Since yesterday was a big Legendiparty on my dash, I think I’d like to talk in a bit more depth about something I’ve mentioned plenty of times—that if there’s anything in this game’s characterization that strikes me as awkward and sexist, it’s how Chloe is handled.
How Chloe is handled? you repeat, taken aback. But Chloe is the progressive, feminist, pants-wearing-and-sword-wielding Strong Female Character of the game! Surely you’re joking.
Well… yes and no.
Yes, Chloe is the only girl in the party who’s built for fighting on the front lines—Norma and Grune are typical squishy spellcasters, and Shirley may be able to hit but her real firepower is in her extra-strong magic; Chloe has a sword and the traditional moveset that can usually be found handled by Tales protagonists. This is exceedingly rare for Tales games! Most of the sword-wielding women of the franchise (like Estelle from Vesperia and Milla from Xillia—neither of whom, one might notice, are pure physical fighters the way Chloe is) came long after Legendia’s release.
But Chloe’s combat capabilities do not necessarily reflect the way Chloe thinks about gender! This goes for every girl in the party to some extent: Norma, squishy spellcaster A, is a hell-raising rascal who Desperately Does Not Want To Talk About Her Feelings (which is definitely a trait that is often used to characterize men); Grune, squishy spellcaster B, is a ballbreaker and slightly terrifying when in her right mind; Shirley, who will murder you with frigging adorable pink magic, is easily the most proactive character in the entire party.
So Chloe, who will come running up to stab you with a sword, is comparatively one of the girlier girls of the party! She’s very, very self-conscious of her body image and how men (i.e. Senel) perceive her: Whenever she’s not actively in “business mode” as a knight, she gets squeaky and distressed about how she looks and smells and so on. When Senel compliments her on how powerful she’s become, Chloe gets upset because she has big gooey feelings for him and she wants him to pay attention to “Chloe the girl” rather than “Chloe the knight who is one of the guys” (especially as Senel is canonically stated to be a bit chauvinist and most attracted to the frail in-need-of-protection damsel/future housewife type—Shirley also observes this in-game).
Too, look at how Chloe acts and dresses in her flashbacks (how Chloe might still be in the present if her parents’ deaths had not made her decide to become a knight, which goes on to dictate a lot of how Chloe acts and dresses in the present). Preteen Chloe wore big, poofy, elaborate gowns, lots of jewelry, and makeup. This is very feminine gender presentation—like what one might expect of a classic Disney princess. Because seventeen-year-old Chloe is still very self-conscious about her looks, we can observe that Chloe has very rigid and traditionalist ideas about femininity and masculinity and what girls “should be like”. We can also observe that because Chloe must present with a certain degree of masculinity to be a professional knight according to the precepts of the House of Valens, this winds up causing her a lot of misery.
This in itself—which is to say, a character having unhealthy binarist ideas about gender, or an otherwise butch girl having a few feminine traits and interests—is not a bad thing. It can actually be a very good thing! There are not very many real people who will fit perfectly and neatly into their society’s definition of gender. It’s also common for real people to absorb societal programming that tells them they are bad, and develop internalized prejudice because of that. Handled well, this type of characterization can make a character more fleshed-out and 3D!
Unfortunately, Legendia does not handle Chloe very well. This is almost certainly because Legendia was made in Japan.
Japan puts a whole lot of stock in the gender binary, especially where girls and women are concerned. In media marketed towards young men (video games, for instance), you are almost never going to find lady characters presented as so masculine that they might threaten the player’s masculinity.
Japan also idealizes cuteness and youth, and a big marker for cuteness and youth is awkwardness. This is where the moe (especially “gap moe”) phenomenon kicks in: By making a character have seemingly contradictory traits, you appeal to the audience that they are funny and awkward, and thus still immature, and therefore cute (and soft and pliable and in need of protection/upbringing from the viewer, or the viewer’s stand-in character).
The way that Chloe thinks about femininity is not used to make her more well-rounded and realistic. It is not used as a way to provoke discussion and criticism of gender stereotypes. It is one of a number of traits that are occasionally seen to prove to the (ostensibly male) player that, okay, Chloe is a sword-wielding no-nonsense badass on the field and she might LOOK like a big scary tomboy, but on the inside she’s squishy and squeaky and girly and cutesy and helpless! And she wants the hero’s D!! See, she really is a girl after all! Look at how awkward she is! HOW ADORABLE!!!
This is perhaps not surprising given that this is Japan and this is Namco and this is the Tales series and neither Japan nor the Tales series has a very good track record with this sort of thing (and Namco’s track record honestly sucks, which should surprise no one because The iDOLM@STER is a thing), but it still is pretty disappointing what with Legendia’s well-rounded characterization for the rest of the party.