Denial of the Self: Queer Characters in Persona 4

Persona 4 is full of fascinating, psychologically complex characters. But when it comes to issues of sexuality and gender identity, the game fails to face the truth.

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Let me state one thing up front: in many ways, Persona 4 is an outstanding game. As its story has progressed over the course of a school year, I've formed a much closer connection to its cast of high school students than I have to the characters in most games. It has repeatedly made me laugh out loud, sometimes made my pulse race, and occasionally moved me, as its heroes have formed happy memories together and faced great challenges together. They confront these challenges in both the real world that every high school student must navigate, and in that other world they have the power to enter, a world where manifestations of the thoughts and feelings that reside in our subconscious take shape.

But for a game that is all about people coming to terms with the aspects of themselves that they have long repressed, Persona 4's treatment of two of its main characters, Kanji and Naoto, leaves a great deal to be desired. Initially, Kanji appears gay and Naoto seems to be transgender. However, rather than embracing these traits as interesting facets of two members of the game's core group, Persona 4 ultimately rejects them.

By clearly raising the idea in the player's mind that Kanji is gay and then rejecting that idea, Persona 4 sends the message that homosexuality is shameful and should not be accepted.
Let's start with Kanji. When you first hear about him, it's via a televised news report that characterizes him as a violent troublemaker. Soon, he becomes the latest person to appear on the Midnight Channel, and you and your fellow investigation team members venture through a television and into the mysterious world on the other side where subconscious feelings and desires are manifested. Kanji's realm is a steamy bathhouse, and as you make your way through it, you repeatedly hear Shadow Kanji (the embodiment of his repressed subconscious) express sexual desire for men. I was immediately intrigued. Here, I hoped, I would get a complex portrayal of a gay character, one who has sadly but understandably repressed his sexuality in response to societal pressure, who felt that he could not be accepted as a tough guy if people knew he was also gay.

Unfortunately, Persona 4 doesn't follow through on this potential. When Kanji confronts his shadow self and accepts who he is, he reveals not that he is attracted to men, but that he is just deeply afraid of (or maybe deeply dislikes) women. He recalls things that girls have said to him in the past ("You like to sew? What a queer!") and says that he is more comfortable around men because, according to him, "they'd never say those awful, degrading things." (I'm not sure what sort of world Kanji lives in where men would never criticize him for liking to sew and do other things that are stereotypically considered feminine, but for the sake of the game, I'll go along with it.) However, at the end of the day, his issue is simply a matter of feeling more comfortable around men, not one of being physically attracted to them.

To me, this is a huge cop-out. It rings psychologically false; the ultimate truth of Kanji's character as someone who was just afraid of rejection because girls had been cruel to him in the past doesn't quite mesh with the imagery of his dungeon and the personality of his shadow self. By clearly raising the idea in the player's mind that Kanji is gay and then rejecting that idea, Persona 4 sends the message that homosexuality is shameful and should not be accepted.

Yosuke's attitudes about Kanji are problematic, and so is the game's way of handling them.
As the story progresses, we're periodically reminded that, had he been gay, Kanji would not have been fully accepted by the other members of the investigation team, and, in fact, some anxiety lingers later on about whether or not Kanji is truly straight. During a school camping trip in which the protagonist, Kanji, and Yosuke are gathered in the same tent, Yosuke goes so far as to ask, "Are we gonna be safe alone with you?" suggesting that in Yosuke's mind, if Kanji had been gay, he would also be prone to behave inappropriately. When Kanji tells Yosuke that he has no problem being around girls now, Yosuke asks him to prove it, saying that if he can't, "we're gonna be stuck here all night half scared to death." Yosuke's attitudes about Kanji are problematic, and so is the game's way of handling them. Rather than addressing Yosuke's negative perceptions of homosexuality, perhaps with a character arc in which his prejudices are challenged and he becomes more open-minded over time, Persona 4 lets his view of homosexuality as something to be feared stand unchallenged and unremarked upon, treating it as normal and acceptable.

Persona 4's treatment of Naoto is no better. Naoto, known in the media as the detective prince, comes to town to help the police with their ongoing investigation of the disappearances that are plaguing Inaba. Predictably, Naoto disappears himself, and the investigation team leaps into action to rescue him. Naoto's dungeon is a sort of bunker, with large metallic doors and flashing lights. When you finally descend to the deepest chambers of the bunker, you find Naoto declaring that he is about to embark on a "bodily alteration process." This process, he says, will result in "the moment of a new birth" and enable him to "walk a completely different path in life." Shadow Naoto then taunts Naoto, saying that Naoto is "such a cool, manly name" but that "a name doesn't change the truth. It doesn't let you cross the barrier between the sexes." Shadow Naoto then reveals to the investigation team that Naoto is physically female.

Here, I hoped that Persona 4 might go some distance toward redeeming itself. There's great potential in exploring the feelings of a young person who is struggling with his sense of gender identity. But again, Persona 4 let me down. After you defeat Naoto's shadow self, Naoto explains that he read many hard-boiled crime novels as a child, and admired the cool, detached detectives in them. It is not, Naoto says, that he is transgender that has led him to live as a boy for so long. It is simply that being female "doesn't fit my ideal image of a detective."

Much like what you discover to be the reality of Kanji's internal conflict, this internal conflict rang false. To me, it's unheard of for a person to go so far as to live as a gender other than the one they are physically assigned at birth simply because they feel a connection to fictional characters of that genre or because their assigned gender doesn't fit their ideal image of a person in a certain profession. Naoto says, "What I must strive for isn't to become a man. It's to accept myself for who I really am." It would have been so much more interesting and believable to me if "a man" was one part of who Naoto really was. (This doesn't mean that I think Naoto should have continued to desire surgery, as the scenario in his dungeon suggests; one can identify as and be a man or a woman regardless of one's physicality. See the film Boys Don't Cry, for instance, for a portrayal of a man who is no less a man for being physically female, even if not everybody he meets sees it that way.) The idea that he was just deeply confused about his own gender because of all those detective novels he read strains credulity and, like Kanji's story arc, reinforces the notion that queer identities are to be feared and rejected. (Because, in the original Japanese dialogue for the game, Naoto continues to refer to himself using the male pronoun boku, I feel it is appropriate to refer to him with male pronouns, as well.)

The discovery that Naoto is physically female immediately trumps all of the years he has spent living as a male.
No sooner have you rescued Naoto than the other members of the investigation team significantly alter their treatment of him. Rise calls him "missy." Yukiko explains away Naoto's inability to deal with a particular situation by saying, "Naoto-kun is younger than us, and she's a girl." Yosuke, who, if his paranoid behavior around Kanji is any indication, would never have flirted with Naoto while believing him to be physically male, now tells him, "You're pretty cute when you're angry." And when the investigation team goes to a hot spring together, the girls in the group marvel at Naoto's female physique and remark on the softness of his skin and the silkiness of his hair.

Though Naoto has stated that, despite living as a boy for so long, he does not fully identify as male, these behaviors still struck me as disrespectful of Naoto's gender identity. Without asking him how he wants to be treated, they immediately start speaking about him as if he's just another one of the girls in the group; the discovery that he is physically female immediately trumps all of the years he has spent living as a male. One of the most blatant examples of this comes when Kanji, who finds himself attracted to Naoto, practically demands that Naoto participate in a school beauty pageant, saying that if Naoto does so, his doubts about himself "will finally be cleared." "C'mon, make me a man!" he says, suggesting that if he were gay, he would not really be a man.

Even more troubling is the way that Naoto's gender expression can be altered by you, the player, if you pursue a romance with him. Of course, if Naoto were a real person, anyone who requested that he change his gender presentation would not be someone who respected and cared for the person he really is. But Persona 4 doesn't raise any ethical questions about you asking Naoto to drastically change; it's as if the game thinks this is acceptable, since deep down, Naoto is "really" female anyway. (Troubling attitudes about women in general surface periodically throughout the game, but that is a whole separate topic.)

Persona 4's handling of Kanji and Naoto is more than just a disappointing failure to engage with queer characters and queer issues.
The always thought-provoking Mattie Brice has written in detail about your ability to shape Naoto's gender expression in this post at the Border House. Brice writes, "There is a scene after you confess your love for Naoto when he asks the player if they want him to start talking with a higher pitch to his voice to sound more feminine, and if they choose to have a higher pitch, he will dress up in a girl's school uniform during the Christmas event. This event is more poignant in the Japanese version of this scene; instead of the pitch of his voice, he asks the protagonist if he minded Naoto's use of 'boku.'" In other words, you can cause a complete, fundamental shift in how Naoto sees and refers to himself. Brice continues, "The scene when Naoto dresses up in a girl's uniform completely transforms his personality; he's now always blushing, stammering, quiet, scrunched up as much as he can into himself… Naoto's Social Link was an extreme waste of an opportunity to explore the intricacies of a relationship when at least one partner is transgender."

I agree with Brice. In fact, I think Persona 4 is full of wasted opportunities, and that ultimately, its handling of Kanji and Naoto is more than just a disappointing failure to engage with queer characters and queer issues. By introducing the idea that Kanji is gay and that Naoto is transgender and then backing away from embracing those characterizations, Persona 4 represents a betrayal of its central theme about people learning to accept themselves and each other for who they are, and sends the message that such sexual orientations and gender identities are too scary to accept. I want to see more LGBT characters in games, but not like this. It's almost as if Persona 4 has some lingering issues dwelling in its own psyche that it hasn't quite come to terms with.

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