Feminism is an ever-changing scope—it’s not the same when you’re twenty, thirty, or fifty. Your lens can shift after a women’s studies class or a frustrating interaction. It definitely felt a little different when I sat down to play Final Fantasy IX again at the ripe old age of twenty-four with fond memories itching at the back of my mind from the tender age of ten.
When I first plunked down in front of the television back in 2000, eager to dip my toes into Square Enix’s pool again after the intriguing yet average VIII and the popular and forgettable introduction of VII (ten year-old me’s words, not mine!), I had no idea how much the tale of a thief-disguised actor joining up with a rebellious princess would move me so. I laughed, I cried, I sighed in relief at a lack of magic junctioning and shortened summon animations. Revisiting the game was not unlike hooking up with an old friend after a few years of casual distance—much like reacquaintance, you find yourself acknowledging things you didn’t notice before.
So, how does Final Fantasy IX stack up after all these years? (There are very mild spoilers ahead.)
This one came immediately to mind, and for good reason—storytelling hiccups of female characters revolving almost entirely (and sometimes, entirely) around men are cliches that many are tired of seeing. Dynamic women and girls who just can’t seem to get their shit together because the affections of men and boys are at stake; you’ve seen this dead horse beaten in many an anime, dragged by its neck in film, poorly laid to rest in sitcoms, and brutally revived in video games. Someone help this poor creature.
This is not the case with Princess Garnet and summoner Eiko, and for that, me and my ten-year-old self are grateful. While six-year-old Eiko harbors a precocious crush on male protagonist Zidane and Garnet eventually reciprocates his feelings, these two come together under dire circumstances and become the sister neither has ever had. Eiko’s jealousy of Garnet is pleasantly short-lived and grows into a relationship where they give each other life advice, rescue one another, and confide in their revealed shared history. Female relationships unhampered by the presence of a man: feminism likes.
Part of unlearning sexist tropes is teaching yourself how to look in every nook and cranny of the narrative for representation. Here, multiple cast members are female, including a guest that joins you a few times throughout the story. A famed and notorious bounty hunter is a woman. The most feared warrior in the land is a woman. Many NPCs are female and coded female (taking into account the green tapir people and snobby duck mistresses you come across). One of the more plot-relevant summons is female. Freya Crescent, one of your party members, is the first playable female dragoon to appear in the Final Fantasy series. It just keeps giving.
Following hot off the heels of #2, Alexandria, the kingdom Princess Garnet is in line to rule, is female-dominated and female-governed. Army included. The best part? This is not a source of contention.
Alexandria’s matriarchy is brought up only once by a side character and in the form of a compliment. While I don’t subscribe to the idea that a matriarchy is an inherently superior society (power should never be premeditated on physicality), in light of the modern patriarchy, it’s refreshing to see women in positions of power viewed in a positive light, while avoiding the common pitfall of a forced Aesop via ‘Woman Good, Man Bad.’
I distinctly remember laughing at our male protagonist’s pushy courtship in the first half of the game. He starts off directing his interest at Garnet (and the occasional female NPC) by means of egging, flirtatious commentary, refusing to take hints and, at one point, copping a feel and passing it off as an accident. Experiencing this behavior firsthand as a woman has revealed that this is, in fact, not very funny.
In real life, this attitude toward women is commonly brushed aside as ‘boys being boys’ and ‘the sexual lifestyle of the straight male.’ When you also consider the bundle of archetypes Zidane represents (dashing playboy thief with Sun Wukong shoutouts, like you do), we the audience are predisposed to interpret his actions as charmingly rogueish, rather than, y’know. Sexual harassment. The mere existence of this is not a mark against the game—however, how does the narrative frame it?
Mostly humorously … with a dash of critique. There is a self-aware exchange between Zidane and Eiko, where Zidane’s exasperation with Eiko’s persistent crushings result in him wondering, “Man … is this what I put Garnet through?” More prominently, Garnet only begins to return his interest once he starts to put her well-being before his immediate horny interests. Even taking that into account, I’ve seen again how humor is a powerful tool—one that can not only bridge gaps, but normalize harmful actions, which is why I still cringed in retrospect at my ten year-old self giggling at all the wrong moments.
So we’ve seen how much this game represents female characters, but what about coded femininity and where the line blurs?
Quina, an anthropomorphic frog dressed as a chef, is a mess of potential, shoddy translation and popular trip-ups. While I like that Quina’s gender—or lack of gender—is up for interpretation, as well as having the dominant trait of not caring what anyone thinks of them (seriously, their character quote is “I do what I want, you have problem?!”), they are repeatedly referred to as he/she, which can prove triggering for people whose gender is constantly under scrutiny. They also serve primarily as comic relief and are the only non-binary member of the main cast. Yeesh.
Kuja is one of the primary antagonists. The first things you see in the Google search engine when you type “Kuja is…” are ‘gay’ and ‘a girl.’ That, I think, should tell you about the power of visual coding. Kuja’s sexuality is completely ambiguous and he identifies as a man, but that means little to general viewers when he is a walking amalgamation of negative camp stereotypes meant to invoke a specific (and usually negative) reaction. There’s nothing wrong with a slender, long-haired man wearing eyeshadow; there is something wrong with that depiction having no positive counterpart in the game.
Lani is the only brown girl in a game full of dragons, multiarmed people, and talking cats. Queen Brahne, the only fat woman with a speaking role beyond NPCs you can optionally interact with, is an anti-villian. Topping it off, I can’t think of any female characters with physical disabilities. Mental illness is touched upon with Princess Garnet, as well as the implication of an ambiguous disorder with a female character that shows up near the end of the game.
While that’s good and all, the pattern is pretty apparent—female characters that stray from a more ‘appealing’ model get fewer and more specific. While not outright erasure, it speaks to a wider phenomenon of keeping ‘less desirable’ women in their place.
In some ways, Final Fantasy IX holds up to the increased scrutiny of a more socially conscious woman—female characters abound in all corners of the game, personalities, and histories are varied, there are hints of a more mature view of relationships, and the game pokes some subversive fun at classic trappings. For you fairytale lovers out there, the entire game flourishes as a metaphor within a metaphor. Characters live in a world that places great emphasis on theatre and romance, a famous in-world play directly parallels the main cast’s actions and all of that is filtered through the storytelling cultures we the audience have been exposed to. It’s got female representation and layers!
On the other hand, skin tone and size diversity are scarce and pushed to the side, displayed sexuality is strictly heterosexual, and there is some slight but no less unfortunate normalization of boys-will-be-boys humor.
Media doesn’t exist in a vacuum. This game, although set in a fantastic world of magic and epic adventure, is still processed through a hodgepodge of culturally informed bias and norms in the world we live in. No game is automatically bad or irredeemable for a few sexist and cissexist cliches any more than a game is instantly good for subverting them. But in light of social context, when the video games you play avoid a lot of these pitfalls, you sure feel less like shit for playing it. That counts for something.
Even now, this game continues to inspire both my artwork and feminist outlook. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants a charming, touching, and beautiful RPG with a bit of a feminist kick. Join me for the next throwback!