Monday, January 4, 2016

Laura, the new leading lady of Street Fighter V or more fanservice?

We cannot separate the over-sexualization of the female Street Fighter character designs from reality. Capcom has done a fine job of pandering to the mostly male demographic with the changes made to the female characters in the Street Fighter series. Yet to put all the blame squarely on Capcom would mean ignoring the society that we live in. Capcom creates characters that reflect society, the good and the bad aspects of it. If they are creating female characters and presenting them as objects of desire then they are following the trends. SNK does this, Sega does this, Namco does this, Microsoft does this, just about every studio that makes a fighting game is guilty of following the trend. Sex sells and when it comes to female athletes it is the most important thing to sell. The design behind Laura Matsuda, the new Brazilian fighter in Street Fighter V certainly caught onto the trends.


Women are paid less in general than men for the same amount of work in the business world. The divide becomes much more noticeable for female athletes. For example Abby Wambach, forward for the USA Women's National Soccer Team makes far less than her male counterparts. She has an incredible record in league, international and World Cup play yet her annual earnings, including endorsements and sponsorships are less than even the big name retired male peers. Despite her accomplishments and abilities she is marginalized in the sports community. She does not turn up in much advertising, she does not get asked to appear in movies or television cameos. She doesn't even warrant an interview on the sports networks. At the same time retired NBA and NFL athletes have a steady stream of work in commercials and as commentators and are expected to make more than Wambach annually. As she retires chances are that she will fade away unlike the male athletes from the same generation. She was not the first to have this broad divide come to light. Women have to fight for respect at every turn. Earlier this year Sports Illustrated announced the Sportsperson of the year was tennis star Serena Williams. They took an online poll and people voted for the horse American Pharaoh to win the honor. Was it trollish behavior from the online crowd? Possibly. Was it sexist, racist or misogynist to pick a horse over a black woman? Quite possible as well. The news that people were upset about the decision made headlines around the world. Women have to walk a fine line between being taken seriously as athletes and at the same time being marketable through attractiveness. This is especially noticeable in the fighting community. One of the first things that people noticed in the design of Laura were her looks, and aside from her breasts it was her hair that stuck out.


Laura Matsuda wore a half head of tight braids or cornrows. Most female fighters wore their hair in full braids during competition. This way it stayed out of their eyes. Unlike using a headband these braids couldn't easily fall apart even in a grapple. The half-head of braids was made popular in part by pro fighter Ronda Rousey. She would often wear her hair this way during media events and premiers. The hair itself can be seen as a part of the trend of having to be an attractive female athlete in order to be marketable. Do you remember the media outlets doing interviews on the stylists of any other fighter or boxer, male or female? We now know that stylist Abraham Esparza helped create Rousey's trademark style only because the sports outlets decided this was important. Ronda still has to contend with the standards that society has on beauty. She still has to deal with people calling her fat. Serena Williams and her sister have been called ugly and mannish because they were extremely muscular. By comparison the Russian Maria Sharapova was easier to market, easier to build a brand around and feature as a mode because she fit the western ideal of beauty. She was blonde, thin and not as muscular as the Williams sisters. It did not matter if she was not as highly ranked a player or if she didn't have as many championships as either sister. Great looking fighters could be marketed. It didn't matter if Rousey had a judo record that earned a gold medal in the Pan American Games, a Silver in the World Championships and the Bronze in the Olympics. Or that her professional MMA career was 12-1, a prior women's champ for the UFC. The focus from many outlets was her appearance and even her sexual appetite more than her in-ring ability.


In Street Fighter V Laura Matsuda has a very attractive design however that is in contrast to her striking moves, traps and grappling takedowns. She has speed and power that almost put her on par with the bruiser Abel from Street Fighter IV. This might be a seen as a turn-off for some players. Even in the ring women have to be marketed as strong and sexy. Michelle Waterson is nicknamed "the Karate Hottie" and the Japanese fighter Rin Nakai is advertised as strength and beauty by the UFC. Is referring to women like this macho posturing? Is mixed martial arts is the most alpha-male of sports? Do men get intimidated by alpha-females in competition? If so do they believe that women belong in the ring as ring girls rather than fighters? Women walk the line and always have to look their best. Whether it's during training, a press conference or even weigh-in. They have to be made up and look presentable. Men do not have to deal with the double standard. They can be ugly or slovenly if they want. They can show up in torn pants with a 5 o'clock shadow to an interview and nobody cares. They can even act inappropriate to the reporter if they want to. Remember when Quentin "Rampage" Jackson dry humped a female reporter on air? Or when he did the same thing to a Japanese reporter overseas? Would you expect or even accept this behavior from a pro baseball or basketball player? Would female fighters be called sluts if they behaved in the same way? Or were male fighters somehow a part of a different crowd? Were they allowed to be as sexually dominant as they wanted because they were fulfilling some sort of contract with our primitive desires?


It is hard to be a professional female athlete in any discipline and much more for a fighter. Ronda is just one example of female fighters having to fit a certain mold, but lets look at somebody from Laura's part of the world and see if the same thing applies. Kyra Gracie, daughter of Rorion Gracie and a member of the legendary Gracie clan is a proud Brazilian. Like her family members she is expected to excel in jujitsu. It is not luck or genetic engineering that makes Kyra or her family members great. It is lots of hard work, practice and a system that has been refined by almost a century. The Gracie family was participating in international bouts and no-holds barred matches since the start of the 20th century. This was well before the term mixed martial arts was even coined. The Japanese champion Mitsuyo "Count Kouma" Maeda helped introduce jujitsu to Brazil. He had a hand in teaching the Gracie family the art and exposed an entire nation to it's effectiveness. Kyra represents a third-generation practitioner. She does very well in local and national tournaments. She fights in both gi, wearing the traditional uniform as well as non-gi contests where opponents wear tight-fitting rash guards. She had no plans on transitioning to MMA because the life-span of those fighters, and earning power, is much shorter. When it came to actual fighting Kyra did not sex up her uniform at all. Like other female fighters she wore something that was functional if not modest. Yet this did not mean that she was not presented as a sexual being to audiences.

 

Kyra did some modeling outside of the ring to help make her more visible to non-MMA, non-jujitsu fans. By appearing in some very revealing shoots was she pandering to her fans? Certainly, but she was keenly aware of what she was doing. The Brazilian was using sex to sell her image, she was building her brand more so than she was building the Gracie brand. If large companies could exploit women in their advertising then what would happen if the women were in control of the image? Athletes like Rin Nakai, Ronda Rousey, Michelle Waterson and even the Williams sisters knew that they were not getting paid as well as their male counterparts. They also knew that their life in pro sports would not last forever. They needed to make as much money as they could by using any avenue they could. This is the sad truth of female athletes. Many female athletes have to do things that are not expected of male counterparts. Also, like the previously aforementioned sports figures, Kyra was doing these shoots of her own free will. She was not coerced into appearing topless, or pants-less in her pictures. She did this because she knew the images would sell and she would gain a lot of new followers. These followers would bring with them their money and make the sponsors happy. Did the sex do anything to diminish her presence in the ring? Nope! Also she did not actually fight with her boobs hanging out of her top.

Designers at every studio need to ask themselves if the characters they are creating go above and beyond the sexy tropes and stereotypes, or are they just reflecting what society expects a female fighter to be. SNK, Namco, Sega, Capcom, Midway and the other studios have created many fantastic female characters for over 25 years without resorting to pandering. They created female fighters that were empowered and attractive. Yet they also created many that were sexy for the sake of being sexy. This is something that drives me especially crazy about Capcom. At their best they can create characters that cross multiple genres, that appeal to a broad range of demographics. Yet in recent years they haven't quite been able to hit the mark that the previous teams did. The icons created in Street Fighter II, Street Fighter Alpha and even Street Fighter EX had a lot more staying power. They accomplished this without the use of 3D graphics, without overly-sexual female characters.


So how does Laura stack up? She has some of the most imaginative moves in recent memory. Her grapples and takedowns, which can be mixed up with solid strikes and combos are a refreshing addition to the franchise. They break up the monotony of Ryu's fireball attacks or the stiff power moves of Zangief. They are even somewhat believable to perform. What the character didn't need was the special attacks focused around electricity. I understand it was a nod to Blanka but are all Brazilians really doubling as car batteries? Not only that, her super moves have her bouncing around the screen like a pinball. The Street Fighter IV and V teams really enjoy breaking the 4th wall but now the moves are really starting to lose their charm. Purpose-wise she is a positive of a representation of Brazil. I could do without the feathered-costume samba dancers on her stage, or the giant world cup trophy in the background (instead of the Jesus statue atop Rio De Janeiro). We get it Capcom, this is Brazil, you don't have to be so ham-fisted about it. With that said Laura is doing much more for the people of South America than Blanka ever did. The pairing of rash guard shorts under her pants just to show off her butt was sophomoric, and her too revealing top was lazy design. Her color selection of green and yellow was however perfect, especially when combined with the black ankle sleeves for contrast. Bright primary colors were usually assigned to each character and green wasn't really assigned to anybody in Street Fighter V. The colors did the double duty of mirroring the colors from the Brazilian national flag.


 

Laura was not the first minority character, or mixed ethnicity character to pull off this look. That honor would belong to Cobra from Spiritonin's Capoeira Fighter 3. Cobra was fast, flexible and very dangerous. She had some amazing strikes and brutal takedowns as well. She was a villain in the game yet at the same time fiercely proud of her nation. A good chunk of her costume, including the rash guard and ankle sleeves predates the look of Laura. Did I think Laura was derivative? No, I think it was coincidence in the design.

Do I think Laura works in the Street Fighter universe? I say yes. The game could always use more diversity with regards to ethnicity and diverse styles of fighting. I think characters like Laura belong especially when these are positive figures rather than stereotypical tropes. She certainly has more going for her than F.A.N.G. I could do less without the close ups on her butt or the gratuitous cleavage close ups during her intro or special animations. These don't do anything to make the game better or make audiences appreciate the character any more or less. She is very similar to Rashid in that she is a good design but does not actually achieve greatness. To be fair she is slightly more unique than Rashid for the move selection assigned to her and even for her creative hair style. Her moves, minus the electricity are more grounded and less fantastic than the sci-fi wind attacks of Rashid. I think that the character has much better design and purpose than her brother Sean, who was yet another "shotoclone" introduced in Street Fighter III.

 

Something that Capcom has to explain is why Laura is much lighter than her brother. I understand that they are siblings and sometimes there is a range in how dark or fair skinned a brother or sister can be. But this difference is very noticeable. It is okay to assume that they may be step-siblings but if they are truly brother and sister then why make her much lighter? I get the same feeling for Laura that I got for Vanessa Lewis. The studio is intentionally making her lighter just to appeal to the Asian market and of course Western ideal of beauty. Let's hope that is not the case. Laura is a good character and I hope to see her more in the future. I'd like to hear your take on this character and whether or not you think women fighters tend to be objectified more in games.

15 comments:

  1. Well, when I first saw Laura she was a saving grace for me. I was initially slightly disappointed with Necalli and Rashid (both I've since warmed up to), so seeing a fighter in something like a traditional fighting outfit with her rolling armbars and figure 4's was amazing. A Jiu-Jitsu fighter was long since needed, especially being one of the premier styles in the world at the moment, especially in professional MMA. Not being part of the main plot like the other 3 newbies and being there solely to represent her art is refreshing. Her victory lines are also very funny and match her purpose (spread/advance fighting style) and in-game personality (bubbly and frisky).

    That said, to talk about her appearance is to take part of the main conversation, so, while they went too far in few places in execution but I don't think they were wrong to go in the sexual route they did. It helps play up her bubbly/frisky personality, which certainly stands her out from the usually gruffer characters. She certainly takes her fighting art seriously otherwise, so it's not displacing anything. The top, yeah, could have been a bit more practical (double-sided tape is a must), but the split pants I think is a design choice like Juri's or even Chun-Li's dress to highlight her flexibility (her rolling kick attack has her doing a full split like they do). I've noticed that there is actually some wear-and-tear on her gi top and pants, which is a nice subtle detail to her dedication.

    I like her hair, it's cool, is semi-based on the hair choice of modern female fighters (many of whom have Jui-Jitsu backgrounds), and even has purpose in game (flat-out stated static electricity).

    I too have some trouble believing that Laura's lighter skin tone compared to her brother Sean is solely a representation of differing shades of mixed-race people, but whether it's purposeful or not there is some positives to having a light-skinned character of black heritage. Often mixed-race people struggle with identity, especially when they don't "appear" as one or the other(s), so having one who seems so comfortable with herself can be a positive representation. Of course Capcom could ruin it by saying she's a step-sister or half-sister, who knows.

    My main point is, while I do think that modern female fighting game design is overtly sexual and objectifying, I think the bigger problem is when the character herself doesn't seem to be using her sexuality. Stick Chun-Li in that dress that is her alternate or C. Viper's open top, yeah, that's objectifying. But characters like B. Jenet or I-No or Laura, who are clearly comfortable with/using their sexuality, I think are worthy of their place.

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    1. LaughingDragon, thanks for the take on Laura. I was also drawn to Laura thanks to her wild takedowns. It is true that mixed-ethnicity characters are few and far between and that was one of the things that made Jago and Orchid memorable in Killer Instinct. Let's hope that they didn't intentionally lighten her skin to make her more attractive to Asians or the western ideals of beauty. She certainly is not using sex in the place of personality but the bubbly busty fighter is starting to get a little stale in Japanese games.

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    1. Sorry, i had to resend the post.As a brazilian, i dont like Laura. I dont hate her as much as i hate Lúcio from Overwatch, but im still bothered by her. She could have been worse, but she could have been better too. Also, the brazilian stage made me go "What the Fuck" when i saw that cup up there, because the Christ Redeemer statue is more than just a national symbol, it's part of our colective imagination.

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    2. Omitting "Christ The Redeemer" was a strange choice from Capcom. I get that maybe they want to avoid any religious controversy, but the statue is a part of the Rio De Janeiro and Brazil. Replacing it with a giant Soccer trophy is dumb.

      Aside from that, what do you find works about Laura and what doesn't? Or Lucio for that matter? What would your dream Brazilian fighter look like? I'm genuinely curious.

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    3. Look, my problem with Lucio is that, among a cast of super scientists,mercenaries and robots, Lucio is a thief. He is presented as a force for "Positive social change" and yet he is a afro-brazilian who steals tech from some evil company instead of beign, i dont know, a smart person from the favelas who could have served as a great role-model for the people of the lower classes? Instead, he's a jumble of stereotypes.

      Laura is mostly fine, my main beef with her is that her power is a throw-back to a male character's ability, wich isnt that big of a deal but it sure makes her feel less unique. I really apreciate that she isnt another capoeirista, though.

      My dream fighter whould probably be a person of native descent, a native-brazilian character who dresses like any other fighter and talks normally whould be awesome, because it whould be a complete inversion of blanka. Old Brazilian literature had many native characters due to authors tracing back their heritage to the many colonizers who married tribeswomen. Native brazilians are the people that most struggle in our country, and it whould be fantastic to see a good representation of a guarani or pataxó in a videogame.

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    4. Bruno, thanks for the info on Lucio and the native people of the land now called Brazil.

      On Lucio, I'm not an Overwatch player, so when you mentioned him I looked him up. He seemed, appearance-wise, to fit the overall aesthetic and also, at a glance, seemed like a heroic character. But, I didn't know about the thief aspects. That said, is it really that bad? If the company is evil, is it bad to steal from them? Most fiction says no. And if he can easily operate their tech, isn't it assumed he's fairly intelligent? Again, I'm glancing here.

      Laura's electric abilities are a tricky subject. Yoshinori Ono certainly trolled people with Blanka's inclusion in V as a Brazilian fighter only to introduce the similarly powered and nationality Laura, but do we know for sure Laura can conduct electricity solely for a swerve reveal? It seems just as possible to me that the team decided on giving Laura electric powers 1st and Ono decided to use that to tease Blanka (only to swerve) 2nd. She isn't even the only character with electric powers in SFV (Ryu in V-Trigger and (SPOILER) Urien's projectiles (/SPOILER) also electrify opponents).

      As I said, thanks to you, I researched the natives of Brazil (Guarani and Pataxo specifically), and while I feel for their plights and I'm sure they deserve a positive representation in any media, I don't think their culture offers much to Street Fighter. There are so few (and that's awful), but when people think Brazil or its martial arts history, they really need to see something common, and frankly Laura and Sean (and even Oro) represent greater Brazil better.

      Laura specifically is from a long line of Jui-Jitsu practitioners whose grandfather emigrated to Brazil from Japan and she is (likely (barring some half-sister shenanigans from Capcom)) ethnically Afro-Brazilian/Japanese. There you have two significant but underrepresented Brazilian peoples (Afro-Brazilians and its Japanese/Asian populations), fight history (Jui-Jitsu from Brazil), family history (the Gracies), real world tie -ins (the Gracies again, the Diaz brothers, Anderson Silva, Lyoto Machida, the Blackzilians, and many more), SF tie-ins (Sean's sister), and more. I think Capcom made the correct choice here.

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    5. I disagree with your points. No, i dont think Lucio should use crime to further his goals. Yes, i think Laura is a choice though i wish she didnt have that connection to Blanka at all. Also many tribes have their own ancient martial arts and masters. There's even an Indian Olympics!

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    6. Bruno F.N., thank you for your impressions on Laura. I didn't think it was cool the way that Capcom presented Brazil in the background. The Christ the Redeemer statue in Capoeira Fighter 3 is beautiful as is the entire stage, there's no reason the statue should have been swapped out. I mean how many times has a statue of Buddha or Ganesha been presented in a Thai or India level? I do think that Lucio is a bit over the top, I've never been a fan of Blizzard designs because they tend to poach a lot of ideas. Now we've got Brazil meets Jet Set Radio meets Team Fortress. Ugh! I was disappointed that Laura was given electricity attacks. She didn't need them and could have been received a little better without them. But Mr. Ono and his team has a way of constantly turning down one direction when turning the other would have made more sense.

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    7. My pleasure, man. I just wish developers whould try to understand the people who live in other cultures, instead of the elements that compose them.

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  3. The Street Fighter team should just forget the idea of fan-service and pandering to a certain group when designing characters. I don't think there's any mystery why fans aren't in an uproar because most of the SF4 original characters aren't returning.
    Aside from being aesthetically pleasing designers should think of practicality when creating their characters. Could someone really wear this costume in a fight without it getting in the way?
    I don't buy the whole "distract their opponents by wearing a revealing outfit" argument. I've heard this many times over the years to explain a female character's given costume. In the case of Laura her otherwise cool outfit is distracting in the wrong way. Sure her cleavage MAY distract her male opponent but what if she was fighting a female? Would the female opponent become too distracted by... jealousy? More likely there is a greater chance of a wardrobe malfunction that would just get in Laura's way. It's distracting because the outfit isn't practical. By simply giving her a tank-top the designers could have eliminated this problem and still retain her sex-appeal.
    Oh, and why does she use electric attacks? In the Street Fighter universe are we to believe that anyone can learn how to use electricity- or other elemental- attacks? If this is the case why does Rasid need technology, is he not skilled enough? Or perhaps only Brazilians have this strange power.
    All in all Laura is a cool design. She could have been great had Capcom shown some restraint in certain areas (having her wear something more practical, no need for electric attacks).

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    1. Hi Tymes, pretty much agree with what you said. I wonder what the average age of the new designers at Capcom is. They seem to lack some maturity.

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  4. Urrrrgghhh.

    Someone datamined the latest SFV build and found secondary costumes and I am still kinda pissed about it. Largely because Laura's secondary outfit is rather revealing to undersell it, which kinda undercuts the "jeez we should tone it down" with the Cammy and R. Mika changes To be clear, the Cammy camera angle looks fine, because it doesn't look obviously censored, whereas R. MIka's camera angle change looks weird. Honestly, if they did work to give her new animations for her CA and the superflash for it. I would be much more fine with it.

    However, R. Mika's change and Laura's second costume says that Capcom doesn't actually have a solid idea of why they are doing things.

    Oh well, at least Chun-Li in a police outfit is a thing now. Kinda weird, but Capcom giving a undercover police character a beat cop as a secondary is benign fanservice at worst.

    Makes more sense then an Alpha Charlie Skin, particularly as an early costume.

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  5. Check this out.... love to see your commentary.... http://www.destructoid.com/it-looks-like-street-fighter-v-whitewashed-sean-339786.phtml

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    1. Kitchy Manitou, wow if that is a screenshot from the new story mode and ending then it's kind of sad. Bengus is my favorite Capcom artist by a wide margin and it could simply be a limited color palette that he chose for the illustration. He did the same thing with the Alpha illustrations many years ago. Then again the character may have been whitewashed but we wont know the truth until an actual in game model appears.

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