One Dimension: Women’s Bodies in ‘Tekken’

Tekken might not have as long a history as other arcade fighters like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, but it is at least as important in the fighting canon as its 2D precursors. For years, it’s been a staple in airplanes, movie theaters, and cafeterias and is probably one of the precious few arcade boxes to have survived after the local arcade disappeared. It was the first fighting game to actually “get” fighting in a 3D space from a functional perspective, and it’s continued success on consoles and in pro-gaming circuits guarantees that Namco is as happy with their star child as ever.

Namco developed a fighting style unique to Tekken early on, and they haven’t needed to reinvent the wheel since. The only thing that changes from game to game anymore is the expanding cast of characters. The series is supposed to feature fighters from all over the world, representing unique styles indicative of their region of origin, appearance, and personality. But for featuring such a huge array of playable characters, there’s a very homogenous pattern of bodies, particularly in terms of the game’s women.

Including DLC characters, Tekken Tag Tournament 2 (the most recent release in the series) boasts 59 playable fighters. Of those 59, 42 are men and 17 are women. There are men that are tall and men that are short. Some men are grizzled while others are delicate. There are fat men, and there are lithe men. Some have rippling muscles and others have soft features. They are dark skinned and pale. They are ancient, and they are young. They are slow and lumbering, and they are lightning fast. They are sexy, and they are grotesque. They are serious and they are a walking joke.

The women enjoy no such diversity. The women are fetishized. They are all shown in that spine-breaking pose found in comic-books that shows off their tits and their ass at the same time. All have Caucasian features, even though many of them are supposed to hail from southeast of the Mediterranean. They coo and blow kisses into the camera. They’re motivated by their loyalty to a man or by a rivalry with another woman or by an urge to protect nature or by insanity. They are mothers, lovers, vixens or hysterics. The final boss of Tekken Tag 2 is an anorexic temptress wearing only a splash of K-Y jelly to keep the game rated T for teen.

Tekken is supposed to include characters with as little mechanical, stylistic, and visual overlap as possible, but of the few women that have been included, just about all are unquestionably beautiful according to just one standard of beauty. Among the women are a panda bear and a kangaroo (it’s a really bizarre game), but every human is shaped to appease a hetero-normative, masturbatory fantasy. Usually when a game thusly depicts women, the justification is that women can’t fight anyway, so of course, a game isn’t going to feature too many of them. And, of course, those that are featured are going to have to be slender and less powerful than their male colleagues.

Even without considering the female athletes, boxers, wrestlers, martial artists, police officers, and soldiers that stand ably next to their male colleagues, we’re talking about a Tekken game. The fighting is entirely presented with flair. Combat is sensationalized to the point at which it’s almost removed from violence entirely. Nobody is bruised, nobody bleeds, or breaks a limb. The game is a hyper-fantastic stand-off between exceptionally well animated dolls smashing into each other in the prettiest ways imaginable. One of the staple characters of the game has a jaguar’s head, another is a robot that fights by doing a Cossack dance, and yet another is a velociraptor wearing boxing gloves. And yet in that company, it’s somehow implausible to imagine a woman with, say, wide hips or short hair. There is plenty of room in Tekken for a female character designed with more than ogling in mind.

Of course, 59 characters in a game isn’t going to represent every possible body-type found in the real world. It can’t even fairly cover a single region of the world. But 59 is a lot of characters, and Tekken Tag 2 is in a better position than any other game to try. But the game falls into the same trap that it and all games — particularly fighting games — have been falling into for decades. Whether because Namco doesn’t realize or just doesn’t care how they portray women, they’ve spent over a decade putting Tekken’s legacy together now, and as it stands, it’s weighted pretty heavily against women. The biggest disappointment is that, as shown by the numerous creative designs of the male characters, Tekken doesn’t have to be this way.

It’s remarkably easy to design believable female characters when they’re thought of as people. Tekken wouldn’t have to change at all. It could keep the anime aesthetic, the wide range of character designs, the futuristic glitz of their settings, the over-the-top, labyrinthine plot that nobody really cares about anymore. Namco wouldn’t even have to change their existing roster, if anything it gives them an excuse to add to it. They would only need to be more cognizant when they’re exploiting their female characters, which is really not as difficult as some of the more aggressive comment boards make it seem. It’s sexist when women are built into the game for the sole purpose of being eye-fucked by a presumed male audience. Starting from that point, Tekken can only improve.