Sexy Costumes, Agency, and Video Games
So, in the last few days, I’ve been permanently ill, hungover, or both, and thus spending a lot of time in bed trying to find things to distract myself with. I ended up diving down a Mass Effect rabbit-hole-Let’s Plays, op-eds, you name it- and was looking at some pieces about the ME series as a feminist and/or sexist text (there’s a lot of interesting writing on this topic, if that’s your thing). And I also came across a few rebuttals to the accusations of sexist, pandering representations of female-presenting characters that ran along a familiar path of argument: if women in real life presented themselves the way these women did, it wouldn’t be considered sexism. So why is it a bad thing when women in video games do it?
This is an argument I’ve had many, many, many times with various people, and it usually starts with the criticism of something a-usually female-character has been dressed in. Since we’re on the subject of Mass Effect, let’s use their character Jack as an example. In the game, Jack’s outfit looks like this:
Which, since you mention it, is indeed basically a tiny bikini and a bunch of cool tattoos. Now, in the arc of the game, she chose to present herself like this for reasonably well-articulated reasons, and many people argue that since she, and characters like her, made the decision to present themselves in such a way, they can’t be sexist. They used their agency to just happen upon presenting themselves in an often aggressively sexual fashion. And yes, in real life, if someone were to make the decision to express themselves by wearing the outfit Jack wears, that would entirely fine/empowering- and in game, she is making that choice herself. But the crucial difference is that no characters-male, female, whatever- actually have no agency over their representations in pop culture. Jack has no say over what she looks like in the real world- and it’s interesting that so many creators choose to present their characters in this hyper-sexualised fashion.
I think it can be pretty easy to dismiss costumes like this,
as something that the character would really wear, based on their traits and how they express themselves in other aspects of their characterization. However, the key difference here is that-and this is going to sound patronizingly obvious, but bear with me here-they don’t have any agency over how they present themselves. Somewhere down the line- whether they started from the ridiculous costume and worked backwards, or found the skimpy outfit arising naturally from the other parts of the character they were creating-someone behind the scenes decided that the best way to fully get across this character’s personality was to put them in an explicitly sexualised outfit-especially when you consider that a lot of the time, NPCs will appear in one skin or costume.
That was how they wanted the character presented to the world. The character has no agency over the way they look, and you have to wonder why so many of these characters end up in hyper-sexualised clothing, chosen specifically by their creators. These characters may have been written in such a way that such an outfit made sense. There’s nothing wrong with video game characters who dress it an overtly sexualised fashion. In a vacumn. But when characters, and particularly female characters, are constantly and repeatedly represented this way, it’s fair to ask why. Why was that important? Weren’t there better things to spend time on that finding a way to justify throwing a hot women a skimpy top? Would the character been impacted in some negative way if she wasn’t dressed like that? Because that barely-supportive top really doesn’t look fit for purpose most of the time.
Obviously this isn’t an across-the-board criticism of the whole industry, but I seem to keep coming across it in my mild dalliances with the gaming world, and it gets a little annoying. It feels like these games are pandering to a very specific audience, which they are welcome to do- they are welcome to court whoever they want, however patronizingly and unsubtley they want to. But it’s ridiculous to pretend that these characters look they way they do because they wanted to. Because fictional characters don’t get a say in whether they get dressed up in the badass armour or the tiny bikini. Again.