Trigger warning: hinted at rape.
When I first played Final Fantasy VII in my teens, I was already starting to realize I was generally genderqueer, particularly as regards fashion and presentation. Despite the proclamations that abhor the melodrama in said game, it often seems to be overlooked that it is riddled with comedy in a myriad of forms, and one of those is the classic trope of male dressed as and being confused for a woman. While the tendency for many in the stereotypical gaming culture would be to point out that jRPGs are filled with effete girly-men (which, as a concept, I never found offensive until I thought of how it was trying to disparage females), I would argue that what happens in Wall Market in Final Fantasy VII offers a somewhat broad take on gender presentation and, to some extent, sexuality, though both are still fairly limited in the grander scope of gender representation. Spoilers will follow.
First, the scene. Cloud, the primary protagonist for much of the game, is ex-SOLDIER, an elite special tasks force who work for the Shinra Corporation. He has teamed up with his childhood friend Tifa and the leader of the group AVALANCHE, Barret. After a mission is thwarted by Shinra, Cloud is separated from both Tifa and Barret and falls into a church, where he meets Aeris, a woman who sells flowers in the slums. Upon trying to return to Tifa’s bar in another slum (the game has a rather condemning tone against corporations and their effect on socioeconomic status–especially in larger cities), he instead sees her on the back of a carriage, being carted away to Don Corneo’s Mansion, located in Wall Market, because apparently Don Corneo has some information as regards Shinra. This is where the sidequest that involves putting Cloud in drag begins.
Upon trying to enter Don Corneo’s mansion, it becomes obvious that entry is barred to other males. Tifa is already in, Aeris could obviously enter, and a need for a solution. Upon wandering back to Wall Market and entering a dress shop, it occurs to Aeris that she might have a plan for entering the mansion. Namely, taking the somewhat aloof, cocky Cloud and putting him in a dress.
I was fascinated when I first came across this, and realizing I was being presented with a set of minigames and decisions as to what my Cloud in frock would choose for his dress material, wig, and fragrance, meant I quickly hopped online for a walkthrough, or at least an explanation of the underlying mechanics. The game allows some options here. Do you wish to be the prettiest woman in a competition that comes later, or just wish to barrel through the plot and have one of the other women be chosen? Naturally, I wanted Cloud to put on the best performance he could–I wanted to ‘win.’
In order to be chosen by Don Corneo, you have to get a certain combination of items. According to this FAQ, the break down of who gets chosen is as follows: Tifa, 251 combinations; Aeris, 24 combinations; Cloud, 4. The decision in itself was certainly amusing to me at the time, particularly in dressing the reserved Cloud in a silk dress, blonde wig, bikini briefs, diamond tiara, and smelling of sexy cologne to be chosen; before I further examine how that scene presents itself, I would like to look at procuring those items I listed above that allow a win, which itself has some interesting moments regarding sexuality.
First there is the dress. This minigame is fairly straight forward–you choose from a list of materials, which determines what dress you have. Of interest is that the dress maker has become somewhat bored with dresses in general, but finds getting Cloud in a dress a challenge.
This leads to the wig, which the dress maker mentions may be procured from the gym–making some remarks as to their behavior. When you go to the gym, you see a bunch of muscular men about, with a woman you speak to called Big Bro. Everyone seems to look up to Big Bro, and the game clearly tells you that Big Bro is a male who is cross-dressing, by him referencing himself as a man. You engage in a contest of rhythmically squatting, and must beat your competitor’s score, whereupon you receive the blonde wig.
At this point, you can just go on to Don Corneo’s mansion–you will not be chosen, but you can continue with the game. However, there are some more items to be gained in order to be selected by the Don.
First in the optional items to procure is the sexy cologne, received from eating at a diner, earning a pharmacy coupon for not insulting the food, and then exchanging it for a digestive. This digestive is given to a person in a bathroom for the cologne. Strange logic.
The diamond tiara is obtained by talking to the materia shop owner, who asks you to stay at the inn. Spend money at the vending machine, tell him about it, and the tiara is yours–spend the highest amount and receive the diamond tiara.
It is the last item that absolutely floored me when I played the game on my PC twelve years ago, however. Your undergarments. You head to the Honey Bee Inn, where you must gain entrance. Upon doing so, you can go to a few rooms. Head to the group room and instead of having a group of women enter, as the game seems to imply (or so I thought at the time), you will instead have a group of muscular men enter the room. They suggest you all get into the hot tub to wash off your sweat and dirt together–while you have the option of saying you want to leave, you can’t actually do so once the scene has begun.
After Cloud has been stripped by the men, the lead man Mukki makes a few comments in praise of him, they get in the tub, the camera pretty much stays where it is (so you only see the heads of the people talking, bobbing about), and the conversation takes a really strange turn. After being asked how everything is, Cloud has a few options of how to respond: ‘….’ indicating a silence, and ‘It hurts.’ The last option seems to indicate sexual assault of some kind (or so my mind believes), but Cloud’s actual response when this option is selected is that it’s too stuffy in the tub.
Here is where Mukki tells Cloud to calm down and count to ten. As Cloud is counting, a few more questions are asked, such as his age (21) and if he wants to join Mukki’s “Young Bubby’s” group. The options here are silence (again) and “Not interested.” However, even when selecting silence as an option, Cloud’s response is, “Not to be rude or anything, but could you go do someone else?” After this scene, Cloud counts down again, leaves the tub, and Mukki responds by asking him to stick around a bit longer because “Daddy is lonely.”
After all this, Cloud is given the Bikini Briefs as a memento of the time spent with Mukki, and the scene is over.
That entire scene baffled me when I was younger, and when I recently replayed it on my PSP, I was cringing. The language there clearly indicates male-on-male sexual interaction, and it is difficult to parse out whether or not Cloud is a willing participant. On the one hand, you are controlling him, so his will should be yours? On the other hand, this is clearly a narrative where the characters have their own motives, so it is hard to reconcile the player’s will on to his own.
Finally, after gathering all the items, you get into your garb and head to the mansion. First you meet up with Tifa who explains that Don Corneo is a ‘lech’ and brings three women before him so he can select which one he’ll have for the night. Tifa, Aeris, and Ms. Cloud are to be it. After some hemming and hawing, and if you gathered the above items, Don Corneo finally selects Cloud (whom he calls ‘healthy-looking’, against the other choices, on whose beauty he’ll remark), who has been constantly turning his cheek to avoid Don Corneo getting a direct look at Cloud. Off to his room they go, after telling his henchmen they can have ‘the other ones.’
In the following scene you can play along or not, telling Don Corneo how you like him. The scene eventually leads to where Cloud is about to give Don Corneo a kiss (after some dialog including him calling himself daddy, and implying how horny Cloud makes him) before Tifa and Aeris barge in, having taken care of Don Corneo’s henchmen. After asking Cloud if he really was going to kiss Don Corneo (he shakes his head no), Don Corneo’s response is “A man?! What’s going on?”
This leads to an interrogation by Tifa, whereby each time he stalls, one of the party members illustrates what they’ll do to his testes (not pleasant options, mind you). The plot continues from here as Don Corneo pulls a switch and they fall into the sewers.
Alternately, if Cloud is not selected, he and the other female companion will end up with the guards of the mansion, who indicate that they’ll treat the ladies ‘real nice.’ You can run around the room a bit with henchmen who follow after you with arms upraised like zombies. Eventually you reveal you are a man and a fight ensues, whereby they promise you won’t get away with this.
Heading to Don Corneo’s room will give a scene where Tifa, let’s say, is on the bed, and Don Corneo assures her he’s single while thrusting his hips back and forth.
For me, this entire section of the game just has tons of gender stereotypes to unpack. While it is filled with humor, it doesn’t go out of its way to make fun of the effeminate or clearly homosexual body builders (I don’t necessarily see the two groups, in the gym and then in the hot tub, as the same, and the instances in the gym and Honey Bee are separate). These people are clearly comfortable with who they are, and the only uncomfortable person is Cloud.
Unfortunately, his discomfort is confusing in light of the fact that one can choose positive responses in both the group room at the Honey Bee and with Don Corneo. It raises the question of purposely playing to put a character we control in a situation in which they will not be comfortable. The entire humor of this section of the game hinges on us delighting in the supposed extreme lengths Cloud goes to humiliate himself–though not necessarily to decrease his masculinity. Obtaining the wig, for instance, comes through a competition of brawn.
Looking at the treatment of women, Don Corneo and his goons are painted in a lecherous brush. They are clearly the villains, whose primary directive appears to objectify women. Thankfully it is not Cloud alone who can take care of himself, and the scenes allow both Tifa and Aeris to show they are capable of handling their own situations.
It’s also worth noting that the dress maker and his son both make comments that they may have a new business in making dresses for men, which, given their neighborhood does not seem out of the question. Big Bro’s presentation shows that even while he looks like a woman, it is only his gender presentation that has changed, not his mannerisms. Even Tifa and Aeris find amusement at Cloud in drag, but primarily at how he isn’t necessarily a bad-looking woman.
While it is certainly not the most positive take on gender, it seems much more progressive than what I would expect from such a title.