But XIII has surpassed all expectations. Besides the gameplay, the female characters are a huge part of what's making the game a lot of fun for me. They fit very well with the typical FF characters, but there's just something better about all three of the women that makes me love them. Are they really feminist friendly?
Well, that obviously depends on the feminist. We all have different hot buttons, different levels of tolerating inevitable sexism that permeates mainstream media. I find the game, and its female characters, easy to love and fangirl over. And I just can't stop talking about it, so here is my tl;dr discussion of XIII from a feminist POV:
1. Clothing: B-
Okay, this is the weak point of course. Much like female Olympic atheletes in certain sports, women in video games are apparently required to wear ridiculously revealing clothing. 13 goes for the leg instead of the cleavage, which is somewhat of a relief, as there are no Tifa proportions in sight and no Lulu-esque spillage. A very minor character whose name I've forgotten has the requisite chest and is dressed like a dominatrix school marm, complete with riding crop. She also has some weird thing going on with her cleavage but she isn't around for long, thankfully. Overall though, I don't find the clothing terribly offensive. This is one of those YMMV points, but for me it helps that the characters mostly aren't too sexualized for the male gaze. Vanille is the most sexualized, with a couple flashes of her very upper thigh where the l'cie mark is conveniently placed, and some flirty moments with Hope and Sazh. (Hope is appropriate. Sazh.. just no.) But the clothes themselves do not actually scream exploitation for the straight dude, IMO. They could be better, but they aren't offensive, so I gave them a B-.
2. Romance: A+
There will be romance in FF games. This is just one of the elements that IIRC has been present for quite a long time. In XIII the romance happens mostly off-stage, prior to the beginning of the game. We just get some flashbacks and occasional overwrought declarations from Snow. And best of all, the romance is between a main character and an NPC who only makes brief appearances. None of the main female characters are involved in a romance with a man. Let me say that again. None of the main female characters are involved in a romance with a man. As I said before, Vanille has a few flirty moments, but they're pretty much laughed off. I was tempted to knock off the + because the romance between Snow and Serah is kind of annoying, but I couldn't do it. Because none of the main female characters are involved in a romance with a man. I'm not just talking about as part of the plot or the main storyline. I mean, they are all man-free. No boyfriends, no dead husbands, nothing. This makes me ridiculously happy (if they spoil this in the next 20 hours I will cry, but it doesn't seem likely at this point).
3. Friendships: A+
The girls are friends with each other. Yes! They talk to each other and everything! This is a little limited because the conversations in the bulk of XIII tend to happen among the entire group, while they are trying to decide how to respond to "destiny" and forces that are manipulating them. But there are several times when two female characters talk to each other and fight together, and it has nothing to do with a man. And after the first bit where the characters are separated, the scenes where a female character and male character are talking don't dominate. So the Bechdel test is passed with flying colors.
But the friendships here go beyond the Bechdel test. I was sure that Fang and Vanille were going to turn out to be sisters, because they were so close. It is so rare to see two women in a video game be so dedicated to each other in this way, that I kept waiting for the catch. But there wasn't one! They hug, they talk, they encourage each other. When we first meet Fang her only purpose in life is to find and save Vanille. She would do anything for her.
Fang and Lightning meet and become friends during the course of the game. They never really butt heads or anything, but they are both a little on the fierce side and both have their own agendas, so they aren't instant BFFs. They get a significant amount of time at one point away from the rest of the party, the first time Fang is a playable character. As the game goes on, they fight together and become closer. In one scene when Fang has become discouraged, the whole group tries to help motivate her, but it is Lightning who holds her hand out to her and says, come on, we're all in this together. They have some great chemistry in their banter, and even though there aren't very many scenes of the two of them talking after the party is back together, it's very easy to fill in the blanks.
Lightning and Vanille is the weak link. There's not a lot here, just enough to fuel the OT3 plot bunnies.
4. Subtext: A+
XIII gives us subtext for not just one, but two femslash OTP's AND an all-girl OT3, without having to dig for it. It's a little slow to start, but once Fang shows up and she checks out Lightning's l'cie mark on her breastbone while Lightning gives the >.> look, it is ON. (Also awesome about that scene? Part of it is shown from behind Lightning so there's no gratuitous boobage, just the suggestion.)
5. Character motivations: A-
I wanted to give this an A+, but I had to dock points for Dead Woman x 2. I'm including all the main characters here, not just the women. Snow is the only one motivated by romance and he has Dead Woman #1. Although she's really just almost-dead, I'm going to count Serah as a Dead Woman because between the Dead Woman and the Frozen Woman tropes there's not really much difference. Serah also serves as motivation for Lightning, which is kind of awesome because Lightning is the real hero of this story, and she is motivated by love for her sister. Not a man, not romance, not her ambition, but her younger sister. I love this, both as a feminist and as an older sister.
Hope gets Dead Woman #2 - his mother. This is one of the most annoying parts of the game. Hope's mother is pretty awesome. She fights to try to save her son, but then she turns out to be just another sacrificial mother. Sazh has a Dead Woman too, but she's totally not a factor in his motivation. His dead wife doesn't even get a mention. Instead, Sazh is motivated by his son.
I kind of covered Fang's motivation, which is Vanille - an unrelated woman! Bonus points. Vanille is motivated, however, by her guilt and the need to redeem herself for her complicity with the partial destruction of coccoon (I think?) and in getting others turned into l'cie. So overall, we have some icky sexist tropes but the motivations of the main female characters have nothing to do with any men, so I think it is a win.
6. Generic soldiers: C
We have a ways to go here, but this is the first FF as far as I can remember that has included women in the generic soldiers that you have to fight. They appear less often, have less diversity of fighting styles than the male soldiers, and they are wearing little shorts to signify female. But XIII gets some credit for including them. This is much better than 8, where you play two female mercenaries - one of whom had risen to instructor at the youngest age ever - but there were no female mercenaries among the generics.
7. Female to male ratio: B
As is custom in FF games, the main party consists of an equal number of male and female characters. Yay! But we could do with a few more female side characters. Espcially ones who don't die/become encased in crystal.
A. Lightning: A++
I am so in love with Lightning I can't even say. I just want to mash the keyboard. She is so very awesome. The gunblade, of course, is the best. There aren't many female FF characters who use a type of sword, and since a gunblade is fairly iconic it is nice to see in the hands of the main female character. Her gunblades also fold up, somewhat reminiscent of Cloud's weapon(s) in Advent Children, although different in purpose. I've said before that she fits right in with the long history of FF heroes, and this is still true at 70+ hours into the game. At the same time, she's very different from what we've seen before. She isn't as closed off as Cloud or Squall, isn't as perky as Tidus or Vaan, and isn't as puppy-dog as Zach (pause for a moment of silence). She is tough, with a quiet confidence and no tendency to stop and feel sorry for herself. I feel like she could have been buddies with Sephiroth-before-the-psycho.
B. Fang: A++
Fang is hot. OMG hot. She's the tough girl with attitude. She says things like "eat this!" during battles, and then grunts like a tennis pro. I love her almost as much as Lightning, and I love them even more together. Fang is also, basically, a tank as a fighter. She works really well as a Sentinel - taking the hits for the other two members of the party. She's also a commando, dealing major physical damage. Not a very common combination for a woman in the FF world. They usually tend toward magic, support and healing. And of course, she has a very strong friendship with Vanille.
C. Vanille: B
This is where things get a little less cool. Vanille is the perky, positive, innocent girl with a bit of emo on the side. I don't hate her, because she is much improved when Fang is around, and because I find her believable and she isn't there only to serve a male character or the male audience. I don't know how old she is, but I can easily see her as a teenager who's getting a little more confident of her sexuality and is trying it out by flirting/teasing and is not going to pretend to be unaware of how men look at her
D. Serah: D
Serah is the victim, the sweet romantic girl, the tiny slip of a thing with the big, tall boyfriend. She gets to be the frozen/dead woman for most of the game, and most of her "accomplishments" are passive. To top it off, in a flashback she gives Vanille some advice on how to be the passive woman... if things are tough, wait and let things happen instead of doing something about it. Booo.
E. Character whose name I've forgotten: F
Dominatrix meets naughty school teacher outfit, riding crop, strange cleavage things going on. Oh, and it turns out she's a stupid pawn and then she dies. Worst character by far.
So is it feminist friendly or not?
Like I said, it depends. But it does a lot better than most video games I've played, including previous FF games. Women are central to this story. For the most part, the game assumes that the usual audience is not going to have a big problem playing with female characters in the lead, so it doesn't overcompensate the way, say, Bayonetta does, by constantly having to reassure the player that he is assumed to be a straight man. The moments that have the male gaze in mind, though annoying, are pretty much par for the course, and don't stand out as compensation. And 13 doesn't change the essense of the games for a hypothetical female audience who doesn't like real video games, the way X-2 did.
But best of all are the three main female characters. They totally make the entire game.