Trigger warning: emotional abuse.
This might seem familiar.
You’re ten years old, and you pick up this new Thing. Maybe it’s a book, or an album, or a video game. You read voraciously, you listen avidly, you play obsessively. You burn through it over and over, and even though you eventually put it down, it never quite stops echoing in your mind. For whatever reason, and there must be a reason, you can’t stop thinking about it.
And then one day, you find someone talking about your Thing. You’ve never met them, but they speak the language of a shared obsession. They talk about your Thing in a way you’ve never heard before, and old, dusty gears in your mind creak to life, and you understand why your Thing was so important to you all along.
And you maybe have a point of your own.
This article is a response to Ashe Samuels’ brilliant Femhype article on Final Fantasy X’‘s narrative on toxic masculinity – the destructive ideas our conception of manliness instills in cisgender men – fifteen years before the the idea rose into public consciousness. The game captured my imagination as a kid and never really left it – and Samuels’ article finally showed me why.
As Samuels explains, the protagonist Tidus is a near-perfect antidote to toxic masculinity. His story is a kind story, a warm story, a story of becoming the kind of person he ought to be – a kind of story that remains distressingly rare on game-store shelves, which remain the habitat of grizzled antiheroes with improbable physiques.
A typical game store. (Source)
A kind, emotive young man, Tidus grows up tormented by abusive father, Jecht. Tidus is a giant weepy fuzzball by nature, and everyone can see it – but the only one to ever mock him for it is Jecht himself. Uprooted from his home Zanarkand, Tidus finds himself in the land of Spira, where he slowly comes to terms with emotional scars his father dealt him. He finds validity in his anger and confidence in his softness. He becomes a better person by embracing his softness as its own kind of strength.
But that’s only half the story.
SPOILERS: From here on out, there will be ending spoilers for Final Fantasy X. If you want to avoid them, turn back now!
Even as Tidus wrestles with his past, a greater threat looms. For a thousand years, a sea monster named Sin has ravaged the coastal land of Spira. Sin has one weakness: if a summoner-priest of the Church of Yevon completes a ritual at the end of a certain pilgrimage, they can summon a being called the Final Aeon to destroy it…but only for a little while. After a year or five of Calm, Sin always comes back. Yevon preaches that one day, when people’s hearts are free of evil, Sin will depart and an Eternal Calm will begin – but until then, it helps the people hold onto hope.
Sin and Tidus. (Source)
“Tidus’ narrative framing of recovering from abuse balances perfectly with the end-of-the-world plot of trying to destroy the massive monster Sin,” says Samuels – and I agree. But more, they build on each other. As we watch the same ideas play out between individuals and across societies, the line between them blurs until we realize that our smallest choices and our biggest ones really aren’t any different.
The main cast are all driven by traumas dealt by the world around them – a whirling blend of personal abuse, systemic racism, loss, and social pressure that has pushed the summoner Yuna and her six guardians (Tidus included) to take on a traditional, impossible quest. And the summoner’s pilgrimage is impossible: an impossible path, laid out for those whose lives are impossibilities.
Many die on the pilgrimage, and in a successful one, the summoner and one guardian always die. More, defeating Sin is itself a futile endeavor – not just because it always returns, but because as we learn in a wrenching twist, the very nature of the ritual used to defeat Sin ensures its rebirth. It turns out that’s no mistake.
The Church of Yevon’s power hinges on the people’s’ hope that Sin will die – which means that if Sin ever actually dies, it loses that power. To preserve itself, Yevon does all it can to preserve Sin, and the summoner’s pilgrimage is instrumental to its scheme.
Part spiritual journey, part grim necessity, the pilgrimage offers hope to the people of Spira, a path of honorable exile to social outcasts – and a powerful tool to the Church of Yevon. The tradition of the pilgrimage not only diverts those who might try to kill Sin onto a futile path, but directly perpetuates the order it’s supposed to end by bolstering the people’s faith in the Church and ensuring Sin will return.
PRAISE BE TO YEVON. [Source]
In the end Sin and Yevon turn out to be two sides of the same coin, with an endless parade of doomed summoners as the glue that holds them together. The wild swings and contradictions built into this system – the years of horror and moments of peace, the distant hope and looming terror, the victim-blaming promise that if Spirans are “good enough”, the cycle will end – are calculated injections of chaos which stabilize the system.
In short, the Spiran status quo is a classic cycle of abuse, magnified across an entire society. What Jecht does to Tidus on a personal level, Yevon does on a social level. The thematic parallels between the two storylines weave the personal narrative into the political and the political narrative into the personal.
The twin histories of Sin and Yevon and of Tidus and Jecht slowly grow together, and learning the true nature of the ritual to defeat Sin hammers the link home. A guardian offers up their life to become the Final Aeon, which destroys Sin – then, after a dormant period, becomes Sin itself. The last Final Aeon was none other than Jecht.
Jecht is Sin. The scourge of Tidus’s world is the scourge of the entire world. Tidus’s struggle with his father becomes the struggle with Sin. Tidus and Jecht remark on that sameness in one bitter exchange:
JECHT: You’ve really grown.
TIDUS: Yeah, but you’re still bigger.
JECHT: Well, I am Sin, you know.
TIDUS: That’s not funny.
But if the two problems are the same, then their solutions are also the same. If Tidus can resolve his past with his father, his friends and allies can work together to destroy Sin for good – which turns out to be key in the final battle.
Tidus remembers that Jecht used love a certain song – a song we’ve heard over and over again as a sacred hymn. By coordinating as many people as possible to play it loud enough for even the monster to hear, by voices and instruments and loudspeakers all raised into a chorus, they manage to pacify Sin, to pacify Jecht. To kill the monster, they soothe the man inside.
Then they ram it with an airship. That helps too. (Source)
Learning a family member is secretly an antagonist is about as classic as twists get – I could practically hear a distant chuckle from Darth Vader at this point. But there’s a reason this kind of twist is so familiar: it works. Because Jecht is Sin, the personal is the political: healing the world and healing Tidus’s relationship with his father are the same act.
One act of kindness smashes a millennium of injustice. The new world starts there.
As Ashe Samuels points out, heroes like Tidus matter. They teach us that it’s okay to feel, it’s okay to care for others and for ourselves, and it’s okay to be angry at those who have hurt us. We might forgive, or we might not – what matters is that we keep moving forward.
But stories like Tidus’s matter too. They matter because the big and the small, the personal and the political, really aren’t any different. As in real life, abuse is as much a political choice as a personal one: the choice to align yourself with a culture where breaking down others so you can feel superior is more masculine, more ideal, than addressing your own problems. And as in real life, the choice to be grow beyond that culture, to strive to be better, is both a political and a personal one.
Stories like Tidus’s matter because grand injustices are made up of little injustices. We perpetuate them not by choosing, but by not choosing; not by grand acts of villainy, but by allowing a toxic culture to dictate our actions. Or if we reject them, we reject them inch by inch, by the tiny motions that make up a movement.
To fix the world, we have to fix ourselves.