Lingerie is not Armor

This episode explores the ways in which female characters are frequently placed in wildly impractical, sexualizing outfits specifically designed to objectify them for the titillation of the presumed straight male player. We then discuss the problems inherent in linking the sexualization of female characters to notions of female empowerment, and examine what positive depictions of female sexuality and sexual desire in games might look like.

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This episode explores the ways in which female characters are frequently placed in wildly impractical, sexualizing outfits specifically designed to objectify them for the titillation of the presumed straight male player. We then discuss the problems inherent in linking the sexualization of female characters to notions of female empowerment, and examine what positive depictions of female sexuality and sexual desire in games might look like.

Links & Resources

Enlightened Sexism – Susan J. Douglas“Why is Cortana naked? Halo franchise director Frank O’Connor has an answer” – GamesRadar

For more on the use of sex as a reward for player accomplishment:
Tropes vs. Women in Video Games: Women as Reward by Feminist Frequency

For more on the sexual objectification of female characters:
Tropes vs. Women in Video Games: Women as Background Decoration: Part 1 by Feminist Frequency

For more on the male gaze:
Tropes vs. Women in Video Games: Movement & The Male Gaze by Feminist Frequency

For more on sexualizing outfits for female characters in games (as well as a nifty female armor bingo card):
Bikini Armor Battle Damage on Tumblr

This is the third episode in season two of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. For more on the format changes accompanying season two, please see our announcement here.

About the series:

The Tropes vs Women in Video Games project aims to examine the plot devices and patterns most often associated with female characters in gaming from a systemic, big picture perspective. This series will include critical analysis of many beloved games and characters, but remember that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects. This video series is created by Anita Sarkeesian and the project was funded by 6968 awesome backers on

Games referenced in this episode:

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (2015)
Bayonetta (2010)
Bayonetta 2 (2014)
Bloodrayne 2 (2004)
Dark Souls 3 (2016)
Dragon’s Crown (2013)
Firewatch (2016)
Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2 (2013)
Golden Axe: Beast Rider (2008)
Ride to Hell: Retribution (2013)
The Last of Us: Left Behind (2014)
Mass Effect 3 (2012)
Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes (2004)
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (2015)
Mortal Kombat (2011)
Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 (2009)
Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge (2012)
Perfect Dark (2000)
Resident Evil: Revelations (2012)
Smashing the Battle (2016)
Soulcalibur IV (2008)
Street Fighter V (2016)
Street Fighter X Tekken (2012)
Ultra Street Fighter IV (2014)
Whacked! (2002)
The Witcher 3 (2015)
X-Blades (2009)


CLIP: BloodRayne 2

“My god, look at that.”
“Good night nurse!”
“Ooh! That’s definitely stimulating my economy.”

In the late 90s, developer Rare wanted to replicate the success of their landmark 1997 shooter GoldenEye, but didn’t want to make another James Bond game. Instead, they began work on a science fiction spy thriller called Perfect Dark. For the game’s star. they wanted to create a striking new type of special agent who wouldn’t just live in James Bond’s shadow, so they drew inspiration from figures ranging from Joan of Arc to The X-Files’ Dana Scully. Her name was Joanna Dark. A few years earlier, Eidos Interactive’s Lara Croft had rapidly become one of the most famous and recognizable game characters of all time, so it was reasonable to think that an action game with a female protagonist could be a smash hit.  Alas, Joanna Dark never reached quite the levels of fame occupied by Lara Croft, but Perfect Dark was still a big success. Let’s take a look at a commercial for the game:

CLIP: Perfect Dark trailer

“Welcome to 2023. Big businesses now merge with alien nations.  An ancient war is being fought under the sea. The president is about to be cloned.  And it’s your job to try and save the world.  So you’ve got an important decision to make: What are you going to wear to work?

From the team you brought you GoldenEye for N64, meet special agent Joanna Dark in Perfect Dark, where you’ll find out that the only person man enough to handle a job like this is a woman.”

Can you imagine an ad exactly like this, only with Marcus Fenix or Master Chief, getting out of bed naked, taking a sexy slow-motion shower, putting on his sexy underwear, and the narrator saying that he has an important decision to make: what is he going to wear to work?

Animation VO:

Welcome to 2016. There’s a war out there…somewhere. You’re not sure where, exactly. Anyway, the important thing is, you’re Special Agent Jake Grimshadow. It’s your job to save the world. The only question is: What are you going to wear? …. WAIT… WHAT??

A commercial like that would never happen, nor should it. But Joanna is treated differently than her male counterparts. Even though Perfect Dark is a first-person shooter and, as a result, you rarely see her in the game itself, by focusing on her getting dressed, this ad encouraged players to think of Joanna’s appeal as being rooted in her sexual desirability rather than her skill as a special agent.

A character’s clothing is one of the first things we notice. It’s an important part of our first impression of who that character is, and as such, it’s a way for designers to immediately communicate to players what is most important and noteworthy about them.

Female heroes in video games might be special agents or soldiers or treasure hunters by trade. They often find themselves in dangerous, physically demanding situations, fighting off bad guys and saving the world. They are typically performing activities that call for practical or protective clothing. But when we look at the types of outfits that female characters are made to wear, we can see that they are often both sexualized and completely absurd.

Ivy from the Soulcalibur games is a bold warrior who finds herself in battles where sharp, deadly weapons are being used and protective armor would be a must, but the clothing she wears–or lack thereof–is not exactly intended to keep her safe.
Cammy from the Street Fighter series is a British special forces operative whose thong leotard does a better job of calling attention to her butt than of offering any kind of protection.

Jessica Sherawat from Resident Evil: Revelations is a member of the Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance and regularly faces deadly infected mutants in combat, but her outfits appear to be designed for…yeah, I don’t even know.
And this is just a small fraction of the vast number of female characters who are forced into impractical and objectifying clothing while in dangerous situations…

CLIP: Mortal Kombat (2011)
“You’ll learn respect!”

CLIP: Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes
“You’re a fool to come back here.”

CLIP: Street Fighter V
“All right, let’s begin!”

CLIP: The Witcher 3
“And instead of donning a breastplate, you dash into battle, shirt open, navel and…whatnot exposed!”

Because clothing can shape our first impressions of a character and has a tremendous influence on our sense of who they are every time they are on screen, sexualized outfits can contribute to what’s called the hyper-sexualization of female characters. Hyper-sexualization in the media occurs when a character is designed to be valued primarily for their sexual characteristics or behaviors. In hypersexualized characters, these attributes are highlighted above all else and made the center of attention, while everything else about the character is made secondary.

Games and other media often work to frame this sexualization as a positive thing for women. They blur the distinction between female sexualization and female power, and as a result, sexualized female characters are sometimes celebrated for being perceived as “owning” their sexuality in a way that is empowering. But it isn’t actually empowering because the sexuality these characters exude is manufactured for, and presented as existing for, the presumed straight male player.

Bayonetta is a quintessential example of such a character. When the camera caresses her body as it does in the opening scene of Bayonetta 2, establishing the player’s relationship with the character, she is frozen in time, the passive object of the male gaze. The camera is putting her and Jeanne on display for the player, breaking them down into what the game is communicating is most important about them: their sexualized parts. And when Bayonetta starts moving, it’s the player who has the power to control her sexuality as a weapon throughout the game, both literally and figuratively.

She has an assortment of special moves called “torture attacks” which involve devices meant to suggest BDSM and that look like something you might expect to see in an exaggerated stereotype of a sex dungeon. But these sexualized moves have nothing to do with sex: they just obliterate her enemies. And a number of her attacks literally leave her naked, because, you see, she’s attacking the enemies with her hair and her hair is also her clothing so when she’s using her hair to attack her enemies it can’t be covering her body and…

In these ways, the game deliberately links Bayonetta’s sexuality to power, selling a version of sexual objectification that we’re all supposed to feel good about and find “empowering.” Every aspect of Bayonetta’s existence, from the way the camera is magnetically drawn to her sexualized body parts to the pole dance reward for completing the game, is expertly designed to be sexually affirming and satisfying for a presumed straight male audience.

If it seems like I’m frequently repeating the fact that the player is presumed to be a straight male, that’s because it’s vital to remember.  This presumption influences and shapes so many creative decisions that are made in the development of many games.

CLIP: Whacked!
“Let’s see, target market – mostly male, 18-24 years old, interests – senseless violence, high tech weaponry, pain, humiliation… hey!  Maybe this’ll do the trick.”

Of course, characters like Bayonetta are a fictional fantasy. But in reality, we exist in a culture where women are often valued primarily for their sexual desirability to men. So while characters like these are incredibly powerful in the physical sense—able to slay entire armies and bring down gods–there’s nothing empowering about the fact that they are sexually objectified.

In fact, this connection between objectification and empowerment is extremely damaging. It’s  harmful to women because rather than asserting that women have intrinsic value as people, it communicates that the kind of power available to women comes from men finding them desirable. And it’s damaging to men because it suggests that women who are liberated and empowered are also women whose sexuality is always available to men. When we conflate the sexualization of women with power for women, we internalize this harmful myth and begin to think sexualization is the only way to achieve gender equality.

But the truth is that sexualization doesn’t actually bring us any closer to equality. In her book Enlightened Sexism, Susan J. Douglas sums up the issue. ”Under the guise of escapism and pleasure, we are getting images of imagined power that mask, and even erase, how much still remains to be done for girls and women, images that make sexism seem fine, even fun, and insist that feminism is now utterly pointless–even bad for you. True power here has nothing to do with economic independence or professional achievement: it has to do with getting men to lust after you and other women to envy you.”

Some gaming fans have come up with all sorts of ridiculous defenses for the sexualized costumes female characters are often made to wear, like the idea that they dress in these outfits as a tactic to help them distract their male opponents. It’s not unheard of for developers to sometimes rely on this harmful logic, too. The superintelligent AI companion Cortana from the Halo franchise has always been depicted as naked, and when asked about why this is, franchise director Frank O’Connor said, “One of the reasons she does it is to attract and demand attention. And she does it to put people off so they’re on their guard when they’re talking to her and that she has the upper hand in those conversations. It’s kind of almost like the opposite of that nightmare you have where you go to school in the nude, and you’re terrified and embarrassed. She’s kind of projecting that back out to her audience and winning intellectual points as a result.”

Meanwhile, male AIs in the Halo universe do wear clothing; the idea of them trying to “win intellectual points” by walking around naked is ridiculous. But we rarely question the extremely widespread association of sexualization and power when it’s applied to female characters.

Usually, the games themselves don’t go into much detail to explain or justify why female characters are sexualized. Players are simply meant to unquestioningly accept the impractical outfits these characters are wearing. Sometimes, however, as in the case of Quiet from Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, developers build convoluted and absurd tales about a character’s past into the game in an attempt to justify their blatant sexualization.

CLIP: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
“She, uh, refuses to wear clothes. The last staff member who tried to dress her – breathing through tubes. Other than that, she’s completely cooperative. She understands English, she never speaks, sweats, or breathes.”
“Well, not with lungs at least. She breathes through her skin. Clothing would suffocate her.  Showers are okay, but she can’t be submerged.”
“What’s wrong with her?”
“She’s drinking. Through her skin.”

So you see, she can’t wear clothing because she breathes through her skin! These ludicrous narrative justifications don’t “make it okay.” Regardless of whatever absurd explanation a game might provide, it should go without saying that the only real functionality of outfits like this is to titillate the presumed young straight male player base.

Out of all the arguments that are tossed out to defend the impractical and objectifying clothing that women are made to wear in games, there is one in particular that I hear the most often and that is perhaps the most pernicious. That argument is: “Maybe that’s what she wants to wear!” Which is ridiculous. These women are fictional constructs. That means that they don’t dress themselves or pick out their own clothing. I can’t believe I have to say this. All these visual designs are deliberate choices made by the developers, and they serve a specific purpose: they communicate to straight male players that these characters exist primarily as sex objects to be consumed. In doing so, they also reinforce the larger notion in our culture that the value of real human women is determined largely by their sexual desirability to men.

It’s not hard to imagine what more practical clothing options might look like for some of these characters. But if you’re having a hard time envisioning that, I will let you in on a little secret: For those of you who aren’t familiar, there is this thing called a sports bra. Sports bras are designed to keep breasts held in place to better facilitate athletic activities. In other words, they are used to prevent “jiggle physics” in real life. In the real world, there are many female martial artists, athletes, and women in combat roles that developers could use as inspiration when designing and dressing their female characters.

It’s important to note that the amount of skin shown is not the crux of the problem. Many female athletes wear minimal form-fitting clothing because it’s more conducive to their activities. However, their outfits are not designed with the primary goal of sexualizing the athletes for the benefit of spectators.

The problem of female characters wearing impractical, sexualized and objectifying attire and being put on display for players is not a difficult one to solve, and developers already know how to do it. Even many fighting games that have several sexualized female characters on the roster often have one female option who is in more practical attire. The Dark Souls games are generally pretty good about not making armor appear significantly different on female characters than it does on male characters. Natural Selection 2 and XCOM also have examples of women in practical armor. And Assassin’s Creed Syndicate put female gang members in outfits very similar to those worn by the male gang members.
None of this is to say that characters in games should never be sexual; far from it. Sexuality and sexualization are very different things.

The sexualization of female characters is about designing them, dressing them or framing them in ways that are specifically intended to be sexually appealing to presumed male viewers or players. Women’s sexuality, on the other hand, exists for themselves, and for those they care to consensually share it with. And sexuality can be expressed or experienced in any kind of attire.

CLIP: Dirty Dancing
“Come here lover boy!”

Unfortunately, examples in games of female characters expressing sexual desire in ways that aren’t sexualized are exceedingly rare. These next few examples aren’t great depictions of what we’re talking about. They’re just some of the only examples that exist at all, which serves to illustrate how rare it is for female sexuality in games to be presented in ways that are humanizing rather than sexualizing.

The Last of Us: Left Behind features female characters who express romantic feelings for each other, rather than exuding a sexualized energy that is directed outward at the player.

CLIP: The Last of Us: Left Behind
“What do we do now?”
“We’ll figure it out.”

And in Firewatch, though it’s only heard and not seen, Delilah expresses sexual desire for the player character, Henry.

CLIP: Firewatch
“I wish I was over there.”
“I wish you were too.”
“We could sit outside, we could talk, without these radios. We could, um, you know.”

These moments aren’t presented as titillating morsels of sexuality for players. Rather, they function as expressions of the characters’ sexuality that deepen our investment in the characters and their relationships to each other.

To clarify, the act of sex isn’t the problem, but rather how its presented.  I’d love to see great representations of healthy, consensual sex in games.  But sadly, when consensual sex does occur, it’s often presented as a transaction or as a reward for player accomplishment. Whether that accomplishment is completing quests, or just choosing all the right dialogue options to get the sex cutscene to play.

When fictional female characters in games are dressed in impractical armor or clothing, it encourages players to view them as sex objects, and reinforces the already pervasive and harmful notion in our culture that sexualization is the most viable or only real route to power for women. By contrast, when those characters are dressed in clothing that is truly practical and functional for the work that they are doing, and when they express sexuality and sexual desire in ways that aren’t served up as sexualized treats designed primarily for straight male players to consume and enjoy, it encourages players of all genders not to view those characters as sexual objects but to be invested in them as people.