(Originally posted at the Moving Pixels column at Pop Matters)
Sexuality in games is a contentious topic. Few see video games as open or mature enough to express ideas and create experiences concerning sexuality for players to explore. It’s also rarely pleasant to talk about the topic, usually any arguments settle on the accusation of games as serving as wish fulfillment for heterosexual men and the more vocal of said demographic replying with a “So what?” What’s often overlooked is the possibility of the sexualization of men, as if it’s not an option.
My title is misleading; games don’t usually sexualize men. As frequently suggested when discussing the Male Gaze theory in film studies and neatly tied into relevancy for our purposes by Kate Cox in “The Gamer’s Gaze,” men are not sexualized in most media (“The Gamer Gaze, part 1”, Your Critic is in Another Castle, 20 June 2011). Because there is a large presence of the heterosexual man’s identity in the development process and in gaming’s audience, the perceived “neutral” vision of game design takes on the influence of the socially appropriate interests specific to straight men. The lack of men’s sexualization is a product of the average straight guy’s impulse to avoid appearing or feeling gay. Men have a fig leaf of sorts when it comes to camera work and character design, while women get more attention and exposure. What sexual bits we do see are “safe” for heterosexual men to view without feeling like they’re watching something “gay,” such as muscular arms or exposed torsos. A common counter-argument concerns the issue of men’s impossible body image in games, which is definitely important, but mostly a different discussion to tackle. The aesthetic of muscles denote strength, agency, and power for the assumed male player to relate to, while emphasis on T&A when viewing women only serves as fan-service. Both rely on problematic ideals, but there is still a power relation present in theis representation that favors men.
There are a couple of games that are often cited as examples of sexualizing men, namely Masaya’s Cho Aniki and Namco Bandai Games’s Muscle March. Both games have muscular men in barely any clothing, often viewed in risqué, homoerotic poses. While sexualization is afoot in these titles, these games don’t violate the Gamer Gaze because the men presented in the games are also presented through a completely absurd aesthetic. The design of the game creates a silly context that the player doesn’t take seriously; instead, they laugh at the men and see the nudity as off-the-wall humor. These games don’t give the player room to fantasize or a roving eye to admire the characters’ bodies.
What we consider sexual body parts and how we cover or expose them in media helps us figure out how to depict sexualized men. Women’s breasts are seen as sexual in many cultures (to varying degrees), and along with that, come laws forbidding women from exposing them in public. If men’s chests and arms evoked the same kind of sexual focus, they would find themselves in a similar situation. We should note, however, that it is legal and often expected that women partially expose their breasts despite their sexual connotation, effectively always leaving themselves on display. This is the launching point for women’s sexualization in general media by emphasizing what is illegal/improper to show in public without crossing a line. Because the only area that is taboo on men is below the belt, men’s chests and arms don’t threaten anyone’s sexuality. Sexualizing men would involve drawing focus and emphasis to their goods in a manner similar to how we currently do with women: by featuring them in low-rise pants and underwear, tight jeans to emphasis their bulge and butt shape, etc. Because it violates the prevailing Male Gaze ingrained in all of us, this can seem like an uncomfortable idea. However, media geared towards gay men already uses and exploits this technique. Because men’s sexualization primarily appears in a homoerotic context, it’s not surprise why it’s relatively absent in games.
While clothing is a large part of women’s sexualization in games, the camera plays a role by directing the player’s attention to their bodies. Cox provides a video of Madison’s shower scene in Heavy Rain, in which the camera “checks her out” by gliding up and down to view the different angles of her body. Compare this scene to an earlier one when a fellow protagonist, Ethan, takes a shower as well. This scene is shorter, and the movement is more about avoiding looking at him directly than checking him out. The camera provides a few glimpses of his chest and backside, but you feel that you’re watching something that you shouldn’t be rather than experiencing any form of interest or arousal. Examples like these link the cinematography of games (and arguably all media) to pornography, a genre that the distilled Male Gaze calls home. The player crosses into something pornographic when watching Madison but into something awkward when seeing Ethan. However, the further away (and more aware) that a player is from the straight male identity, the more clearly these moments stand out. Because pornography typically has straight male consumption in mind, its politics leak into games by highlighting how they look at women and other men in porn. We would have to look to pornography made for women and gay men and apply how the camera looks at the performers for a holistic approach to sexualizing characters.
There is resistance to sexualizing anyone, but the true issue lies in who sexualized characters are for and how often this happens. In essence, recognizing how we sexualize people equips us with tools to even out the playing field, creating more women who aren’t on screen for a man’s viewing pleasure and allowing players to enjoy the male figure every once in a while. Coupled with an awareness of body image politics and encouraging more character models that stray from Aphrodite and the Adonis, video games can become a more egalitarian medium for expression.