Playing persona 4, my character opens a book to read. “The Man’s Series” is the book I’m currently working through in that game. Each time I read it, my Courage stat gets a boost, which will help me with interactions with other characters further down the road.
The game gives these little book-reading segments flavour text, before rewarding you with your stat boost. In this case, it was something along the lines of “All people have within them the essence of masculinity.”
It’s at this point that I hear my roommate, who’s watching me play, mutter “oh no”. She had just seen the mention of masculinity and was bracing for the worst.
That moment, in part with a few other events in recent memory, got me thinking – masculinity and femininity have become touchy subjects in fiction. When he hear words like “masculine” and “girly”, our heads automatically go to the worst possible places – harmful stereotypes and toxic personalities. But there’s nothing wrong with being masculine, feminine, or anything in-between. They’re all part of the spectrum that makes up who we are as people.
I talk to one of my friends about things like this frequently, and at one point this video came up in our conversation. It highlights a lot of the same thought processes I’m going to echo in this article, so I thought I’d share it.
So let’s jump right in – why are masculine and feminine characters in games so dividing for people? I think to really understand where we are, you have to step back and look at where we’ve come from. Like most forms of media, video game characters were once a lot more shoe-horned into boxes. Men fit one basic role, and women another. It’s why so many old games featured a princess who needed saving, and on the rare occasion that a woman was allowed onto a team of heroes, she was usually the physically weakest memeber, most likely the healer of the group. Similarly, go back and play an old school rpg, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a difference between male character A, B and C, aside from hair color.
Characters that didn’t identify as traditionally masculine or feminine were nowhere to be seen, which left most of the characters in these games feeling flat and lifeless. Of course, technological limitations and a general lack of respect for the artform meant there was much less time being focused on character development. And so, most characters ended up being stereotypes, with questionable motivations and barely any personality.
Fast forward to modern day, and we’ve come a long way. Gone are the days where Samus revealing her gender at the end of Metroid is a mind-boggling occurance, because these days female main characters exist in a multitude of games (although they are still vastly outnumbered by their male counterparts).
Likewise, male characters have been allowed to explore different roles as well, and all for the better. In the interest of creating characters that fill more real-world equivalent roles, game designers are creating characters that are much more fleshed-out, thus allowing more people to feel represented by the medium.
However, in an interest to distance their characters from the characters of the past, this meant many characters fell into NEW cliches in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. The big Sheik reveal at the end of Ocarina of Time stands out as one that I’ve seen countless times since – “The mysterious man who’s been helping us all along has been a WOMAN!? How unexpected!” Except it’s become completely expected, because, in an effort to distinguish their characters from pre-existing tropes, they’ve established entirely new ones.
Going back to the topic at hand, I think a lot of people associate masculinity with its negative counterpart, toxic masculinity. That archtype of guy who believes your worth is measured solely by your BMI and your ability to score with women. To that same degree, make a character too girly and they get seen as one-dimensional or weak.
It’s important to remember that not all masculine people are jerks though, and not all girly women are weak-willed. In real life, people exist all across the board, from masculine to feminine and everywhere in between. And by rejecting these personality types by assuming they’re simply stereotypical, we’re unwittingly casting aside everyone that identifies with these characters.
Having a character dress girly doesn’t mean they’re necessarily a stereotype – it simply means they have a particular style they enjoy. Women should be allowed to look and act how they want in the real world – and out fictional characters should reflect this. Some women like ribbons, bows and skirts, and other like t-shirts and jeans. Why shouldn’t our characters be able to reflect these diverse tastes?
It’s important to remember that every character’s traits make them more identifiable to a particular group of people. Whether that be race, religion, gender identity or disability. Personally, I latch on to characters who wear glasses, because growing up there were no video game characters who did. I always saw my glasses as something that distanced me from my heroes and kept me from looking (and therefore being) like them. I distinctly remember being so bothered by this I told my parents about it. Their response was “someday you can make a game where the hero wears glasses.” That always stuck with me, and I think about it every time the issue of representation in works of fiction comes up.
Now, I’m not arguing that there are too many gender-neutral characters in games. Quite the opposite actually – we need characters that represent all walks of life for our worlds to feel real. That means including as many different types of people as possible to flesh out the world and make it feel as diverse as our own world. It just seems it’s gotten too easy these days to throw characters who are either too macho or girly away for being stereotypes.
Obviously, games should strive to represent all number of people. If all of your characters are musclebound jocks, you might have a problem. But a well fleshed-out character who happens to be in touch with his masculine nature is a very good thing, and they should be celebrated, not rejected. Masculinity is so much more than just working out or being tough, and I don’t think enough men growing up today understand that. To reject all masculinity is damaging to young boys, and frankly, I believe this rejection is the primary cause of toxic masculinity that seems to be on the rise in recent years.
Going back to Persona 4, one of the more interesting characters is Kanji. Throughout the game, it comes to light that he’s got some issues with the idea of “being a man”. He’s lived his life trying to be as masculine and tough and possible, in part because of some serious childhood trauma. However, he also likes to sew and knit, and loves soft and cute things. The game also raises questions about his sexuality, as, being a young high-schooler, he himself never really comes out and decides whether he likes men or women.
When I first picked up the game and saw Kanji, I thought “Ok, here’s the tough guy character”, but he’s much deeper than that. Kanji is a well written, hyper-masculine character, who’s masculinity is both his greatest strength and his biggest weakness. And I’ve known a number of real people who share his burden. Kanji struggles a lot with the concept of being a man, and questions whether his hobbies can align with that version of himself he’s spent so long trying to create. He struggles with how society looks at him, and how he feels about himself internally. In that way, he’s a very relatable character for many of us.
Nintendo has done an excellent job fleshing out the once one-dimensional Princess Peach over the years as well, dating back as far as the 90’s by my memory. It was around the time of Paper Mario when they started giving her a more active role in her adventures, having her sneak around the castle to thwart Bowser from the inside out. Since then, she’s developed into a prime example of how a character can be both girly and bad-ass, with her adventurous nature being most apparent in Mario Odyssey. Not only does she have that priceless “I don’t need no man” moment at the end of the game, but she then sets out on her own globe-trotting adventure.
Nintendo really shined in their development of the princess by not changing her outward design, but by enhancing her personality. Peach still has a relatively “girly” design, but this isn’t considered a detriment. They just had her grow from an “object that needs saving” into an actual character with motivations of her own. She’s as much of a can-do, go-getter as the Mario Bros. themselves – she just happens to like wearing pink while she does it.
Obviously, these ideas of masculinity and femininity being toxic come from somewhere – there are people who embody the worst parts of gender in real life, and there are lazy characters in fiction who do a poor job of representing “manly” and “girly” people. Done poorly, these characters become tired cliches, or worse, full-blown offensive stereotypes. But when done correctly, these characters represent just another facet of our world, and the amazing people who represent it. Much like in real life, don’t judge a book by its cover – get to know these characters before you make assumptions. It takes all kinds of people to make up the world, whether we’re talking fiction or reality.