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.