Womanhood can be a contortion act. Prospering is often a matter of stretching, compressing and jaggedly code-switching like artists’ jointed wood mannequins — the kind girls buy in middle school when a Cosmopolitan quiz augurs the life of a painter. Perfect Woman, a Kinect game released last Wednesday, is about those contortions and uses physical posturing to comment on its societal equivalent.
Perfect Woman’s main mechanic is body-bending. Standing in front of the Xbox One Kinect, players sync their arms and legs with the poses of a woman on-screen — at one point, a street kid leading a gang, at another, a belly dance teacher.
The life choices you make, and how well you sync yourself with their demands, can impede or further new ambitions you have as you age. For example, when a life choice is more difficult, the poses on-screen change more rapidly. It’s fairly exhausting, and quite embarrassing to play, for example, in front of colleagues.
In Perfect Woman, I was a wretched student. My teacher watched disapprovingly as my limbs lobbed around the room detached from the guiding model behind me. It was hard -- the poses switched quickly -- but only because I made it that way.
At age 9, when I was told to "choose my perfect life," I decided to be a street urchin. Uneducated and undisciplined, I would face challenges pattern-matching my way into academia -- not impossible ones, but definitely formidable. Later on, I died as an unsuccessful matriarch, thwarted by my too-simple career as a cashier.
Rigid women's magazine questionnaires inspired the creators of Perfect Woman, California-based game developers Lea Schoenfelder and Peter Lu. In the early 2000s, my girlfriends and I would read Cosmopolitan quizzes' prompts to each other over the phone (spoiler: None of the career recommendations was "video game journalist").
If BFF-Amanda was a.) likely to tell a long-winded public story; b.) often found at Hollister; c.) direct with her crushes; and d.) always setting her friends up with boys, then you can be sure, a life in HR would be the life for Amanda. Perfect Woman is an ironic commentary on this kind of prescriptive living.
You look awkward. You feel ridiculous; but that's the toll of contorting yourself to fit in.
"There are so many such roles emphasising aspects of family, career, experience, sex and more," Perfect Woman's description reads, "But these can not possibly characterise the depth and complexity of a woman's life."
On my second play-through, I decided to be a princess, which Perfect Woman regards as a "normal choice." At 16, I was told that being the "teenager everybody wants to have sex with" would be low-effort and mesh well with my resume as an entitled brat.
Instead of mothering two kids in my middle-years, I decided to be the drunk girl at Oktoberfest, but wasn't quite adept at dancing on tables. Another thing I was mediocre at: dealing with my son's death from Leukemia. Still, though, I learned from the challenge, which adjusted my values.
"A superficial life is unthinkable for you," Perfect Woman explained, "but you can profit from some experience!"
Suddenly, my history as a shallow sex bomb was less deterministic. Becoming a rich housewife or an angry woman wasn't as fitting anymore, and the rocky road to being a "wise" old lady became a little smoother. I died happy and "demented," but only after speaking at benefits and teaching belly dancing.
What I couldn't quite digest was why Perfect Woman is about being the "perfect woman." Little about the game felt female-specific aside from its avatars, stunting its ambition as a commentary on gender stereotypes. Pattern-matching isn't gender-exclusive, though, for women, there is often more to match up to at once: beauty, motherhood, work life, sexiness. Since Perfect Woman moves linearly throughout time, focusing on just one choice before moving onto another, it isn't quite commenting on "having it all": an impossible ideal long-critiqued in feminist thought wherein a woman must gracefully balance her career, family, appearances and mood, or else draw judgment.
More likely, Perfect Woman is intended to comment on how it's possible for women to do anything, but past choices can make future goals more or less difficult -- not exactly ground-breaking.
Its flat message didn't quite mesh with the game's contortion mechanic, a more obvious metaphor for women struggling with female stereotypes. For some reason, while playing, I thought of Monica Lewinsky, who was 22 when she had her affair with Bill Clinton -- a moment that continues to define and circumscribe her life, but not his. When I think of a woman weighed down by her past, I think about Lewinsky, who couldn't get full-time employment for 17 years after the scandal.
In Perfect Woman's focus on how life choices effect women's futures, womanhood felt tangential. Was this game a commentary, a critique or a motivator?
Perfect Woman is advertised as representing "a broad spectrum of what a woman can be," but weighed against its use of contortion as a feminist commentary, felt ideologically incoherent. That being said -- I'm happy to see physical discomfort being used as a game mechanic and vehicle for expression.