Why are you holding onto me like this?” — Gendered Relationship Dynamics in Final Fantasy VIII 1



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In my extend­ed time enjoy­ing and study­ing it, I’ve found Final Fantasy VIII can be quite eas­i­ly viewed as being a crit­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion of how gen­der roles in heteroromantic/heterosexual rela­tion­ships are chal­lenged when women assert even the light­est amounts of con­trol over men. This is impor­tant because, among other things, it enrich­es the cen­tral romance between Squall and Rinoa, as well as strength­ens the games cri­tique of mas­culin­i­ties, and though I did touch on that briefly in “Eyes on Me” here at The Ontological Geek, there’s a few more words to say about it.

Masculinity and Competence in FFVIII  

SQUALL

I dreamt I was a moron …

FFVIII’s inves­ti­ga­tion of mas­cu­line dom­i­nance is over­all fair­ly sub­tle, but at least one ele­ment of it is not: char­ac­ters in FFVIII that ful­fill roles of tra­di­tion­al mas­culin­i­ty tend to be incred­i­bly incom­pe­tent.

Critics of the game often note Squall’s seem­ing­ly end­less nar­cis­sism, and one thing I see con­stant­ly is some vari­a­tion on “There’s no time to moan and cry! Monsters to fight! Women to save!” etc but the thing is, Squall is actu­al­ly the exact oppo­site of that. When we do see him brood­ing, it’s always in pri­vate. On field he has nat­ur­al lead­er­ship tal­ent and is end­less­ly more pro­fes­sion­al than any of the SeeDs he works with besides maybe Quistis. Such are his tal­ents that when Headmaster Cid steps down as head of the SeeD pro­gram, he choos­es Squall to replace him instead of any of the school’s senior staff. Squall is good at this stuff, and he’s good at it because he takes things very seri­ous­ly.

LAGUNA:

Man, you look way too seri­ous.

For the other men in FFVIII, this is not so much the case. Irvine is casano­va cow­boy off field, but when it comes time to assas­si­nate Sorceress Edea, he takes too long to line up and decide to take his shot, leav­ing ample time for her to cre­ate a bar­ri­er between her and the bul­let. Zell, the hot­head, blows the party’s cover at least once by straight‐up announc­ing who they are. Laguna’s entire exis­tence is just a parade of fail­ure until he uses some basic tricks to imprison Adel, neglect­ing his duties, lead­ing his party into traps and tak­ing insane risks, etc.

RAINE:

A guy like that? He was car­ried in here cry­ing like a baby, and I was
the one who had to take care of him… His crude way of speak­ing… I
don’t know if his aspi­ra­tions as a jour­nal­ist are going to come true…
Every time I try to have a seri­ous con­ver­sa­tion, he avoids it… I can’t
stand his snor­ing and he talks in his sleep…”

In par­tic­u­lar, I think it’s worth not­ing that while in 1999 char­ac­ters like Squall had just become preva­lent in JRPGs, char­ac­ters like Laguna had tend­ed to be the main char­ac­ters: happy‐go‐lucky men who take things in stride and remain end­less­ly opti­mistic. Such char­ac­ters still rep­re­sent a large por­tion of JRPG pro­tag­o­nists. Read inter­tex­tu­al­ly, I think the game makes a kind of argu­ment for Squall’s own vari­ety of mas­culin­i­ty and against Laguna’s by con­trast­ing them in this way. Laguna is incom­pe­tent because he is the type of char­ac­ter he is, while Squall is com­pe­tent because he is the oppo­site.

This gives us a rea­son, out­side of Squall’s often‐obvious dis­dain for Laguna, why he defies the reit­er­a­tive path laid out by his father. In jump­ing back into the past through Ellone’s strange consciousness‐altering pow­ers, he was able to see many of the mis­takes his father made. Whether Laguna learned from them is ques­tion­able, but Squall cer­tain­ly does, in part by learn­ing how to accept Rinoa.

But of course, that still leaves Squall in the posi­tion of sav­ing a constantly‐damseled Rinoa. Again, Final Fantasy VIII is large­ly a game about mas­culin­i­ty, and so I think the con­clu­sion it comes to is, in essence, that men need to be able to ful­fill the actions of mas­culin­i­ty, to lead and to pro­tect loved ones phys­i­cal­ly, but it sup­ports the idea that men can also be open­ly emo­tion­al and that men can wres­tle with demons. It sup­ports a vari­ety of emo­tion­al iden­ti­ties for men while reaf­firm­ing the roles men are sup­posed to play in soci­ety, and even links the two by argu­ing that men who are more hon­est with them­selves are bet­ter at ful­fill­ing their roles. There’s space for the hero and the anti‐hero, but they still have to play hero when the time comes, whether they like it or not.

SQUALL

Rinoa.….. Even if you end up as the world’s enemy, I’ll… I’ll be
your knight.

Laguna and Carraway: Insecure Misogynists

LAGUNA

Ah … to be this close to Julia … Uh‐oh! My leg’s cramp­ing up… ! Argh …

Laguna might be the worst patri­arch in the his­to­ry of videogames. To review: He has a night with Julia Heartilly, then aban­dons her, then has a rela­tion­ship with Raine while being a father fig­ure to Ellone, then fathers Squall and dis­ap­pear­ing before he’s born, not even aware Raine was preg­nant. After sav­ing Ellone from Sorceress Adel, he sends Ellone back to Winhill by her­self, and Raine then dies giv­ing birth to Squall, leav­ing Ellone and Squall orphaned.

Let’s hone in on some of that and view cer­tain scenes through gen­dered power dynam­ics.

Laguna aban­dons both Julia and Raine, but these are both rela­tion­ships where the women either take con­trol or ini­tia­tive. He fails mis­er­ably to hit on Julia in the Galbadia Hotel, but she calls him up to her hotel room open­ly con­fess­es her love to Laguna, not­ing how it inspired her to write “Eyes on Me,” lead­ing to Laguna talk­ing for hours to try and regain con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion. Similarly, he is at Raine’s mercy in Winhill, hav­ing been nursed back to health by her and feel­ing the need to show thanks by pro­tect­ing the town from mon­sters who seem to be no huge dan­ger in anyone’s opin­ion besides Laguna. He may be sim­ply act­ing out mas­culin­i­ty that his injuries left him unable to. He pro­pos­es to Raine, but in truth, I won­der whether he did sim­ply so she wouldn’t do it first and leave him feel­ing even fur­ther emas­cu­lat­ed.

In con­trast, Rinoa’s adop­tive father­hood of Ellone is a rela­tion­ship where­in he exer­cis­es com­plete con­trol that always allow him to per­form his mas­cu­line duties faith­ful­ly. And yet, when he final­ly does per­form an ur‐masculine act of sav­ing Ellone from Adel, he then sends her home with­out him so that he may exer­cise anoth­er mas­cu­line role, that of lead­er­ship, as the pres­i­dent of Esthar. At var­i­ous turns, Laguna’s inter­est in his rela­tion­ships with women are shown as oppor­tu­ni­ties where he can try, and often fail, to per­form mas­culin­i­ty. I’m left won­der­ing how much he cares about the women in his life out­side of that.

GENERAL CARAWAY:

[Rinoa] has not received the type of train­ing you all have, and may become a bur­den.

It’s for the best that she stays out of this oper­a­tion.

SELPHIE:

So you’re Rinoa’s father?

CARAWAY:

I can’t remem­ber the last time she called me that.

Fury Carraway has a much less detailed his­to­ry then Laguna, but we do know this: he began his rela­tion­ship with Julia briefly after Laguna left Delling City. We can’t know how long he was inter­est­ed in her, but he made his move when Julia was emo­tion­al­ly vul­ner­a­ble. A gen­er­al in the Galbadian mil­i­tary, he is in a posi­tion of high mas­culin­i­ty, but the ran­dom­ness of a car acci­dent kills Julia, leav­ing him feel­ing total­ly with­out con­trol, and thus he exer­cis­es as much con­trol as he can over Rinoa.

The details of this for most of Rinoa’s life are left up in the air, but suf­fice to say that when play­ers meet Rinoa, she’s work­ing active­ly to under­mine the power of her father’s gov­ern­ment, and that the only time we see the two togeth­er, he attempts to lock her into the house.

On top of all this, Carraway’s mil­i­tary author­i­ty is also being under­mined by a woman, the Sorceress Edea, by the time the game begins. So the cat­a­lysts of much of the story of Final Fantasy VIII are men who feel inse­cure about their own mas­culin­i­ty, and how the dom­i­nance that is sup­posed to be a role pre­scribed to men in their rela­tion­ships with women is under­mined both by hap­pen­stance and women tak­ing action direct­ly.

Squall and Rinoa: Rebellious, But Reiterative

The lega­cy of this inse­cu­ri­ty is seen in Squall and Rinoa’s behav­iors and actions.

Squall, grow­ing up with­out his father and large­ly under the care of two women, has no model to base his own mas­culin­i­ty around, and thus adopts a car­toon­ish­ly bleak per­sona in par­tial response as well to his hav­ing been aban­doned so con­sis­tent­ly as a child, by his father and by his “sis­ter” Ellone, and betrayed by the Matron Edea. (Interesting to note here that Ellone aban­dons Squall not by her own choice, while Laguna remains will­ful­ly igno­rant of his exis­tence.)

SQUALL

Reality isn’t so kind. Everything doesn’t work out the way you want it to. That’s why… As long as you don’t get your hopes up, you can take any­thing… You feel less pain.

His per­sona is in stark con­trast to Laguna who is opti­mistic, light­heart­ed, and capa­ble of humor. However, despite this con­trast, early on we see Squall reit­er­at­ing his father’s ten­den­cy to dis­miss sit­u­a­tions where women are in dom­i­nant posi­tions, such as in his insis­tence that Quistis “go talk to a wall,” imme­di­ate­ly after being coerced into a dance with Rinoa.

RINOA:

Don’t you ever worry about or even think about the well‐being of your
com­rades!?

Rinoa, like­wise, con­trasts her father by oppos­ing the gov­ern­ment he works for, becom­ing a leader for the Timber inde­pen­dence move­ment, and unlike (what we can at least imply) about her father, Rinoa leads through charis­ma and pos­i­tive rein­force­ment as opposed to con­stant asser­tions of author­i­ty. People want to fol­low Rinoa, while mem­bers of Carraway’s mil­i­tary are con­stant­ly pre­sent­ed as unhap­py and under­paid. (If one was in the mood, one might describe Rinoa’s wield­ing power over meek men as at least super­fi­cial­ly resem­bling a sub/dom rela­tion­ship.)

However, it’s also worth not­ing that Rinoa rebels against her father by becom­ing a para­mil­i­tary leader, by reit­er­at­ing the role her father has taken in his life.

These reit­er­a­tions are a source of mis­ery for Squall and Rinoa. Squall is unhap­py, Rinoa is unsuc­cess­ful.

Altering the Pattern

RINOA:

It’s not that I want a guard with me. You know… You’re always too deep in thought. Why don’t you light­en up a lit­tle? It’s not good to think too much. What I’m try­ing to say is… It would be my honor…to have your com­pa­ny, your high­ness, in hope that I may get your mind off things. How about it, your high­ness?

Squall and Rinoa com­ing togeth­er at first resem­bles Laguna’s rela­tion­ships with women. Squall and Rinoa may both be mas­cu­line and fem­i­nine in terms of appear­ance and behav­iors espe­cial­ly in regards to gen­der roles, but the power rela­tion­ship becomes con­fused when we com­pli­cate our notion of “con­trol” as we do when we inves­ti­gate Laguna’s rela­tion­ships with women. In con­tra­dic­tion of a typ­i­cal under­stand­ing of men as ini­tia­tors of roman­tic and sex­u­al rela­tion­ships, Rinoa is always the one “ini­ti­at­ing.” She gets Squall to dance, she asks Squall about his ring, she sits on his lap on the Ragnarok. “Rinoa is doing the court­ing.”

At first, Squall dis­trusts this, but slow­ly his affec­tion for Rinoa begins to exist very appar­ent­ly in tan­dem with his need to per­form mas­culin­i­ty. He may com­mit car­toon­ish acts of mas­cu­line pro­tec­tion, but the game also fea­tures scenes such as Squall car­ry­ing Rinoa across the bridge, where he allows him­self to be vul­ner­a­ble in express­ing his feel­ings for Rinoa and admit­ting his want of her.

SQUALL

I don’t care if it’s in the past or what. I want to hear Rinoa. I want to see Rinoa. That way, there might be a chance to save her.

There are var­i­ous sit­u­a­tions in the game like this where Squall’s actions appear to have him in a dom­i­nant posi­tion, but where I would argue he is actu­al­ly sub­mit­ting, in an emo­tion­al sense, remov­ing his mask to express a more authen­tic self out­side of the bounds of the tra­di­tion­al­ly mas­cu­line that is, among other things, emo­tion­al­ly vul­ner­a­ble, even a bit touchy.

A key dif­fer­ence to me here is that both char­ac­ters are able to grow because Squall becomes able to accept Rinoa’s place in his life, and the emo­tion­al power she wields over him. This is a key con­tra­dic­tion of his father, and this is like­ly the point. The game is not so much argu­ing a fem­i­nism so much as an altered mas­culin­i­ty that accom­mo­dates a wider range of fem­i­nine and mas­cu­line iden­ti­ties: it wants Rinoa, the shel­tered daughter‐princess, to be able to fight along­side every­one else, and it wants Squall, the stoic leader, to also be able to express his inner tur­moil.

In some sense, con­trary to many read­ings that place Rinoa con­stant­ly in sub­mis­sion and help­less­ness, it’s also pos­si­ble to see Final Fantasy VIII as being about how Squall learns to trust a woman who has some level of emo­tion­al con­trol over him, and gen­er­al­ly read the game as hav­ing a par­tic­u­lar fix­a­tion on being crit­i­cal of men strug­gling to accept women hav­ing any form of con­trol.

As with all things Final Fantasy VIII, the game’s rela­tion­ship with gen­der pol­i­tics is deeply com­pli­cat­ed, often as prob­lem­at­ic as it is insight­ful, which is some­thing it shares with the other two Final Fantasy titles on the orig­i­nal Playstation. In spend­ing hun­dreds of hours with FFVIII, I’ve been able to engage with a form of mas­culin­i­ty that I can gen­uine­ly relate to, and even that alone would make this game with even more virtues worth­while .


Austin Howe

About Austin Howe

Austin C. Howe is the writer of Haptic Feedback and a contributor to numerous games publications. He plans to spend 2015 working on a book-length series of essays about Final Fantasy VII. He wears a bomber jacket and a Griever necklace almost everyday and no, he doesn't think that's weird.