The polarising effect of feminine clothing in videogames

Why is it always one extreme or the other?

image via Flickr © Jovial Joystick

Feminine clothing on female characters in videogames is a topic that presents me with some difficulties. Where outfits are not just an outright means of sexualisation, which is simply not okay, there are complexities that come with feminine clothing I find interesting. There are plenty of games that take the simple route of dressing their female characters in outfits that are masculine or androgynous (which, let’s face it, is largely influenced by masculine utility) clothing to highlight that she is strong and capable; Mirror’s Edge and Tomb Raider, for example, do this, and that’s completely fine. These outfits are kind of necessary for the activities these characters are performing.

But what about games that dress a character in a feminine style? By feminine style, I don’t just mean bows and lace and frills, I mean even down to the shape of the clothing, the silhouettes; curves and softer lines, framed necklines, and flowing materials that accentuate or imitate an idealised female figure. Well, this is where I find some difficulty. Often it seems that feminine clothing styles in videogames are coded, but always to highlight a negative or limited aspect of the character. All too often feminine clothing polarises a character.

We see this in videogames where, often, a healer mage character’s physical inferiority and tendency to stay on the edge of a battle as support is highlighted by the fact that they’re wearing a dress. Not only that, the style of the dress often edges on the conservative, perhaps matronly, side of feminine. We’ll see higher necklines, longer hemlines, and paler colour palettes, creating a Madonna-like image so that the player completely understands this is a warm, kind, and caring motherly character who is of no physical threat, nor is she aggressive in her sexuality, more often that not being shy and retiring. Characters like Aeirie in Baldur’s Gate, Wynne in Dragon Age, Aerith in Final Fantasy, and Mint in Tales of Phantasia typify this image.

Image: Screenshot of Dragon Age Origins

Then you have the other use of the feminine style, where it’s used to codify the more threatening aspects of femininity. In these feminine styles, the softness is usually gone, the colour palette is richer or darker, the silhouette is stronger, but still curved, the waist and the chest are often more emphasised and more skin is revealed. These outfits are usually worn by strong female characters who have a suggestion of menace about them. Often they’re sexually confident or aggressive and; the powerful ice queens like Vivienne and Morrigan in Dragon Age, or Bayonetta. The clothing of these characters is used to highlight the female body, female sexual confidence, and femininity itself as somehow threatening, a weapon of sorts.

images via Flickr © JP Freethinker and © Colony of Gamers

One of the best examples of the polarising effect of female clothing in videogames can be found in just one game and one character: Bioshock Infinite. Elizabeth Comstock starts the game in one outfit, and ends it in another, and both of these outfits enforce very different ideas of her character. The Elizabeth at the start of the game that we must save and help whilst she assists us in her own non-aggressive way is in the feminine style of dress we associate with the Madonna – a high neck, soft colour palette, an outfit that is feminine, almost childish, and neutralises her sexuality.

After Elizabeth performs an action in the game that tears away her childish innocence, she changes her clothes. She changes into a dress that was her mother’s, a woman who was stripped of her personhood, becoming a religious idol to the people of Columbia after her death, forever depicted wearing this very dress. Elizabeth makes some changes, taking away the high neck and bodice to leave a low neckline, and exposed corset. Elizabeth’s alteration of the outfit highlights her desire to avoid the same religious idolisation Lady Comstock experienced, but she’s left with an outfit that highlights her as a sexual being. She might have had the freedom to alter the outfit, but she was limited in what she could do with it, given no middle ground, and thanks to the corset which she had to keep, she is always literally confined by her clothing.

A fear of female sexuality runs throughout Bioshock Infinite; Elizabeth’s first outfit infantilises her; she’s locked away from the public who think of her as nothing more than a holy infant; her powers (which are supposed to reach their height after her first period) are seen as frightening. It’s significant, therefore, that after she kills, as she becomes a character who acts through violence, a cold self-assured woman determined to get revenge and exercise the full extent of her powers unrestricted, she changes into a more sexualised outfit. The game really seems to tie female sexuality and female power together. Elizabeth’s outfit is feminine throughout the game, but the femininity is used to either highlight her as harmless or a dangerous threat.

So where do we stand? It seems that in videogames feminine clothing either represents a weaponised femininity that’s dangerous and aggressively sexual, or a physically fragile and inferior femininity with a more palatable passive – or completely neutralised – sexuality. Why does it always need to be one extreme or the other? It would be nice to see feminine clothing in games that just is, without any message, without any connotations.

image via pinterest © Lucy Tanner

Pleasingly, playing the latest instalment in the Assassin’s Creed series, the character of Evie is an example of this. Her costume is undeniably feminine with lacing at the back in a corseted style, a bustle, and an overall shape that looks feminine. But there’s no reading of threat or weakness from it, her outfit just is; it’s practical but doesn’t deny that she’s a woman. It’s feminine without physically restricting her, and it doesn’t characterise her as sexually provocative either. The default unloaded clothing option shouldn’t be masculine. Sometimes it feels that in order to make a female character accessible to the player, they must be in a style of clothing that isn’t overly feminine because femininity is so laden with connotations which push a character too close to either the Madonna or the whore trope. Hopefully Evie’s character design is a sign that we’re going in the right direction.

Main image via Flickr © Jovial Joystick