So, Lollipop Chainsaw just came out. Being a fan of Suda51, I bought a copy for the bois and I to play, and on that rainy Wednesday night we loaded it into the Xbox and sat down to give it a spin. It’s pretty fun, kind of a Rainbow Brite colored hack and slash game with the usual Suda51 sense of weirdness. It’s not the greatest game ever, but it’s entertaining enough, even really fun in places.

But as the controller got passed to me during a particularly tedious run of enemy-filled rooms, D piped up with an interesting question: is this game sexist?

It’s not a question the three of us (oh, right: I’m polyamorist. Haven’t mentioned that here yet.) could easily answer. There’s a lot of elements to consider, and that discussion ended up filling our entire playtime for that night. It was interesting, actually more interesting than the game itself. Honestly, we still don’t completely know the answer, although we’ve reached the consensus that it probably is sexist. And here’s why:

It’s all Juliet’s fault.

"Tee hee!"

Goddamn it, this image reveals NOTHING about her character!

Our main character for Lollipop Chainsaw is Juliet Starling; if you’ve seen any of the marketing, you’ve seen her. She’s the centerpiece for the advertising drive, which is… troubling in its own way, but we’ll get to that.

Now, this is a Suda51 game, and if there’s one thing that’s kind of cool about Suda51, it’s that they always have interesting main characters. From Travis Touchdown to Garcia Hotspur, each one has been entertaining and funny… And this is a trait that doesn’t carry over to Juliet.

Now, I can see what she’s meant to be: she’s supposed to be a schlocky fan service heroine parody, like movie era Buffy, in a way. But she absolutely doesn’t get there, not even a little, and that’s down to specific failures both in the character herself, and the world she inhabits. Let’s begin with Juliet herself.

Though the game assures us that she’s eighteen, Juliet is a high school student and a cheerleader… and that’s all you need to know. You can build the image up in your mind based on that; the blonde hair, the skimpy outfit, the pom poms…  You get it. And there’s nothing wrong with employing cheerleader imagery in this context; the juxtaposition of a role traditionally designed solely for sex appeal with an ass kicking character is what this kind of schlock world has thrived on since the seventies, it’s just that Juliet errs too closely to the latter characteristic.

Juliet is heavily fetishised, in almost every aspect of her character; this is a high school girl who, aside from prancing around in the shortest skirt imaginable, also apparently pole dances recreationally, even integrating it as part of her combat repertoire. She burbles and squeaks with idiotic text speak and ridiculous teen idioms, showing nary an ounce of self awareness, intellect or even concern over the zombie apocalypse that she finds herself embroiled in. Hell, even her walking animation is contrived to raise her hips at an odd angle, just so the player is treated to a perpetual view of her panties as she progresses through the game world.

Yow

Also, this can happen. It’s pretty transparent.

The flipside of this is, of course, her ass kicking side. You see, Juliet was also trained from a young age to be a zombie hunter, because in this world apparently that’s a thing, though everyone else seems quite surprised at the appearance of zombies. The fanservice heroine who’s been trained to fight is a pretty standard trope and I’ve never had a problem with it in the past… It’s just that this time, even her fighting style has been sculpted around the idea of Juliet as a fetish object, rather than a study in internal contrast. Juliet flounces around the battlefield, leap frogging over her enemies and attacking them with pom poms and a Technicolor, love heart-bedecked chainsaw that makes them bleed sparkles and pink stuff. Oh, and the chainsaw is also a phone, because chicks love yapping on the phone. Durr…

It’s not that Juliet is unlikable, she’s just vapid and two dimensional. Her nonstop energy is charming enough, but then again it’s been designed to be, and it feels processed. Not to mention, every camera angle, every movement Juliet makes, every move in her arsenal, has been designed to show off the maximum amount of skin. When you’re building and writing a character, this is the wrong way to go about it; Juliet exists at the player, rather than within her own world. She’s a Barbie doll for the audience to stare at, and I submit to you that this isn’t exploitation theatre, it’s just exploitative. And then there’s the world she inhabits…

None of the other characters can stop themselves from commenting on Juliet. Smack talk is fine and all, but the thing is, the only thing anyone can say about Juliet is that she’s hot. Fight an enemy, he’ll comment on her ass. Rescue a civilian, he’ll tell her he’s going to masturbate thinking of her later (yes, really.) The majority of the people you meet in this game can do nothing but drool over Juliet, and it gets tiring really quickly.

Uh... what?

Then again, she might be asking for it, going to school dressed like this!

So with Juliet posing for the camera almost constantly and most other characters staring at her ass, I ask you: is this sexist? I still don’t know.

Because the thing is, the people who made this game are clever, and entirely capable of meta commentary of the games that they make. At least, I think they are; I don’t know what Shadows of the Damned was supposed to be a commentary on, which really only leaves No More Heroes, which was clever… but maybe it was an accident. Maybe these guys don’t know how to do anything more than making entertaining games.

All throughout Lollipop Chainsaw we found things that might be social commentary, but then again might be nothing more than an entirely un-ironic thing. We just couldn’t tell. The first boss battle is against a punk rocker zombie, whose constant abusive catcalls of “slut!” and the like at Juliet take on physical form to attack her. Now, this could be an incisive comment on the way those words are used to attack and suppress women… but equally it could just be a thing that he does. It certainly doesn’t feel like a message thing when it’s happening, and also this particular character isn’t the only one to employ those words against Juliet.

This kind of sincerity might be the most interesting thing about Lollipop Chainsaw; either its intelligence is so unerringly accurate that it blurs the line between representation and commentary, or its presentation is so all encompassing and sincere that it can be mistaken for commentary in a search for any kind of depth. It’s an odd feeling.

But if there’s one thing we went away certain of, it’s that the game was intended to be silly; it’s definitely parodic, if not actively satirical. It shows in every aspect of the game, from Juliet’s decapitated head of a companion, Nick, through to the music choices (the item shop theme is Lollipop, Lollipop, if that helps.) It’s the kind of thing that Suda51 does quite well, and also the reason why James Gunn was recruited to help with the script writing. The problem I have with this is that Lollipop Chainsaw is the first game by this studio to feature a female main character, and also the first one this outright exploitative. Travis and Garcia, the heroes of the last two game, had way more going for them than this, and if you add in the troublingly casual rape-y implications Shadows of the Damned gave to resident damsel in distress Paula, this attitude toward women is becoming a bit of a trend.

It’s clear that Juliet was intended to be a parody of the standard sexy videogame leading lady, in the vein of Bayonetta, albeit styled quite differently. The problem is, sexiness wasn’t the only thing Bayonetta had going for her. What worked about Bayonetta wasn’t that she was sexy, it’s that she was sexually intimidating. This was a character who not only knew she was attractive, but was completely blasé about that fact. She didn’t let it define her, she played with it, and it showed in everything about her. Not only was she quite predatory in the way she looked and moved, but she would do something awesome every few seconds, and then say “yeah, that felt even cooler than it looked.” She was a badass, and she even shares Juliet’s fixation with lollipops; the difference is, Bayonetta is sexy, whereas Juliet is hot.

This is a distinction very few media seem to understand; someone can be hot- as in physically appealing to look at- without being sexy. Sexiness comes from character, from being intellectually attractive, not just having curves. Bayonetta was sexually intimidating, whereas Juliet is sexually exploitative. Her appearance is most of her character, but Bayonetta integrates her appearance into her character. And they’re both main characters in exploitation theatre pieces, definitely.

That's an angel she just cut in half, there.

This is a character who is sexy, but not a sex object.

There’s a target mark in exploitation that’s very hard to hit; the point where it becomes empowering to the female leads, not degrading. It’s often hard to tell where that line is, but to me it’s the point at where the character and story become gleeful about the heroine’s sexuality, and it becomes another weapon in her arsenal. Often in these types of pieces, the heroine is aware of how good she looks, and uses it to trick or distract dumb men. In fact, that is also an important thing to note; these protagonists are often fighting against an oppressive or violent patriarchal presence. But they’re not fighting against men in general- no, that wouldn’t fly with the largely male audiences for these things- but against specifically, nonconsensually dominant male presences.

Juliet, on the other hand? Juliet never even seems aware that she is attractive: in a move that’s clearly a surface level attempt to ground the character, Juliet has body image issues related to her butt (read: she complains it’s big, while everyone else drools over it.) Furthermore, Juliet’s struggles are never against a patriarchal presence, but are mostly fighting in favor of one; a lot of the men objectifying her in this game have been saved by her mere moments earlier. Juliet fights indiscriminately, and there’s no overarching theme or message that can be gleaned from this. Where most exploitation heroines fight for something, Juliet just fights because zombies are bad, ‘kay?

This also reaches into her design; leaving aside the constant panty shots and pole dancing, Juliet is again clearly designed at the player, rather than for the game. The pigtails, the short skirt and belly baring top… none of these things are particularly great for zombie killing, nor are they in any way required for the normal school day she was embarking on before the game begins. It’s just there, like her high pitched voice (Tara Strong) and the clear oral fixation we can draw from her constant lollipop consumption. And here’s where we come to an interesting observation…

Consider Juliet as opposed to Bayonetta again. Both have a thing about lollipops, and in both cases it’s a clearly sexualized move, and all about the sucking motion. Duh. But here’s the interesting part: check the sizes. Juliet’s lollipops are big, they’re meant to fill her mouth… I think we all know the implication of that.

But Bayonetta’s lollipops are tiny little suckers, barely more than a bite. It’s just another very clever visual choice with this character; once again it’s a subversion of a rather Freudian visual designed to show that Bayonetta’s sexiness isn’t for the benefit of the player. It’s all in service of making her the aggressor in her own skin, in a market where too often the girls are princesses needing rescuing, or if they’re at all competent they’re aloof or infantilized to a ridiculous degree (Juliet in the latter case, Cammy from Street Fighter in the former, for example.) I bet she even crunches them with her teeth.

Is Lollipop Chainsaw sexist? We don’t know, but it probably is. Do we find this objectionable? Hell no. The game is fun as all get out when you get into it, and Juliet herself is rather charming, if not particularly deep. But we did find it worthy of discussion, and our conclusions interesting. At least the game is rather good natured about its representations (that punk rocker boss notwithstanding…) but at the same time, it does say some interesting things. Intentional or not, every piece of narrative art reveals something about the people who made it, and how they think. I don’t think Juliet’s construction was deliberately made like this, but rather built up naturally out of a single concept: “kickass cheerleader.” Like it or not, this is just how girls in videogames are made, usually; sex appeal before sexiness before character. Juliet is how she is because this is how it’s done. At least this time, there’s a little bit of self awareness about it.