Jay Castello
Freelance Writer
jaymcastello@gmail.com
@jayplaysthings

On Sexualisation

I’ve been thinking more lately about the narrow standards of attractiveness that video game characters of all genders are forced to fit into. This anon is correct when they say that “every main male character in every game is mid 30s white guy with brown hair.”

I suppose they are also correct that “the typical male characters are also all incredibly fit and attractive looking as well.” (I think Nathan Drake is reasonably attractive and since they all look the same I guess that means I think they’re all reasonably attractive…whelp.) But in all seriousness, they almost all fit a generic idea of conventional attractiveness, as do most female characters.

That doesn’t mean that it’s the same.

The kind of attractive that these male characters are expected to be is not the same kind that female characters are expected to be. This is common across many mediums, not just games, and it’s why things like The Hawkeye Initiative exist, and @bikiniarmorbattledamage has a “sexy male armor” tag that looks ridiculous. We expect to see women contorting themselves and wearing few clothes, and we simply don’t expect the same for men. It looks strange. But it should look strange on anyone – these women do look ridiculous, you’re just used to it.

Both male and female characters have a spectrum of possible representations. In the centre, with overlap, is the generic face, with the male version presented above. Nathan Drake has his equivalent in Elena Fisher, who is the same kind of generic attractive. Joel has Tess. Male Shep has Fem Shep.

But Shep also has Samara (source):

And throughout games there are oversexualised female characters like this. I don’t think that anyone would argue with that, even if they don’t see it as a problem. There is no equivalent for male characters on this end of the spectrum. Oversexualised male characters simply don’t occur, primarily because we have no model for creating them. Decades of media have honed contorted spines and barely there clothes for women, but the tropes simply aren’t there for men. Much virtual ink has been spilled about the sexualisation implied by Overwatch’s Hanzo’s exposed pec, but it neither invites objectification nor has the same media history behind it as Widowmaker’s open catsuit.

With mention of Overwatch, we can return to the aforementioned spectrum. In the generically attractive middle, you have characters like Hanzo and Symmetra. We see gendered differences here too, though - both show skin but Symmetra’s is designed to draw the eye to legs and hips and serves no purpose beyond this, whereas Hanzo’s brings the attention to the power of his bow arm and significant tattoo.

A quick aside: this power demonstrated by Hanzo and other generically attractive male characters like the white dudes shown at the top isn’t “sexualisation for women’s benefit,” it’s supposed to be aspirational for men, as best demonstrated by this juxtaposition of Hugh Jackman marketed to men vs. women.

To return to Overwatch, we can move down the spectrum to more sexualised characters like Widowmaker, and there is no equivalent sexualised male characters (mostly since this is impossible, as they would look ridiculous due to our expectations, like I said). Then we can move towards less conventionally attractive characters.

Probably the least conventionally attractive female hero is Zarya, who was created specifically to counter concerns about all the earlier female heroes looking the same. But she serves to show how limited the options are for female characters, with people citing to me her “strong jaw” and “facial scar” as making her completely unattractive. Yet she doesn’t vary that strongly from the norm, with a standard, youthful face, and even manages to have tropes like the boobplate incorporated into her armour.

Then you have the conventionally unattractive male heroes. Roadhog is a great character and representation for fat men, but we so rarely see any female characters who look like that. Because they can only fall closer to the centre on the spectrum. This is easily demonstrable by comparing Roadhog to the chubby Mei, who adheres more closely to “acceptable” standards, being completely covered in thick fabric that obscures her actual size, and being shown as flat stomached and large breasted in her concept art. Roadhog, on the other hand, is unapologetically and obviously large and round.

To put it shortly, in Overwatch, the men get to be anything and everything, whereas the women fit into a series of similar archetypes (source).

And this isn’t just about Overwatch, it applies across games. Male characters get vastly wider options, whereas female characters are stuck in the same rut of conventional attractiveness. And even when male characters fall into these same standards, which they often do, they are still more likely to look realistic and not to be outright sexualised. Those are the main differences.

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