I love Kingdom Hearts. I love that the series is an unholy union between Disney and Final Fantasy. I love how every other line either includes the words "friendship" or "darkness. Kingdom Hearts is my problematic fave, and not just because it's silly and takes Mickey Mouse way too seriously and sometimes the dialogue sucks.
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This isn't the first time I've gotten vocal about this. Whether I'm fuming over Kairi's frustrating characterization or exploring Xion's narrative through the lens of Queer Theorythere's always a common denominator: I have to dig deep to interpret female representation in Kingdom Hearts because there isn't a lot of female representation to interpret.
There are dozens of original characters populating the Kingdom Hearts multiverse. Guess how many are female.
"there's always a way."
Stop guessing, I'll just tell you. Only six. And of those six, three have the exact same facial features, one is a minor character, another is a supporting antagonist for a side game, and the last one is Aqua, the selfless martyr of Birth by Sleep. On paper, Aqua appears to be a KH feminist's dream.
Finally, a female protagonist who is playable during a whole section of the story, not just thrown into a cheap multiplayer mode. In her debut in the secret film alone, Aqua is not only a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield, but is also shown as a caring friend. For once, physical and emotional strength might not be mutually exclusive in a female character. It all seemed too good to be true. Thanks to the developers' questionable decision to split Birth by Sleep into three completely separate storylines, the so-called "Wayfinder Trio" spends a lot kh ladies time alone.
Aqua, in particular, is shown to be even more fiercely independent than her peers.
In many ways, this is fantastic. Aqua doesn't need anyone. Terra and Ven would obviously be lost without her and she's basically the right hand of Master Eraqus. They all need her, but if she wanted to, she could hop on her glider and ride off into the stars and she would be just fine without them. Whenever women are finally given active roles, they are often delegated to the sidekick position, the support.
Arkham 's Oracle does computer stuff for Batman. Princess Zelda has her magic arrow deal in final boss battles with Link. Even Cortana's technological omnipotence plays second-fiddle to Master Chief's giant, um. But Aqua is no sidekick. She's Batman. At least onshe is. Terra and Ven get these huge sweeping narratives.
They've been chosen to play a grand role in an ancient struggle. They have destinies. They have deated antagonists. They have plot relevance. According to Xehanort, she's just a back-up in the whole X-Blade thing, which comes off as a thinly veiled excuse to include more Vanitas scenes.
An unofficial charity fanzine dedicated to celebrating the original female characters of the kingdom hearts video game series
Even Kairi had a more defined role in a 'Nort Scheme. And according to Master Eraqus, Aqua's a glorified social worker. He takes a look at all of her experience and talent and tells her that her place is looking after her angsty "brothers. Additionally, when Aqua displays the Mark of Mastery apparently a pretty big deal in-universeno one really cares. They're all too busy consoling Terra for failing. Aqua doesn't get a moment to be proud of herself.
And when the trio is finally reunited, Ven literally calls her terrible and tells her that her title is going to her head. No one ever defends her, making Aqua spend most of the game apologizing for her own ambition. This all adds up to one conclusion: despite Aqua being billed as the main hero of the game, Birth by Sleep isn't really about her.
She doesn't grow. She doesn't develop. She doesn't even get to explore her own relationships. We get a whole lot of Terra and Ven being the "weirdest brothers.
We get a pretty clear picture of the broken bond between Masters Xehanort and Eraqus. And if they made the "father-figure" relationship between Eraqus and Terra any more heavy-handed, we'd have to saw it off at the wrist. What about Aqua?
Did Eraqus think of her as a daughter? Did her success damage her relationship with Terra before the Mark of Mastery? Has she even spoken to Xehanort? No one knows.
She doesn't get to explore any of that. One good thing about Aqua's loner status is that the writers kh ladies force her into any unnecessary romantic situations. Her dynamic with Terra is so underdeveloped that it can barely be called a "friendship," let alone a relationship and Ventus is thankfully underage.
Aqua's too busy to care about boys anyway, especially dorky wannabe-heroes like Zack whose advances make her visibly uncomfortable. The most romantic thing she does the whole game is help Cinderella down the stairs. Aqua loses her voice to other characters constantly. The last thing she needs is a ificant other to silence her arc completely. Doesn't the importance of that inclusion kind of negate all these complaints?
If anything, we should be even more critical than usual. Square-Enix has kept the KH ladies on the sidelines for years. Aqua was their chance to prove to their fans that they could write a playable female character at a title's forefront. Kh ladies they did. Aqua's characterization is certainly better than Kairi's, but following Xion's impressive depth and plot-relevance, she ultimately falls flat. Still, I might be more willing to overlook a lot of these issues if the writers didn't bog down her character with lazy and unnecessary stereotypes.
It's very clear that she's supposed to be the "team mom.
The misguided master
All of her actions lead right back to this one personality trait. Granted, her co-protagonists don't have it much better. I'm not saying maternal instincts are a bad thing. Not at all, especially when found in a nuanced character. Aqua just gets to be maternal though, with no nuance.
While none of trio gets much substance, Aqua is the only one who gets pigeonholed into a gendered role. We can let her be the "mom," but let her be more too.
Let her recognize her flaws she has many and then have her learn from them. And for God's sake, can you give her kh ladies to do besides clean up after Terra and Ven? Okay, so Aqua is far from perfect, but she's not a lost cause. It's worth noting that she's by far the most powerful of the trio and, even if she follows the "magical girl" trope as the resident female mage, she's also a highly capable swordfighter.
True to her namesake, her fighting style is agile and adaptable, arguably giving her the most engaging combat of the franchise.
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Its her unwavering sense of justice and loyalty that really carries us into the Final Episode, letting her finish strong after hours of an unremarkable personal narrative. Is she an amazing, fleshed out character?
But it's definitely hard not to like her and admire her drive. Birth by Sleep was first released on the PSP back in We'll just have to wait and see if half of a decade will be long enough to learn from past missteps. Did you find this analysis to be a little too harsh? Or maybe I overlooked something crucial?