Sexy or Sexist? Both …and It’s Awesome

Going over some pictures of scantily clad and/or suggestive popular images in geekdom with my wife, I asked: can’t any of these characters be both? This then raised the question: is it sexism if the author is aware that they’re using it?

The question seems, at first brush, obvious. Of course it’s still sexist. But that’s not exactly what I meant by it. I’m asking if sexism in games is always problematic. And I think that depends entirely on the abilities of the designer. Not all sexism in games is bad or equal, and we miss something about the piece as expression when we dismiss it offhand. When critiquing things like sexism in games, the real question is why it’s being used. Most of the time is completely arbitrary or reflexive, which damages it’s value and leaves it open to critique. There’s a few examples out there of sexism in media that’s used well.

One example is the Ghost in the Shell anime series. The incomparable Motoko Kusangi of Section 9, better known as The Major is the typical femme fatale, but with a purpose. The series takes place in the year 2030 (?). In short, cyborgs are common and The Major is a full-bodied cyborg in all but appearance. In the series, she dresses very provocatively, sleeps with women, and leads like a man according to her peers. The remarks her colleagues make are always insinuating that on the inside, she’s truly a man and that she should switch over to a male body so she can have more authority. There’s a classic scene in the first episode of season 2 where they’re all waiting on the command to raid a hostage situation. There, she suggests they go “drown our sorrows in a nudy bar” if things don’t go as planned. The Major is an unrepentant sexist and so are her creators.

The way the show plays around the issues of sexism is quite charming to me. It’s clear the authors are very aware of sexism and it’s wider social implications, and they question it hard throughout the series all the while entertaining us with sexualized bodies, misogyny, and the objectification of women (literally: the play on man vs machine gives it a special subtlety). The series allows space for them to express their sexuality as authors while also calling it into question, creating a space to discuss the problems with sexism without defending it. I think this is what makes its use as a narrative device interesting. They open it to discussion in a non-controversial way. It just shows that sexism isn’t the controversy at all. The controversy is how people react to it being pointed out. In the gaming community, that reaction is usually defensive because we don’t want to be judged. The act of denial is often an admission that something is indeed wrong with what we just saw, and a way to distance ourselves from it. Sometimes that means denying it happened at all and others it means pretending the act wasn’t so bad.


Yep …that’s The Major ripping open a multi-ped robot with her bare hands. Seeing the bare rippling muscles of a woman’s body almost never happens anywhere.

The authors of GiTS don’t make excuses for sexism and they don’t deny it. For them, sexism is just another messed up part of our world that Motoko and her team have to navigate. They critique it without waving banners. They introduce it without making viewers feel bad. They assume the viewer is a sexist and welcomes them to the discussion in a fun way.

This might be part of what rubs gamers the wrong way about sexism in games. The designers’ denial and defense of it erase any possibility of discussion. We also lose an opportunity to make the game interesting. It puts catharsis out of reach and I think gamers secretly want that. To be rid of those feelings of guilt, anger and shame about it. GiTS shows us that you can be sexist, have sexism in your media, and still have a sane, fun, interesting discussion about something you love.

Now this is my subjective opinion on the matter. I have to mention that not everyone has been a fan of the portrayal of women in the series and have taken the main character, Motoko, to task for her blatant sexism and self-objectification. But I’d counter argue that these things are central to the story and the philosophy. We’re left with questions, not answers.

With that in mind, why don’t games seem to get this right? I think the regional differences count for something. The west is pretty different at storytelling from the east, specifically America and Japan. Totally different, could not be more different. Ideas of sexuality, while rigid in Japanese culture, are still extremely liberal compared to it’s American counterpart. I think there’s no country in the world more prudish than Americans when it comes to discussing sex and sexuality. Oh we’ll publish tits and ass everywhere, but it’s always with a wink and a nod – not a discussion and an exploration – and always passed off as merely adding “realism” and being completely message neutral.

There are many genders in Japanese storytelling. Who are men and who are women isn’t always clear in the stories, deliberately. Trans-sexuality and asexuality are common for the characters. In America, we tell stories almost exclusively one way: men are badasses and women are sexualized. One way or another, our game characters can be reduced to these two categories with rare exception. Degrees of sexuality go unexplored most of the time and heterosexuality is emphasized almost every time. Still, japanese games can often be far worse than sexist – they’re no angels. They don’t always get these topics right, but I credit them for being unafraid to explore them. That exploration leaves room for works of art like Ghost in the Shell, famed as much for it’s philosophical framework as for it’s highly sexualized and sexy women.

Could you imagine if Blizzard wrote Motoko? I laugh and cry to think of it! But to be fair many western developers would struggle with her. In all likelihood, she would never be conceived of to begin with.

The first female badass I ever encountered in movies was Ripley from Alien. In my mind she’s an archetype that’s rarely used …and that’s just insane! Ripley is sexy, smart, brave, and AWESOME. Would love to see game developers borrow from her. When I think of standout, incredible women in media, Ripley is easily my number one pick.

I’ve had a lull the past couple years in mainstream gaming, so I’m afraid I don’t know of more recent heroines who fit the bill. But maybe you do.

Who are some game characters (in recent years) you feel are sexy and sexualized and awesome?

Scree Tags: #sexyavatars #gamertalk #sexualization

6 thoughts on “Sexy or Sexist? Both …and It’s Awesome

  1. Overall you’ve made some good points, but I have to say that Ripley wasn’t sexy. Sigourney Weaver isn’t sexy. That’s not because she wasn’t scantily clad either, I just don’t find her attractive.

    • I love strong women. I find their strength incredibly sexy. Ripley was sexy to me!

      What about other women you find fit this bill of sexy, sexualized and still awesome?

      • I’m all for a strong woman. I’d say the new tomb raider is a better example. Unfortunately that’s not a real woman. I can name a few other video game characters, but I’m drawing blanks on actresses. People would probably vote for like Julia Roberts too, but I don’t find her attractive either lol

  2. now you made me want to watch Ghost in the shell again, awesome series.
    Anyway I have to agree these sorts of inner critiques and manipulations of stereotypes and common themes is what is going to move us onwards. More than that is that these writers and developers should always be aware of these tropes while creating, be aware use if you need but be specific, relatable. It’s ok to use such things if their is a level of understanding known rather than just for cheap thrills.

    Personally one of my recent favourite characteers that embody this subversion is from Kill la Kill.. here
    It matters in this case where and when such themes are used and the reactions from other characters and what has been purposed for the audience to feel. It’s a very complex situation and hard to get right.
    Watching Mash recently, don’t ask hahaa, the Major houlihan character is also a good representation of this. She acts in certain masculine ways but then is held up as sexually appealing an promiscuous. Behind her back you get a lot of discussion regarding her gender as well with comments saying she should have been a man. Throughout I see this being played on about what a man and a woman can be and what is socially acceptable, from her but also other characters.

    There was also an interesting interview with a writer for far cry 3 about using subversion in games. A particular point further down stands out in which it’s said its harder for games to subvert this sexism simply because so many games so blatantly flaunt it, any others just get thought to be the same.

    I Think it’s rather strange considering how uptight Japanese culture is yet how open they make their media while the western media is very rigidly constructed around binaries.

    • I remember your Kill la Kill critique and I agree, it does the same kind of thing as GitS.

      The Far Cry 3 dev was caught with his dick in his hand and couldn’t stop saying “you were supposed to catch me like this!” I would be disappointed if he continues to defend that game in the same way today. I do not think FC3 was a subversion, satire, or commentary on racism or sexism.

      But I do think the comment itself on sexism being difficult to subvert due to its over use is interesting, though not entirely sure what I think of that angle. I’m not sure its subversion so much as it’s just a surprisingly overt discussion of it (in GitS I mean). I agree that this kind of use of social topics is one of the ways to advance the conversation on them and get things to change for the better.

  3. Pingback: Link Dead Radio: Play Nice Edition | Healing the masses

Join the fray, speak your mind, and follow on Twitter @trredskies!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s