‘Persona 5’: Of Empowered Heroines & Heteronormativity

persona 5 team attack

The experience of playing Persona 5 reminded me of my own complex relationship with stand up comedy. I went into it with a forgiving and perhaps overly-lenient attitude. I wanted to like it and for the most part I did. But every so often I encountered a stray remark or throwaway joke that automatically caused something in my chest to harden in defense. In the moment, I tried to ignore the remark, or I at least compartmentalized it to some small corner of my mind, where it festered until I felt better equipped to unpack it.

For all its virtues (and they are numerous), there’s one particularly bothersome aspect of Persona 5 that I just can’t ignore. And there are two characters in particular who best embody my conflicted feelings, the things I loved about this game and the things that ultimately disappointed me: Makoto Niijima and Yusuke Kitagawa.

Makoto Niijima is a total drag, and I love her for it.

When we first meet Makoto, she is essentially an antagonist. As student council president, she is the minion of the authority figures who are working tirelessly to expose you, the protagonist, and put an end to your not-quite-legal afterschool activities. She is a persistently annoying presence, always hovering in the background and spying on your every move. She speaks in a polite yet condescending tone, and like a verbal tic, she constantly reminds you to stay out of trouble and to be a good student. On Twitch streams, the hatred for Makoto can reach such dizzying heights that commenters might unanimously deride her as a “bitch” and gleefully wish death upon her.

In the game’s early hours, there are hints that she is more conflicted than she initially appears. We see moments of hesitation and whispered expressions of regret. Still, each time she appeared onscreen, even I couldn’t help but sigh in frustration and think, “Girl, you are a drag.”

Female characters often inhabit a specific role in fiction, particularly in stories with a reckless male protagonist. Women act as the arbiters of conventional morality and responsibility. It typically falls upon the protagonist’s girlfriend or wife to nag him about his duties as a husband, as a provider, and/or as a productive member of society. It is the woman who typically hoists the hero away from the adventure of the week anchors him back into the drudgery of reality. In other words, fictional women are often a drag, and it’s precisely because these characters are barely characters at all.

Rather than function as a complex figure with her own idiosyncratic hopes and desires, the archetypal girlfriend or wife character is more akin to a symbol than a human being. She exists as a reminder of “the real world” and all the mundane obligation inherently tied to it. She is rarely allowed the opportunity to have adventures of her own or to evolve from the simplistic role given to her.

persona 5 makoto

It is rather revealing that the turning point of Makoto’s story arc is when a loved one dismisses her as “useless”, a word that audiences have leveraged against countless other female characters. That one word changes the trajectory of Makoto’s life and inspires her to act out of personal conviction rather than the expectations of others. It is the point in which she finally becomes more than just a vague, nagging presence.

From that moment onward, Makoto becomes invaluable to the narrative. In many ways, she is more of a leader than the protagonist himself. It is Makoto who executes many of the riskiest and most important tasks and who provides verbal guidance and discipline to the rest of the team. It is Makoto who ends up as one of the most vital—and one of the most dramatically changed—members of the cast.

But the aspect of Makoto’s character that I love the most is that she never truly stops being a drag. Even after her change of heart, she still reminds you to devote time to your studies. Her confidant storyline concludes with her convincing a female friend to attend college and live more responsibly. In the end, Makoto proves that a female character can be a drag and yet still be complex and likeable, and that alone makes her Best Girl in my eyes.

Amongst all the available options, I quickly chose Makoto to be my significant other. For the most part, I felt content with this decision. But there was one scene in Persona 5 that caused me to wonder about an impossible alternative.

There is a moment in which you are given the opportunity to very publically confess your feelings for a character of your choice. I considered choosing Ryuji, just to see him freak out. I also considered Makoto. But in the end, I elected to say, “I love Yusuke Kitagawa.”

Yusuke is the character who I most wanted to date.

One of the most appealing aspects of the Persona games is the freedom of choice available to the player. Despite the linearity of the main storyline, the player is given a large chunk of free time and little guidance as to how that time should be spent. There is no “correct” way to approach the game, and the player is allowed free rein to prioritize activities—and people—however they want.

But this freedom of choice shines an even brighter spotlight upon one the few areas in which there is a blatant restriction of choice: romance. Similar to dating sims and romantic visual novels, in Persona 5 every single female confidant is a viable romantic partner, regardless of their age or personality. You even have the option of dating multiple girls simultaneously and with little consequence to the story. In contrast, though there are a wealth of male confidants, none of those relationships are allowed to cross the boundaries of friendship.

Dating in Persona 5 felt like touring through an aggressively heterosexual fantasyland, one in which every attractive female is yours for the taking and anything that is even suggestive of homosexual behavior is treated with suspicion and ridicule. This latter characteristic is best embodied in the character Ryuji, who for all his virtues is ultimately the type of guy who at any moment seems one nervous chuckle away from whipping out a “no homo” joke. There are even a couple instances in which Ryuji is nearly victimized by a pair of stereotypically effeminate homosexual men, whose voracious lusts apparently transcend all propriety or notions of consent—and yes, these scenes really are just as tasteless and tone deaf as they sound.

persona 5 yusuke

In this regard, Yusuke is Ryuji’s polar opposite. Unlike Ryuji, who can’t help but point out how weird he feels hanging out at a popular date spot with a dude, Yusuke is a free spirit and exhibits no reservations in behaving exactly the way he wants, when he wants. In one particularly telling scene, he dares to go on a romantic canoe ride with a fellow man and seems deaf to the whispered remarks that such a “taboo” act garners from strangers.

Yes, his obliviousness is treated as a joke and an oddity, and considering the restrictions on dating, these moments can be rightfully considered queer baiting. But in a game that feels otherwise repressed in regards to non-heterosexual behavior, even Yusuke’s obliviousness feels like a breath of fresh air.

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It is difficult for me to reconcile the parts of Persona 5 that I loved with the parts that so alienated me that I occasionally found myself thinking, “This game was not made for people who aren’t strictly heterosexual. This game was not made for people like me.”

I don’t regret playing Persona 5, and in the end, my enjoyment of the game outweighs my criticism of it. I especially appreciate its depiction of females, and the attention it pays to the struggles and barriers that are mostly unique to women. But my hope is that one day I can love a game like this wholeheartedly, without feeling as though I am making some sort of concession or negotiating my own values. And most of all, it would be nice to have true freedom of choice, instead of something that falls just short of it.

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