Critique of Anita Sarkeesian’s “Strategic Butt Coverings” video

Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency fame is back for Season 2 of the polarizing “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” series with the release of “Strategic Butt Coverings.” Sarkeesian is retooling the series, in part due to the mental abuse of her critics and the physical toll this project has taken on her body. Though I disagree with most everything Sarkeesian espouses, I certainly don’t wish ill on her as a person. She’s had a busy couple years with the Tropes series, so the newer, shorter videos are a welcome change of pace.

In this video, Sarkeesian compares how the butts of female and male characters are depicted differently in video games. In short, games tend to emphasize the assets of female characters, but not male characters. Instead, designers employ a variety of visual design tricks to deemphasize male butts as much as possible, even in games that provide a third-person view of the character.

She uses a couple dozen examples to show the double standard, though admits that not all video game characters are treated this way:

Of course, not all games with male protagonists keep the character’s butt obscured or out of frame like these games do. The real issue is one of emphasis and definition; a significant portion of third-person games with female protagonists call attention to those characters’ butts in a way that’s meant to be sexually appealing to the presumed straight male player.

As far as her observations go, Sarkeesian showed me some things that I wasn’t aware of. Certainly female butts are emphasized in many video games: this wasn’t a surprise to me. I’m not interested in countering this argument with examples of non-sexualized female characters, like Princesses Peach, Daisy, or Zelda. Her examples from Arkham Knight and Gears of War of how designers will go to great lengths to hide male butts are illuminating.

What bothers me, however, are the implications of Sarkeesian’s brand of feminism as it relates to the bodies of real men and women. But before I get to that, watch her video: it’s a short one.

Getting to know a character

Sarkeesian opens the video with a very provocative assumption of game designers’ motives:

If you want to get to know a character, learn about their interests, goals, or desires, their butt is probably not going to give you that information. It won’t tell you much about who they are, or what they’re thinking or feeling at any given time. But video game designers often choose to put tremendous focus on the butts of certain characters, while going to almost absurd lengths to avoid calling attention to the butts of others.

Her opening is so full of hyperbole that I found myself laughing. In Sarkeesian’s view, female butts are the primary way designers want us to engage with a female character. Designers care more about the woman’s butt than anything else.

But if that were the case, why do games like Bayonetta and Tomb Raider have such lengthy plot lines and cutscenes? Do players really reduce female characters to their butts?

According to Sarkeesian, if a character has an attractive butt, then the player is somehow compelled to see the character solely through her asset, as if the butt is the lens by which players actually understand female characters.

Her hyperbolic outrage is a strawman, and made me think of this wonderful, off-color comic copyright Nathan Bulmer:

Man checks out a girl's butt

Modeling real-life fashion

Like I said in the intro, I can’t really argue with Sarkeesian’s observations. She says of Catwoman:

In Batman: Arkham City for instance, the player’s gaze is drawn to Catwoman’s behind, which is emphasized by her costume and exaggerated hip sway.

Then later says of male characters:

There are a few examples of male protagonists who are wearing clothing that calls attention to their butts but for the most part, men’s butts, even when visible in the frame, are deemphasized. Plenty of male heroes wear baggy pants or jeans…

And here is where Sarkeesian’s argument diverges from reality. Yes, digital artists design the butts of female and male characters differently. But if you think about the male and female sexes, aren’t there biological differences between the two? On a whole, on average? Women’s bodies tend to be shaped differently than men’s bodies.

Not exclusively, of course. But women’s bodies tend to have a higher percentage of fat than male bodies. And women, I think, have much more variability in their shapes, from hip size to bust size to hip-to-chest ratio to hip-to-waist ratio and waist-to-chest ratio. I think one reason women tend to spend more time looking for clothes than men is that they are almost forced to: their bodies have much more variability, and what fits one woman might not fit another woman. And because women have to hunt harder for properly fitting clothes, they naturally are going to know more about fashion than the average man.

After all, just think of one of the biggest changes a woman’s body can undergo: pregnancy. A woman’s body shape will change many times over the course of nine months, and after the baby is born, her new body will likely be different than her old body.

I don’t think it’s out-of-line, then, to point out that men and women, biologically, have different body shapes.

What also contributes, though, to the “double-standard” in how female and male butts are depicted are the real fashion choices of real women. Women often wear clothes, in real life, that emphasizes their rear end.

I’ve been on college campuses for 12 years now, in many different parts of the country, both as a student and a professor. I’ve seen thousands of young women. All generalizations fall apart on some level; all students, male and female, display great diversity in their fashion choices.

That said, there are several fashion trends of young women that emphasize their butts. Many students wear yoga pants or black leggings-as-pants. I’m not here to condemn them or support them for their fashion choices: I’m just making an observation. And while they might wear yoga pants or leggings because they are “comfy”, these garments are tight and they do emphasize the exact shape of a woman’s butt, jiggles and all.

Women sometimes where designer jeans that have sparkly rhinestone hearts plastered on the back pockets. Women athletes wear sweatpants with their last names emblazoned across the butt. They wear short shorts that show off not only the curves of their backside, but even their pelvis.

I lived in Florida for three years, and one fad that surprised me was the “under butt” style of shorts. Florida is hot, so naturally men and women don’t wear much clothing. And this was only a small minority of women, but some wore shorts so short that you could see the bottom curve of their butt cheeks.

Now, perhaps women are forced to show off their backsides because that’s the only kind of bottoms they are able to purchase in stores. After all, even women’s dress pants and skirts tend to be tight. But whatever shadowy forces are at work in society to shape women’s rears, wearing shorts that are so short that they show off a woman’s “under butt” is a conscious choice. Societal expectations of gender roles are not that controlling.

Sarkeesian says that men in video games tend to wear baggy clothes. That’s true in games, but that’s also true in real life. Whether men wear jeans, shorts, or dress pants (about the only three options men have for bottoms, compared to the multitude of choices for women), these garments tend to be baggy. Let me offer one possible explanation why men’s bottom garments are baggier: men have external genitalia, genitalia that can often change shape and size throughout the day, so men want more freedom in their clothes, not less.

(Discounting, of course, the minority of men who favor skinny jeans—that fashion seems so uncomfortable to me.)

To bring this long tangent to a close, I think many digital artists are simply modeling reality. They design male and female butts differently because 1) male and female bodies are different, and 2) men and women’s fashion options are very different in real life.

Of course, games are fantasy spaces, and plenty of video games (and related anime and comic book series) have pushed the limits of fantasy fashion. In other words, games don’t have to model real-world fashion choices, as they often do not. But even fantasy games have a basis in reality. That’s why male and female characters in fantasy spaces tend to look like men and women in real life.

Who’s being disconnected from the character here?

Sarkeesian’s observations are accurate, but her point misses the mark. Why is it wrong if a female’s butt is depicted?

[T]he emphasis placed on the butts of female characters communicates to players that this is what’s important, this is what you should be paying attention to. It communicates that the character is a sexual object designed for players to look at and enjoy. And by explicitly encouraging you to ogle and objectify the character, the game is implicitly discouraging you from identifying directly with her. [emphasis added]

Sarkeesian gives too much credit to the power of butts. Perhaps well-crafted butts cause her to disengage from a female character, but they don’t do that for me. I recently conducted a research project in which I analyzed games with overly sexualized female characters. The games were the standard culprits—Tomb Raider, Bayonetta, Dead or Alive, and Lollipop Chainsaw.

I chose to analyze these games for a specific reason. These games are often criticized for how female characters are modeled—and usually that’s where the criticism starts and ends, with the character’s appearance. After all, it’s impossible to argue that a character like Bayonetta is not sexualized:

Bayonetta 2 Box

However, when I actually played Bayonetta, I realized that she, along with the game, actually had quite a bit of depth. Bayonetta’s certainly aware of her sexuality, but she’s not a whore. She has a “look, don’t touch” mentality. She flaunts her body, but doesn’t really tease the male characters with it. Her main pursuer, a male journalist, gets close to touching her from time to time, but doesn’t succeed. Nor does he see Bayonetta as a body to be conquered.

Bayonetta has a tricky past, and she wrestles with the darkness (she is a witch) but also the light: she helps people, and cares for those closest to her. She is strong, courageous, and capable. She’s not prone to negative emotions, and she’s rarely scared or sad. There’s even an undercurrent of motherhood throughout the game, as a little girl insists on calling Bayonetta “mommy” even though Bayonetta insists she is nothing of the sort.

I really enjoyed playing Bayonetta. And honestly? Once the action gets going, she moves so fast, and so much is happening on the screen, that there is often little time to “ogle” her body. Sarkeesian insists that the design of female butts reduces these characters to their butts, but I think she’s the one who is reducing female characters to their bodies.

Are costumes like Bayonetta’s over-the-top? Obviously, clearly, undoubtedly. On the other hand, look at how cool her costume design is. The diamonds going up her legs, the neon heel pistols, the silky hair tied up with charms, the frilly sleeves. And as I pointed out before, many women love cosplaying as these characters.

The emergent view of the body, according to Sarkeesian

I’ve studied Sarkeesian long enough that I’m starting to understand what her feminism is rooted in. Now, I’m making some assumptions here; even though her body of work is quite largely, I don’t know what she thinks about other feminist causes, such as abortion rights, equal pay, discrepancies in women’s health care, etc. It might be safe to assume she holds standard liberal, feminist views on women’s rights issues, but I don’t want to assume.

I also want to be careful about labeling her philosophy in language she has not used. After all, while I hold a high view of women and believe that women are just as capable and valuable as men, I would bristle at somebody labeling me a feminist. That’s because my support of women is fueled by a different philosophy (namely, Christianity) and is not fueled by the contemporary academic well of feminism.

All that said, Sarkeesian’s view of the body, particularly the female body, does remind me of two philosophies.

First, for all of her liberal leanings, Sarkeesian’s view of the female body is strangely conservative, even Puritan. I really do wonder what she thinks of women who consciously choose to dress provocatively, who choose to flaunt their bodies, who choose to embrace their sexuality. As I’ve said before, there are strains of feminism that celebrate the female body, even going as far to support women who make a career out of pornography.

Occasionally Sarkeesian will praise a video game that depicts females “correctly.” And these women are usually covered up and have small chests and flat butts. Her conservative leanings on the female body get dangerously close to “body shaming,” the act of criticizing women not only for their fashion choices, but even the very shapes of their bodies, which are often out of their control.

When I think of the female college students I work with on a daily basis, most of them are thin. And body shapes vary dramatically in all the areas I’ve already enumerated. So when Sarkeesian criticizes somebody like Lara Croft for having the perfect, rounded butt, I wonder: what does she think about actual women with that same rear-end shape? What does she think of women who also wear tight shorts, just like Croft?

Every week I see women joggers run by my house in tight shorts and sports bras. Lara Croft is similarly athletic, climbing the ruins of ancient civilizations, often in places like jungles and tropical islands. In a way, her tight clothing is appropriate for the athletic feats she performs.

Second, a related philosophy, going all the way back to ancient societies, is mind-body dualism. This philosophy exists in many forms, and even early forms of Christianity (as well as other religions) have embraced this philosophy. It’s really hard to gloss over dualism, but essentially, dualists see the mind and body as completely separate entities.

And usually, dualists see the body as lesser than the mind. The body is a flawed, imperfect vessel for the mind. For example, in the Christian heresy of Gnosticism, the flesh is seen as wholly separate from the mind. Even farther, the flesh is seen as sinful and corrupted: the body is a prison that our souls need to escape from.

Certainly Sarkeesian is not Gnostic. But she seems to have some disdain for the female body. She says in this video:

Third-person games with female protagonists typically display those characters in a way that gives players a full-body view. A classic example of this is the original Tomb Raider games, which are presented from a third-person perspective wherein protagonist Lara Croft’s entire body is visible. In these early Tomb Raider games, Lara’s butt is typically right in the center of the screen…

I’m not sure what’s so offensive about her observation. Most video games feature a third-person view, the entire body of the character visible. This camera orientation goes back 30+ years to the days of Donkey Kong. Now, those who have played 3D third-person games know that the camera can often be adjusted on the fly. The camera might default so that the center of the person is in the middle of the screen, but the camera can also take many other positions.

And is it really so offensive that the butt is in the middle of the screen? If not the butt, then what part of the body? If it was the character’s head, would Sarkeesian be arguing that the camera supports a fetishization of the female head? The butt is roughly in the middle of the body: legs are below, torso is above.

This very practical camera orientation has nothing to do with butts. By this logic, the 2D platforming games also fetishize Mario’s butt. When Mario eats a Super Mushroom, he’s two squares tall: the bottom square is his legs and butt; the top square is his torso and head.

Super Mario World screenshot

Learning from a character’s appearance

To go back to Sarkeesian’s opening statement: I agree, you can’t learn anything about a character’s interests, goals, or desires by looking at their butt. But does that mean you can’t learn anything at all about them based on their physical appearance? Does not the entirety of their physical appearance tell the player something about who they are? Body shapes and clothing choices can tell us what drives a character, how they take care of themselves, even how they see themselves.

This is why I bring up dualism. Sarkeesian seemingly wants a world in which characters have no sexuality, dress plainly, have square, flat bodies, and do not let their body dictate anything about who they are. She ends her video by saying:

So to be clear, the solution here is not to simply show more butts of male characters. Equal opportunity butt display is definitely not the answer. Rather, the solution is to deemphasize the rear ends of female characters … This is not an impossible task given that game designers do this all the time with their male characters. It’s time they started consistently doing it with their female characters, too.

The rear ends of female characters should be deemphasized, should be depicted in the same hidden, shadowy ways that male butts are depicted. No butts for anybody!

Just as a person who shows up to a job interview in a suit versus somebody who choose up in jeans tells us something about the person, a video game character who wears tight clothes tells us something about who they are, and a character who wears baggy clothes tells us something as well.

Before playing Dead or Alive, all I’d ever heard was that the game oversexualized female characters, especially in the chest area. Each character has a range of costumes, and when you mix in DLC, you can get teeny tiny lingerie and bathing suit costumes for all the female characters.

However, the default costumes do tell us something about the female characters. Body shape and fashion choices matter. They aren’t a distraction, or objectification, as Sarkeesian believes. Just look at the range of DoA female characters. If you’ve played the game, you’re already familiar with who these characters are.

If not, tell me if you can’t figure out, at least a little, who these characters are, based on their dress:

Dead or Alive 5: Hitomi

Dead or Alive 5: Kokoro

Dead or Alive 5: Leifang

Dead or Alive 5: Lisa

Dead or Alive 5: Mila

Dead or Alive 5: Sarah

Dead or Alive 5: Tina

On some level, it’s the responsibility of every player to figure out what kind of characters they like, and which they don’t. Sarkeesian bemoans that she can’t identify with female characters, but insists that we should be able to identify with them as people. Yet she also argues that characters are designed by people, that they are not independent creations, that they are subjugated by game developers. She views female characters as being autonomous, though objectified, beings who are at the same time lacking in agency.

It’s becoming clear to me that Sarkeesian holds the female body in low regard, and believes that who a person is should be divorced from the form of their body. That’s not to say that a character’s personhood is wholly determined by the shape of their body. But there can be a middle ground: a character’s personhood and body are both important.

I’ll wrap up my thoughts on the matter for now: my analysis is 3+ times the word count of Sarkeesian’s video. At the very least, her views are generative of much discussion.

Game on,
Dennis

2 thoughts on “Critique of Anita Sarkeesian’s “Strategic Butt Coverings” video

    • Thanks for the support!
      I’ve checked out your blog, by the way. You’ve got such a better knowledge of anime than me! You’ve reviewed some pretty interesting shows.

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