The roles of female characters in games has been a topic of conversation among feminists and gamers alike for years, but the issue has gained steam in the past two years, partly because of Anita Sarkeesian’s video series “Tropes vs Women in Video Games.” The series, which launched in 2013 in an effort to explore the most common uses of women in video games, has caused contention between people both inside and outside the gaming community, particularly among those who denied the fact that women were misrepresented in games and who felt like Sarkeesian was trying to slander the gaming community and culture by bringing these issues to light.
Sarkeesian is arguing for more complex female representation, a point reinforced by the prevalence of the hypersexualized heroine, a trope that has caught my attention over the years and includes characters like Lara Croft of Tomb Raider that have a typical male character’s strength combined with a typical female character’s sexual appeal. Growing up with games, I’ve watched as female characters have become less submissive and more powerful and complex, as games have evolved with the advancement of technology and widespread popularity among both men and women.
The hypersexualized heroine trope is the most interesting because it is, in my opinion, the most conflicting; it allows female characters to show strength and have their own complex storyline, but it also objectifies them. Because the trope both breaks convention (allowing a woman to save the day) and reinforces stereotypes (it hasn’t provided for a complete breakdown, and reimagining, of the patriarchal system), it’s the perfect example of why games must break away from clichéd writing to create more complex characters.
To be sure, not all sexual female protagonists are necessarily “unfeminist.” It’s irresponsible to point to a character with a large chest or a perky butt as a problem, because that implies women are responsible for the patriarchal notion that makes these things problematic. But we do need to move away from stereotypes altogether to create characters that do not fit into the same tired box. This will help eliminate binaristic gender roles and improve the ways in which people are able to define their sexual and gender identities in games.
The archetype of this trope came about at a time when female characters were included in games mostly as “rewards” for the player reaching a goal. One of the most notable examples is Princess Peach from the Mario franchise.
For some, then, the hypersexualized heroine represented a step forward, largely because games with female protagonists were so rare. The heroine became the antithesis of the submissive damsel-in-distress characters that came before her, because she was both powerful and independent; she could save herself. She was challenging gender norms, at least when it came to traditional, subordinate roles. And, at a time when most game developers were using their characters to display strength as a masculine trait and physical appeal as a feminine trait, I found it to be inspiring to see a female character encompass both.
Research has even proven that female players find empowerment and appeal in female characters who are physically strong and attractive. In a study that focused on the importance of gender representation in gaming, researchers interviewed women who ranged from “power gamers” (defined in the study as those who play three to over ten hours a week) to non-gamers. When allowed the ability to customize their own characters, a common feature in MMOs (massively multiplayer online games) and RPGs (role-playing games), the study showed that power gamers were more likely to create female characters that were both sexy and strong. One participant said, “It’s that I want [a sexy character] to be my own fantasy, not [the male player’s fantasy].”
And that is exactly what stops the sexy-powerful trope from being as empowering as it could be. Many characters in games are still designed primarily to appeal to heterosexual men. Women fantasize too, yet they are not catered to nearly as much as their male counterparts. The women interviewed in the aforementioned study want the ability to customize their heroine like players are able to do in Fable, World of Warcraft, and other RPGs—though some RPGs have been accused of pandering to only heterosexual men in terms of female costume designs. But not every game can allow for a customizable heroine; some narratives call for one that’s tailor-made for the game. The bottom line is that game developers need to work harder at creating more variety when it comes to female characters.
One issue with hypersexualized heroines is that they are created solely to appeal to white heterosexual male players, and thusly, as stated by Dymphna on Gaming As Women, “a naked woman—a young, slender, busty white woman—is our [society’s] visual shorthand for sex.” While it’s likely that women can also be attracted to this type of character, having this as default when it comes to sex appeal limits who and what is considered appealing, perpetuating all sorts of “isms,” including ableism, racism, and lookism. Not to mention, allowing this to be the dominant way to portray female heroines implies that sex appeal is what differs a female protagonist from a male one, as if sexuality is the only way to sell a game featuring a female heroine. This may be due to the gaming industry’s fear of trying to reach outside of its “core” demographic, even though women make up 45 percent of all gamers.
The dangerous myth that female protagonists don’t sell well (the truth is that female protagonists aren’t given the same amount of marketing support) has forced most female heroines to give in to the heterosexual—and white—male demographic. The ideal woman becomes one who is extremely aggressive and attractive, which is commonly attributed to Lara Croft during her first appearance in Tomb Raider.
Lara Croft is the hero of the Tomb Raider franchise. Though the game is not the first to feature a female protagonist, Tomb Raider’s legacy, because of Croft, has made a lasting imprint on the gaming industry, as well as on heroines who have followed in its footsteps. With her debut in 1996, Lara Croft was an athletic, quick-witted adventurer. Wielding her signature dual pistols, one on each hip, Croft was a force to be reckoned with. But despite her heroic abilities in the games, Croft’s most memorable trait in advertisements became her body: her large chest and tiny waist. Eidos Interactive (now known as Square Enix), which owns the rights to Croft, took her overly sexual appearance and ran with it. Soon after the game entered the market, images of Croft in cocktail dresses and bikinis were seen in advertising for all types of businesses, from Visa to GQ magazine; her sexuality became a money-making machine. There’s a series of commercials for Tomb Raider II titled “Where The Boys Are.” One commercial features a dancer in a strip club, popping bubble gum and adjusting her shoe. She is bored. There are no customers for her to entertain because the boys are inside playing Tomb Raider II. Who needs a strip club when there’s Croft, the advertisement implies, even when sexuality has nothing to do with the plot of Tomb Raider? The commercial further reinforces that Croft’s strength and agency are nothing compared to her physical attractiveness.
Still, despite this blatant sexism, some game critics find themselves in debates over whether it is misogynistic or not to simplify a woman down to her sex appeal just to sell a game with a female protagonist. Dr. Christina Sommers, host of the YouTube series Factual Feminist, says it isn’t, because “the game industry knows its market.” Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research who gained notoriety among gamers when she released the video “Are Video Games Sexist?” that denies games’ sexism and condemns feminists for thinking so.
In a recent interview with APG Nation, Sommers stated that censoring sexualized female characters is “sexist—against men.” She admits the overuse of hypersexualized women could be due to lazy writing, but forgives it because it is “prudish to condemn them in art and entertainment.”
I don’t condemn Lara Croft for having unrealistic physical proportions or being attractive by cis white men standards. Some women find Croft just as appealing as their male counterparts do, and view her as an iconic figure that’s helped initiate the roles of women in games. She has autonomy within the traditionally male-dominated game world that is unlike many heroines before her. But heroines like Croft also reinforce the feminine-masculine dichotomy that has isolated female players, and other gamers that aren’t cis men, when it comes to defining gender and sexual orientation in games.
As Sarkeesian states in her series, “The gender binary erases the continuum of gender presentations and identities that fall outside of the rigid masculine/feminine false dichotomy.” The dichotomy perpetuates the idea that there are strict differences between men and women when, in fact, there isn’t—for example, the idea that makeup is for women, when really anyone can wear it. In this case, games maintain the notion that women, no matter how strong or independent, must be differentiated by their sex appeal or sexuality, even though men can be just as sexual. Unfortunately, the hypersexualized trope tends to be strictly for female characters in games.
There’s Bayonetta, for example, a witch from the eponymous series, who may be the most controversial heroine after Croft. She wears a skintight suit made out of her hair, which is also where her power comes from, so when she uses a special power her clothes become more revealing. As Ria Jenkins points out, Bayonetta is “unapologetically female, sexual and confident.” She doesn’t tip-toe around her sexualized body, which is light-skinned, thin, and curvy around her bust and butt. Bayonetta may be a great way to portray a woman who is strong and proud of her body and sexuality, but she also reinforces the gender stereotype in games: Her power is also the source of her sexual objectification.
Or there’s Samus Aran, a female bounty hunter in the Metroid series. Usually donned in a full-body armored space suit, Samus removes her suit as a reward once the game ends. Beat Metroid in under three hours, see Samus in a leotard. Beat it in under one hour and she’s in a bikini. Once she is revealed to be female—again, white, slender, and busty—her sexual objectification works as a reward for players who complete the game fast enough. Seeing a woman’s body becomes just as rewarding as finishing a game, or saving the world.
It is important to note that these characters are not one-dimensional; they carry their own stories, shape their own adventures, and many gamers, including female gamers, see them as inspirational for such reasons. But let’s not forget that these heroines share similar body types, which further isolates players who in real life don’t fit that mold.
The oversexualized heroine is problematic, but the trope has also heralded a change in the role of female characters. It is my hope that these conversations about its problems will push game developers to take the next step toward creating a greater variety of female and male characters.
After a hiatus, Lara Croft herself made a reappearance with a Tomb Raider reboot in 2013, an origin story for the beloved heroine. The new Lara Croft is younger and less striking in her appearance. She is still physically attractive, but her build is more realistically proportioned, and her character is more developed, so it would be even more difficult to boil her down to just breasts and two signature pistols. In an interview with the magazine Kill Screen Daily, the writer of the reboot, Rhianna Pratchett, detailed her desire to make Croft a more human character while not avoiding the fact that she is female:
Certainly with Lara, I wanted to make a human story. But I never wanted to forget that she was female either. And, I mean, certainly the way she reacts to things could be said to be more female as a reaction. I’m not talking about being scared, or being vulnerable. But the way she interacts with other characters, her friendship with Sam in particular …you wouldn’t see a male character holding the hands of an in-pain male character or hugging a dying male character.
Games have an issue of maintaining gender stereotypes. As Pratchett mentions, it’s not likely to see a man showing physical empathy for other men, like hand-holding, and that’s just as problematic as always forcing a woman—especially a white woman—to be an object of desire. The best way to expand what it means to be male or female is to create more stories, and expand the definition of being female or male. With all the progress being made to give women the power they so rightfully deserve in games, developers still have a tendency to stick to stereotypical definitions of gender and sexuality, and having more representation can further mature a growing art form.