I didn’t play the original Final Fantasy VII, but it was such an important game that I couldn’t help be aware of its mythos. I knew the characters, the key plot points, the themes… it was something of a ‘Bruce Willis is a ghost’ sort of game.
The most significant thing that I knew was that Cloud crossdressed for a mission. I was unaware of the context of the mission, but in the aftermath of playing the Final Fantasy VII Remake, I discovered the original mission was deeply problematic. Loaded with homophobic imagery, the mission poked fun not only at Cloud’s crossdressing, but at the queer folk in the Wall Market in general. While the 2020 version keeps the humour, it comes from Cloud’s own discomfort and Aerith’s gentle teasing, rather than at the very idea that a person should challenge gender norms through their clothes, behaviour or interests.
As a trans woman, I’ve always found crossdressing endlessly fascinating. It’s a threshold all trans woman cross, either consciously or not. Simply by dressing how we identify, our own gender moves around us until we move at some mystical, unknown point, from being crossdressers to being women. There is plenty of fan canon, both tongue in cheek and more serious, which paints Cloud as gay, bisexual or transgender, both by virtue of this scene and the Big Bisexual EnergyTM of the game in general. I’m not here to go all Nintendo-Flick & CJ on you, but that view of Cloud didn’t fly for me. To be honest, I’d rather it wasn’t true. I’m more than happy to fan canon other characters into being transgender, be they Gene Belcher, Bayonetta, Byleth, Sombra or Mrs Frizzle. But I don’t want Cloud to be trans; in fact I need him to be a crossdresser.
Cloud challenges the gender norms of his situation in far more ways than simply pulling on a dress. Being trans erases these challenges, or at the very least significantly changes the context. Transing a character in fan canon is an act of rebellion. Oh, you have a Makoto Nijima body pillow? She’s trans now. Because I said so. Transing Cloud though feels less like rebellion and more like submission to the gender norms fan canon transing is supposed to subvert. Transing Cloud because you want to and nobody can stop you? Fair game. Transing Cloud because he puts on a dress and doesn’t subscribe to the typical hyper masculine ideal of a video game protagonist? Yeah, maybe don’t do that.
Unburdened by the problematic context of the original Wall Market scene, as I played Remake I was excited to reach the crossdressing scene with Cloud. Over the course of the game though, I realised Cloud had much more to say about gender than simply putting on a dress.
Cloud begins the game as a fairly typical merc, just there for the money, not the cause. Though he does have a more lithe, androgynous design – especially shorn of the blocky polygons of 1997 – Cloud’s approach to problems is to hit them with a sword. His stoic, angsty persona fits firmly in the realm of classic video game protagonist archetypes. If anything, it’s Barrett who most challenges gender stereotypes, showing care for the environment and a love of nature. This is the slimmest of praise though; Barrett expresses this care in a hyper masculine, bullets solve all your problems way, wrapped up in a Mr T, blaxploitation style delivery. There is more to Barrett’s character than this (his role as a father and father figure, the way he has turned his disability into a strength…), but as the game begins it seems very much like two typical masculine video game protagonists. While they display different shades of masculinity, both of them solve their problems with violence and have an emotional range which consists only of various degrees of anger.
As the game progresses however, Cloud shows more of his hand, and moves away from these stereotypically masculine traits.
This is not to say that men can’t be caring, or even that it’s not a masculine trait to be considerate of others. But as Cloud is drawn into Avalanche, begins to believe in their cause and helps out those around him, his walls come down. Moving away from a masculine stereotype doesn’t necessarily mean becoming feminine, or even being less masculine; it simply means expressing that masculinity in less than typical ways. In Chapter 3, Cloud needs to help Tifa around town. Some of these tasks see Cloud in the usual, violent, kill the monsters to show off your manhood role, but others see him fetching lost cats. Likewise, when he meets Aerith in Chapter 8, his first job is to protect her in a boss battle against Reno, casting her as a damsel and he her knight in shining armour.
By the chapter’s end, however, in Chapter 8’s second boss battle against Rude, Cloud’s attacks are largely ineffective and he in turn needs to be rescued by Aerith. From that point until Aerith leaves the party, she is in the driving seat. No, Cloud isn’t trans, and he doesn’t ‘yas queen’ down gender barriers by smashing the binary or rocking the cistem. But he does challenge the norms of what it means to be a man in a video game, and characters who move the goalposts by inches can be more important than those who move them by miles. Cloud’s subversion is not so extreme that it turns people away, but instead welcomes everyone in to this new, more enlightened definition of heroic masculinity: one which includes caring for others and understanding that sometimes the best man for the job is a woman.
This all comes to a head at The Honeybee Inn, but not simply because Cloud puts on a dress. It’s not only the dress which puts Cloud in an feminine space. Andrea tells Cloud the Inn is a place “where notions of gender don’t apply,” and we see that come to life with every second Cloud spends in there. He wears the dress with limited protests, but also dances with grace and poise, seemingly without embarrassment or reservation. As the dance comes to an end, he’s held tightly by a gay man, the camera zooming in with their faces kissably close. It’s not a scene played for mockery or humour, there’s no gay predator tones, and Cloud does not resist being placed in what the binary would label the ‘woman’s place’.
There’s a thousand ways to wear a dress, but Cloud truly wears his like a man… whatever that means these days.