The Controversy, Unpacked

Stellar Blade and the Male Gaze

Attractive to who?

Written by Issy van der Velde
Stellar Blade screenshot
Shift Up

Stellar Blade, the upcoming sci-fi action RPG from Korean studio Shift Up, has been thrust into the center of video game culture wars that seem as old as gaming itself. The fight can be most clearly seen of late in the vocal pushback against narrative consulting company Sweet Baby Inc. for pushing to have more (gasp!) diverse female characters. A select few Steam and Twitter users are up in arms. Now, these vocal few are praising the buxom and bouncy protagonist of Stellar Blade. Eve, they say, evokes a time they miss when women in games used to be titillating and attractive. She caters to the so-called male gaze.

An academic term coined by film theorist Laura Mulvey in 1973, the male gaze is often portrayed as seeing a “scantily clad woman on screen [being] bad,” according to Dr. Matt Denny, a film and television studies teaching fellow at the University of Warwick. Denny adds that the gaze is “about an assumed straight male spectator.”

Developer Shift Up appears to be leaning into the male gaze heavily. On its Twitter account and in interviews, it has made sure to draw close attention to the fact Eve’s body is taken from scans of Korean model Shin Jae-eun’s. Game director Kim Hyung-Tae justified the choice of body model by saying, “we wanted to come up with the most attractive looking body for the user.” PlayStation’s promotional material has backed this up — with Instagram trailers focusing on the revealing outfits players can dress Eve up in. Shift Up did not return a request for comment.

Denny points out that this is textbook male gaze. “Attractive to who?” asked Denny. “To what gender? What sexuality? What nationality? A lot in that choice is assuming a lot of things about who [the developers] think the player is going to be.”

Developer Shift Up appears to be leaning into the male gaze heavily.

Shift Up

While Eve’s body was made from a scan of Shin’s, her face was made “in-house,” and Shin wasn’t used for motion capture. “They didn't choose an athlete, or a martial artist, or even an actor,” said Denny. “You don't want [Shin] as a performer, you just want her from the neck down. It seems to be very much a statement of the parts of this woman that are of value.”

Dr. Poppy Wilde, senior lecturer in media and communication at Birmingham School of Media, explains the male gaze isn’t so simple in video games. “If we're thinking about gaze as creating a subject position, it isn't the same as just looking at an object, because the avatar is a kind of active subject in that as well.” Based on trailers, Eve seemed a rather active participant, but the recently released demo paints a different picture; while Eve may demonstrate mastery in combat, outside of battle, her absent personality makes her more doll than action figure.

The lack of performance attached to Eve’s body has already been noted by internet culture writer Gita Jackson: “[Eve] doesn’t seem to have any reaction to her own sexiness.” There’s no knowing facial expressions, no flipping of her long ponytail — which players can shorten in the options menu. She has no idle animation — except when she’s on a ladder — she just stands there. She’s sexy but doesn’t know it; she’s athletic and acrobatic but entirely controllable. If she did know, if she could move for herself, it would shatter the illusion of many of the gamers championing her because she’d have the agency to be able to reject them rather than simply be controlled by them.

“It's not about making games less sexy,” Denny says. “It's about making games more sexy for more people.”

The way we gaze changes in video games as it often depends on the differences present between gameplay and cutscenes. “A lot of the time we aren't really looking at the avatar, we're looking through the avatar, and with the avatar,” says Wilde. This is most obvious during Stellar Blade’s combat. All eyes are on the enemies, waiting for an opening to counter or dodge. Eve is a blur, defying any gaze that would seek to isolate one part of her body from the devastatingly effective whole.

During cutscenes, the perspective, and the gaze, changes. “There's something there in showing the physical potential of that body type with combat and athleticism,” Denny notes, “[it’s] not just nice to look at. Then you get to the cutscenes and every single one of those narrative sequences starts with the camera pointed at her bum. That's doing something different.” There’s also a robot who follows Eve around during exploration segments, shining a light that frequently highlights her behind. Eve’s body is both a site of empowerment and objectification depending on how we’re invited to look at or through it.

There’s no knowing facial expressions, no flipping of her long ponytail — which players can shorten in the gameplay options menu.

Shift Up

You could think of Eve as the culmination of a long line of characters constructed by the male gaze — explicitly or not. From Lara Croft to the various concubines Kratos beds in the original God of War trilogy’s sex mini-games, plenty of women in video games are designed to be ogled. This is especially true in Shift Up’s previous game, Destiny Child, which featured lots of anime women players could dress up.

This is why you might see a NSFW nearly nude skin Eve has as the culmination of such characters. It makes the game more challenging by turning off Eve’s shield, but Wilde believes this may be more of an incentive than a deterrence. She likes the subversive play it has on the stereotype of feminine armor in games being a metallic bikini while masculine armor is full chainmail. “I like to see where form and content are matching, I really like it as a game mechanic,” she says. However, “there is an attitude of having to play on the hardest mode and that shows you're a real gamer,” and so she doesn’t think this will be seen as a thoughtful play on tropes, but just another badge of honor to be collected with the added bonus of looking at Eve in fewer clothes.

There’s also a peculiar type of Orientalism surrounding Stellar Blade. Some are holding up Stellar Blade as an antidote to woke Western games, and many people commented they’d be purchasing a Japanese version of Stellar Blade to secure access to the region-exclusive Japanese dub, despite it being a Korean game with a Korean dub.

“Is it because that's difficult to get hold of, so you're a bigger gamer or fan if you can demonstrate that you've gone the extra length to get that version?” Denny asks. “Is it because there's particular respect for the Japanese voice cast? That might be part of these generous readings. Or is it because actually, Korean femininity doesn't have the connotations for a Western colonial imagination that Japanese femininity does? It's almost like in order to fulfill the fantasy of puppeteering this attractive woman and putting her in certain outfits and placing the camera just right, she needs to be Japanese.”

The truth is, a lot of people—men, women, nonbinary, straight, queer—find Eve attractive.

Shift Up

Based on the social media responses to news about Eve’s body and outfits, clips of the way her bum and thighs jiggle as she climbs ladders — all this amid the pushback against games that feature diverse characters and bodies — a lot of straight men seem to be assuming themselves as the rightful target audience of not just Stellar Blade, but video games in general.

Statistics show this just isn’t true. As of 2023, around 50 percent of people who play games are women. Shift Up assuming an audience of men and leaning into the male gaze so explicitly is, in essence, a marketing move that purposely others a huge number of potential players.

“If producers want to create video games that are only intended for male audiences, it's really unwise because they are alienating a huge demographic,” Wilde says. “With GamerGate, it was this idea of ‘you are taking away our culture.’ It’s not your culture, it’s everyone’s culture. Women gamers aren’t new, women have always played games. [There’s] a struggle for dominance where actually there has never been dominance.”

Eve’s body is both a site of empowerment and objectification depending on how we’re invited to look at or through it.

Shift Up

The truth is, a lot of people — men, women, nonbinary, straight, queer — find Eve attractive. However, the way Stellar Blade is being marketed is drawing in the new GamerGate 2 crowd, and Eve is being used as a cudgel by which to bash other feminine protagonists, and even women journalists, like Kotaku’s Alyssa Mercante.

At the end of the day, we can’t know for sure if Eve will walk the line of male fantasy and women’s empowerment or step over it until the game is out. Characters like Lara Croft, Bayonetta, 2B, and Tifa have all faced criticism due to their appearance, but combine them with a well-written personality and story, exciting gameplay, and interesting side characters or villains, and they become more than the sum of their parts.

This is why Wilde reserves judgment. She wants to see how Stellar Blade formulates Eve’s relationships with NPCs in the game, and thinks “it's not only about whether your protagonist is beautiful, able bodied, et cetera. It's also, is your villain scarred, disabled, overweight? Where are you looking for the other areas to avoid those stereotypes and look for other elements of inclusive play and representation?”

Denny thinks game companies could stand to expand their horizons when it comes to attraction. Rather than just catering to the male gaze and creating hourglass figures and jiggly bits, why not consider the muscle mommies, the dad bods, disabled people? Greater representation in body types doesn’t have to mean less attractive.

“It's not about making games less sexy,” he says. “It's about making games more sexy for more people.”

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