Q. What is Kingdom Hearts’ Lady Problem?
A. Answering this question initially took a while to write, because, frankly, I didn’t know where to begin. The basic statement here is that Kingdom Hearts is just throbbing with casual misogyny, but that is so endemic to video games as a medium, where to start? I rolled this post through a number of drafts before I was reminded of one important game series.
I was fascinated by Senran Kagara when I was first alerted to its existence, because it’s something of a rarity in modern gaming: the game that is about breasts as opposed to that weird thing going on in much of the industry where developers seem almost surprised that titillation crept into the final product. Soul Calibur is a serious fighting game with a serious plot and serious gameplay, and oh my how did Ivy get dressed like that? Yes, please sit through the finale of the ultra serious Xenosaga, featuring guest star Jesus, while the entire female cast is wearing swimsuits (“Even the robot?” “Especially the robot!”). Senran Kagara is just, from top to bottom, a half-naked teenage girl delivery system, with gameplay constructed around that simple concept. The heroes are super-model thin characterization archetypes (the honest blonde tomboy that is proficient at kicks, the blonde’s natural opposite who is collected, proper and “high society”, the physical prodigy who is prideful but fiercely protective of her friends, the pink haired one that is shy and passive and has a disgruntled rabbit pet, and Twilight Sparkle), and the villains are basically a list of fetishes given flesh (the good-girl-turned-bad, the emotionless robot, the goth lolita, the queen sadist, and… something to do with bean sprouts… is that a thing?), and they fight, whether by cooking or ninja skills, with the goal of knocking their opponent into nudity. It’s kind of a clever system, because, with the game featuring exclusively women, if the player wins, hooray, there’s a naked lady on the screen, but if the player loses… hooray, there’s a naked lady on the screen. It’s really the pinnacle of perverted technology. This game might pass the Bechdel test (I think there aren’t even any boys for the ladies to talk about), but its misogyny levels are off the Sarkeesian-Friedan Scale. But one important thing does happen in all of the Senran Kagara material I’ve seen: the women accomplish something. It may be short term, personal goals, like Asuka achieving her dream of making the world’s most phallic sushi, or more important goals, like repelling some kind of ancient evil from hell demon-thing, but the cast of Senran Kagara really does accomplish quite a bit within their narrative. Which brings me to an unfortunate truth:
The women in Kingdom Hearts accomplish nothing.
As is my wont, this thesis will be supported on a character-by-character basis, starting with the grandmommy of Kingdom Hearts women…
Kairi’s Grandmother is the grandmother of Kairi and… wait… I didn’t mean literally. Eh, while we’re here, let’s just note that, I believe, she is the only Kingdom Hearts original character’s parent or grandparent to be seen on camera. Kairi’s Grandmother is the lore depository of Kingdom Hearts, and for her dedicated service to an aural tradition, she doesn’t even receive a name. Let’s call her… “Steve”.
Okay, for real now, let’s take a look at Kairi. Kairi is the postergirl for Kingdom Hearts, and I mean that literally, as I do actually have a poster for Kingdom Hearts 2 with Kairi on it. She’s also on the cover of Kingdom Hearts 1, so, suffice it to say, she’s supposed to be pretty important. And she is important, in the same way that the keyblade is important. Come to think of it, the keyblade is way more important than Kairi… Kairi probably ranks somewhere around Donald’s hat. He would look weird without it, ya know?
Kairi is the third “friend” in the Destiny Islands trio, the first being the protagonist, Sora, and the second, the anti-hero Riku. Sora and Riku challenge each other constantly, becoming stronger through the struggle between two best friends who will always push harder to greater goals. Kairi watches. Sometimes she talks about fruit. But Destiny Islands is invaded by the forces of evil, and Kairi has her heart torn from her chest! What’s to become of the poor girl?
I’ll tell you what happens to her, she becomes the most literal object in the history of objectifying women. Kairi is split in two, and one half is her body, which is alive and breathing, but is otherwise as animated as a tube sock. This half of Kairi is literally fought over by Sora and Riku, both of whom want to “have” coma-Kairi, and it ain’t because they desire scintillating conversation. The other half of Kairi is her heart, effectively her soul, which squirrels away in Sora’s heart. Sora spends the majority of Kingdom Hearts 1 not even noticing Kairi, his second best friend, is right there with him the entire time. So, basically, Kairi spends the majority of Kingdom Hearts 1 either as a completely silent tag along or an item to be fought over. Check your key items list for Kairi.
Finally, Kairi is reassembled, and her healing hug brings Sora back from the brink of darkness, and then Kairi… stands around and worries. Kairi turns out to be a Princess of Heart, they all open the keyhole to the final boss, and then proceed to stand around making statements like, “Come back safely!” or “Let’s bake some cookies for the boys,” or whatever. Kairi does nothing, despite the fact that she has the same “training” Sora and Riku had at the start of the game, so there’s really no reason she couldn’t grab a more active role and start slinging blizzard spells to guarantee Sora comes home safely.
While we’re on the subject of the Princesses of Heart, a quick rundown of those gals:
- Cinderella is kidnapped before the game even starts.
- Aurora, aka Sleeping Beauty? Also pregame kidnapped.
- Snow White: Ditto
- Belle? That’s a-kidnappin’. Twice in two games.
- Alice Pleasance Liddell is kidnapped from Wonderland during the game. Despite the fact that the source material, “original” Alice and the Disney Alice are both inquisitive, intelligent, and kinda sarcastic, this Alice is a lot more deer-in-the-headlights during her brief scenes.
- Jasmine of Agrabah is kidnapped during the game. While Aladdin gets his stupid monkey, genie, and friggen carpet mime as active sidekicks, Jasmine’s pet tiger is nowhere to be seen, and Jasmine’s “no father, you shut-up” attitude is similarly absent. Note that Jasmine returns in KH2, where she stands in the courtyard all damn day, doing not a damn thing.
So, ya know, no luminaries there.
Ariel, the Little Mermaid, is the lone woman in the game that actually joins your party, and, while she’s at least not completely useless in combat, she doesn’t provide anything tangible in the plot. While, say, Tarzan joins the group and successfully saves his gorilla pals from colonialism, Ariel joins up, is tricked by Ursula, and hands the sea witch the most powerful artifact in their world. Ursula is defeated with Sora’s help, and the world is saved… from the mistake Ariel made. Kind of zero sum, there. In Kingdom Hearts 2, Ariel does the exact same thing, but with a fine set of legs.
The only woman in Kingdom Hearts I that nearly accomplishes anything is Maleficent, who has a fun time of grooming Riku to darkness (but he comes back to the good guys), capturing the Princesses of Heart (but they get rescued), and stopping Sora’s advancing light (total failure there). In the end, she is defeated not even by the hero, but the inevitable betrayal of a darkness greater than hers (that, incidentally, is male). As mentioned in other posts, while she is revived for Kingdom Hearts 2 and onward, she basically becomes a member of Team Rocket, and is stuck blasting off again for the remainder of her sad existence.
Also, God help me if Kingdom Hearts 3 doesn’t at least make a pass at a Dragon-Maleficent versus Bahamut fight. See also: Mat, Tia.
Alright, so Kingdom Hearts 1 is a bust for women doing much of anything of use, how about moving forward? Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories introduces Organization XIII, a gang of goons that has twelve male members and one female member. That one female member has no goals of her own beyond her boss’s machinations, and she gets herself killed second out of thirteen inevitable deaths. While some of the prequels have filled in the blanks on the history of other Organization 13 members, nobody seems at all interested in revisiting anything about… what was her name? It had an X in it…
Oh, but Chain of Memories also introduces Naminé, who is the nobody of Kairi. Naminé has the ultra-specific ability to manipulate Sora’s memories, and this may seem like a really useless ability at first blush, but considering the universe turns on Sora’s every move, this actually could be important. So what does Naminé do? Well, she’s forced into the service of Marluxia, who wants a Sora that is a slave to Naminé, so, by right of double slavery, that would make Sora into Marluxia’s slave. Naminé does wipe out most of Sora’s memory before being rescued by stupid Axel, at which point Naminé volunteers to spend a year of her life gluing Sora’s brainmeats back together. Naminé’s entire contribution to the plot can be done without getting out of her chair, and is another KH lady just fixing the problem she caused in the first place.
Question worth asking: Naminé is apparently the only “bodied” nobody in the universe that was never formally inducted into Organization XIII. No cloak, number, or codename for her. Like Axel or Roxas, she might have eventually betrayed the Organization, but she’s definitely on their payroll at her introduction. So, what, can’t have two girls on the team? Does this have something to do with spooky black cloak laundry day?
Organization XIII actually did have a 14th member during the events of 358/2 Days, Xion. Xion is female. To most people. Xion is a clone of Sora (who is firmly male), but has some sort of weird “I am what you want to see” thing going on. For instance, to Xigbar, Xion appears as the (male) Ventus. Xion appears as a dark haired Kairi to Roxas, because Roxas’s heart longs for Kairi (with a dye job), and Roxas is Xion’s best friend, so she just rolls with it, Dark Haired Kairi is her identity. Now, maybe I’m the only guy whose ideal woman is Mystique, so correct me if I’m wrong here, but I’m pretty sure “woman who morphs to look exactly like what her man wants” is pretty much the exact definition of a male fantasy. And this extends to her very identity, so, wow, way to take the time to think out this character, Kingdom Hearts. At least she… eventually goes nuts and dissolves into her component parts and is completely forgotten by everyone she has ever met.
Xion, honey, I’m so sorry.
Look, when you get this whole “not existing” thing sorted out, let me know, and I’ll take you out to your favorite restaurant, my treat. You’ve had a hard time of it. No… that was Roxas’s favorite restaurant, you… you have to move past this…
Kingdom Hearts 2 sees Kairi back in action, 100% awake and alive and oh man she’s getting kidnapped again! Wait, no, she escaped and… nope, kidnapped again. Then she escapes again thanks to Naminé, and then she gets a keyblade! Yahoo! She can fight for herself now! Sora, Riku, and Kairi all have keyblades, and the old gang is back together again! I bet all three of them are going to team up and… oh, just Sora and Riku? Kairi sits on the sidelines, again? Does she at least get to save the boys in some big hero moment with her new… No? Just stands there? Mickey Mouse racks up a higher kill count? Kairi doesn’t even get to pretend to do anything fun until Dream Drop Distance, where Kairi appears in the absolute last moments of the game to remind everyone that, yes, she still has a keyblade, and she’s here, and she’s ready to kick ass, and to be continued… so I’ll believe it when I see it.
Kingdom Hearts 2 also allows one female party member: Mulan. Thanks to first seeing the movie when I was a pissy, “wake up, sheeple!” teenager, Mulan will always hold a place in my heart as being one of the first movies I completely tore to shreds from a critical perspective. I actually like the movie as an adult, but I am standing by my teenage assessment that the movie treats “female” as a disability that, through hard work and perseverance, can be overcome. Yes, in the end, Mulan proves that she’s just as much of a soldier as all of the boys, but the other 90% of the movie features her having to compensate for a lack of strength compared to the rest, is washed out despite having a mythical creature aiding her plan, and then the “soldiers in drag” bit at the finale showcases not the benefits of being a woman, but the inherit misogyny in their society. Always thought that film kind of muddies the waters of “women can do anything” to “wow, it sucks to be a woman, but you can probably pull it off with some effort”. Come to think of it, I suppose that is the more realistic moral.
Miraculously, I believe KH2 sidesteps this issue by presenting a Mulan that is indisputably stronger/better as female-Mulan than as male-Ping. There’s no “being a woman is a disability” accidental message here, simply that Mulan is stronger when she is herself, emphasis on “her”. Oh, wait. Mulan is the only female party member, and the only party member that undergoes such a dramatic stat transformation. Despite the fact that nearly every party member has an arc (Beast grows to be more empathetic, Jack Skellington grows to understand his place in the holiday pantheon, Simba grows to overcome meerkat cult programming), only Mulan, the woman, starts out terrible and improves to the point where she’s on the same level as the men. Like my interpretation of Mulan, maybe I’m just seeing an issue because I’m being overly critical, but I ask you, sheeple, what else is the internet for?
KH2 also lets Queen Minnie Mouse out of her cage. While Donald is a mighty mage, Goofy is a superior shieldsman (shut-up, spell check, that is so a thing), and Mickey is a keyblade master, Minnie is stuck with a complete lack of abilities, and has to be escorted (as in escort mission) during her time with the party. Needless to say, when not being actively involved in the plot, Minnie just stands around and worries about her husband.
Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep is the big prequel in the history of the Kingdom Hearts franchise, and it features the first (real, with a plot) female playable character, Aqua. Aqua is one of three keyblade disciples, the other two are boys, Ventus and Terra.
First of all, to the game’s credit, during the prelude of the story, Aqua is crowned Keyblade Master above her fellow apprentices by Masters Eraqus and Xehanort, and I’m not even going to sully her accomplishment by pointing out that the only reason she gets a promotion is because noted horrible evil force Xehanort is trying to drive the male protagonist to the darkside. Oh, wait, my bad, just did. Does it count as an accomplishment if it only happens to further the plot for two males?
Aqua, despite believing bicycle shorts and partial, ruffled sleeves are a good idea for a life of combat, is clearly the smartest of the three protagonists in Birth by Sleep. She’s also the weakest, and pretty damn slow. But she’s good at magic, the most easily exhausted skill in the Kingdom Hearts franchise. So… maybe not so smart?
Aqua is also stuck being mom for Birth by Sleep. Terra ventures out into the universe in order to prove that he is a good person worthy of the rank of master, and he eventually (thanks to Xehanort) steers his quest toward an effort to save his buddy Ventus by defeating the mysterious Masked Jerk wandering around. Ventus flies off to explore the universe with an unhealthy dosage of whimsy, and gets caught up in the Masked Dork hunt as well. Aqua doesn’t leave home under her own volition like the boys, she leaves only after being charged with bringing Terra and Ventus home. She not only fails at this objective, but also pretty much calls her companions terrible when they all meet at Radiant Garden, further splintering the group. Aqua’s internal monologue throughout the game is a constant stream of, “Gosh, where are my friends? I hope they’re alright,” and that line of thinking engulfs any other personality traits she might possess. Finally, when everyone regroups during the penultimate chapter of the game, Terra and Ventus battle Xehanort and his Masked Dingus protégé, while Aqua fights… Braig. Confused as to who Braig might be? So was Aqua.
The finale of Birth by Sleep is where Aqua really shines with all the luminescence of a blackhole. By this time, Terra has killed Master Eraqus (“You were the chosen one!”), Master Xehanort has possessed Terra’s body, and Ventus has defeated Masked Poindexter, who turned out to be the other half of Ventus, so Ventus is in a Kairi-level coma. So, first thing first, Final Girl Aqua, has to find a safe place to stick Ventus. Despite the fact that Aqua literally has worlds of allies at this point, including Yen Sid’s mysterious world and King Mickey’s entire kingdom, Aqua decides the best place to leave Ventus is her old, abandoned homeworld, where she transforms the place around Ventus into a metaphorical and literal labyrinth. As a result, she is the only person in the whole of the universe that will ever be able to find Ventus’s body again. This is important. Then, Aqua stomps over to Radiant Garden to deal with this Terra-Nort thing. She beats the combo villain into submission, and believes she has expelled Xehanort from Terra’s body. But, the battle opened up a hole to The Darkness, so Aqua and Terra both are sucked into the void. Aqua and Terra are sinking into oblivion, and she realizes that only one of them can escape, and the other will be sucked into blackest night. Aqua decides to sacrifice herself to save Terra. Reminder: like, ten minutes earlier, Aqua put herself in the position that made her the only person capable of saving Ventus, and now she decides that Terra is more important than her own survival. Aqua damns herself and Ventus for the sake of Terra. I don’t know if they covered this in keyblade school, Aqua, but two is a bigger number than one. Of course, Terra is actually still possessed by Xehanort, and all Aqua actually accomplished in that battle was fracturing Xehanort’s memories, so he doesn’t quite remember his evil plan at the immediate moment, but he’ll come around to it in a couple of years with the help of Braig, whom Aqua made no attempt to apprehend or otherwise stop after their battle.
So, to be clear, Aqua’s final act in Birth by Sleep is to save the villain of the entire franchise, and effectively damn herself and her only other living friend. Don’t worry Aqua, your sins will be rectified by Sora and his amazing ability to have a penis.
And that’s a ballsgame, folks! There are seven Kingdom Hearts games (Oh, I didn’t get into Re:Coded, where Maleficent fails once again, and Naminé’s memory pops in for a hot minute to be cryptic. That’s it. Not a single other woman to be seen. Kingdom Hearts Re:Sausagefest), and women can only be ineffectual or make things worse. It’s kind of an achievement all by itself in misogyny, as Kingdom Hearts is nowhere near some of the overt, casual misogyny you’d see in other games (“Thanks for choosing strong female character to be in your party. Would you like to equip her with a bunny costume or a maid outfit?”), but the subtle undercurrent of women just failing constantly exists in every game in the series. Keys are the most important things in the universe, keyholes just get in the way.
Steve would not be proud.
Q. What was the very first thing Goggle Bob ever wrote about Kingdom Hearts?
A. Why it was a shorter answer to the previous question! Deep in the bowels of Talking Time, there’s a post regarding Dream Drop Distance, written in August of 2012, that is reproduced here:
Kingdom Hearts 3D, despite the fact that I know more female KH fans than male, is the most mancentric manocracy based game since forever.
Here’s a run-down of the female characters appearing in KH3D (spoilers in case you want to be surprised):
Esmerelda of Hunchback of Notre Dame world needs to be rescued by the protagonists.
Quorra of Tron world needs to be rescued by the protagonists.
Queen Minnie of Disney Castle needs to be rescued by Mickey Mouse.
Queen Minnie of Three Mouseketeers world, which takes place in the past of Disney Castle, needs to be rescued by Mickey Mouse and the protagonists.
Maleficent and Ursula appear extremely briefly in a cutscene and as an illusion, respectively.
The Blue Fairy shows up for three seconds to mock a little wooden boy.
Shiki and Rhyme of Traverse Town seem to, with the rest of The World Ends with You cast, be the audience surrogate, as all they do is run around confused all the time.
That’s it, I’m pretty sure that’s EVERY female in the entire game, and you’ll note not a single one of them has anything to do with the “proper” plot.
If you’re curious about the real plot, it’s about one guy who is already three guys trying to be thirteen guys by manipulating one guy (who is three guys and one girl) through a liberal use of time travel and Inception-esque dreams within layers of dreams. Also, in the Kingdom Hearts universe, if you kill a guy twice, they then come back to life with super powers.
I really enjoy the gameplay in the Kingdom Hearts series (excluding 358/2 Days), but paying attention to the plot is a fool’s errand.
Had I only listened to myself…