This is a response to Lucky_Krystal's blog post, which is itself a response to this feature I wrote regarding the characters of Naoto and Kanji in Persona 4.
First of all, I want to thank Krystal for the respectful response to my piece, and for not tolerating comments in the blog from those who are more interested in directing personal attacks my way than in having a civil, open-minded conversation about this.
As for the nitty-gritty of my response, I want to start with something Krystal says at the end of her blog. "In no way would I ever defend it if I shared Carolyn's sentiments and thought that the game was even remotely disrespectful and offensive." That sounds like a reasonable position, but it's not really one I feel like I can afford to take if I want to be able to enjoy most video games, or even lots of movies and television. If I demanded moral perfection of the games I play, well, that would have prevented me from playing a great many of the games I love. Generally speaking, I think games could be so, so much better with regard to their treatment of women, cultural minorities, and LGBT people. But because I love games as much as I do, I'd much rather engage with games in these areas, thinking about and writing about the ways they could be better, than just throw my arms up in frustration and walk away. This is certainly the case with Persona 4. If you look through the comments on my feature, I think you'll see that a lot of people were clearly upset simply because I was criticizing Persona 4, a game that they hold dear. But here's the thing: I love it, too. I mean, I really love this game. I think it's one of the best games I've ever played. Even so, I'm not going to give it a free pass. I don't know if you've watched the first part of Feminist Frequency's Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series, but as the great Alyssa Rosenberg writes here:
"At the beginning of the video, Sarkeesian, explaining that This series will include critical analysis of many beloved games and characters, says something that everyone who loves a piece of culture ought to be required to recite five times every morning while looking in the mirror: Remember that its both possible and even necessary to simultaneously enjoy media while being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects. If that ability to hold two ideas in your head at the same time, to enjoy something while recognizing that it might have problems, is what the people who tried to harass Sarkeesian into silence are so afraid of, it only reinforces how intellectually cowardly and inept they are. The need for something to be immune from criticism isnt a sign that its perfect and everyone else is wrong: its a sign you cant defend the things you love. Thats a position any self-aware person ought to be embarrassed to defend."
I agree with this, that we need to be able to look at the things we admire and enjoy and accept that not all of them are entirely above reproach. I can simultaneously adore Persona 4 (and I do) and feel that in certain ways, it could have been better. Krystal also states near the end of her response, "I don't think it was Atlus' intention to mock or shame homosexuals and transgender people." Well, maybe they did and maybe they didn't. This is beside the point. A work--be it a game, novel, film or what have you--can have meanings and messages that its creators did not intend it to have. Many feel that Kathryn Bigelow's film Zero Dark Thirty endorses torture. (This is not a view I share, but it works here as an example.) People who see this message in the film see it there regardless of Bigelow's assertions that the film does not endorse torture. Once a work of art is completed and is sent out into the world for the public to view and to contemplate, the artist(s) relinquish control over it. They cannot control how it will be interpreted by others, what meanings or values those who experience it might find within it.
Nothing makes you a better person quite like taking on the Aiya Rainy Day Mega Beef Bowl Challenge!
Similarly, I don't think it's especially relevant that, as Krystal says, "Japan's views of gender identity and sexuality are probably much different than they are in the US." That's certainly true, but I don't give what I see as problematic aspects of a game a pass simply because they come from another culture. If I feel a game or movie or TV show is sexist, for instance, I think that sexism is worth criticizing, regardless of where it comes from. "That's just how it is over there" is not, in my view, an excuse. Krystal goes on to say, "Couple that with the fact that video game stories still have a lot of growing to do as a whole." I certainly agree with that. It's because I feel so strongly that they can be better and because I want them to be better that I write things like this in the first place.
So, okay, let's talk about Kanji. With regard to my criticisms of Kanji's storyline, Krystal brings up the dungeons of other characters, saying, "the characters' personalities and actions do not PERFECTLY match with the personalities of their shadow selves." She gives a few examples to support this.
"It's actually said in the game that the shadows are only one facet of the characters personality. Also, the shadows and the dungeons are very extreme manifestations of the characters' deepest troubles and fears.
For example, Rise's strip club dungeon was the result of people not seeing the real her. Rise constantly had to be everyone's charming, cute, and most of all, perfect idol for the camera. Fed up with this fake personality she was forced to show, she left show business and went to live a normal life. But of course everyone still approached her, wanting to meet Rise the media darling, not the real her. Therefore, the whole "I'm going to strip and bare it all" was a very extreme way of saying she wanted to shed her generic idol shell and show the world the real her.
Yukiko's dungeon was a castle; her shadow wore princess' clothing, and constantly spoke of "scoring a hot stud." Her shadow, once provoked, manifested as a bird in a cage who summoned a prince to fight for her. This represented Yukiko's feelings of being trapped in a life she didn't want to pursue."
Krystal provides additional examples. too, before saying, "these are extreme and exaggerated manifestations." My feeling is that, yes, most characters' shadow worlds and shadow selves represent exaggerations of one aspect of the character's inner life, but that in Kanji's case, what we get is not an exaggeration, but a contradiction. I did not want or expect the real Kanji to be an uncontrollably lustful gay man like his repressed shadow self. Instead, I hoped that the dungeon would resolve itself with him facing his sexuality and folding it into his larger personality in a way that was healthy and socially acceptable, as others did with the aspects of their personalities embodied by their shadow selves.
We sure made a lot of happy memories together.
And now, Naoto. Krystal says that, In the west, we refer to (people like Naoto) as tomboys. But this isn't true. Naoto isn't a tomboy. Naoto has lived most of his life as a boy. Not only does he not correct others when they refer to him with male pronouns; he clearly has gone to a great deal of effort to encourage and support this perception. If Naoto were a real person at a real high school, this would mean doing things like using the boys' restroom, for instance. For someone like Naoto to be accepted as male for years and years of life would take tremendous effort and carry with it a certain amount of danger; this is not something that tomboys engage in.
Krystal says, "Also, Naoto's reason for wanting to craft herself as the hard-boiled detective did not only stem from her attachment to fictional characters. She is descended from a line of famous detectives and she intends to continue the tradition." As I said in my original feature, the idea of someone living in a gender other than the one they are assigned at birth because they hope to pursue a particular profession does not ring psychologically true. I have never heard of a young girl living as a boy for many years of her life, for instance, not because she truly identified as a boy but because she wanted to be a police officer when she grew up and thought that the male gender was more fitting for being a cop. Nor have I ever heard of a boy who lived as a girl not because he didn't identify as a boy but simply because he wanted to be a nurse when he grew up and all of his nursing role models were women.
Some may say, "So what if it's unrealistic? You're talking about a game in which a bunch of high school students pass through television sets and save the world by fighting monsters on the other side." Well, I'd say that the one area in which Persona 4 does need to be believable is in the psychology of its characters. What really makes the game special, ultimately, isn't its battle system or its dungeons or any of those traditional RPG trappings. It's the richness and complexity of its characters and the ways in which they connect and relate to each other. If those characters start behaving in ways that we find inconsistent or false, it takes us out of our investment in their relationships with each other.
So, yes, I UNDERSTAND that, within the game, we're meant to buy that Naoto is a tomboy, that, as Krystal said, his "true intentions were to become a splendid and ideal detective, not a man." I'm simply saying that, given Naoto's behavior in life up to the point where he becomes involved in the story, living as a boy, being known as the detective prince, and so on, and given what we see in his shadow world, I don't personally buy the idea of Naoto as a tomboy. To me, it would have been much more believable and consistent with these things if Naoto were transgender.
The quaint and lovely town of Inaba. If you haven't visited it yet, you really should.
Finally, a word on why this matters so much to me. A thought experiment, if you will, and one that I hope you will take seriously and participate in with an open mind.
Imagine that you live in a world where a group that you identify with is frequently marginalized and discriminated against. Let's call this group straight people. Now, straight people have made some progress in recent years. In some states, they have the right to get married, and there are an increasing number of straight role models in the media; famous writers, TV hosts, and so on. But in your beloved video games, straight people are all but nonexistent. Never the heroes. Only very rarely do straight people like you even show up as supporting characters. It's practically unheard of.
Then, along comes this amazing role-playing game called Persona 4, with a rich cast of psychologically complex characters. You venture into a land that reflects one character's mind, and what you find there is a facet of that character expressing heterosexual desire. Wow! Understandably he has repressed it, you think, because straight people are often not treated very well in society, but there it is, a true part of him, yearning to get out.
When you finally complete his dungeon, though, the game tells a different tale; he doesn't actually like girls, you see. It's just that he was so afraid of boys, because they'd been mean to him in the past. You thought you were finally about to see a well-developed straight character in a game, but alas, no. The game veers away from that possibility, and goes down a different road.
Ultimately, the game does this not just once, but twice!
In a world with so few straight characters in games, it's hard not to see Persona 4 twice come near the brink of giving us a straight character, and both times backing away, as really, really disappointing, especially since so many things about the game are so wonderful. To have a game come close to giving us straight characters and then in both cases run away from that, especially in a world where there are almost no straight characters in other games, sends a message about straight identities, whether the developers intended it to or not.
Maybe you can put yourself in that position via your imagination and maybe you can't. I've received a number of kind messages from LGBT readers telling me that they felt similarly about the message the game was sending and thanking me for the piece, though, and that is good enough for me.
Anyway, I'm gonna give the last word here to Yosuke. This is an idea that's at the heart of the game, and I think it's something that all of us, women and men, gay and straight, trans and cis, should strive to do.
Sounds good to me, Yosuke. Thanks for all the good times.