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Valuing the Feminine: Why I Love Vanille

Vanille, from Final Fantasy XIII. A young girl with pink pig-tails and wearing tribal-aesthetic necklaces.

Vanille, from Final Fantasy XIII. A young girl with pink pig-tails and wearing tribal-aesthetic necklaces.

Let me come out with it now: my favorite Final Fantasy characters tend to be the classic cheerful and energetic archetype, like Aeris, Selphie, and Vanille. It’s usually because I bring a lot of myself into games, and want to relate to someone in a fantasy world. Before I really looked into gender studies, I didn’t realize how problematic these characters were in respect to women’s portrayal in games overall. While I have that perspective now, I still look back at my connection to them with fondness. It wasn’t until recent conversation with peers that I tested my defense of these women; their reception is mostly negative or dismissive because they are seen as hyperactive and hyper-feminine, perceived to serve the very narrow interests of hegemony. For the most part, I agree. The fandom Final Fantasy appeals to expects certain characters in their party, as consistently having that stereotype of a young girl just past sexual maturity shows. So I’m not going to argue against how they are problematic, rather just the short end of the stick they receive.

If there is a vantage point transition gives me, it’s to see how people react differently the identities they think I have. I experienced a shift of privilege when my appearance went from others pegging me as some sort of male to seeing me as a woman. One thing that, to this day, bothers me is how my happy-go-lucky, sensitive persona went from a characteristic of being well rounded as male to a sign of weakness and unintelligence as a woman. What was before friendly and comforting became ditzy and vulnerable. It’s been a battle for me in the workspaces I inhabit, as I either have to be myself and treated this way, or hardened and forceful with my competency, which brings on another set of gendered insults. I’ve experienced this recently when networking and socializing with other game writers, encountering some who devalue my opinion because I’m feminine. So I have a stake in this, one that tells me something else is going on with how we’re treating this type of character. We often demonize the feminine because it seems regressive in our gender politics, but decidedly feminine women aren’t the issue. It’s the values that see femininity as inferior we still need to look at.

I came to this realization when playing Final Fantasy XIII. It’s a game where the women stole the show and I barely remember what the men actually did, which is nice for a change. Lightning and Fang seem to get all of the credit, though, and not undeservedly; I’d go to say Fang was Woman of the Year in 2010. However, mostly due to the vocal direction her actress was given, Vanille was received with general disdain. I, on the other hand, loved her and thought she was the most important and nuanced character in that game. But that’s because I don’t think being badass, physically adept, and androgynous is the only way of being a strong woman. Sometimes the strongest character is the person who ties everyone together, is the subliminal, caretaking force that gives everything meaning.

Vanille’s role as the narrator, along with the aesthetic that came with being from Pulse, reminds me of the social function as storytellers women in some Native American (and I’m sure other) cultures, serving as their tribes’ memory and history. While the flashbacks explained everyone’s personal motivations, it was mostly Vanille’s memories that revealed the cause of the entire catastrophe. In a sense, her story of burden and guilt is thankless because it’s not the type of courage we’re used to valuing. The game wouldn’t exist without Vanille, but we’re ready to forget her.

This all might tie into feminist theory that hypothesizes work relegated to the private sphere and dubbed as feminine isn’t really seen as work or accomplishment, but expected duty. In order to get recognition, you must make a show for yourself in the aggressive, angled masculine space. Meaning, we’re already primed to either fetishize or degrade Vanille if we don’t identify with her. I feel like her theme summed it up for me, a track of someone walking a melancholy path and struggling to keep on a smile. XIII’s crew was full of angst, and without Vanille smiling, the group wouldn’t be able to hold itself together. So she kept doing it, even when it she didn’t want to. I personally empathize with the amount of courage and effort that takes, and wished I had someone to recognize it in my own life.

I don’t want to let Square Enix and other companies off the hook for the obvious pandering towards the hegemonic gamer base when it comes to characters like Vanille, but I also challenge gamers to check if they’re harsher on feminine characters. Are we measuring competency and worth with a masculine measuring stick? Let’s not relegate the feminine only to the service of hegemonic interests, but allow feminine people to feel as empowered as heroes. The Final Fantasy series is actually a good place to start exploring this topic with its range of feminine characters, to identify what is problematic, and what is heroically feminine.

74 thoughts on “Valuing the Feminine: Why I Love Vanille”

  1. You know what, I’ve never played a FF game all the way through. I got halfway through FF8 on a shared house’s PS2. Which one should I start on? FF Tactics: The War of the Lions is on iPad now if that’s any good?

    1. Tactics is a lot of fun, but resides in its own universe (tho it is shared with FFXII) but doesnt convey characters in the same way.
      I adore FFVI/3 which came out on GBA. X is being remastered and coming out soon, tho has a very VERY convoluted story.

      1. Speaking with my brother who, like me, has played all the FFs, he suggests IV if you can get your hands on it, because:
        “IV didn’t make you learn things, you didn’t customize a lot, the story’s not overly convoluted but it has all the really key elements that the series is known for”

        (and Rydia is awesome)

      2. I’ll add a vote for FF6. It’s just got the best story and characters of any FF game, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve replayed it at least 3 or 4 times, it’s one of my all-time favourite games and Celes one of my all-time favourite characters.

        For pure gameplay though, FF5 is the best of the earlier games because the job system is just so much fun and allows for so much variety, and you won’t go wrong with any of the Tactics titles.

    2. Oh my goodness, yes. Get FF Tactics! It is awesome. However, it is not what I’d call standard for a FF game. It is turn-based strategy gaming (in the vein of Disgaea and La Pucelle). Still much fun and a decent story!

      As for FF series games, I’d say start with Final Fantasy 6. Terra is brilliant. The setting interesting and many characters in the roster. There are plenty of remakes/updates for 6 out there, which may help.

      If old graphics and the style of fighting is a bit of a drag, then I’d suggest doing FF X. Dramatic story, fun characters, really beautiful landscapes.

    3. Depends on your tastes, really. I think X is the most accessible Final Fantasy that is pretty much universally regarded as “good.” (I like XII and XIII better myself, but opinion is more divided on those two). If you enjoy old school, more retro games though, you might as well start with IV and work your way up through the SNES/PS1 titles. Some of them have not aged as well though, so definitely go with X if you’d like something more modern!

    4. I keep getting told I have bad taste for it, but honestly Final Fantasy VIII is still my favourite of the series. Might be nostalgia speaking.

      1. I liked 8 a lot too…

        My favorite FFs, ranked from most liked to least liked:

        6
        X
        8
        4
        9
        5
        X-2
        XII
        3
        7
        1
        2

        Still haven’t played 13 yet. Hell, I still haven’t started Metal Gear Solid 3 yet. This guy is several years ahead of me. (It seems like, for some reason, the only games I ever play when they come out are portable games.

        The following are all games that I own, have not completed to my own satisfaction, and think I want to play “someday”:

        Metal Gear Solid 4 (PS3)
        Final Fantasy 13 (PS3)
        Disgaea 4 (PS3)
        Cross Edge (PS3)
        Dragon Age Origins (PS3)
        Eternal Sonata (PS3)
        Demon’s Souls (PS3)
        Nier (Xbox 360)
        Record of Agarest War (Xbox 360)
        Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World (Wii)
        Zack and Wiki: Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure (Wii)
        Okami (Wii)
        Fragile Dreams (Wii)
        Super Mario Galaxy (Wii)
        A Boy and his Blob (Wii)
        No More Heroes II: Desperate Struggle (Wii)
        Baten Kaitos (Gamecube)
        Baiten Kaitos Origins (Gamecube)
        Tales of Symphonia (Gamecube)
        Lost Kingdoms (Gamecube)
        Lost Kingdoms II (Gamecube)
        Viewtiful Joe (Gamecube)
        Viewtiful Joe II (Gamecube)
        Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg (Gamecube)
        Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door (Gamecube)
        Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance (Gamecube)
        Metroid Prime (Gamecube)
        Metal Gear Solid 3 (PS2)
        Persona 4 (PS2)
        Odin Sphere (PS2)
        Suikoden III (PS2)
        Valkyrie Profile: Silmeria (PS2)
        Shadow Hearts Covenant (PS2)
        Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army (PS2)
        Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abbadon (PS2)
        Shadow of Destiny (PS2)
        Tales of the Abyss (PS2)
        Rogue Galaxy (PS2)
        Dragon Quest 8: Journey of the Cursed King (PS2)
        Front Mission 4 (PS2)
        Radiata Stories (PS2)
        Suikoden Tactics (PS2)
        Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love (PS2)
        Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy (PS2)
        Shenmue II (Xbox)
        Shenmue (Dreamcast)
        Grandia II (Dreamcast)
        Threads of Fate (PS1)
        Arc the Lad Collection (PS1)
        Pushmo (3DS)
        Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars (3DS)
        Super Mario 3D Land (3DS)
        Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor II (DS)
        Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure (DS)
        Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume (DS)
        Knights in the Nightmare (DS)
        Trauma Center: Under the Knife II (DS)
        Etrian Odyssey III: The Drowned City (DS)
        Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (PSP)
        Cladun x2 (PSP)
        Jeanne d’Arc (PSP)
        Spectral Souls (PSP)
        Hexyz Force (PSP)
        Crush (PSP)
        Final Fantasy II (PSP)
        The Legend of Heroes (PSP)
        The Legend of Heroes II: Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch (PSP)
        Star Ocean: First Departure (PSP)
        Brave Story: New Traveler (PSP)
        Chaos Rings (iPod Touch)
        Tales of Phantasia (GBA)
        Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones (GBA)
        Super Robot Wars Original Generation II (GBA)
        The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons (GBC)
        Shining Force II (Wii Virtual Console)
        Landstalker (Wii Virtual Console)
        Beyond Oasis (Wii Virtual Console)
        Dungeon Siege III (PC)

        ::stares at the list::

        ::counts the list::

        Seventy-eight games.

        I knew I had a big backlog, but seventy-eight games?

    1. I was just looking to say this.

      I really liked Yuffie.
      the FF ladies that fall into the perky/light-hearted role i would think would be:

      VII – Yuffie
      VIII – Selphie
      IX – sort of Dagger, but not really?
      X – Rikku
      X-2 – Rikku
      XII – Panelo (ish)
      XIII – Vanille

        1. Eiko’s not perky. Like Relm in FF6, she’s another archetype entirely, the headstrong little girl. TV Tropes lists her as a Bratty Half Pint.

          1. Yeah, Eiko’s not exactly perky in the same way as Selphie/Rikku/Vanille, but I think she still fulfills the same “inappropriately lighthearted” role in IX given her focus on dating Zidane while the world is going to shit and everyone is fighting for their lives.

  2. I love this post! I too chafe a bit at the harsh rap Vanille gets in the fandom. I liked Lightning and Fang loads more, but I’m also a fan of Vanille. In a way, I think their presence in the game makes her characterization a bit more palatable. The “perky girl” JRPG stereotype bothers me more in games where there’s not a whole lot of variety in the way women are presented but I think XIII did a pretty good job depicting women with interesting pasts, motivations and strengths. And apart from the ridiculous sexual noises she makes during battle, I don’t really get why her voice actress gets so much hate. I thought she did a pretty good job.

    It also doesn’t hurt that for most of the postgame, Vanille is the most effective Adamantoise slayer. ;-)

    1. Battle grunts always seem so hard to get right. I know very little about the craft of being a voice actor, but I imagine that that must be one of the most awkward parts of the job. (They also tend to unintentionally hilarious: I remember more of the silly battle grunts and victory calls from the original version of Star Ocean 2 than I do of the actual plot.)

      For the rest of her voice acting, I really liked it: I felt like it accurately represented the qualities Mattie mentioned in the original post. She definitely seemed like a real character, and I thought the pairing they had with her and Sazh was very interesting: Sazh is old and grizzled and worried about his son and only comes around to being hopeful due to Vanille. Vanille initially seems the exact opposite–optimistic, young, naive–but she’s actually experienced in this sort of crazy world-spanning adventure while Sazh is a neophyte. The fact that she carries this terrible burden (at that point in the plot, still unrevealed, I think) while still being cheery makes her feel like a very deep and strong character. And when she does finally snap (as everyone does, for the obligatory summon battle), I felt that she totally deserved it.

      I did find her accent really interesting, though. There’s the obvious damn-I-feel-clever-now realization that she spoke with an Australian accent, but there was something else unfamiliar about it; some of her enunciations seemed like they have other characteristics…I remember thinking it was French or Chinese-sounding, due to nasal vowels and what I think was an occasional retroflex feel to her constants respectively. Maybe I was just imagining it, but if not I think it was a neat way to set her off as different from the others (except Fang, but she just sounded Australian to me), and emphasize her Pulse-ness.

      1. Battle grunts always seem so hard to get right. I know very little about the craft of being a voice actor, but I imagine that that must be one of the most awkward parts of the job. (They also tend to unintentionally hilarious: I remember more of the silly battle grunts and victory calls from the original version of Star Ocean 2 than I do of the actual plot.)

        Battle grunts are hard to get right, but I don’t think you could get Vanille’s particular type of gutter-minded awkwardness without doing it on purpose; pain noises might be inherently questionable (if the battle sound effects rips from Kingdom Hearts are anything to go by, a lot of male VAs have the same problem!), but bad attack sounds tend to come off as silly rather than sexual. I could definitely imagine female VAs having a harder time of it due to being told they need to “sound audibly female,” though — I know when I tried it using the same vocalizations as I use in iai, the result kind of sounded like Young Link… and I kind of get the impression that sounding like a pre-pubescent boy wouldn’t be considered acceptable for a female character’s battle cries. =/

        I did find her accent really interesting, though. There’s the obvious damn-I-feel-clever-now realization that she spoke with an Australian accent, but there was something else unfamiliar about it; some of her enunciations seemed like they have other characteristics…I remember thinking it was French or Chinese-sounding, due to nasal vowels and what I think was an occasional retroflex feel to her constants respectively. Maybe I was just imagining it, but if not I think it was a neat way to set her off as different from the others (except Fang, but she just sounded Australian to me), and emphasize her Pulse-ness.

        The interesting thing about Vanille’s VA is that she’s the only actual Australian of the two. Fang’s VA probably sounded more Australian because she was told to sound like an Australian (with all the required exaggeration that impersonation entails), whereas Vanille’s VA was probably told to use her own accent, which would be slightly more complicated than the simplified Australian accent that Hollywood tends to use.

        1. Thank you for the response; I especially appreciate the professional perspective! I never considered that voice actors for female characters would have to intentionally exaggerate their voices to sound non-boyish. That’s weird and unfortunate, but understandable, I guess.

          And you were completely right about the intentionality of the sound: I found this interview with Georgia van Cuylenberg on Youtube where she answers questions about playing Vanille; the relevant one begins around 2:40. Seeing an actual human make those noises…yeah. Wow. I must have been suppressing things, because I didn’t remember it being that bad (yet oddly I have no trouble remembering being irritated with Lightning’s constant “a target’s a target” mantra.). That’s depressing that they went with that sort of direction. (Also, the interview dude is super creepy then.)

          While they did want her to sound Australian and not at all American, her natural voice sounds very stereotypically Australian to my ear and not at all like Vanille’s. She says earlier in the interview they wanted her to (unlike the other actors) follow the Japanese recording, presumably to ramp up the moe-ness.

          1. Thank you for the response; I especially appreciate the professional perspective! I never considered that voice actors for female characters would have to intentionally exaggerate their voices to sound non-boyish. That’s weird and unfortunate, but understandable, I guess.

            Heh, I’m not actually a professional, if I didn’t make that clear enough. I just voiced a character for a game a friend was making. I wasn’t told to change it, either — I just thought the boyishness of my own attempt was an interesting thing to note, since the bigger gaming companies seem rather focused on the “readability” of characters’ femaleness.

            While they did want her to sound Australian and not at all American, her natural voice sounds very stereotypically Australian to my ear and not at all like Vanille’s. She says earlier in the interview they wanted her to (unlike the other actors) follow the Japanese recording, presumably to ramp up the moe-ness.

            Watching a few different interviews with her, her accent seems to change around as she speaks, though she definitely sounds different than Vanille. I’m guessing some of the difference might be because she’s pitching up so much for the character.

            It’s kind of weird that they’d try to exaggerate the moe thing in the localization, though… it’s not exactly the sort of thing that the semi-mainstream western Final Fantasy audience finds appealing. I’m wondering if, like with Other M, it’s a case of a Japanese game director insisting on retaining vocal traits in the localized version in spite of the cultural dissonance they’ll cause.

        2. Thanks for the informative comment!

          I remember when I was first hearing Vanille’s accent, I had a moment of “no, that can’t be … could it?” And sure enough, Melbourne girl. And yeah, the accent gets modified in Hollywood, this was a more pure General Australian accent. Georgia van Cuylenburg, the VA, has actually been through a bit, had a condition that caused her hair to fall out by 21.

      2. Battle grunts always seem so hard to get right. I know very little about the craft of being a voice actor, but I imagine that that must be one of the most awkward parts of the job.

        Yeah, I don’t blame her VA – I assume she was just following whatever direction SE was giving to her during recording. Her battle noises don’t bother me that much, but it does get pretty bad when you summon her eidolon…

        1. I think the reason Vanille’s VA gets blamed is because she’s the only US Final Fantasy VA who sounded like that — Rikku, Yuffie, and Selphie’s all kept to their “cute” characters without making people uncomfortable.

          You’re right about it not really being her fault, though. Apparently, she was the only VA told to mimic her Japanese counterpart’s mannerisms, including the weird sound effects. =/ Considering how much they tried to change other things unnecessarily in an attempt to better match western preferences, though, that particular choice is really kind of confounding.

  3. I’ve said this to you before, but I love that you champion Vanille. For me, she had layers of complexity and subtlety that the rest of the cast really lacked, and I spent most of the game fascinated by her motives.

  4. You make a very interesting point here.The question is how to solve the problem, how to communicate to the viewer that a character is actually deep and not just a cliche’.

    Then again, it also depends on how close the viewers even look, looking past their own prejustices included. Which requires recognizing them as such first, so the game, to actually reach the desired result in enough people, would have to start here.

    Personally I can not say or offer much to your experience, not having expericenced this myself.

  5. I haven’t played FFXIII, so I can’t comment on Vanille, but at least in earlier Final Fantasy games, I’ve felt that there’s a lot to applaud about their female characters. Even if (most of) the games revolve around central male protagonists, I think you can see a lot of honest effort to make female characters that stand on their own and, moreover, examine and comment the basic character archetypes of the genre.

    In FFVII, for instance, Aeris appears, at the start, flighty, flirty and improbably feminine for a girl living in a slum; it’s also telling that first moment you meet her you’re allowed to sweep in to rescue her from distress (in exchange for a date, no less). But, as later becomes apparent, she doesn’t particularily need Cloud to save her – and the part that I think is really delightful about that is that it’s not even an “oh but she can take care of herself too” tacked on as an afterthought. The thing about FFVII is that no one is quite what they seem to be.

    It is obvious, for instance, that Cloud (and by extension, the player) is presented as a cool, tough guy, and so he goes out of his way tay to fulfill that role, waving around with a very big sword, saving girls and angsting heroically. At first. How very much all of that is projection is very much what the game is about, of course.

    More importantly, though, there’s Tifa – martial artist, small business owner and ecoterrorist (in that order). There’s an intentional contrast set up there, I think; if not quite a tomboy, Tifa is at least a great deal less traditionally feminine than Aeris, the flower girl who dresses in pink and has healing skills. But what a lot of people don’t notice (in my experience, at least) is that Tifa is in fact the one who spends half of the game wallowing in uncertainty and doubt, keeping secrets and not knowing what to do; meanwhile Aeris is driven, resolute and a great deal more honest with herself, and quite a bit tougher than she appears at first glance at that.

    The character archetypes these characters are founded on aren’t unproblematic, and the aesthetic obsession that the Japanese have for female characters who are demure, selfless, unwavering and willing to stay in the background to support the male hero isn’t something you can just handwave away. That said, I think it’s really pretty sweet that some people actually make video games (of all things) about how that elusive, oft-mentioned thing called “inner strength” actually counts for more, and is more worthy of respect, than superficial toughness.

    1. I just wanted to say that the reasons you call about above are why FFVII is still my most cherished Final Fantasy! I appreciate the story and characters of the other games, but VII really resonated with me with its themes of presentation vs. internal struggles.

    2. In FFVII, for instance, Aeris appears, at the start, flighty, flirty and improbably feminine for a girl living in a slum; it’s also telling that first moment you meet her you’re allowed to sweep in to rescue her from distress (in exchange for a date, no less).

      That “one date” thing is kind of interesting, really, because what was done with it in the expanded universe — it was turned into a trademark phrase of Zack’s, with the implication that Aerith was taking a leaf from his book when she made her offer to Cloud. If they follow through with that in a remake, it’d kind of subvert the “reward the hero with a date” thing by suggesting that Aerith was just using the “reward” as an excuse to get Cloud on a date the same way Zack did, heh.

  6. One thing I’ve always liked about the XIII series is that they’ve practically made all their female characters into interesting and strong characters, especially when compared to the male party members (with the exclusion of Hope who had the best character development in the entire game). On top of them having interesting story lines, they were all extremely useful in battle and most of the time I rolled an entire female party. Lighting was an amazing ravager and a decent commando, Vanille was devastating with her saboteur debuffs, and Fang was a decent sentinel and an overpowering commando. It’s not often you see women in a physical damage dealing or tanking classes when it comes to JRPGs. Even Serah, with her unfortunate wardrobe, who was stuck in the damsel in distress role for all of XIII, became a pretty powerful leading lady in XIII-2. Hopefully, though, Square Enix will hire someone who can make female outfits look not so… trashy.

    I’m glad I’ve found other people who loved Vanille. ;__;

    1. One thing I’ve always liked about the XIII series is that they’ve practically made all their female characters into interesting and strong characters

      This! I love that Fang has the highest Strength stat in the game and even though I am pretty “meh” on Serah and wish SE had focused on other characters for XIII-2, there is a part of me that was very pleased to see her depicted as strong and powerful in her own right, as more than the damsel in distress role she was relegated to in XIII (even if all that “Serah must be protected” BS is still talked about by other XIII-2 characters).

  7. I think your personal experience sheds a very interesting and valuable light on this and I want to thank you for sharing. I also think people tended to forget that her bubbly nature was largely a facade, highlighted especially in the narration and in her scenes with Sazh.

  8. I understand what is being said here. I agree with it, for the most part. I am a Rikku fan, after all. I used to really love Yuffie too. Generally, I do like the genki girl character, as long as she is lethal and strong and not just there for cheap jokes.

    I wanted to like Vanille… I really did try, too. But ultimately, the sexualization of the character and pandering blocked me at every turn. I couldn’t connect with her. This is a big problem in our games. Show me the character, not just her thighs or butt or boobs, or make her bouce around cutely and be naive to the point of frustration.

    The character of Vanille could have been much more potent and interesting if they had taken the time in-game and in cinematics to show more of Vanille’s psyche and internal dialogue. There was some, but not underscored enough, imo. Vanille’s genki girl persona being a facade for something darker, troubled, deceptive would be much more interesting if we delved into it more and more harshly. Her scenes with Sazh and her breakdown there was a great moment, but one that didn’t have enough impact and enough weight as I think it should have/could have. We needed more of them.

    1. I definitely agree with this. I actually feel that Vanille was the most problematic and stereotypical “genki girl” out of all the similar FF girls of the past. She seemed to have two extremes: Really cheery and really dramatic. But even the ‘dramatic’ side to her seemed to only exist to make her character SEEM deep without GENUINELY being deep. But in the end, she just came across as annoyingly stereotypical. The over-sexualization of her appearance didn’t help me want to relate to her. I just…didn’t care.

      1. I’m on the same page as you. :) I mean, Vanille’s the only character that has her l’cie mark way up high suggestively placed on her thigh. Come on now.

  9. Vanille was an important piece of the story of Final Fantasy XIII and her acting the role of narrator allowed players to see another side to her. I blame presentation for people disliking Vanille as she was also shown as the happy airhead which in turn made me very grateful for the scene between Fang and Vanille when Fang figures out she was lying about what happened to them when the were fighting in the war prior to the start of the game. Vanille just bursts into tears and you can clearly see the heavy burden she has been carrying the whole time.

  10. Thanks for this post. I didn’t completely hate the character of Vanille (though her voice acting definitely grated) but your post gave me a completely new appreciation for the character. So thanks.

    1. Totally. It’s one of the reasons why I DO love Fang/Vanille. I just would like Vanille to be more Gabby and less schoolgirl Anime. ;)

  11. Selphie was my favorite character back when I first played FF8 (which was when it first came out). I knew she got hate. So I called myself: “Much Adored Selphie,” or MASelphie for short. I still use that internet handle even today (check my email addresses).

    However, I’ll admit, I’ve been hating on the Selphies of late. The reason? I found myself not growing to be like her anymore, and saw the demand for being like her high, every time the archetype was repeatedly injected into games/stories. If I wasn’t a Selphie, I was a b*tch, and that bothered me that I was always supposed to be happy and look happy, and be supportive, and cutesty, and basically juvenile, even though I’m now 25 years old. So when I see a Vanille, I see that social pressure to be more like her, even though I don’t identify as that anymore. I write these characters into my stories, so I have no real problem with them, but I try to give them their ups and downs. I’ve actually had a guy ask me, “I know you can be nice. I’ve seen it. Why aren’t you that nice all the time?” and my response was “because I’m human.” (this is what he said to be after I was offended by him sexually harassing me) Because there are these 1-dimension stereotypes of women in games and stuff that are used comparatively against me all the time. I love the Selphies, but I wanted to see less of them when they’re were made clear that I was supposed to be like them (or the “sexy” woman), or I was not a good woman. So, yes, I think I am harsher on her type, because she’s apparently supposed to be my role model.

    Nice article though.

    1. If I wasn’t a Selphie, I was a b*tch, and that bothered me that I was always supposed to be happy and look happy, and be supportive, and cutesty, and basically juvenile

      This bothers me as well. The obligation to be “nice” and smile — even if, like in your case, you’re basically being attacked. Combined with that obsession with women of “jailbait” age, it sends a really ugly message that I can’t stomach at all.

      Personally, I despise much of what is considered “feminine”, but I hate the concept of it even more. Same with “masculinity”. Both are toxic and stifling. Though I know that does lead to a rabid knee-jerk reaction at times where it’s not deserved. Describe a character as “nice and feminine” and I’m prepared to utterly despise her as well as the writers who made yet another bubbly-but-submissive baby girl sex toy. Describe a character as the glue that holds a group together and makes everyone get along, the voice of reason, the supportive friend, the one who actively refuses to wallow in wangst and woe no matter how much crap is thrown at her … and I feel interested (as long as there’s some depth and not just vapid cheerfulness). Same character, different descriptions, vastly different reactions. Eh.

      I haven’t played any FF so I can’t say anything about the character in question. She does remind me a bit of Imoen from the Baldur’s Gate series, though. At the time I played those games, I didn’t know the cute cheerful bubble-girl was a trope, and though I had some problems with Immy (namely the fact that she barely gets any real characterization at all due to being gone for half the game, and the second half essentially lacking any new NPC conversations) I did like my “little sister” quite a bit.

      1. That’s true, your different descriptions of the game char did make her more interesting, and that’s really all any character that’s borderlining a trope needs: more depth. I’ve written the bubblegum sunshine girl, but that wasn’t it. That wouldn’t be the only thing people would tell you if you asked them to describe her.

  12. Thanks for this: I’ve never understood the hate for Vanille – in many ways she actually has the most interesting story in FF XIII – certainly the most to discover ‘under the surface’.

    I was somewhat bemused to read a review of FFXIII-2 (on Wired’s website I think) which, as part of the usual mainstream pummelling of FFXIII, described Vanille as the most annoying videogame character ever.

    Seriously?

    What more annoying than – just pulling an example at random – the thuggish, misogynistic f**k-wittery of a Duke Nukem?

    *Despairs*

    1. Vanille as the most annoying character ever? When Snow was RIGHT THERE? I can’t even imagine what standards they were using. (You know someone has a characterization problem when he’s being attacked from what should be a tragic misunderstanding and both you and your kibitzing buddy are yelling “Stab him already!” at the screen.)

      1. I’m actually surprised by the hatred Snow receives. I really liked his character, and his determination. And imo he was nowhere near as annoying as Hope.

        1. My main reason is his narrative role. I might have been able to live with Snow if he was just a hyperindividualistic loudmouth with a hero complex the size of Cocoon and a near-inability to listen who got equal screen time with the others, but the problem was, it also seemed like he was trying to shove Lightning out of her own title, and the producers were behind it all the way. (And yes, I know, Fang and Vanille did the surprise-protagonist thing too, but they were a plot twist; bait and switching was obligatory.)

          Snow got a lot of the narrative emphasis that one usually expects from The Main Hero. His background relationship was fleshed out far more: I’ll grant they had to do something with him after he got captured, but for the love of Etro, was it really necessary to spend more than twice the screen-time on his relationship Serah than on Lightning’s relationship with Serah? The one time Lightning and Serah are in the same flashback scene, Snow’s still there, and he’s the one who gets to be Right about what’s going on. He doesn’t really arc the way the others do; Hope stops angsting by the time the group is running around Pulse, but Snow’s still on his obnoxious hero “I’m gonna do everything myself” kick *several chapters into the next game* with no sign of stopping (I’ll be honest, I squealed in XIII-II when Noel called him out on it, and I was kind of annoyed that the whole thing got turned back on Noel within a few minutes), and the game treats him as completely justified. When we had the obligatory ‘support of loyal and accepting friends at the last minute when all hope is looking lost yet again’ moment, it was Snow’s friends, not Lightning’s (yes, he has a greater number of friends, but she still did have that lieutenant who was shown in her first of what, three flashbacks, and never heard from again; he could have done the same thing). From a narrative structure standpoint, I think that annoyed me at least as much as Snow’s personality, particularly once I figured out that that was what was bugging me.

          That and the combination of expectation that he’s always right, the tendency to not really show the empathy for the rest of the cast that they do for each other (in Snow-World, it seems like everyone with a problem is Someone To Be Saved rather than Someone To Be Listened To, except possibly Serah and even then it’s more “I’ll fix this for you” than anything)–why would I want that when I can have the juicy scenes with Sazh and Vanille propping each other up, or Fang demonstrating how we do loyal to a fault without minimizing the person we’re loyal-to-a-faulting towards?

          1. Heh, I guess the tolerability of Snow tends to vary in direct proportion to the amount one feels he’s being set forth as an ideal.

            I kind of liked the way Snow was treated in the game, mostly because I felt that virtually everyone thought he was a suicidally-impulsive idiot, the game itself included. Lightning couldn’t stand him, Hope wanted to kill him (and Snow would have accepted that as deserved, when it came down to it), Fang mocked him constantly, Noel hated him for being so reckless (and Snow actually apologized to him for charging in when he’d been told to stay put), Serah herself got mad once she realized just how little he thought things through, and even Vanille got fed up with him in one of XIII-2′s fragments.

            As for Lightning’s lack of proper flashbacks detailing her relationship with Serah, that was disappointing, although it seems kind of unavoidable given her backstory and the overall over-streamlining of XIII’s plot. The only flashbacks that the game could spare time for were those regarding the l’Cie crisis (and Lightning wrote herself out of the Serah-focused ones by refusing to believe Serah was telling the truth about being a l’Cie) — and even there, a lot of the backstory was relegated to the datalog.

            The Episode Zero novel actually shows the nature of the Lightning-Serah relationship in greater detail, though they don’t get all that many scenes together there, either; most of the description given is about how they don’t actually get to do much of anything with each other, since Lightning’s long, unpredictable hours and need to take care of the house (so Serah can be a normal teenager) means that she has barely any time to spare to actually be with Serah. They only hinted at it in the game, but the novel version really brings out an interesting “single parent” dynamic with Lightning that goes a good way towards explaining why she acts like Serah’s overprotective father. That sort of thing seems a lot harder to work into a game than the issues that, say, Cloud or Squall had, though, and I’m honestly not sure how they could have pulled it off without people complaining about “pointless” cutscenes or making Lightning seem more sentimental. =/

            1. even Vanille got fed up with him in one of XIII-2′s fragments

              That fragment made me laugh so hard, cause man, if even Vanille thinks you’re an idiot, geez….

              It’s a shame that Episode Zero never got an official English release because yeah, it does a lot to flesh out and explain Lightning’s character and makes her development in XIII so much more interesting.

      2. Vanille as the most annoying character ever? When Snow was RIGHT THERE?

        SERIOUSLY. Though it’s worth noting that Snow seems to get at least as much hate and probably more from the fandom than Vanille does, largely for his overly macho BS (which is sort of an interesting parallel: one character hated for being too feminine, another for being too masculine).

  13. One thing that, to this day, bothers me is how my happy-go-lucky, sensitive persona went from a characteristic of being well rounded as male to a sign of weakness and unintelligence as a woman. What was before friendly and comforting became ditzy and vulnerable. It’s been a battle for me in the workspaces I inhabit, as I either have to be myself and treated this way, or hardened and forceful with my competency, which brings on another set of gendered insults.

    Ugh, that is nasty and must’ve been an ugly shock. You get to be who you really are, and people’s reactions to traits that remain the same turn upside down. Were some of those reactions actually from the same people? :/

    I think you have a point, though I do dislike the notion of “femininity”. “Masculinity” too, though. It is a bit sickening to see the mixed reaction to “feminine” female characters (or people), that more or less veiled contempt for being “stupid” or “weak” going hand in hand with the hubba-hubba-I-wanna-hit-that-hot-little-thing. It shows that as a woman, you’re still damned if you do fulfill the stereotype of what society tells you do be, and damned if you don’t.

    1. I agree with you. For my own experience, I’ve never considered gaming to be so gendered, having been into it before it became the pasttime of frat boys and bros. My father was into sports and cars. My friends were into sports and cars. I was into Dragon Warrior and Megaman.

      So I’m always a little bewildered that gender roles apparently marched straight on towards making gaming for men and began catering to some bizarre ideal. Femininity? Gaming? Most gamers I know yearn for the companionship of a gaming relationship. Masculinity? I guess I can bro-fist it up but my favorite movie is Amelie.

    2. Femininity in our (patriarchal) society is kind of a trap. It’s not just behavior – take office dress. If you dress too “feminine” someone will accuse you of being a vamp/distracting/trying to manipulate people with your sexuality. But if you dress too unisex, someone will accuse you of being frumpy and not caring about your appearance. If you hit it right in the middle, you’ll just get both kinds of criticism.

      The only winning move is not to play.

      Also – while I’m not a huge fan of Vanille, I appreciate what the OP is saying. The devaluation of the traditionally feminine is one of the worst ways that the patriarchy fucks with us – men and women both. It’s good to speak out, and I think we need more quality characters in our games who are believably feminine, and not just cutesy or sexy. We also need more prominent characters in traditionally female roles (other than party nurse) – for example, why is it that women who are mothers only ever play bit parts in games or are there only to die dramatically in the scene after they show up?

      1. It’s good to speak out, and I think we need more quality characters in our games who are believably feminine, and not just cutesy or sexy. We also need more prominent characters in traditionally female roles (other than party nurse) – for example, why is it that women who are mothers only ever play bit parts in games or are there only to die dramatically in the scene after they show up?

        Surprisingly, I think XIII-2′s Serah ended up pulling both of those things off, unfortunate fanservicey outfits aside (implied spoilers ahead).

        Before the game begins, she’s a grade school teacher, which actually comes up a few times in the game itself — there’s even a sidequest involving misbehaving flans that gets resolved by “Meanie Miss Farron” using her teacher voice, heh.

        She gets over the Damsel In Distress thing really quickly, keeps her “girly” traits (like hugging Mog, thinking Miniflans are adorable, and being generally sentimental), and ends up in one of the best completely platonic male-female friendships/partnerships in all of gaming. She and Noel kind of trade off the physical and emotional support roles, which makes for a nice give-and-take instead of her always taking the “feminine” role of keeping morale up (why is this even considered “feminine,” anyway? I can think of plenty of optimistic male heroes who serve the same purpose…?), and when it comes down to it, he trusts her to make her own decisions instead of trying to protect her from them, which contrasts nicely with the way the antagonist Caius treats his own charge.

        And, to be honest, it really doesn’t hurt that Serah’s mannerisms aren’t quite as exaggerated and strange as Vanille’s are.

        1. “the “feminine” role of keeping morale up (why is this even considered “feminine,” anyway? I can think of plenty of optimistic male heroes who serve the same purpose…?)”

          Probably because in a lot of male-centric media, this is the sole defining character trait of the token female character. (If she’s in a supporting role, there’s no danger of her stealing the spotlight from the important male characters!)

          Take the Yu-Gi-Oh anime series: Although pretty much everyone in the main cast exposits on the importance of friendship on a regular basis, it’s Tea Gardner/Anzu Mazaki who gets most of the flak from the fandom for her “friendship speeches.” Aside from being a damsel in distress from time to time, she hardly contributes to the majority of the (action-oriented) scenes that drive the plot.

          1. Well, yeah, I get that. But it’s kind of a “just because all Xs are Ys doesn’t mean all Ys are Xs” sort of thing, isn’t it? Even if all “feminine” characters are moral support, that doesn’t make being moral support feminine — after all, all “feminine” characters have eyes, too.

            I guess what I was trying to get at is, no one would really say a male character was feminine or effeminate for keeping on a brave face for the team in spite of adversity or for a peripheral male character giving moral support to the main hero without being directly involved in the action.

            It’s not like, say, the “subtly directs the leader to achieve one’s own goals without letting one’s true influence show” role, which tends to be associated with either women or, when it shows up in a male form, effeminate villains. The association with women and the demonization of the role itself is easily seen there, whereas it’s harder to see where morale boosting would affect a male character’s position on the masculine/feminine scale or be seen as worthless if the character didn’t have that as his sole purpose.

            1. You’re acting as though femininity exist independently of a culture’s perception of it.

              It’s feminine to emotionally support other people because emotionally supporting other people is feminine. There’s no rationale behind it other than the dominant culture valuing a specific trait in women.

  14. I love Vanille, too! I haven’t gotten that far into the game yet, but I always felt like there was a lot more to her than her outward persona. She’s incredibly brave, for one thing, and it takes a lot to be optimistic during hardships.

    It’s unfortunate that so many traits defined as feminine are seen as inferior or annoying, but this isn’t the fault of those traits or the people who hsve them. Society assigning genders to emotions and behaviors that everyone has and prizing what’s deemed masculine over what’s deemed feminine, is the problem.

    1. …Sometimes it is the fault of those traits, though, surely? In the sense that many negative stereotypes/behaviors are (obviously) present in both men and women, but culturally assigned to women – because they suck. And then here it’s a matter of whether you think Vanille is too much of a manifestation of a long history of troubling tropes to be saved by a few overtures towards greater depth… or not.

      I am, admittedly, currently hip-deep in Ancient Greek texts, so I may be approaching this from the wrong (read: vaguely morose) mindset. Also I didn’t finish FFXIII – but found Snow infinitely more aggravating than Vanille anyway.

      1. I think we need to look long and hard at what traits and emotions are commonly considered “good” or “bad.” So many people value more “aggressive” emotions over the more “passive” ones, and why is that? For a quick example, what are the most common forms of conflict resolution in mainstream games? Combat, violence, etc. I think that’s part of the furor over Jennifer Hepler’s idea about skippable combat; for many people, combat is the most important part of a game. Just look at how often the romances in Bioware’s games are criticized for “getting in the way” of the epic demon-slaying, alien-killing adventures. Why bother with all that relationship stuff when there are baddies that need their asses kicked?

        Vanille exhibits a lot of stereotypically feminine traits, and it’s a problem that these traits are almost always relegated to women characters. But many men characters in games show stereotypically masculine traits, except for rare moments when they show more depth (typically when a woman in their life dies/goes missing/gets sick/etc., but I digress). I don’t think it’s wrong for individuals (real or fictional) to have certain personalities. The problem is that these personalities are very often dictated by gender roles (real people may feel pressure to act in certain ways, and creators of fictional people may infuse them with their personal feelings about gender and emotional expression).

        I don’t believe that emotions are inherently good or bad. The problem is society’s insistence on people feeling and expressing certain emotions because of their gender. Sure, some emotions aren’t pleasant (sadness, jealousy, anger, fear, etc.), but not all unpleasant emotions are seen as feminine. Anger is seen as very masculine, but it’s bad in a “badass” way, not in a “why are you so weak” way, as sadness is often seen.

        It might come down to what emotions make a person more vulnerable. Sadness, fear, kindness, and love all leave a person open to being hurt by others; anger and apathy allow one to be more closed-off, more protected. If women are seen as more vulnerable, it makes sense that society would want them to be the keepers of all the “vulnerable” emotions. Men are supposed to be the warriors, the protectors, so they need the “tougher” emotions to help them live up to that. Moreover, thanks to sexism, those are the emotions that get more respect, regardless of the gender of the person expressing them (though women often come under fire if they aren’t “feminine” enough).

        1. idvo has it just right. Categorizing nurturing or sensitive emotions as “bad” and aggressive emotions as “good” is unfair and – at least according to scientific studies – counterproductive. In real life, team- and consensus-builders are more productive than hyper-aggressive achievers. Companies with women on their boards perform better than companies with only men. Et cetera – you get the idea. But we’ve built up a culture that only values the competitiveness/aggressiveness and cultivates it, especially in boys.

          The reason I didn’t like Snow in FFXIII was that he was so stereotypically, single-mindedly male. He would have been fine as the protagonist in a ’90s first-person shooter, but felt out of place in the more complex story of the RPG.

          Likewise, I’m one of those people who thinks the combat sometimes got in the way of the story in Dragon Age and Mass Effect, not the other way ’round. And I’m a fairly typical cis straight dude who used to play a ton of shooters and still likes competitive games like RTSs. It’s just that modern RPGs are about stories as much as they are about fighting, and a character who becomes one-dimensional out of combat isn’t all that interesting.

  15. Perhaps I’m alone in this, but I think the majority of Final Fantasy women are very well-written and often just as important as the male characters. In fact, I dare say that FFXIII had some of the worst written characters in the series (though that isn’t to say that they are badly written characters. Just not as deep and three dimensional as characters from earlier games).

    Selphie, for example, is my favorite FF character. Yes, she is the stereotypical cheery and chipper girl. But she also had so many layers to both her personality and story. From minor things like her interest in running the Garden’s festival and trying to make “Booyaka!” a popular word amongst the other students, to bigger things like trying to rescue the Gardens from being hit by missiles and attempting to rebuild Trabia after it has been destroyed, and even her romance with Irvine.

    But the thing I most remember out of FFVIII is that scene after Trabia Garden has been hit by Galbadian missiles, and many of Selphie’s friends are either injured or dead, and despite Selphie’s attempts at remaining positive and optimistic, the cracks begin to show the further she walks into the Garden. Then there are these two heart-breaking moments…

    (Boy) That teddy bear you gave me… I couldn’t save it!
    (Girl) I can hear him crying… He’s lonely!
    [Selphie attempts to act cheerful.]
    (Selphie) My teddy bear’s a lot stronger than you think! As long as you’re all safe, Mr. Bear’s very happy. Hey! I can hear him! Mr. Bear’s watching over you secretly. So don’t be naughty or sad all the time. Just remember, Mr. Bear is watching you…
    (Girl) OK. We…we promise to be good! Tell Mr. Bear I won’t be sad or cry all the time, ok?

    [Selphie speaks to her friends' graves at the cemetery in Trabia Garden.]
    (Selphie) …I… I did it, everyone. I know the stage got destroyed, but I performed… my dream band… I was able to carry out my dream… You remember how we promised that we’d do something memorable for ourselves. Remember? My performance… Our performance we were supposed to do… Did you hear me? ….. I… I’ll keep playing for however long it takes for you to hear! Our dream…

    They’re small moments, but they’re so amazingly done, I can’t help but fall in love with the characters. I really feel that this type of writing has been missing in recent FF games. FFXIII kept hitting me over the head with an anvil of dramatic moments to the point where I just couldn’t care anymore. The more subtle moments from past games have affected me way more than the serious ones from FFXIII.

  16. You now seeing this title of this article made me smile because MY favorite FFXIII character is ALSO Vanille. It made me happy mainly because of all the HATE people give Vanille.

    Personallity can differ for me but i do love the cheerful characters and thats just one of the reasons why i like Vanille…Plus hecaton is awesome

  17. One of the main barriers to entry for me with jRPGs is the game play. I simply don’t enjoy the battle system of such games. I do however find the stories, visuals, and the iconic strongly themed characters very attractive. With a jRPG you know who is who, what roll in the group they play, and can even see very clearly how one role plays off another. While many jRPGs have weird stories they are often fairly clear and simple narratives. There is a threat, there is a group (who like it or not) are going to meet that threat, and threat is eliminated or changed.

    In the case of jRPGs I’d really like to just play the story with battle system simplified to fight, defend, or flee. That way I could get to the story bits, make a few choices, and just enjoy the narrative. I probably would have liked the least few FF games if that had been an option.

  18. I didn’t mind Vanille. She was a bit annoying at times, but then so was Lightning, albeit for opposite reasons.

    Sometimes femininity is annoying; sometimes masculinity is annoying. Some people are annoyed more by one than the other. This doesn’t mean either is better or worse in any metaphysical sense, but there’s nothing wrong with disliking one more than other.

    My gut says that most women who make a big deal of this are more masculine; they’re more like the average man than the average woman on significant dimensions. Again, they’re is nothing wrong with that. They resent peoples’ expectations that they will be more feminine, because it frustrates their efforts to fill the social roles that feel natural to them. They often see femininity as weakness and submission. They dislike femininity, though they’d probably never say so outright. Unfortunately, people have a hard time distinguishing between personal taste and moral superiority. It’s like they can’t accept that they just like one thing and not another, but have to provide some reason, some justification, some demonstration of that things inherent betterness. Whatever. It’s just homo-sapiens’ social maneuvering.

    Vanille is just symbolic of what they dislike, but rather than leave it there, they think they need to justify why they, and everyone else, should dislike her.

  19. I think people may be too hard on Final Fantasy games in general. Final Fantasy 6 started out with a female lead, that was pretty special for the time. Let’s not forget Dagger in FF9 either(and Freya, it’s not often you get female characters in games with an “ugly” face like a rat). In many Final Fantasy games, everything tends to be quite “Pretty”, not just the females.

    Compare to many western fantasy properties which are just awful. Especially the likes of Dungeons & Dragons, can be very cheesecake-ish, and sometimes downright seedy looking. I’ve never been put off by a Final Fantasy design in that manner.

    Nier was a really interesting study on this, with the hypermasculine or feminised male lead(despite being essentially the same character, regardless, and the japanese model was used as his younger self in the western DLC), and the “racey” character turning out to be intersex(of course, one can argue it was objectifying intersexed people in a fetishistic manner, but given the “revelation” is only confirmed in the sourcebook, it’s unlikely).

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