Feminism in Gaming: Persona 5 with Mod Aria!

Want more feminism in your gaming? Mod Aria’s here to deliver! Today, I’ve decided to bite the bullet and talk about a game that is really stealing the hearts of RPG lovers around the world. Yes, please prepare yourself for puns. After a lot of hard work and a ton of save files, I’ve finally managed to collect my feminist thoughts about Atlus’ Persona 5.

A theme that comes up often in Persona 5 is that nothing really is what it truly seems to be, and this can also be the case in regards to the game’s feminist approach to certain topics. I can say with certainty that I was pleasantly surprised by how this game tackled current issues, but to say this game is free from criticism would be a deception. So put on your best Phantom Thief outfit, and let’s get to snooping.

Thankfully, I actually have more good to say then bad this time around. Shocking, right? The main motif of Persona 5, the thing it never seems to want you to forget, is that this game is one about rebellion. Every character, every relationship made, every sub-plot point seems to have a whisper of this concept swirled within it. And to equate feminism with rebellion isn’t wholly inaccurate, though it something people like me really wish that we did not have to do.

And when it comes both female and male characters, you see many occasions where they are rebelling against gendered issues. That message, to me, is a great one to send home not only to adult players, but to younger players as well. Society, Japanese and American, has shaped us to believe that people should behave in accordance to gender roles, and we are now discovering and changing the way we see the concept of “gender”. Therefore, those ideas are officially becoming outdated.

Persona 5 shows exactly how outdated, too. Many of these gendered issues are enforced by the adults or the elderly of the game, not the teens or young adults. This is certainly a metaphor for the way society (particularly Japanese society) views the value of the age spectrum. It’s not so different over here in America. Those in power are older, and they shape their worlds the way they want it with no remorse for those younger than them that they hurt. Because of that power, because of their status, they treat the young like things rather than people. Both in reality and in Persona 5.

But more so, the female characters are particularly rebelling against not only gendered issues, but the men that would try to control them. Of the main female cast, all of their problems–what triggers their rebellion–is one particular man who sees them as their plaything, a tool, or as someone for them to dominate simply because they are female. And Persona 5 pulls no punches letting you know. Some of these male characters are blatantly sexist and abusive, and the game does not allow them to walk away free. They are punished for their crimes, and the women who were hurt by them (with one exception; and because of the circumstances I agree with that decision) are unwilling to forgive.

Not only is this an important lesson to teach about the nature of forgiveness, it also helps to remind players that women are often blamed when victimized. And that they are often sexually victimized. One of the main problems that the characters face in the beginning of the game is an adult sexually harassing minors, and I was so nervous going into it that the character suffering from that crime would not have justice for their abuse, but Persona 5 handled it with feminist aplomb.

One victim, Ann Takamaki, didn’t forgive her abuser, the abuser did pay for their crimes, and those who treated her badly changed their perceptions. That is how sexual assault should be treated. I’m very tired of seeing games broach this subject and have the assaulter forgiven like they were another victim because of their past or mental illness. Nothing justifies abuse, and forgiveness isn’t about the abuser. It’s about the abused willing to move on from their trauma. Which the abused gets to dictate themselves by their own terms.

Naturally, there were also other sexist characters who flagrantly touted their sexist ideas, only to be trounced by the cast of heroes. And it pleased me to see that there were also instances of females abusing males and a male side character rebelling against an arranged marriage, which is something you don’t see often that we must remind ourselves. Feminism is for men, too. So that they can rebel against the stigma. So that they can feel validated in abusive circumstances.

But Persona 5 has many masks to it, and at times that is what their display of feminism can feel like: just another facade.

Despite some of the great moments in this game, there are moments where the game frustrated me. Just when I thought this game truly was an act of rebellion against toxic tropes and ideas, I found that it fell back into that stereotypical Japanese game category. The main issue is that the game preached sexual respect for women, yet many of the game’s animated cutscenes offered sexy shots of the female characters, particularly Ann Takamaki. How hypocritical is it to have the character that was so angered about the way a man saw her as a sexual object to be so sexualized in her presentation?

Ann isn’t the only one who is subjected to this, but she is certainly the headliner. From wet shirts to bikini shots, the game is riddled with the hypersexualization of females. It truly makes all that feminist subject matter really seem hollow.

Another issue that the game failed to address well is sexuality. While the main character is given opportunities to flirt with men, the male characters seem to dismiss it as a joke, while the female characters flirted with seem to take it seriously. Persona 5 suffers from some uncomfortable heteronormativity. Many of the male characters are focused on trying to have sex with women, to flirt with women, but there’s no real message of rebellion here. Having an LGBT character rebelling against homophobic or transphobic abuse would have been a great aspect to this game, but sadly there is none of it. And I know that there is a supposedly trans character in P5, but the character is not handled well at all. To have the main character be able to enter a relationship with one of the male characters would also have been terrific, but sadly unavailable as it stands.

In summary, I think that Persona 5, for the most part, showcases some really important feminist issues in a positive light, which is refreshing. When it comes to gender roles and sexual assault, the game really makes me proud. When it comes to female sexualization and LGBT issues, the game disappoints me. It’s the lack of consistency that makes it hard for me to say without a doubt that Persona 5 doesn’t just wear a mask of feminism.

It’s that idea, using feminism as a mask, that is incredibly dangerous for mediums in the media. Feminism isn’t something that should just be an afterthought like it has been in the past. Treating female characters and issues with respect and treating LGBT and racial issues and characters with respect are all important aspects of feminism and intersectional feminism. Having one without others is not representation. It’s simply relying on buzz words for the shock factor. And looking at Persona 5, a game that is about youth and defiance, I would certainly say it’s quite likely the developers and writers were trying to shock some people.

Yet, it’s portraying feminism as a form rebellion that pacifies me slightly. This game is about changing people; about fighting for something better. That’s always what feminism has been about. It exists to boycott sexist, racist, heteronormative and classist dogmas. We need it in order to fight back against teachings that have hurt women and men, women and men of color, those who do not identify as either and other LGBT members. To support those people in need. To change the way the world sees them. It sends a powerful message; that we should keep fighting back for better treatment and representation in the media. Therefore, while I cannot fully support Persona 5, I cannot fully denounce it either.

Persona 5 is a game that does not take sides. It operates in an area of grey. And that’s not always a bad thing. But when it comes to the real world, changing hearts with magic isn’t a solution. There are no Phantom Thieves that can save us here. We have to change hearts the old-fashioned way. 

We have to rebel. We have to accept. We have to fight.

–Mod Aria/Sam


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