Lemme start off by saying that this is gonna be a long review and mostly about the series in the context of gaming as a woman, so for people who don’t give a crap, Shantae is a 9/10 metroidvania platformer (complete with time- and completion-based end pics) that’s a bit on the short side but a ton of fun and has decent replay value.
Okay, here’s the rest of what I wanted to say.
As a woman, you get used to seeing your gender treated like sexy furniture in video games for the most part (realistic simulation of life in the real world). You might not like it, but if you enjoy playing games as I do, you sorta learn to ignore it, I guess, or at least not be mad about it every time it happens, or you’d never stop being mad, and that’s exhausting.
Sometimes, a game will let you choose your sex at the start of the game, and usually that’s an indication that your character’s sex is meaningless as far as the story is concerned, which isn’t quite the same thing as celebrating or embracing women… or men, let’s be fair. Are there any complex video game epics about the difficulties of What It Is To Be A Man? nah. But as a girl I wanna talk about girl problems, not guy problems. Anyway, there are very, very few games that have even tried to include things about the feminine experience in there, and even fewer that get it right. There’s a thing I like to call “Joss Whedon feminism”, where you take the “virgin/whore” point of view, but word-replace “virgin” with “Amazon” and call it good. What this means is shown pretty well by the recent Tomb Raider remake.
In that game, Lara isn’t especially female per se, apart from her boobs existing. She’s tough and grr and she overcomes challenges etc. By the end of that game, yes she’s a stone badass and that’s cool, but it’s not really an exploration of femininity so much as it is an exploration of survivor trauma and effective coping. Which is fine. But it’s not Shantae. I also wanna note that people shit on Tomb Raider for being exploitative when it comes to Lara, but honestly, it doesn’t feel that bad to me, playing it. Granted, the camera is definitely controlled by a dude, but not an especially horny dude, if that makes any sense. And the game very quickly progresses from Lara being a helpless bunny getting kicked to the one doing the kicking, comin up outta pools of blood like Rambo and shit. It’s pretty cool, actually. It’s a really fun game, I’m not doggin on the gameplay, I loved Tomb Raider. Just sayin.
Super Princess Peach also comes to mind. This is a bit closer to a game about womanhood, but it still errs in a weird, sort of naive way. I wanna make clear that I absolutely don’t think the team that made this game really had bad intentions when they made it, and hell, it even comes pretty close to the mark. What I mean is that it acknowledges that intense emotions are part of the feminine experience, and in fact makes those emotions powerful! They’re how Peach interacts with her world and progresses through it, what’s more empowering than that? A big part of being a woman is learning to handle this very intense, very rich inner life that comes with having emotions try to drown you. Becoming mature as a woman is in large part figuring out how to handle them. So, to make it so a female character uses her emotions in a constructive way, that’s pretty cool! Problem is, the level design demands rapid switching of emotions, and they’re portrayed as really heightened and exaggerated. Peach comes across as going through puberty or just unstable. With emotions like anger, it’s weaponized. Peach stomps around through enemies, literally on fire. Now, was it like that for me when I was younger? Yeah, absolutely. But it’s not the mark of a mature woman to swing around that wildly or to let your emotions drive you to that degree.
The other example I hear is Bayonetta. I’ll give her this: she definitely owns her sexuality, which is something people usually cite as a good thing. Problem is, it’s not a healthy sexuality. Look at how she treats Cheshire, for instance. I mean, you can make your arguments for BDSM and all that, and that’s fine, but she definitely holds men in a kind of distant disdain, which real loving BDSM doesn’t have. It’s the same mistake in the opposite direction. The game in general is hypersexual (where the women are concerned. where’s my hot man butts and dickbulges?). The camera is the biggest turnoff. Definitely a hornier dude behind this one. You’ve got the full-body sweeping, focusing on tits and ass, the spreadeagled special moves, everything is just really uncomfortable to watch and hear. Bayonetta is a spectacle fighter, and Bayonetta herself is part of that spectacle. That’s an important distinction. She’s not feminine, she’s just sexed up. Throwing your vag into the camera is not empowerment. It’s pandering, and I only ever hear that it’s NOT that way from men, because most women know better. At least, women that aren’t trying to be Bayo irl. It’s a fairly common mistake, I’ll grant you that.
So now we come to Shantae, a series starring a bellydancing sexy half-genie in poofy pants and a bustier that’s probably the most empowering, healthiest depiction of a feminine hero I’ve ever seen. What?
Well, for starters, the bellydancing. Now, opinions differ, but to me there’s few things that are more feminine than the pure joy of physicality. The simple pleasure of having a body, knowing it well, and expressing yourself using it, having a great time with it, comes pretty close to the heart of womanhood, in my opinion. Shantae’s dances are also the source of her transformative powers, which let her explore the world. So, here we have the Super Princess Peach thing, but done correctly.
Now, is her dancing weaponized? I’m gonna say no. You do acquire powerups that give her forms attacks, but they’re primarily (except for the mermaid bubbles) used to get places you couldn’t before, not to attack enemies. Also, it’s the *forms* that are weaponized, NOT the dances. There are certain male characters that suggest Shantae should dance to get what she wants, or want her to dance for them, but she never does this, and you’re never required to dance for anyone other than you, by the game. This is a great thing. In the 1st game there’s a stage where you can dance for money, but it’s just there. It’s not like you have to do it. There are strip clubs irl, but you won’t see me there; to each her own.
This brings me to Shantae’s sexuality. Shantae is friggin adorable, with jiggle in the right places, all lovingly animated. But it’s not excessive. She dresses in skimpy outfits, but those outfits are basically her bellydancing uniform (irl accurate), and it’s all about the same stuff I said before with the dancing itself. It’s a celebration of the female form, and I don’t feel like it’s super creepy or anything. She never uses it to get ahead, even with Bolo the perv. It’s done well. There’s definitely some more fan-servicey moments in the third game, but the way they’re done pokes fun at gamers who might be enjoying em too much.
What’s really fascinating to me is Risky Boots, with her high heels on a pirate ship (looks over practicality), her domination of her male crew, how she carries herself. She’s a symbol of Bayo-style sexuality, how to Do It Wrong, the traps you can fall into as a woman. She naturally inspires the “take her down a peg” impulse. Even her boobs are bigger than Shantae’s (in 2 and 3)! Great villain. The fact that the game is thinking about a potential female player is HUGE. Nobody does that!
Overall, too, the variety of female characters and how they’re written shows writing that cares about and knows women. I have friends like Rottytops and Sky, and friend/enemies like Risky (and Rotty). It’s believable.
So, this series rules, and as a woman I really love that it both exists and is fun.