Why “Girly” is Never Valid Criticism

As graphical technology improved, you could show more detail on characters.  This meant, of course, that an artist could make more details in a character design without having them lost in the fact that the character is only 32 pixels high.  Needless to say, some characters look incredibly silly.  For some people, JRPGs are simply unplayable due to the character designs.  My problem with this criticism is that it tends to be phrased in sexist / homophobic / transphobic language.

The hero of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2 has a notably silly outfit. The sword is impractical, the clothing has many confusing layers, and the pizza is a confusing accessory.

It’s unacceptable, for example, to say that you wouldn’t play a game with a woman main character since women aren’t able to be heroes.  It’s less problematic to say that, oh, Star Ocean 2 is sexist since it forces Rena to get kidnapped and rescued and she actually doesn’t see certain plot related cutscenes in favor of romantic plotlines.  In the former example, you’re not criticizing the game.  Instead, you’re insulting real women by saying that they can never be a “real” hero.  Saying that you dislike Rena as a main character, and providing concrete examples is less problematic.  When people are discussing “girly” or feminine character designs, however, there does not seem to be as thoughtful analysis of their language.

Final Fantasy X's hero, Tidus, is basically a sports superstar so he has some reasons for his attire.

When you say a character is too girly, you’re using sexist language.   You’re saying that a girly character cannot be a character in a game.  You’re saying that a girly character cannot be a hero or heroine.  You’re saying that being “girly” is a negative.  When you say a character is too girly, you’re using or referencing homophobia.  Google “girly” and JRPG, and nine times out of ten, you’ll find some kid whining about how a character is too girly and usually following it up with calling the character “gay,” or other such language.  When you say a character is too girly, you’re using or referencing transphobia.  Saying a man has to be a specific way to deserve to be called a man is reinforcing gender stereotypes.  Saying that someone doesn’t portray a “proper” amount of manliness and is therefore disgusting is inciting transphobic hatred.  Saying you want to bash Vaan’s face in because he’s a “girly tomgirl,” is inescapably inciting transphobic violence.

Final Fantasy XII's Vaan has a pose similar to a female pinup model. Note the exposed nipple, the crossed legs, and the bent wrists. He was designed for player identification. You could argue that he may be designed to be sexually objectified by the player. Many people call him "girly."

But, our hypothetical critic says, the character is annoying, and they’re just joking about the silliness and irritating nature of the design.  Unintentional hateful language is still hateful language. If you can talk about women’s armor in games, you can talk about men’s armor in games.  If you can talk about objectified women, you can talk about objectified men.  If you can talk about concrete reasons that you don’t like a character, you can talk about concrete reasons why you don’t like another character.

Magna Carta: Tears of Blood has very busty women, who are heavily sexualized. The male characters also have many phallic elements (like Haren's snood) and sexualized attire. Some critics cite the women as good character design, and the men as disgusting or "girly."

Usually “girly” is used as a shorthand for a number of things.  You have the “the appearence of the character is too feminine,” criticism.  This is the most problematic, since it typically is utterly unexamined and tends to use the most problematic language.  There’s “the character arcs center on emotional development” criticism.  Stories for women tend to focus on emotional matters.  There’s a reason why romance novels have the cliche of the angsty tortured hero.  When someone bashes a game for having a “girly hero” and plots for women, they are being sexist.  Even if the idea that women only want plots about love and emotions is sexist, saying that a plot that caters to that is bad because it’s for women is also sexist.  Finally, there’s the “realism” criticism.  This tends to focus on exposed midriffs on men, long hair, impractical scarves and the like.  This also tends to be problematic, since  you get the “a man who looks like that can’t be a hero” style criticism or a critic who ignores a woman wearing a meter of fabric in favor of whining about a guy having an earring.

Lost Odyssey's hero, Kaim, has a bare midriff. This is cited as a non-realistic armor.

All in all, if someone says “feminine” or “girly,” I tend to read their writing skeptically.  I tend to assume they are sexist / homophobic / transphobic.  I tend to assume they don’t examine their assumptions or really have any deep critical analysis of a game / piece of media.  Sometimes they’re young kids who don’t know any better.  Sometimes they’re otherwise intelligent people with interesting things to say.  Still, I refuse to encourage a world where they are the voices that are priveledged.

  1. yukie’s avatar

    I still think that some of the furor about Kaim Argonar there has to do with the fact that he does not look completely white. If you look at his eyes, and his complexion, Kaim is pretty obviously of Asian descent as well as Euro (or the equivalents in that world). Asian guys are disgustingly stereotyped in this culture to the point where the people who made Romeo Must Die DELETED a kiss scene between Aaliyah and Jet Li because audiences were duuuhhh. Asian guys are stereotyped as sexless or effeminate or eununchs.

    So people see Kaim looking like he’s got Asian background and the whimpering about ‘girliness’ starts.

    He and Vaan also have clothing that’s constructed like – well, usually you would see a female character with a bare midriff and back (Seth Balmore’s back is bared, BUT she wears shorts under her dress, heh heh). So that may be fuelling the fleabrained furor. I still think Vaan is silly for eschewing a shirt, but I can give Kaim a pass since he’s not exactly MORTAL and stabbing him in the spine will only annoy him.

    Lost Odyssey did go for universal appeal. I’m not surprised seeing as it’s Hironobu Sakaguchi up in there, but anyhow. Looking at the character designs, they really did try to put in somthing for everyone. Sarah’s a ‘glasses girl’ (but oh is she ever NOT LIKE SHION); Ming has no pants (I love you, Ming, but you need pants); Jansen wears eyeliner. Cooke’s design irritated me at first because I thought ‘oh god no lolicon’. Lolicon annoys me to death, but she’s presented in the game as the wanting to be a grown-up sort. She probably wears that because that’s what the girl in magazines wear. She’s not sexualized in the game, thank the lord. She acts like a twelve year old girl, which she is.

    Moving right along – Tolten is your bishounen guy, et cetera. They were trying to put in universal gamer appeal. Unfortunately this culture’s got something of a machismo fixation. Homophobia and sexism have a fucktonne in common. Gay guys are seen as feminine and feminine is bad and lesser. Transfolks get the worst of both worlds. D:

    If people cannot think of a critique beyond wahwahgirly they are not bright at all and have no business presenting themselves as savvy.

  2. Rav’s avatar

    The other annoying thing is that usually they’re playing a – you know – flagship title where the characters have probably been focus tested out the wazoo to be as appealing as possible. I mean, half the main characters in Western RPGs remind me of various actors.

    I think the main problem I have with people saying “wahwahgirly” is that they tend to ignore the fact that the audience might not be purely a 15 – 20 year old boy. Even if the game isn’t appealing to women in a progressive way, it’s still interesting to have a media that provides things for women.

    I do like Lost Odyssey. Some of the character designs don’t appeal to me, but a lot of the time, the silliness is stuff that can be explained by character choice. Meanwhile, the Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2 hero just looks silly and like someone was told to just add something more to the character to make him stand out.

  3. Fenris’s avatar

    I completely agree, it’s usual to read in forums and other websites the comments of people ranting about that while there might be more relevant shortcomings to point out, but no one cares because the main character is a girly man or a voluptuous woman.
    What you say about the plots is true, when a guy in a videogame falls in love of a girl is totally normal but when the main character is a girl then it is just because is a woman and women always have fall in love.

    An example that comes to my mind right now is Castlevania, everyone complains so much about the designs of the characters since Symphony of the Night, that the guys are girly and about the plots being always the same etc., etc.
    Also Valkyrie Profile, many say the girl was a great main character until she falls in love and is labeled as the typical female point of view romance.
    I don’t share that opinion at all.

    I’ve played many great games with females or males protagonists and I think I’m in position to say that the gender or look of the main character is secondary to the plot and development of the game.
    In that aspect as long as the story is good and the character has charisma I’m happy.

  4. Rav’s avatar

    Castlevania is an excellent example, Fenris. I personally love the art style for the more modern games, since it’s a very “artistic” baroque style, with tons of details.

    I find romance in JRPGs to be interesting. In pen and paper RPGs, there’s a fair number of people wondering how to tell stories about romance without it being uncomfortable for the players. Meanwhile, there’s hundreds of JRPGs with romantic subplots. They’re rarely amazingly written or subversive, but it’s a very common trope.

    I wonder if it would be hard, when you’re playing a game in a hurry, to really talk about charisma for characters? If someone hates a character at first glance, or thinks that the character won’t be fun, then they’re inclined to just write that character off with a quick “Not my thing” and move onwards. Considering the time commitment required to finish an average JRPG, it’s no wonder that people would be turned off by stuff that doesn’t seem to be aimed to their tastes.

    Thanks for commenting, and I hope you enjoy this blog.

  5. yukie’s avatar

    Here’s where I turn into a big geek on you both!

    Castlevania’s art has a lot to do with pre-Raphaelite, Baroque, and Art Nouveau work – as much as it has to do with the beautiful-man (biseinen, or bishounen if it’s a younger guy) aesthetic in Japan. It’s the latter thing that a lot of intolerant Western fans get their drawers in a bunch and pitch tantrums about. Why? well, it’s called the colonialist mindset. There’s this expectation that ‘they’ should accommodate ‘us’ in such a mindset. That ‘they’ must endeavour to act like ‘us’ because ‘our’ way is the best and right way. This is very evident in the antics of the small group of Castlevania fanboys who had a big old fit because the horrible Wii game was “obviously marketed mostly toward Japanese players”. I started to laugh uproariously at this – why should KONAMI, a JAPANESE COMPANY, not market to FANS IN JAPAN, who overall BUY MORE GAMES? Japan for all its baggage (not like western culture is free of it of course) HAS figured out that video games, like comics, are not just ‘for boys’ and will market to men and women alike. See the DMC3 team, who specifically designed Vergil Sparda’s coat-less mode “to give our female users total nosebleeds”.

    As an aside I wonder if this ‘sob sob whine whine JRPGs’ business isn’t an extension of the gender-essentialist idea that romantic plots are ‘for women’ and inferior. I know most of it has to do with ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw not liking them, and a bunch of dingaling types jumping on that bandwagon (and annoying him by constantly yammering about it – I don’t like the man’s style much but he doesn’t deserve capslocking screamer fans in his nose every day). But some of it may come down to the gender essentialism crap again.

    I digress – in the end, the Wii game sold AWFULLY in Japan, and the general angry-fan consensus over there? “This blew because they were marketing to the stupid subgroup of NA fans who never played these games and don’t know their ass from their elbow!” So, yeah, the snitty fans over here have their analogues in Japan. All in all it was an awful game, design included, but the entitled attitude of some gamers over here was what I was on about. Blizzard (of Warcraft fame) unfortunately spoils their yelly fans, and these yelly fans will go on to scream and whine at everyone to try to get the same result everywhere.

    I’d have more respect for people unfond of Kojima Ayumi’s work fi they’d critique like grownu-ups and not sexist mouth-breathing fools. “BAW IT SUX THEIR GEY” is a mouth-breathing dip’s comment. “I’m not totally crazy about the style/the aesthetic” or something like that is understandable. The second someone starts sobbing brokenly about the mean old Asian lady’s art screwing with their precious, precious gender ideals, my sympathy spirals down the commode and I start to want to harass them by spamming them pictures of Renaissance and Greek marble sculptures.

    In closing: liking art of pretty men has nothing to do with those men being ‘safer’. Monou Fuuma is pretty as all get-out, and a homicidal maniac. There is no CLAMP fan who would deny that. it has nothing to do with ‘safety’; it has everything to do with what the viewer likes to look at.

  6. Rav’s avatar

    The silly thing about the “a womanly man is a safe love interest” thing is that it’s – very very simplistic. After all, that’s assuming that trait X or trait Y isn’t “manly” enough. Often, if you look at romance novel reviews, you’ll see people talking about the hero in the novels. Some people love alpha males and some people hate a super domineering hero. Some people love anything different in a hero, and other people look more in depth to how they handle that difference. There’s people who love angst, and people who love angst only if there’s enough grovelling from the offending party.

    It’s also a problem since it’s basically saying that a woman who likes this “pretty” guy isn’t really liking “real” men. Much like the Victorian men horrified that women weren’t baby smooth Roman statues, there’s some women who really would prefer an idealized man to the real thing. However, most adults have realistic ideas about fantasy and reality. Since women’s desires have historically been suppressed, or subsumed under “love what this man wants to you love,” it’s significant that a game offers something for a woman and something that women enjoy.

    Gender essentialism is basically hand in hand with heteronormativity. A woman is this, and likes this. A guy is that, and likes that. A “good” woman likes this, and would never like that. You get that in games, of course. You get the helpless healer chick, or the blockheaded swordsman. It’s when someone who notices problematic character roles and then turns around and says that the character art or behavior is bad because it’s girly that I find my brain spinning.

    Looking at Castlevania, you do have traditional helpless women, women who are brave but ineffectual, or actually powerful women. You also have helpless men (men who are cursed, who are captured, who are betrayed,) you have men who fight back and fail, and men who are powerful. Both the men and the women in the game are sexualized and tend to be depicted in a baroque manner. There’s many fans who are fixated on Hector and Isaac’s interactions and many fans who are fixated on Maria and Alucard (or Alucard and Richter.)

    Saying that the game is just pandering to the Japanese bishounen fan, or to a woman who wants a “safe” guy, or so on is gravely simplifying the game, and ignoring the interesting ways the game is playing with nifty concepts. The fact that you can have a queer reading, a straight reading, and a bi reading for the same characters is significant. If you just write off, say, Hector as “girly,” you’re ignoring the love triangle (quadrangle?) in the game. You have Hector, who was best friends with Isaac, who betrayed Dracula and befriended Rosaly. Isaac has Rosaly killed to try to bring Hector back to him, and is possessed by Dracula / Death. While possessed, Isaac kisses a Belmont amongst various other activities. Later, Hector is rescued from the crumbling castle by Isaac’s sister. This isn’t a cliche tender romantic story, and these aren’t tender romance heroes.

    I’m rambling as I agree with you, Yukie, I fear. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I agree that maturity and care would deeply improve my opinion of JRPG critics. If they bothered to think about their words, and consider the context, for example, I wouldn’t just write them off as prejudiced fools. If they bothered to acknowledge that maybe this isn’t for them, and tried to think about what it might be for, for example, I would probably find their writing more interesting. That’s not to say that things are perfect. But if you can’t criticize without being an idiot, you have no right to be heard.

  7. Berserk X #33’s avatar

    Well, you have a point, and i agree with that, but there is the other side of the coin.

    Even if people tend to have silly excuses for why they don’t like a character, there a other reasons to cause dislike.

    As some people can see through the evolution of the Final Fantasy and it’s influence over the RPG genre, you can see a sort of tendence that had grown out of proportion.

    In some pieces of work comming from japan you can see that the “girly” type is a very common thing, but knowing that it’s heavily related to the way the art style work, you can understand why this is needed. Sailor Moon had “girly” characters without being anoying, Yuyu Hakusho had manly characters and girly characters that had a complete backstory related to their appearences. Kurama is girly because of the Kitsune mitos, while Kuwabara is manly because of his need to pass respect only by sight to be able to prevent gang fights. Those are really well done example of types of characters that work.

    But the problem whit Vaan come from the other side of the spectrum, and this is a problem i have with most of the Enterteinment Industrie.

    Vaan is a character with no need or background that call for this sort of design, not even the art style of the game relate to that, and in comparision, the game Children of Mana have a very “girly” protagonist, and the design work, but because it is heavily related to the art style. And it become very obvious when you discover the original idea didn’t even include Vaan at all, he was slaped as a last minute excuse and that’s why he don’t work.

    Until Metroid Fusion, Samus went as a very strong female character, without the need to show of herself other then action. Most games today take the straight to the point approach making lots of females with highly exposed bodies and sluty proportions.

    This is VERY problematic when you again look at FF12, as the rabbit womans of the game follow this trend. This is used to sort of balance out Vaan, but here is the real reason: They are fast icons, they are elements used do rapidly pull attention into the design, making you buy the game and distracting from the the same.

    This is a trend that become more and more common as the grafics get better. And this is not exclusive from japan, western developers are gilt of the other side of the spectrum also. They are simple Image over Substance.

    This is why i don’t like most of the girly characters, not because of the girly aspect, but because of this loose aspect of trying too hard to distrat us from the game. Thanks for the post.

  8. Rav’s avatar

    I nearly did not approve your comment due to your discussion about “slutty” proportions and “loose” characters. Please cease, or you will be blocked. However, everything else you talked about is quite interesting.

    Girly has nothing to do with being a girl or being “loose”. I agree with you that a woman designed to be sexy and purely exist to be “pretty” is a problem, and it’s bad design. From what I’ve heard, Dragon Age has issues with focusing on bust sizes, particularly in the sequel. It’s also insulting to women to say that they need to be sexy to exist, or to say that they can’t be strong without also providing some kind of attraction toward a guy or being vulnerable in some manner. You could argue that there’s equal problems with race in games (it’s very rare to see a woman in game advertisements who isn’t made to look white and sexy.) I do agree with you that “sexy women” characters are really problematic, and often blatantly pandering to the audience.

    However, complaining that a guy is “girly” is not the same as the woman twisting on the cover to show her rear and bust at the same time. Girly, when I say that it’s never valid, is usually a homophobic comment. When someone says a guy is girly, they usually mean it in a negative way. They usually mean that he’s not “strong” enough. Often, there’s comments about how the guy looks like he was made to look sexy for the viewer (thus, saying that he’s “girly” and implying that he’s looking attractive for men.) If this hypothetical person isn’t being homophobic, they’re often accidentally using the same language. When I say it’s transphobic, I mean that there’s often an element of “he’s not a real man.” It’s a lot more common for someone to complain about a guy being “too girly” than for someone to complain about a woman being too sexy.

    I agree Vaan’s a bad character. I agree he’s sexualized. However, the fact that he’s aimed to be “pretty” doesn’t make him a bad character. He’s badly written. He’s badly added to the story. He’s meant to draw you into the story, but his design, writing, and role in the story doesn’t work for me. (By that, I mean that I don’t care what happens to him. He’s not sexy, because he’s a blithering fool. I don’t want to know what happens to him. I don’t want to know where he goes.) A “cute” character who’s anything but cute is much the same way. Think of those horrible “child” characters in certain games with “adorable” mishaps that tend to leave people annoyed.

    So, I guess what I’m saying is that my problem with calling Vaan “girly” and leaving stage right is – twofold? It’s a problematic word, because it tends to be used in homophobic / transphobic ways. You are not doing that. In fact, your analysis of “girly” guys in Japanese media is really nifty. However, the other part of the problem is that calling Vaan “girly” isn’t the problem with Vaan? It sounds like your problem is that he’s sexualized and has no other characterization other than “here’s some eye-candy we slapped into a story.” That element – the “here’s why I don’t like him” is a lot more interesting and a lot less problematic than just going “hurr, GIRLY”. Does that make sense?

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