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How Not To Defend Cheesecake in a Video Game

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “everything in the game makes sense lore wise.” I love this common excuse for the sexualization of women in any kind of fiction. And by love, I mean I can’t believe people are still saying it. “But dressing that way is Babydoll’s fantasy!” “But Starfire just likes having sex!“ No. Baby Doll and Starfire are characters. Characters don’t make choices. Creators make choices. And examining the choices of a creator for their characters is central to criticism of any creative work, whether it’s a comic, movie, book, or, in this case, video game.

Skullgirls is a 2D fighter coming out for the Playstation Network and XBox Live next year, featuring art talent that’s connected to Scott Pilgrim, and a roster of shojo-style young girls in short skirts doing high kicks, and frankly I felt it safe to ignore. Lets just say it didn’t look like it wanted me in its target demographic. Recently lead designer Peter Bartholow sat down with Eurogamer to refute those who would call the game’s art direction sexist, and while I am, after reading the interview, a little less weirded out by the game’s raison d’etre (while remaining completely unconvinced that it’s a game I’d personally enjoy, for either the gameplay or the art), I’d just like to point out that the talking points Bartholow trots out to excuse the art direction from criticism are some of the oldest in the book, and just as flimsy as the old pages they are metaphorically written on.

“Our characters are strong, powerful women who happen to be attractive… None of the characters use their sexuality in any aggressive way. It’s just a thing they happen to be.”

Bartholow recalled an incident at this year’s Gamescom in Germany in which a gamer came up to him, only to call the Skullgirls sexist. “I’m like, did you know our lead animator is a woman? Then he’s like, that’s amazing,” the designer said. “It’s like I gave him the excuse to think it was okay all of a sudden, or to admit he liked it.”

Yes, “but we’ve got a lady working for us” is often used as an excuse to explain why your actions are not actually trangressive. Much in the same way that a politician would say “but some of my best friends are black people/gay/immigrants/insert minority here!” The key word here, I think, is “excuse.” What it says is, “Whoah, guys! Take a load off. You don’t have to spend brain power deciding for yourself whether your actions may be contributing to or supporting unequal depictions of gender in your favorite industry. We’ve got a lady who said it was okay, and we all know that women are a monolithic hivemind who ask for directions and crave chocolate all the time, amirite?”

According to Bartholow, the animator “intentionally lavishes attention on the breasts herself because she thinks it’s cool.”

The panty flashes, he added, are the result of short skirts. Naturally, if girls were fighting in skimpy duds, they’d show their underpants. What’s more, if they were fighting other girls, they probably wouldn’t care about showing their underwear.

Right. Remember when I mentioned character choice vs. creator choice up there? What Bartholow has just described is not his characters’ logic, it’s their creator’s. Furthermore, it is absolutely not my intention to make implications about the life or artistic motivations of this unnamed animator, but it needs to be pointed out that this statement is, of course, BS. Heteronormative BS at that. Haha, women are never attracted to women! And they never make art that lends a voyeuristic gaze towards womens’ bodies! Not even at their job in a competitive industry where someone asked them to because that was the whole basic design style of the game!

Of course, this bit of rhetorical fail might be mitigated if we actually got some words from the animator in question. One good way of not falling into “but some of my best friends are ___” fallacy is to let your critics actually talk to the person whose presence you say gives you permission to do what they’re criticizing. But the interview is only with Bartholow.

“All the people who seem bothered by it are guys,” he continued. “It’s a weird chivalry intent thing that’s sort of misplaced and maybe shallow, even, because they see breasts and panty flashes and they go, that’s sexist, but I’ve yet to meet a woman who has complained about it. They’re over-thinking it.”

This is all idle speculation on my part, but perhaps the reason you haven’t heard from any women on the subject is that overly sexualized girls in tiny skirts is, in fact, pretty close to the default depiction of women in your industry? Perhaps it’s because to complain about the sexualization of characters in Skullgirls would be like complaining that a room is drafty because a specific window is open, when 90% of the windows in the room are open. Instead of complaining about a specific window, you’re likely to try to explain to the people who opened those windows how uncomfortable you are in that room, or just, you know, leave.

My bigger question is why Bartholow feels he has to justify the art in Skullgirls at all. The video games industry is already full of this kind of thing. If it wasn’t, I probably wouldn’t mind someone wanting to make a video game with a little cheesecake in it (Which is what I think Bartholow and his team are trying to do. Sincerely make a cute and funny little game with a bit of slap stick and cheesecake in it.) Just as long as cheesecake wasn’t already the default setting for the majority of the industry. Obviously somebody has been complaining, somebody has not been convinced. And somebody isn’t (like me) so jaded by encountering this sort of thing every day that they can ignore Skullgirls.

(Interview at Eurogamer, quotes and top pic from Kotaku.)


  • Kath

    Art styles like that actually put me off a game quite a bit. Aside from being a bit too… y’know, I just don’t think big tits ‘n’ short skirts looks good. It looks daft. Really daft.

    I can live with it in Hunted: The Demon’s Forge (the female character, E’lara, wears what basically amount to straps of leather with some thigh-length boots) as it seems to take a lot of artistic direction from artists like Frazetta, and whilst it doesn’t really make much sense in terms of practicality, it doesn’t look all that stupid.

  • Anonymous

    “We pay this one anonymous woman animator to draw stuff for us, and she says she LIKES to draw boobs and stuff, which is good, because if she didn’t we’d totally fire her in a hot minute.” I’m sure no one else had ANY input on the design, it’s all this “one woman” who did it. Uh huh. Barf.

  • MissFruitypie

    Susana, very well said.

    Bartholow’s statements here are un-be-freakin’-lievable, unless he’s doing some kind of performance art thing.

  • ainok

    Someday there will be awesome games and movies and comics starring amazing female heroes who wear clothes sane people would wear and are generally badass ass-kickers who young girls and adult women can look up to and say, “That’s the kind of hero I want to be like.”

    Unfortunately, this is not that day.

    (On the other hand when I was a little girl I thought Red Sonja was pretty cool, so who am I to judge?)

  • Mac Beauvais

    If you want to create sexy female characters in any medium, fine, but just own up to it already instead of making excuses. “We like boobies, other people in our target demographic like boobies, so we put boobies in our game.” The end.

  • Lisa Jonte

    You could fill a bingo card by Bartholow’s interview.  You know, if once, just once, a game designer said, 

    “We did it this way because just really like looking at boobies.” 

    I might have some respect.

  • Bel

    It’s the dishonesty about what he’s doing that really pisses me off.

  • Anonymous

    I wanna see them put a karate-fighting Scotsman in a game one of these days and see how apt they are to animate what’s under the kilt then.

  • Anonymous

    Of course I can see that you’re replying only to this one interview and as such I shouldn’t expect that you have done research on what he says about the game and I agree with allot of what you said.
    As for the art style he has said in the past that that’s just what the guy behind the art likes to draw (to all those who say they just want the creators to “own up to it”. Yeah, they do … to an extent). In fact, I think they started this game in college and kept allot of the first wave of characters from that time so they’re kinda “immature male made” designs for a few of them.

    As for why he is defending it in the first place … it’s probably because allot of male gamers look at the art and dismiss the game. Some out of chivalry  (“it’s sexist!” guy) some simply because they “don’t want to play as a female character” (yeah, there are people out there who don’t care about the cheesecake characters … the simple fact that the roster is all female is enough to put them off as you can imagine). 

    I do agree over all that this is NOT a good defense for cheesecake … cheesecake has no better defense than “Hey, our demo likes seeing T&A and we like seeing T&A so there’s allot of T&A in this product” just like I’m sure the same can be said for games with men-beast like Gears of War. I think he is better off just shutting his mouth on the topic … 

  • Crystal Nehler

    I agree.  Don’t justify it.  I am fine with the game just having sexy, scantily clad, chicks fighting cause they (the game makers) feel like that is fun.  Just admit it.

  • Anonymous

    I remember seeing a preview of this one a while back. I thought it was pretty stupid, but basically shrugged and carried on, because ‘young girls with big breasts in skimpy outfits’ is more or less the default for female characters in fighting games. (OK, it’s more or less the default for female characters in video games period, but *particularly* in fighting games.) I’m glad that someone must have decided it was worth complaining about, though.

    The justifications are still bullshit, of course, as the article points out. At least the Dead or Alive series was honest about its cheesecake…

  • Anonymous

  • Kid Fenris

    Well, there’s Kasumi Ninja. It has a Scotsman named Angus who launches fireballs out from under his kilt.

  • Anonymous

  • Anonymous

    “Characters don’t make choices. Creators make choices.”

  • Anonymous

  • Anonymous

  • Anonymous

    …My life…she is complete.

  • ZenPoseur

    Exactly!  Own your cheesecake, Peter Bartholow, and I can at least respect you as a person.  I still couldn’t respect you as a game maker, of course, but as a person, yes.

  • Anonymous

  • Anonymous

  • Spokker

    The animator of the game has spoken on this issue. I found her opinion. Can you? 

  • Spokker

    “What it says is, “Whoah, guys! Take a load off. You don’t have to spend brain power deciding for yourself whether your actions may be contributing to or supporting unequal depictions of gender in your favorite industry. We’ve got a lady who said it was okay, and we all know that women are a monolithic hivemind who ask for directions and crave chocolate all the time, amirite?””

    Women are not a monolithic hive mind, which is why it surprises me that you feel it’s unreasonable that a woman could not have not only drawn those characters, but enjoyed doing it. Perhaps as she adds detail to the bouncing breasts and rounded asses, her pussy becomes wet as her arousal increases to the point where she must lock herself into the restroom and furiously manipulate her clit until she gets the poison out.

    I agree that Bartholow is a humongous faggot for defending himself against baseless accusations, but your response is no less bonkers. 

  • Spokker

    This is an insult to the artist who draws these things, as she draws similar content for no commercial gain. I hate this anime shit, but I don’t fault her for trying to make a living off her work. At least the bitch is paying taxes while she draws guro in her spare time. 

  • Frodo Baggins

    “we all know that women are a monolithic hivemind who ask for directions and crave chocolate all the time”

    What a horrifying notion. I’m picturing it like Katamari Damacy, with just like this huge ball of women rolling around and speaking in one earth-shattering voice.


  • Adam Whitley

    seriously hell DOA had option to turn up the amount the character’s boobs bounced and I’m pretty sure Sonya Blade in the new Mortal Kombat wears a mostly open jacket with no shirt.