Today, in The Escapist, journalist Eileen Stahl writes an intriguing analysis of wimpy women in Japanese role-playing games that hardly deserve the title “heroine.” She links these wimpy women to the tradition of Kabuki theater in 17th century Japan, which both artistically enacted stereotypes and reflected the era’s gender norms. What I found most interesting was the contradiction that Stahl notes. Women keep playing JRPGs despite a lack of strong women:
“Unsurprisingly, Wussy RPG Girls have few fans among female players. The Princess Type may have been popular among the ladies in Tokugawa Japan, but young women who grew up with Buffy the Vampire Slayer tend to want a heroine capable of something other than sobbing uncontrollably in the corner. Yet JRPGs remain extremely popular among women, perhaps more so than any other genre. I know next to none who actually like these characters, compared to oodles who start grinding their teeth at the mere mention of them. Wussy RPG Girls are a necessary evil we endure, but not enjoy, when playing the games we love.”
I can’t speak for why other women enjoy JRPGs, but as a teenager in the late 90s and early 00s, I loved JRPGs because they were like interactive novels. Like a good book, I could get invested in the plot and characters, but unlike novels I could actively shape the direction the story went. I identified with the protagonists and became him as I experienced his story. There was one minor blip: I could not project myself onto many of the women because of a combination of a lack of female playable leads and strong, identifiable female secondary characters. I had to see the game through the eyes of the dudes, instead.
The only point where I disagree with Stahl’s article is her read on Lightning, Final Fantasy XIII‘s protagonist. Stahl argues that Lightning is a problematic reversal that makes a female lead overly masculine and the result is an unbelievable character who punches guys in the face. She writes:
“The prissy Princess Type has been on the decline in recent years, replaced by more capable female leads. And by “capable,” I don’t mean they need to deck their male co-stars in the face once per hour of game time, a la Lightning of Final Fantasy XIII. While an immense improvement over the Wussy RPG Girl, Lightning is really an example of the same principle taken to the other extreme. In the place of constant kidnappings, the game pounds her toughness into players’ heads by having her perform random acts of aggression. She’s written as far more overbearingly macho than the majority of male protagonists and, just like the Wussy RPG Girl’s nubile frailty, her toughness is so exaggerated that it’s sometimes hard to take her seriously. Can you imagine a Final Fantasy VII with Cloud constantly sucker-punching Barret?”
I do not think Stahl’s take on Lightning is unreasonable, but I want to defend one of my favorite RPG protagonists. I was not particularly jarred by Lightning’s macho behavior. I was so thrilled to see a female protagonist who appeared capable and did not have the proportions or outfit of a Dead or Alive girl that before FFXIII was released, I praised the character design of Lightning as attractive but not overly sexy. After I played the game, I wrote a review praising the women in the game. Here’s how I felt, and feel, about Lightning:
“Prior to the game, Lightning’s parents were killed when she was a teenager, and she changes her name to “Lightning” and becomes a soldier so she can better protect her sister. She doesn’t feel sorry for herself, and even rescues the men in her party when they face danger. Her costume design is attractive but not sexual. Perhaps my favorite thing about her is that she isn’t anyone’s love interest. We never learn her sexual orientation, and that’s OK. Lightning has more important things to do than fall in love, like save the world. How often do we get female protagonists get to same the world without being objectified? It is about time.”
I read Lightning as a reasonable (for a fantasy game) portrayal of a women who lost her parents, had to raise her little sister, and dealt with the sexism and authoritarianism she must have experienced in the military. Lightning gets to be a person, as much as the angsty male leads of games do. I dig warrior women like the iconic Buffy and Xena, so I found Lightning to be a breath of fresh air. I take her as a positive sign that intriguing female leads can exist.