Persona 5 treats men and women very differently. It centres around a co-ed friendship group, but that’s about as far as it goes when it comes to gender equality. From the characters themselves, to the way the game treats them, the villains, and the Personas, it’s clear that Persona 5 cannot separate women from the idea of sex – especially when power is involved.
Let’s look at the gang first. Joker can pursue a romantic relationship with each of the female friends in his group, and there’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, Joker’s romantic pursuits with his friends are probably the best glimpses we see of real and rounded personalities with women in the game. They’re grounded and down to earth, with Makoto initially oblivious as to why Joker is helping her, Ann getting a greater slice of character development, and his bond with Haru originally starting out as a friendship that grows into something more. It all feels natural, and you’d expect relationships to sprout up amongst teenagers that spend a lot of time together. You can cheat on them, but only for so long – sooner or later they find out and confront you, with the game taking the girls’ feelings into consideration and giving them a sense of dignity that is often stolen from them elsewhere. The Futaba relationship is odd, given that she clearly sees Joker as more of a brother, and it would be nice if Ryuji was in the mix, but all in all, these relationships highlight that Persona 5 is capable of doing women justice, even though most of the time, it doesn’t.
Once Joker starts looking for love outside of his friendship group, things get far more complicated. Despite still being a high schooler, Joker can enter into relationships with a drunken journalist, his doctor, and even his English teacher. Persona 5 has far too many complex themes for this to be hand waved away with “heh waifu doctor.” The whole saga begins because a male teacher has been grooming his students, driving one to attempt suicide – it would be bad enough to have a teacher-student relationship as a romance arc in any game, but to include it in one built upon the trauma of molested students is monstrous.
However, the power dynamics are flipped in Joker’s relationship. While you would expect the teacher to have the power, as the gym teacher did, when Joker is involved, the student does. You could argue it’s because he’s the main character, but Joker is placed in a position of inferior power several times throughout Persona 5. It’s not because it’s his game – it’s because he’s a man. He’s still a boy, really, but as the male, the game puts him in a position of power. His teacher is moonlighting as a maid (and also a prostitute), and so while their ‘romance’ blossoms, she constantly has to beg Joker to keep her secret, all while doing his chores and letting him skip lessons in exchange for his silence. It feels like one of the writers had a crush on their teacher and never quite got over it, but that would only make sense if one of them also had a crush on their doctor, or… fortune teller? What makes more sense is that the game’s general view of women allows them to be contorted for whatever purpose is needed. If they need to be strong and independent, they will be, but if they need to be simpering and submissive doe-eyed love interests, you better believe they will be that instead.
Women can still be dominant in Persona 5, but only if they do it through intense sexual imagery. Men can dominate in all sorts of ways, but women must be dominatrixes. The best – or perhaps worst – example of this is Ann Takamaki, but I’ve already written about just how terribly the game mistreats her. After her, we see this trope used repeatedly in Persona 5 Strikers. The first boss, Alice, keeps her victims in a weird hypno BDSM trance that’s basically just findom. I don’t have a way to expand on that – one of the writers must be into findom. Once we see her in the Metaverse though, this sexualised imagery is dialled up to 11, with leather stockings, bondage strap lingerie, and the words ‘Eat Me’ on her bum. Sae has a slightly toned down version of this transformation in Persona 5 too.
Then there’s Akane, who for the record is thought to be around 14. When she transforms, she too gets leather corsetry that flashes her midriff and shapes her breasts. It’s not quite as bad as Ann, who is trapped in her costume for much longer, has a story rooted in sexual trauma, and has a more extreme look in general, but it’s very weird that the game keeps sexualising young girls – especially ones as young as Akane.
Ichinose is the obvious contrast to this imagery, but if we take Alice as Ann, Ichinose is Strikers’ Makoto. What I mean by that is, within the Phantom Thieves, Ann is given all of the feminine qualities, while Makoto – with her dowdy shoes, plain dress sense, sensible haircut, and bare face – is robbed of her femininity, but given intelligence and leadership qualities instead. It’s as if the game sees them as mutually exclusive – and with Ichinose, while she isn’t given stereotyped sexuality in the way Alice is, the trade off for that is zero sexuality at all. Even more so than Makoto (who thankfully gets some fashion sense in Strikers), Ichinose is given the most bland styling possible. It’s all droopy grey with straight hair and no makeup, plus she is literally defined by being emotionless. Women just aren’t offered a middle ground.
Then there’s just the Personas themselves. Far too many of the feminine ones are overtly sexualized, whether it be the goth mommy pixies in leotards, the bare breasted gorgons, or whatever the hell Sophie gets. She initially just has some rectangle blocks as her Persona, but then once she evolves into a real person – into a real female person – the blocks suddenly put on a bikini. It’s so on the nose you’d think it was a parody.
Persona 5 has some excellent female characters, don’t get me wrong. And the ones that get substantial spotlight tend to shine. But for the most part, the game doesn’t treat them with enough respect for them to reach their full potential.
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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