(tl;dr just scroll to the bottom and enjoy)
As I mentioned in my #QGCon Reflections, my contribution to the Queerness and Games Convention was a screening of a critical fanvid I made of the video game Bayonetta. This vid, part of a series of digital companions I am crafting to complement my written dissertation (with a nod to Kim Knight for companion inspiration!), accompanies a chapter I wrote on the gamic gaze with relation to both Portal and Bayonetta.
Before I explain more about the vid itself, I’d like to direct you to the brilliant work of Alexis Lothian, a colleague, collaborator, and mentor who has taught me so much about the digital humanities, scholarly community, fan communities, queerness, and more. I was inspired by her scholarly vidding practice, which combines fannish and academic skillsets to create critical objects that cross boundaries between these two (arbitrarily?) separated worlds. My first foray into vidding doesn’t match Lothian’s sophistication (no, really, go watch her stuff), but I do hope to make more entries like this into acafan conversations in the future. I am particularly grateful to have had her example to follow.
My fannish and scholarly fascination with Bayonetta extends back several years now, and my early blog post about the game was one of my first attempts at critical blogging. The resulting entry is a bit cumbersome and my thinking on the game has become quite a bit more sophisticated, but some of its major critiques remain in my subsequent writing on Bayonetta: 1. the “male gaze” critique is insufficient to account for both the visual and narrative power dynamics in the game; 2. most critics neglect the game’s queer vectors of desire; 3. many people also fail to recognize the ways in which Bayonetta (the game and the character) works to undermine and dismantle patriarchy from a position of collective resistance.
This vid is an attempt to highlight these specific critiques, and then some. I have since framed my analysis in terms of later feminist film critics like Carol Clover, who argues that the subject position of the gaze is not so simple, that identification can occur across gendered lines and has a complicated relationship with agency and power. Moreover, I am fascinated by Micha Cárdenas‘s concept of femme disturbance, which suggests that queer femininity’s disruption of hegemony via excess can point the way for new modes of inhabiting oppressive structures. This moves away from simplistic accounts of agency, power, and resistance that suggest change must always happen from outside. Femme disturbance allows us to conceive of how political work can occur from multiple subject positions, and it respects that not everyone has the privilege of throwing off systemic norms in order to make bold political statements. In short, to quote Gloria Steinem on the recent Miley Cyrus drama: “I wish we didn’t have to be nude to be noticed, but given the game as it exists, women make decisions…. I think that we need to change the culture, not blame the people that are playing the only game that exists.”
Bayonetta is, of course, a synthetic character without agency, and as such might be seen as part of the structure itself rather than an individual negotiating it. However, the extent to which any individual is not just a part of the system is extremely debatable, as is the amount of agency one has in determining their own subject position; even pop stars, ever the subject of our debates about women’s agency within patriarchal systems, are themselves patchwork girls made up of the contributions of multiple committees, songwriters, publicists, storywriters, and more – which Cárdenas points out when discussing Ke$ha. In this way, they are not qualitatively that different from any one of us, nor from synthetic media icons like Lara Croft or Bayonetta. What is important with fictional figures, however, is whether they can help us to imagine other ways of confronting oppressive regimes, whatever position they might occupy in relation to them. A lot of people miss what Bayonetta shows us because she looks and moves a lot like a stripper, one of feminism’s traditionally abjected subjects.
My choice of Aerosmith’s “Ain’t That a Bitch” plays perfectly to the stripper aesthetic, with sensual guitar riffs and an easy tempo that drips with sexual possibilities. I hoped to capitalize, much in the same way Bayonetta does, on the seductive force of this aesthetic in order to drive the point home: the vid’s visual story is very much one that, like Bayonetta, strips the so-called “male gaze” of its masculine power and appropriates it for its own desires. Just as sex workers play with the desires of clients to achieve their own ends (whether or not this entails a certain amount of risk), the game and my vid (hopefully) execute a similar sleight-of-hand to expose some key contradictions. Who controls the power of the gaze? Who succeeds in looking at whom? Are the slow motion and sexy solos for the benefit of a straight male? What is the cost of visual pleasure? (Spoiler alert: look for the castrations.) On top of all this, the word “bitch” is situated within feminist conversations at much the same place as Bayonetta herself, asking one final key question: is this violent misogyny, or is it triumphant reclamation?
Or is it somewhere in between?
Like Cárdenas, I want to be clear here that femme disturbance is not about a wholesale reversal of power, and there is much to critique in Bayonetta specifically and in the strategy of using sex for empowerment more generally. However, we still have a lot of work to do to move beyond binaristic conversations about sexual practices and sex work. In order to better understand current power structures, it is important to look at the things that are happening around us right now. I agree with indie developer activists like Anna Anthropy who call for a wider representation of queer characters that exist outside of normative frames of representation, but this game and this vid are not doing that work. That doesn’t mean, however, that they do no work at all.