Inspired by Sony’s “The Quest for Antonia” model search, Bonnie asks what it means when real women fashion themselves after on-screen characters.
In the gaming world, real women aren’t easy to come by. Game developers spend a lot of time and energy making sure their female characters appear realistic, endowing them with the looks and the “physics” of true-to-life beauties. So what happens when that dynamic gets flipped on its head, when real women start trying to look like video game characters?
This spring, Sony Online Entertainment and Stuff Magazine launched a model search campaign, The Quest for Antonia, which they describe proudly as, “The world’s first pageant to determine a video-game heroine look-alike!” Named for the Everquest II character the contest aims to rediscover - a brunette with blue eyes, big lips, bigger breasts and visibly countable ribs - The Quest promises a $10,000 modeling contract and a “sexy pictorial” in Stuff to its grand prize winner. Selected finalists “may be eligible to win a trip to fabulous Las Vegas” to compete in a live beauty pageant. Anyone female and twenty-one or older can enter. Though internet users can vote on their favorite faux-Antonia, final decisions are made by a panel of judges, who will evaluate contestants in two areas: look alike-ness and “star power.” Promises The Quest, “Here’s your chance to turn fantasy into reality!”
Submissions to the competition have been open for almost a month and, I’m happy to say, the pickings are looking pretty slim. Not that less “attractive” women don’t have the same right to strut around in Xena-esque bikinis, but, as has been proved innumerous times on booth babe-ranking websites, the guys casting their votes here aren’t particularly open-minded. That the featured “top thirty” contestants have scores ranging from 7.45 down to 2.43 leads me to believe that, so far, these might be the only thirty applicants. Let’s just hope the glam shots don’t start pouring in over the next month.
There are some pretty straightforward problems with The Quest for Antonia; the exploitation of women seems like an obvious place to start, though female objectification is nothing new to the world of video games. Anytime you present beauty (even masked as “look alike-ness”) as
quantitative instead of qualitative - whether through numerical voting or the hierarchical format of a pageant - you demean and commodify femininity. Adding a specific price value certainly doesn’t help. How much does Sony and Stuff think a face, a body, and an identity are worth?
$10,000 and a “sexy pictorial.” Of course, these issues are old news to American society, but, in this manifestation at least, they are relatively new to the gaming industry.
Beyond knee-jerk protestations, the bigger questions a project like The Quest incite are: "What does it mean when real women fashion themselves after on-screen characters, instead of the other way around? Is this, like cosplaying, an emerging type of fandom? Who exactly is doing the dressing up, and what are their motivations? Is this a type of empowerment, or further objectification?"
In order to answer these questions, it may be helpful to look for precedents for the would-be Antonias in the gaming world. Really, the only women comparable are booth babes. Like these model hopefuls, their success is determined by beauty, and they often wear (albeit, trimmed down) video game costumes. The presence of booth babes dressed as on-screen women has definite negative implications for gender equality in the industry, and the same can be said of the The Quest for Antonia. Such a role reversal labels real women as secondary to those in-game. Though participants take up the garb of “powerful” female characters, they remain subservient to the masculine urge to recreate the object of desire, an on-screen beauty, in flesh and blood, regardless of the true identity of the woman involved. In this way, dressing the part is objectifying and disempowering to women.
The examples above differ from more positive role-playing, like cosplay, which promotes constructive exploration of characters through costuming and assumed identity. Cosplay Closet explains the premise of the hobby: “It's basically a time for fans to dress up in their favorite
garb or as their favorite character and have a bit of fun.” Though they do share some of the same exhibitionist qualities as a beauty pageant, cosplay conventions are not judged according to attractiveness, but by quality of craft. Instead of reinforcing stereotypical gender roles,
cosplay allows participants to step into any number of appearances and personalities, to supposedly acquire the power associated with strong characters, strength denied to The Quest's participants. Cosplaying helps gamers define their own identities by choosing others. Needless to say, Nintendo characters are among cosplay favorites.
Where’s the line between dressing up for fun and promoting objectification, between cosplay and The Quest? The promise of money and the concern for beauty have a lot to do with figuring out the distinction. And sometimes the line gets blurry. Take for example this Swedish woman at last year’s E3, an attractive female in silver spandex. Pictures of her appear on dozens on websites’ booth babe galleries. Yet, when one media member stopped to interview her on her thoughts about booth babe-dom, the interviewee was shocked, and insulted. She wasn’t a game-themed booth babe at all, just a beautiful woman who enjoyed cosplay. Really, is there a difference?
Yes, and it’s in the intention. For whom are you are dressing up? Are you putting on that costume because it’s fun, or because you want to impress other people? Have you really thought about what it means to be Antonia, or you busy with model contracts on the mind? If you’re going to dress up, do it for the right reason - yourself. Making yourself up like a character isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but, in certain contexts, it’s demeaning, especially to the real women of the gaming world: female gamers. If you’re interested in dressing up, do it because it’s what you really want to do, not to attract attention to an E3 booth or win a trip to “fabulous” Las Vegas.
This doesn’t have to be a problem; it can be a solution. Here’s a chance for gamers, both male and female, to test the boundaries of gender roles through well-intentioned video game costume play.