Well, I’ve unleashed the dragon. I brought up the whole sexism thing again (“One Dimension: Women’s Bodies in Tekken.” PopMatters. Sept 25 2012). Sexism is the most heated discussion around games right now and probably among the most heated in many areas of the growing amorphous blob known as “geek culture” (Newitz, Annalee. “The Great Geek Sexism Debate.” Io9. Sept 8 2012) It’s a difficult topic to write about because one can never be sure how people are going to react. The only sure thing that is sure is that people will react. In my article, I argued that the problem with the women in Tekken is that they were all designed to satisfy a male gaze: of the 59 characters, 17 are women and of those 17, 2 are animals. So 15 of the 59 characters in the game are humanoid women, all with similar builds and appearances.
Those numbers are heavily skewed against a fair representation of women. The women in the game are sexual objects for men. When I made that argument, commenters at PopMatters (usually a quiet bunch) were vocally upset with me. I made the claim that there are no women with short hair, when clearly Anna’s hair is shoulder length! I made the claim that the women are whitewashed, when clearly many (seven) of them are non-European with non-European features! I made the claim that they’re all wearing skimpy outfits and posed to highlight their curves when clearly Leo has a masculine face, figure and outfit!
There are exceptions to prove the rule. When I wrote that none of the women in Tekken have short hair, I meant short like Cary Mulligan’s in Shame or Halle Berry’s in Monster’s Ball (or mine in everyday life, for that matter); short as in it doesn’t hang past the eyes or ears. When I made the claim that the women are whitewashed, I meant that, even though some have Asian eye-folds or olive skin, none are dark skinned, round faced, or broad; for that matter none are tall or rigid or muscular either. When I said that they’re fetishized from a masculine perspective I meant that they’re dressed as heterosexual pleasure objects, just because Leo may be a tomboy—another stereotype, so I don’t accept her as evidence against my argument—she’s just one point of data in an already tiny sample pool. If 30 out of 60 characters (give or take 3 or 4) were women, and only a few were sexualized (with an equal number of male characters sexualized) for a heterosexual gaze, in the way that Tekken has sexualized every one of their existing 15 female human women, than I would certainly be in less of a position to take issue with the game. But because there are so few women and all are the same weight, height, bra size and within a few shades of skin tone, it stands out as perverted fanservice.
This seems to happen a lot when a game is accused of sexism. That is, defenders nitpick their way out of the problem. They will never admit to a problem until a case-by-case analysis of every character is made and even then, they argue, the case for misogyny only really applies to a few characters. Because some are less sexist than others the game can’t really be called sexist. The same thing happens whenever the Bechdel test is applied to a film: people argue over whether a few seconds in this scene or that technically gives a movie a pass when the entire purpose of the test is to highlight the discrepancy in how how women are portrayed. If a film shows two named women talking for fourteen seconds about the weather, it doesn’t mean the film has fairly represented women, even if does pass the Bechdel test by a technicality. Likewise, it doesn’t matter if there’s a single female character in Tekken that has a divergent body type, that isn’t a cliched trope and that isn’t overtly sexualized for the male gaze: it’s just one instance. An a single exception from the problem does not erase the problem. In Tekken, women overall are still under-represented and poorly represented in the few instances that they do show up on screen.
The problem isn’t even that the women are attractive, it’s that there are so few of them and that they’re attractive in only one way. They move and gyrate to emphasize their sexiness; not their abilities, their emotions, their personalities or their attitudes, they look and act to emphasize their sexiness to the presumed straight-male player. They exist in the game for no reason other than to be sexy. With 59 playable characters, more than 15 of them should be humanoid women. Of those women, not all should be 5’7, thin, with large breasts, soft lips, round eyes, and smooth long hair. When they win, not all should move delicately and thrust their hips or tits out, nor should they giggle, smile, wink, blow kisses or act like the player is sitting in on a peepshow. If one or two act differently it doesn’t compensate for the trend.
The problem is that all the game’s women are designed to suit a male kink. Xiaoyu is a schoolgirl, Anna’s second costume is a hentai squid wriggling its tentacles over her body, Alisa is a sexy maid, Leo is a cute tomboy, Zafina and Christia are writhing strippers. The final boss is a naked woman covered in black goop! When the men of the game are portrayed with such varying body types it makes the fanservice that is the female roster so starkly perverse. Even sexualizing men would curb the issues I had with it. If one of Kazuya’s outfits were him oiled up and wearing a fireman’s coat I’d at least be able to note the equal-opportunity fetishization.
But only the game’s women are fetishized because Tekken is for boys only. Girls don’t want to play it and if they do than there’s something wrong with either them or the situation. Or they must be looking for a boyfriend because no woman can possibly enjoy a fighting game for what it is.
I’ve played every Tekken game to date with some regularity and at one point I’ve owned the every one of the main numbered instalments of the series. I’ve been with it for over a decade now and though the series’ misogyny was not openly pronounced in its earliest days, isn’t something that’s just happened in the latest release. The trend of sexualizing female Tekken characters has been developing gradually as the culture around fighting games has become more homogeneous and introverted. The female character designs are sexist and they don’t have to be. I wrote about this issue because it’s something that needs to be voiced every time it surfaces. I can only hope that the more times this sort of thing gets called on, developers (to say nothing of players) will realize that treating women as masturbation fodder is humiliating to the entire medium. And it isn’t acceptable.
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Further reading: DuVoix, Hannah. “Venus in Mars: Gender Equality in Fighting Games.” Ontological Geek. Jul 5 2012.
Miller, Patrick. “KOFXIII and why race/gender criticism is really fucking hard.” patrick miller writes about video games. Oct 7 2013.
Fisher, Ian. “Objectification Through Polygons: The Status of Female Characters in Fighting Games.” Shogun Gamer. Jul 23 2013.
3 thoughts on “Sexism and Tekken”
Thank you for writing this, I am always saddened to watch characters from my childhood get more and more sexualized as if women can’t exist and be appreciated without being skinny, teasing and stripping her clothes off. My first mission with the new games is always to customize the female characters to add some variation and I’m sad it has to be this way. I loved how you described them as performing in a peep show, that is exactly how it feels.
I can’t even describe how happy I was when Leo was added to the roster, there was finally a (non-male) character I could identify with after I lost Julia, Nina and Kunimitsu to the male gaze.
I wanted to add something else. In the original article, when I responded to a commenter I described the female characters from east Asia as “oriental.” I wasn’t aware that that word is as offensive to an American audience as it is. It was a careless mistake and a lesson I would have preferred not to have learned on a public forum, but one learned nonetheless.