Persona 5 could say a lot more if it didn't constantly objectify Ann
Content warning: This article contains spoilers for Persona 5 and discusses suicide, sexual abuse, and harassment.
The Persona series has never shied away from making a statement. While the previous games have tackled subjects like identity, gender expression, and sexuality, Persona 5 goes further and deeper into those subjects while also touching upon gender inequality, systematic oppression, and freedom in its main story -- and how those all intersect.
Despite this, the way Persona 5 chooses to treat its female characters can be galling, particularly in its objectification of Ann Takamaki. As the game’s most visible female character, not only is the way she’s presented often eyeroll-worthy, it’s also at odds with its own themes, undercutting the maturity with which it handles most of them. It is a game that discusses sexism and objectification but lacks the self-awareness to realize how it treats its own characters.
Persona 5 centers on a group of teenagers known as the Phantom Thieves. With the help of a smartphone app, these teens can enter an alternate plane of existence known as the Metaverse, where they can influence corrupt individuals into confessing their crimes in the real world. The game’s first arc revolves around Kamoshida, a high school teacher who abuses the students on his volleyball team – including Ann’s best friend, Shiho Suzui. Ann, the protagonist’s classmate and a teenage fashion model, watches helplessly as Shiho increasingly shows signs of physical abuse. The abuse escalates and it is heavily implied that Kamoshida rapes Shiho, which prompts her to try to commit suicide by jumping off the school’s roof.
After Shiho’s suicide attempt, Ann volunteers to help the protagonist and his friend, Ryuji Sakamoto, stop Kamoshida. Ryuji rejects her help, but she slips into the Metaverse anyway and is soon captured by Shadow Kamoshida’s men. After the player rescues her, Ann awakens to her Persona, and it is also here where the problems begin. This is the scene in question:
Ann’s awakening is explicitly sexual and objectifying in nature. The camera pans up her body as she fights against her restraints, closing in on her pelvis and her chest. She wails and practically moans. Her mouth drops wide open and is filled with saliva that drops down to her chin. The game makes sure that you notice this by offering a gratuitous shot of her mouth.
Videogames have a history of minimizing women's pain by making it sound or appear sexual.
It’s worth mentioning that while it could be a sign of extreme pain, and that Ryuji also experiences this in his own awakening, there is a key difference between the two scenes. While Ryuji’s pain is treated as what it is, Ann’s pain is not.
Historically, women's pain has been dehumanized by being sexualized in the media, including in videogames. One of the most infamous examples of this is the controversy that surrounded an ad for Hitman: Blood Money, in which a brutally murdered woman is portrayed in a sexualized pose and outfit below a caption that reads “beautifully executed.” It isn’t the only advertisement from the marketing campaign that did that, either. Generally, videogames have a history of minimizing women’s pain by making it sound or appear sexual, using sexual violence to increase drama, and many more instances that have been the subject of analysis.
Ann’s pain is portrayed in an overtly sexual manner, even culminating in what seems to be an orgasm, which is when her Persona emerges. As she points to Kamoshida and swears to make him pay, her words are fighting ones, but their impact doesn’t land properly because the sexual aspects of this scene aren’t erotic things that Ann willingly performs. While the dialogue tries to frame it all in an empowering manner, its visual presentation and actual execution isn’t. It’s incredibly jarring when, right after she awakens to her Persona, she tells Shadow Kamoshida’s minion, “That dirtbag [Kamoshida] just sees women as sexual outlets!”
Ironically, the game then proceeds to allow you to control her for the first time, and her battle pose shows her slightly bent forward, her behind presented toward the viewer. Once the battle is over, Ann looks down at her outfit and, seeing how revealing it is, tries to cover herself in a panic. You as the player have the option of either telling her that she should just calm down or to not worry because she looks great; both options invalidate her feelings.
While all the other characters in the party appear to like or at least not mind their Phantom Thieves outfits -- since the point to their appearances in the Metaverse is that they are reflections of their true selves -- Ann clearly feels uncomfortable with hers. If her being in a skin-tight catsuit is her “true” self, then why is she so clearly not a fan of it? This discomfort is a running gag throughout the game: she’ll reiterate her dislike while traveling through the game’s recurring dungeon, Mementos; later, there’s an animated cutscene where male characters ogle Ann’s chest inside a hot car. Her discomfort is never taken as a serious issue. It’s a humorous point -- a joke.
If [Ann's] skin-tight catsuit is her "true" self, then why is she so clearly not a fan of it?
This treatment is not limited to player dialogue options or “crude” characters like Ryuji. Even Morgana, a cat with little knowledge of human social norms, swoons over Ann and participates in the ogling. Another party member, Yusuke Kitagawa, stalks Ann for days and even tries to blackmail her into posing nude for one of his paintings. Neither of these characters’ invasive behavior is ever addressed. While the game constantly points out how attractive Ann is, it does so in a way that implies women who have a certain body type or wear a certain outfit can’t expect men not to stare at them, even if it’s rude and disrespectful. The male protagonists in this game might not physically assault her, but the various ways in which Ann’s body is presented as something men are welcomed and expected to sexualize reflects the same attitudes that lead to real-life harassment and assault. It’s what, in many cases, leads to monsters like Kamoshida.
Persona 5 falls back on harmful tropes like that one quite often – and it has fun doing so. The game has multiple beach scenes, a characteristic it shares with past entries in the series, but even outside these, there is an occasion where Ryuji coerces the girls in the party into wearing swimsuits to seduce a nobleman. It is, we’re told, the only way to complete the mission.
Now, it’s not like these scenes were made with the intention of being sexist; they’re meant to be humorous. And here is where the problem lies: the game tells us it’s funny to see teenage girls forced to unwillingly participate in their objectification. Throughout this scene, these girls reiterate that they are uncomfortable, hate the situation, and want to go home. It all falls back on this trope that a woman – or in this case, underage girls – expressing discomfort with a situation is amusing, not something to be taken seriously. At the end of the scene, Ann is able to reclaim some semblance of agency when she calls the nobleman a pervert, but it feels cheap after everything that she’s had to endure thus far.
The sexism she faces is never seriously and maturely addressed, neither in the main story nor in side missions.
If Ann’s sexualization were rebuffed elsewhere in the game, this all may have come across very differently. But her objections and obvious discomfort never rise above the level of a joke. Fighting against or even expressing her hate for the sexism she faces is never seriously and maturely addressed, neither in the main story nor in side missions. Her Confidant arc, which is fairly well-written, focuses on her heartwarming friendship with Shiho and her inspiring dedication to her modeling career, but it never touches upon her sexuality and agency, or lack thereof. She's not sexualized because it ties in with her character in any way - it's done for little reason other than the fact that she's considered attractive.
While nothing in this world is apolitical, Persona 5 is proud of how relentlessly political it is. It sees itself as a progressive game about discarding society’s expectations and living as the person you truly wish to be. But the game’s constant objectification of Ann, and to a lesser extent other female party members Makoto, Haru, and Futaba, hinders what it has to say. The game discusses sexism and agency, but on more than one occasion it fails to recognize that its treatment of Ann isn’t much different than how Kamoshida treats his female students.
After finishing Persona 5, I immediately remembered that when asked about whether true friendship between people of another sex can happen, producer-director Katsura Hashino responded: “I’ve never successfully forged a true friendship with a girl in real life. I guess that means we couldn’t implement it into the game because we don’t know what it’s like.” Suddenly, Ann’s treatment made a lot more sense to me.
Now that Hashino has announced his intentions to leave the series, I can’t help but hope that Persona’s next director will commit to improving the series’ portrayal of women. Atlus could start by bringing in more women earlier in the process and making them pivotal to Persona’s writing and direction – if Hashino’s inability to imagine friendships with women informed the direction with the series, it follows that bringing in new perspectives can only help the next game’s development. Women need to be in positions that can shape these games because they can point out problems of representation that men may overlook, and address them before a game hits the shelves.
Persona 5 was an honest attempt at a more nuanced representation for women, albeit a sloppy one. I can only hope that none of the female characters in the next installment get treated like Ann is. If Persona 5 is about how we must break free of society’s expectations, then it missed a huge opportunity in driving that point home by reducing its most visible female character to a perpetual piece of fan service.