Bayonetta's hardly a realistic woman. Her legs are probably twice the length of her body, she's disproportionately slender and yet possesses a butt that her character modeler confesses to having spent a lot of time getting "perfect."
Nor is she demure; Bayonetta fights enemies with the same magical hair she wears as clothing, which means vigorous combat leaves her naked. She blows kisses to break through magical barriers. She's constantly nursing a small lollipop, suggestively, for little apparent reason. Oh, here we go, video games are exploiting female sexuality again, right? Not so fast.
Game director Hideki Kamiya is known for distinctly stylizing his action games. The Devil May Cry franchise has always been about flair that often goes comically over-the-top, and characters that make players feel powerful just by virtue of how cool the heroes look. Dante, Vergil and Nero perform acts of almost elegant violence, an artistic approach to combat design that's always been a refreshing alternative to the blunt-force melee and the barrage of gunfire we see in other titles.
Thematic style is Kamiya's calling card, and with Bayonetta, he's said the theme he's going for this time is "sexiness" instead of violence. While his games have always featured strong, sexy women (Devil May Cry's Trish, Lady and Nevan) the ladies are more or less just eye candy, objects to be ogled.
Bayonetta takes the video game sexy woman stereotype from object to subject, and it's tremendously empowering. The title character uses the mantle of her sexuality as a power source. Between Bayonetta and her equally fierce rival, Jeane, it's a women's world -- the boys just play in it. The Umbra Witches aren't to be messed with. With this unique theme, the game itself is an artistic representation of the concept that female sexuality is its own kind of weapon. This stylized love letter to femininity is signed and sealed with all of the game's tiny details, from the kiss-shaped aiming targets to the subtle grace of Bayonetta's butterfly-shaped shadow.
For years, video games have struggled to define what constitutes a positive portrayal of women. We've learned what isn't, over our checkered history of anime panty shots, gratuitous cleavage and breast physics. And thanks to the likes of Half-Life 2's Alyx Vance, Beyond Good & Evil's Jade, Silent Hill 3's Heather Morris, and Portal's Chell, we've got some idea of what is.
But eager as we are to make progress beyond the industry's bad habit of reducing female characters to either sidekicks or sex objects, it's unfair to strip video game women of their sexuality completely, or to assert that if a character is sexual that she must be getting exploited. It's wonderful that our entertainment medium is developing more characters that bring more to the table than their looks -- but at the same time, we can accept that being mousy, tomboyish or turtle-necked is not the only way a woman can be considered admirable. Bayonetta's elegant nakedness in the fervor of battle is not in and of itself a bad thing.
But what about her unrealistic body, her gratuitous sashaying, the lollipop-licking? The hypersexualization of Bayonetta is intentionally unrealistic -- just as unrealistic as the superhuman aplomb of the Devil May Cry boys. Dante, for example, is a pleasure to play because of his unrealism, and Bayonetta is too. Both reject subtlety in favor of unrestrained, sometimes theatrically-excessive style in their own ways.
That emphasis on style over character substance isn't every player's taste, but it's not inherently unfair to women in this case. Kamiya's thematic choice for Bayonetta is an undercurrent that unifies the entire game, thus giving her sexuality context -- and context is the most important consideration in judging whether an element is appropriate or not.
As gamers, we don't always pick up a controller and immediately expect that the character on screen will be a representation of ourselves -- if we did, then it's possible that the overblown macho male characters we see in games with impossible strength and unbelievable musculature would offend male gamers. We must not assume that female players are so fragile that they view a stylized female body as a personal affront.
To prohibit a character like Bayonetta, and rush to cover her up in disapproval, is a rejection of her particular brand of femininity. Why do that? Because she makes men uncomfortable? If men feel uncomfortable with Bayonetta, maybe that means she succeeds.
As a woman, I haven't often been satisfied by female character options that effectively boil down to "the same thing as a man, just with breasts and a ponytail." Thanks to its innovative approach to the idea of female power, Bayonetta is the first action game heroine that's made me directly conscious of how cool it is to be a girl.
I already know that women can do all the same things men can. This time, I get to see a woman do plenty of things men can't. And I love it.