I deeply admire the audacity of the title of Bethesda’s Wet. “Wet” refers to the protagonist, Rubi Malone’s, occupation as assassin (skilled at such “wetwork”) and also implies a less than subtle bit of sexual innuendo. Given Wet‘s overt exploitation cinema influences, the ability to work that genre of film’s two dominant interests, violence and sex, into just one three letter word is pretty clever.
Curiously, though, despite the come hither look of the game’s box art, nevertheless, Rubi is an only somewhat sexy female lead. As my wife observed on seeing the character in game (rather than in the more overtly sexy box art imagery), “I kind of like her; she’s not really that pretty.”
A couple of weeks ago, L.B. Jeffries wrote about “Miconceptions About the Female Avatar” elsewhere in Moving Pixels. Jeffries used a study, “Hypersexualized Females in Digital Games: Do Men Want Them, Do Women Want to Be Them?” as the basis for his discussion of how women may react positively to “hypersexualized” female avatars in games. As defined by the study, hypersexuality is represented in games that tend to exaggerate the sexual characteristics of female characters. Specifically, the 34D-24-35 measurements of Lara Croft were cited as the “embodiment” of this kind of hypersexual representation.
Lara is an interesting (and due to her notoriety as something like the first sex symbol of video games, of course, obvious) choice in discussing the topic of how women respond to female representations in games. Female gamers have long expressed a variety of opinions, from appreciation to dismay, in response to the character and her appearance. While the study, which was interested in seeing how men and women responded to a female protagonist of different body types from thin to curvy to hypersexualized, controlled for additional representational issues like clothing and the like in some way (the female models that they selected for their test subjects to respond to all wore the same clothing styles regardless of body type and were featured in the same game), Rubi Malone’s recent appearance, and Lara’s too for that matter, got me interested in considering more than the mere shape of female avatars but what other visual and aural markers might tell a player about these women.
While Jessica Rabbit’s observation about the representational qualities of her own hypersexualized body suggests that exaggerated curves might provoke a negative ethical evaluation of an individual: “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.” That Ms. Rabbit is generally “drawn” in an off the shoulder cabaret costume slit nearly up to the top of her thigh in addition to the application of her pouty make-up might also contribute to her assumption that people’s negative perceptions of her are related to the sight of her body and what it is interpreted as suggesting about her character.
In that regard, I find that both Lara and Rubi, who have each provoked both positive and negative responses regarding what they look like, are interesting, since what they wear marks them and might alter perceptions concerning how they should be interpreted in addition to interpretations that might arise from their exaggerated silhouettes.
To begin by examining the appearance of the first lady of video games, Lara’s most essential representational marker in addition to her body is probably her voice, and even more specifically, her accent. For Americans in particular, I think that the British accent evokes an irrational correlation with sophistication and culture. Lara “sounds” elegant to the American ear, since she speaks the King’s English in what is perceived to be a traditionally aristocratic way (of course, Lady Lara Croft is also quite literally aristocratic). This element of Lara extends from aural cues to her own visual representation. Hair pulled back in a pony tail or braids might signal casualness or even childishness, but when severely drawn back (as Lara’s most often is), it also signals sophistication and elegance. Up-dos suggest formality and seriousness of purpose. Such elegance does also extend to her wardrobe.
While most often garbed in short shorts and a skin tight sleeveless shirt, such attire is often not seen as formal attire so such a notion might seem counter to this claim. Nevertheless, simplicity is a synonym for elegance in both science and fashion. Lady Croft is certainly not planning to attend a dinner party in her outfit, but then again, she is raiding tombs not garden parties and casual but elegant (or simple and basic) attire does exist. Affluent New York casual fashions are often dominated by single toned tank tops and crisp jeans. Lara is also not wearing spandex booty shorts and generally not sporting cleavage in her most iconic attire. Her shorts are shorts, and they look expensive, not hoochy.
In other words, Lara might be understood as sexy as a result of her possessing hypersexual curves, but she really doesn’t look like someone that you would pick up at a dive bar. Her clothing marks her otherwise and adds an additional layer that communicates a message beyond her availability (indeed, it may suggest a lack thereof). She looks expensive, not cheap.
Compare Lara’s simple, sexy, but fashionable outfit to that of the clothing options of the protagonist of the forthcoming Bayonetta or any one of the female combatants of the Dead or Alive series, and you will see that Lara’s hypersexuality is tempered by an effort to mark her body with something other than mere sexual presence. Bayonetta‘s glasses might mark her as “smart” but naughty librarian seems a more accurate interpretation considering the other elements of her costuming and how they relate to that one seemingly “intellectual” representational quality of the character.
Wet‘s Rubi Malone also has additional messages layered onto (or possibly over) her possibly hypersexualized body as well (I am unaware of whether Rubi’s measurements have been publicized, but she appears to be slightly less busty than Lara). Despite being a protagonist who is modeled on female characters from a cinematic style oriented towards fairly overt sexual representation (in addition to probably Lara Croft whose stance in game is quite similar as are many of her jumping animations), Rubi’s foul (foul, not sexy, unless you consider lines like, “Hey, fucktard” and “Fuck you, door” to be sexy) mouth and rock and roll clothing style suggest a degree of toughness that again speaks more a message of a lack of availability than of a woman of questionable moral character (you know, the whole “I’m not bad” business that Ms. Rabbit is complaining about).
Rubi is not elegant like Lara. As noted, her mouth suggests otherwise. So too, do her tattoos, a marker most traditionally associated with the lower or working classes or counter cultures, not high culture. Her tattoos are interesting, though, like the economic and social classes that they have historically been associated with (sailors, criminals, and the like), they mark her as “tough.” Contemporarily, tattoos have become a fashionable accessory, however, sometimes (especially for women) they additionally suggest a sexual quality as the lower back tattoo’s description in the vernacular, the “tramp stamp”, attests to. While Rubi shows a slight amount of midriff and lower back, her tattoos remain in less sexualized locations on her body. Her arm is tatted; she is not, however, “tramp stamped” as these markings do not appear in the vicinity of more sexualized areas of the body, like the bare lower back.
In this regard, what Rubi is not wearing becomes most significant when contrasting what is typically associated with “sexiness” to what she is actually wearing. Again, she does bare her midriff, though, only maybe an inch and a half or so. She is not wearing a low ride cut to further emphasize skin or anything else one might expect a female avatar that is showing skin like the midriff to normally wear. Instead, Rubi wears more clothing that marks her as “tough” rather than sexy: a leather jacket (again, a very counter culture or even criminal marker, evoking rock and roll, punk, or a Mafia vibe), military fatigues, and combat boots that are not (as they so often are for video game characters) stretching all the way up the calf but more like an actual soldier’s combat boots (an occupation associated with toughness and rigor) that end about mid-calf.
I am not attempting to suggest that Lara and Rubi are not representations of women that are not sexualized or not in part subject to the gaze of their viewers (though the question of whether avatars are watched becomes complicated in a medium in which what you watch is something that you are also “being”—that is a subject for another lengthier discussion, though) and likely in part intended to be objects of desire for their viewers. But what I am suggesting is that the sexualized body is complicated by clothing and other markers that may alter and refine the message being sent in such representations. Lara is both sexy and elegant (or expensive) and Rubi is both sexy and tough. Both characters have at least two layers (and, okay, it might only be two, but I think that that is one more than many avatars both male and female often get in their visual representations) and that those layers may modify one another in significant ways that alter how players (both male and female) might respond to them either positively or negatively. Fundamentally, I don’t think either character’s appearance reduces them to a woman who can be seen as “merely sexy.”
My wife says she likes Rubi because (not in spite of) the fact that she isn’t exactly pretty. What makes her “not exactly” pretty might be that other element that can be read on her body. Rubi’s clothing might be communicating a message more loudly than her body. She might be sexy, but on first glance, she looked pretty damned tough to me. The complicated reactions that gamers have to Lara and Rubi might suggest that their representations are, well, at least somewhat complicated.