Thinking About ‘Cunt’

Being an admirer of The Binding of Isaac and having recently found myself coming to appreciate Super Meat Boy, I decided that I should probably have a look at what is probably Edmund McMillen’s most controversial game, Cunt.

I had known of Cunt by reputation only. I knew that it bore the stamp of Edmund McMillen’s central aesthetic, the grotesque, and thus, that it wasn’t going to be pretty. I also knew that some had been made very upset by it.

Once one gets a glimpse of the game and gets the gist of its premise, it isn’t hard to see why.

Cunt is a shooter, in which the player takes on the role of a penis that will battle its way through a series of bosses, all of which are vaginas. The penis is, of course, weaponized, a kind of mobile gun platform that shoots balls of sperm at whichever vagina it is facing. Each boss sits at the center of the screen and the penis can rotate around it, though striking at it from the bottom is the only way of doing damage to it. The vagina is protected by STDs that form around its edges and that seek out the penis, which in turn can, of course, also shoot at them because they are the central threat to its existence.

The penis itself is not very powerful. Its shots do minimal damage to the boss and each boss’s minions also require multiple hits to successfully annihilate them. Power ups randomly appear, like a pill that is clearly intended to be Viagra or a syringe that contains steroids, which “excite” the penis enough to make it strike harder or pump faster, making it possible to actually do significant harm to the boss and eradicate its minions much more efficiently.

Juvenile and misogynistic as the game sounds (and it is indeed hard to avoid seeing that it is both), nevertheless, it is still so clearly a McMillen product because its presentation is still so smart and so hideous at the same time. Gross, scatological, and violent imagery are present throughout his work, of course, especially in his look at his own confusion and anxiety about his Catholic upbringing in the The Binding of Isaac (G. Christopher Williams, “Fearing God, Fearing the Body: The Theology of The Binding of Isaac, PopMatters, 15 February 2012). That game with its profane handling of sacred imagery is also juvenile, revels in the scatological, and is unbending in the intensity of its presentation of violence and the body. Ironically, while a clear critique of religiosity, some sites like Christ and Pop Culture actually championed its uncompromising tone, finding it thoughtful in its ability to tell a story through its imagery of pain (Drew Dixon, “When Games Matter: The Art of Story in The Binding of Isaac, Christ and Pop Culture, 24 January 2012).

Critics of Cunt, though, have a different issue with McMillen, as the game clearly allows the player to simulate acts of violence against women, and, of course, in this context, acts of sexual violence. The game’s goal is, after all, to destroy vaginas with a penis.

Sussing out additional meaning from so banal a premise might seem somewhat unnecessary. However, given McMillen’s own avowed liberalism and his own claims that he champions women’s concerns might make the game’s existence seem especially baffling. In an interview with Maddy Myers, McMillen discusses Cunt at length, and interestingly, even he seems to have a difficult time articulating what the game is all about.

McMillen explains his simplest reason for creating the game was simply that “it was a nine-day game, so not a lot of thought was put into this. It was really just that I thought it would be fun to draw a lot of vaginas and dicks” before he goes on to suggest a variety of things that the game might be expressing, including, once again, the influence of his early experiences of Catholicism on his vision of the world (“Edmund McMillen on creativity, the controversy behind Cunt, and more”, The Phoenix, 27 April 2012). Essentially, McMillen observes that the imagery and rituals of Catholicism treat “violence and mutilation as being holy,” and thus, the need to express one’s self through violent and grotesque imagery becomes a familiar one to the Catholic-influenced artist. This notion is, of course, not a unique one. The often violent imagery of Central and South American art or Italian art frequently focuses on the bloody images of Christ that many of these artists grew up seeing in their homes and churches. Indeed, American Catholic artists, like Flannery O’Connor and Mel Gibson have often used violence as one of the main ways of communicating their messages. Both have spoken about this tendency in their art on numerous occasions and both have connected it to their Catholic background.

However, it is mainly McMillen’s interest in why these images of “private parts” bother people so much that he continually refers to as being his own interest in making Cunt. It seems almost as if he doesn’t see the connection between violence against women in what he is doing to the images that he feels he has created for the purpose of calling our attention to cultural taboos. As a result, he seems to see Cunt as a means of merely examining our fear of this imagery itself. Putting this imagery into a format like a game requires some sort of conflict, it would seem, and what the combat as a game mechanic seems to further suggest seems to have not completely registered for him. Thus, his ambiguous stance on the game. In this interview, he at once seems apologetic, recognizing people felt upset by the imagery, and then just as sincerely, he also wishes to defend what he has made.

All that being said, McMillen’s dominant explanation for the work is not one that concerns a meaning inherent in it, so much as a desire to commit “career suicide” because he “wanted to do something really dangerous and risky for my career.” This notion seems related to the imagery itself, his own recognition that what he has presented to the player is something more commonly seen scrawled on a bathroom wall, not presented as artistic expression.

However, what is striking to me about McMillen’s presentation is his obsessive interest in dichotomies and the irony that emerges by contrasting two seemingly oppositional images or concepts.

What Cunt provokes in the player is surprise at what he or she is seeing placed side by side with one another and a desire to somehow attempt to make sense of the inherent contradictions of what is presented given that it seems so discordant.

The images themselves of the vagina bosses are strange mixtures of artistic styles. Each of the bosses is a vagina, but the vagina is always integrated into a larger figure that resembles a face. The labia always forms the lips of these monstrosities, and the attention to anatomical detail, despite McMillen’s light stylization of them, might almost be deemed fairly realistic. However, that realism exists in contrast to the significantly more stylistic line drawings that make up the rest of this “face.” Large and cartoonish eyes appear above the more carefully drawn vagina, creating a monster that seems half real and half completely fantastic.

When the game begins, this figure and the gun-like penis below it appear as clean black line drawings on an otherwise blank white background. As the game progresses, and the penis begins firing at the vagina and at the germ-like STDs, everything produced by this combat splatters and splashes across the dominant white backdrop of the game. Blood, urine, and other unrecognizable fluids are painted everywhere across the screen by easily the midpoint in the game, painted there by the player and the act of play itself. Unlike most violent video games, which “tidy up” battle fields by letting bodies dissolve a short while after they are destroyed or that might let blood fly when a character is shot but fails to let it paint the ground, Cunt never cleans up any of its carnage. McMillen forces the player to see just how dirty every bit of playing the game is. And this feels purposeful. The red, yellow, brown, and purple mess made of what was once a clean white field calls attention to itself quite early on and persists in reminding us of the “dirtiness” of these acts and these body parts that we normally prefer to stay hidden.

The most provocative contrast in the game, though, is found in its soundtrack. McMillen scores this game with a song called “Care” by Kaada, and the song plays in a loop throughout the entire gory experience of Cunt.

The song emulates the tone and mood of doo-wop, instrumentally and vocally. In other words, as we witness a penis and a vagina antagonize one another, as we see STDs pour down to be ingested by a male organ, as we see bodily fluids explode all over the place, a retro tune evoking the idealistic romance of 1950s doo-wop washes across this repugnant and violent activity. “There is nothing I would do to make you feel blue,” a female voice wails sincerely. “You’re my inspiration,” a male voice croons.

The irony that arises from the evocation of a bygone era, idealized as the “good old days” through such wistful songs of love and romance alongside the repulsion one feels at the filthy and vile imagery surrounding McMillen’s representation of “intimacy” is hard to avoid noticing. It is utterly jarring and the contrast created here seems an indictment of idealizations of intimacy and of minimizing intimacy to just the exchange of bodily fluids as well. It does seem to suggest discomfort, a discomfort with how we see these things, leaving some question about whether there may be something very wrong about how easy it is to make more of sexuality than it is or how dangerous and ugly it might be to make so much less of it.

High contrast and the seemingly nonsensical visions of the world that it produces seem in some sense to be McMillen’s central aesthetic vision, one that challenges calling one thing beautiful and one thing ugly if both qualities might exist in any single object. Indeed, he seems to say something of this sort himself when considering his body of work: “The ongoing theme of my work is stuff that’s so gross it’s cute. And, of course, Cunt wasn’t cute, in any sense. But it was pretty. I mean, I thought it was one of the prettiest games I had ever made. Well, not from a thematic standpoint.” The contradiction of something being pretty, but not pretty, gross, but not gross, and being able to witness or experience that at the same time seems part of the point here. If that sounds unsettling, well, this is a game that at least succeeds at being that.