In Real Life

Sexism, Character Design, And The Role Of Women In Created Worlds

There are many things I expect to see in a panel called “East Meets West, Art Direction for a Worldwide Audience”. I expected to hear Isamu Kamikokuryo, the art director for Final Fantasy XIII-2 discuss how Japanese artists focus on creating new worlds, Norse mythology and its influence on the game, and drawing inspiration from Cuba for some of the beautifully rendered backgrounds. I expected to hear Jonathan Jacques-Bellêtete, the art director of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, talk about influences like Andrew Loomis and Metal Gear Solid. I had hoped for an interesting back and forth between the two designers on how technology influences artistic development as well as what happens to geographic differences in artistic influences in our increasingly connected worlds.

I did hear all of these things, but also something that pinged my feminist gamer radar.

In describing his influences, Jacques-Bellêtete mentioned he was heavily influenced by Metal Gear and Final Fantasy. Then he went into a two minute riff about “always trying to have very beautiful female characters,” noting that these were characters he would want to sleep with. After making a semi-disparaging remark about female characters drawn in a North American style, he concludes “I’d rather have female characters from Final Fantasy or Soulcalibur to sleep with.” This draws chuckles from the crowd.

And there it was, the truth about character design that so many players know but most designers wouldn’t usually articulate: most of the egregiously sexist character designs are based on f**kability, rather than playability.

Drawing attractive characters isn’t a crime. But it starts to become grating when characters are not only attractive, but hypersexualised and mostly defined by their appearance. Even when characters aren’t hypersexualised, they can still be boring and flat in execution if there is more attention paid to animating her curves than the character herself.

But the model for art in our fandom communities is often sex appeal first, to the detriment of characters. Over in the comics world, Laura Hudson broke down the problems with the faux empowerment form of “liberated sexuality” that is so common in contemporary storylines:

Let’s start with Catwoman. The writer and artist have decided that out of all possible introductions to the character of Selina Kyle, the moment we’re going to meet her is going to be the one where she happens to be half-dressed and sporting bright red lingerie. That is in fact all we see of her for two pages: shots of her breasts. Most problematically, we are shown her breasts and her body over and over for two pages, but NOT her face. No joke, we get a very clear and detailed shot of her butt in black latex before we ever see her face looks like. Can’t you show us the playful or confident look in her eye as she puts on her sexy costume? Because without that it’s impossible to connect with the character on any other level than a boner, and I’m afraid I don’t have one of those. [...]

[W] hat I keep coming back to is that superhero comics are nothing if not aspirational. They are full of heroes that inspire us to be better, to think more things are possible, to imagine a world where we can become something amazing. But this is what comics like this tell me about myself, as a lady: They tell me that I can be beautiful and powerful, but only if I wear as few clothes as possible. They tell me that I can have exciting adventures, as long as I have enormous breasts that I constantly contort to display to the people around me. They tell me I can be sexually adventurous and pursue my physical desires, as long as I do it in ways that feel inauthentic and contrived to appeal to men and kind of creep me out. When I look at these images, that is what I hear, and I don’t think I even realised how much until this week.

In many ways, the constant barrage of this type of imagery (and characterisation) is not unlike the sh*tty neighbourhood I used to live in where every time I walked down the street, random people I didn’t know shouted obscene comments about my body and told me they wanted to have sex with me. And you know, maybe a lot of those guys thought they were complimenting me. Maybe they thought I had tried to look pretty that day and they were telling me I had succeeded in that goal. Maybe they thought we were having a frank and sexually liberated exchange of ideas. I’m willing to be really, really generous and believe that’s where they were coming from. But in the end, it doesn’t matter that they didn’t know it was creepy; it doesn’t matter that they “didn’t get it,” because every single day I lived there they made me feel like less of a person.

That is how I feel when I read these comics.

As a gamer, full cosign. Two years ago, at my South by Southwest panel with N’Gai and Naomi, I talked about how in my 22 years of playing video games, I’ve been all kinds of characters: a Bandicoot, a Lombax, a pervert squirrel, James Bond, some dude addicted to painkillers, a few different folks hustling in the underworlds of Vice City, San Andreas, and Liberty City, Lego Batman, Joanna Dark, Laura Croft, Karin and crew, Tidus and crew, Sora and crew, and easily hundreds of other characters. But to play as a black woman, to inhabit and play as someone is similar to my real life identity? I’ve had five opportunities in twenty-two years. And that’s if I count characters that are biracial, characters that appear in reflections, and one tan coloured viera.

And, to add insult to injury, these characters are also undermined from the get go. My first introduction to Resident Evil‘s Sheva Alomar was an arse shot.

So, at question and answer time, the feminist gamer Goddesses shined down on me and allowed me to ask Jacques-Bellêtete about his comments. I wanted to know how the approach to female characters influences their design. Do designers put more thought into female lead characters, or are they illustrated in the same way as characters who are intended to be eye candy? How does that presentation impact their playability?

Jacques-Bellêtete immediately blurts out “I feel like you’re trying to trick me,” laughing apologetically to avoid stepping into a controversy landmine. He takes pains to explain that Deus Ex: Human Revolution has a female lead narrative designer. Mary DeMarle shaped the story in a way that created strong primary female characters, which makes for different themes. He acknowledge that I was “kinda right,” in that there is a difference in the approach to design between main characters versus characters he termed “cannon fodder.” He also noted that it is “such a cliche of our industry that women have big boobs” so most of his teams draw women with smaller chests — so much so the designers requested a big breasted character. But he ultimately agreed, “we broke the [usual character]mould a little bit because of the women in the lead.”

My question was the final question accepted, since N’Gai Croal (who was moderating the panel) had one more surprise — he had asked Kamikokuryo and Jacques-Bellêtete to each interpret each other’s work. So, Kamikokuryo drew Adam Jensen, and Jacques-Bellêtete drew Lightning. Jacques-Bellêtete’s work was unveiled first — and lo and behold, it’s a tit shot. For comparison’s sake, here’s what Lightening normally looks like versus Jacques-Bellêtete’s interpretation.

(Interestingly, Kamikokuryo said Jacques-Bellêtete’s work reminded him of Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop, and so he adjusted his work to have Adam Jensen share the same fate as Spike.)

Seeing the Jacques-Bellêtete’s image after his explanation about how he interprets female characters was disappointing, to say the least. But it was not surprising, as this type of sexism is endemic to nerdy industries. In a medium where we are only limited by our imaginations, where we can dream up princes rebuilding the cosmos with Kamataris and shelve that fantasy next to dystopian futures, it’s painful to see that kind of creativity doesn’t extend to the majority of women in game worlds. No matter how creative we are, we still can’t get past this base level sexism.

After the panel, I approached Isamu Kamikokuryo and asked him the same question I posed to Jacques-Bellêtete. I’ve been a fan of Final Fantasy for years, and a small part of that is due to the range of female characters that inhabit the world. According to Kamikokuryo, this was the first time he took on character design for the franchise. The same three artists have been doing the character designs from Final Fantasy VI to XIII. “So,” he said through his translator, “We thought deeply about what we wanted to express with each character when designing.”

Seriously, that’s all we feminist fans really want to hear.

A certified media junkie, Latoya Peterson provides a hip-hop feminist and anti-racist view on pop culture with a special focus on video games, anime, American comics, manga, magazines, film, television and music. She’s the editor of Racialicious.com, former Jezebel.com contributor, and has written for outlets like Vibe, Spin, Slate’s Double X, Bitch Magazine and the Guardian.