mere presence will undermine any attempt by sexist players to escape into a bygone "apolitical" sphere (everything is political, you primitive screwheads). The lack—of female representation and opportunities—will be noted, as will the restoration of sexist male privileges. Unless women are silenced, the bell can't be unrung. May it ring forever.
Classic games can still be played and enjoyed by women. However, there's a difference between classic formats—the platformer, sides-scroller, shooter—and classic gender roles. Women are denied active heroism as a gender role. I loved Metroid for being the exception. Samus' potential for total mayhem rivals her male counterparts—compensative hyperbole that illustrates a kind of gender trouble. More's the pity that Samus has since been ejected from her armor and "empowered" through increasingly sexist depictions (encouraged, Jake Shapiro writes, by traditional views on women in the Japanese videogame industry). The friction is gone, and I miss it.
To be fair, sex-positivity is an aspect of feminist thought. However, if a character like Samus is being sexualized for people's entertainment, it at least needs to be seen for what it is (sex work) instead of disguised as something else (active, heroic empowerment). While I don't personally think heroism and sex workers are mutually exclusive, let's not pretend Mother Brain was defeated with sex work. It also needs to be addressed that Samus is filling a traditional female role regarding her latter-day sex work, and that she, as one of the few exceptions to the rule, is becoming yet another example of the rule at work.
To prevent a total regression backward, transparency towards sex work is vital, including its double-standards. These generally prevent the same conditions applying to male characters (outside of a queer sphere). Conventional, heteronormative expectations regarding male heroes in games simply don't allow for male sex work, or sexualizing ways beyond the "muscle armor" standard. This needs to change. For now, though, "sexualized" male characters mostly amount to shirtless boys or bishonen-style cuties—largely because attempts to the contrary are discouraged (the male hero from Final Fantasy XV was recently redesigned for being "too sexualized").
I'm not saying that male sexualizing is the entire solution, but it is an interesting premise. It would, at the very least, equalize sexualizing between male and female gamers, and open more opportunities for queer expression through parallel, gendered means (the wearing of clothes, or discarding clothes, as a form of gender expression). This would require developer-provided increases in nonsexist clothing choices—so women can enjoy unconventional displays of masculinity and femininity within flexible heroic gender roles. If Samus can wear a suit of armor, then Zelda doing the same (or Link being a twink) shouldn't doom Hyrule.
Sexuality is a product, and products reflect what consumers want. The fact women can enjoy sexually desirable heroes demonstrates how developer products have expanded to meet the needs of women. Their needs aren't mutually exclusive to men's. Though historically problematic, women have enjoyed sexist games for their gameplay mechanics. If this is the case, men can, at the very least, enjoy games that aren't sexualized exclusively for them.
For videogames to remain sexual but not sexist, certain issues need to be addressed—not just the lack of clothing choices for female players, but also the asymmetricity of gender issues. For example, if male characters had outfits designed the way female clothing typically is, then heterosexual, cisgender men probably wouldn't play them.
Some of this is impulsive. Your average player might see Link's massive bulge and say, "This game isn't for me." For the sexist player, this refusal is compulsory. They can refuse sexual alternatives because they're spoilt for choice, and know it. Historically, women have had to refuse the sexual norm while being deprived of alternatives. Sexist players will tell them to choose, as if the options were equal for both sides. They aren't. Either women can concede to a single-choice system, or they can reject it entirely. Submission, or exile. Consent can't happen under an ultimatum like that.
This threat, though gradually shrinking, is constant for women. For the longest time, and still in the present, women are often portrayed as sexual objects; "rebellious" women are ridiculed, demonized or excluded. Let that end. The boobies won't go anywhere, provided they can consent, thus choose to show themselves. This relies on feminist developers, be they men, women or queer, to encourage actual consent through an expanded avatar wardrobe. Content creators from either group can still cater to male desires through sex work, too; it just shouldn't be heterosexual men exclusively.
Increased representation will undoubtedly cause artistic depictions of women to change, and for an increased depiction of queer people. You might see men wearing traditionally female clothing or women with traditionally masculine bodies, or vice versa. Characters like Zarya aren't being men; they're women with powerful bodies, whose sexual desires stray from the standard heterosexual model. In other words, the right to have and bear arms (a terrible pun, I know) isn't exclusively male. The eradication of that particular monopoly should be celebrated, not feared.
Cyberpunk 2077 is a good example of this. There's no denying that some of the men in that game are big and powerful. They still have to share the room with women and queer characters who are also strong-bodied, whose bodies enjoy the same freedoms men have had since day one. The opportunity for sexual gratification is still available, too. The roster for choice within a system of differences has merely expanded to account for those differences. Everything co-exists.
Choice isn't what's in the game, alone, but also what the buyer can choose before playing it. Many purchases are determined by knowing a game's content ahead of time. By making games that cater to different groups in advance, developers can allow for more freedom of expression, and informed purchases that deviate from the male-dominated heterosexual norm. The market won't suffer. Why? Because women have careers! They can afford games, and they want increased representation.
This, of course, counts on games not being dependent on heterosexual male buyers exclusively. Such individuals often use boycotting as a form of control. This happens when developers try to inject feminist possibilities into pre-existing franchises (see: Battlefield V). For them to be successful—i.e., unaffected by MRA boycotts—the changes would need to be gradual. But if you're starting with a new AAA franchise like Cyberpunk, whose story explores a transhumanist world to begin with, a more progressive approach can occur from the offset.
Progressive integration remains a steady challenge. However, if a game is good, players will play it (unless those players are aggressively sexist, in which case fuck them). There is an undeniable female presence in the gaming historical mainstream. There's also the indie medium, which, despite its own challenges, isn't directly controlled by sexist forces. Indie games allow for female game development to not only exist, but spread slowly over time. I hope these alternates can gradually flow into the mainstream. When mainstream privilege can also be enjoyed by women, perhaps their outlier status (and its limited wardrobe) can finally disappear.***
My name is Nick van der Waard and I'm a Gothic ludologist. I have my MA in English Studies: The Gothic from Manchester Metropolitan University.
Check out my interview series: From Vintage to Retro: An FPS Q&A series, Hell-blazers: Speedrunning Doom Eternal, "Giving My Two Cents: A Metal Compendium," and the Alien: Ore" Interview Project.
My favorite posts: Dragon Ball Super: Broly - Is It Gothic?, Mandy (2018): Review, Gothic Themes in Perfect Blue. Also check out my guest work on Video Hook-Ups.
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