Stacey Henley is an entertainment reporter who has written for The Washington Post, IGN, Polygon, and more. She’s an editor for Into The Spine, and spends her free time discovering new worlds and exploring vast terrains, but only in video games. In real life, she mostly stays home.
Persona 5 (Atlus, 2016) is a game about self-identity. The central characters are everyday school students in their regular life, who also possess a supernatural ability to explore a fantasy version of reality, one where they can awaken their true selves and gain the power of a Persona. These Personas form a sort of poetic iconography of each character’s sense of self, of what each character imagines themselves to be. The aesthetic, codename, and personality of the Personas resemble the construction of manufactured pop bands, where every member can be defined by the archetype they embody. There may be ‘the bad boy’, who adopts a rebellious identity, or ‘the goofball’ who is known for joking around, often to extreme lengths. While no pop band has them all, easily stereotyped identities are common across the genre. The Spice Girls, for example, became known by their single-line identities, as Posh, Sporty, and so on. These identities are developed over the course of a career, and the party members of Persona 5 also follow these rules.
Ann Takamaki is the only ‘band member’ who appears to resent the role given to her, and she is clearly cast as ‘the sexy one’. Often, ‘the sexy one’ translates to vacuousness or lack of intelligence. Being sexy and being a bimbo are often the same things when it comes to pop music, with the media of the early ‘00s depicting Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera especially as airheads. Imani Perry writes that “women are often presented as vacuous, doing nothing but swaying around seductively” (2004, p. 137) in music videos, but this is one stereotype that Ann Takamaki breaks. She is ditzy and bratty but has clear agency, demonstrated both through the fact she is a competent party member and through her actions and dialogue as the game progresses. It is clear from the villains of the game that Persona 5 views itself as somewhat progressive; it targets factory bosses who overwork their staff and other overtly capitalist foes. However, its view of gender roles is extremely conservative, and Ann is the best lens to view this through.
For the most part, the other characters get cooler or more heroic Personas. Player-character Joker is the lead singer-type, he is charismatic, cute, and mysterious, while Ryuji is the rebellious bad boy. In Take That, they are Gary Barlow and Robbie Williams; in Boyzone, Ronan Keating and Shane Lynch; or in One Direction, Harry Styles and Zayn Malik. Both relish their new roles and costumes, accepting their position in the band with glee. Ryuji gains a skull mask and becomes more reckless and destructive, embracing his identity as the band’s rebellious wildcard. Joker grows in confidence and stature, accepting the role akin to the lead singer. However, for Ann, taking on her persona involves playing into a problematic stereotype.
In discussing the presentation of modern female pop artists, Kristy Fairclough argues that women “ultimately must accept mass objectification in exchange for success,” (2017, p.126), something which rings true for Ann. In order to awaken and possess the power of the Persona, she must accept her role as ‘the sexy one’. In a way, the trade-off is worth it for Ann. She gets to remain in the band, is able to be a force for good, and is a popular character with the Persona fanbase. However, this comes at a cost, as Ann must not only accept constant sexualisation, but often sees her opinions disregarded by the group. Joker and other characters, such as Yusuke (the artistic one) and Makoto (the smart one), are taken far more seriously.
As Ann accepts her role as ‘the sexy one’, she accepts a role where her ideas are disregarded and, therefore, remains chained to the role. This fits with Lazar’s analysis of women in the media of pop culture, and the argument that “women have been resexualised from a position of sexual objectification to sexual subjectification,” (2006, p. 2), whereby women in media have transitioned from being objects to being seen as subjects of their own narratives, with their own thoughts, fears, and motivations. However, despite this evolution, Lazar argues that women remain heavily sexualised characters. This is true of Ann, who is allowed by the game to be shown as in control of her sexuality but never allowed to push back against it.
This increased agency, while retaining all the outward symbols of subjugation, relates closely to Fabrico Silveira’s thoughts on the imagery of modern feminist pop music. Silveira writes that modern music videos are “a risky exercise in empowerment, where part of the risk is in the self deprecation,” and that such videos often rely on “phallocentric, pro capitalist, pro female stereotyping,” where the singers/characters achieve “hyper feminisation through hyper sexualisation, coming much closer to traditional pornography,” (2017, p. 139). We see this through Ann’s design and attacks. Where Joker has a knife, Ryuji a club, Ann has a whip, and several of her moves and callouts lean heavily into dominatrix imagery. The idea behind a dominatrix is dominance, with the dominatrix herself in control. However, dominatrix pornography is often shot for the benefit of the submissive or a voyeur, and men who hire a dominatrix in real life hold the true power. In paying for the services, they not only hold the power of an employer but also the sexual power: they will set the boundaries, the schedule as well as the acts to be performed for their benefit. Ann’s dominatrix attire therefore further pushes her into the conservative stereotypes at the heart of Persona 5’s view of women. This constant sexualisation of Ann becomes more troubling once we examine the context of her awakening.
In the real world of the game, Ann is being groomed by her gym teacher, while within the fantasy version of Persona 5’s reality, she is being held captive by this teacher. This teacher keeps a double of Ann, half-naked and entirely obedient, as his concubine within the fantasy world. Ann is literally objectified–turned into an object for the teacher to fulfill his darkest desires. While the ‘real’ Ann does not go through this torture, she does witness it when she is captured in the fantasy world. As a consequence, the ‘real’ Ann suffers the real-world consequences of her teacher’s desires: emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse are enacted under the guise of grooming and, in the form of seeing herself being used as a puppet in the service of her abuser’s every whim.
In breaking free from the chains her gym teacher has captured her in, she awakens her Persona, and she—and the player—immediately launches into a turn-based battle. Only once this battle is over, during a cutscene, does Ann fully realize what has happened to her. She reacts with shock and confusion, clearly uncomfortable at the situation as she attempts to cover her exposed cleavage in the red leather catsuit she dons in the fantasy reality. Ann is the only character across the game to react negatively to her awakening. Other characters may be injured or surprised, but none seem unhappy with the arrangement to the degree Ann is. The others, much like Ryuji and Joker, are defined by what they see as positive traits that reflect their personalities and, so, happily accept their role. Ann’s insecurity is in stark contrast to her empowered awakening, moments before when we see her steely eyes aflame with rage, as she shatters the chains which bind her.
Neither the game nor the characters within it give any consideration to the trauma Ann has been put through, besides a violent, zero-sum idea of revenge. Ann ‘wins’ her battle against the gym teacher, and thus since the game no longer has any use for her trauma, it is rendered unimportant. If she suffers any post-traumatic stress, any harm to her development, the game never reveals this to us, despite Ann being a central character whose life is explored in depth.
Similarly, once the teacher has been defeated, Ann continues to be sexualized by the other characters. As with many women in popular media, “nothing must interfere with her position as a sex object,” (Greer, p. 97, 1990). This continues throughout the game. The next band member recruited is Yusuke, who fills the role of ‘the artistic/sensitive one’. He’s NKOTB’s Jonathan Knight, NSync’s Lance Bass, Take That’s Howard Donald. Before Yusuke joins the band, the other members are distrustful of him and hatch a plan to investigate his character–a plan which includes Ann agreeing to pose nude for him. Ann, having just escaped from the abusive clutches of her gym teacher, does not consent to this plan, but Joker and Ryuji make it clear to her that if she does not agree to it, she is no longer in the band. Ann is told, implicitly and occasionally explicitly, that her beauty is the only thing valuable about her.
In a later scene, when the band is riding through the desert, all of them appear sweating with the heat and wearing only thin, light clothes. In the case of Joker, Ryuji, Yusuke, and Makoto, their discomfort is shown by shots of their faces, with them sagged over, exhausted in the heat. Yet, in contrast to Ann’s treatment, Makoto, the other female character that has joined the band by this point, is almost entirely desexualised. As ‘the smart one’, her Persona outfit keeps her covered up and, in real life, she dresses dowdy, wears minimal makeup, has plain looks, is romantically awkward, and keeps a short, sensible haircut. Makoto is the smartest one in the band and, through her family, has links to the police, assets that make her trusted and valued by the other members. Her suggestions are listened to, her advice is heeded, but in return, she is denied much beauty, traditional expressions of femininity, sexuality, or romance. Makoto gets no special focus, unlike Ann. We see Ann’s face in the mirror rather than her face itself, a zoomed-out shot that focuses on her breasts, then an overhead shot which initially shows her bare legs, and then her exposed cleavage as she tugs at her top to release the heat. Plenty of music videos of female pop stars are shot in the same way, framing only the most sexualized body parts, and “the effect is to deny women’s humanity, to present them not as whole people, but as fetishised, dismembered,” (Gill, p. 102, 2015). She’s not even allowed her face to be shown on the screen, only a reflection, putting further barriers between her character as a unified whole and the audience. Ann’s role in the group is further confirmed in this scene when we see all three male band members—particularly Ryuji, who is by far the most dismissive of her—leaning over their seats to ogle down her shirt.
Whenever a new character, particularly a male character, joins the band, they will almost immediately comment on Ann’s outfit and body. She is a character seen first and acknowledged second, continuously reminded of her place and value in the band as, only, ‘the sexy one’. After her initial negative reaction, she appears to grow in confidence; yet, this confidence does not include pushing back against her role but leaning into it instead. As Rosalind Gill writes, in media and advertising, “women are presented not as seeking men’s approval, but as pleasing themselves and in doing so, they just happen to win men’s admiration,” (2015, p. 116). Even as Ann begins to identify with the role she has been given, her basic function in the group–to be looked at– remains intact. It is a repurposed, neoliberal feminism that glorifies capitalistic beauty standards as the apex of femininity. When Droumeva analyzes the early Tomb Raider (Edios, 1996/1999) games, they write “Lara’s exaggerated sexuality and agency serve masculine pleasures,” (2018, p. 240), but this description could just as easily apply to Ann Takamaki. Ann’s dominatrix aesthetic implies she is in control of her sexuality when in reality she is presented as sexualised for the male gaze.
Having a female character being overly sexualised is nothing new for gaming. Droumeva’s example of Lara Croft is one of the most well-known, but she and Ann form part of the rule for women in the medium, not the exception. However, Ann’s depiction is more layered and complex. Her story is rooted in sexual trauma, and Persona 5 has outwardly progressive–or at least, anti-capitalist– politics. She is not just a sexualised female character designed to appeal to AAA gaming’s traditionally male player base, but she is consistently oversexualised, and Persona treats other women in similar, sexualised ways. Despite the fact the first villain is a teacher grooming his high school students, Joker is offered several romantic options in the game, all of whom are female (another conservative choice), and several who are also adults. Their relationship with Joker is never depicted as wrong, even though one of these options is his homeroom teacher, inverting the teacher/student power dynamic of Ann’s grooming to give the male student the power over his female teacher.
Persona 5 labels itself as a game about doing right, with the central characters on a mission to save the world by fixing the evilest hearts in their city, hearts driven by the seven deadly sins. Several of these sins are overtly capitalistic, from greed, through police corruption, to overworking and underpaying employees. However, at an identity level, the game forces its characters, particularly Ann Takamaki, into very conservative boxes. Characters are forced into specific stereotypical roles under the guise of awakening their true self and freedom of expression. As Ann discovers, deviance from this assigned role is impossible. Through the gender politics of pop music, Persona 5 robs Ann Takamaki of any true awakening and perpetually casts her as ‘the sexy one’. As many female pop stars have discovered over the years, being ‘the sexy one’ is a label impossible to shake, especially when sex sells and somebody else profits.