Was Bayonetta a subversive feminist masterpiece all along?

Home Features Was Bayonetta a subversive feminist masterpiece all along?

by Matthew Ingram

Ok hear me out on this.

Platinum Games’ 2009 cult classic Bayonetta has been criticized ever since its release for the overly stimulating design of its title character. Bayonetta dresses in a skin-tight outfit, poses sexually in cutscenes, defeats bosses with a “climax” finishing move, and attacks by removing her clothes (there’s a story reason for this, I swear).

Fans often like to defend the game by pointing out that a woman designed Bayonetta; This is, in my opinion, a weak argument. What matters, in the end, is not whether the game was made by a man or a woman (after all, most games have many voices involved in their creation), but the message the story actually sends, and whether you look at Bayonetta on a textual or subtextual level, the game is clearly far from sexist.

First, let’s look at a literal interpretation of the story. It’s hard to argue that Bayonetta is objectified since she is always shown to be in complete control and choosing to sexualize herself. She can also be strong and powerful by embracing femininity rather than co-opting masculinity, showing that women have an inherent strength outside of fulfilling a man’s role. Bayonetta recognizes that being girly or sexy is not a sign of weakness but rather a show of strength.

Outside of these obvious aspects of her character, there are also some symbolic messages that, while perhaps not intentional, are still an interesting thought. The main enemies are angels from Paradiso who are hunting down and trying to kill Bayonetta. Within the story, the reason for this is that she made a deal with the devil to get her witch powers. Symbolically, it could represent the sexually repressive nature of the church and how historically the church has held back women. Bayonetta being a witch represents her acceptance and expression of sexuality, a break from a tradition that must be punished. 

When Bayonetta dies, the game over screen even says, “The witch hunts are over.” There’s also the fact that Bayonetta’s “climax” move involves her stripping down to summon a demon from hell, making nudity symbolically linked with demons.

The only problem I have with this theory is that given how ridiculously the story is presented, it’s hard for me to believe that any of this is intentional. It does seem more likely that Bayonetta’s finished moves requiring her to remove her clothes were a choice made because it sounded cool and sexy rather than because it propped up a deeper metaphor running beneath the whole game. 

Regardless of what Platinum Games intended the story to mean, it is fun to think about it through this new lens. Besides, the game’s still just as fun regardless.