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

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

Feminism and Final Fantasy (Part One)

For most of my life, I never gave any serious thought to the Final Fantasy series, despite the literally hundreds of hours I’ve spent playing it. I always had two fundamental assumptions regarding the series’s female characters. First of all, they can fight just as well as the male characters. Second, while they are very, very pretty, so too are the male characters. Like it says on the box, this is fantasy. In other words, my allergy to misogyny never flared up while I was playing the games.

I have since reconsidered these two assumptions. Before I begin this essay in earnest, however, I would like to state that I do not consider the Final Fantasy series to be misogynistic. Still, there are nuances in the portrayal of the primary female characters of the series that I would like to address.

I’d like to start off by defining my terms. Feminism, pure and simple, is the idea that men and women should be given equal opportunity. Although there are some basic biological differences between men and women that transcend time and culture, feminists believe that neither men, nor women, nor anyone in between should be judged or discriminated against simply by virtue of their sex or gender.

The antitheses of feminism are misogyny and sexism. Misogyny is an attitude of hatred towards women. It’s expressed through statements such as “Women are weaker than men” or “women can’t do [x, y, or z] as well as men.” It can also be expressed by identifying negative qualities with femininity, such as referring to a coward as a pussy. Misogyny is a type of sexism, which is an overgeneralization of character traits based on sex or gender. Sexism is like racism or ethnocentrism; it’s like saying “Jewish people are good with money” or “French people wear fashionable clothing.” Common sexist misconceptions include the ideas that women are more spiritual than men, that women are more artistic than men, that women are more in touch with their emotions than men, and that women have stronger social networks than men.

While on the surface it may seem like none of these statements is negative, such overgeneralizations in fact trap women within narrowly-defined social expectations. For example, a female elementary school student with a talent for math might not be encouraged and rewarded in the same way that a male student would be, since obviously girls are not good with numbers. Let’s say this little girls fights social pressure and the indifference of her teachers and grows up to become a promising investment banker. It’s really too bad that she won’t receive the same starting salary as her male colleagues, since everyone knows that she’ll just get pregnant, get married, and quit the firm. When facing social pressure and statistics like this, it can be difficult for girls and women to achieve personal goals that fall outside gender-related stereotypes.

One of the main tenets of feminism is that both boys and girls are constantly subjected to sexist social messages. If, for example, there were just one instance of a naïve young girl who makes stupid decisions for love being valorized while an experienced, unmarried older woman with political ambitions is demonized, then we could leave it at that – it’s just one instance, and relatively harmless. Feminist thought holds that there is an interconnected, unending web of such messages, however.

Both boys and girls are constantly bombarded with sexist social messages, and it’s difficult to escape their influence, even with proper parenting and media awareness. Over the past several decades, there has been a great deal of debate concerning what should be done about this. I personally believe that most people are smart enough to see through and see past sexism, but it’s still good for women to have strong female role models who aren’t villainized.

This brings us to Final Fantasy. Does the series promote sexist views of women? Does it provide strong female role models for the players who invest so much time and emotional energy into the series? To address these questions, I am going to look at three characters: Rydia from Final Fantasy IV, Aeris from Final Fantasy VII, and Fran from Final Fantasy XII. I will use these characters as examples in order to argue for a shift in the series from a male-centered viewpoint to a more gender-neutral narrative focus.

Before analyzing these three specific characters, though, I think it might be worthwhile to introduce the video games themselves. Final Fantasy is a series of fantasy role-playing games published by Square-Enix, which was formerly known as Square. Square was founded as a developer of computer game software by Miyamoto Masafumi in 1983 and, within five years, had fallen on tough times. In 1987, the company’s director of planning and development, Sakaguchi Hironobu, came up with the concept of a simplification of computer-based role-playing games meant to capitalize on the success of Enix’s Dragon Quest, which had been released the previous year. Because the success or failure of Sakaguchi’s proposed game would make or break the company, the seven-man production team decided to call the project “Final Fantasy,” as it would be Square’s last game if it didn’t sell. The game did sell, however, and it has since expanded into a record-breakingly profitable franchise that has spawned countless spin-off games as well as numerous anime, manga, and feature films.

Besides Sakaguchi, several other key players in the early success of this franchise are Amano Yoshitaka, who was responsible for the games’ concept art, Uematsu Nobuo, who wrote the musical scores for the games, and Itō Hiroyuki, who designed the games’ distinctive battle systems. Since Final Fantasy VII, the series’s debut on the 32-bit Playstation console, Kitase Yoshinori has taken over directorship of the games, and Nomura Tetsuya, who had previously adapted Amano’s artwork into pixel-based sprites, took over art direction and character design. The staff for each successive game in the series has gotten larger as each game has become more sophisticated in terms of technology and gameplay, so it’s impossible to attribute the success any of the games to the genius of one or two people. I mention these names of directors, programmers, artists, and composers in order to emphasize the careful planning and artistic contributions that go into every game in the series.

I also mention these names to point out that the main contributors to the series are male. Moreover, the primary audience of the games has historically been male. I should also point out that, with the exception of Final Fantasy X-2 and Final Fantasy XIII (and perhaps Final Fantasy VI, which is a bit of an anomaly in several ways), the player-character and primary hero of each of these games has been male. In other words, we’re talking about a group of men telling stories about men for an audience of men. Although by now it has become an untrue and clichéd stereotype that only men play video games, in the early days of the series, the stereotype was very close to the truth. Perhaps it’s therefore understandable that the games have been fairly phallocentric, a word that I use to refer to the dominance of a heterosexual, male-centered economy of desire. If the phrase “heterosexual, male-centered economy of desire” makes your head spin, I will confess that it makes my head spin a little too. In essence, though, it means that men are sexual subjects, and women are sexual objects. The boy gets the girl, not the other way around.

What I am going to argue is that the Final Fantasy games have become progressively less phallocentric with each successive installment in the series. This is a happy story, both for feminism as a whole and for fans of Final Fantasy, who come to the series looking for fully developed characters and intriguing stories, not just two-dimensional paper cut-outs going through the motions of a fantasy-themed farce. Before we can get to the more gender-equal present, however, we need to take off our nostalgia glasses and take a serious look at the dark days of the beginning of the series.

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

Mechademia

Mechademia

Title: Mechademia
Editor: Frenchy Lunning
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Publication Schedule: Annually
Pages: 300

The annual publication Mechademia is, as far as I can tell, the best source for scholarship on contemporary Japanese popular culture in English, even surpassing recent essay collections like Cinema Anime (2008, edited by Stephen T. Brown) and The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture (2008, edited by Dolores Martinez), which are both fabulous. Each of the three volumes of Mechademia contains about fifteen 15-20 page articles on a specific topic, theme, or work. Although a wide range of authors, from academics to grad students to freelance writers, is represented, the editing is tight, and the essays are of uniformly high quality. These articles are well-illustrated with grayscale images, and the overall layout and design of each journal is visually attractive. Of course, the vibrant cover illustrations, taken from works by artists like Aoshima Chiho and Oksana Badrak, are quite eye-catching as well.

The subject matter of the various articles in Mechademia deals with broad cultural phenomena, such as fanfiction and the Gothic and Lolita subculture, important themes in Japanese pop culture, like shōjo and homoeroticism, and examinations of various anime, animated films, manga, and video games. Auteurs such as Miyazaki Hayao and Shinkai Makoto and famous manga-ka like Tezuka Osamu and Mizuki Shigeru are well-represented, as are controversial and provocative anime like Revolutionary Girl Utena and Neon Genesis Evangelion and canonical films such as Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence and Blood: The Last Vampire. Lesser known but still noteworthy works of Japanese animation, like Haibane Renmai, have also been included in the selection of articles.

The tone of the journal is predominantly scholarly, and the authors and editors assume that the reader is at least somewhat familiar with Japanese popular culture. In other words, Mechademia takes the value of its subject matter for granted; there are no essentializing explanations of what Japanese popular culture is and what makes it so great. The journal is not directed at “specialists,” however, as most of the articles are quite approachable by scholars who don’t know much about anime and anime fans who don’t know much about post-structuralist theory. There is very little geeking out going on on either the academic side or the otaku side, a facet of the editing which makes each volume of the journal quite readable while preserving an atmosphere of intellectual rigor.

An interesting feature is the “Review and Commentary” section at the end of each volume. This section presents several shorter articles that, as the section title suggests, take the form of reviews and commentary, often in the guise of semi-philosophical musings. Two of my favorite mini essays in this section are a piece by Trina Robbins, a former editor and localizer for the “Shojo Beat” line of manga from Viz Media, on the inner workings of an American manga publisher, and a very short introduction to the psychology of dolls in contemporary Japan by Susan Napier, the mother of “Anime Studies” in America. This “Review and Commentary” section reads like a high octane version of a monthly anime magazine and provides plenty of food for thought in bite-sized chunks.

Since Mechademia is so readable, and also since it’s such an attractive publication, I would recommend it to any serious fan of contemporary Japanese popular culture. Although the first volume was somewhat shaky on its feet, the two subsequent volumes have improved dramatically, and the new volume, “War/Time,” comes out on October 30.