Saturday, February 22, 2014

Jamie (Harvest Moon) and the Marriage of Opposites

Expanding the focus from strictly anime to animesque videogames may serve well for a wider perspective on androgyny.  In such an equally-"animated" medium, characterization occurs not only through visual design, action, and voice, but also through one last critical dimension of interactivity.  In this medium, the player's position necessarily affects the story's reality.

There are plenty of games with amazing androgynes to offer in this light of player-guided mutability, which inherently opens doors to exploring themes of ambiguous identity.  One example that doesn't get nearly enough attention is a particular console installment of a niche farming RPG, Harvest Moon: Magical Melody (2006).

Wait!  Don't tune out at the childish title and chibi style!  While admittedly targeting a young demographic, the game offers some genuinely valuable morals and genuinely unique implications about gender.

See that ambiguous figure... on the fence there?  That's Jamie.  Jamie is the aptly-unisex name of the single most important androgynous character in the history of androgynous characters, so listen up.

...Er, and I say that as an objective reporter.

I-it's not like Jamie is my personal favorite character in all of fiction, or anything.  Hmph!

Harvest Moon is a long-running franchise of easy-paced simulators about – of all things – life on a farm, and about all the honest hard work that goes into being a good farmer and a good neighbor.  Representing the epitome of small-town traditional values, it would seem hard to call the series progressive or innovative, especially in terms of gender.

Arguably, the series's main attraction is not its farming premise but its supplementary marriage feature, allowing a player to woo and marry any of several eligible townsfolk of their avatar's opposite sex.  A common topic of controversy among fans is the idea of implementing same-sex marriage options in future series installments, which has yet to be fulfilled.  Even so, Magical Melody accomplishes something comparably significant with regards to promoting an ideology of equal opportunity in gendered relationships:  It offers the only character in the series to be marriageable by either a male or a female protagonist.

(official art scans from HM Meadow)

In Magical Melody, the player's character (optionally represented by either a male or a female avatar) moves to the pastoral Flower Bud Village with the intent to start up a farm  only to find that the village's patron deity, the harvest goddess, is in need of his or her help.  The goddess has turned to stone because the people of the village "forgot the heart to believe, the heart to love, and [her] existence."  It's necessary to collect a variety of "Musical Notes," tokens unlocked through various gameplay-related achievements and good deeds, in order to play the "magical melody" that will bring her back to life.

Besides the player-protagonist, there is one other individual in town who hasn't "forgotten": a mysterious, poncho-clad, lone-wolf rancher named Jamie who is extremely angsty and bitter over what happened to the goddess, and sweepingly distrustful of the horrible "humans" who caused her fate.  ("Humans"?  But isn't Jamie a  Well, with that unusual purple hair and obsession with the goddess, being divinely related to her is a possibility that's never confirmed or denied.)  All you know about the character is that Jamie loves the goddess and hates everybody else.  You don't know Jamie's history, and of course you don't know Jamie's gender.

Just looking at visual design, I'd bet the average American polled on the street, unfamiliar with Harvest Moon, would guess Jamie to be female.  I mean, look at that soft face and girly color scheme, right?  Yet, the large majority of series fans on the Internet talk about "him" with masculine pronouns, and generally view "him" as a male by default.  The discrepancy might have a bit to do with the majority of those fans being female.  It also has to do with an attunement to Japanese anime-stylized media, which tend to uphold an androgynous model of male beauty, by which standards for evaluating the same visual traits prove relatively different.

Standards for evaluating any trait are rather relative.  The theme of Jamie's character is contradiction, both internal and external.  Jamie has at once a hot head and a cold shoulder, interactions with the player bouncing between aggressive competitiveness and apathetic rejection. Jamie is at once "human" and has some sort of literal god-complex, if not actually divine descent.  Jamie runs at once on spiritual faith and on pragmatic realism, speaks at once with an air of arrogance and with a "meek heart."  And so, combining the characteristics of femininity and masculinity comes naturally to a character already fraught with apparent contradictions.  For instance, Jamie's brand of hostility may translate to some as masculine behavior, yet also falls under the female-originating, largely female-applied anime archetype of the tsundere (i.e. "Hmph!  It's not like I like you or anything!" – a trope that invokes a contradiction of love and hate in itself).  Overall, it's difficult to justify a solid bias toward either gender.

Externally, the opposition exists between the primarily pessimistic Jamie and the primarily optimistic player-protagonist, who get to be involved in a close-knit rivalry.  Besides being pitted against you in every other aspect of gameplay, from farming to fishing to festivals, Jamie is above all determined to collect Musical Notes for the goddess without your help.  But since many Notes are earned from social activities in which Jamie desires no part, it's not much of a surprise (to anyone but Jamie proper) that Jamie's song alone won't be enough to save the day...

For such a laid-back and friendly series whose games usually feature no explicit enemies, Jamie can easily be called the antagonist here.  Does that mean a lack of gender is being compared with a lack of sympathy, or sociability, or humanity?  Much like in Crona's case, that's how it starts, but is subverted.  Jamie isn't just an antagonist.  With good intentions but a bad attitude, Jamie is a rival... and, ultimately, a potential partner.  If Jamie's internal "marriage" of contradictory traits wasn't enough to prove that "opposites attract," then the external relationship with the player surely will.

Through the right amount of effort and patience and affection, the player-protagonist can slowly win Jamie's respect, Jamie's trust, and Jamie's heart.  After fulfilling an advanced set of requirements over those of the normal bachelor/ettes, and building up a sincere friendship, you can propose to and marry Jamie.

Here's where it gets weird.  As it turns out, Jamie magically "becomes" male if the protagonist is female, and female if the protagonist is male.  But it's important that the trajectory of the story is identical regardless of the gendered situation. Jamie is not a different character in either case, acting exactly the same, absolutely no visual details nor lines of dialogue altered.   At the wedding, this is the only image you ever see of either a "male" or a "female" Jamie.

While this last-minute wedding wardrobe technically can be said to uphold Harvest Moon's heterosexual marriage pattern, this is still an excellent use of gender as something aesthetically symbolic ("opposites attract"), while removing its restrictive standards.  Jamie's gender does not exclude him/her from marrying anyone nor anyone from marrying him/her.  The relationship is equally meaningful regardless of either's gender.

Jamie is a fully canonical androgyne whose gendered reality actually changes depending on the chosen gender of the player him- or herself: a unique situation unreplicated, indeed unable to be replicated, in any anime or manga.  That's what makes videogames like this such an interesting medium for androgyny.  The player's own perception can truly change the reality.

Perception changes reality.  That in itself is a great attitude for fostering acceptance and equality, and it's precisely the lesson Jamie learns in the game:  With the right mindset, things so often perceived as opposites need not be so mutually exclusive.  You and the person you thought to be your enemy can be compatible after all.  A rival and a partner can coexist in the same individual.  Similarly, even opposites like "male" and "female" can thus coexist.

Like Schrödinger's cat, Jamie is one entity with two potential realities, and therefore concludable as both at once.  Think about that.  There are a lot of interesting implications behind that sort of "androgynous potential," the idea that people have more than one truth in them.  More than one-Note characters.

"There is a way," says the goddess, "to live happily ever after..."


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  2. The newest Harvest Moon game has an androgynous character.