A Feminist/Masculine Critique of Fighting Video Games: Part II

In the second part of this essay we’ll be looking at the text in the game rather than just the design aspects. It’s not mandatory to read the first part, but I’ll be referring back and countering it in this section, so it is advised. You can read it by clicking the link.

Link to Part I.

Part II: Context

The main counter against the female-characters-as-sexualisation argument is that the female characters can all fight and are in various positions of power within the narrative. This is relatively true and quite a positive feminist statement as they are females who, “…compete and conceivably win in a man’s world [in SF a world of violence, predominately a male domain]…they go against the grain of the prevailing notions about the female sex.” (Haskell, 1987, p.4). The fact they can all fight and that none of them are the ‘joke’ character breaks away from Chaudhuri’s view that, “…the male spectator’s pleasure revolves around…punishing or taming [women]…” (2006, p.45). However, none of them are the main character which is a prevailing notion within the industry, “Commercially available games rarely cast females in the main role, and even when females are present, they rarely take on the main role.” (Cassell and Jenkins, p.59).

Several of the females have occupations of power; detective (Chun-Li), assassin/secret agent (Cammy and C.Viper), and ninja-in-training (Ibuki). Rose doesn’t seem to have an occupation and Makoto and Sakura are schoolgirls. None of them follow all three rules of Martinez’s view that, “Japanese women are held to be gentle, submissive and beautiful…” (1998, p.2).

However, most of these positions of power are undermined by the characters history. Chun-Li wants to bring down M.Bison because he killed her father. Cammy was once a brainwashed assassin for Shadaloo (the evil organisation run by Bison). Ibuki doesn’t want to be a ninja only doing it through duty to her family. If we want to go further with the reason for fighting in the tournament Makoto is fighting to restore the glory of her late father’s dojo and Sakura is fighting to win the attention and affection of Ryu.

Apart from C.Viper and Rose, the female characters are affected by men and fighting for them or due to their influence. C. Viper is interesting to look at due to having a daughter whom she calls during her win quotes and her epilogue scene. Her job as a stealthy CIA agent shows her to be strong, but according to Haskell, “A woman is supposed most herself in the throes of emotion (the love of man and children) and least herself, that is, least ‘womanly’ in the pursuit of knowledge and success.” (1987, p.4). This doesn’t seem to correlate with C.Viper’s win quotes from the Arcade Mode such as, “Lauren…Don’t worry, I’ll be home to tuck you in tonight.” or, “Lauren’s birthday is coming up. I wonder what she’d like…” C.Viper manages to be successful (to see these quotes/scene the player must win the match) and she still maintains a central love for her child.

Another example might be Sakura who has developed a crush on Ryu and imitates his fighting style. If she matches up with Sagat and again, just like C.Viper, she wins, she says, “I totally understand your obsession with Ryu. Isn’t he just dreamy?”

As with her design Juri is also an interesting character to look at due to her sexually suggestive and aggressive language. For example;

“You’re just not good enough. I can’t feel a thing.” “You want me to make it hurt more?” “That felt good, didn’t it?”

The sexually aggressive female villain is nothing new, highlighted by Anita Sarkeesian in Season 2 of Tropes Vs. Women in the episode Sinister Seductress (2016). Sarkeesian explains, “The problem with these representations is not that they depict female characters who are sexual, it is the way sexuality is presented, as a threat or a weapon…” (feministfrequency, 2016). However, Sarkeesian continues, “…[it should be] something that should be enjoyed by these women…” From her playful quotes it’s almost certain that Juri enjoys using her sexuality in her fights. The sexually aggressive female also appears in Barbara Creed’s book The Monstrous Feminine where she explains that this type of female is, “…usually a sympathetic figure – is rarely punished. She [is]…the woman who seeks revenge on men who have raped or abused her in some way.” (2001, p.123). This follows Juri’s case as in her ending of SSFIV, she betrays Seth (the main bad guy of SSFIV), saying,

“Defeating your was nothing but an added bonus. I just wanted to pit you two idiots [Seth and Bison, the latter was her Rival character] against each other while I took over.”

So while the women are sexualised in their design and under the influence of men in their context, let’s have a look at the male characters for a response.

From my research it looks like the only two men of SSFIV that have jobs are Guile and El Fuerte. Guile is a major in the United States Air Force, and El Fuerte is a chef who also happens to be a luchadore. The rest of the cast (according to the Street Fighter Wikia) don’t have any occupation to speak of. The possible counter to this would be M. Bison and Seth, but that’s if you class “Dictator” and “Arms Dealer” as jobs. Guile’s job can be seen as classically male (it being the army) and while traditionally cooking has been seen as a woman’s role, but with changing times the occupation of chef (in El Fuerte’s case) has become pretty gender-neutral.

There is a large amount of the male cast that have spouses, partners, and/or children, a lot different than just C.Viper on the female side. Guile, Hakan, Dhalsim, Ken, and Rufus all have significant others and/or children that are seen or mentioned in their story modes. Personally I see this as a good thing as it allows the male characters to break out of the uber-macho mould that comes with the connotations of a fighting tournament and allow to show emotions and romantic interest in much more than a “saving a damsel” role.

I also believe there are homoerotic tensions underneath the Street Fighter series. The easiest example of this is the duo of Ryu and Ken; both using the same fighting style and always needing to fight each other. Add in the narrative of SSFIV of Ken leaving his pregnant wife Eliza behind to follow his old friend and beat each other to a pulp (not unlike The Narrator in the film Fight Club (Fincher, 1999) who beats up Angel Face to dispel homoerotic tension), it’s hard to not see the connotations.

Add this to the fact that the majority of players are male (Essential Facts…, 2016) and the majority of the playable male characters being seen as these perfect specimens of male power (all those ripped torsos and bulging muscles) who then proceed to beat each other up to get back to their wives and girlfriends…come on, do I have to spell it out? Paul Willeman says this is due to a need to see the male, “…’exist’ (that is, walk, move, ride, fight)…and on the unquiet pleasure of seeing the male mutilated…and restored through violent brutality.” (1981, p.16). Games work perfectly in this regard as with the touch of a few buttons the character is restored to perfection even if they have just been beaten unconscious.

Looking at the male characters just in the macro they are not very likable or relatable. We’ve got a stoic wanderer who never wants to settle down (Ryu), a braggart who goes around insulting other fighters (Rufus), a cock-sure ruthless fighter (Adon), two emotionless clones (Abel and Seth), a jailbird who was sent to prison after the breakdown of his relationship and the realisation that he loves beating people up (Cody), an evil dictator (M. Bison), three ruthless assassins (Balrog, Vega and Sagat), and a fighter who has given in to the evil within (Akuma). Sure, there are some opposites to this such as Dhlasim always fighting for the poor and needy in his village, Guy who is a Lawful Good ninja, or Dudley who is a kind gentlemen but the bad stereotypes outweigh the good.

Looking closer in, let’s look at Vega, the mask-wearing assassin working for M.Bison. Vega is a narcissist, he loves his beautiful looks and believes that ugliness is evil due to childhood trauma. He epitomises Mark Simpson’s idea on the metrosexual male,

“…[they] contradict the basic premise of traditional heterosexuality – that only women are looked at and only men do the looking…when all’s said and done, nothing comes between him and his reflection.” (1994).

This is why Vega uses his mask, to protect his face from damage. His quotes usually focus on the attractiveness of his enemies, both men and women. Vega also subscribes to the metrosexual idea in design aspects as well. He’s one of the fastest and agile characters in the series and only being ranked in the “Normal” section for health, he’s dwarfed by the muscles of the other fighters. His tattoo (originally used to denote him as a villain) adds to this metrosexual image, as he shows it off in his default outfit because he’s not wearing a shirt.

Part II-B: Context of Virtua Fighter

Starting like SF by looking at jobs, three of the female characters are possibly viewed and objectified for their occupations due to the focus on their bodies. Pai is a movie star, Eileen works in an acrobatic/circus troupe, and Aoi is a Japanese fan dancer. In terms of the other female characters, Sarah is a college student (just like Makoto/Sakura), and Vanessa is a bodyguard.

Female characters story being influenced by male characters continues in Virtua Fighter. Pai Chan is the most obvious; she fights to prove to her father Lau that she is a good fighter and to repair the rift between them. Eileen was taught Kung Fu by her grandfather, Sarah enters the World Fighting Tournament due to her brother Jacky going, and similarly Aoi returns because of Brad. Vanessa is again the outlier and going to protect Sarah, another female character.

Male characters, again, are similar to Street Fighter in that they’re not likable or relatable. Broody wanderer (Akira), cocky braggart (Jacky), aloof/absent father (Lau), spoilt noble-kid (Lion), evil monk (Lei), and Yakuza hitman (Goh) are just a few of the delightful characters on show. Jeffry fights to make enough money to hunt down a devil shark that’s being haunting him since he was young. Shun-Di becomes a better fighter as he gets drunk.

El Blaze and Wolf Hawkfield are interesting additions due to both of them being professional wrestlers/fighters as their jobs focus on how they are viewed. However, as fighters they are viewed more for their strength than the female characters who are viewed more for their bodies.

Then we get to Brad. Brad is my main character and I love playing him. He got me into the fighting genre mainly due to being the only realistic representation of Muay Thai in a video game, but I grew to like his cocky win quotes. However, his character is pretty reprehensible. He’s a narcissist like Vega, caring more about his appearance  than the fight at hand. This can be seen in his design (seen in Part I) where he is showing off his body for the other fighter and spectators. Aoi reveals that throughout the competition he would flirt with every single other female characters to point of making some of them, Aoi in particular, uncomfortable (Virtua Fighter Wikia, 2017). Brad joins the tournament in VF5 due to their being a new female fighter. Brad’s motivations make him out as a semi-borderline sexual predator.


So, what have we learnt?

Design is important. Female characters are drawn with slim waists, long legs, large breasts, and commonly with their rear facing the camera usually because a designer wanted to draw them like that because they found it attractive. When female characters are more realistically depicted they are less sexualised. Male characters can be whatever shape they want to be.

Context is also important. While female characters are sexualised, once the appropriate context is applied they can be seen as powerful individuals. This is sometimes undermined when their reasons for fighting are the adoration, respect, or the memory of men.

A feminist look at Street Fighter and Virtua Fighter could go way beyond what I’ve done here. I’m using an old version of Street Fighter, with Ultra SFIV and Street Fighter V both coming out recently and both containing new characters. For example, characters like Poison, who looks like this…

Street Figher Poison.jpg
Poison is also a trans character so that could be an entire other essay on how trans characters are depicted…(Source: Pinterest.com)

Another new character is R. Mika whose Special Attack involves shoving her buttocks into the other fighter’s face, there is a lot that could be said about those designs. A new addition to Street Fighter V is school costumes with the female dresses being incredibly short, make of that what you will.

Why is it only one body type for the female characters? It wouldn’t be hard for Capcom to find realistic, athletic women to base characters off. If they’ve got Fei Long, who is a caricature of Bruce Lee, why not Ronda Rousey or Holly Holm or at least a woman with some abs or less bouncy boobs? Heck, Wing Chun, one of the styles of Kung Fu, was invented by women for women. What would be better than a woman using that martial art?

When Juri was first being designed, the only directives the team had were “Korean” and “female” (Jigsaw, 2009). They went through so many design ideas, “…from old ladies to ice skaters.” (Jigsaw 2009). Capcom could of had an old lady fighter, but instead made a young, sexually aggressive fighter. It’s an odd double standard where we can have old male characters such as Gouken and Gen from SF and Lau and Shun-Di from VF but an old female character has never appeared in either series.

So, what can be done? In a similar article about SFV on Pixelkin, Michael Martin thought it might be time to retire what he called the “cheesecake” outfits. “With the influx of female gamers and even more interested in testing the Street Fighter waters with a new sequel…why not show Laura’s and the other female characters’ strengths beyond their voluptuous bodies?” (Martin, 2016).

However, this could be a split in the fanbase. In an interview with EventsHubs, a previous Street Fighter champion named Luffy said he chose his main character Rose, “…right away because of the size of her breasts…” (Taylor, 2013). Obviously Capcom doesn’t want to reinvent old characters, but with Street Fighter V it could have made a new, better representative female fighter. SFV introduced Laura, a completely new fighter, but she still is well-toned and has large breasts like nearly every other SF female. Interestingly her trivia page says she is, “…the heaviest female player in the game…” (Street Fighter Wikia, 2017). We’re at the point where a heavy woman looks like this… (Note: This is Laura’s alternative outfit, but the point still stands).

Laura 2
Yeah, she’s totally the same body-type as Rufus…(Source: dualshockers.com).

I should also point out that both of the games are of Japanese origin and while I’ve been trying to use Japanese sources a lot of theory is focussed on Western film and games. While most of it is applicable it would be good to get that first-hand knowledge. One of the older Japanese pop culture books, Ian Buruma’s A Japanese Mirror (1984) says, “…popular culture represents all the repressed violent and sexual desires of the Japanese.” (Martinez, 1998, p.12). If that doesn’t fit the characters of Street Fighter then what will? However, that book is over twenty years old, so there is definitely a gap that could be plugged there.

Edit: Just so my point is made crystal clear, I support sexy, sex-positive, and sex-driven characters. Heck, I’m in love with all three versions of Lara Croft, so I don’t think I can be called a sexy-woman-hater. Chun-Li looking like she does is cool. Juri acting like she does is cool. EVERY female character looking and acting like they do is boring and uninspired. If men can fill so many personalities why do women have such a narrow field of reference? Designers may want a sexy female, but fighting games thrive on diversity, it is the thrill of picking a character and seeing the colourful array of cast members. A game wouldn’t survive if every character was the same (just look at the original Street Fighter, where Ken and Ryu play exactly the same) and diversification of body types is the easiest way to do that.

[Return back to original text].

In the end I still love Street Fighter and Virtua Fighter. I still love Brad despite being a weird sex pest of a character. I still love Juri for her crazy attacks with her legs and double-entendre dialogue. I still love Laura, her fighting style is great and is dynamic. And that’s why I critique it because I love games but I know they can do better especially when it comes to representation not just of women but of the lousy male stereotypes and everything in between those two binaries.

End of Part II

Link to Bibliography.

Banner Photo Source: financialpost.com

Edit: Read the follow-up “Afterthoughts On A Feminist/Masculine Look At Fighting Games” here.

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