This morning I was listening to This American Life Episode 679: Save the Girl. The introduction starts out as thus:
IRA GLASS: Of everything in pop culture, what can make a teenage boy cry? That’s a very specialized list, right? And we got to talking about this at our office because Lina Misitzis, one of the producers here, remembers how there was this one video game, a PlayStation game, that got her brother and his friends when they were kids.
And I thought, oh man, there can be only one game that they’re talking about — Final Fantasy VII. And that delights me because whenever old fuddy duddy podcasts like this talk about old games, it’s always with reverence. Because the people who grew up with these games are now making the content. They’re making the material. We’re out of the days where “Comic Books Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore” is a legit headline.
IRA GLASS: And what was it about this character that was so intense?
LINA MISITZIS: Well, OK. So I have no idea. To me, it made no sense. She’s like this one-dimensional girl. She’s a cartoon. At the time, it was a big deal that she was 3D. So she looked, I guess, believable,
Wait, what? They are talking about Aeris, right?
LINA MISITZIS: The official game description of her is literally, quote, “young, beautiful, and somewhat mysterious.”
IRA GLASS: Wait. Could we pause on the word, “somewhat”? That seems so weirdly insulting. Like, well, you’re just somewhat mysterious.
LINA MISITZIS: [LAUGHS] OK. Right. And in the game, she really does just two things. She stands next to people and calms them down. Like she’ll put her hand on someone’s chest in this meaningful way. She’s this reassuring presence, this healer. And then the other thing she does is she asks for help.
IRA GLASS: So that’s the two basic female functions, right?
LINA MISITZIS: It’s like fix and help. Fix and help.
Okay, now I’m pissed off.
I guess I was wrong about what I said before. The fuddy duddy podcasts STILL get it wrong, still manipulate facts to serve their point. It’s like coming up with the thesis first, then picking data that proves it. I didn’t think fake news was a real thing before, but now I’m less sure…
First of all, Aeris is about as far from a one-dimensional character as you can get. She is funny, light-hearted, kind, compassionate. If you had to call her anything, then yes, she’s the healer of the group (because all her limit breaks deal with protection and healing), but in terms of gameplay, she can be just as powerful as anyone because she can have the same materia (magic spells) that anyone can.
You can tell this was written by people who didn’t even read the wikipedia page for FFVII. Point the first, THIS is the game’s official description, as sourced from the Final Fantasy VII Instruction Manual.
Young, beautiful, and somewhat mysterious, Aeris met Cloud while selling Flowers on the streets of Midgar. She decided to join him soon after. Her unusual abilities enable her to use magic, but she seems more interested in the deepening love triangle between herself, Cloud and Tifa.
That doesn’t do her justice (and why is “Flowers” capitalized? Those crazy Japanese). Look the whole point of Aeris is that she’s not just another plucky young girl. She’s descended from Cetra, an ancient race that could control the lifeforce of the planet. And the reason everyone wants her is because she’s the last of her race, and she’s got to come to terms with her past. And she does this while still being a plucky young girl from bad circumstances. Yeah, you save her a lot, but it’s like saving a Wonder Woman who hasn’t developed her powers yet.
Need more proof? How about some of her choice quotes from the game:
“Hey, that’s Cloud’s line! ‘…It’s too dangerous, I can’t get you involved…’ Blah blah blah.“
“Don’t fight here! You’ll ruin the flowers!”
“I think they believe I have what it takes to be in SOLDIER!” (offering an explanation for being pursued by the Turks)
“A girl!! What do you mean by that!? You expect me to just sit by and listen, after hearing you say something like that!? Mom! I’m taking Cloud to Sector 7. I’ll be back in a while.”
“I want to know you. The real you.”
Aerith: “Just the same as him.”
Cloud: “The same as who?”
Aeris: “My first boyfriend.”
Cloud: “You were… serious?”
Aeris: “No. But I liked him for a while.”
(in fact, this first boyfriend is Zack, a man who looks just like Cloud except for black hair, and a key figure in Cloud’s false memories)
Marlene : “Guess what? Guess what? Aerith was asking me lots of questions. Like what kind of person Cloud is. I bet she likes you, Cloud!”
Cloud: “Let’s hope so.”
Aerith: “I’m…… alone….. I’m all alone now…”
Cloud: “But I’m….. we’re here for you, right?”
Aerith: “I know. I know, but… I am the only…. Cetra.”
Cloud: “Aerith declared that she’ll show me the way. But if I let her, it seems hard to tell who’s the bodyguard.
“I’ll be going now. I’ll come back when it’s all over.”
(these are her last words)
And keep in mind, this is among all the other colorful characters — a cat on a puppet, a brooding vampire-thing, a perky ninja girl, a man with a gun for an arm, an ex-pilot who constantly swears. That’s just the good guys.
LINA MISITZIS: I mean, she has no personality.
IRA GLASS: Yeah.
LINA MISITZIS: There’s a bird in the game that’s called like a Chocobo, I think, that has more personality than Aeris does.
Does that look like she has no personality? No. She has a sense of humor, she’s not like the kidnapped princesses that Anita Sarkeesian‘s always railing about (although she does get kidnapped a few times, she’s also a playable character who succeeds the Bechdel test). In the game, I would describe her as motherly, in that she’s caring, kind, upbeat, and flirty. That she can behave that way from living in the slums is a miracle. And that’s why when she’s killed, it’s so devastating. She’s the heart of the team. She’s what they’re all fighting for.
Another reason is her presence with Tifa, who is the other romantic interest in the game. She looks like this…
So on first glance you might think, “Oh, Tifa’s the hot, liberated one and Aeris is the motherly one.” She’s the F in a game of FMK. (Yuffie is, of course, the K.) Aeris is the Betty, Tifa is the Veronica. Tifa is Ginger, Aeris is Mary Ann. Aeris is the Victorian in The Corpse Bride, Tifa is the lively-but-dead girl. Despite this, they actually spend time together (when they’re not fighting alongside Cloud).
LINA MISITZIS: And her death sends them to their actual mission– to save the world. She’s just a prop that gets them there. That’s her whole function in the game.
IRA GLASS: So basically, it’s like she’s this barely filled in character, and yet, just, that’s enough to work, to make people have all these feelings and to actually cry when she dies.
LINA MISITZIS: All she needs is to seem vulnerable and nice.
Yeah, if you’re going to be that semantic, everyone is a prop to get the game moving. Sephiroth is a prop to give them a villain to fight. Cid is a prop to get them a plane that let’s them explore more of the game’s territory. Calling someone in a story a “prop to get the plot moving” is asinine. Characters need motivation, and reducing her to an object is to ignore all the other character traits she has. If you want to talk about props, talk about Mario and Peach. Now that’s a thinly veiled plot mechanic.
But Aeris is not just the ball in the game between Sephiroth and Cloud. That’s what made Final Fantasy 7 such a gamechanger, because the graphics and the story were fleshed out enough that it became as dramatic as a movie. A movie you could be in.
I’d say if anyone is vulnerable in this game, it’s Cloud, the game’s protagonist. He spends a significant portion of the latter half in a wheelchair, having seizures, because his memories are attacking him.
Aeris is not a girl to be saved. She is an independent, fleshed-out character and I’m tired of old media men not doing their due diligence. Sure, just accept whatever reporters spoon feed you to make a good podcast. Stay ignorant of these things. It’s no skin off my nose. But Aeris may have something to say about it…