Feminism and Final Fantasy (Part Three)

It can be argued that all of the characters in Final Fantasy VII are amalgamations of popular character tropes. One of the most important and popular characters from the game, Aeris, comes dangerously close to many of the various tropes identified with a Mary Sue. For example, the short paragraph of text in the game’s manual describes her as “mysteriously beautiful,” she has an exotic name, she has an usual and dramatic back story, she’s exceptionally talented in a wide variety of areas and possesses rare powers, she is the last of her race, all of game’s characters (even the markedly antisocial ones) adore her, she is brave, cheerful, and incorruptible, she is too pure for this earth and sacrifices herself to save everyone, and her only flaws, innocence and naivety, are far from damning. I am not trying to suggest that Aeris in fact is a Mary Sue character, or even that Mary Sue characters are necessarily a bad thing. What I am trying to suggest is that the character receives a very sympathetic portrayal and occasionally seems to good to be true.

No matter how close Aeris comes to a Mary Sue, she can never be a true Sue, as she is neither a writer nor a reader stand-in. That particular role belongs to Cloud, a confused and lonely young man who just happens to have a bigger sword than anyone else. It’s difficult not to sympathize with Cloud as he wins countless battles, runs up endless flights of stairs, snowboards, rides a huge motorcycle, cross-dresses, discovers his forgotten past, wins his revenge from the psychopath who torched his hometown, and is praised and admired by almost everyone in the game’s cast. At his core, though, Cloud is emotionally vulnerable and just needs someone to comfort and understand him.

That someone, for the first half of the game, is Aeris. Unless the player is armed with a cheat sheet of responses to in-game dialog, Final Fantasy VII sets Aeris up to be Cloud’s love interest. Aeris’s many attractive qualities serve to make her mid-game death more dramatically effective, of course, but they also serve to make her a more desirable partner for the player-protagonist. In this sense, then, she is what I might call a male-generated Mary Sue. She is not everything that the player wants to be, but everything that the player wants to be with. In other words, she is a perfect romantic partner, someone who is strong and kind and beautiful but still unconditionally attracted to the dorky male hero. Is the strength of such a female character truly empowering when it only serves to bolster the ego and libido of the player-protagonist?

Actually, quite a few female gamers have declared that yes, it is empowering. Over-rated though it may or may not be, Final Fantasy VII brought an extraordinary number of new players to the franchise with the richness and depth of its storytelling, world building, and gameplay. Many of these new players were female. As I mentioned earlier, although we can now say that it’s misleading to think of the majority of video game players as male, that stereotype wasn’t so far from the truth in 1997, the year that Final Fantasy VII was released during the early years of the Playstation gaming console. Female players were attracted to the game both by the burgeoning mainstream popularity of gaming and by the presence of female characters who were more than guns and boobs on a remote-controlled stick. Many female gamers in my generation grew up with Aeris and Tifa, and we saw these characters as much more than Cloud’s love interests – we saw them as real people, with real personalities. We also saw them as role models in a way that would have been difficult with the extremely limited dialog of earlier characters like Rydia.

Aeris may have been too good to be true, but she had thousands of lines of dialog that at least made her seem real to the player. Moreover, her dialog was not merely ego-reinforcement for the player-protagonist. Aeris kept secrets, and she had her own set of motivations that never became entirely clear until after her death. The character knew things that she did not share with the player-protagonist, and she expressed emotions that were not directly related to the player-protagonist or to the development of the game’s story. In other words, she had interiority.

Final Fantasy VII also passes the Bechdel Test in that Aeris is friends with Tifa, and the pair on multiple occasions talks about things other than Cloud. Tifa is herself an interesting character. Although her character design is all legs and chest, and although her fighting style seems tailor-made to show off her tight shirt and short shirt (witness her victory pose at the end of every successful battle), she has much more dialog than Aeris, and she is arguably a much darker character.

After the Shinra power company destroys her village and covers up the operation, she moves to the city of the company’s global headquarters, where she opens a bar that will serve as a base for a terrorist resistance movement. Throughout the game she is conscious of the human cost of terrorist activity, as well as the consequences of shutting down the world’s major source of electrical power. She must also navigate the guilt she feels at having bullied Cloud as a child, the confusion she feels regarding his amnesia surrounding their shared past, and the jealousy that she begins to feel toward Aeris. Yes, Tifa’s huge boobs are on constant display, and yes, the camera looks up her skirt when Cloud saves her from falling at the end of the game, but a new generation of female players were able to see past this and sympathize with Tifa as a complex character. Although there are countless fan works depicting the seduction and rape of both Tifa and Aeris, there are arguably many more that explore the aspirations and anxieties of the characters outside of sexual or romantic relationships.

Female players therefore brought with them a female gaze. This gaze not only transformed female characters from objects to subjects, but it also turned an objectifying lens on the male characters. These new female fans took advantage of the fledgling world wide web to form communities with other fans with whom they could discuss topics such as whether Cloud’s nemesis Sephiroth was even more attractive than Cloud. The international character of the internet also exposed Western fans to the work (and particularly the artwork) of Japanese fans, and soon Cloud was no longer in a romantic relationship with Aeris or Tifa but rather intimately involved with the evil military leader Sephiroth. For a generation of female fans too young for Star Trek, then, Final Fantasy VII was a gateway into alternative readings of popular texts. To give it due credit, the game has a story and cast of characters deep enough to actively encourage the female gaze that helped to make the game so popular. Although the vagaries of corporate marketing decisions are beyond me, I can only assume that Square quickly connected the unprecedented success of Final Fantasy VII to its popularity with gamers of both genders, since each successive game in the franchise has featured stronger and more developed female characters – as well as a colorful sprinkling of homoerotic tension between male characters.

Part One
Part Two
Part Four
Part Five

9 thoughts on “Feminism and Final Fantasy (Part Three)

  1. Many fan discussions of Aeris (or Aerith) as a character are fraught with arguments over what does and doesn’t constitute a Mary Sue. I’m not sure I can weigh in on this debate, but I can provide some useful links. For more information about Mary Sues, a good place to start is TV Tropes. Another good place to do some reading on the history and definition of the trope is the Fanlore wiki. There is an academic article by Pat Pflieger about Mary Sue characters here, and there’s a shorter, fan-written essay about Mary Sues and the paradoxes of strong female characters here.

    I’d also like to link to a recent essay about Tifa’s character appeal, the evolution of her graphic design, and fanservice called The Boobs at Square-Enix.

    Image Credits:

    The opening image of Cloud can be found at Video Games Blogger, along with the original promotional images of the game’s other playable characters. The image of Aeris praying is iconic and can be found in many places, but I chose to borrow it from this particular URL. The sequenced image of Tifa’s victory pose was posted on a forum discussion on Livejournal, but the original thread has since disappeared. If anyone can link me to another copy of the image or would like to claim it as her work, please be my guest. Likewise, the fan art of Cloud and Sephiroth was taken from a community on Livejournal several months ago, and I can no longer find the original source. Any help would be appreciated. The fantastic fan art of Tifa was drawn by the deviantART user ravenskar, and the original image can be found here. All characters and official artworks belong to Square-Enix.

  2. In this sense, then, she is what I might call a male-generated Mary Sue. She is not everything that the player wants to be, but everything that the player wants to be with.

    She’s sort of like a romantic interest in a romance novel in that way, perhaps. Although, as Janice Radway wrote in Reading the Romance, many romantic interests for heterogamous romance novels are men who need to be “fixed” or “tamed.” Interesting difference there.

    1. I was actually reading that book as I wrote this essay! (I got on the Janice Radway train a bit late, but better late than never, right?) When she was talking about women falling for evil men (and kind men actually being evil), the first thing I thought of was the “Draco in Leather Pants” trope. I guess some things never change…

  3. I can’t remember the conversations that Tifa and Aeris have that pass the Bechdel Test. Do you have any links to them?

    The “Boobs at Square Enix” article mentions this, but I think it’s really interesting how Tifa’s proportions got more realistic in Advent Children. Something very similar has happened to Lara Croft in her most recent incarnation. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:New_Lara_Croft.jpg)

    1. I’m afraid I don’t have any links to particular conversations, but I can give you a few scenes that you can cross-check on the game scripts floating around.

      After the scene in Don Corneo’s mansion, the party falls down into the sewer while Sector 7 gets destroyed, at which point Aeris and Tifa have a conversation about the goals of Avalanche and the people who were sacrificed to meet those goals. When the party returns to Sector 7 and Aeris is taken away in a helicopter by the Turks, she and Tifa have a touching moment in which Tifa pledges to rescue her. (If I recall correctly, Tifa expresses much more concern about Aeris’s wellbeing than either Cloud or Barrett when the party storms the Shinra headquarters.) After the party saves Aeris and Red XIII, Aeris and Tifa have a conversation about Aeris’s heritage as an Ancient and whether the Promised Land really exists.

      There are many more conversations between the two (the ones they have in the Gold Saucer jump immediately to mind, although at least one of those conversations is about Cloud), but many of them are dependent on having a party containing them (as opposed to other characters) during cut scenes – which I always did. Let me just say that, if you decide to Ctrl+F your way through even a small part of the script of the first half of the game, you should find many examples.

      For what it’s worth, people still occasionally discuss the relationship between Aeris and Tifa in comment threads on Fandom Secrets, as well as Inclusive Geeks (for the latter, a good series of threads can be found on the Bechdel Test post).

      I unfortunately stopped paying attention to Lara Croft a long time ago (so thank you for the link!), but I have been saving a really interesting article about her dating from around the time the movie came out…

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2001/jun/15/artsfeatures.games

    2. You don’t get a lot of explicit conversation between them, because the game follows a first-person narration, & Cloud is that person unless we’re talking about the Finding Cloud or Huge Materia Arcs. However, there are a lot of little pieces here & there.

      What you’ll often find is that they mime conversations in towns, where they aren’t explicitly “talking,” but if you talk to one of them, you get a glimpse at what they’re supposed to be “talking” about.

      I’m replaying, & almost to the part where Aerith dies, so I can be reasonably certain that this constitutes most of their Bechdel interactions.

      There are a few actual conversations, but whether those count depend on if you want to say that they’re talking about a man, or a situation that happens to include a man. Such as Don Corneo’s basement, where they talk about what they’re doing there, but also mention how they know Cloud.

  4. Alright, 2 years late to the party!

    I nevertheless had to say something, because I was overjoyed when this didn’t say something like “Aerith is a White Mage in a pink dress & therefore lame.” That is the complaint I see more than any claim that she is a Mary Sue, & it rustrates me because it’s incredibly superficial. She may not be able to beat monsters to death with her bare hands, but it is worth noting that she is the only character that Sephiroth views as an actual threat. Cloud is the one he hates, & his arrogance ultimately allows Cloud to defeat him in person, but Aerith is the one he expects to stop his actual plans–& she does.

    I do slightly disagree with this, though:

    “She is not everything that the player wants to be, but everything that the player wants to be with.”

    It could go either way. Speaking as a male, I really don’t want to be like Cloud. I sympathize with the guy, but he is kind of a loon. Aerith, by contrast, is cheerful, outgoing, strong-willed, friendly, intelligent, & always speaks her mind. To someone who can often be found arguing about Final Fantasy VII on the internet, Aerith’s personality is downright enviable.

    Obligatory disclaimer, I am certainly not the fanboy that says FFVII had no problems. Just as the monsters often have powerful attacks that they will never use, sometimes the characters, particularly females, won’t be used to their fullest. I facepalmed in Advent Children when Tifa made all of those lame excuses for why they couldn’t fight Sephiroth, & I did so again recently when Square revealed that Tifa had official measurements–though they do at least appear to be healthy.

    So I suppose the point is that I appreciate the nuance in this essay.

    1. YOU ARE NEVER TOO LATE TO THIS PARTY.

      Thank you so much for your comments. I really appreciate the perspectives you’re offering.

      Since you made your points so well, I don’t have a lot to say, except:

      Advent Children makes me so angry sometimes!

      Aeris, who had a real personality in FFVII, becomes nothing more than “angelic / too good for this world / object of Cloud’s longing,” while Tifa suffers from a serious case of narrative Penelope syndrome, in which the story of the person left behind isn’t her own story but rather the story of the person who left her told through her. While Tifa has a complex personality in FFVII, Advent Children seems to focus only on the passive and indecisive aspects of her character, which is frustrating, because she takes all sorts of initiatives in the game.

      That being said, everyone suffers from a personality change/reduction in Advent Children. Cloud especially bothers me, since he transforms from a capable leader who cares about his friends and has a great sense of humor into an angsty pretty loner boy with a big sword. What’s amazing to me about FFVII is how it charts Cloud’s character development from being deeply damaged non-person into a whole human being – and all of that development is erased in the movie! So I can complain about what Advent Children does to Tifa, but it’s almost a moot point, since Cloud also suffers from the same treatment.

      Every time I watch Advent Children (which is about once every two years, after my biannual summer playthrough of FFVII), what I dearly want for Tifa is that she DTMFA. Even if Cloud did save the world in the past and will probably save the world again in the future, he is not her moral responsibility, and she could do a lot more good for her city and the people around her if she stopped investing so much of her emotional energy into waiting for him.

      Anyway, what’s interesting to me about Tifa is the way that online discussions of her that I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot of them) often turn to almost Platonic ideals of “what a woman should be” and “what a woman should do” and “how a woman should behave regarding her love interest.” I don’t think there has been more debate about Ophelia through the centuries than there has been about Tifa in the past two decades. What’s frustrating to me about academia’s treatment of video games is that it completely glosses over textual readings of video games with broad applications of media theory, thus completely ignoring the textual-level debates that concern so many “readers” of video games – but that’s another rant for another day!

      1. WOOT, PARTY!

        Thank you.

        I have to concur about Aerith, pretty much every title since VII has focused on her more idealized aspects. I’d like to think this is because her appearances are either posthumous (Advent Children), or smaller parts (Crisis Core), but it does smell strongly of Square trying to capitalize on nostalgia. Also, I honestly thought they forgot that she had the Guard Stick, until Dissidia 012 came out.

        Cloud never really bothered me. It always made sense that he would backslide, given everything that happens. Once Sephiroth is gone, he had to finally confront the deaths of Aerith & Zack, which he’d been running from the whole time. Then Denzel (who just kind of randomly showed up) & he have to go & contract Geostigma. But I’m replaying primarily because my memory of the original game is fuzzy, so maybe I’ll change my mind after I get through it.

        Either way, the film probably would have been strengthened if Cloud solved his own problems, rather than it becoming Tifa’s moral responsibility, as you said. Even at the best of times, it doesn’t really make their relationship look that great.

        Most of what I see regarding Tifa is arguments comparing her to Aerith. Which one is “better,” which one is the “true love.” Which I’m not really fond of either, because the former casts them as enemies, when they were more like friendly rivals, & the latter just feeds into the whole “destined love at first sight” myth that I’m pretty sure VII was trying to deconstruct.

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