Gaming’s Rare Feminist Heroes

Video games have not had an easy time portraying women. Part of this is, of course, gamer culture (researching this post proved it was much easier to find articles on the hottest women in gaming than on the best female characters). But even without the issues of their customer base, it’s hard to find examples of female protagonists in games that aren’t offensive. Even the ones who legitimately kick ass do so in a way that feels almost apologetic– most female action heroes in games who aren’t BloodRayne-level pinups are de-feminized, hyper-aggressive, and usually terribly written and intensely unlikeable. Even Samus Aran– one of gaming’s first and most famous female heroes –still rewards the player by taking off more of her armor depending on how quickly players got through the game.

When critics talk about Aliens’  Ripley as a great feminist action hero (and given that Aliens gets quoted, referenced, or ripped-off in about half the games released, you’d think developers might remember this), they point out that she can be feminine and kick ass without treating it as a paradox, still grapples with maternal pangs, and that the issue of her gender is an important one to the character and story without the story becoming dominated by it. So today, we’re going to look at two video game heroines that both live up to this standard in very different ways.

A. Terra Branford from Final Fantasy VI

This outfit is actually pretty subdued for a Yoshitaka Amano character.

Even though Terra has the distinction of being the first female main character in a Final Fantasy game (and the only one until Final Fantasy XIII happened), she has the misfortune of starring in a game where the main villain, the demented and outlandish Kefka Palazzo, overshadows everyone else. So why not give her some time to shine?

Like many video game characters (including the one we’ll be discussing next), Terra suffers from amnesia at the start of her story (well– technically she’s under mind control but this is soon undone). Her story arc involves her gradually recovering fragments of her lost memories along with learning and coming to terms with the source of her unusual abilities. While this character type may be fairly common in video games, Terra stands apart from the rest because these developments are well executed, give or take a few poorly translated and written lines. Some flashbacks show excerpts of her past which effectively raise interest in the story. The fact that she was an unwilling pawn of steampunk nazis explains why she’s hesitant to accept her unique abilities and heritage throughout the story, though aside from a few key scenes, these hesitations usually don’t carry over into battles.

Like many JRPG heroes, Terra can have a bit of a mopey side.

So the above shows why Terra is a good character (and by extension a good female character), but why exactly did we choose her for this entry? Because her feminine qualities are emphasized just enough to make her character unique without completely dominating the tone of the game. Throughout the first half of the game, Terra struggles with her inability to experience human emotions, especially love, most likely due to her half-Human half-Esper status and her prolonged imprisonment before the game begins. This character arc is completed in the second half of the game, which happens a year after the first half once the world has completely gone to hell and all the party members have been scattered.  Terra is encountered again while attempting act as a mother to a village of children who’s parent’s were all killed during the mid-game apocalypse. Ultimately, through this act she realizes that she can experience human love and learns to fully control her powers and accept who she is. Terra grows and develops through characteristics that are typically thought of as feminine (maternal instinct, etc), whereas many female game heroes have to “overcome” their femininity by becoming violent asskickers. Whereas for Lara Croft, Samus, and other iconic women in games, femininity is a weakness, for Terra it’s a strength. She also serves as a great contrast to arch villain Kefka, who’s insane and completely selfish quest for godhood can be seen as a distortion of male ambition and power. The game has Terra grow into a powerful figure while acknowledging that she’s a woman, but not going so far as to constantly scream in your ear “Look, she’s a woman but she also tough! Isn’t that great!? Aren’t we so progressive!?”

B. Bayonetta from …Bayonetta

If you haven’t played it, imagine a super-Japanese Kill Bill as written by William Blake.

To get the most obvious hurdle out of the way: yes, Bayonetta is insanely sexual. Yes, the game’s director (Hideki Kamiya, who designed the similarly-oversexed Devil May Cry) readily admits that Bayonetta is his “perfect woman.” But like with Terra, Bayonetta is a powerful character through predominantly feminine traits, although these traits come from the opposite end of the spectrum.

Firstly, Bayonetta may just be the most intimidating woman to ever star in a game, both sexually and in terms of her skill and danger. On the sexual front, she’s six-and-a-half feet of legs, coolly dismissive of every character in the game, and wearing teetering heels that are also guns. But she’s also by far the most competent and important figure in her game: there’s no man to ever rescue her, she’s consistently the smartest, coolest, and most prepared person around, and, oh yes, the final boss fight of the game involves her punching God into the sun. She’s also well-written, clever, and genuinely kind to the people she cares about (game designers think that making a female character an asshole counts as making her strong). Unlike many other game heroines (Samus in Metroid: Other M or even Terra), Bayonetta is cool and in control the entire time.

All Hail the Glam Pope.

More importantly, Bayonetta’s sexuality serves a serious narrative and thematic purpose. Make no mistake: despite its ludicrous stupidity, Bayonetta is a very smart game. Its core storyline is the war between the oppressed Umbra Witches (associated with the moon, cats, and other symbols of female sexuality) and the Lumen Sages, a thinly-disguised version of the Catholic Church. The grand plot of the game’s flamboyant Pope (the literal Patriarch) is to enslave Bayonetta and control her feminine magic in order to call God to earth, essentially an attempt to constrain female sexuality. The game’s female angels– Joy –are sexually submissive: offering themselves to the player and inviting the camera to ogle them. Female sexuality from the side of the villains is in the service of male lust or power, whereas Bayonetta is sexual solely for her own sake. This is woven into combat, as well: Bayonetta can perform over-the-top sexual taunts which will enrage nearby angels beyond the point of reason, and many of her more powerful attacks (like summoning a giant demonic high heel to stomp her enemies) are weaponized sexual humiliation. Bayonetta owning and reveling in her sexuality isn’t just a character element: it’s her embracing the very thing that her enemies hate her for. For all its cheesy sexiness, the game’s core story is that of a third-wave feminist using her sexuality as a weapon against the patriarch.

Like Terra, Bayonetta is also extremely feminine. Whereas most game heroes aren’t allowed to be feminine– think of Samus, who spends all of her time as a hero in genderless power armor –Bayonetta struts about in heels, is represented by cats and butterflies, eats lollipops, and becomes a mother figure (to a younger version of herself from the past). Bayonetta is Princess Peach levels of girly, and the game never plays it for irony: she’s an extremely womanly woman who happens to be an amazing hero.

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