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21 March 2010 @ 11:08 am
Of FF13, feminism, and lesbianism  
(Disclaimer: it's been a long time since I've written anything resembling an academic essay, much less one about gender and sexuality, so my vocabulary is extremely rusty. I'm going to use terms that are not entirely accurate, and I'm going to grope about for ways to convey what's on my mind. Forgive me if it goes off the mark in places.)

Yes, it's a terrible game, but it's still on my mind, two days after completing it. It's not comparable to other Final Fantasy games as an instalment in the series, but as a standalone game, I actually think that it might be groundbreaking. At least, it impressed me in a way that no other game has done so far.

Where to begin? Maybe an introduction to the game would be in order here. Final Fantasy 13 has the involved storyline that is typical of newer FF games. It starts with two worlds, Cocoon above and Pulse below. Cocoon sees Pulse as a hell without the hellfire, and vice versa. These worlds are sustained by beings called fal'Cie, which are servants of the Maker. And when these fal'Cie are threatened, they mark humans to become l'Cie, tools of the fal'Cie. The l'Cie have a Focus to fulfil, usually to destroy something precious like the world. This results in them being shunned by the general populace, who fear them to the point of putting pressure on the authorities to kill them on sight. As for the l'Cie themselves, it is believed that when they achieve their Focus, they turn into crystal and gain eternal life. If they fail their Focus, they turn into zombie monsters called Cie'th.

So much for the context of the game universe. The actual storyline revolves around Lightning, whose sister Serah was turned into a l'Cie, and Serah's fiance Snow, on a quest to defy fate and get Serah back. Along the way, they meet other companions: Hope, a boy who holds Snow responsible for his mother's death; Vanille, a young woman who latches onto the party but who has secrets of her own; Sazh, a black man with a chocobo chick in his nest-like hair; and Fang, a mysterious woman whose motives and loyalties are never quite clear, at least to me. Somewhere down the line Serah turns into crystal, and everyone in the party is marked to be l'Cie. The rest of the story is pretty standard Japanese fare about making your own fate, not being tools of other people, believing in yourself, the value of friendship and so on. Complete with pseudo-Christian religion being the bastion of submitting to your fate.

From left to right: Snow, Vanille, Fang, Lightning, Sazh, Hope, Serah. This picture is currently my desktop, by the way.

The first thing that struck me is how the roles of the characters are defined by the women. This is, in my experience, VERY rare in the overwhelmingly male-dominated video-game world. Video games are generally made by men, for men, and even in games that feature females in central roles, they are usually defined in relation to men, both in terms of character design (to appeal to the straight male gaze) and in terms of their role (somebody's wife or girlfriend, for example).

Now I don't claim that FF13 shatters stereotypes entirely. The stereotypes are all there: the damsel in distress, the macho hero, the skimpily-dressed female characters etc. But look again at the character descriptions. The main male character, Snow, is defined by his role as Serah's fiance, not the other way round. This is because Lightning is the central character and the face of FF13. Snow's role is therefore defined in relation to her - as her sister's fiance. That's not much, I'll admit, but it's actually pretty rare in videogame world.

Sazh, the other male fighter, is on a quest to get back his young son, who was also turned l'Cie. He therefore takes on the father-figure role. But unlike the father-hero of Hollywood movies, Sazh is almost motherly in his attempts to parent everyone around him. He is prone to bouts of self-doubt. Granted, there is no mention of his wife at all, and he's probably the only main male character that isn't defined by a female. But if Sazh, the devoted parent and reluctant fighter plagued by self-doubt, is the most independent male in the game, I call that progress.

Hope, the young boy, is a story of growing up and learning independence. The liner notes describe him as a mummy's boy, whose entire world was snatched away from him by a moment's mistake on Snow's part. The first half has him following the party in order to get his revenge on Snow, but later learns to stand on his own two feet. I couldn't stand Hope at first. He was whiny and weak, and in a game about battling monsters, he was obviously the weakest link. He's a healer rather than a fighter, but even as a healer he was pretty weak. (He's earned the nickname of "Hopeless".) But as his character developed, so did his abilities, and I discovered that I quite liked him by the end of the game. Still, his position in the story was defined by his dependence on his mother. We do meet his father later in the game, but he, too, seemed to be defined by the loss of his wife, and Hope in fact took charge of him.

So we've seen how the men in this game don't really take on traditional roles. What about the women?

Lightning was an ex-soldier. There's a scene where the typicial pot-bellied, friendly sergeant gives Lightning comradely, even fatherly, advice. I couldn't help thinking that in the real world, this is nearly impossible. But the game treated it as if it was perfectly normal for an attractive young woman to be a soldier, and for other soldiers to treat her as such. How I wished that I lived in such a world. Yes, it's fantasy, but think of all the boys who will be playing this game. True, it won't single-handedly turn them into people capable of accepting women as soldiers and equals, if they aren't already so. But they're playing as Lightning. They would, on some level, desire this respect, no matter how they may themselves objectify her. And they're getting the respect that they want in this game. It may be a small step, or it may make no difference at all to the men who can't see women as equals, but I like to think that it's progress.

Vanille is pretty bimbo-tastic, but her role in breaking videogame stereotypes comes later.

Fang is arguably the most awesome character in the whole game. She is a fighter, and her personality is sassy, blunt, even possibly grating. Singaporeans would call her an "ah beng", a hooligan. She fits the hooligan with an attitude - except that she is a woman, and a very good one at that. The FF series has played with the idea of stronger female fighters with an attitude before. The last one I played was FFX-2, with the character of Paine. Paine was a failure, though, in the sense that she came across as being strongly butch. She could not be the strong physical fighter without taking on masculine characteristics that detracted from her feminity.

Left: Paine; right: Fang

You see what I'm talking about here. In contrast, Fang manages to retain much of her feminity, yet she's clearly a warrior. Granted, this is achieved by giving her an ethnic/tribal look - her clothes are reminiscent of the Indian sari, and the tattoos complete the tribal feel. Still, compared to Paine's leather-and-bondage look, I think it's an improvement.

So that's pretty much why I think FF13 manages to walk that thin line between breaking gender stereotypes and conforming to them. And I like it.

Moving on to the homosexuality themes. Interestingly, when I googled "ff13 lesbians" to see what the rest of the videogame world was thinking about, the first few results were talking about the design of the Shiva motorcycle.

Top: the Shiva twins. Bottom: Snow on the Shiva motorbike.

Basically, each of the characters has a special being that can help them during battle. Snow's is made up of the Shiva twins, which combine to form a motorcycle which he can use to do battle. Something like the Transformers. Except that in order to become the bike, the twins link legs and merge their lower halves. Hence the question about lesbianism.


I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions from the pictures. Keep in mind that most of the gamers online are male.

My point, though, was the treatment of what seems to be the lesbian relationship between Fang and Vanille. Granted, it's never explicitly stated anywhere in the game that Fang and Vanille are lesbian. But if Fang were a guy (I'm saying Fang, because Vanille is obviously the femme in the relationship), I don't think anyone would hesitate to jump to the conclusion that they were "an item".

Let's have a look at these quotes:

FANG: Pulse and Cocoon can rot for all I care. If I don't figure out our focus soon... Vanille's gonna be a Cie'th. I'll tear down the sky if it'll save her.

FANG: (to Vanille) Let's be done with this and run away together!

FANG: (to Vanille) I would rather die than let anything happen to you.

... and so on and so forth. It doesn't take a genius to figure it out. The genius is in the fact that theirs is the first lesbian relationship I've seen in a game that is overtly emotional, not sexual. Digging deeper, this page in a really long discussion really about sums it up. Yes, Vanille totally puts her hand on Fang's chest before Fang hugs her, but I think that's actually more of a mistake on the animator's part. Either that or a not-so-subtle nudge. Still, entirely unsexual.

I'm very encouraged by the handling of their relationship. It's fantastic. It leaves enough ambiguity that it doesn't upset people for whom homosexuality is a problem - and therefore doesn't turn off a significant part of their market. A smart move, financially speaking. But it's also blindingly obvious to anyone with half a brain that they are, if not lesbian, then very very devoted to each other. The bittersweet ending confirms it. As the page from the Gamespot forums puts it: if this were a straight couple, no one would deny that they were deeply in love.


It's all really sweet, actually, and the ending had me almost in tears.

And the amazing thing is how, if Fang and Vanille are really a lesbian couple, they don't entirely conform to the butch/femme dichotomy. Yes, I could probably point to Fang and label her butch, and Vanille the femme. But as I said before, Fang doesn't completely fit the butch label. She's beautiful and sexy in a conventionally acceptable heterosexual way. If there's any way she's masculine, it lies in her personality and behaviour, rather than her looks. It feels genuine to me, somehow. Fang is a genuine woman, and she is the dominant partner in the relationship. It's wonderful how she doesn't need to be reduced to a pitiful shadow of masculinity, or a sexualised being, in order to be a warrior and a lesbian.

There's a little less to be said for Vanille, of course, since she's the Selphie/Yuffie/squeaky cute girl of the FF character types. So she is designed to be attractive by conventional straight male standards. Still, she is a very girly girl, who just happens to have her heart on another girl. And that, by me, is just fine.

I think I've rambled on enough now, and if you managed to stick with me this far, congratulations and have a tin of cookies! In short, Final Fantasy 13 is a failure of a game, but life-changing in its handling of feminity and lesbianism. It is overall a female-dominated game, and very feminine without being condescending. It feels to me to be very genuine in its treatment of women, and for that alone I love this game.
insatiably glazzal: rainbow {by deathphobia}glazzal on March 21st, 2010 03:52 pm (UTC)
I'm going to speak from my experience of watching Japanese animation. I don't actually know if the context of gaming is close to that of anime, but I'm going to assume they are similar.

In anime, female heroes are quite common. Often, they are not defined by the men in their lives but play the roles of friends, students and superhuman characters of whatever stripe. They also frequently appear skimpily clad. I would say that the femme warrior (who sometimes fights in heels) is as common a trope as the butch (over-protective) one.

Now, I am curious: are masculine women really so common in video games that you would view such a character as a failure in breaking the stereotype? I must state here that butchness isn't an appropriation of maleness (the state of being male, might be different from masculinity) but is a separate category of its own and is simply a different way of being female. In this light, femmeness might be seen as a caving to heteronormative male-desired views of what a woman should be.

While I do acknowledge that embracing the idea that two femme-identified women can be together breaks the mould to some extent, I also think we should not forget that it's also long been the lesbian fantasy in popular culture!

Actually, I think this is an interesting reflection on how the image of lesbians have evolved in a particular niche of popular culture. I also like it! We are moving towards a label-less society!

Question: Should we dislike the butch-femme dynamic in this day and age?

(I predict that you're going to bring up things I've never thought of and challenge my thinking in a way I'm not prepared for, LOL. Bring it on!)
Auriondauriond on March 21st, 2010 10:14 pm (UTC)
XD I'm not sure. Okay.

Yes, the hero who fights in heels is damn common indeed. But their aesthetic is geared towards the straight male gaze, so yes, what you say about femmeness caving in to heteronormativity (is there such a word?) Not being a lesbian, however, I'm not really in a position to say what appeals to the gay female. But I suspect that it's not really much different from what appeals to straight females, since taste in people shouldn't be entirely reliant on sexuality.

Masculine women really are rather un-common in video games. In that sense, FF was being brave in bringing out a masculine female fighter, and yes, they were breaking a stereotype. But then I'm conflating the history of FF with the history of video gaming, because at least in the FF games that I've played, there have been no actual good female warriors (as opposed to mage or healer). And the first one I encountered could only do so by taking on the characteristics of its typical male warrior leads (the leather garb, sullen personality etc.). But yeah, good point - in the larger view of the video game world, I suppose Paine would have been groundbreaking in her own way. Still, FFX-2 was a joke of a game itself, so she couldn't really be developed in any depth. Lightning and Fang are the same type of character, but much better handled and developed.

Two femme women together is indeed the lesbian fantasy (see the Shiva twins). My point was that Fang was not exactly hyper-femme the way Vanille was, yet she didn't go all the way to butch or hyper-masculinity either. She walked a thin line in between that felt genuine to me, as a woman, because at least I personally don't consciously go out of my way to project a butch or femme image, and I suspect most women don't either.

Should we dislike the butch-femme dynamic? Nope. To an extent, Fang and Vanille fit those roles well. But it's not obvious. I think in the end I'm praising the game for not having to resort to hyper-masculinity to develop Fang and Vanille's relationship. But somehow hyper-feminity doesn't bother me, probably because it's such a staple of FF that I can't imagine FF without that overly cute anime girlyness.
insatiably glazzal: simoun - aaeru the heroicglazzal on March 21st, 2010 03:56 pm (UTC)
this is the brainless reaction
Ooooooooh pretty peekture! They're cute!

Nice post and interesting topic!
Auriondauriond on March 21st, 2010 10:14 pm (UTC)
Re: this is the brainless reaction
XD FF always delivers in the realm of eye candy, that's for sure.
popcorn_oraclepopcorn_oracle on March 23rd, 2010 06:36 am (UTC)
Haha sorry random journal lurker here, but this came up when I typed Vanille/Fang. I pretty much bought the game after hearing some guys bitch about "feminist and lesbian undertones", which translated to me as MUST GET THIS GAME NOW. And I honestly didn't expect it to live up to my expectations, but wow it exceeded them. But yeah, I was pretty much thinking these exact things as I played/was taking the same notes, and you've pretty much written the basics of the essay I'm probably still gonna write on this. All in all, I so agree! And Fang is amazingly awesome. I'm so proud of FF as such a mainstream series to take steps like this.
Auriond: saltflatsauriond on March 23rd, 2010 09:46 am (UTC)
:D Brilliant how it got the same reaction! What I love is how completely matter-of-fact about it, as if we live in a world where all this isn't remarkable at all.

Would love to see your take on the essay!
popcorn_oracle: sammich!popcorn_oracle on March 23rd, 2010 11:08 pm (UTC)
Haha, yeah that's whats great about the way they treat gender roles in that game. In a way of course I wish they'd address it, but I'm also really glad to never hear them doing the "explaining away toughness" cliche, where they're "only strong because I had to because this ___". Or hearing that Vanille and Fang are "like sisters" haha. I haven't finished the game yet but I hope to this week, if not, spring break is coming up very soon and I'll for sure have things together by then.