Laying Bare the Protagonist: The Hypersexualization of Bayonetta and Dante
Strip her down. Dress him up.
On loading up this year's reboot of Devil May Cry, I was struck by the similar nature of the provocative introduction that both this game and 2010's Bayonetta offer to the player of these games' protagonists.
Both Devil May Cry and Bayonetta (the latter game seemingly heavily inspired by the former) are, of course, games whose philosophy is fairly clear: everything in excess. After all, following the very first level of Devil May Cry, I discovered that my somewhat mediocre performance on that level had garnered me 1,164,468 points. Grade inflation, indeed. More is more and even more in Devil May Cry.
In that sense, everything about these frantic and highly stylized melee action games is indeed about the most monstrous and exaggerated experience possible. I have called Bayonetta a game that is essentially concerned with something I like to call “hyper-spectacle” before. Indeed I opened my discussion of that game with the absurd (but altogether true statement) about events that I had experienced in the game, saying, “I just ate a giant baby with my hair.” (”Spectacular Voyeurism: Bayonetta and Hyper-spectacle”, PopMatters, 13 January 2010). The same commitment to absurd levels of excess in every element of the game, from scoring to violence to sexuality to monstrosity to difficulty, are all elements that Devil May Cry has embraced throughout the series's history.
The reboot while changing up Dante's appearance (and coloring his hair) is still committed to excess, both in its approach to spectacular violence and hypersexuality. If Bayonetta is grossly sexualized through her fetishized naughty librarian looks, her tendency to linger over a lollipop, and her (faux) leather catsuit, Dante's favorite soda pop, according to the new reboot, is a brand called Virility (seriously).
It is not as if Dante hasn't been sexualized before now, of course. There is a tremendously outrageous sequence from Devil May Cry 4 in which Dante appears with a rose clenched between his teeth, his pelvis thrust out in a flamenco dancer's pose (to the sound of castanets, of course) before launching into a smoothly delivered speech about penetrating a monster with his sword. However, what is interesting about the reboot is how it isn't just mannerisms and the performance of male potency that mark Dante as some kind of Platonic form of masculine virility. The youthful Dante, much like Bayonetta, represents his sexuality in performance, but also in the flesh – and an awful lot of it.
That being said, the manner in which the game presents Dante's body as the camera lingers over it does tend to suggest a different sense of what makes a man's body sexually attractive as opposed to a female body.
Both of these games introduce their main characters through a lingering voyeurism, allowing the player to get an extended opportunity to consider their bodies. However, in the case, of Bayonetta, this laying bare of the essential sexual self is one in which she needs to be stripped down. Dante, on the other hand, needs to be dressed up.
Bayonetta's opening cut scene introduces us to the character in disguise. She is in a graveyard dressed as a nun apparently praying over the graves of some recently deceased souls. When a group of angels emerge from the heavens and attack this seeming image of purity, Bayonetta leaps into action for a time in the guise of the nun. Fetishizing the virgin doesn't last long, though, as her dialogue grows naughtier and her attacks ape sexual acts, it is probably inevitable that her clothing is sliced away from her rear end and her chest, accompanied by Bayonetta's own moans of pleasure, as her “bad girl” self is finally released to finish the work she has begun.
Of course, all of this spectacle (you may want to begin at the 6:13 mark in the video above) is presented as excessively and absurdly as possible (I still find it difficult not to laugh when the “real” Bayonetta emerges in full leather regalia to pause and pose in some conveniently and inexplicably present spotlights). Bayonetta is intended to be the most excessive expression of “what men want,” as the virgin becomes whore, as the good girl is stripped bare for the male voyeur, seemingly capturing our attention in both roles.
The rebooted Devil May Cry almost seems to play this sequence in reverse. As Dante is awakened after a night of orgiastic revelry with two strippers dressed as angels, he answers the door fully nude. Kat, a witch who wants to warn Dante of the impending attack of a hunter demon, gazes upwards from beneath Dante who stands legs splayed in his trailer's doorway, “showing off the goods” in a shot reminiscent of similar stills from The Graduate or Bachelor Party in which men are taken aback by the sculpted legs of a beautiful woman.
The sequence that follows features the hunter demon's attack, and Dante, still fully nude diving backwards through his trailer which is now careening through the air due to that attack. In a long and lingering sequence, somewhat akin to a gag of the Austin Powers variety, Dante flies backwards with nearly every inch of his skin on display, barring, of course, his penis, which is conveniently obscured by a similarly airborne baseball bat and then by a slice of pizza before he manages to dress himself midair in leather pants and a tanktop. (That sequence starts around the 6:16 mark of the video below. It's kind of amazing and well worth seeing I think for its sheer audacity.).
Unlike the Austin Powers gag, though, Dante's exposure is not merely played for laughs. Frankly, neither is the similar sequence in Bayonetta. Yes, everything about both moments is radically absurd and intended in part to be funny. However, Bayonetta's disrobing and Dante's donning of his battle gear are also equally intended to be erotic and exciting. No one really wants to see Mike Meyers's body in the scene in which his penis is absurdly obscured at every turn, but Dante's body is on display for consideration of just how young, virile, and potent it is intended to appear. Bayonetta's “undressing” is stupidly absurd, but she is still intended to be an outrageous vision of sexual appeal.
However, unlike the traditional manner in which women's bodies are made more pleasurable to view by stripping them bare, Dante, while certainly lingeringly considered as physically attractive, as a man, ultimately needs to get dressed in order to become fully desirable. The clothing makes the man, as it were. And, indeed, culturally speaking, status markers of high desirability are most often associated with a man's uniform, with his suit (those things that prove that he can do something, not merely accentuating what he looks like), and not merely the aesthetics of his body in and of itself. My wife claims that the best piece of lingerie that a man has at his disposal is a tuxedo, and indeed, James Bond might be proof that she is right in some way about our perception of what makes men sexy. The male body can be put on display as it is here, but our hero also needs to be able to prove that he can “put himself together” as well. He needs to “suit up,” as much as his female counterpart is expected to “strip down.”
Thus, it's probably not surprising that this introduction of a “new” Dante culminates with him finally donning his iconic long, red coat. The game introduces a new vision of a hypersexualized, more youthful, more provocatively nude Dante, before re-introducing a familiar marker that represents the kind of work that defines this man, that makes him strong, virile, powerful. In some sense, these sequences merely suggest the preoccupation that our culture has with associating power with sexuality. The radical and excessive contexts of this contrast reveals a sense of how power is traditionally viewed as being made manifest in feminine sexuality and then made manifest in masculine sexuality, through the potency of the nude female body to arouse and provoke and the clothed male body to be prepared and get things done, apparently a provocative enough pose in and of itself.