Sexualised characters: holding up a mirror to culture

It’s long been thought that the portrayals of people we see in the media have an impact on how we feel about our own bodies. Stick-thin models in magazines, beautiful actors in the movies and pretty people all over the internet are assumed to have a negative effect – but there has recently been some good news when it comes video games.

According to a study by Stetson University and Fairleigh Dickinson University, games featuring sexualised protagonists may not have as much impact on us as once thought. Female participants were asked to play Tomb Raider Underworld or Tomb Raider (2013) at random before reporting on their self-objectification and body dissatisfaction. The results indicated that the former’s sexualised version of Lara Croft didn’t make players feel body shame – or at least as not as much as other types of objectification (more about that later).

Tomb Raider, Underworld, woman, Lara Croft, ruins

These findings don’t entirely surprise me. Female characters who are inappropriately dressed for the task at hand and whose boobs seem to defy all laws of nature may make me roll my eyes in exasperation. But I don’t feel they cause me to have any internal negative thoughts, because I’m aware they’re fictional: they exist only inside a video game and therefore don’t send a realistic message about women’s bodies. Why should I bother comparing myself?

I wonder if the study’s participants feel the same way and whether the titles chosen had any effect on the results. There are other protagonists who are far more sexualised than Lara and most gamers are aware of her move towards a more realistic design over the years, so we tend to view her earlier days as a relic. In addition, the archaeologist was never simply about her looks; they’re not her only contribution to the Tomb Raider games and she can kick some serious butt, in either tiny shorts or cargo-pants.

Regardless, some will look at the findings and surmise that we no longer need to concern ourselves with sexualised characters because they don’t negatively affect players. Other forms of objectification are more damaging, with the study citing ‘catcalling’ as an example – and again I’m not surprised by this. Feeling objectified as a result of something you’ve seen in the media is a thought you’ve arrived at independently. But catcalling is a real person confirming that notion in real time, and that’s far more hurtful.

It’s not really that simple though, is it? Just because sexy protagonists don’t make us feel bad about ourselves doesn’t mean we should put up with seeing them in all of our games. Not everyone can be blond-haired, tan-skinned, big-boobed and tiny-waisted, and constantly seeing characters who embody that tired representation of beauty quickly gets boring. Games have come a long way in recent years but there’s still plenty of room for further diversity and giving us a whole range of heroes to spend time with.

Tomb Raider, 2013, Lara Croft, woman, bow and arrow, deer

It’s not about censoring, or feminism, or being offended by the sight of bouncing bosoms and pert butt-cheeks. If that’s what you want to see in your video games then knock yourself out – there are more than enough titles out there to interest you. It’s just good to be aware that being surrounded by a culture which constantly perpetuates a certain body-type as being perfect can impact how positively we feel about ourselves, and having access to media that only reflects that culture could reassert those values.

As said by professor of psychology Chris Ferguson in an interview with Kotaku: “Media holds a mirror up to culture. And sometimes we don’t like the mirror. It must be dirty or smudged for it to look this way. But it really is more of a mirror.”

13 thoughts on “Sexualised characters: holding up a mirror to culture

  1. Women characters with bigger.. assets don’t bother me. It was the release of MK11 and they decided to make some of the females more realistic in those departments and it was the players who got on my nerves when they were making a stink that their bodies were different and it wasn’t fair. I love Lara and old and new games she still inspires me to be strong and daring. I grew up with the very first one and it was my first game that I enjoyed a woman lead and I wont forget that. Her body is normal to me and it’s powerful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In some ways I get why Tomb Raider games were chosen for the study, because the protagonist has changed over the course of the series and it makes for an easy comparison. But in other ways I don’t understand it at all. I mean, Lara was never *just* about her looks or hotpants – she has always been independent, intelligent and feisty, and totally capable of saving herself!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Agreed I wanted to dress like her and climb rocks and dig lol I never felt half naked or felt like I had to show skin. I’ll say I had some friends that said she was their game crush but this was the first years as she has evolved so many people I know have recognized her as that bad ass that can take care of herself like you said


        • I think that’s why she’s such a great character. There are aspects to her personality that appeal to everyone – and she makes us all want to climb rocks! ha ha 😉

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I think one thing worth noting here is that there’s another side to idealised characters: they allow people to enjoy the experience of being someone they’re not; even someone that would be “impossible” in reality, or that the player in question feels like they would love to be, but would never be able to become. I know I certainly feel that way.

    Where given the option, I play attractive female characters by choice, because it adds to that feeling of escapist fantasy, of being able to become someone that is, in many ways, the complete opposite of me. I simply enjoy it on multiple levels, ranging from baser instincts to questions of self-identity.

    However, I’m also, like most people, able to distinguish reality from fiction, so despite the fact I play a lot of games with attractive and sexualised female characters, it doesn’t affect my own view of real people. Games are a fantasy world where it is safe to explore things outside of the normal constraints of reality. Reality is… well, reality. So long as you remember that difference, everything is good!

    Liked by 5 people

    • I completely agree with you about distinguishing reality from fiction! This is why seeing sexualised characters in video games, particularly female characters, has never really bothered me. I’ve never felt the need to compare myself to someone who isn’t real – I think there are far more damaging types of media when it comes to causing negative body image (but that’s a whole other subject).

      One day, I might be in the mood for escapism and want to play as someone who’s completely different from me. Other times, I might want to pick up a game that’s more ‘gritty’ and play as a realistic character. Thankfully we have a whole range of protagonists now and there’s one out there to appeal to everyone whatever mood they’re in. I just think it’s important to be aware that it would be boring if we only had one option available to us, regardless of whether that option was a sexy female or a strong male or anything else; and that such a narrow view could have an impact on culture and society.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This was a cool read and yeah, I think male characters have a wider variety available. Every game with multiple playable characters always have the chunky guy, the hot guy, the brooding dude, the older, but wiser father figure, and then there’s the hot lady and her hot lady friends. I get that you’d want to have the hot people in your game, and I like playing as the hot people. But maybe add some other archetypes besides the sexy ones too.

    Also, wow, your post blew up. Look at the likes. That’s crazy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I think it’s just about having a bit of variety. There isn’t just one sort of person in real life so why should there be one type of character in video games? It’s good to play as someone ‘perfect’ when you want a bit of escapism, but it can also be fun to play as a protagonist who’s more realistic and in some ways easier to relate to.

      And thanks for adding to those likes. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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  5. There is so much to be said for media that holds up a mirror to our culture. I’ve noticed people either don’t see such, don’t acknowledge such, or miss the point altogether (e.g. The Hunger Games…I could write an essay about that). Of course you always get the “It’s just a ‘blank'” people who fail to realize that all narratives are worthy of discourse, so you’re already fighting a battle even before you can begin to argue the mirror point.


    • Considering I work in IT, it’s amazing how many of my colleagues dismiss video games as ‘just games’. Narratives of any kind can have a huge impact – they’re how we share our experiences, views on the world and teach important lessons – and if you think about it them terms, it’s easy to see why they *are* a mirror for culture.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think in many cases video games can do what other forms of media can’t because they’re immersive. You are part of the narrative in a way that’s impossible otherwise. This is not to say that you can’t be drawn into a book or movie of course, but when you are doing the action yourself (fictional as it might be) it has a different effect on you.

        Liked by 1 person

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