Ari is a leftist queerdo, philosophy grad student, and creative writer. Their research interests include migration, liberalism, democracy, secularism and human rights. In their limited free time, they enjoy Magic: the Gathering and collecting bird related objects.
CW: Mentions of abuse, self-harm, suicide, sexual assault.
Part of the reason I began creative writing, way back in grade nine, was because I was dissatisfied with the characters I saw in all media. None of them were really like me in any way, despite what my teachers were telling me. It made me feel as if something was wrong with me. None of them enveloped the trauma I experienced growing up in an abusive home with a broken family. None of them seemed to struggle with gender or sexuality. There was no portrayal of struggling with mental health. I don’t recall an instance of self-harm. The poverty we read about was very different than how I experienced it. It’s like our teachers were hiding — dare I call it — the real world from us. And that resulted in me feeling extremely outcast and isolated. Of course, I have since found copious amounts of media that addresses all these issues. When I was twelve, however, the content I had access to have heavily monitored by my parents and teachers.
So I wrote myself into my stories. I created characters that dealt with the things I did. And I began roleplaying with my friends, where we would pass a notebook to each other and write in our character’s part of the story. It was extremely comforting to not only have my own characters validated but to see my friends write themselves into the stories, too. It was a way to bond, and to reveal our deepest traumas to one another without ever having to say a word. We had characters whose parents beat them, scenes of sexual assault, character suicide over sexual or gender identity. It was therapeutic for me, and one of the only things that I looked forward to in life for a long time. Through the lives of characters I gave birth to, I could relive, re-experience, but most importantly, control various scenarios. If I couldn’t control the real world, I could at least control my imaginary ones.
The Prince(ss) Who Was(n’t)
I don’t have much experience with games. As a kid, I won a GameBoy Advance at a balancing competition and I had three games: Super Mario World Advance 2, Final Fantasy IV, and Final Fantasy V. I played the crap out of all of them; I know these games like the back of my hand. Yet there is one that is my favourite by far: Final Fantasy V. It is not because it has an amazing plot, though I don’t hate it. Nor is it because of the job system, though I love the customization it offers the player. It’s all because of one character: Faris Scherwiz.
Faris is a pirate captain who captures your party when you try to steal their pirate ship, and who later joins your party to become a Warrior of Light. Faris is, in my reading, a non-binary trans man — just like me. You are introduced to Faris as a man – a rude, reckless, selfish man. It is only later in the plot, after a problematic violation of consent, that the player discovers Faris doesn’t have the body expected of a man. After going through the ship graveyard, Faris complains about their wet clothes. Leanna goes to a different room to change, and the two male characters, Bartz and Galuf, do the same. They wonder why Faris (to them, a guy) isn’t changing, so they go and try to force Faris to take off their clothes.
This is when the player and the other party members learn Faris’ secret. This section of the game always made me queasy: being forcefully outed like that is extremely violating, perhaps even traumatic. There are hints to Faris’ queerness before this – specifically in the Torna Canal, where monsters will only attack “female” characters: Faris and Leanna. You also learn that Faris is Leanna Tycoon’s sibling – the princess of Tycoon. After this the game refers to Faris as her.
As a child, this bothered me to no end. I didn’t have the language for it at the time, but I do now: misgendering. All I knew was that it grated me like sandpaper and every instance of “she” I would replace with “he” in my head. I use “they” now because, upon replaying the game, I noticed that Faris refers to themself inconsistently between male and female pronouns and descriptors.
Yet it is clear that Faris thinks of themself as masculine, or at least proudly embodies the traits of stereotypical masculinity. Their level of courage, stubbornness, and self-confidence is often only found in male protagonists (see, for example, shōnen protagonists or superheros, who tend to exemplify exaggerated masculisms). They are also brash, rough-spoken, and a bit domineering. They are what you would expect of a pirate captain and everything you wouldn’t expect of a princess.
I related to that juxtaposition of gender really hard. My deadname is that of a Disney princess. One which everyone would reference, generally via song, upon meeting me. Because of that, my childhood was riddled with exceptionally gendered expectations of me. My parents put me in beauty contests and rodeo queen competitions – some of which I won. My beautiful, long, blonde hair and my “exceptional” smile won me a lot of girl points. I hated it. It was everything I was not. Put me in jeans and a t-shirt, give me a dirtbike and mud. My mother loved to adorn me in pink and bows. I loved ripped and tattered clothes that proved to myself I was active in the world. I was always too loud and too pushy – things girls were criticized for while watching the boys be praised.
But it was more than that juxtaposition of gender that I related to so much. Faris also has a difficult time expressing their emotions, another trait I relate to. For Faris, I believe it is because they embody what they perceive as masculine. In order to fit in, Faris likely felt pressured to conform to gendered standards as a survival tactic, a sort of social camouflage. And as feminists know, male socialization teaches that some feelings, such as being sad or vulnerable, are signs of weakness and feminine. Other feelings, such as aggression, are praised. So it seems obvious to me why Faris would have a hard time. My own difficulty stems from abuse, where I was also taught that most feelings are a weakness, though perhaps a weakness in a different way.
Over the course of the game, Faris does develop into a variety of things – an older sibling, a comrade, a fighter for the world. Fighting for a cause they believe in builds an unbreakable bond between Faris and the other three characters. Being shown a space where it is (relatively) safe to be themself, Faris blossoms. Being reunited with a long lost sibling, Faris matures. They lose their selfishness and learn about personal responsibility. Though a natural leader, Faris develops the skills needed to work in a group, and often drives the group forward. The player sees Faris overcome great challenges and difficult situations, and these are where we see Faris develop the most. They learn to cultivate their negative energies and use them as fuel to reach their goals. I feel that I have grown in these ways, too, and in finding and embodying compassion and developing intimacies.
In Final Fantasy V, the four main characters each symbolize one of the four crystals that bring the world peace and prosperity, sealing the evil sorcerer, Exdeath. Faris is representative of the crystal of fire. This can mean many things, such as consumption, warmth, illumination, pain, birth and death. But for me, it symbolized anger and hope. On the negative side, this wish for the ability to burn the world down. This was how I coped with my emotions for many, many years. I would turn something I couldn’t understand into something I could: anger. I see anger in Faris; anger at abandonment, anger at having to hide your body for fear of violence, anger at losing what is most precious and dear to you. On the positive side, I also understood the crystal of fire to symbolize hope. To burn the old in order to welcome the new and the ability to create the world that I wanted to see, the ability to ease suffering.
Even in the darkest parts of my life, where I actively tried to commit suicide, I held on to hope. Faris holds on to hope, too. Faris decides to take the world into their own hands – with the help of some friends, of course – and save what they care about and love. I see queerness working in the same way: hope that is resistance to the status quo. Where just existing is a threat to power and where being active means dismantling the systems that are in place. Despite defeat after defeat at saving the crystals, they hope, and they fight in the name of that hope. And despite defeat after defeat in small ways (when we are assumed straight, or misgendered, or deadnamed) and large (restrictive laws and policies), queers hold on to hope and fight in the name of that hope. In the end, Faris is victorious. And in the end, I believe queers will be victorious, too.
Even the ending of the game speaks to queerness for me. Faris is given the option to regain their status as royalty. But they hate it, the roles they’re expected to conform to with the rigid political duty that being a monarch brings. In the end, Faris decides to go back to being a pirate captain. I see this as Faris choosing queerness. A queer family, a queer identity. Choosing to be with those you love, despite being a social outcast for it, despite those you love being social outcasts themselves. Finding a community that trusts and supports you, validates your identity, enables you to be your true self. Those who can relate and truly empathize with the pains that being queer in our society means bearing. A bond that, to me, is stronger than that of siblings or even lovers. Truly, a queer family is made of comrades: siblings that cannot be torn apart, who love fiercely and unapologetically, and who fight together against injustice and oppression. This reminds me of a quote from my favourite novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, speaking on camaraderie:
I am no longer a shuddering speck of existence, alone in the darkness; — I belong to them and they to me; we all share the same fear and the same life, we are nearer than lovers, in a simpler, a harder way; I could bury my face in them, in these voices, these words that have saved me and will stand by me (212).
As the embodiment of all the things I am and all the things I did not have the language for, Faris is the most relatable character I have ever found in a work of art, even down to the detail of being adopted. “What would Faris do?” is a genuine question I have asked myself. In the first novel I ever wrote, I named my very genderqueer protagonist Faris and drew character traits from the pirate captain. If a character in such a popular game series could be at least be read as trans by a young and confused player, I could be trans and the world just might accept me. Faris helped me to accept who I am despite the body and social roles I have been given, showed me how to not care what others think, and allowed me for the first time to feel happy and comfortable to tell the world “I am not a girl.”