Girl in the Machine
Monday, June 2, 2008
Exploring androgyny in video games.

The word "androgyny" comes from a combination of the Greek words "andros" and "gynaika," man and woman. "Androgynous" refers to the blending of male and female characteristics in a person, often to the point of indeterminate sex. In video games, many character designs achieve androgyny through the removal, concealment, or even a combination of sex signifiers, such as rounded hips or a lack of typical body fat. The degree of androgyny varies on a wide scale, and each stage as such achieves different goals.

The most common form of physical gender-blending I've observed is what I'll call Minor Androgyny. In this class are the Pretty Boys of many a Japanese RPG and action heroes such as Leon Kennedy from Resident Evil 4, or Devil May Cry's Dante. It's fairly obvious that there's quite a smattering of feminine-looking men right across the boards in gaming, with silver-haired villains taking the lead (Ghaleon or Sephiroth, anyone?). The popularity of androgyny in Japanese culture has no doubt influenced many of these character design decisions, as seen in the gender-neutral aesthetics of Visual Kei (Japanese glam rock) and pretty boys in anime and manga.

However, this form of Minor Androgyny isn't always accepted. Metal Gear Solid 2's Raiden is probably one of the most notorious pretty boy leads. Metal Gear fans were crushed to discover that the protagonist of the game was not, in fact, the much-beloved and super macho Solid Snake, but that they were stuck playing the role of a stranger: the lithe and fair-haired Raiden. The series's creater, Hideo Kojima, intended for gamers both female and male to identify with Raiden's feminine and masculine appearance. However, the backlash against this feminine intruder was so great that Metal Gear Solid 3 parodied the fiasco with the flamingly gay Major Ivan Raidenovitch Raikov, whose identical appearance and similar name leave little to question about Kojima's intentions.

My next stage of androgyny is Major Androgyny. These characters effectively exhibit both male and female characteristics in a design that leaves sex indeterminate. Unfortunately, despite their convincing appearances, many Major Androgynes in video games are given sex-specific pronouns. Observe Lunar 2's main villain, Zophar:

Quite clearly lady on the bottom, with a more-or-less masculine face and a male chest (as seen in other states of, er, dress). However, Zophar is always a "he," and no character ever bats an eye at his androgynous appearance. Final Fantasy IX's Kuja (pictured at the top) is another great example. His features are arranged in much the same fashion: rounded hips, a flat chest, and flowing hair. Still, as always, this tiger-tailed Genome is forever a "he."

Curiously enough, the only character I've found whose sex has never been determined or assigned -- even by the game developers themselves -- is FFIX's Quina, who is referred to in-game as s/he.

Finally, we've come to our last stage: Neutrois. While Neutrois isn't actually a category of androgyny, it refers to a complete sexual neutrality in appearance and identity. Characters such as Homunculus in the 2001 Konami adventure game Shadow of Destiny or the titular NiGHTS from the popular Sega franchise exhibit zero sex signifiers in either the male or female direction. Takashi Iizuka of Sonic Team USA stated in a 2007 interview that NiGHTS "is a mirror of the child's personality, so when the children dream, they become him. So from a boy's point of view, NiGHTS will be a boy, from a girl's point of view, NiGHTS will be a girl." This view, that the player should be able to identify with the protagonist of the game no matter their gender identification, is similar to Hideo Kojima's but differs in some fundamental ways. NiGHTS's fantasy-oriented context allows for a true fluidity of gender in a way that the more (but admittedly not much more) realistic approach of Metal Gear Solid cannot. However, Kojima's self-parody with Major Raikov puts a sour spin on what should have been an admirable attempt at breaking social conventions. NiGHTS's appeal and popularity shows that video game protagonists don't have to be macho and male to appeal to gamers.

In the end, androgyny is truly no stranger to video games old and new. However, I'm sure that many of you have noticed a marked lack of "female-leaning" androgynes in this post. "Male" androgynes are far, far more common, and I can only wonder as to the reason why. My best hypothesis is that a long history of the sexualization and objectification of the female form has lended feminine characteristics with more aesthetic appeal than masculine, justifying more feminine men with soft beauty than your more masculine woman with strong features. Readers, are there any "female" androgynes out there that you can think of? Why do you feel that they're largely absent when their male counterparts are so popular?

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 Posted by BomberGirl
 2:28 PM + Link to this post

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