Content Warning: Discussions of heteronormativity, violence against women, harassment campaigns, and anti-bodily autonomy sentiment
Spoilers for Bayonetta 3
It is a special kind of devastation when a series has such a catastrophic ending that previous, beloved parts of the work become difficult to return to. Today’s go-to example for this kind of eleventh hour collapse is the television series Game of Thrones, which dropped in quality so steadily that its Kubrick stare of a viewing experience can only be encapsulated by a meme of a horse drawing. Likewise in the world of anime, Wonder Egg Priority proved heart crushing when it turned out that, despite its promising start, the series wasn’t able handle topics like trauma and suicide with the level of nuance and care they merit.
Much to my dismay, we can now add the Bayonetta games to this list. Developed by Platinum Games with series creator Kamiya Hideki acting as a supervising director, Bayonetta 3 fundamentally misunderstands the themes of the previous games and gives its beloved lead a soul-crushing send off.
Bayonetta 3 turns the titular kink-positive and queer icon into the victim of some of the most frustrating heteronormative tropes that women can suffer under. Bayonetta, who has been embraced as an inspirational figure for the kinky, the rebellious, the femme, and the queer, is reduced to a waspy woman who had a wild streak before settling down. What really rubs salt into this wound of an ending is that I can see my own life following a similar arc to Bayonetta’s, and I hate how appealing it is to me. Between my feelings about the ending of the third game, the drama surrounding its production, and the series’ long-standing controversies, I just felt drained as I watched Bayonetta 3’s credits roll. Which sucks, because the previous two games left me feeling nothing but energized and wanting to be a bolder, braver version of myself.
Three events happen in quick succession at the end of Bayonetta 3 that ruin the series for me. Bayonetta declares that she loves resident fuckboi Luka and has, inexplicably, felt this way about him for years. Through multiverse shenanigans, Bayonetta and Luka have a daughter, series newcomer Viola; making a figure of LGBTQIA empowerment a mom in a seemingly hetero, monogamous relationship. Then Bayonetta dies! As she wasn’t able to control her own demonic summon, she and Luka are cast into Hell. Each of these plot points is such a betrayal of the series’ themes that they merit their own response.
The Bayonetta of the first two games is an avatar of sexual empowerment. Her strongest attacks result in her temporarily losing some of her clothes while voguing at her target. Thanks to the overt BDSM influence in Bayonetta’s design and the Christian motif of enemies, several critics interpreted Bayonetta as an explicit, if complicated, celebration of womens’ sexual agency. This tracks with designer Shinozaki Mari’s intent for the character and all the erotic supplemental art she’s made featuring Bayonetta and Jeanne.
All this is why her ending up with Luka is as baffling as it is upsetting. In the first two games, Luka functioned as a source of comic relief whose failure to flirt with Bayonetta further established her self-assuredness and agency. Luka couldn’t convince Bayonetta to go out with him, because she’s wise to his casanova act and knows that she deserves more than empty words and gestures from a possible partner.
Bayonetta being in love with Luka reframes her into a fetish object. Her settling down with a less self-aware Johnny Bravo makes it feel like she was always meant to appeal firstly to an audience of straight dudes who want to be with sexually uninhibited women, rather than be a source of empowerment for women and kinksters. This doesn’t mean that Bayonetta, or any character, needs to be perpetually single or in an overtly queer relationship to be progressive or validating to queer communities, but rather that Bayonetta was inspiring to queer and kinky people specifically because she never seemed interested in pursing anything remotely heteronormative.
Then there’s Baynetta’s speedrunning of motherhood. There is no moral dimension to a person or character choosing to become a parent or not. If a woman believes she will find fulfillment and enjoyment in motherhood, then that part of her personal journey should be celebrated. However, this pushes Bayonetta into the pervasive trend of women having to become mothers before their stories conclude. As well as linking female characters’ sense of fulfilment and narrative closure to the traditional expectations of parenthood, this media trope often uses pregnancy to define womanhood and thus reduces cis women to incubators. Chiaki Hirai explores the harm in using pregnancy to define womanhood in her Pregnancy as the pinnacle of womanhood in TSF porn piece, and succinctly notes that, “pregnancy as a symbol of womanhood is also a conundrum for a queer reader”.
Bayonetta’s literal motherhood in the third game undercuts the themes of the previous games, where she repeatedly acts as a parental figure without needing to take the traditional path nor the traditional roles of feminine parenting. In Bayonetta, she’s a guardian and role model for a younger version of herself, and thereby inspires herself to become the confident and powerful woman she alway had the potential to be. In Bayonetta 2, she acts as a queer elder to Loki, whose struggles with his own identity and place in the world mirror her own arc in the first game. Bayonetta did not need to become a mother to be a role model, and the third game making her a mom is some patriarchal nonsense.
Moreover, as Bayonetta being Viola’s mom is a twist at the end of the game, their relationship is woefully underexplored. Even if their maternal relationship is heavily telegraphed, this Bayonetta doesn’t know that Viola is her daughter from another universe, so their exchanges are impersonal. There’s a post-credits scene where Viola defeats a shadowy version of Bayonetta to earn the moniker and protagonist status in future games, but that doesn’t offer much insight into how they’ve lived and grown as mother and daughter. This underdeveloped dynamic really makes it feel like Bayonetta becoming a mom was just a box to be filled on a heteronormative checklist. That her becoming a mother was a forgone conclusion, rather than a life development that aligns with Bayonetta’s identity and motivations.
If there was any doubt that this handling of motherhood is a limiting trope instead an expansion of empowerment, Bayonetta dies right after the audience learns that she’s Viola’s mother. Specifically, she dies in Luka’s arms because she was not strong enough to control her own demonic summon. Now that she’s a mother, she’s too weak to carry the franchise forward and her story is over.
As my head rang and my vision went blurry from this three hit combo, a question formed. Why does Bayonetta’s story end with her embracing a life that’s inspired so much anxiety in me?
Even if it stumbles in places—like its objectifying and appropriately criticized marketing—the first Bayonetta game is nothing short of a brave and progressive piece of media. Here, Bayonetta fights biblically accurate angels to justify her existence and way of life. This all culminates in her killing God, and more importantly her father, to establish her right to exist without having to conform to puritanical social norms. She accomplishes this by dancing erotically, summoning demons, and using S&M scenes to kill angels. This is as rad as it is affirming to those whose identities are demonized by puritanical institutions. I wanted to be the Bayonetta of the first two video games, and now I’m worried that I’ll become the Bayonetta of the third.
I’m bi and a member of the kink community. One of the most formative experiences of my life was going to BDSM night at a gay bar in college, discovering that every TV was playing Kill la Kill, and feeling completely accepted in a space as more of my identity was happening around me than I ever experienced before. I’m also inching towards thirty and, even if I know I’m still young enough to do whatever I want with my life, I do need to start thinking more seriously about what I want the rest of it to look like.
Do I want to settle down into a single, committed, relationship? Is owning a house a priority for me? Am I okay with moving to a likely more rural and conservative area where I’ll be able to afford one? Do I want kids? Am I fine with being less active in kink and queer spaces in the face of these new responsibilities and commitments, or should another part of my life shutter down instead? Are these choices even available to me with growing instances of poly and kinky parents losing custody of their children? I don’t know and my stupid, anxious brain has already caused me to lose way too much sleep trying to answer these questions!
This is why Bayonetta 3 brings out such vitriol in me; it’s because I see the end to her story as a pretty okay future for me. I don’t think I would mind ending up in a monogamous hetero relationship with someone who loves me, even if we aren’t entirely on the same wavelength. Being a parent also seems like it’d be a fun time, and I’m already not as active as I’d like to be in queer and kink spaces, so would dialing back my presence even further be the worst thing?
I’m not entirely sure, but this is why Bayonetta 3 is such a let down. Rather than inspiring me to be the queerest, most honest version of myself, it makes me feel okay with living a life that is only available to me because I’m privileged and straight-passing enough to not be barred from it. While the previous games used the aesthetics of alternative lifestyle communities to empower the people in them, Bayonetta 3 instead suggests that these communities are a phase that people will grow out of. What about the people who don’t want to or cannot settle down, have a kid, and ease into a quiet life? Sorry! Apparently Bayonetta isn’t for you.
If you thought that last note was hyperbolic, it’s literally what series creator Kamiya Hideki said about the game’s ending. According to Kamiya, he always intended for Bayonetta to end up with Luka, and that you shouldn’t play Bayonetta 4 if them being together upsets you. His comments feel like a direct rebuke of queer readings of Bayonetta titles and turn all of that great, BayoJeanne-affirming official art into flagrant queerbaiting.
This is just one of the many controversies surrounding the Bayonetta franchise, making the games even harder to recommend or defend. Another source of drama is that Bayonetta’s previous voice actor, Helena Taylor lied about how much she was offered to reprise the role and encouraged people to donate to an anti-abortion group instead of buying the third game. This (alongside Taylor’s dubious reactions to the subject of trans rights) further undercuts Bayonetta’s status as a feminist figure and could possibly undermine broader pushes to raise wages for voice actors across entertainment mediums.
Then there are the longstanding controversies related to the IP. Previous criticisms against the franchise, namely that it objectifies women and heavily features the male gaze, are more valid now. While I could previously counter these arguments by pointing out that Bayonetta games were queer camp and that she was one of the few women in video games who seemed to enjoy her womanhood and her overt sexiness, her ending up with a man and multiple versions of her dying gruesomely dash those counter arguments. To further complicating things, Feminist Frequency delisted some of their original criticisms of those games to mitigate threats from the GamerGate harassment campaign. So, nobody wins now that Bayo3 reinforces long-standing complaints about the games, except for those GamerGaters who always wanted Bayonetta’s hyper-sexualizstion to be explicitly for them.
Between all of this, the Bayonetta games are exhausting to me now and, while I’m glad that they helped me figure out my sexuality and encouraged me to further explore it, I don’t think I can ever come back to them. I know that transgressive media is supposed to be phased out and replaced as communities evolve and language changes, but to see a work that meant so much to so many undermined internally is disheartening. This is the most disappointed I’ve felt about a piece of art in a long time, and I desperately hope this doesn’t happen to other works that are meaningful to me.