Sunday, June 16, 2024

Final Fantasy VII Remake complicates its queer legacy

When Judith Butler mused that “gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original,” I doubt she was thinking of Cloud Strife, the delicately-coiffured hero at the center of Final Fantasy VII, a game that undoubtedly has an extensive queer following. Yet, it’s exactly that type of creative imitation called to mind by one of the game’s most talked-about scenes: Cloud’s drag transformation at the Honeybee Inn.

The original sequence was infamous for its undercurrent of gay panic, but like much else in the peculiar new remake of that enduring 1997 classic, Square Enix are interested in reinvention, not recreation. Director Tetsuya Nomura’s team should be applauded for their willingness to break with tradition and depart from the original game when needed: what was once an invitation to sneer at the idea of queerness has morphed into a celebration of it.

The Honeybee Inn’s legacy is complicated, and it still sparks debate, now more than ever. For many, the sight of burly gay stereotypes harassing Cloud in a bathtub called to mind the worst kind of homophobic tropes. Yet there are others who enjoyed the thought of Cloud scurrying across Wall Market to find the ideal drag getup, and even found it to be an affirming step on their own gender journey. For some budding queers, the very idea of our noble action hero cross-dressing piqued their curiosity and imagination, especially in a game that was formative to so many. With that in mind, I wanted to speak to a number of Final Fantasy VII fans to hear their thoughts on the merits of the scenes, both new and old.

“It wasn’t until I replayed the game when the port came out for PS4 that I realized how problematic that scene was,” said William Lemos, who grew up with the original Final Fantasy VII. Although he had concerns about the way Square Enix would handle the sequence, he was pleasantly surprised by the result. “It was very campy and Andrea was portrayed very well,” he said. “My reaction mirrors Aerith’s during the scene. I’m glad Square Enix made the scene fun, but didn’t poke fun at Cloud’s sexuality for being in drag.”

That’s certainly a common reaction. But to me, the scene fell short of its potential. In the 1997 original, Cloud makes the choice to crossdress. Although he reacts with shock when Aerith initially suggests the idea, he agrees to it moments later. From that point forward, Cloud is in control. He convinces the owner of the dress shop to clothe him, and borrows a wig from the gym’s trainer. The only part of his makeover that takes place at the Honeybee Inn is the makeup. He approaches one of the dancers backstage. “I have a favor to ask of you,” Cloud says. “Can you put makeup on me, too?” By the end, he’s not just going along with Aerith’s idea, he’s an eager participant, assuming the player made that choice.

It’s strange, then, that so much agency is stripped from Cloud in the remake’s version of this scene. When the performance begins, Cloud is literally pushed into the limelight. He doesn’t want to participate, but he’s pressured into it by pushy staff members. Among the flashing signs and pounding music, he looks confused and embarrassed. In the original game, Cloud dresses up. In the remake, he is dressed. That may not seem like a significant distinction, but it’s jarring to see Cloud’s so uncomfortable as lyrics about self-expression and personal freedom blare in the background.

It’s a scene hamstrung by an inability to fully reckon with itself. Perhaps it was inherent in the source material: there’s something contradictory about turning a situation borne out of necessity into a message about self-discovery and queer empowerment. No matter what the dancers say, Cloud isn’t here to discover himself, he’s here to get into Don Corneo’s mansion. But there’s an extent to which that could have been overcome by having Cloud embrace his transformation. There’s another, bolder version of this scene waiting to be made, one where the most inspired elements of the sequence were carried through to their natural conclusion.

final fantasy queer

The best qualities of the new Honeybee Inn sequence are embodied by a character that didn’t exist in the original game, Andrea Rhodea. Andrea is the fierce proprietor of the Honeybee Inn, a dancer who oozes equal parts warmth and charisma. He’s an instantly magnetic screen presence, and the scene’s joyous abandon is largely owed to his charm. As he takes Cloud through a thrilling dance number, our stuffy hero seems to open up. It’s a performance so convincing one can practically smell the spilled nail polish, and at the end, Andrea waxes poetic. “True beauty is an expression of the heart,” he says. “A thing without shame, to which notions of gender don’t apply.” It’s a touching sentiment, and a profoundly queer one.

Yet Cloud doesn’t take it to heart. As soon as they leave the Inn, Cloud turns his back on Aerith, facing away from the street. She tries to talk to him. “Please don’t,” he replies, hiding himself. So much for ‘a thing without shame.’ And therein lies the main issue with this whole sequence: Andrea’s message of self-exploration outside the bounds of gender is bookended by Cloud’s total failure to appreciate or internalize that message.

The game can’t seem to decide if it wants to play the situation for laughs, like when Cloud strolls through Wall Market and is commented on by onlookers who think he’s a woman, or offer a serious message of queer liberation. Even when Cloud later acknowledges the radiance of his outfit to Tifa in Don Corneo’s mansion, his tone is grudging. “Nailed it, I know. Thank you. Moving on,” he says, frowning and looking down. It’s a cute scene, but I would have appreciated something more than that.

Is there any indication that Cloud has internalized Rhodea’s words? Not really. What does this sequence teach us about Cloud as a character? Not much. It’s cute, and then it’s over. His transformation is purely visual, when it could have been so much more. There’s another interesting queer-coded character in Wall Market, a gender non-conforming gym instructor named Jules. Their presence isn’t played for laughs, and their personality is appealing, but they’re not given much to do other than pull-ups.

Regardless, the degree to which the scene has resonated with many queer fans shows that Nomura’s team have clearly got some things right. One fan I spoke to, Tommy George, was effusive in his praise. “I think this is one of the highlights of the entire franchise. It was done so well,” he said. “Cloud got to be a cutie, it retained and even elevated the slapstick nature of the original, but did so in a maybe less controversial fashion.” That sentiment echoed much of the feedback I’ve heard from fans and read on social media. But the positive reception hasn’t been unanimous.

“It didn’t really feel like an honest drag makeover,” said Roupen Akmakian, another fan I spoke to. While he mostly enjoyed the sequence, there were criticisms, too. “It just came across as what an older, straight, cis man’s idea of a drag makeover might be,” he said. That speaks to an inescapable reality about this part of the game, for all its merits. It’s rooted in decades of the franchise’s mixed queer legacy, a troubling original scene, and the straight gaze of its creators.

Source: Twitter

In one of the great essays on queer identity, “To(o) Queer The Writer: Loca, Escritora Y Chicana,” the Chicana queer theorist Gloria Anzaldúa said that “identity is not a bunch of little cubbyholes stuffed respectively with intellect, race, sex, class, vocation, gender. Identity flows between, over aspects of a person. Identity is a river—a process.” There are moments, especially during Andrea Rhodea’s message to Cloud, that Final Fantasy VII Remake seems to approach that realization. But it quickly backs away from it, unable to disrupt Cloud’s aloof image by fully embracing a queer reading of the event. Andrea retreats to the background, and Cloud carries on as he was before. Would the rest of the game be any different if Cloud had never met Andrea? I’m not sure that it would.

At least in presentation, the dancers of the Honeybee Inn nail the dominant queer aesthetic of 2020. Their dance number wouldn’t feel out of place in any installment of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and it’s not hard to imagine the producers binging episodes as part of their research.

But that’s only the performative surface of queer identity. Queerness is much more than that: it’s about resilience, self-reliance, and self-control. These qualities are embodied much more in Andrea Rhodea’s charming speech than in Cloud’s transformation.

Final Fantasy VII Remake seems content only to glance at queerness before returning, unchanged, to its world of hyperactive motorcycle battles and magical lizard-demons. Queerness exists in this world, but it’s treated as more of a sideshow than a serious part of the conversation. And that’s a shame: it’s better to have a seat at the table than a scene on the stage.

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