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
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.
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.
“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.
Rinoa.….. Even if you end up as the world’s enemy, I’ll… I’ll be
Laguna and Carraway: Insecure Misogynists
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.
[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.
So you’re Rinoa’s father?
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.)
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.
Don’t you ever worry about or even think about the well-being of your
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
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.
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 .