Mortal Kombat has always been in the midst of controversy and justly so, but it garnered the franchise quite a reputation. However, after 27 years, Mortal Kombat has decided to become more 'mature' and 'respectful'. This decision has sparked controversy for the franchise and it isn't for the usual reasons, as many are voicing their concerns over where the franchise will go from here.
Mortal Kombat upon its release in 1992, sparked much controversy for its depiction of extreme violence and gore using realistic digitized graphics, resulting in the introduction of age-specific content descriptor ratings for video games. Although this is significant, a much more noteworthy fact is how the Mortal Kombat series had females stepping out of traditional gender roles. This initially started with female combatants entering into the bloodbath fights that made the game unique, then would come the time when they revealed as much as their male counterparts, though the entirety of combatants did not experience sexualization. However, NetherRealm Studios has decided to desexualize its female characters, as they are now more ‘mature’ and ‘respectful’. Unbeknownst to NetherRealm Studios is how their decision to cover up and change is benevolent sexism.
Benevolent sexism, a sub-component of ambivalent sexism, represents evaluations of gender that may appear subjectively positive (subjective to the person who is evaluating), but are actually damaging to people and gender equality more broadly. Benevolently sexist attitudes suggest that women are purer and nicer than men, but also mentally weaker and less capable. Therefore, NetherRealm Studios‘ intentional desexualization of Mortal Kombat 11‘s female characters is benevolent sexism, as it leaves male characters as sexualized as they have always been though perhaps its more with male characters having shirtless or pantless options while female characters have no equivalent.
Mortal Kombat 11’s art director Steve Beran confirmed the female characters were de-sexualized explaining he did it to make it more realistic.
“Our design is just getting more mature and respectful. You’re not going to wear a bikini to a fight. You’re not going to be showing so much skin. I think it’s just what the game is about: You’re going in to fight for your life, and you’re not going to be wearing such scantily clad items.”
He would add, “I’m sure that will disappoint some fans. We don’t have bathing suit fighters, and I think that’s fine. If people are disappointed, I don’t regret making that change by any means.”
Beran’s comments raise three important issues: realism, factuality, and treatment of fans.
Firstly, Beran’s explanation for desexualizing Mortal Kombat 11‘s female characters was done to make the game more realistic. Although one could have given him leeway for this explanation the justification he provided opens him up to criticism. He saw the desexualization of female characters as a move to making the game more realistic but Mortal Kombat 11 is still rife with fantasy, from characters having their spines broken and shaking it off as if it’s nothing to fighting pyromancers, cryomancers and blood mages.
Secondly, Beran’s ideas on how women would supposedly be fully clothed when entering a fight because no one would be ‘wearing a bikini’ to a fight. His ideas are not only a slap in the face for actual real women fighters, but it also highlights his lack of knowledge concerning how one dresses for an actual fight. This coming from someone who has, in the past, attended combat sports such as Kickboxing and MMA. The men and women participating in the sports tend not to wear too much as it constrains their movement and places them at a disadvantage against their opponent as they have more to grab on to during the fight.
Finally, Beran’s comments show his disregard for the franchise’s fans. Although not stated explicitly Beran saying that Mortal Kombat 11‘s designs are ‘more mature and respectful’ is insulting to fans, as it implies that fans of the 27-year-old franchise up until this point were or are immature and disrespectful. Beran continues and adds that he is aware some fans will be disappointed but he does not regret making the change. This is a fatality to the Mortal Kombat fanbase. Beran shows not only a certain level of arrogance by dismissing fans but panders to a vocal minority as well. A minority that critiques video games only to find the negatives even if they are not a part of gaming culture and lack the understanding necessary to adequately critique games.
In conclusion, NetherRealm Studios has decided to change 27 years of tradition. The very same tradition that made it into the franchise it is today. Though this seems to matter very little given the comments made by Steven Beran, who saw it necessary to change the art direction that the Mortal Kombat series has had for quite some time. Thus, the intentions motivating the change not only promotes benevolent sexism but alienates fans of the franchise.
YouTuber Liana Kerzner took NetherRealm Studios, Warner Bros., and Mortal Kombat 11 to task following their radical character design changes to many of their female characters. Kerner derided the changes, calling it “benevolent sexism.”
On the covering up of female Mortal Kombat characters
Kerzner begins her video by defining “benevolent sexism”, saying, “the type of sexism that reinforces an apparently positive sex role binary that men are strong and women are kind. It seems temporarily beneficial for women in the short term, but can become a real problem as things go on and women have higher aspirations and women step outside traditional binaries.”
She goes on to note Mortal Kombat did not use to have benevolent sexism as the women gave as good as they got and women stepped out of the normal gender binary saying the women rip off faces and tear off skin just as much as the male characters.
Kerzner goes on to discuss the differences between the female and male characters and notes that the male characters are showing much more skin than the females in Mortal Kombat 11.
Kerzner goes on to explain why this matters because it affects things outside of games. She points to Democratic nominee for President Amy Klobuchar and how she is being criticized for being too tough because she’s a woman. Kerzner points out that this directly correlates with Mortal Kombat 11 because women being more clothed means they are also seen as nicer and not as aggressive as the men who are in a number of states undress.