Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox
Strange Magic: The Power and Agency of Women in Bayonetta
An analysis of the role of women in the Bayonetta series
December 12, 2016
13 Min Read
As the games industry becomes progressively more modern, the presence of women in its ranks has become an increasingly popular topic of debate. It has long simmered behind the professional curtain, but as of late came to a very nasty and public head in the proceedings of Gamergate. In light of this turmoil, the traditionally secondary portrayal of female characters, stories, and struggles in games has fallen under a critical spotlight. While their male counterparts are often heroic power-fantasies, women typically don’t have that same agency. In her paper ‘Gender and Video Games’, Xeniya Kondrat breaks this stereotype into two intersectional categories she has observed in female characters in games: the “damsel in distress,” referring to characters that are helpless in regards to the player character and often require their help to reach the end of a level or to defeat an adversary. This and the “oversexualized” female characters who have been designed to wear skin tight, revealing clothes or else “feminine” coded apparel (such as a skirt or high heels) where it would logically be a hindrance to the actions they perform within the game.
The second of these two criteria tends to be the most immediately obvious when analyzing a game, as a critic could, in theory, make a judgement on the depth and empowerment of a female character just by looking at a picture of her. By all logic, a character wearing overtly revealing clothing would immediately draw skepticism, and I think this is a part of the reason why a game like Bayonetta is often overlooked for the extremely feminist narrative that is experienced by actually playing through the game.
Bayonetta is a game that has been the subject of heated debate since its release. The titular character of the game is a witch who wears skintight clothes and heels into battle, which at first glance would make her seem like a prime example of female objectification.
However, the narrative of the game refutes this in representing a reclamation of female identity and agency through characterizing women as powerful, self-determining entities within the world it builds.
Oddly enough, the sequel (Bayonetta 2) diverges considerably less from the dominant masculine paradigm in many ways. It is an interesting phenomenon when a successor fails where its predecessor succeeded, especially when the predecessor had already faced similar critiques. When analyzing the ways in which Bayonetta succeeds, it is also imperative to investigate the ways in which its sequel fails.
The term “damsel in distress” is included in a list of literary archetypes from English professor Lisa Lawrence which defines the trope as “a vulnerable woman who needs to be rescued by the hero.” This emphasizes the importance of agency in the dominant masculine paradigm, specifically in regards to how it is often stripped from female characters. Within Bayonetta, the heroine’s agency is front and center in the story and in the player’s objectives; the story revolves around her quest to recover her lost memory. There are other plotlines relating to minor characters in the game, including the machinations of the main antagonist, but ultimately the player is only working toward Bayonetta’s goals, and the desires of minor characters are often pushed to the sidelines until they become relevant in regards to Bayonetta. For instance, the character Luka is convinced that Bayonetta is responsible for the death of his father, but his desire for justice is only resolved when it is revealed that it was actually the main antagonist, whom Bayonetta had already been fighting against, that was the killer. The player is literally not allowed to prioritize the goals of male characters until they align with those of the main female characters. There is something selfish about a character who only follows their own goals, but English graduate Limyaael (that’s a screen name) points out that there is nothing inherently wrong with this considering that female characters are expected to make sacrifices for others in most fiction. By following her own goals and rejecting everyone else’s (even when there is reason to empathize) Bayonetta is again subverting the masculine paradigm. There is also a second important female character in the game - another witch named Jeanne. Jeanne serves as a counter and rival to Bayonetta for most of the game, and yet her goals are given a similar level of severity in that the player has to actively stop them - rather than completely ignore them, as was their only option with Luka. Additionally, in a way similar to Luka, Jeanne shares common goals with Bayonetta by the end of the game, but unlike Luka the player actually takes control of her for a segment and later gets to fight alongside her as Bayonetta. In this sense, Jeanne is given agency in that the prevention - and later, completion - of her goals is instrumental to the story and she is shown to have near if not equal strength to the protagonist.
Oddly, Bayonetta is the one who’s goals become secondary in the sequel game. In that story, Jeanne is killed at the beginning of the game, and Bayonetta must go to hell to recover her soul, but although that sounds like a massive undertaking, it is ultimately overshadowed within that plot. Bayonetta’s goal is accomplished around halfway through the game, and after that point the player works to help secondary, male characters to reach their goals, which eventually surpass her own in terms of scope and importance to the world. While the first game was all about Bayonetta’s self-discovery, in the second she seems to just be along for the ride. On that note, Bayonetta’s goals in the first game actively focus on developing and evolving her as a character, as it requires the player to explore and come to terms with the events of her past, but in the sequel Bayonetta’s goals revolve entirely around a different character than herself. In the first game it is purely Bayonetta herself who drives the plot, in follow-up it is secondary characters, and she loses the spotlight significantly.
Bayonetta is not the only female character who loses agency in the sequel. Jeanne also lacks importance in the story in her own regard; in the first game, as previously mentioned, she is a rival to Bayonetta, and as such it can be assumed that her abilities are approximately equal to those of the player. However, for most of the second game, she is reduced to a damsel in distress by both Kondrat’s and Lawrence’s definition, as the story begins with her “death,” after which her soul is trapped and must be rescued. In each games she comes back to assist the player at the end, but this is far downplayed in 2; while originally she actually comes to fight alongside the player in a segment of gameplay (stopping the end credits in the process, giving the additional implication that she holds power over the game systems themselves), in the sequel her return at the end is limited to a cutscene, meaning that she only contributes to the fight cinematically and not in a tangible, mechanical way. Conceivably, one could argue that Jeanne’s damsel in distress role is meant to emulate the first game, as there is a sequence at the end during which the player takes control of Jeanne to save Bayonetta, though this is negated by the fact that Bayonetta’s moment of helplessness is limited to a short sequence rather than being used as a major, long-lasting story point, and the moment she is freed she is back on her feet, ready to fight.
On this note, it is interesting to see the degree to which the death of women is used for the sake of plot progression in the second game relative to the first. Apart from Jeanne, the only other major female character who dies is Bayonetta’s mother, Rosa. This technically occurs before the stories of both games begin, though Bayonetta travels back in time to be present for it in the sequel, and it is an event much more relevant to the plot of that game. In the first game, Bayonetta’s mother is only mentioned in passing, though her memory is shown to give Bayonetta strength and motivation (as emphasized by the fact that a lullaby she sang, a cover of “Fly Me to the Moon,” is remixed and used as one of Bayonetta’s main fight themes). In the second game, her death is used instead as a motivator for a male antagonist. There is a significant divide between a female character being used as a role model for a female protagonist and a female character’s death being used as a motivator for a male antagonist, most notably in the fact that while the first scenario derives female empowerment from female power, the second uses female suffering to justify male angst and cruelty. Further on this subject, in the first game the player is left to infer that Bayonetta’s mother died as a casualty of the war which wiped out most of her people; in the sequel it is revealed that she was actually killed by the main antagonist of that game, though the reasoning behind this killing is never fully explained. Again, this shifts the player’s understanding of Rosa as a character from a woman who died fighting for a cause and for her people to a character that was murdered for the apparent sole purpose of enraging a male character to the point of misguided, irrational action.
Another point of comparison is the portrayal of power in female characters in the games. Bayonetta, being the player character, is generally the strongest entity in the series, with a wide range of attacks at her disposal. Most notably are her “climax moves” which are used at the end of most boss fights and entail her literally summoning demons to tear apart her foes. She is shown using these competently throughout the series. For ambiguous reasons, at the beginning of the second game one of her summoned monsters gets out of control, resulting in Jeanne’s death. Within canon, this is chalked up to mysterious “forces” which are throwing off the balance between different planes of existence, but after the opening sequence this power imbalance and Bayonetta’s slipping control over her powers are never brought up again. This can only lead the analytical player to assume that Bayonetta’s in-universe abilities were reduced in order to progress the plot (and to harm another female character, to boot). This arbitrary and poorly explained removal of her power shows that the skill and prowess of female characters is regarded as less consequential in this game than it was in the first. There are some other points of interest regarding power in female characters between the first and second games. For instance, the final boss of the first game is a reborn deity called Jubileus who is notably feminine in her appearance. On the contrary, in the sequel game the final boss (also a deity) is male. This is perhaps the most notable shift in the role of female characters; in the first game, god is literally a woman; in the second, that role is claimed by a man.
Additionally, the backstory of the in-game universe describes a war between two factions: female Umbra Witches (the group Bayonetta belongs to) and male Lumen Sages. In the first game, it is established that the witches won this war; however, in the sequel, although this history is not revised, it is revealed to the player that the whole war was a set-up intended to weaken both groups to the brink of extinction. What was presented as a resounding victory for a group of powerful women in the first game is transformed into an act of suicidal folly and manipulation by a masculine force in the second.
Bayonetta’s conformance to traditional gender roles is also worth mentioning. In both games, Bayonetta becomes caretaker to a child, which at a precursory glance seems like a downside to each of the games in terms of adherence to the stigmas the series typically refutes, but there are some key divergences from the stereotype within the context of the story. In the first game, the child that comes under Bayonetta’s care is a young girl named Cereza. At the end of the game, it is revealed that Cereza is actually a younger version of Bayonetta herself, so in caring for her, Bayonetta was actually taking care of, protecting, and fighting for herself, subverting and inverting the traditional caretaker role by making it one of self-care and discovery rather than self-sacrifice.
On the other hand, in the sequel game Bayonetta takes care of a boy named Loki. Not only does this scenario lack the metaphor of a woman discovering herself, but by the end of the game it is revealed that Loki is something of a demigod with powers to rival Bayonetta’s own. So not only does this scenario put Bayonetta in a more subservient role, a male character who is portrayed as a literal child is as strong as if not stronger than her by the end of the game. In her essay, Kondrat worries about the effects of traditional female caretaker roles on the development of women in fiction, as the trope further removes their power and autonomy.
Perhaps the most significant distinguishing factor between the two works is the first game’s departure from what Lawrence would call the traditional hero’s quest as compared to the sequel’s conformance to it. The sequel follows a very tried and tested formula: the hero (Bayonetta) goes forth to rescue a damsel (Jeanne), in the process undertaking a great journey (literally travelling to a mountaintop and through the gates of hell) and ultimately defeating a great evil. The thing about this classic story structure is that it’s very selfless, and the selfless hero is a value held by the paradigms that the first game by its very nature rejects. In this predecessor, Bayonetta is nothing short of selfish, though, going back to Limyaael’s piece, this isn’t something that makes her a bad or even unlikable character. Rather than risking herself for the sake of others, every one of her actions in that first game is for herself, whether it be in unraveling her past or simply in killing angels (the toll required of witches in return for demonic power). In this sense, Bayonetta exemplifies the concept of femme disturbance, which is defined by Amanda Philips in the analysis of the series as a disruption by women of patriarchal societal structures by rejecting what they would hold as the “norm.” In being selfish, she does not come across as evil or cruel, but as powerful, self-determinant, and completely different from what a male protagonist would typically deliver; as Philips says, it is only when we view her through a lens of masculinity that she comes across as anything else.
Bayonetta is a series that is taken too often at face value, but in actuality holds an important place in feminist media. The first game in the series characterizes its women in a way that grants them agency and power, while its sequel unfortunately returns to a more traditional, masculine hero’s journey narrative. Bayonetta herself represents a reclamation of female identity, and her games serve as a warning that that reclamation is not set in stone; that it is not enough to simply create a strong female character, but that she must continue to be strong in subsequent works to avoid reversion to tired archetypes.
Philips, Amanda. "Bayonetta, Femme Disturbance, and AAA Queer Desires." Media Commons. NYU, 13 Nov. 2014. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.
Lawrence, Lisa. "Common Archetypes and Symbols in Literature." Jenks High School, n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.
Kondrat, Xeniya. "Gender and Video Games: How Is Female Gender Generally Represented in Various Genres of Video Games?" Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology 6 (2015): 171-93. Compaso. University of Bucharest, 2015. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.4
Limyaael. "In Praise of Selfish Characters." Livejournal. N.p., 02 Mar. 2005. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.
Read more about:Blogs
You May Also Like
Exploring the 2024 State of the Game Industry report - Game Developer Podcast ep. 39Feb 2, 2024
Phantom inspiration and the ethical auteur with Xalavier Nelson Jr.Dec 8, 2023
Designing Killer Queen: from playground experiment to modern arcade sensationOct 18, 2023
Rod Humble and King Choi illustrate the ambition of Life By YouSep 22, 2023
Get daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox
Subscribe to Game Developer Newsletters to stay caught up with the latest news, design insights, marketing tips, and more