Welcome back to another installment of my informal analysis of gendered character tropes in JRPGs and their effects as role models on the younger generation playing such games. Last week, I discussed the "primary" characters of the game (the Protagonist, the Love Interest, and the Bromance) and came to the conclusion that, while each character has its stereotypical flaws, they commonly overcome those flaws (e.g.: the weak female love interest shows a moment of strength/self-sufficiency) at some point or another in the game to prove that people are capable of change. However, the deeper association of the protagonist necessarily being a straight, white male, and his love interest being a straight, white, female persists.
Today, we will examine three "less-significant" characters to the overall plot of any JRPG: the Badass Female Powerhouse, the Young Comic Relief Female, and the Stoic Older Guardian. Now, when it comes to these secondary characters, the roles are a bit less stringent in terms of gender, and sometimes, multiple characters can fit the same role, or a single character can fit multiple roles, depending on the situations in the game. As such, my examples of characters may show multiple characters, or you may examine the same character being used among multiple categories; this is not uncommon, as you'll find that there are certain overarching themes between some of the archetypes, and these archetypes are more flexible than those of the primary characters.
Badass Female Powerhouse
Examples: Lulu (FFX), Nel (Star Ocean 3), Sheena (Tales of Symphonia), Ayla (Chrono Trigger), Rose (Legend of Dragoon)
First and foremost, this character is strong, and she tends to be almost a perfect foil to the Love Interest character. She is independent, quite possibly the strongest fighter in the group (sometimes physically, sometimes magically), and she is usually stoic or distant, as opposed to warm and selfless like the Love Interest. This, in and of itself, would make the character a fantastic role model for any young gamers to look up to, regardless of gender. While the character tends to come off as brash or rude to the party for the majority of the game, we will find that she simply acts cold to defend herself due to some mysterious traumatic incident that occurred in her past.
However, on the flip-side of this character, she tends to be very over-sexualized as well. In looking at simply the character sprite of Ayla from Chrono Trigger above, we can see that emphasis is place on these characters physically showing as much skin as possible, or at the very least accentuating the cleavage of what will always be an ample bosom. Possibly the most conservative of the examples I listed above — Nel from Star Ocean 3 — would be a step in the right direction... if her character didn't hail from a planet with extremely low temperatures while still wearing what barely constitutes a skirt and tall boots for some reason (a scarf does not instantly excuse idiotic clothing options, Nel!). In addition, this character also tends to enjoy flirting with the Protagonist as well as other male characters of the game (and sometimes female characters, though the character herself is definitively not a lesbian), and the ironic twist of the whole thing? If she does end up in a relationship, often it'll be with the womanizing Bromance character. He'll flirt with her, typically resulting in a harmful physical response from her, but ultimately, the two sexually charged people end up together or at the very least flirt with the idea.
Now, what does this mean in terms of a positive image? Sexuality can be demeaning when considered as a defining characteristic of a woman, most definitely, but in some cases, it can also be considered an empowering weapon of sorts. A woman who is secure enough in her sexuality to flaunt her natural gifts while also dishing out the pain wherever she deems it appropriate without batting an eyelash? That type of woman can be a strong female role model for the younger generation, especially in a society filled with slut-shaming and antiquated ideas of female sexuality. In my opinion, any woman showing that you can be beautiful and strong as long as you are confident and remain true to yourself is a good role model.
Young Comic Relief Female
Examples: Rikku (FFX), Peppita (Star Ocean 3), Presea/Genis(?) (Tales of Symphonia), Ayla (Chrono Trigger), Meru (Legend of Dragoon)
As the (most often) youngest character in the game, one would assume the character should be the least sexualized out of all the characters; however, this is not necessarily true. While the Badass Female Powerhouse is overtly sexual by nature, the Young Comic Relief Female might not be obviously sexual, but she arguably fulfills a type of "sexy baby" archetype, made apparent by a simple Google search of most of the characters mentioned. Now, this is less apparent in younger, more innocent characters such as Peppita from Star Ocean 3, but characters like Rikku (who is 15 in FFX while wearing booty shorts and 17 in FFX-2, where she wears... much less.) and Meru (16 during the course of Legend of Dragoon; wears basically a bikini). Now, an argument could be made that the characters were not meant to be considered sexual at all, and it's merely the fan base that has done so (as none of the characters have any illicit relationships with anyone else), but the physical appearances of some of these girls seem to imply that the idea is at least meant to be planted, regardless of the writers' intents.
Now, I lumped Genis from Tales of Symphonia into this category as well, despite the fact that he is a male character. This is due to the fact that, as mentioned earlier, these characters are not as cookie-cutter as their primary counterparts. Peppita is not as sexualized as many other Young Comic Relief Females, and Presea is not peppy or necessarily funny (or technically young, if we want to go that way). It's hard sometimes to fit them all into one category, but considering Genis's banter with many of the other characters and "wise beyond his years" demeanor, his inclusion in a largely female archetype seemed fitting.
Sexuality aside, the character's personality implies an inherent contradiction: innocence in the face of a damaged past. Typically, the character's pep and cheery outlook on life is merely meant to mask the pain felt due to hardships she has faced over the course of her life. Often, she has no family left or a negative relationship with that family. Ultimately, this character knows more than people give her credit for, and she proves that she should never be taken lightly. This character proves that looks can be deceiving, and age should never be a contributing factor when it comes to the judgments of one's experiences. As such, I consider this character to be a strong role model for any players.
Stoic Older Guardian
Examples: Auron (FFX), Mirage (Star Ocean 3), Raine (Tales of Symphonia), Robo (Chrono Trigger), Haschel (Legend of Dragoon)
As you can see from the list I've compiled above, this character archetype is probably one of the least concrete when it comes to a specific physical type. Typically, the only requirements are that the character be calm and collected when necessary, and in a position of authority (or at least have a demeanor that allows them to command a room efficiently). This character can be male, female... or robot, but the differences between the types of characters that can fill this "teacher/guardian" role can be staggering.
For example, Mirage from Star Ocean 3 is mentioned as being extremely strong due to the planet she was born on, even admitted by Cliff to be stronger than him, despite her looks. However, it's that last part that tended to rub me the wrong way: her looks and beauty are brought up relatively often before you're even able to control the character in battle, and afterward, we are constantly reminded that her strength is so surprising considering how pretty she is. Granted, Cliff (the womanizing Bromance of the game) is the one who reminds us of this fact over and over, but it leads one to wonder: why are such remarks not made about the male counterparts of the archetype? We assume that Auron is strong, and we know Haschel can hold his own, and even Robo (who is referred to by masculine pronouns in-game despite the fact that it is a non-gendered robot) can kick butt, but none of them have their appearances mentioned for a second.
This double standard applies all over the realm of video games, but I find it especially prevalent here: the male characters have almost nothing sexualized about them, while the female characters must be justified that they are beautiful but also strong, as if the two are somehow supposed to be a surprising juxtaposition. That is not to say that the male guardians cannot be found attractive — sexually or otherwise — but in their appearance or personality, there aren't any necessarily "sexy" characteristics (whereas the Bromance tends to be in peak physical condition, sometimes shirtless, and often pursued by or pursuing women).
Ultimately, I believe that the major differences we can find in examining these secondary characters are the sexual nature and how it differs between genders. Women in video games ooze sexual energy, regardless of age, strength, or even sexual interest, while the men in video games get a pass. Whether this is an intentional ploy by the games designers/writers or a cheap trick to interest its stereotypically middle-aged male consumers or simply all part of an equation for a "successful" game that was created back when games were just starting to be developed, it is definitely time for a change.
On that note, however, I also believe that such a change is happening gradually. While JRPGs tend to have gendered stereotypes where none are necessary, and it might be quite some time until we see a "mainstream" JRPG (read: non-indie) in which a Protagonist enters into a homosexual romantic relationship with his/her same-sex Love Interest, in other games where the Protagonist is customizable (such as Dragon Age), the options for a homosexual or bisexual relationship already exist, and many games feature non-heteronormative non-player characters (NPCs). As such, it's only a matter of time until our Eastern counterparts join the rest of the world in creating compelling and inclusive stories with non-traditional characters.