Much has been discussed regarding the treatment of women in video games. Anita Sarkeesian infamously did an entire video series on this topic. While many people took issue with information she presented, it is undeniable that video games have largely not been very kind to women. It is not difficult to find a video game in which a woman is dressed in overtly sexualized attire or one in which the camera pans around a female character in a way that highlights her body. Many media forms are still based around the male gaze, a term coined by Laura Mulvey in 1975 It refers to the practice of framing a female characters in a way that is meant to appeal to (straight) men.
That is why the 2015 (2013 in Japan) reboot of the Devil May Cry franchise as DmC: Devil May Cry was noteworthy for doing something rather different. It frames the story and characters around the female gaze instead. This may also explain why there was such a pushback towards the reboot. The shift in gazes is seen in a few different ways, from its framing of the protagonists Dante and Kat, to the unlockable costumes, to the overall mission. It all seems geared toward attracting a female audience.
Keep in mind there will be spoilers in this discussion.
It’s best to begin with the way that Dante is presented in DmC. When the game opens, he is picking up women at a club. We then skip to the morning after where he meets Kat. Dante spends a large chunk of the initial cutscene naked. Like the unnamed women in the club, Dante is lacking in clothes; unlike these women, he is a central character, placing his body in central focus. This is a far cry from past games in the series in which key women are presented in a sexualized fashion such as Gloria in Devil May Cry 4, who wears an absolutely ridiculous outfit that is clearly intended to sexualize her for a presumed male audience. Lady and Trish wear less absurd outfits, but they were still pretty sexualized. It is worth noting that after the initial, opening cutscene in DmC, Dante is completely clothed. This may be playing on the idea that a woman prefers a well-dressed man more than an overtly sexualized one. The opening scene establishes Dante as good looking and athletic, but after that, it is no longer necessary to keep him in minimal attire.
Anita Sarkeesian produced another video about what she called “Strategic Butt Coverings.” She posited that that many games will provide a very clear view of the butts of female characters, but that most male characters would be wearing loose clothing, a cape, or some other article of clothing designed to obscure their butt. This is initially true of DmC as well, but completing the game on Son of Sparda difficulty allows players to remove Dante’s trenchcoat, allowing full view of his skinny jeans and skin tight tank top. Again, the game seems to try to sexualize Dante just enough to be attractive, but not enough to be gratuitous.
The distinction between power fantasy and sexualization is also a key thing to consider. Many games feature muscular, shirtless men. This does not necessarily equate to sexualization though. The game Dragon’s Crown is controversial for this very distinction. The sorceress character is basically falling out of her top and her concept art depicts her smothering a skeleton with her chest. When people called this depiction sexist and gratuitous, some responded by pointing out the extremely muscular and shirtless dwarf character, saying that he is equally sexualized. The latter idea is debunked with the concept of “power fantasy.” Being extremely strong and muscular—especially to the ridiculous degree of the dwarf—is something that men often desire, yet it was not something that women necessarily find attractive about men. On the flipside, a female character having a large chest is seen as attractive to men, but not not necessarily desirable to women (and when this desire does take effect in women, it is usually in the context of appealing to the male gaze). Both the dwarf and sorceress character designs are catered towards men in different ways. These concepts are relevant to DmC because Dante is fit, but not overly muscular. His character design does not conform to the traditional idea of a male power fantasy.
Meanwhile, Kat is dressed in reasonable attire. She wears a hoodie, shorts, and boots, none of which sexualize her at all despite her low cut top. The apparent plainness of Kat is also significant because she is the one who spurs on most of Dante’s character development and the one he grows attached to. Dante starts as a bad boy cliche, wearing an “emo” haircut, drinking, picking up strippers in a club, and ends up with the kind, average-looking Kat. I doubt this is unintentional. It appears to play off the stereotype that nice girls fall for the bad boys, with the twist that it’s the bad boy who falls for the nice girl this time. This plays off the stereotypical female fantasy.
Lilith, the only other major female character is a bit of a different story. Lilith is the love interest for the main antagonist, Mundus. She is dressed in pretty revealing attire, but this is meant to be unsettling because she is a demon. Her overt sexuality is seen as undesirable. Her character plays on plastic surgery in that she often has to quite literally pull her face back to where it should be and tie her skin back. Nothing about the sexuality of this character is meant to be appealing. No female character in DmC exists to be “sexy.”
Additionally, while games are notorious for abusing the “damsel in distress” trope, DmC avoids this. It doesn’t quite get away from using the plight of a woman as a plot point though. Dante is driven by revenge because of the death of his mother and the imprisonment of his father. In this way, both parents are essentially fridged. It’s made clear that his father cannot be rescued. A woman’s death is used as a driving plot point, but it’s not her inherent female identity that makes her motivation for Dante. Her identity as a parent comes first as evidenced by the equal amount of weight given to her partner’s fate.
Honestly, I do not know if it was Ninja Theory‘s intention to have DmC contain as many female-friendly elements as it does. Regardless of why they exist, they are worth celebrating. I’m not saying that sexualizing men is now the answers to female objectification, but this is a significant turn of events that somehow flew under the radar. We’ve still got a long way to go in terms of representing everyone with fairness and equality in media, but this is a very intriguing stepping stone on the way there.