I will begin this article by saying I am a bit biased concerning this topic as Rise Kujikawa is my favorite character in Persona 4. (Sorry Chie)
Not too long ago, Feminist Frequency creator Anita Sarkeesian tweeted a picture of this year’s E3 badge that features the likeness of Persona 4′s Rise Kujikawa. Ms. Sarkeesian was rather critical of Rise’s new garb for her appearance in the upcoming Persona 4: Dancing All Night and found it a shame that her image was plastered across every E3 convention goers’ badge. While Anita is more than welcome to her opinion, I personally believe that her tweet is nevertheless slightly misguided.
For those not familiar with Rise, she is one of Persona 4‘s large female cast and acts as the party’s navigator and primary source of information while adventuring inside the mysterious realm know as the Midnight Channel. Outside of her in-game role, she is also a pop music idol who has grown tired of the rigors of the industry and has moved to Inaba, Persona 4‘s small town setting, to get away from it all for awhile. Through her interactions with the party, Rise slowly begins to realize that her role as a pop star is not the entirety of her being as the person named “Rise” has many facets to her, all of which are a part of her true self.
While Rise is by no means a perfect character, with her shadow, who appears as a bikini-clad woman dancing on a pole with a radar dish for a face, being perhaps the worst part of her whole, there is nothing inherently sexist about her character or basic design. Indeed, her design seems to be informed more by the aesthetic of idols, a portion of Japanese pop culture concerning female popstars, and Moe, an idea found in anime culture that is complex but is often boiled down to “cute girls doing cute things” by those within the fandom. Both of these originate in fan cultures not native to the United States and thus are informed by a different set of tropes then those found in western media. While both moe and idol culture come along with their baggage, it is important to keep in mind the sort of pop culture and media that informed Rise’s creation in the first place when discussing character, as they give context to both the way she is depicted and the way she is dressed in Dancing All Night.
However, the issue Sarkeesian seems to have is not with Rise herself, but rather the way she is dressed for her upcoming role in Dancing All Night and its display on the badge for one of the world’s biggest gaming expos. So what is the issue here? I’m not sure how much Sarkeesian knows about Rise or the idol culture that inspired her outfit and character, but it seems that her core issue with Rise’s new design is her bare midriff and slightly open shirt. Is it more than a bit fan service-y? Of course. But does that mean it has no place in the world of gaming? Honestly, I don’t think so. Fan service as a concept is not something inherently anti-feminist or even sexist.
By this, I mean that the occasional bit of midriff or another exposed skin isn’t some massive plague on the industry that must be chastised. Regarding this sort of issue I believe that Sarkeesian has created a false dichotomy when it comes to depictions of women in video games. On one end of this spectrum are positive depictions of women who are powerful, dressed adequately, and given their own agency in equal amounts to their male counterparts. While on the other, which she most often talks about in her videos and on Twitter, are not just female characters who are blatantly contrary to feminist thought (for example those who only exist as a vehicle for sexual overtones) but also those, like Rise, who are fully realized characters in their own right also happens to dress in way that are slightly revealing or skimpy. By creating this black and white mentality, far too many decent characters are thrown into the same category as the female cast of Dead or Alive as they appear in Extreme Beach Volleyball. There is indeed a difference between the kind of outfit Rise is wearing on the E3 badge mentioned above, and putting the entire cast of a fighting game in the smallest possible bikini — without differentiating between the two, Sarkeesian is doing a disservice not only gamers but to the industry as a whole.
To sum up, Rise’s Dancing All Night outfit is indeed a form of fan service. But that is not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with it either. When discussing Rise, and another character like her, we must keep in mind not only her design, but also the character that informed such an outfit, and the cultural forces that informed both of the latter in the first place. In doing so, discussions regarding the topic might not be so black and white as Ms. Sarkeesian sometimes frames them in her videos and on Twitter in the future.