It must have happened, but I don’t remember a time before I felt encroached upon by Mortal Kombat. I was five when the first game was released, and I was seven when the ESRB rating system was introduced in response to parents’ response to the game’s “fatalities.” This means that parents were alarmed by characters murdering their opponents, often by removing parts of their bodies, in exaggerated on-screen victory. The fighting game norm, even now, is for the opponent to fall down when defeated, as if tired or unconscious, but appreciably alive. Heads are rarely removed. Even rcthin Mortal Kombat, these deaths weren’t necessarily part of the “canon events” of the game, or even of the personal plot special to the player’s character. Fatalities were a gruesome, fantasy element of a fantasy game, and they were probably intended as parody or for sub-ironic enjoyment; the character Johnny Cage is a parody of Van Damme, and the first game as a whole is a pastiche of imported Asian martial arts cinema (the franchise continues as an Orientalist fantasy). Your average fan will say “the fatalities are too ridiculous to really be disturbing.” And indeed, they were, and remain, ridiculous. Too ridiculous? Sorry, no. Maybe for you.
For me (track your own journey in comments), the source of my instinctive fighting stance is not the joy in cartoon harm. It’s how the franchise, aged twenty-two this year with Mortal Kombat X, presents women. Through my life, every time we have met, Mortal Kombat has stolen my environment and used it as laurels for its stroking hand. Can you relate to that?
Mortal Kombat X, currently in promotional pre-sales, has a production manager named Spiro Anagostakos. This month, via a stream on Twitch, he gifted this world with the news that in his game the design team has striven for “realism.” He says that his co-worker is “exactly” right when they suggest that this means that the women in the game will look “more like women do.”
Gamespot chose to illustrate this point by comparing a 2011 illustration of Mileena to a 2015 illustration of Kitana. The illustrations, unsurprisingly, are not identical. The reportage (which I’ll point out was retweeted by Anagostakos) pushes the reader to think, “Oh, Mortal Kombat is making an effort to objectify its women less.” Read by people who are aware of Gamergate this sounds a lot like “Mortal Kombat is appeasing Social Justice Warriors” or “Mortal Kombat is listening to feminists.” Other, smaller game commentary sites took this suppositional angle and ran with it, straight-up yellin’ “NetherRealm promises realistic woman for Mortal Kombat X” to “Mortal Kombat X Will Feature More Realistically Proportioned Women,” and this little baby cry (right), from some particularly devoted strokers. The copy on this site makes a big fuss about how Mortal Kombat is all about FANTASY, and the UNREALISTIC, such as “face-eating hellbeasts.” Then the author goes to the trouble of actually researching the evolving average in body measurements (for Americans, which Mileena and Kitana are not), pointing out that breast volume is being registered as larger over the years, and that in his words “the trend towards larger and rounder behinds over the past few years is unmistakable.” His argument, abridged, is that it’s corrupt to move away from Mortal Kombat’s now-established buoyant hourglass template, because a) it’s a series full of fantasies, b) the buoyant hourglass is a sexual fantasy, so it fits, and c) that it’s realistic anyway, so denying its inclusion is punishing those who want to see their realistic sex fantasy, in the name of appeasing abnormally normal, ugly women, who can’t cope with not being realistic fantasy sex objects. It’s a stupid article.
But it does capture the absurdity of all this hot air. A Reddit thread popped up pretty fast, hyoooomorously comparing the supernatural character Goro’s four arms—an ~impossible standard for men~, ho ho—to what they had understood as Mortal Kombat X’s plans for realistically proportioned women being intended to avoid “displaying impossible standards for women.” (One must assume the original poster was something of a neophyte, because Sheeva has four arms too? Whatever.) Before the thread was a day old, several commenters had told the OP that their title was bullshit, but so quickly, word of mouth, word of type, lazy comprehension and careless reporting, re-reporting, malicious truth-curving… false impressions had been formed, and reinforced, and revealed as straw men, and all that had been accomplished was old, tired assumptions and reflexive stances had been re-aired, leaving no space for any discussion of the actual state of things.
In the first Mortal Kombat game, there was a woman in the roster and her name was Sonya Blade. She was a Lieutenant in the US Special Forces. This is not a role that a woman could hold at the time, but that’s more the fault of reality than of fiction. She wore a crop top or sports bra and cropped leggings, both in green, with a pair of black bikini briefs over the leggings. Johnny Cage and Liu Kang were both topless in Mortal Kombat, but Johnny Cage and Liu Kang both avoided bikini shapes, and neither Johnny Cage nor Liu Kang were members of a pro-sexually fetishised, commodified gender, or more specific demographic. Sonya was a blonde, American, extremely fit young woman in less than a uniform amount of clothing, and it was 1992. This was the year Pamela Anderson debuted on Baywatch.
To be clear: Johnny Cage is a white American male, despite his Belgian inspiration. He is muscular and no less than average height and his face has appreciable structure. Were he to be the object of somebody’s sexual attraction, nobody would be surprised. He would not be indebted to this attraction. It would be taken for granted. Liu Kang is a Chinese man, and in America this is a status that casts shade on the strength of sexuality that he is granted, because of racism. But he is as muscular and structured as Johnny Cage, and he is a shaolin monk, and so his implicit celibacy in fact fuels his implicit physical power and dexterity. Sonya Blade is a toned, white, blonde American woman in an outfit that is skintight and contains bikini symbology. American, white-centric visual culture assigns sexual magnetism to each of these elements of her design, and American and British (i.e. my) culture both also place responsibility for any sexual pull upon the woman in or on whom they appear. If somebody were attracted to Sonya, she would be obliged to respond, and her design both encourages and exists within the assumption of attraction. As she is a woman, but one who does not exist, and and I am a woman, who certainly does, I feel her presence obliges me to respond in her stead. When this character, any of her far nuder woman peers, or the game in which they appear, are subjects of attention in an environment I share, I feel pushed, with ultimate obligation upon me, into an auto-battle of sexual acknowledgement. “No. I would not like to take responsibility for sexuality in this room.”
But I already have, even if only I know it, because nobody can run faster than understanding. My gender is shared with Sonya, and for Sonya her gender is exoticised and sexualised. Even by acknowledging this (and I do that automatically, by viewing her amongst her male co-stars, because I understand symbolic communication and the suggestive power of ratios) I’ve already accepted a place on a sexual pedestal, by noticing that one exists, labelled “woman.” I can’t undo it, but I didn’t want it. I’m stuck there. It’s humiliating, I feel tricked, and my humiliation is on show because “women are for looking at.” The situation is a nightmare. I’m describing a character who looks tame now, who debuted when I was five. I’m describing how Mortal Kombat’s character designs for women have made me feel since I was five. They make me feel bad, extremely bad, and that’s why I have no patience with the pretense that Mortal Kombat is “good.”
Sonya Blade in Mortal Kombat is probably the least sexually female-fetishised character of the franchise. In the beginning she was played by an actress, a real human, like the majority of characters at that point. Many fans on the Reddit thread point this out, with the premise that it’s not ruining Mortal Kombat to attempt more realistic anatomical proportions, because originally the characters were played by people with real anatomy. With that in mind, what’s improved for the state of “woman,” in Mortal Kombat X?
Elizabeth Malecki, a dancer, played Sonya in Mortal Kombat. In Mortal Kombat 3 she was replayed by Kerri Hoskins, a Playboy model who also studied Tang Soo Do. This game gave Sonya’s sports bra a mock turtleneck dickie and kept the essential design (green, black crotch, leggings and crop top, white trainers) of her first outfit, but added sexual cuteness with her longer hair in a kicky high ponytail, and darker lipstick. This Sonya is more clearly muscular.
In Mortal Kombat 4, released in 1997, the sprite design went fully illustrative, using polygonal modelling to recreate Definitely Not Kerri Hoskins: now in a halter necked crop top that showed the skin and fold of the outer sides of her breasts, which was unlikely to provide much support. Her high ponytail was looped through the snapback on a peaked cap, and a garter of (pouches? grenades?) was added to her elongated right thigh. This would chafe and is presumably attached to her trousers, to avoid it falling down. Sonya still had skintight trousers, and now her boots were black, sleek, and approaching knee-height. Her breasts, whilst clearly sans brassiere, are positioned forwards and upwards, suggesting implants (which in this context suggest sexual sexiness), and/or lack of knowledge of breast behaviour. Her waist is extremely small.
In the next game, Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance (2002), Sonya’s hair was released from its bonds and tumbled to her shoulders with volume and admirable bounce. Her body was treated without care, bent and exhibited, and her resemblance to Pamela Anderson, I mean any given blonde lifeguard no-one in particular was made explicit by bonus artwork achievable in-game. Deadly Alliance’s Sonya’s thong was apparently rubberised, its thick straps pulled up to her true waist. This is hell on a vulva, you stupid fuckers. You think Kano won’t yank on those?
Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe (2008), drawing heavily on Deadly Alliance’s design, gave us a Sonya in clothing and accessories that would prohibit fully effective movement in the execution of her duties, with an absolutely unfashionable high-legged bikini tan-line, no bra, and straight-ahead nipples visible through her fake, fake, unreal, nonsense, wet-look military-issue cropped tee. Her hair, as soldiers often prefer to wear it, hung directly in front of her eyes, providing confusion, obstacle, and lack of focus in the field. She retains her MK4 garter, although this time it’s worn on the left leg, there are two of them, and they’re without apparent function. Emergency tourniquets? Remarkably among Mortal Kombat women, Sonya reliably wears flat shoes.
Her body, at this point, retains the early to mid 90s Anderson ideal: strong shoulders and toned arms, large, high, firm round breasts (Anderson’s initial breast implants are suggested by her Wikipedia page to have been in effect since around 1990), and de-emphasised hips with a very tight stomach. In 2008, FHM’s Sexiest Women winner was Megan Fox. We can recall her hotness reign with ease, I’d suggest. Fox and Anderson have the same essential facial structure, but their bodies, or perhaps their photogenic poses, are quite different: Fox’s pelvis appears to be shorter and more of a balance for her narrower shoulders, her breasts are rounded and high but much smaller and I think critically her ribcage is far smaller, and less fluted (Sonya’s echoes Anderson’s wider ribcage, as you can see above). The clothing they wear, designed to attend sexual admiration, is cut drastically differently. This has a great impact on how a body’s shape reads, and Sonya’s gear clearly favours Baywatch-era Anderson’s.
It’s exceptionally weird, actually, how unevolved the template of hotness has been for Mortal Kombat’s women. All they’ve ever done is get nuder, more aggressively sexually serviceable, but never moving forward with trends of sexiness, and barely with fashion. 2008 still had thong straps. 2002’s direct reference to Baywatch was ten years late.
In 2011, Mortal Kombat (9) did this:
Firstly, that’s just Pamela Anderson’s face. Give it back to her. Did you even ask to use it? Did you pay? (Of course they didn’t, like they didn’t pay Ben Affleck when they used his face for Mortal Kombat: Armageddon. Armageddon, Get it? The joke is that Ben Affleck was in the film Armageddon.)
This outfit is plum bad, nothing about it is reasonable. The fact that her body is designed without adherence to the anatomical demands of comfortable human life is irrelevant; what we understand as “her body” here was created to fill and enhance the design of the costume, which was designed to offer the character’s image as a morsel. In Sonya’s case, the character is intended to be a soldier, so the morsel becomes soldier-flavour. Dog tags! Khaki! A little shield-shaped badge on a canvas pocket! These symbolic trinkets are what the agreed-upon construct of “we are selling a game, with a story, to regular consumers” demands be swapped in in place of nipples and a perfect rosebud asshole and hairless labia. This image of Sonya represents the interaction, from producer to consumer: “here, it’s the idea of a womanthing you can engorge yourself with at your leisure, hidden in your pursuit of an afternoon playing at fighting on a computing machine we call a ‘video game console.’” Many reasonable adults will say, or will have said at any given point in MK’s history, “Well, I’m not sexually attracted to that.” But they’re missing the point: it’s not about your personal, human-to-human sexuality or patterns of desire. Designs like this are intended to say “sex! Available sex, for you!” You don’t have to accept it. You just have to be offered it. There is nothing more masculine-indulgent than this character design. So to follow this up with more of the same, but stuck on a body that might be born into our organic world as well existing as a digitised facsimile: is that better? Or is it not?
Does creating an outfit, a dressing, an environment for a woman character, which is intended to continue Mortal Kombat’s journey of consumer gratification, and then placing it upon a body that could, we’re told, look exactly like the naked body of members of it’s audience, or those its audience interact with… does that sound like a good idea?
Also quite important: when playing this game, it’s entirely likely you’ll see every one of these morsel-women wrenched apart and murdered. You will see their blood. Probably at least one of them will have a move that means they kiss their opponent. Are you able to feel good, knowing this?
As she keeps coming up, I’ll ask a question about Pamela Anderson, too: is it a nice thing to do, to steal Pamela Anderson’s image, and present it as a morsel for your own fun and profit? Maybe you didn’t know that Pamela Anderson was molested as a child, raped as a child, and then raped as a young teenager. When she was twenty-two, she became the centre of a sports arena’s attention after a video-screen camera was pointed at her breasts in a tight shirt, and she was escorted to the floor of the show while the audience cheered for her body, as the brand whose logo was on her shirt smelt profit. After this, her boyfriend made money from sale of a photograph of her that he took at this event. At this point she began to appear on Playboy covers, elected to have her first breast implants, and found her way to Baywatch. Later in life, a film of her marital sex was stolen from her home and shared online. Further footage of her sex life was also appropriated and partially published online and by Penthouse. Is it an acceptable thing to do, to steal somebody’s image, and present it as a sexual morsel for your own unaffected fun and profit? This is what Mortal Kombat is doing. This is what has happened to her repeatedly. Repeatedly! Perhaps Anderson sharing the knowledge of her childhood assaults, in 2014, led to Sonya being replaced by her daughter in Mortal Kombat X.
The funniest thing of all is that Sonya is the last character you’d point to as a “sexualised female character in Mortal Kombat.” She’s the modest one. The most realistic one. The US Army soldier. I chose to track the evolution of Sonya Blade by coincidence, because she was the only woman present at the beginning—in comparison with her sisters, I barely noticed her before this. She’s small potatoes. Sonya wasn’t the one who appeared in Playboy, or made available to play as a minimally bandaged clone-pod newborn, naked and nubile, if you played really well. Sonya’s not the character they used as an example of newly reasonable anatomy in Mortal Kombat X (if only because, as mentioned above, she looks to have been replaced by her daughter this time around). Sonya is the least remarkably sexually commodified design for a woman, in Mortal Kombat’s legacy. Can you see the problem?
Ed Boon, quoted to the right in GamesMaster magazine, was Mortal Kombat’s co-creator and is a continuing influence on, and figurehead for, the franchise. He believes that his games are good to, for, and about women, and he thinks that his men are treated like his women. He suggests the roster is more heavily female than your average fighter, and I don’t have the numbers. I won’t refute it. And here’s the happy (that’s a joke) knowledge I confront, accepting that: I’d rather not see myself, than see myself like this.
For example I’d rather play Fatal Fury, a 1991 game with no women, than any Mortal Kombat. Because the men in it are varied, and regular, and several of them are kind—the sorts of men who appear in real life, without great comment, and so who allow the assumption that actual, normal, everyday, frumpy, happy, sensual, comfortable, internally alive women exist in their world too, to go unchecked. Those women are just busy, they couldn’t make it to the Bogard vendetta.
Neither of these scenarios are what I actually want, for myself or for other girls and women. But if I have to choose between absent, and present but uncomfortable? I’d rather sit out. I really would.