Feminism and Final Fantasy (Part Two)

Anyone who has played the first three Final Fantasy games, either on the NES or as reincarnated through their PSP and DS remakes, knows that there isn’t a great deal of character development involved. Male and female characters are more or less interchangeable; the gender of any given character is no more than window dressing for an essentially sexless data animal. Final Fantasy IV, the series’s first installment for the 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System, is considered groundbreaking because it is the first of the games to feature a cast of characters with unique abilities, personalities, and backstories. The game follows the exploits of the dark knight Cecil, who has to (a) come to terms with the fact that he is working for an evil king, (b) overcome the darkness in his heart, (c) gain the holy sword necessary to fight evil, and (d) fly to the moon to defeat his evil brother and the dark force possessing him.

Cecil, who is your party’s fallback melee fighter, is supported by Rosa, one of those selfless white mage types who will do anything for Cecil but is all but useless in battle (at least until she learns the attack spell Holy). Despite all of the transformative and empowering fan work that has sprung up around her over the past twenty years, in the original game, Rosa was really nothing more than the love interest of Cecil and his rival Kain. Your party must repeatedly fight to save her from various conundrums, like fainting in the desert and being kidnapped. Much more interesting than Rosa, who is the proverbial sheath for the hero’s sword, is the summoner character Rydia.

Rydia is a young summoner whose village is unwittingly destroyed by Cecil. Since she has nowhere else to go after the entire race of summoners is killed, she accompanies your party until she is spirited away by a summon creature, Leviathan, to the city of summon creatures deep under the earth. When Cecil ends up traveling underground and finds himself in dire straights, he is rescued by Rydia, who has aged more than ten years while living in a different flow of time. Rydia is a valuable asset to your party, wielding whips that inflict paralysis and various other status ailments, as well as battle-ending summons and black magic so powerful that its use is depicted as killing other mages.

Since Rydia is so useful as a playable character, the player is given a strong incentive to go on several difficult side quests that serve no other purpose than to make her more powerful. The player therefore has something of a first-person investment in her, which is strengthened by her moving backstory. This backstory provides both a juxtaposition and an alternative to Cecil’s own. Both Cecil and Rydia are orphans who were raised to be masters of their respective powers, and both must make a choice regarding whom they will forgive and whom they will protect. Unlike Rosa, the adult Rydia does not need saving, and she is not interested in romantic love. It would seem that she is therefore not an object but rather a subject, a female hero who stands on equal footing with the male hero.

Unfortunately, there is the issue of her costuming. While the two primary male characters, Cecil and Kain, are allowed armor, Rydia is clothed in leggings, oversized arm warmers, a leotard, and high heels. Besides not being very practical for battle, this outfit is highly sexualized. As a result, fanworks from both Japan and America have cast the character as a porn star who is raped by not only Cecil and Kain but also by her summon monsters, a dubious honor that is not shared by Rosa.

This pornographic treatment is not merely a result of Rydia’s sexy costume (or of Rule 34), however. There is also an air of innocence and a whiff of child-in-a-woman’s-body about her that invite male protection and exploitation. While Cecil and Kain are depicted as undergoing emotional trails on the road to character development, Rydia has an almost complete lack of interiority. If the adult Rydia ever faces any doubt over her abilities or conflict over the fact that Cecil killed her entire family, for example, the player doesn’t hear about it. Rydia is magical and mystical and unknown; she is a blank slate in an appealing costume onto which the presumably male player can project his fantasies of exotic and mysterious femininity. Moreover, although Rydia’s magic is undeniably powerful, the game’s strict MP limitations ensure that she is never more than a support character in the vast majority of battles, an unfortunate caveat that also applies to Rosa.

In both the gameplay and narrative aspects of Final Fantasy IV, then, female characters are associated with magic, innate ability, dependence on men, and cheerful self-sacrifice, while male characters are associated with physical power, training and skill, and development toward emotional independence. The player is strongly encouraged to identify with the male characters and their personal struggles. The male is the subject, and the female is the object. The male is known and powerful, and the woman is unknown and mystical. These are popular fantasy tropes, and they are not unique to Final Fantasy IV, whose story is powerful and appealing partially because it makes effective use of these tropes.

Part One
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

6 thoughts on “Feminism and Final Fantasy (Part Two)

  1. Final Fantasy IV was released in 1991 in Japan. The game was released later that year in North America under the title Final Fantasy II. Since then, it’s seen multiple reincarnations and sequels. I can’t keep track of them all, but the Wikipedia entry has more detailed information.

    It was pointed out to me in the comments after my panel that there are strong female characters in the first three games in the series, like Hilda in Final Fantasy II and Refia in Final Fantasy III. Although this is a good point, I don’t see these characters as “characters” in the same way that Rosa, Rydia, Cecil, and Kain are; they are more like chess pieces manipulated by a simplistic plot in order to advance gameplay. Even though there is a chess piece called “queen,” most of us don’t really think of it as female. I therefore omit the characters from the first three Final Fantasy titles from this discussion, with my apologies.

    Image Credits:

    The opening image of the various job classes in Final Fantasy III (which is meant to illustrate the interchangeability of the characters) and all of the official images of Rydia are from the Final Fantasy wiki website, but of course they all belong to Square-Enix. The fan illustration of Rydia is from a certain image board that dare not speak its name, and it is difficult to link back to, but there are numerous other images of its ilk floating around if you care to look.

  2. I received a comment elsewhere that my treatment of Rydia was unfair, since the character Fran (from Final Fantasy XII) sports a similarly racy outfit. This is a valid criticism, so I would like to respond to it here.

    In Final Fantasy IV, men are definitely subjects, and women are definitely objects. I don’t believe this is the case in Final Fantasy XII, in which female characters get an equal (and perhaps even greater) number of lines of dialog. The female characters in FF XII have not only interiority but also goals and motivations that are not subordinate to those of the male characters, as is not the case in FF IV. Furthermore, FF XII does not limit playable characters to certain stereotypical roles based on their gender. One could make the argument that FF IV doesn’t either (take Edward, for example), but I think FF XII is still much less sexist in terms of gameplay. Finally, I believe that the male characters in FF XII wear clothing that is just as revealing and fetishistic as the clothing worn by the female characters, which is absolutely not the case in FF IV.

    To summarize, I’m looking at more than the characters’ costumes. Between the two games, there are significant differences in (1) dialog, (2) gameplay, and (3) the gap between male and female characters that I believe make Fran a much more fully developed and feminist character than Rydia.

    But I welcome other interpretations as well. If you disagree with me, I would love to hear your opinion!

  3. As a female, I’m actually going to say that I much prefer Rosa over Rydia. There’s an inner strength to her that people tend to overlook because of the whole “damsel-in-distress” thing, and while this link is fairly outdated, it gets my opinions across better than I could fit here: http://forums.eyesonff.com/final-fantasy-iv/88639-defense-rosa.html

    I never felt much of an emotional attachment to Rydia; yes, she’s useful in battle as what’s essentially a walking nuclear bomb, but that’s it. She’s just a chess piece to me.

    Rydia’s the girl you want to be and hang out with (to put it in the nicest terms possible), Rosa’s the woman you admire and want to learn from. You don’t always need to be outwardly boisterous to be, uh, “powerful”, strength of will and heart are just as important a factor.

    1. Please understand that I’m not trying to argue that Rydia is somehow better than Rosa. What I’m trying to argue is that the female characters in this game get shafted in favor of the male characters, and the ways in which this occurs conform to common gender stereotypes.

      For example, even though Rosa is a fairly major character in the game’s plot, she is only in the player’s party for approximately half the time that Cecil is, and only about 3/4 of the time that Kain is. Even though she gets about as many lines as Edge, she only gets 2/3 the amount of dialog that Kain does and only 1/4 the amount Cecil does.

      Furthermore, the role into which the game has cast Rosa is that of a support character. This is fine – not everyone can be the leader – but why do female characters almost always function as support for male leaders in video games and other media? I’m not trying to say that healing abilities and inner strength are bad things; but, if you compare Rosa to a character like Aeris or Yuna, who are also technically “support” characters, she seems somewhat one-dimensional, as if her only purpose is to support Cecil.

      What I’m trying to argue is that, in Final Fantasy IV, men are subjects and women are objects. Even though you, as a female gamer, can attribute a great deal of agency to Rosa, this is not what the game encourages you to do. I think these sorts of narrative and gameplay structures are sexist. To reframe your closing sentence…

      Women don’t need to be ambitious and assertive to make, uh, “a higher salary,” supporting their male colleagues is just as important.

      Female characters don’t need to be boisterous and outwardly powerful. I would like it, however, if there were defined by their own stories instead of by their connections to the stories of men.

      1. I’m only just starting to play through FFIV and round out my experience of all the non-MMO games, but at least in the early sections, my first impression of Rosa (beyond the “dammit, back in the Distressed Damsel Penalty Box) was as a mentor and big sister figure to Rydia, on a par with Fran and Penelo or Lulu and Yuna. In fact it’s almost an inversion of Lulu & Yuna, since Rosa is mentoring Rydia in a flavor of magic she lacks, and Rydia has more power, while Rosa has more experience.

        However, unlike FFX and FFXII, where the mentoring/mothering bond between older and younger female characters is merely hinted at, we *see* it in FFIV. Rosa gets down on one knee next to Rydia and talks her through a mental block to help her with her magic, patiently working with her and praising her when she succeeds. It’s a touching and rare moment in the games when we see how magic knowledge is passed down.

        I don’t know if this fizzles out in the game later, but to me, Rosa’s mentorship role with young Rydia is a heck of a lot more meaningful interaction between female characters than we get in, say, VIII, where other than one screwed-up interaction between Quistis and Rinoa that doesn’t cast either of them in a sensible light, women are support and/or defined by their roles with the male characters.

        Rosa’s mage mentor role is not confined to Rydia, by the way; there’s at least one white mage NPC in Fabul who laments that he/she lacks “Lady Rosa’s magic.” The implication is that Rosa was tutoring Fabul’s white mages as well, or at least impressed the heck out of them.

        I would argue that strength for a female character is not necessarily limited to “becomes goddess, wields gunblade, kicks ass” (no matter how gratifying), but may also include, “forms strong bonds with and serves as mentor / role model / leader for other female characters,” without reference to the guys. I.E. a Bechdel. And yes, I understand that the Bechdel Test does not automatically absolve a story of sexism; it simply detects one small moment of non-sexism.

        TL;DR: I agree with most of your assessment, but I object to reducing Rosa’s role to “a sheath for Cecil’s sword.” I think you missed “surrogate mother and mentor to Rydia.” And that’s sad, because it’s the sort of female-to-female relationship that’s all too often overlooked both in gaming and in RL.

  4. Actually, although it may seem strange, earlier Final Fantasies (like 4,5,6,9) were mostly made for younger audience.

    Therefore women could be dressed as they would like and in the eyes of the children they were just as innocent as them, male or female.

    One example i will give, as a child i never really realized how Misty from Pokemon is dressed, when i grew up though things changed horribly, unfortunately.

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