Cultural Layering

Welcome to another entry of Fanny Fridays (shamelessly inspired by Grant Morrison’s Lord Fanny character from The Invisibles). These weekly posts examine the mirror of gender and sex that occurs between our culture and videogames.

The last Fanny Friday, I alluded to the fact that Ivy and Kratos are wearing pretty much the same amount of clothing (we can argue about a few scraps of cloth here or there, if you desire), but that does not mean they are equally clothed. I’d like to repost those pictures:

Culturally, if we see a male willingly dressed in fairly skimpy clothing, it can mean one of a few things: he’s been wounded and is in battle, is engaged in sport of some kind, or is showing off his muscled body (which usually relates back to sports). Females? Not so much. If we show a female showing off her physique, it’s not for her physical prowess (in fact, female body builders are usually pointed at and laughed), it’s for titillation. That picture of Ivy makes her no more deadly seeming than Kratos in the slightest.

So, even if they are in equal states of (un)dress, they are not on equal footing when it comes to actual body representation. In fact, I cannot think of any females who are known for their physical prowess; perhaps their skill level or aptitude, but not pure physical prowess. We have a couple of things working against us here, including the fact that we still like to operate under the impression that females just aren’t as strong as males from a physiological standpoint; as stated before, we also don’t like the idea of female body builders, who are quite frequently derided for their less than attractive presentation. It’s a cultural joke.


Because it’s a woman attempting to take on the role of a man. Therein lies the difference in supposedly equal presentations of characters: females are feminine, males are masculine.

Let’s take a look at Tifa and Yuffie of Final Fantasy VII fame (I’ve excluded Aeris/th because she plays another role entirely, which her clothing also aids). Tifa is a martial artist–she cannot be fettered by too many clothes. Unlike male counterparts who usually take off their shirts, she does still remain with a top, and thank whatever gods to whom you may pray. The game does a fairly interesting job of portraying her as gruff and a leader when she needs to be, but also as weak and emotionally distraught at other times. Oh, and did I mention her breasts are akin to Barbie’s in their seeming impossibility?

Juxtapose that with Yuffie, whose clothing is also rather skimpy (also, the button on her shorts is undone? I just noticed this), but for a different effect. Yuffie is often hated upon in various Final Fantasy fandoms, largely because she’s portrayed as an annoying teenager–she, like Cait Sith, is serves as a comedic double against the austere, more serious portions of the game. She gets to play the confused young girl who hasn’t quite learned what is fashionable, and is allowed some tomboy freedom.

These are both tomboy characters, but for Tifa this means that she has to show, as an adult woman, that she is still feminine.

Clothing is one part pragmatic and the other part signifier. In colder temperatures (which we’re finally seeing here in Chicago), we prefer to be layered to protect from the cold. From a development standpoint, I can understand why Tifa is running around in snow-capped mountains in that outfit, even if it does create some interesting disparities from a metagaming standpoint. The other portion is to display what gender you are.

Notice that I used the word gender there, not sex. As babies we are often clothed in the appropriate color (often blue or pink) based on our sex. Then, as we grow up, we portray our gender identity through our clothing; this creates some interesting ‘anamolies’ (to a gender binary) around the world. Therefore, Tifa is portraying a more masculine identity, but cannot hide the effects of her sex. Yuffie is portraying a similar gender identity, but is still a teenaged girl, so we can see her from a lens of still growing into her body (and comedic relief founded in females is not supposed to be sultry–except in rare cases when airhead is funny).

Whereas we’re becoming a culture where we are uncovering both the male and female body, we also are dealing with the fact that in the last fifty years, females were much more quickly stripped than males. We have producers of consumable goods to look at for that one: the ones who assumed that the spending power lies in the hands of only males. The equality (not really all so equal) we’re suddenly seeing takes into account the disposable income (maybe not at the moment) of females and gay males.

As I’ve pointed out in previous entries concerning the uncovering of the male body, this is done completely differently, though. Strip a female and you need not worry about it impugning her femininity (we just question if this makes her ‘easy’ or saleable). Stripping a male can make him less masculine if he is not properly guarded against such (e.g. by being placed in a situation where competition or sex is promised).

Males who are stripped need to show their masculinity in much the same way that an adult Tifa needs to show that she’s still female despite her tomboyish attitude and clothing. If, as I’ve also stated before, they are presented in a nude form, and are the object of the gaze of an audience, they also need to guard against the passivity such allows. They must prove they are heterosexual (or at least not the one buggered) and could assert themselves if need be. Which is why we largely see muscled nude or semi-nude males (or ones that are assassins–I’m looking at you, Mr. Touchdown).

Females? We normally don’t worry as much against their sexuality. The idea of a woman’s heterosexuality is usually a moot point: she just needs to be able to be enjoyed by men (whether or not she may enjoy it). Which creates the crux of the problem I’m seeing presented in the cultural microcosm of videogames: females are still largely presented to be enjoyed by men, whereas males are presented to give a different role for men to play.


About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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