Aerith Gainsborough is Not Helpless – A Cleric’s Lament

This post is a response to episode 679 of the podcast “This American Life” where the podcaster Lina Misitzis (@lmisitzis) wrongly categorized Aerith as a girl who needs saving.

For those of you who are unaware, Aerith Gainsborough is a character from the classic video game Final Fantasy VII (FFVII) (1997 – Squaresoft), which is getting a remake, set to be released March 2020 (Square Enix). She’s a playable character who eventually joins the group’s ranks as the white mage (cleric in Dungeons & Dragon terms).

Those of us who played this game when it came out, invested the long hours and weeks to get through the role playing game story line, became tied to the characters we played, similar to those reading a book become invested in the main characters or in film for the same reason. The more you spend with your team, developing each character, strengthening them, honing their gear and specialties to pair with your game play, delving into their story arcs, the more important they become to you.

It became quite upsetting when Lina mentioned on the podcast how ridiculous the character was due to the fact that she needed to be saved all the time and how Aerith’s death was completely overblown by the multitude of fans worldwide that played the game, incorrectly believing all of these were male. Lina’s and Ira Glass’ bias was based on several levels of ignorance and prejudice (prompted more than likely toward her own brother, who she actually belittled during the episode for his own emotional connection toward the death), yet did little into delving through the game play themselves, to know where all of us were coming from… and the sexist bias is wholly incorrect – all fans, male and female, were taken aback by Aerith’s death, which brings me to this declaration:

Aerith Gainsborough was never helpless.

For those who have never played any kind of role playing game before, to understand the current topic at hand, all you need to know is the following:

  • All characters come with numerical stats to dictated how well they are at certain jobs, for example:
    • Fighters have high dexterity.
    • Paladins have high strength.
    • Bards have high charisma.
    • Wizards have high intelligence.
    • Clerics have high wisdom.
  • Stats will normally not be even across the board, so for a fighter, you would pour all your points into advancing your dexterity, but your other stats will suffer, and visa versa.
  • Dexterity, strength, and charisma are generally used for front line attack/support characters.
  • Intelligence and wisdom are normally reserved for back line attack/support characters.

For a well rounded team, you generally need a healer. Aerith was the main healer for FFVII. As her stats go, she was one of the strongest in magical power when developed fully, yet like many other white mage/cleric types, not the strongest short range fighter/defender. Her permanent death in the game, which, during that time was unheard of to have a main playable character die permanently mid-game, was as devastating as the death of Ned Stark at the end of season 1 Game of Thrones. She was the main love interest of the main male protagonist, Cloud, and to be emotionally set up like that two-thirds into the game, then have that severed by a starling death was traumatizing for many.

But that’s not the entire issue.

Aerith wasn’t physically weak because she was a female, she was susceptible to damage because she was a white mage/cleric. Just as a financial investor maybe absolutely fantastic in the stock market, they may have little to no chance on a basketball court against a pro-athlete. Your stats are honed toward your job description and have nothing to do with sexual orientation. Final Fantasy has been known to create strong female characters in their franchises, making many of their main characters female, even one game lead by an all female team. To believe that the women character was weak in the same game where another female character is a fierce fighter (Tifa) is both ignorant and prejudicial and speaks against the multitude of game creators out there and their female fan base.

Strength isn’t the only stat out there.

This debate comes up quite often when I used to start a new campaign. You will always have one person who argues that strength is the most important stat and would always lean toward Paladin/Barbarian types of characters. Players like myself, who would lean toward Clerics would be on the opposite end of that spectrum. Yes, a strong front line is important, but that doesn’t mean a back line support isn’t just as important. It’s those who can heal you when you’re down to nothing, cure you when you’re poisoned, cast a shield spell when facing down a rain of magic missiles, and turn undead when you’re surrounded that deserve some love and respect.

Yes, they aren’t made to deal fatal/critical damage. Yes, they generally do not wield sharp weapons (staves and hammers normally). Yes, they are traditionally weak against physical attacks, but their area of expertise outweigh their shortcomings.

Don’t assume all video game players are male.

Don’t assume all video game female characters are helpless.

Don’t assume strength is the only stat important in gaming.

Don’t assume those who are physically weak cannot be strong.

Do your research, don’t assume.