Oh hey there! I didn’t see you come in! I’m afraid you’ve caught me at a bad time, you see I’m very busy thinking about girls.
Oh my you’re right it has been an awfully long time without any Ash content hasn’t it? Well hopefully I have enough girl thoughts by now to form something people might point at and say “that constitutes an article that I’ve read with at least one idea in it.”
Actually, given the intensity of my personal life over the last year, “thinking about girls” might be a pretty apt description of where all my attention has been going. That aside, lets look at an example of a girl and take a swift turn into actually writing an article.
It’s Estelle! From the Tales game with the smoking dog and the moral conflict about revolutionary violence. Estelle is a sheltered princess, she’s naïve about the world and the way people struggle, she makes up for this with kindness and openness to knowledge about the world, she casts healing spells, she acts shy and her traits are leant on for cute feminine appeal. You’ve heard all this stuff before, it’s the ideal of the active heroic masculine protagonist and his passive companion made heroic only by application of feminine expressions of service and neediness. It’s a well worn design in all kinds of storytelling that wants a male audience to play the in control protector figure.
I’m here to tell you that I don’t see them this way (wow!). Well obviously I do from the perspective of understanding the cute-girl-industrial-complex that allocates funding for this sort of thing, but I do think it’s too easy to just write characters off for their signifiers and in my own experience can result in a critical lens that habitually discards girl characters and decries feminine expression in a fashion that I think misses the trees for the forest, if you will.
It was Estelle that got me thinking about all this, as it happens. I’d always wanted to play Vesperia back when it came out, and only actually got around to it (read: made Nadia play it so I could watch) recently. She reminded me how emotionally attached to these characters I am, she reminded me of growing up with them, she reminded me of seeing men on forums react extremely negatively to them.
That last part is what I want to focus on first. As much as these characters might land with a lot of this target demographic of young adult nerd boys wanting fantasy girlfriends, I saw and still see just as many who absolutely despise these characters (more than a little crossover between the two, of course). What I’m saying here is that it’s my belief that these characters appear to this audience as an expression of everything they hate about women – they see them as time-wasting, frivolous crybabies, people whose empathy and feeling makes them inconvenient and selfish. By extension, they also represent things that are hated about young people, and for this reactionary audience, traits they are desperate to separate from themselves: hesitant, lost, concerned with doing the right thing, needing help and so on.
These stories don’t hate these characters for these things though, nor are these characters ever the only ones with these hurdles to overcome. Nor are they relegated to side plots or necessarily always made subservient to the demands of the male protagonist. In fact, I would argue that it is because these characters are elevated to positions that drive the plot that makes them the target of all that hatred. It’s a contradiction faced by those who wish to possess and control girls, who define girls as people who act in all these feminine coded ways and also know they’re supposed to perform opposition to all this in order to look like a serious and reasonable man. It’s a contradiction that leads to men on the internet desperately trying to reinvent their JRPG/Anime girl crushes as symbols of the masculine violence they feel they should be rewarded for performing, while also writing hateful posts about the same characters, throwing around words like “vapid”, “slut” and whatever other hate buzzword they picked up that makes them feel in control and normal. In short they find themselves consuming stories that decry the world views they hold and the performances they act out, but still they find themselves desperate to feel heroic and approved of by those ideals they so fear.
The knee-jerk fear of “SJW” influence over everything wasn’t spoken in the same terms back in the day, but I don’t think it has changed much in anything but volume. I feel this sort of thinking used to dominate all discussion about this kind of media, the idea was it’s okay to play this stuff for the gameplay or the look but caring about characters is for pussies. People felt a need to distance themselves from “gender confused” character designs and to perform sexually charged hatred at characters who acted on ideals outside of masculine self-reliance. Back then for me enjoying media was very much a private affair. It was unpleasant to think of taking anything I loved or saw myself in into this environment. I didn’t want more people to tell me it was a crime to be like this, or to hear once more that softness, vulnerability, naivety and, well, feeling were things to be bullied out of people. As most of my interests lay in hobbies with communities that mostly only gave voice to their loudest male participants, this left me treating all this stuff I felt for as something to enjoy in the emotional equivalent of a bomb shelter.
Much like Estelle! At her first meeting, Estelle is every bit the spoiled girl endlessly committing the crime of innocence. She’s also a trophy, a tool locked away in a gilded cage because her kindness has a use. She exists to be shut inside, she’s surrounded by knights who at best see her as part of their fairy tale and at worst a prisoner. She wants to see the world outside of this carefully constructed masculine lens, she wants to speak with human beings and understand them and have them understand her. Outside of her confines these aspects become her strengths, things she grows to control and the means through which she drives her motivations. She creates trouble for the party and herself by rushing in to help people regardless of consequences or the constraints of social order. People are drawn to her not as protectors but often as a bemused audience attached to someone who is kind without pretence.
What these characters represent to me now that I’m older is all the things about myself I tried to hide. The things I wanted to feel valued for or feel heroic about but got caught up in denying for a world that values cruelty and dismissal. The sense that to really identify with them would be conforming to stereotypes about women, reinforcing the power of gender roles, acting subservient or worst of all – appealing to a male audience. The thing is, though, that it was only ever that male audience making me desperate to not be these things. I didn’t want to be attractive to these people and I didn’t want to be hurt by them either so the solution was to be a vision of what a woman should be, defined by a version of feminism telephone gamed through this community until it’s been warped into their own ideal.
To be all the thing that I am – cute, idealistic, naïve, nervous, wanting to help others, valuing feelings and the needs of others (especially offensive: others who don’t share my social background) and so on is wrong. It’s wrong because it represents all these traits of youthful femininity and things women are taught to value. Then instead, things we now call “toxic masculinity” must be how to behave, at least if I’m to show that I myself don’t represent a stereotypical ideal and thus undermine the fight for women to exist outside of nurturing and objectifying roles. It might not make a lot of sense written out like this, but we all know how easily humans can contain contradictions. This was mine. In order to be a proper adult and socially conscious woman I had to distance myself from anything considered girly, and to do that I simply needed to not behave in ways that attract the hate characters like Estelle would.
I mean I was never good at this, ultimately it just meant I became shyer and destructively cut off from my own emotions. These characters never stopped being heroes for me though, and as I’ve learned to accept myself and to stop processing my own traits as though they were the face of a social movement, I’ve really come back to my love for them.
I guess that means the actual article begins all the way down here. Whoops!
To finish off the Estelle talk, her direction is one that I think shows conclusively she’s anything but a clueless application of easy tropes. The central thematic thrust of Vesperia (as far in as I’ve got anyway) is a debate between the ideal of changing things from within the system, and by extension, its laws, and the necessity of standing up to it in the here and now. Debate is a strong term for a story where the male protagonist repeatedly murders corrupt officials and when confronted by his friend/rival (frival) points out that the system that allows them to thrive has no intention or power to halt them. Both sides of this conflict attempt to keep it from the eyes of the other characters, both seeing themselves as protectors of Estelle and Estelle herself as someone to be kept sheltered from this side of the world. What’s important about this is while the story sets up this typical story of idealistic girls and pragmatic action taking men, they’re also clearly mistaken. At the point Estelle discovers her counterpart protagonist has been offing the evil governors off screen, she doesn’t become emotional and reject everything they’ve done up to now. If anything she’s less conflicted and more pragmatic about the whole thing than any of the characters up til now engaged in it.
My point here is that the feminine coded traits only come at the expense of other ones in the expectations of the audience and writers, not as a matter of universal truth. Yuri’s belief that Estelle won’t understand his actions or condone of them is borne of these expectations about these characters. Still, none of this would necessarily sound all that impressive on its own as a claim for the feminist power of this story, but does it have to? I think a great many things are written off (especially things from outside the west) without being given a chance because they might not lend themselves to well crafted ad-copy about their feminist merits. But it’s in these stories I’ve grown with and loved these girls who made me feel like people who think and feel like I do can be heroic and valuable. Final Fantasy girls helped me explore self-sacrifice and seeing myself as a human being instead of an object. They dealt with encountering your own weakness and finding value in it, while not giving up on yourself or allowing your life to be directed by the demands of, well, masculinity. People talk a lot about wanting worlds where the kind of heroism and adventure of fantasy nerd media is something defined by and led by female characters, and I feel like I’ve always had that stuff in my life (without even getting into the women in them that aren’t these healer/wizard girl archetypes). I love these characters because they are girls raised in worlds that aren’t for them and have already made objects of them, and because they become bigger than that by chasing their own beliefs and ideals. They feel like people who grow and accomplish without being created as avatars who can do nothing but grow and accomplish. They’re heroic to me precisely because they don’t let the world remake them in its own image. They pick and choose what they want to value, what messages to take and to pick these things apart and rebuild them as they go, just like I do.
This actually gets to the heart of why it’s been so hard for me to write recently. Putting my heart out there isn’t something people would value, so my instincts would have me believe at any rate. Instead my writing shifted from something personal into something I felt paranoid about, something I had to leave no angles of attack on, something I had to explain to death. The alternative would be people knowing that I’m not a confident strong female character edifice and am instead some girl lost in a hostile world. The same girl who wished to wear her heart on her sleeve all while learning to become distant, becoming “funny”, “smart” and feeling empty. How could I just write about something just because it created feelings in me, I couldn’t just go out there into the world with that. I need an argument, I need to shake something up, I need to spark confrontation or at least court this image of a distant scholar even though I started all this to escape my little shelter and share my heart with the world. It’s hard to write about what you care about when you end up scared you might lose at it, and that teen girl within is still scared to be seen as valuing anything “for girls” or representing anything too feminine coded, frivolous or ultimately heartfelt.
I kept telling myself I’d write an apology for spending so much time away, but the concept was always so distasteful. So while I regret it, I understand now that it was the attempt to be a character crafted for consumption that held me back and to lean into that by seeking permission would only make it worse. So consider this a dispelling of illusions, a freeing spell to make me feel like something other than a stilted attempt at playing a role not made for me.
To wrap it back round though, perhaps a better conclusion would simply be to talk about another “Tales of” series naïve girl secondary protagonist. Remember that time Colette gives up her voice and soul because the system she lives under needs her to become a vessel instead of a human, and raised her to be this perfectly yielding and expendable object. When she spends a significant portion of the game rendered voiceless by her adherence to an image built up by a world that thrives on mystifying youthful girly kindness and rendering it a divine commodity, a thing far from a hardened human heart, a picture of arrogance and frivolity.
I’m no JRPG fallen saint but these sacrificial girls represent more than stories about single important figures (yuri scholars will know that all girls are rose brides after all) These worlds accept these characters often only because they have “paid” for their girlishness via their inevitable sacrifice. Kindness is only allowed as an aberration, as fuel. In our world, these stories register as frivolous, rare as stories of girls coming into their own agency over these systems. They become reduced to objects of naivety, the characters become reduced to an image of an empty caricature, their depths removed to sustain understandings that won’t process their real heroism that lies outside of marketing and ideals that value only strength and productivity.
So, my point is that healer girls own and I love them and actually right before I leave isn’t it funny how both healing and being emotionally driven only become subservient disempowering traits when girls do them?
(oh my god I only just remembered the term “Mary Sue” right at the end imagine how helpful that would’ve been)
(I didn’t talk about my true childhood inspiration Rinoa at all even though the sites named after her and shes in the header noooooooooooo)