So much is made of Bayonetta’s “agency,” the counterpart cliché to those who opine on her bending to the “male gaze,” to answer that all-important question: is Bayonetta’s unquestionable sexuality hers or simply a performance for men? The answer (or at least a part of it) reveals a good deal about the very nature of sex.
Agency, firstly, must be communicated in the art’s rhetoric rather than presumed or projected onto the subject. A case could be made that argues Bayonetta is never shown exercising her agency but that it is, rather, a just-so story to garland her presentation. But to leave it there would be to ignore the emotions the games provoke, particularly in women players, and Bayonetta’s own character as an elegantly presented dominatrix: the performative half of a sexual universe.
In art critic John Berger’s pathbreaking book Ways of Seeing, he analyzes the long tradition of the female nude in Western art, distinguishing the majority of nudes from a few paintings in which women are “naked,” explaining the distinction thusly:
This is the line Bayonetta walks, for she is at once represented as expressing herself through her performative combat and outlandish costumes, as well as being put on display for the benefit of the player. When her clothes dissolve into nudity during her most powerful combos, it can seem as if she is at once “a nude” and simply naked-Bayonetta. But if, in Berger’s phrase, “nudity is a form of dress,” Bayonetta is shown wearing it with pride.
The performance is the thing, and that is what makes Bayonetta playfully straddle the nude/naked line. She performs, and that performance is at once nudity and nakedness. Put another way, it’s her nakedness as nudity, a fluid expression of her character that hides nothing and yet retains the performative aspect of nudity. The question that remains: is Bayonetta enchained to the pseudogeneric male player?
For a long time I felt she was. The camera is the roving gaze that supposedly belongs to that stereotype of a lascivious young, straight boy, drinking in crotch and butt shots, titillated by the pointless moans that accompany the camera’s irritatingly pornographic caress. In those moments, Bayonetta is almost literally frozen into the still, often prone position of supine nudity that Berger critiqued. She slows down, she becomes stiller, all as the result of a presumed male player.
But the other half of the dyad matters as well; not the crotch-shots but the combat itself where you are meant to inhabit Bayonetta rather than watch her, and where the camera’s gaze takes in a different audience: the targets of her wrath. These are not the same eyes that possess her during cut scenes, but a goddess-eye’s view of a burlesque opera directed by Bayonetta herself.
Hers is less a dance of battle as such than one of dominion. It is the quintessence of that performance that ends with a leg propped upon your conquest’s back.
As Maddy Myers reminded us, Bayonetta is that rarest of dominatrices whose morality and sense of self is neither a subject of shame nor ridicule, and that even rarer kind whose boots you’re allowed to step into. The lines and arches of her performance are there to communicate a dominatrix’s unique form of dominion, it is a literalization of sexual conquest but with a woman doing the conquering. She is not Miss Stern as described by Angela Carter—the dominatrix who performed for a man’s pleasure and was “most truly subservient when most apparently dominant”—she, particularly when inhabited by a woman, is an expression with one heel in that subservience but another firmly planted in pure sexual performance art of her own direction, a vision of sexual power as manifested by a particular kind of woman. Much as it pained me to admit, I wanted to be her.
I came to that conclusion by becoming her, in a way.
I straddled my partner’s lap, she embraced me, my nails found her back, her tangled mess of hair; if I didn’t know better I could feel myself grow black wings and a familiar roguish smirk as our passion ricocheted ever upwards. We’d had sex, but not quite like this. I performed for her, I let my own lines and curves speak in a beautiful battle. I felt beautiful, which is an evanescent feeling for me; it never lasts. But here, it went on and on; I stood, I clawed and spanked with graceful confidence, making my beauty a thing I projected. I wore my nakedness as a costume.
There is a critical difference between this sexual congress and Bayonetta’s battles, however—and it isn’t just the lack of angels to spank. First, Bayonetta’s domination is very literal and permanent, she kills and destroys with it and it is hardly a consensual affair. My performance in lovemaking, where I felt myself flying like the protagonist of the game I’d played earlier in the night, was similar but consensual, a moving moment in time where domination would resolve into communion. But there’s another difference too: we were flawed.
I can tell the story of that night of sex by likening myself to Bayonetta, but instead of my hair turning into succubi, it just got in my mouth multiple times. I was breathless and imperfect, nearly losing my balance from lightheadedness several times. It was like a cascading system crash.
This half of sexuality, resolutely sexy but flawed by beautiful mistakes and frailties, is what thrums through Paste contributor Lana Polansky’s erotic Twine game .error404. Its premise is simple: you are sexually pleasuring an AI. If the title wasn’t enough of a clue, this is a game that makes glitch art sexually stimulating; it uses errors on the way to climax and even to symbolise orgasm itself. The AI commands you to push her beyond her design specs, breaking through limits that are doubtlessly voiding a warranty somewhere, and the game literally breathes as you do so.
Plodding text suddenly quickens in pace as the game beautifully descends into erotic poetry, whatever your choice.
“Some days I have no patience for method,” the AI says. “I prefer the chaos of a million quick fingers mashing all my buttons at once.” This is less elegance than raw jet fuel coursing through the AI’s veins. “Climax” here does not frame the difficulty of combat but is instead a goal to be attained by acting as if there are no rules, no performance, no act, no dance, just lust. The only guide is the AI’s own capacious desire.
Glitches mount and climax comes. Error page. The broken sound barrier of orgasm.
When you mouse over text it disappears, the effacement of self and clarity in the throes of sexual need; “bad expression: logic is not defined” seems an apt way to describe orgasm sometimes.
Sex is a discontinuity of errors here, it’s the thread looped through Bayonetta’s needle eye, in a way; the breathless and raw sex of crashes and epistemic breaks that is the dark side of the moon from the sensual perfection of Bayonetta’s dominatrix dance. Much as Bayonetta’s visuals capture the inherent exteriority of a performance, Polansky masterfully uses the literary form to playfully convey a living experience of reading erotica. When one reads erotic literature they may begin slowly, taking in the words leisurely, but are then drawn into the inherently erotic speed-reading of sexual scenes, as if one rubs her mind to rawness with the words heedless of all but the coming summit.
It’s messy, error laden, and beautiful in its way. This is the interior of sex. I tried to dance like Bayonetta and make my partner feel like the AI during that many-splendored night, but we wore both roles, performed for each other, inhabiting a breathless BSOD sequence of moments. I played the part of the dominatrix, but there was a part of me that wanted to be strained and left raw like Polansky’s AI—and indeed, I was. From one moment to the next we traded off nudity and nakedness. The sexuality of performative power mixed with that of beautiful mistakes.
We both collapsed into soundless 404 errors of our own even as we were enveloped by Bayonetta’s black wings—two halves of the same sexual whole sweating in the dark.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student at the City University of New York and a gaming scholar/critic who focuses on gender and culture in games. You can read her work at quinnae.com, at Feministing and on Twitter.