Happy Valentine’s Day, Lusi-sprites! It is the time of year when flower and candy shops make a killing, hotels are all booked up, and Lusipurr.com turns its fancy to a Spring Playthrough of Wild Arms. I am a few hours into the charming little title and certainly enjoying my time with it. However, I find my eye twitching whenever characters point out time and time again that Cecilia is a woman in a manner that implies she is lesser. Despite proving herself in battle, the other characters – at least thus far – tiptoe around her in an attempt to preserve the delicate flower. As is often the case in JRPGs, the angle is not that Cecilia is a strong woman, or even that Cecilia proves to be strong despite seeming weak, it is that Cecilia will prove to be strong despite being a woman.
This situation is echoed in the more recent and less impressive Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. A seeming majority of characters feel the need to point out that Estelle is female and therefore should be neither feisty nor capable of wielding a staff with any semblance of skill. It is one frustrating thing to make “female” a personality trait in a game, and an even more frustrating thing to have all other characters within the game be constantly reminding the player of it.
But these annoyances turned my mind to some recent – more positive – thoughts I had when playing Final Fantasy XIII-2. At first I rolled my eyes at outfits that were needlessly revealing for characters intended to be warriors. However, in the Final Fantasy series, that is more often a result of overall exaggerated design. Lulu is all belts and boobs, Barrett is all muscle and no shirt, most characters have weapons the size of their bodies, and Kuja has the most revealing outfit in the series. Forgetting the outfits, however, the women in XIII-2 are never called out for their gender. Lightning is a former soldier, now warrior of the Goddess, and the game world refreshingly accepts this without a need for a justification. The female lead, Serah certainly has weaknesses, but they are simply human weaknesses. The game never implies her flaws are rooted in her assortment of chromosomes. As they should be, the characters are defined by what they do, and not simply by being women.
This made me think about the other female characters in the Final Fantasy series. The games are certainly not perfect in their portrayal of gender roles. There are plenty of gratuitous boobs and damsel in distress situations, but overall I found Final Fantasy to be worlds ahead of many of its JRPG counterparts.
Take Faris in Final Fantasy V. The game is 20 years old, but already tries to turn gamer’s perceptions on their heads by means of a badass cross-dressing pirate. Terra is arguably the lead character in Final Fantasy VI, but as she is plagued by memory loss and the need to turn bright colours and fly away, the real female star is Celes. She is like her series counterpart, Beatrix, but with more reasonable attire. Both are – or were – respected and powerful generals with complex character motivations. Their positions and character are not framed by their sex.
Tifa may have an unrealistic bust size, but nobody questions her capability as she kicks ass with her bare hands in Final Fantasy VII. She is an equal both in and out of battle. Also, after players are aware of the game’s Fight Club-esque plot twist, Tifa becomes a far more layered character on a second playthrough.
Final Fantasy IX features an army compromised of entirely female soldiers. This is not strange in the land of Alexandria. This is not a bizarre exception that is cause for analysis. Steiner’s Knights of Pluto exist and Beatrix’s army exists. The latter does not exist “despite being female”. In fact, if players are as thorough in IX as I am, they will notice stories of old war heroes that consist of both male and female heroes painted in equal light. Dagger – like Serah – has many weaknesses, but they are treated as human flaws, not “female symptoms”.
Ironically, the series’ one attempt to make a concentrated “girl power” effort in Final Fantasy X-2 instead showcases the franchise’s most sexist title. See, the thing about equality in art is that the less of a big deal gender is to the characters, the more powerful the effect. Do not tell the audience there is a strong female lead, just show it. Hell, as mentioned, it is perfectly fine to show a weak female lead, but there is simply no need to point out specific traits as “female” traits.
The Final Fantasy series is certainly under the influence of the male gaze in terms of skimpy outfits and camera angles, but ultimately it treats its female characters as equal characters. It is unfortunately more than practically any other series in the genre can claim, but it was nice to be pleasantly surprised as I reviewed the series with a feminist lense.