Sunday, September 23, 2012

How to whiff on queer issues in video games - Persona 4 edition

Disclaimer: I have not actually played Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, but I have seen it played for 60-odd hours, which naturally included most of the story elements.

Persona 4 has the potential to be a wonderful game from a queer perspective, as it raises interesting questions about masculinity, femininity, homosexuality, and trans* issues. It's set in a high school and town in Japan and features a cast of eight main characters. The characters who are most interesting in light of these issues are Kanji Tatsumi and Naoto Shirogane. Kanji is a bad-ass who beats up bike gangs and gets hassled by cops because of his attitude. He also loves sewing and crafts and is the heir to a textile shop (the fact that he got bullied for his love of crafts is also one reason why he started acting as a tough guy). In the sequence where the characters enter the Shadow World created by Kanji's psyche (the main conceit of the game is that we have shadow versions of ourselves representing parts of us that we don't accept, but over the top and distorted), it's in the form of a "hot bathhouse" and the shadow version of him is an over-the-top and lisping lad-fancier. He was also seen before your team enters his Shadow World in conversation with a boy (actually Naoto) that gets him rather flustered. At the end of the Kanji quest, Kanji accepts "that part" of himself, which I think most people would interpret as him accepting his homosexuality.

The problem Kanji's storyline (apart from the over-the-top bathhouse imagery, but that could be ok) is that very little is said straight out, and not in the good way. It might just be a problem with the translation, to be sure, but I think the most common word when referring to Kanji possibly being gay is "strange" (the Japanese "hen"?) and homosexuality in general as "that thing". So the very thing is unspeakable to begin with, which doesn't really inspire confidence. This is aggravated by the other characters (especially Yosuke, but he is not rebutted by the others) pretty much making fun of him for being gay in a very heteronormative way, like at the School Culture Festival "date café" where it's suggested he should take the girls' side, and at the cross-dressing beauty pageant (which is soooooo funny), without actually saying straight out that he's gay. Being made fun of sets Kanji off, being a bit of a hothead, but it sets him off in the "I'm not gay and stop saying I am"-kind of way, because it starts being more and more clear that Kanji actually isn't. So for most of the game that includes Kanji, gay men are made fun of in a really trite manner and even when not made fun of outright, aggressively othered by both the other characters and Kanji himself, and the player is given little chance to rebut the idiocy.

The good part about Kanji's story is at least that he comes to terms with and starts taking greater pride in his love of crafts and creating wonderful stuffed animals and the like for the town's children, so at least standards of masculinity are questioned.

Now over to Naoto, who is at first presented as a boy (and a genius detective, bit of a Tintin thing going on), and is the one who makes Kanji flustered. In hir Shadow World, the part that zie needs to accept is the fact that zie is still a child on the one hand, and (big reveal!) that zie was born a girl on the other. After that reveal it's not entirely clear which way Naoto will go, as it also includes a line about accepting hir body the way it is (and implying that acting as a boy is because zie thought being a boy would make hir dream of becoming the best detective zie could be possible (which raises some interesting gender questions in itself). However, as the team goes back to school, Naoto still dresses as a boy and says that zie will go on much like zie had before. Now, however, the entire school is gossiping about how zie is actually a girl. The team proceeds to try to pair Naoto and Kanji together (which is ok), and making constant references to how Naoto is actually a girl, including the oh-so-sensitive "oh right, you're actually a girl, no wonder you got kidnapped and couldn't fight back" (never mind that bad boy Kanji got kidnapped far more easily) and comments about hir cuteness. At the School Culture Festival, there is also a "regular" (meaning, of course, one for girls) beauty pageant, where the girls of the team are signed up against their will, including Naoto, at which point I was in an apoplexy about the trans* and gay bullying going on in the game.

In Naoto's case, zie is still, at the point that I've so far seen of the game (about 4/5 in) a competent detective, but so far no mention of gender issues in conversations with hir. I sort of suspect that any lingering trans* issues will be erased as the game continues, though, and that the normative will be authoritatively restored to the school, thus utterly wasting some of the most interesting character setups in video games.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Rocky Horror Picture Show and transphobia

My apologies for any poor choice of words in this text, haven't read that many political texts about trans* issues recently.
This isn't a book review, but rather an issue that I started thinking of because of something a friend said, and I felt a compulsive need to defend something I like (because if I like it, it must also be good, right?).

Is The Rocky Horror Picture Show derogatory towards trans* people? With its flamboyantly evil Frank-n-Furter as the main character with its stereotypical glitzy look and hypersexuality, it's definitely plays to a specific stereotype, and one that has been played on in several mainstream depictions of trans* people. In addition, the movie features a brutal murder of that trans* person by supposed authority figures, and that only a few years after the Stonewall Riots had trans* people being beaten up by police in the event that is seen as a start of the queer movement as a whole. Finally, when looking at the narrative of the movie, Frank-n-Furter's role seems to mostly be there to provide a seduction for the strait-laced white middle class represented by Brad and Janet, thus affirming the role of queer as something that can provide a bit of "spice," rather than affirm queer as a viable option.

Nevertheless, I am not comfortable with labelling The Rocky Horror Picture Show as transphobic (though the murder scene gives me qualms). Though it is most likely the most wide-spread depiction of a trans* person, and that the depiction is so stereotypical and partly negative, that is not really the fault of the movie. If the movie had been cynically produced to cash in on that stereotype, perhaps with John Travolta playing the hammy trans* person, then I would agree that there is a problem with the movie specifically. Instead, I identify the problems surrounding the movie to have more to do with the movie industry and mainstream society; the movie industry for not showing enough queer people as a matter of course, and mainstream society for only embracing the chintzy seduction of Frank-n-Furter and ignoring any other trans* person in the media.

As it is, The Rocky Horror Picture Show was made in the 70s by a director, Richard O'Brien, who has subsequently come out as a trans* person, and who did it as a way to come to terms with his experiences at the time. Though it was funded by a large Hollywood producer, it was by no means a big-budget item and not (as far as I know) an idea to cash in on anti-trans* sentiment. Though we should definitely discuss what the movie means in context and its problematic role, I do not think that the fact that it presents a stereotypical (and evil) trans* person is enough to label it as transphobic. It is, after all, the result of the life experiences of a trans* man and, given its embrace by many, a movie that has meaning for the trans* and queer feelings of many. During the 1990s, there seemed to me to be a glut of movies with lesbian themes that were depressive as hell and ended with the protagonists getting killed - were the movies themselves the problem? I would say no, the problem is a culture where alternative expressions are not funded and ignored by the mainstream while the preferred depiction is put on a pedestal to the detriment of the rest.

Thus, in my opinion, we should certainly keep discussing The Rocky Horror Picture Show and its position and status in society, but to label the movie itself as anti-trans (by which I mean an expression of transphobia by mainstream society) would not be a good development - in particular, it seems to suggest that only a certain kind of trans* experience is fit to be interpreted through media.