Feminism and Final Fantasy (Part Five)

If we can assume that the fantasy trope of mystical female other in bondage gear is popular among men, perhaps we can likewise assume that the fantasy trope often referred to as Draco in Leather Pants is popular among women. According to this trope, a man with a complicated past, equally complicated motivations, and a markedly antisocial streak has a heart of gold somewhere deep inside – especially if he’s handsome. The character Balthier from Final Fantasy XII meets all of these conditions; and, judging from the amount of fan fiction and fan art that has been created in his honor, female fans of the game love him.

It is therefore not unreasonable to argue that Balthier’s design and characterization both contain just as many fetish elements as Fran’s. After all, the male characters in the Final Fantasy series are subject to the same narrative tropes as the female characters. If Rydia is wedged into the role of spell caster by virtue of her gender, then Cecil is similarly cast into the role of the dark/white knight by virtue of his own gender. Moreover, if Rydia is sexually attractive to men, Cecil is perhaps even more attractive according to non-heteronormative female standards of male beauty (which include delicate features and long, willowy limbs). This is fantasy, and we want our characters to be attractive, and interesting, and suitably epic. There is no rule, after all, that says fantasy has to be any less subject to the confines of narrative tropes than, say, interwar French existentialist fiction.

If everyone in the Final Fantasy games is fetishized, and if everyone is subject to gendered tropes, however, can the series really be called “feminist”? Through my discussion of Rydia, Aeris, and Fran, I have attempted to prove that each successive game in the Final Fantasy series has become less sexist and phallocentric. I posited at the beginning of this essay that a “feminist” work contains “strong” (by which I mean “multi-dimensional” and “featured prominently”) female characters who are not villainized. By this standard of judgment, the games in the Final Fantasy series are indeed feminist works. Even though the player-protagonist is often male, this character is usually subordinate to the narrative importance of a central female character. Even though the story of this female character is seen through the eyes of a male character, it is her story that is being told, and the male player-protagonist is just along for the ride. While the player controls the gameplay, the actions of the female protagonist advance the plot and open more of the game’s world.

Although we could once safely assume that the gamer behind the player-protagonist was male, this is no longer the case; he is now just as likely to be controlled by a woman. The player-protagonist may have his own story, but he is also the eyes through which the player looks and the hands and feet by which the player explores and manipulates the world. Such a direct player identification thus makes his identity somewhat less than stable, along with his gender and sexual orientation. The player-protagonist is arguably little more than a cipher in many situations (such as Tidus in Final Fantasy X, who is never addressed or referred to by name, lest the player’s identification with him be impeded), and the true spotlight shines on the female protagonists of the series, such as Rinoa, Garnet, Yuna, and Ashe.

Perhaps, because these female characters were created by development teams consisting primarily of men, they can never be considered “pure” feminist role models, but there is another side to the equation – the female (and male!) fans of the series who have been inspired by these characters and have interpreted them in ways that may differ wildly from the original intentions of their creators. As I have argued elsewhere, a text does not end with the “Game Over” screen but rather spins into ever wider and deeper perversions in the personal fantasies of the player. These personal fantasies can then be reinforced and expanded upon when introduced into larger communities of gamers. Player reception is engaged in a feedback loop with Square-Enix, which has used the enormous revenue it has earned from the Final Fantasy franchise in order to develop games that will better appeal to its fans, both new and old. The strong female characters of the series have resulted in a large and vocal female following, which has in turn resulted in Final Fantasy XIII, a title that has been celebrated as a truly feminist video game. As gaming technology becomes more sophisticated, and as the narrative mechanisms of role playing games become more innovative and complex, I am looking forward to meeting the female characters in the future of Final Fantasy.

I cannot claim to have the final word on Final Fantasy, or on the topic of video games, role playing, and gender. Allow me to therefore cite my sources and inspirations, both online and in print.

The absolute best pieces of writing on Final Fantasy that I have ever had the pleasure of reading are collected under the title The Rise and Fall of Final Fantasy. Each of these essays is quite long, but each is beautifully written and provides all of the background information I have omitted, which is presented in a humorous and highly intelligent tone. The online video game “magazine” The Escapist recently posted a video essay called True Female Characters, which is a bit superficial in terms of analysis but makes some good points and provides several examples of female characters in video games who are prime examples of sexist stereotypes. A short, journalistic article called Getting the Girl offers an interesting counterpoint to this discussion in the light it sheds on female game developers and the market pressures they face when designing female characters. The website The Mary Sue has a number of interesting pieces on women and geek culture, including statistics relating to female gamers.

If you’re interested in other aspects of the Final Fantasy series as viewed from a “scholarly” analytical perspective, there is an essay in Mechademia 4: War/Time titled “Imagined History, Fading Memory: Mastering Narrative in Final Fantasy X.” This essay is somewhat crippled by the word count imposed by the journal, but it contains an interesting argument relating to how the narrative structure of the game may relate to Japan’s experience of modernity. There are also several interesting and tangentially related articles in an academic journal called Games and Culture, including an essay on ethics in Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VII, as well as an interesting piece on fantasy races in MMO-RPGs.

On a broader level, Sharalyn Orbaugh’s “Busty Battlin’ Babes: The Evolution of the Shōjo in 1990s Visual Culture” (found in the collection Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field) is an excellent discussion of cross-gender character identification in a Japanese context. All four chapters of Tania Modleski’s short but brilliant Loving with a Vengeance discuss the romance tropes surrounding male characters and might be useful for a sustained inquiry into why a character like Balthier (or Sephiroth) is so popular with female fans. Finally, while I was writing this essay, I was addicted to Eleanor Byrne and Martin McQuillan’s Deconstructing Disney, which opens by making a strong case for why we should continue to analyze popular culture and then goes on to provide an fantastic model of how to do so.

All of the games and characters I have discussed, as well as (almost) all of the images I have borrowed, belong to Square-Enix. Square-Enix, I love you. Please don’t sue me.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

13 thoughts on “Feminism and Final Fantasy (Part Five)

  1. Three examples of the fan art of Balthier I mentioned can be found here, here, and here. Fan fiction featuring the character can be found in many places, but one of my favorite communities for video game based fic can be found here. Be warned that this content may not be safe for work (unless you work somewhere awesome).

    I owe an enormous dept of gratitude to Leah from The Lobster Dance for linking me to several sources and for patiently and intelligently responding to my rants about female characters. I would also like to thank my friends in Philadelphia (especially Laura and Frank!) for discussing Final Fantasy and its tropes with me.

    Image Credits:

    Both the image of Balthier and the image of Yuna and Tidus were borrowed from the galleries at Creative Uncut (although I flipped the latter picture in Photoshop). I think this last picture is interesting, because it illustrates how Yuna and Tidus might be interpreted as two sides (male and female) of the same character. In terms of gender (and many, many other things), Final Fantasy X is an extraordinarily interesting game, and it is my hope that one day someone will write an article worthy of it.

    All images and characters belong, as always, to Square-Enix.

  2. A great essay. I think I may have to read it over again to have any real incisive comments to make, but just overall, you do make a lot of really excellent points. I especially like your incorporation of reception, and of the idea that “a text does not end with the “Game Over” screen but rather spins into ever wider and deeper perversions in the personal fantasies of the player (or communities of players).”

    Also, the argument about how even though the player-protagonist character tends to always be male, the real focus might arguably be more on the female leads as the real main characters, with whom the player might not quite identify, but who nevertheless represent “strong”, i.e. multi-faceted, complex, three-dimensional characters.

    I’m going to have to save this and re-read it sometime…

    Nice work!

    1. Thank you so much for your kind comments!

      There is so much debate in fandom circles over what a “strong” female character is. For example, is it sexist if a female character is girly, like Vanille (from Final Fantasy XIII)? Is it misogynistic if a female character is overly masculine, like Fang (also from XIII)? Does a female character need to be “realistic;” and, if so, what does that even mean?

      There is a really good essay (which is also nice and short) about this that I just found. It relates directly to what you said, so I’m going to link you to it:

      http://journalistic.com.au/?p=27

      Also, I am going to admit that I am very, very conflicted on the “female protagonist seen through male eyes” bit. Like, was Utamaro creating feminist works with his bijinga? Probably not. The context is way, way different, of course, but it’s the same problem. How do art historians deal with this? If you can recommend anything (even something really basic!), I would be in your debt forever.

      1. Hmm. I am actually struggling myself a bit with the question of feminism in kabuki, and in the Yoshiwara, as the play we’re performing now on campus has some very strong female characters in it… The women connive and scheme, both for good and for bad, while the men for the most part are just witless pawns or bumbling fools. I am sure the argument could be made that “scheming” is itself a sexist stereotype of women, but even so, I feel it shows wit, intelligence, social skills, and agency.

        And there’s the issue of the fact that this is a brothel. At some point I’d like to read up on some of the literature on this subject. Obviously, there is the aspect that says that these women are being bought and sold, used, as sex slaves, that this is anything but a feminist situation. But, then, within the walls of the brothel, the women have incredible power. The power to kick customers out, to choose who they wish to sleep with, the power to treat customers how they choose, and as happens in our play, to connive and scheme to get all kinds of things from the customers. But is that a valid argument in any way?

        In any case, I’ll have to go back and look at what we covered in our Feminism unit in our core “Art History Theory & Methodology” class. I think it was mostly Butler and stuff like that – core feminist theory stuff, nothing particularly art historical. …

        You might want to look at Griselda Pollack’s “Differencing the Canon.” We only read the first chapter or so, but I imagine this is probably one of the core books on feminism & art history.

  3. Ah, so Draco in Leather Pants has a name. I would love to see a sociological study of Sephiroth fan girls, and I mean that genuinely with no sarcasm.

    There’s definitely something to be said about the reception of flawed and villainous male characters vs. flawed or villainous female characters. What is it about “Sephy” and Draco that makes fangirls want to reshape them and understand them whereas female villains tend to be ugly and bitchy? (I’m thinking Ursula because you posted a picture, but I guess any wicked stepmother or Madame DuBarry would do for an example of a beautiful villainess.)

    I get the sense that Draco and Sephiroth are complex and intelligent, and therefore desirable if redeemed–bad boys who are just putting their talents to ill use. But with women like Bellatrix LeStrange and the female Deatheaters or the host of Disney villainesses, their badness is chalked up to “crazy,” or they fall flat–they aren’t complex and they act on emotions, typically jealousy, often of beauty and youth. Do you know of any female villains who get the Draco-Pants treatment?

    1. Also: Lady Eboshi keeps coming to mind as a female Draco-Pants contender, but she strikes me more as an antagonist than a villain to be defeated. (Draco gets more complex through the series, but starts out as a racist, classist bully.) Hmm.

      1. I have been hopelessly in love with Lady Eboshi since my junior year of high school. *siiiiigh*

        I just had a student send me an email asking for good articles about Mononoke Hime. Do you know of any (even if they’re online)? All of the good Studio Ghibli essays in both English and Japanese seem to be about Spirited Away, and that just doesn’t seem fair…

    2. I would love to see that study too! Writing it might be difficult, though, since one would have to break the first rule of the internet. I ran up against this wall myself when I started talking about fandom reception. For example, there are Final Fantasy kink memes, and I wanted to link to them, but one simply does not talk about kink memes. They do not exist.

      (Perhaps it’s for this reason that I haven’t picked up the fifth volume of Mechademia, which is called “Fanthropologies.” I have an ethnography ethics warning sensor, and that journal issue trips it over and over and over – although I hear Gerald Figal has got an interesting essay about Paranoia Agent in there that has nothing to do with ethnography.)

      I have no idea why I haven’t been keeping a list of works that exhibit female villains getting the Draco-Pants treatment. From now on, I think I will. All I can think of off the top of my head right now, though, are the books by Gregory Maguire (like Wicked and Mirror, Mirror) and also perhaps John Updike’s Claudius and Gertrude. There have got to be more…

  4. Thank you for this well-written and fleshed out essay. I’m a male, but I try to be as feminist as men can be. I also worked through Final Fantasy a bit backwards. My first game was X, then briefly VIII, then XIII. I just recently decided to go back and see what all the hype around VII was about (that and I absolutely adore advent children). As you said, they seem to be progressively less sexist in every new entry, so you might guess that playing through them in reverse order was a bit of a shocker to me. I’m struggling with my own feelings toward Tifa in particular and her portrayal.

    From my male perspective, Tifa is absolutely attractive in personality and design… and that was the problem. I got to thinking that she was likely designed by a male team and if she was designed sexist, now I’m struggling with my own cognitive dissonance for finding her character so damn alluring! I’m not far enough in to the game as of yet, but your writing certainly helped. I particularly enjoy the bit explaining how many of the male characters are portrayed in much of the same fashion. I would not have had that perspective myself and I thank you! Now,I hope I can finish the rest of the game while focusing on the story in full!

    🙂

  5. Being the huge FF fan that I am and being passionate about the subject of female depiction in medias, I often read essays and comments on this topic. Regretfully, I must say I find myself stumbling upon rather poor ones most of the times: clichéd, uselessly angry and usually content with exploring the matter only at a superficial level. But your essay, I really loved it, and not just because it was so well-written; you really provided a very insightful overview.
    As a translator specializing in en>it translation, who’s also totally and utterly bored of translating touristic brochures and hotels websites, I would *really* love to translate this essay into Italian. And perhaps share it on my blog (giving you full credit of course)? … well, I guess us translators have a weird way of showing our love for texts, eh 😛
    In any case, thank you for writing this ❤

      1. Thank you so much *-* It’s gonna be interesting!
        I’ll take a closer look at it and make a first draft in the next few days, so I can contact you afterwards with possible doubts that I may get on certain words and semantics. Thank you again *bows*

  6. Great essay!! The topic of feminism in video games is a huge and very new topic that’s only just starting to be truly explored. You did a great job!

    Although I have a question. Why you chose not to include much conversation about Final Fantasy 2 or Final Fantasy 5. Final Fantasy 2 had the first truly female character, Maria? Who’s a sister and to my knowledge is not sexualized, at least as far as I know.
    And Final Fantasy 5 is rare for a game in that by the middle of the game you have more playable female characters then male characters including a character that is a female to male trans-person. Although the gender dynamics of FF5 might be an essay in and of itself. haha

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