Bayonetta, Femme Disturbance, and AAA Queer Desires

Curator's Note

This week, I’m contributing a critical fanvid made as part of my research work on the video game Bayonetta. Originally released in 2009, the title character is a divisive figure in the feminist gaming community, condemned for her exaggerated sexiness and praised for being an interesting, competent female game protagonist. She is one of the last surviving participants of a centuries-old battle of the sexes between male Lumen Sages and female Umbra Witches. Bayonetta provokes a lot of anxiety and debate, and I hope to engage the IMR community in robust conversation.

I read her as a queer figure whose femininity falls into what Micha Cárdenas calls “femme disturbance,” the capacity of femininity to disrupt heteronormative capitalist structures by refusing to bend to norms of modesty and competition. Femme disturbance suggests modes of radical action outside of demands for direct resistance, a crucial space to hold open when calling for tactical responses to problematic mass media. Bayonetta enacts femme disturbance in many ways, but one stands out: her Climax moves, part of the hypersexual aesthetic for which she is highly criticized, are button-smashing simulations of clitoral masturbation that reach out and implicate the gamer in her own pleasures.

Critiques of Bayonetta that center her within heteronormative structures of desire like the male gaze (itself an over- and misused feminist tool in games criticism) miss the ways that Bayonetta’s interest and attention is firmly oriented toward her sister-witch Jeanne. They also gloss over the nuanced ways that both Bayonetta and the game itself plays with visuality. Bayonetta has control over her visibility in the world, and can see things most can’t. The gamic camera is zoomed out to accommodate frenetic, crowded battle scenes rather than voyeurism.

But politics are precarious in a mainstream context. Bayonetta 2 released on October 24 for the Wii U, but the wild queer pole-spinning antics of the first game have given way to a traditional hero’s quest. The subtextual lesbian desire between the witches is more domestic, with Bayonetta sporting a new dykey haircut and descending into Hell to rescue her “roommate’s” soul. One of the great things about the first game was the cooperation between Bayonetta and Jeanne, a model for radical coalition with fabulous pistol heels. In the sequel, we get yet another damsel in distress. I finished it very recently and hope others can help me process this disappointment.


One thing that has always struck me as odd within the debates about this game upon its release--the first one, I haven't played or read much about the second yet--and its positioning of Bayonetta in relation to both heteronormativity and her positioning among players is that the assumptions made in both cases seemed to be based on things which weren't actually true about the game itself. As you point out, there's certainly some sort of disturbance at play in the game, between characters, yes, but also between the game and the player which went largely unacknowledged (I felt) at the time of release. For one, the game wasn't very successful, and the press kind of propped it up as a AAA failure (it was too quirky, it was too niche, there wasn't any real "substance," and so on). Simply put, though the game may have been positioned by its developer, and even the mainstream gaming press and player communities within a patriarchal construction of hypersexual aesthetics, I'm not certain the actual game was received as such. Indeed, most of the other self-identified straight male gamers I knew dismissed the game outright as insignificant fluff while still managing to make the argument that its gameplay mechanics were innovative, solid, and a whole lot of fun. Thus, it would seem to me that the aesthetics themselves were the dissuading quality for many potential players. That the more recent and equally ludicrous combo-based buttonmasher Lollypop Chainsaw did extremely well with this very same demographic seems to back this up a little bit - the signifying aesthetics of girlyness/queerness/othernose so readily apparent in the first game drove some gamers away even though they were drawn to them when a similar aesthetic appeared in a more masculine presentation. And second, you point to a space which I think often goes unacknowledged among the mainstream press and games communities which I have found (and have read some on) surrounding AAA releases: the location of queer communities and identities within certain genres, many of which feature a variety of sexually ambiguous or attempts at outright asexual identities (J-RPGs most pointedly). I guess what I'm wondering then, in context of your essay as well as the final paragraph where you express disappointment about the new game, do you see the AAA status of the game and its previous criticisms affecting its new emphases on or turns away from certain types of queer space and relations, or is there something else at play that has to do with the industry more directly, like the "exclusive" release on the Wii-U versus the other two mainstream consoles?

I really hesitated to say whether I believed any of the queer relations were consciously designed in or out - I think it's more exciting to think of them as accidental moments of revelation about deploying femininity in particular ways. However, B2 made the queerness fairly explicit, which was the opposite of my worst fears but somehow still managed to ruin a lot of the subversive potential for me. The Wii U seemed an odd choice for this sequel given Nintendo's family-friendly reputation, but B2 is both tamer and more wild than its predecessor: it seemed to me that there was a lot more profanity, for example, but that the sex was toned down. I do think this is a function of, or at least reflective of, the ways queer desire can easily be recruited into hegemonic signifying regimes. The queerness in the first Bayonetta seemed to break out of these structures, where in B2 it seems to generate them, if that makes sense.

Thanks for great post, Amanda. I've always admired your particular reading of Bayonetta, and it has informed my own relationship to the game. Naturally, I am equally awaiting your analysis of the sequel in time. To perhaps kickstart the discussion of the sequel, I have some initial thoughts, though I must admit they are but a quarter-formed and lacking in any kind of organization. You rightfully point out the unfortunate shift in B2's narrative structure, from one which explores the ambiguously queer relationship between two sister-witches and Bayonetta's own self-nurturing represented by the relationship with her younger self, to a much more traditional rescue mission, which begins with the strange premise that the powerful Jeanne from the first game can somehow "die" by a simple strike from a typical hell beast. Even after being rescued from Inferno, the game confines Jeanne to an ancillary role. To the game's credit, at least Bayonetta's attention and desire is still focused on her friend (for most of the game), and not a male love interest, something the game avoids for the best. Moreover, B2 also features a relationship between Bayonetta and a "child" for the majority of the game. Unfortunately, while the first game subverted the mothering, nurturing role typical of feminine heroes by revealing the young girl was, in fact, Bayonetta's younger self (turning her affections inwardly toward a sort of self-care), the sequel abandons this twist and frames her relationship with the young Loki as very much a mother and child relationship, albeit one defined by wit and banter. Actually, B2 seems to be caught up in generational and parental relationships, between Bayo and Loki, between Bayo and her father, and in a welcome surprise, between Bayo and her own mother, the latter of which fights side-by-side with the game's heroine for two stages, a rare counter to the array of father-daughter-centric games that have been released in recent years (though unfortunately, it is in fact Bayo's father who has the majority of interactions with his daughter, both as adversary and ally). Based on my quick run through of the game, unfortunately, I think a lot of the radical queer elements of the first game have been subdued, giving way to a game more in line with post-feminist fantasies than queer politics. However, a more careful reading might yet reveal some queer possibilities latent even in the more traditional narrative and relationships explored here. While all of this is only a cursory set of observations on my part, I'm interested to hear what you and everybody else who has played either game has to say on the topic.

John, your thoughts on the narrative, temporal, and relational structures of the game are basically in line with mine, though I do look forward to another playthrough when I'm back from NWSA and have time to breathe to confirm/complicate this reading. I'm stuck on the relationship with Loki right now, as it doesn't seem straightforwardly motherly to me. There are the Oedipal dimensions, of course, but Loki struck me as a more literal incarnation of the manbaby/Luka (CAN WE TALK ABOUT THAT HAT) who is constantly seeking sexual attention from Bayo and pretending that he is all-powerful and an asset to her quest. He is much more powerful than Luka was in the first game, and unlike Cereza he's less of a burden than an actual ally in terms of gameplay. I wonder if he's more interesting to look at in terms of tropes of boyhood in gaming - I am reminded of a question Denis Farr asked on Twitter about boys being portrayed as vulnerable in other than coming-of-age contexts in games. I agree that in general the game is pretty obsessed with reproductive futurity - linking parents and children, redeeming the evil father, passing the torch from one generation to the next, etc, but it's also pretty twisted - Loki is actually quite ancient and technically the father of all of them, and the time travel stuff queers time in a really surfacey way. But it's there. One thing that I think will be really productive to think about is how the gameplay mechanics are so much more polished in this iteration - that was the one thing I felt was a wholesale improvement. Since gameplay mechanics are central to how I interpret queerness in the first game, this feels really significant, but I am not yet in a place to articulate what it might mean. For one, the discussion of Loki above reminds me that he seems to be a mechanism for introducing coop play into the gamic vocabulary of an otherwise solitary experience, whereas Cereza was a standard escort mission figure.

There's a lot about the reviews of Bayonetta that I find really fascinating. When I was writing my dissertation chapter about her and Chell, I was struck by the way Carol Clover's description of the reception of I Spit On Your Grave really seemed to parallel what happened with Bayonetta: "...I Spit on Your Grave provides, for many long stretches of its hour-and-a-half narration, as pure a feminine-masochistic jolt as the movies have to offer. No such possibility is even hinted at in the reviews that led to its condemnation and censorship, however. On the contrary, the film was characterized, in tones of outrage and in the name of feminism, as the ultimate incitement to male sadism, a ‘vile film for vicarious sex criminals, a ‘sleazy exploitation movie’ that ‘makes rapists of us all.’ But there is something off here: something too shrill and totalizing in the claim of misogyny, something dishonest in the critical rewritings and outright misrepresentations of the plot required to sustain that claim, something suspicious about the refusal to entertain even in passing the possibility of involvement with the victim’s part, something perverse about the unwillingness to engage with the manifestly feminist dimensions of the script...." (Men, Women, and Chainsaws 228) For me, it wasn't just that the aesthetics of the character were offputting to (usually male-identified) reviewers, but that they really seemed disgusted by her and offended by the suggestion that she is something that they should find attractive. People can't seem to make up their minds whether she's supposed to be exploitatively sexy or just plain creepy, but they insist that she is a great example of what is wrong with women in AAA. It is, of course, healthy to maintain suspicion of the "strong female character" in texts, but this is one example where I feel the critique misses many key moments in the text. Part of this could be that the initial shock value prevented people from wanting to engage with her on a deeper level - the first cinematic can be particularly cringe-inducing for some audiences. I've been guilty of this in the past. This is something that I found particularly disappointing in AS's analysis of the game, though I fully believe in and support the existence of a variety of feminist critiques. Bayonetta really warrants a thorough playthrough to ground analysis - I find it quite rewarding and subtle in many ways.

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