Ladies in Gaming: Kingdom Hearts' Aqua
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." I even love how the overarching plot is so ridiculously complex that we need countless analysis blogs and forums to even begin lining all the pieces up.
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.
KH is problematic because it doesn't know how to write female characters.
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 Theory, there'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.
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.
Stop guessing, I'll just tell you. Six! 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.
The Misguided Master
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. After years of waiting on Kairi and rooting for Naminé and crying over Xion, we were getting the heroine we had been waiting for.
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.
A fragmentary passage
Thanks to the developers' questionable decision to split Birth by Sleep into three completely separate storylines, the so-called "Wayfinder Trio" spends a lot of 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.
In fact, she probably would have been much better off.
Aqua is no sidekick. She's Batman.
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 . . . gun. But Aqua is no sidekick. She's Batman.
At least on page, she is. When you look a little deeper, you see that Aqua actually spends 100% of her storyline catering to her male companions. 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 designated antagonists. They have plot relevance.
Aqua has none of that.
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. 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-universe), no 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.
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." And Xehanort being the worst creepy uncle ever to the boys. 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 don't 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 significant other to silence her arc completely.
"Sometimes you are such a girl."
"But Jackson," you are undoubtedly thinking as you read this, "Aqua is the first legitimately playable female character in the series. Doesn't the importance of that inclusion kind of negate all these complaints?" No. 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.
And they did . . . alright, I guess. 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 responsible one. All of her actions lead right back to this one personality trait. Granted, her co-protagonists don't have it much better. Ventus is just a single shade of naïve and Terra is made of only two parts gullible and brooding.
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 more 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.
Despite Terra and Ven acting as sympathy sponges, Aqua emerges as the true heart of Birth by Sleep. 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? Nah. But it's definitely hard not to like her and admire her drive.
"There's always a way."
With Aqua (alongside Naminé and Xion) all but confirmed to reappear in Kingdom Hearts 3 and Kairi on deck as a Guardian of Light, the series still has hope for redemption. Birth by Sleep was first released on the PSP back in 2010. 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? Tell us your thoughts on the best (and worst) of Aqua's characterization in the comments below.
Ladies in Gaming will be back on Friday, September 4th. Until then, try to keep your dumb "brothers" out of apocalyptic trouble.