Friday, February 25, 2011

At Least Loki Did It On Purpose (Faria)

Anna is the living embodiment of the kids show cliche of the girl who's smarter and better than all the boys. Except unlike that cliche, she doesn't spend all her time being kidnapped. Instead, she writes Bunches of Text and spends most of her time being a sort of sun for pure awesomeness. Seriously. All other cool things in the universe just sort of quietly spin around her in perfect harmony. 

She also wrote the post below, because when I sat down to write it I realized that I'd write the exact same post she would, only not nearly as well. So enjoy Anna. I certainly always do.

Video games are full of heterosexism, cissexism, and plain old no-prefix sexism. This is not a condemnation of video games; nearly every artifact our society produces contains at least one of these things, and doubly so for artifacts created for a male* audience. It is, however, a problem for a pansexual, transgender girl who likes video games.

Video games, especially in the NES era, are inextricably linked with Japan. Of course, thanks to localization, the Japan we see reflected in video games does not exist (this has been discussed here before). Nevertheless, video games, anime, and manga have been the chief components of this ephemeral Japan, and that phantom country has had a profound impact on my life.

Faria: A World of Mystery & Danger! was released in the US in 1990. I must stop here and confess something: I am not part of the NES. I am a hair too young for the NES to really be called the defining console of my youth. Certainly, the NES was the first console I remember playing games on, but I was only 7 when the SNES debuted. My personal psychochronography would have to be 16-bit. That said, certain NES games, notably Dragon Warrior, are integral to my historical sense of self.

The gameplay in Faria is charming, but shallow. It feels like a blend of The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy, and the graphics, especially the terrain in overland battles and the portraits used when conversing with NPCs, are a pleasure to look at. But the equipment system is awkward (there is nothing to indicate what makes one weapon better or different from another) and a number of small annoyances hamper playability. All of this, however, is incidental. The real problem is that Faria is deadly.

1990 was also the year that I first noticed that there was a discrepancy between my perception of myself and everyone else's perception of me. It would be a long time before I had words to describe it, and a lot longer before I could come to terms with it, but effectively, 1990 was the year that my gender identity solidified enough for me to realize I was transgender.

Words are tricky things. There is a vast space between signifier and signified, a Ginnungagap filled not with Ymir's remains, but with cultural context. The result is that signifiers are often crude, blunt instruments. They are difficult to use with precision. Take the word 'transgender'. It clubs the hearer with stereotypes and connotation. I, on the other hand, desire precision from my language. The meaning I want the word to have is very clearly defined: someone whose gender identity does not match the gender they were assigned at birth. In that sense, whether the Soldier in Faria is transgender is uncertain, because we know nothing about his inner conceptualization of himself. However, one thing we do know about the Soldier is that he undergoes gender transition.

At the beginning of Faria, it appears that the protagonist is an early example of a female lead in a video game. The Soldier appears female, and the game gives us no hint to dissuade us from that truth. The Soldier is not overly sexualized or objectified, and is clearly the most capable hero in town. A little bit of heteronormativity creeps in when the king declares that the Soldier and the Princess cannot marry because they are both girls. However, near the end of the game, it is revealed, out of the proverbial blue, that he was actually transformed into a woman, along with all of the men in his kingdom, by the evil wizard who serves as the game's antagonist. At the very least, this plot twist reeks of sexism (because obviously, a woman couldn't possibly be a hero), but more significantly, it is gender-transition-as-spectacle.

Here we have the theme of gender transition, established near the end of the story but implicitly present throughout. And where we have gender transition, the idea of transsexuality inevitably follows. They are two signifying hammers tied together. And here, the theme is not handled well. It feels as though the writer is reaching for a plot twist that will shock the player, and this is clearly the most shocking thing he could come up with. It is at least cisnormative if not outright cissexist.

Unfortunately, handling gender issues sloppily is a trend that would continue uninterrupted in Japanese media (that made it across the ocean, at least) for twenty years**. The nineties gave us anime like El Hazard and Pokemon, both of which employ crossdressing for situational humor. In 2001 we got Cowboy Bebop, which notably employed an intersex condition for gratuitous fan-service (Gren), and also used trans woman stereotypes for shock comedy (Knockin' on Heaven's Door). Even Ranma uses gender transformation as a situational gag, although it tries to couch it in a quirky, light-hearted narrative. In video games, we have Final Fantasy VII's "dress like a girl to sneak into the creepy sex-fiend's house".

As a young trans girl who loved both anime and video games, and who consumed most of the above anime at one time or another (and knew about the trans themes in the rest at least peripherally), this painted a clear picture. In bold and certain strokes, it showed me a landscape in which it was clear that to try and assert a gender other than the one society fitted you with was to invite ridicule. To be a punchline, not worth taking seriously.

This was not a false landscape, I reasoned. After all, what territory does our media map if not society? And looking at that map, I despaired of ever navigating the territory. Released as it was at the dawn of my own gender identity, Faria is the forerunner to all of the memes I encountered over the next two decades, memes that convinced me it would be more painful to transition than to keep pretending. And that would lead to a deepening depression throughout my teenage years and into college. To frequent thoughts of suicide. To one attempt at it.

Faria's secret history, then, is that it nearly killed me. True, its attempt at gender transgressiveness is far less problematic than the things that came after it, but it paved the way for them. It helped to establish the precedent in Japanese media, which made its way to me and formed my own set of connotations about transsexuality. I never played Faria, but it played me and won.

I want Faria to be better than it is. I will write for it a secret story to replace our secret history.

The Boy loved the Princess the first time he saw her. Though he was just a common boy, he vowed to meet her again, and ask if she shared his feelings.

The Boy grew into a Soldier. He practiced and sweated, trained and trained. This was not easy; his body tried to betray him. His movements always felt clumsy, and he was constantly misjudging the shape of his own body. He despised his body, which insisted on growing in ways that felt unnatural to him.

The army refused to admit him until he bound his chest and cut his hair, thereby fooling their foolish standards.

When the Soldier heard the Princess had been kidnapped, he knew his chance had come at last. He raced to her rescue. He fought past monsters and found her atop a high tower. As it happened, she did share his feelings.

The King, however, was another story. He held the Soldier up to the same foolish standard as the army. The Soldier, dejected, offered his service to the King. At least he could stay close to the Princess. Soon after, the King was turned to stone by an evil Wizard.

Being an honorable man, the Soldier sought the Wizard. He found him, disguised as the very Princess he thought he had saved. The Soldier fought the Wizard, and wrested his power away. The Soldier took the Wizard's power and healed the King. Then, he healed himself, reversed the cruel betrayal of his body, and went to find his Princess.

* I use 'male' and 'female' as the adjective forms of 'man' and 'woman' respectively, and not in the biologically essentialist sense. I don't intend 'male' and 'female' to have any definition independent of serving as adjective forms of 'man' and 'woman', and would eliminate them from my vocabulary entirely if we had non-awkward adjective forms for these words.

** In January 2011, the anime Hourou Musuko (Wandering Son) premiered on Japanese television and simultaneously, with subtitles, on This anime has done a lot to prove that it is possible to tell a story about gender identity without resorting to stereotypes and spectacle.

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