The Escapist on Wussy RPG Girls

Luna, a "wimpy" heroine from Lunar: Silver Star Story.

Luna, a wimpy heroine from Lunar: Silver Star Story. She is dropping a basket of fruit. The fruit flies everywhere as she tries to push down her skirt in a gust of wind.

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.

Lightning, the protagonist from Final Fantasy XIII.

Lightning, the protagonist from Final Fantasy XIII. She poses with her gun-blade drawn over her head and looks over her shoulder towards the camera.

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.

About Lake Desire

Lake Desire, real name Ariel Wetzel, has been blogging about feminism and videogames since 2005 at her blog New Game Plus. Lake also writes at Feminist SF - The Blog! Lake Desire is an English graduate student at University of Washington, studying science fiction, feminism, and cyberculture. At work, Lake participates in rank and file labor organizing and the anti-budget cuts struggle. Lake believes in direct democracy, queer liberation, and opposes white supremacy, patriarchy, and imperialism. Lake is white, queer, feminist, anarchist, and of course a cyborg. Lake may not sound like your typical gamer, but has been gaming since a toddler and never managed to quit.
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14 Responses to The Escapist on Wussy RPG Girls

  1. Thefremen says:

    As bad as a lot of the dialogue in Final Fantasy 13 I did like the characterization of Lightning and Sazh. Sazh’s characteristics of course have already been discussed at length here, and after (finally) finishing the game I still like the character.

  2. 12Sided says:

    actually punching Snow in the face is some of my favourite parts of the early game. One could argue that it’s not showing Lightning being ‘tough’ at all, but emotional; Snow is pissing her off and the way she handles it, after the bombshell that hit the party, is with physical violence.

    I really hate when strong female characters get criticised for being overly masculine, its been a pet peeve of mine ever since I read a reviewer who said Sara Connor in T2 acted like a male character in a woman’s body and then went on to praise the Charlies Angels movie *headDesk*

  3. Shy says:

    I’m not sure. I may be remembering things incorrectly, but I felt like Lightning was actually sort of jerky and violent. I think it might have been some misplaced “girl power” they were going for, but if she were a male protagonist punching party members like that, I’d definitely feel that was jerky and violent. I thought they did a better job with Fang, in terms of competent and capable female characters.

  4. tossca says:

    When I read this article, I was thoroughly enjoying it up until the point where Stahl made those comments about Lightning. Then I just became frustrated with the double standard.

    Feminine women are too weak, strong women are too masculine. Blah blah blah, I know we’ve all heard it before.

    It reminds me of comments I’ve seen made about Samus from Metroid Prime, although I never played the game. I’ve read some people criticize that she is over done and completely defeminized. I can only take this to mean that she isn’t weak enough to apply to society’s standards of feminine and she isn’t using sex as some type of power tool designed for the appreciation of the male gaze.

    I think the same characteristics apply to Lightning, which is why I find her to be such a great female character.

  5. Eva says:

    I want to like Lightning for being a strong female lead, I really do, but I do find that her brusque characterization bothers me. It is as though the developers/writers couldn’t think of any other way to portray a woman who wasn’t of the “wussy” type–Lightning does read very much like a male character, and furthermore her motivation for being engaged in the plot is a Woman In Trouble (Serah), just like it is for every single male JRPG lead ever (as well as Snow). Apparently nobody’s ever motivated to do anything unless a girl needs saving.

    I’m also torn by the lack of a romantic interest angle. On the one hand, yes, fantastic, she doesn’t need to be sexualized and in a relationship to have merit! I loved when they did the same thing in Final Fantasy XII, leaving both Vaan (the player’s character) and Ashe (the real protagonist) strong and independent (especially Ashe). On the other hand, in this case I have to wonder whether it was again because Square had no idea how to write a romantic relationship for a strong woman like Lightning without giving her a man who would overshadow her abilities. The power dynamics of JRPG relationships are very distinct, and the strongest female characters in these games are often the ones who remain unattached. It bothers me that the message seems to be that you can be a strong woman, or you can be in a relationship, but you can’t be both.

  6. Lake Desire says:

    Yeah I much preferred Fang, but maybe because she reminded me of Xena, who is not feminine but not really masculine either. Lightning was kind of one dimensional, but I still liked her anyways because at least she wasn’t your typical one dimensional lead.

  7. Neo Romantic says:

    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.

    This is my cue to plug visual novels. :) A sadly still obscure video game genre!

  8. M. says:

    I agree with 12Sided and tossca.

    Now, I have never played the game, but I wonder if people read Lightning “as a male” because of double standards and gender existentialism (because masculine/violent women don’t exist in real life right? :rollseyes: and only men are aggressive right?)

    Also, the comments on the original article make want to punch something…

  9. Lake Desire says:

    Serah is indeed the princess in need of saving, but I’d say Hope is, too. I was irritated by the helplessness of both characters, but it was kind of nice to see the wimp was a boy for a change.

    Ashe was awesome. I’ve been meaning to write a post about her but it’s been so many years I can’t remember what I liked.

  10. Lake Desire says:

    @M. Yeah, I was annoyed by the comments in the article, especially because The Escapist seems to brand itself as a mature and intellectual magazine, I’d expect more from its readers. I wonder if jerks just like to intellectualize their misogyny to help themselves sleep at night…

  11. Ikkin says:

    The double-bind that tends to arise when dealing with female characters really is frustrating.

    Female characters who avoids stereotypical “girly” behavior have an unfortunate tendency to come off as “Diamonds in the Rough” — women who are only strong because they reject their own gender as weak and avoid everything associated with it.

    But, on the other hand, while a “Diamond in the Rough”-type character is particularly unhelpful to the cause of creating realistic portrayals of empowered women, it’s all too easy for the condemnation of perceived instances of them to mutate into the delegitimization of female characters who just don’t happen to be particularly feminine.

    I think the difference in opinion on Lightning really comes down to whether one believes her behavior makes her a “Diamond in the Rough” or not. I don’t believe she is — her violent and jerkish treatment of the rest of the cast is treated as her biggest flaw, and it’s something she overcomes as the game progresses while retaining her strength in all other ways — but I can see how others could come to that conclusion. (I actually have a much bigger problem with the way Lightning’s PR depiction changed over the course of the game’s development — the difference between her first official render and the render used on the game cover is quite noticeable, in the worst way — but that’s a different issue)

    On the other hand, of Square-Enix’s recent female protagonists, I find Kingdom Hearts’ Aqua to be the more interesting character because she uses her feminine aspects to support her strength as a warrior even as she sometimes follows masculine patterns of behavior (like acting chivalrous towards Cinderella). That’s the kind of middle ground I like to see — characters with too great a variety of traits from each side to be labeled as either “weak” or “manly.”

  12. Lake Desire says:

    I’m glad to hear Aqua is a well-done character. I’ll play the new PSP title one of these days! I loved, loved, loved Kingdom Hearts 1&2 but haven’t replayed the series in several years because I am so annoyed by the princesses (including Kairi) spend most of the first game kidnapped and on-ice. I am only comforted by reading the games as a love story between Sora and Riku.

  13. Forgive me for not reading this whole article (or the comments), because I’m right in the middle of FFXIII and I don’t want to spoil anything, but I have to throw in my two cents and say that, as a woman, Lightning is, hands-down, my favorite video game character ever. Seriously, I love that girl.

    I love that she’s a tough-ass soldier who punches dudes in the face when she’s pissed off. Overly masculine? Hardly. Unbelievable? Not at all. Has this dumb writer ever actually met any female cops or soldiers? No, probably not–apparently she still thinks girls have to follow the feminine stereotype of being nice and gentle and resolving emotional issues with a hot chocolate, box of kleenex, and honest conversation. Bullsh*t. Then she wonders where all the wimpy characters come from.

    It’s not “being masculine”–it’s being badass, and anyone can be that way. It’s nice, for once, to see a girl who’s unapologetically tough.

    FFXIII is the game that got me back into JRPGs after being bored with them for so long. There are only so many games you can play as samey male teenagers out to save the world before they start blurring into one another. FFXIII, on the other hand, finally builds some diversity into its crew. And Lightning–epic win, Square Enix. :)

  14. A lot of the recent flap over Jim Sterling’s (and others) opinions on how gay characters should be represented in videogames has gotten me thinking–again–about Lightning, and her place in the representation of women in games.

    Just as in the “Gay (but not “Gay”) characters in videogames article” on this site asserts, I think those who hold the opinion that women like Lightning are “too masculine” are missing the context in which her strength must’ve arisen.

    Lightning exists in a society where men rule, and women aren’t seen as nearly as powerful and capable. It’s perfectly reasonable that in order to assert her own strength, she needs to go above and beyond what a man might. She needs to act tougher, colder, and more aggressive to receive the same level of respect that is simply assumed for men.

    For me, Lightning is MORE believable and likable because she acts “too masculine”. As a woman who lives in an inequal world, there’s no doubt in my mind that her exaggerated aggressiveness was her way of proving her equality.

    This theory is also supported by Fang, who is clearly a strong woman herself, but doesn’t share Lightning’s penchant for violence. It’s heavily implied that Fang came from a very different, more egalitarian society where there is no need for the same kind of chest-thumping displays of power.

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