Fashion in video games takes many forms. We’ve really seen it all—from full, pink skirts reminiscent of Victorian era ballroom gowns (Princess Peach) to skimpy, barely-there ensembles (too many to name!). What does female fashion in video games reflect about the industry as a whole, and what does it say about the ideal of femininity today?
Players have traditionally taken two responses to the skimpy costumes of some video games- they either find it incredibly attractive or offensive. Just like in mainstream media, sexy costumes on video game characters have the power to both empower and objectify women, depending on how you look at it.
I would say that video game costumes reflect two distinct ideals of femininity in today’s culture. On the one hand, there is the frilly, pink persona adopted by the ‘damsels in distress’—popular secondary characters such as Peach and Zelda fall into this category. These costumes invoke a more traditional definition of femininity—they are unthreatening, conservative, and downright demure. On the other hand, we see the ultra tight and often skin-bearing costumes of protagonists such as Lara Croft, Samus, and the ladies from Resident Evil. These costumes reflect different aspects of womanhood—sexuality, power, and in some cases, fertility.
It is a common theme in popular culture and media that men’s masculinity is being constantly ‘threatened’ by the catapulting success of career-driven women, especially in the medical and finance industries. The decision of many women to keep their names after marriage (a decision, coincidentally, which seems to be on the decline) is an example of one of the supposed ‘threats’ facing the bastion of masculinity in modern society. As a side effect, the image of the powerful, independent women still carries many negative connotations which are only slowly disappearing.
I’ve been browsing online lists of the top ‘sexiest’ female characters in video games, and I was actually surprised to find that the highest rated characters were those wearing skimpy, tight-fitting costumes. Don’t get me wrong—I know sex sells. But there is an interesting addendum to this discovery: incidentally, these characters were actually more likely to be protagonists than damsels in distress in their respective franchises. This, to me, is a really interesting reversal of roles. The characters which occupy the most traditionally ‘feminine’ roles in the game (Peach, Zelda) are less preferred than the strong, independent women of Tomb Raider and Resident Evil.
Female gamers have long been clamouring for more control over the industry, but we have some tough decisions to make when it comes to women’s clothing. In a nutshell, it appears our choice is this: we can have strong, independent characters in video games, at the expense of their modesty; or we can have more modest, appropriate characters at the expense of their independence. Whatever our decision, as video game graphics continue to become more realistic, and therefore more explicitly sexual, the virtual world will continue to reflect the widely fluctuating, and often contradictory ideals of femininity in our modern age.