Persona 3 Reload Owes Its Queer Characters More Than Erasure
Removing transphobia shouldn’t mean erasing trans characters.
The Persona series has a long history of homophobia and transphobia, something its queer fans have struggled with for years. In the series’ most recent release this week, Persona 3 Reload, developer Atlus removed an infamous scene mocking a trans woman, but even in its correction, Persona can’t manage to portray a world where trans people deserve respect.
In the troubling original Persona 3 scene, three of the game’s male protagonists flirt with random women on the beach until they find one who’s interested, whom the game dubs “Beautiful Lady.” But upon realizing that she’s trans, the game changes the woman’s onscreen name to “Beautiful Lady?” and the boys panic and misgender her as she insinuates that she’s been looking to hook up with underage guys.
It’s an overtly ugly scene, playing on harmful stereotypes painting trans women in particular as sexual predators — the same rhetoric that’s currently being used by lawmakers to strip real-life trans people of their rights. The supposed humor in the scene comes from the boys’ panic at the sheer existence of a trans person, which was apparently a funny enough joke to be repeated across dozens of stories in different media throughout the ‘90s and 2000s.
As Kotaku first reported and others who’ve played the game confirm, Persona 3 Reload actually gets rid of the transphobic joke entirely (Yay!) by making the character in question no longer trans (Boo!). In the new release, the woman is a conspiracy theorist trying to sell them special sunscreen, and the boys react with the same dismay they did in the original.
Technically, this is a step up. Both as a trans woman and a person with a conscience, I’m glad to at least see a transphobic joke not being repeated, but the way Atlus made its course correction still leaves me feeling awful. On its own, there’s nothing objectionable about the new scene. But once you know that it’s just painting over a transphobic joke, the change feels woefully inadequate.
If the only way Persona 3 Reload can avoid being transphobic is by removing trans people entirely, it’s suggesting that the trans woman was the problem, not the transphobes.
That may not be the message Atlus is explicitly trying to send, but it’s the one that plenty of people will receive. When I see Atlus erasing a person like me rather than just portraying a trans woman with dignity, it says to me that the only way mainstream culture can avoid transphobia is to get rid of all the pesky trans people raising the issue.
Considering Atlus’ history of portraying gay and trans people as predators and punchlines, the solution needs to be more than erasure. Anyone who’s played both the original Persona 3 and Reload knows what’s lurking under that scene’s surface, and the change does nothing to make amends.
As it stands now, Persona remains a deeply homophobic and transphobic series, one where queer people are either objects of ridicule or don’t exist at all. Undoing that image takes active work, not quietly replacing scenes after harm is already done and pretending they were never there. At minimum, Atlus needs to apologize for its consistent transphobia and homophobia — which continues all the way into 2020’s Persona 5 Royal — and there’s an even easier fix for how it could adjust offensive scenes in its games.
Creators can’t just stop attacking trans people now and say that that makes up for the mistakes of the past. But Atlus doesn’t need to write a polemic on queer liberation, and I wouldn’t trust it to. The point isn’t that trans characters can never be shown in a negative light in the media, it’s that their being trans shouldn’t be presented as a flaw, or a joke, or a threat. In the case of Persona 3, that would be as easy as making the woman in the scene a trans woman who’s also hocking expensive scam sunscreen and have the boys react to her sales pitch, not her gender identity.
Given Atlus’ history, it does need to include a positive portrayal of a trans person in its games if it ever wants to counter Persona’s hateful past. But Persona 3 Reload might just not be the place for that. Authentically representing a trans character takes more work than just changing a few lines of dialogue and calling it a day. It means talking to trans people about their experiences, and actually hiring them to help create the character. It means writing a story that resonates with trans people rather than nodding to our existence while speaking to an audience that’s assumed to be cisgender. That’s something that’s rarely been done in blockbuster games, with Apex Legends’ Catalyst — who’s voiced and partially designed by trans women — being probably the most notable exception.
I’m not holding my breath for Atlus to go that far. It’s extremely unlikely that the developer is going to go from one of the worst perpetrators of homophobia and transphobia in games to a role model for queer representation. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask for Atlus to look at the harm it's done and take a small step toward repairing it. Persona’s queer fans deserve at least that much.