Genre and Girl-on-Girl Action: Feminism and Skullgirls

Deftly avoiding "NSFW" tags...

by Megan Townsend

You know that joke where a boy walks into his parent’s bedroom and catches them having sex? The one where the punchline is something like “What you’ve seen you can never unsee?” I’m not even sure if there is a joke like that but it pretty much sums up my experience with day-to-day things after my liberal arts education exposed me to many facets of feminism. I can see sexism. I can never unsee it. I’m not imagining it and it’s everywhere. I’m glad I see – I am a politically aware, socially active woman – but damn, it ruins shit for me that I used to enjoy.

So when I volunteered to write an article on Skullgirls it was not without an amount of trepidation or masochism. The game could very well enrage me.

Now, I don’t take myself too seriously and I like a good off-colour joke. But it really depends on the context of that joke. It’s the difference between, say, Chapelle’s Show and Fox News. It’s about awareness: of your art, of your medium, of your audience — most of all, of your genre.

The last time I played any sort of fighting game at length was when I was a teenager and got a hold of a ROM copy of a Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon fighter. I couldn’t understand a bloody word of the text but I managed to negotiate my way through menus by memory. My sister and I played the hell out of that ROM, hunkered over my computer keyboard with our fingers in awkward button-mashing positions. Sailor Jupiter beat the snot out of Sailor Mercury; a mournful “ita!” cried every time a lightning bolt hit Mercury’s nerdbait body. However, beating my little sister at a remarkably imbalanced game does not qualify me as “good” at fighters.

Before that it was Street Fighter, because every kid who was born in the 80s played Street Fighter for the SNES. I played as E Honda – not Chun Li – and still got my ass kicked. I wasn’t much of a sumo.

I’ve played Dead or Alive once, while drunk, and all I can remember is the visual of bouncing boobies. I played Tekken briefly. Was never allowed anywhere near Mortal Kombat as a child, so my only interaction with it was at a friend’s house when his little brother and my partner played Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe. Again, boobies. Also, I don’t know how Catwoman catburgles with incongruously large breasts. Seemed to me the point of having women in fighting games is to see their titties bounce, with perhaps the odd exception like Chun-Li’s gigantic legs.

I have nothing against boobies, but I’d rather prefer, in the context of fighting games, for a lady to kick ass. And to this end, a good sports bra seems entirely reasonable.

And oh good, Skullgirls does have bouncing boobies. But it also has a retro noir feel that I adore. The art direction is admittedly gorgeous and pointedly stylized; it is something akin to Shoujo anime meets Steamboat Willie and early Disney films. The game is very honest about its use of anime as each character biography includes: height, weight, and blood sign, much like many “magical girl” anime. But that’s not the entirety of the genre overlap. Each Skullgirl is a variation on femme fatale archetypes from early Hollywood, as well as cartoonish monsters. As Karl described it before I volunteered to play the game: “alt pin-up style” fighting girls.

These women do kick ass, in glorious cartoon fashion, and there is no “token” female hyper-sexualized in a crowd of masculine options, marked by her difference and sexual objectification. When I played, after getting my ass kicked in various forms by various Skullgirls, and after much teeth grinding and thumb pain, I found that my favourite character to play with was Ms. Fortune, the cat girl whose tank top barely covers her chest. Her head will pop off during battles and nomnomnom on the opponent in a way that makes me giggle.

And I suppose that’s the point of the game: it’s funny. It’s a send up of anime, the glamourous women from the Golden Age of Hollywood, and the fighting game standard. I’m not saying games like Street Fighter aren’t self-aware but Skullgirls is a fighting game about fighting games. The cutscenes play out like a serial adventure. The game does make use of the “sexy girl” clichés – the nun, the cat girl, the school girl – but they absolutely know what they’re doing.

The excess of female stereotypes and the absurdity of the gender performance draws attention to the fact that they are exaggerated and campy. The lack of realism lends itself to undercutting the sexism and sexuality of the characters. This game isn’t suppose to reflect women but rather how women have been portrayed through various artificial and stylistic genres.

Perhaps it’s the overt use of genre that makes Skullgirls’ self-awareness clear. One has to be aware of the genre one is working within in order properly make use of it and Skullgirls is nothing if not about genre. I have no doubt that someone out there will still perceive the game as sexist, just as someone else will become entirely too excited over all of the boobs, and yes, there are boobies. Plenty of them. But I don’t find the game sexist. It is very clearly sexual and the characters sexualized. They aren’t the same thing. And each of the Skullgirls is a hell of a lot less creepy than Betty Boop.

This game doesn’t set off my “sexism” senses and I can enjoy it without offense, with no horrible visions of my gender maligned. Can’t say as much for my joystick thumb, though. This game is fucking hard.

Anyways, time to roll someone else up into a ball of yarn…

Further Reading: “Mythologizing the Gamer Grrl” (Medium Difficulty)

“Round One: Brazzers versus the Video Games Industry” (Medium Difficulty)

This entry was posted in Criticism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • Vivienne Chan

    This is easily one of the best reviews I’ve read about this game so far, and I don’t mean “best” as in it gives positive feedback, but it’s truly well thought-out, articulately written, and it highlights precisely what’s wrong with the fighting game genre (insofar as female attire goes) while lauding this game for taking an “homage” approach to anime, Hollywood, and the classic female archetypes. I really enjoyed reading this!

  • Kyle Carpenter

    I really dig this game, largely because I’ve recently invested in some fight sticks to play it (I aspire to scrub-dom on that front). I was wondering why this doesn’t bother me as much as, say, Melty Blood, and this does a good job of suggesting why. Thanks for that!

    I will go ahead and be the token asshole who says: “if you’re playing this with a pad, you’re doing it wrong.” Seriously, a lot of the moves come together way more easily when all the buttons are right there in front of you.

    +1 to loving the “Om nom nom nom” move.

  • JosephHilgard

    I think the inclusion of a couple of comically non-sexual characters also helps round out the cast: there’s Peacock, who’s just funny-looking in the old Steamboat Willie way, and Painwheel, who takes the game’s creepy-cute motif and dials it all the way to all creepy, no cute.