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Lean in or lean out?: Sex appeal and the fighting video game heroine onscreen

Contributed by
Mar 25, 2018

When I was a kid, growing up, as per nerd tradition, in my mother’s basement, I watched an impressive amount of G4’s X-Play. Why I did so, being someone who strictly stuck to Nintendo and its most iconic franchises as a gamer, I don’t remember. I think it’s because even I occasionally needed breaks from binge-watching I Love the '80s and its endless variations.

But I do remember encountering Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball for the first time on that show. As the hosts rolled their eyes at the jiggle physics and overt sexuality of a game that’s largely about the ladies of the Dead or Alive fighting games wearing increasingly teeny bikinis and jumping around a lot, something clicked for me.

I’d always been confused by how women were treated in fighting games. My brother grew up on Street Fighter and I loved playing as Chun-Li, but something about how far she stuck out her butt and how her skirt flew up when she Kikoken’d her opponent always made me feel weird. Chun-Li was already so beautiful and so powerful; who, exactly, was that for?

That Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball review was the first time someone answered that question for me: There was an entire market it was for. It wasn’t a fluke—it was a feature. X-Play had mentioned visual novels enough for me to know that there was a market for sexy video games, which made total sense to me, but there was something about taking characters out of their core games and making it so blatant—“we know the only reason you care about these characters is their boobs,” essentially, given the attention paid to the Jessica Rabbit-esque mammary movements—that rubbed me the wrong way.

That tension—between being an active protagonist and being actively and sometimes aggressively sexualized by one’s creators and one’s fans—creates a peculiar dilemma for those brave enough to try and prove the curse of the video game film wrong by making a film about a video game heroine. How do you handle that part of their character and legacy while also centering the character’s motivations and skills? Do you lean out, despite the risk of nerd rage, or do you lean in, despite the risk of robbing the heroine of her own agency and flattening your story?

The original Tomb Raider films of the early aughts solved this problem neatly by casting Angelina Jolie, whose onscreen sexuality always feels so sharp as to be subversive. But, unfortunately, one cannot always cast Angelina Jolie. In the wake of Tomb Raider, two fighting video game film adaptations tried their hands at both of these approaches.

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2009’s Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li chooses to lean out. While the iconic so-bad-it’s-good original Street Fighter movie does feature Chun-Li, as played by a young Ming-Na Wen, it’s much more of an ensemble piece. Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li is expressly Chun-Li’s origin story, explaining how she got involved both in martial arts and in the struggle against M. Bison’s villainous Shadaloo organization.

The film changes Chun-Li’s origin story—instead of being a Chinese Interpol agent, she’s a Chinese-American concert pianist—but her motivation remains the same: revenge for her father’s abduction and murder at the hands of M. Bison. In and of itself, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li is not what I would call a good movie (the copious amounts of voiceover are just the tip of the iceberg), although the fight choreography manages to stay grounded in reality while nodding toward Chun-Li’s movesets over the years. But I was pleasantly surprised by how seriously the film takes Chun-Li. She receives a Hero’s Journey all her own, with training montages aplenty, and I was thrilled to see her call to action take place entirely in Chinese as she talks with a female member of the Order of the Web, the Light Side to Shadaloo’s Dark Side. Even as more characters come into the picture—an American Interpol agent, Charlie Nash, is introduced—she remains the most capable person in the film.

Despite Kreuk’s small stature not matching Chun-Li’s famously powerful legs (a 2009 Famitsu interview finds Kreuk openly owning up to the fact that she just isn’t built like Chun-Li), she’s still clearly trained for the role in a way that’s focused on physical prowess rather than aesthetics (although she looks fantastic). She’s given no love interest in the movie, and even in a scene where she seduces Bison’s henchwoman Cantana in order to get some information out of her, the potential same-sex hookup isn’t played as seedy or trashy. (The bar is just… really low, y’all.) Chun-Li is perfectly comfortable with dancing with Cantana in order to lure her away from her bodyguards, there’s no fake-out make-out, and the camera doesn’t linger. Later in the film, there’s even a bathtub scene, where Chun-Li’s handsome mentor Gen (look, you can age up Robin Shou all you want, dude looks amazing) sits by the tub, and there are no lingering shots of Chun-Li’s bared shoulders as the water threatens to dip lower. She feels vulnerable, he offers platonic support, and it works.

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But just because the film treats Chun-Li well doesn’t mean it treats its other female characters well. Cantana, that henchwoman Chun-Li draws away? She gets beaten to death by Bison for falling into Chun-Li’s trap, who tells her corpse that “she broke [his] heart.” And Moon Bloodgood’s Maya, the Thai cop working alongside Nash, plays as the ultimate Cool Girl—her work wardrobe appears to consist solely of very low-cut tops and bootcut jeans, and she teases Nash about her kinky and open-minded sex life. It’s not that Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li treats women well; it’s that it gives Chun-Li a pass.

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2006’s DOA: Dead or Alive chooses to lean in, way in—into the camp, into its video game origins, and into the source material’s male-gaze-y concept of sex appeal. The fight choreography is full of wire-fu and cartoon physics, in a way that I really haven’t seen in a live-action movie since Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. There’s even a beach volleyball sequence as an homage to Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball. The film follows three female protagonists—Kasumi, a ninja princess seeking her missing brother, Christie, a master thief and assassin, and Tina, a professional wrestler—as they enter the Dead or Alive tournament for a cash prize.

The film clearly hopes that its wholehearted embrace of camp makes its emphasis on sex appeal cheekily fun instead of objectifying. It’s hit-or-miss because the film features, but doesn’t seem to understand, the difference between situations where the character has agency and situations where they do not. Christie’s opening sequence, where she battles several agents while putting on a bra mid-sequence (in a way that will make anyone who has ever purchased a bra scream “THAT’S THE EXACT OPPOSITE WAY YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO DO IT”), almost gets away with it, because Christie is accomplishing a character goal in a way that makes sense for her character, while Christie’s rainy beach bout with cute fourth musketeer Helena opens with a lingering panning shot across Helena’s butt for male gaze reasons. It feels like Suicide Squad crossed with Sucker Punch minus all the character trauma at times, and, believe it or not, that’s meant as neutrally as possible.

It succeeds best when it comes to Tina, played by Jaime Pressly. Tina’s motivation for entering the competition is to establish herself as a real fighter and get out from under the shadow of her father, Bass, also entered in the competition. Their relationship is quite sweet—when Tina and Bass inevitably face off, Tina bests him, and Nass’ response is a big thumbs up to his little girl. Her physicality feels powerful and right; the sequence where she fights pirates off of her yacht is downright fun, and it’s a joy to see her fight with her particular brand of swagger.

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But still, Tina has to fend off the advances of another competitor, Zack, who she has to battle in order to earn his respect enough for him to stop aggressively hitting on her when she’s made it clear she’s not interested. And there’s a weird “gag” where Bass finds her in compromising situations with Christie and Kasumi. Tina is handled the best out of all of them, and it’s still not quite there. Leaning into this campy of a degree requires a kind of winking irony that blatant pandering to the male gaze just doesn’t mesh with.

Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li and DOA: Dead or Alive’s solutions to their source material are both lacking in a way that makes it seem like maybe there is no easy answer to this. Of course, all this churning water obscures the fact that there is one: Hand it over to a female director who can express a more nuanced and empowering side to the character’s sexuality without the heavy, objectifying weight of the male gaze.

At the very least, it would be something new.

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