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Review

Fire Emblem Awakening, Gender, and Heteronormativity

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****THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS****

Let me start this post by saying, Fire Emblem Awakening is one of the best RPGs games I have ever played. Ever.

If you have never played a Fire Emblem game then stop what you are doing and go do that. Right now. Seriously.

This post is not intended to be a review, think of it more as a feminist critique/review hybrid. The purpose of this blog post is to think critically about the representations in Fire Emblem Awakening and the dependency on gender in one of the new features it explores. This would be the mechanic of marriage, reproduction, and lineage.

Firstly lets talk about gender representations in the game itself.

Here are some highlights:

1 – The Character Creator

Character Creator Fire Emblem

 

This character creator is very linear but I found it very enjoyable too!! Highlights were the ability to change the maturity of your character’s appearance, as well as their voice actor. The costume also doesn’t deviate much between male and female so it reflects a very practical and gender neutral idea of clothing.

 

2 – There is a 50/50 split between female and male presenting characters

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I’m not sure if this is mandatory because of the marriage mechanic, but the male to female character split in the game is nearly 50/50 and the amount of outstanding female characters (that are central to the plot) is shockingly good.

 

3 – There is diverse representations of gender within the male/female dichotomy

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I really liked the characters Libra and Sully. The are representations of individuals that present as a defined sex, but have qualities that show diversity of gender. SO Libra is a feminine man, and Sully is a masculine woman.

Why is all this important?

In real life gender and sexuality are fluid. There are many types of gender presentations and having that diversity represented in the media shows society that alternate gender presentations exist and are acceptable. Under-representing a demographic in the media reinforces stereotypes and lowers self esteem. It makes the marginalized population feel abnormal, when they are not. It also limits opportunities for those individuals, whether it be through stifling ambitions with a noticeable lack of relateable role models or assist in propagating the same favoritism in hiring practices through employer’s own warped prejudices.

Miss Representation has been exploring this argument for years!! Jennifer Siebel recently did a TEDx Women talk about the effects of media on women and girls. And Marie Wilson, from the White House project, famously said “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Right. So just having women and gender variant individuals in the game is important. But the next step is to critically think about the actions of these characters and the structures that they must abide by.  The particular structure I want to address is the mechanic of marriage.

And this is really where the SPOILERS start.

Fire Emblem Awakening implements a new mechanic of marriage, where when two individuals marry you are able to unlock a paralouge chapter to gain a new character. The new character you gain will be that couple’s child. This mechanic is not necessary to complete the game, and there exists some characters that are unable to marry and produce children. However it does enforce a climate of heteronormativity.

So lets talk about a heteronormativity. What is it?

From the Gender and Education Association:

Heteronormativity is a term used by social theorists in order to discuss the way in which gender and sexuality are separated into hierarchically organised categories. It has become one of the most important ways of thinking about sexuality within the academic study of sexuality. Theorists have argued that a discourse or technique of heteronormativity has been set up, and subsequently dominates, social institutions such as the family, the state and education.

Heteronormative discursive practices or techniques are multiple and organise categories of identity into hierarchical binaries. This means that man has been set up as the opposite (and superior) of woman, and heterosexual as the opposite (and superior) of homosexual. It is through heteronormative discursive practices that lesbian and gay lives are marginalised socially and politically and, as a result, can be invisible within social spaces such as schools.

Back to Fire Emblem,  lets summarize the basic outline of the feature!

  1. Marriage can take place between specific male and female characters – Homosexual relationship are not possible. what would be the issue with allowing women or men to marry? Adoption is a perfectly suitable means of having a child. Especially in a setting that is based around a medieval war torn country where the number of children in need of parents is probably quite high. Allowing same sex marriage would also open up more paralouges to be accessed and more possible pairings, increasing the complexity (and development time) of the game. But only allowing marriage between a male and female, the developers are completely disregarding different sexual relationships and alternate family structures.
  2. The union is permanent and irreversible –  I found this part interesting. This means if one partner dies, the other cannot remarry. Considering that Classic play in Fire Emblem has the permanent death feature, where if you lose a character in battle they then stay dead. I found this a bit sad.  Spouses will be the only party member at the “S” relationship level, meaning they allow for the highest stat boosts while paired in battle. If they die you lose a valuable strategic relationship that is irreplaceable and the remaining partner is unable to form a new one. This also implies that marriage is permanent and binding, which is a social construction many modern couples are moving away from, considering that 50% of US marriages end in divorce. This also ensures that divorcee’s are not playable characters which excludes that population and family structure from being represented in the game as well.
  3. The union produces a child –  We also know that not all relationships result in children, and marriage doesn’t always signify that a couple is attempting to have a baby. To have these two thing equate, a child being a direct result of marriage, makes me wonder if you could have the option to breed characters instead of marry them and how that would be more factually accurate, as well as allows for many different narratives and representations of relationships.
  4. The child’s name, personality, appearance, story, cut scenes, and class are tied to the mother – The father contributes hair-colour and class – When I figured this out, after about the third union, I had to take a step back. The child’s identity being solely attached to the mother is an interesting matrilineal commentary and I’m not sure what this implies. I feel that by not making the choice of father more influential to the character of the child ties the mother to a traditional gender role of being the primary care taker in their child’s life. I also feel this is interesting because all the cut scenes occur between the mother and child (except Chrom and Lucina, and Player, if male, and Morgan) which shows a stronger and more relevant bond with the mother.

This says volumes about how we perceive relationships!! Subtle, seemingly arbitrary decisions to implement this feature actually propagate a heteronormative agenda and place women into traditional gender roles. I really really liked Fire Emblem Awakening, and maybe next time they can try something different to improve upon their awesomeness.

About the author / 

SarahBeck

Currently works as a software developer for Bioware. She has a BSc in Computing Science and enjoys JRPGS, anime, and Ruby on Rails. You can find her on Twitter at @essefbeck. All opinions expressed on this blog are her own, and do not represent Bioware or EA.

4 Comments

  1. Chair August 6, 2013 at 8:02 pm -  Reply

    I’d like to comment on a few things, if I may.
    -Firstly, you mentioned an almost 50/50 split, but this is indeed probably because the marrying mechanic required it. In previous Fire Emblem games without this the split was more of a 27/100 split 😛 But I think the producers of FE shouldn’t be criticised for those numbers. After all it’s a war game. The fact that were already so many women being treated as equals in war is not realistic, but really enjoyable and should be encouraged.
    -Fire Emblem has always had more feminine men and more masculine women. What I personally like, is that each character has his/her own strengths and none are valued above the other.
    -The heteronormativity part is undeniable. FE has always stuck to implied homosexual relationships, never something canon. But there were a lot of jokes and innuendos in Awakening, far more than in any of the previous games, so I’d like to think they do not deny homosexuality nor want to bring across the message that only hetero love are accepted.
    -If a character dies they cannot remarry, because that could result in 1 man having 15+ children O-O He could marry, have a child, and after divorce by death move onto the next. It would have to be that way, because marriage is permanent. If a divorced man wouldn’t able to get a child with a second wife you’d lose out on a character. It’s much easier to make marriage fixed.
    -I don’t really get your point concerning the union resulting in a child. It’s just a game mechanic that doesn’t really mean anything other than yay a child.
    -Now, I think you’re reading farrrrr too much into this with ”heteronormative agenda & gender roles”. Half of the characters are women fighting in an ARMY. Gender roles? Where? Can’t see ’em. You even pointed out the fact earlier that Sully is a thing that exists >w< The women doing the raising is never even implied in-game.
    In addition, the distribution of a child's characteristics is not insinuating anything significant either. Their personality is fixed, and isn't always similar to their mothers' at all. Laurent is like a Miriel genderbent, but Brady is nothing like Maribelle. Their class and hair colour are from the father, because that way you know who the father is with one glance and the extra variety between appearances is nice. If they made exclusive cutscenes for each possible father there would be unnecessarily many options, just a mother is fine.

    For you information, I'm a guy and not a feminist.

    • SarahBeck August 8, 2013 at 4:53 pm -  Reply

      Thanks for the comment and visiting the blog!!

  2. chica August 12, 2013 at 10:32 pm -  Reply

    I’m kind of disappointed you didn’t mention Lucina’s role in the game at all. I thought she was a great subversion to what we usually see regarding gender roles in JRPG’s. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how she fits in to your thoughts on gender representation. 🙂

    • SarahBeck August 13, 2013 at 12:52 am -  Reply

      When I wrote this I had really mixed feelings about Lucina. I really enjoyed her masked role in the beginning, she was awesome, independent, and had her own storyline. I found that once she was unmasked her character became less so. It was like as she became a woman she was suddenly obsessed with her father’s approval and she became very anxious about things to come, when before she was focused and cool. I also wish that she was more powered up as a character, tactically I found her very average.

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