Friday, April 25, 2008

Media Analysis

Sex Sells: Constrictive Femininity in Guitar Hero III

Since the release of the very first Guitar Hero console game back in 2005, gamers all over the United States have been drunk with the taste of rock stardom. The game’s relatively simple rhythm-based objective and revolutionizing guitar controller spawned a whirlwind of popularity, resulting in several sequels as the years passed. A colorful cast of playable characters sweetened the pot of Guitar Hero’s appeal, each representing a genre of rock. The characters remained fairly stable through the Guitar Hero games, although some were exchanged for others as the years passed. The women of Guitar Hero emerged in the women’s gaming community as veritable bastions of badassery, dominating the screen with their deafening riffs and intimidating expertise rivaling any male counterpart. As sales for Guitar Hero II skyrocketed, a deal was being made: in 2006, MTV purchased the rights for Guitar Hero’s developer Harmonix for $175 million (Martin). With this change in owner came dramatic changes for Guitar Hero III, including distinct physical alterations of the guitarists. In this paper, I will explain the physical changes of guitarists Judy Nails and Casey Lynch from Guitar Hero II to Guitar Hero III. I will then explain the implications that stem from these significant changes, including femininity and apologetic behavior.

In Guitar Hero II, Judy Nails practically bubbles off the screen with alternative rock spunk. Signature red hair hanging in her face, she rocks out comfortably in baggy white pants, skull t-shirt under a red button-down, and sneakers. Judy is also shown to have an affinity for trendy fashions, as noted in the description for her alternate costume: “The queen of alternative rock … Judy is always seen in the latest styles. Keep her on the cutting edge with this cute get-up.” Judy’s style centers on the trendy while remaining comfortable and wearable.

Casey Lynch was introduced as the third female character in Guitar Hero II. The epitome of grunge, she is described as “a veteran of the tour circuit, Casey’s dirty, low-end growl and ultra-heavy riffs have influenced budding shredders from Maine to Alaska. She’s tough, she’s brash, and she’ll break your heart faster than an E-string.” She chooses to play in only a pair of jeans and black bra. Her excessive skin likens to a punk rocker with his shirt off—the bra itself is basic black, neither skimpy nor frilly, displaying the prominent tattoos inked over her torso. Casey’s alternate outfit description reinforces her functional sense of style: “Casey’s look is designed for backbreaking life on the road; if she can’t pass out in the van wearing it, she’s not interested.” All of this evidence combined evokes a brash, tough, and decidedly un-frilly image of one Ms. Casey Lynch.

The clothing and physical depictions of both Judy and Casey depict very different women: while Judy loves new styles, Casey sticks with the basics. In-game descriptions of the guitarists unveil more of their unique personalities. Judy participates in roller derbies, and Casey tours religiously. Judy collects vinyls, while Casey breaks hearts. It is a shame that all of the women in Guitar Hero II are the same race and body type, but their faceted, varied personalities help to brand each woman with a refreshingly unique character. However, when Guitar Hero III was released in winter of 2007, the women of Guitar Hero endured a dramatic revamp.

Judy Nails left the baggy pants and ironic button-downs for something a bit more provocative in Guitar Hero III: she retained her skull-and-crossbones in the form of a torn-apart shirt barely hanging onto her frame. She’s also managed to squeeze into skin-tight pants with holes running down each side. The shirt fails at performing its main function, exposing most of her torso and bright pink bra. Her alternate costume features a sexy punk schoolgirl uniform, complete with a short plaid skirt and stockings.

Casey Lynch experienced an even more dramatic makeover than her fellow female guitarist. Gone are the days of grit and grunge—in their place is a surprisingly more feminine Casey. Suited up in a skimpier, sexier black bra, Casey wears her skin-tight black leather pants low enough to show off her string-bikini panties. Her alternate costume, the aptly-named “Mo’ Leather,” is not much different, replacing the black bra with a suffocatingly-tight leather corset and adding thigh-high leather boots into the mix. The game congratulates her decision to “finally [embrace] her feminine appeal,” apparently indicating her shift from the functional to the sexually feminine. However, Casey hasn’t left her grunge attitude behind; when asked by a reporter if she had sold out because of this change, she “replied with a roundhouse to the face,” adding that she would pay for his medical bill.

Femininity arises as a strong theme in Judy and Casey’s physical changes. In Guitar Hero II, both women displayed characteristics that society traditionally deems masculine: Judy’s baggy clothes and Casey’s grungy style, for example. As Wendy A. Burns-Ardolino notes, “spatiality, comportment, and motility are gendered particularly in the feminine,” in that constriction is typical in femininity (44). Judy and Casey trade their comfortable, functional clothing for tight, provocative costumes in Guitar Hero III, effectively femininizing them. But Judy and Casey aren’t just wearing tight clothing; specifically, their new clothes are centered on women’s foundation garments, such as the prevalence of Judy’s bra and Casey’s corset. These rough women of rock have been hooked and bound into garments that “work on the feminine body … to shape, mould, sculpt, and decorate” (Burns-Ardolino, 49). These garments shape Judy and Casey into the ideal feminine body, serving as a stark reminder of their womanhood.

It remains to be explained why Judy and Casey have been so dramatically feminized in Guitar Hero III; to discover this explanation, it is necessary to refer to MTV’s reasons for purchasing the developers of the Guitar Hero series. Their intention was to “[connect] with target audiences by creating immersive, multi-platform environments that extend to every device they use” (Martin). In other words, MTV wished to reach their target demographic (that of music-lovers) through the video game industry as well. In order to gain a larger fan base, MTV chose to feminize the female characters of Guitar Hero in order to make them more acceptable and sexually appealing to general society. I base this theory on incidences of similar events that occur in the sports world—the idea that women who have more “masculine” occupations should apologize for them by becoming more feminine in their life and dress. In Playing Nice: Politics and Apologies in Women’s Sports, author Mary Jo Festle describes the attempts at apologetic behavior in women’s amateur basketball teams:

Apologetic behavior became a necessity. Some of the more successful

and visible teams employed hair stylists, selected attractive uniforms,

highlighted male sexual companionship, and required on-and-off-court

behaviors that would reinforce femininity … uniforms which were designed

more to please certain spectators than to help the athletes feel comfortable …” (35)

All of these attempts at appearing more feminine stemmed from the public disapproval over the women’s unfeminine behavior—that of playing basketball. Team managers even chose uniforms based on their visual appeal rather than for the benefit and comfort of the women who would be wearing them. I see evidence of this apologetic behavior in Judy and Casey’s dress: their status as skilled guitarists, traditionally masculine roles, must be softened with emphasized and obvious femininity.

But why is feminization the key to acceptable apologetic behavior? As we’ve explored, a main tenant of femininity is constriction; impairing the freedom to move renders the subject vulnerable. As Riki Anne Wilchins explains in Read my Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender, “masculine displays indicate power and dominance, while feminine displays indicate submission and vulnerability” (132). As guitarists, Judy and Casey both evoke masculine displays of power and dominance; in order to combat these displays, they must be viewed as submissive and vulnerable in some way. Restrictive feminine clothing is the key to tacking the two women with femininity, thus rounding their edges and rendering them harmless in the eyes of society. The blatant sexualization of their femininity accents submission with sexual desirability. In other words, these women may play guitar, but they’re sexually attainable as well.

Perhaps some fail to see the issue I have with this feminization; granted, Judy and Casey still play guitar as well as they always have throughout the series. Since this is the case, should their clothing really matter? Their physical appearance may not seem important to many, but there is a strong social implication with making them more palatable to society through feminization—one that Pierre Bourdieu explains eloquently: “the seemingly most insignificant details of dress, bearing, physical and verbal manners" contain the content of culture—in this case, that of the prevalence of femininity as apologetic behavior (94). The constant emphasis of femininity in our culture serves to reinforce its existence as the only acceptable representation of woman.

Judy Nails and Casey Lynch experienced a dramatic and severe physical feminization between Guitar Heroes II and III to earn a larger fan base. Because society views women acting in masculine ways as unacceptable, Judy and Casey were made more vulnerable and sexually provocative through constrictive feminine clothing based on women’s foundation garments. All of the women feminized in this manner serves to perpetuate the idea that the overtly feminine is the ideal woman The creators of Guitar Hero send out the message that women can be skilled guitarists—but only if they’re sexy.

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