Spoilers: Detailed discussion of plot points for the entire Kingdom Hearts franchise, including the end of Kingdom Hearts III.
The first Kingdom Hearts game launched just over seventeen years ago, and I’ve been an avid fan and sometimes-apologist of the series ever since. Despite its (in)famously convoluted storyline, the character relationships and emotional blend of melancholy, hope, and heart-on-sleeve sincerity has kept me captivated into adulthood. Because, really, who cares about plot holes when you’re watching a cutscene through a veil of tears?
Needless to say, I was elated when the mythical Kingdom Hearts III finally dropped this year. I couldn’t wait to see the many stories come to a dramatic close and all the tragedy children get the endings they deserved. I wanted so badly to adore it.
And while there was a lot to enjoy (the gameplay, the graphics, most of the worlds, everything involving Axel), there was just as much that left me frustrated—and all of it linked back to the way the game treated its most prominent female characters. Kingdom Hearts’s cast and audience may have grown up, but its tired “boy saves girl” gender politics remain just as outdated as they were when the franchise first launched.
From Zero to Hero: Seventeen years of leveling up
Released in 2002, the original Kingdom Hearts was almost comically old-fashioned. The conflict centered around a gang of Disney villains trying to capture the “Seven Princesses of Heart” (love interest Kairi and a bunch of Disney gals) so they could use them to unlock the door to the legendary “Kingdom Hearts.” Barring a few exceptions (such as the manipulative Maleficent and the party member Ariel), the ladies in KH1 were mostly comatose damsels, literal objects for the heroes and villains to obtain.
Even as a teen this didn’t sit well with me, but over the years the franchise began to make slow, steady strides towards fixing its gender imbalances. Kairi returns at the end of Kingdom Hearts II as a novice keyblade wielder, suggesting her role would expand in future games. Supporting characters Namine and Xion, while ultimately sacrificing themselves for the protagonists, play active roles in their stories and deal with their own identity crises.
Birth By Sleep was the real turning point for the franchise, though, as Kingdom Hearts finally introduced a female player-character in Aqua, a responsible, talented young Keyblade Master tasked with keeping an eye on her angsty male friends.
While the narrative tries to draw parallels between Aqua and Kairi, her role in BBS is much closer to Sora’s in KH1. She doesn’t have much baggage of her own, but simply loves her friends and wants to help them, even as they continue to fall further from her reach.
And, like Sora, Aqua saves both her friends, albeit in bittersweet fashion: the three are separated, with Ventus asleep, Terra missing, and Aqua trapped in the Realm of Darkness. The KH3 prelude game, A Fragmentary Passage, continues Aqua’s story, showing how she helped Riku and Mickey during KH1 and made the choice to stay behind in the Realm of Darkness so the two could escape.
Aqua resolves to fight the Darkness, serving as a “Wayfinder” for those who have lost the light. A determined young woman who struggles with despair but never gives in to it, she’s a heroic figure in her own right, separate and distinct from the other members of her triad.
Between Fragmentary Passage’s focus on Aqua and Dream Drop Distance’s final cutscene revealing Kairi as the seventh prophesied Keyblade-wielder, the Kingdom Hearts franchise felt like it had well and truly put its outdated gender norms behind it. Sora and Riku might still be the central figures, but Aqua and Kairi were all but guaranteed to play a vital role in the upcoming Keyblade War.
And Kingdom Hearts III continued this trend… at least, until it didn’t.
A Whole New World: Lady adventurers on the road to a finale
As the promo material was eager to show us, Kairi begins KH3 with a can-do attitude, joining fellow novice Axel as the two train with their new Keyblades. Aqua, meanwhile, is still trapped in the Realm of Darkness, but never fear—she’s “strong like Sora,” Mickey says. She’ll be able to hold out until Mickey opens a door for her, and then she’ll reunite with her friends as promised.
These early scenes set an important tone: the girls in Kingdom Hearts are no longer passive damsels lying comatose, waiting to be rescued, but warriors themselves. It’s not that they never need help (Kingdom Hearts is all about supportive communities, after all), but that their relationships with the male characters have become more balanced. They can take turns looking after one another now.
The Disney worlds seem to agree with this shift towards active female characters who fight beside the male leads rather than always requiring rescue from them. Our newest Princess stories hit on this point especially hard, albeit in a roundabout way.
Members from the antagonistic Organization XIII sneak into Corona (Tangled) and Arendelle (Frozen) because they’re trying to find the next “Seven Hearts”—what KH1 called the “Princesses of Heart.” They find three of them in Rapunzel, Anna, and Elsa, but there’s a noticeable difference in the way the game and main characters treat the new gals.
The Tangled and Frozen stories follow their movie counterparts more-or-less verbatim, leaving Team Sora acting largely as spectators. Our trio watch the finales of both stories from a distance, catching only snippets of Tangled’s plot and spending most of their time in Arendelle getting chucked off a mountain. It’s as if the narratives themselves are saying “you’re not needed here.”
To add to this, Larxene (a very fun female antagonist) tells Sora it’s not his job to save Elsa, but to let her find her own path. Donald remarks that Rapunzel is the “tough one” in her relationship with Flynn/Eugene, and Goofy points out that Elsa and Anna are more than capable of defending themselves if the Organization ever does come after them.
This is a new generation of Disney princesses—not helpless maidens like the Snow Whites and Auroras of the golden age, nor strong-willed non-combatants like the Belles and Jasmines of the renaissance era. The gals of Tangled and Frozen are the action heroes (or at least co-heroes) of their own stories, and their place in the world of Kingdom Hearts reflects that.
It’s a bit cheap of KH3 to ask its audience to play through half of two Disney movies beat-for-beat, but from a broader perspective it is a clever narrative tactic that fits with Aqua’s arc and Kairi’s early scenes. It promises us that the Kingdom Hearts franchise has grown right with us, and things will be different this time.
Too bad it never, you know, does anything with all of this.
After making our way through the final Disney world, KH3 throws us into the web of plot lines the series has been weaving for over a decade—and promptly falls right back into the gendered patterns it established in the first Kingdom Hearts game.
Poor Unfortunate Souls: Aqua, the misplaced wayfinder
When Riku and Mickey at last find Aqua, she’s suddenly fallen to the darkness after over a decade of keeping it at bay. This could have been a poignant metaphor for depression and isolation, the same way Riku’s “fight with the darkness” has been an effective way to address his battle against unhealthy aggression and control.
But between Aqua’s determined “I will be the Wayfinder” monologue at the end of Fragmentary Passage and the relatively little time we’ve spent with her in KH3, it comes out of nowhere and ends up feeling more like an excuse for Sora to play the hero again. This is only compounded by the fact that she spends most of the game standing around with her mouth open or getting immediately taken out by the newest mini-boss.
Admittedly, some of this sidelining is an across-the-board narrative issue. Fellow Keyblade Masters Riku and Mickey also lose a lot of fights they’d normally win so Sora can take center stage. But some of it is indicative of Kingdom Hearts’s larger problems with its female characters, both in how it writes their individual arcs and how it integrates them into the overall story.
In one of the game’s most frustrating scenes, Aqua and Sora must face off against Vanitas in order to reach the sleeping Ventus. Sora tries to fight, but Aqua says she can handle it. She’s trying to move past her recent breakdown, telling Sora, “You’ve seen me too weak, too often.”
Then she summons a barrier and steps into the ring like a badass. We even get to play her!
It should be a triumphant moment for her character, where she fights back from the edge of despair and saves Ventus like she’s been trying to do for years. The lady knight awakening the sleeping prince.
Instead, after you “win” the battle, Vanitas immediately defeats Aqua. The sight of her in danger awakens Ventus, who blasts through the barrier to save her. Despite all the narrative setup, in the end Aqua is rendered helpless just like so many of the other girls in this franchise; a prone figure used to spur the male characters towards action.
Maybe all this would be somewhat forgivable if Aqua had an important emotional role to play, but KH3 doesn’t know what to do with her there, either.
While the female members of the Kingdom Hearts triads have often felt more like MacGuffins (or even “no homo” barriers, if I were feeling cynical) than actual beloved friends, BBS and Fragmentary Passage did a lot to remedy this by placing us firmly in Aqua’s head. We know how much Aqua values Terra and Ventus and how much she’s done for both of them.
Unfortunately, like most of the boy duos in these games, Terra and Ventus are so focused on each other that there’s little room for anyone else, a fact that becomes blindingly clear in their KH3 finale. When the trio are finally reunited, it’s Ventus and Sora (for some damn reason) whose words and actions help Terra break free from Xehanort’s control. Aqua just makes some groaning noises.
The group’s brief reunion with Master Eraqus is no better. The teacher who named Aqua the trio’s sole Keyblade Master promptly spins the responsibility around to fall on Terra’s shoulders, asking him to “look after” both Ventus and Aqua.
All that work across both BBS and Fragmentary Passage to build Aqua up as a leader and protector, the “Wayfinder” for those lost in the darkness, and KH3 smashes it in a handful of scenes. It’s an unfair finish for an admirable young woman who went through hell to keep others safe.
In a franchise full of powerful emotional arcs, stories of hope and redemption and people stepping up to help the ones they love, there’s no reason Aqua couldn’t have gotten the same hero’s journey we’ve seen for Sora, Riku, or even Axel and Roxas. Instead, she falls into the margins, left to watch as the boys take charge once more.
Someday My Prince Will Come: Kairi, the decorative keyblade
Aqua’s story is unsatisfying to say the least, especially if you’re someone (like me) who was attached to her character and arc. But, if nothing else, she still has her scenes in BBS and Passage, and she still gets to stand with the other Guardians of Light to help save the world at the end of KH3. She’s sidelined, but she’s not exactly useless.
You know who doesn’t get to do even that? Oh, of course you do, because she’s never gotten do anything in this franchise.
For all that KH3 gives Kairi multiple speeches about how she’s going to fight to protect Sora this time, she’s all but helpless when the keyblades start flying. We get a couple brief shots of her whacking baby Heartless, but she mostly serves as a danger magnet so the boys can leap in front of her and get dramatically injured.
Kingdom Hearts has spent a lot of time hammering home how hard it is to become a Keyblade Master, so I don’t expect Kairi to be on the front lines taking out hordes of enemies on her own (fellow trainee Axel gets his ass handed to him by the Big Bads too, after all). I do, however, expect her to be an active participant in the battle, especially after the story spent all that time building her up as a newcomer hero.
If I were being charitable, I’d say the game wants us to see her metaphysical jaunt through space and time to bring Sora back from the afterlife (KH3 gets weird, y’all) as the fulfillment of her earlier promise. Granted, this rescue would’ve been a lot more impactful if we knew what Kairi had actually done to save him… but hey, I love this franchise, so, sure. Kairi rescued Sora. I’ll call it a step in the right direction.
Of course, after that step, KH3 promptly turns around and dashes back a full 100 yards.
First, Xemnas captures Kairi to force Sora to fight, rendering her a non-factor for much of the last world. Then, before the final showdown and out of absolutely nowhere, Xehanort grabs Kairi and shatters her into pieces.
He claims he does it because Sora “requires motivation.” This is bullshit because (1) there’s been zero indication that Sora wasn’t plenty motivated already; and (2) Kairi is not your carrot on a stick to dangle in front of the boys when they need to trot faster.
It’s one of the most cut-and-dried examples of fridging I’ve seen in a long, long while. It’s pointless and dehumanizing, undoing games’ worth of character work and sending us right back to the damsel-in-distress nonsense of KH1.
After all that training and talk of being a member of the team, Kairi doesn’t even get to help the supporting cast save the world. Hell, she doesn’t even get to “die” by heroically throwing herself in front of Sora to protect him. She’s just picked up, dangled, and murdered, little more than a broken toy for the protagonist to cry over.
Fixer-Upper: Busted trust and open doors
There’s something particularly insulting about a story that pays constant lip service to the strength of its female characters and then spends the entire finale undermining that strength at every turn. The original Kingdom Hearts turns pretty much its entire female cast into damsels, but at least it has the decency to tell us up-front that’s what it’s doing. KH3 promises a more equitable story and then rips it away for the sake of cheap shock value and an easy excuse for a sequel.
It’s as if the creative team heard the past criticisms and thought a few empty words would make everything better. Or worse: that the game is mocking its own female characters, listening to them talk about “lighting the way” and “protecting their loved ones” and then patting them on the head and saying “well aren’t you cute, now go sit quietly in the corner while the menfolk handle the rest.”
The girls of Kingdom Hearts deserve better, and so does the franchise’s sizable female fanbase. They deserve to have the same moments of determined heroism and fulfilling, complex character arcs as the boys. They deserve to be full-fledged members of the franchise’s triads, instead of third wheels and plot devices for the guys to emote over. In 2019, this is the bare minimum a story should do, and KH3 failed spectacularly at it.
There are a couple faint silver linings, at least. First, the Re:Mind DLC trailer contains footage of Aqua as a playable character, suggesting she may have more to do in the story before all is said and done.
And second, while I just about threw my controller across the room when I realized KH3 wasn’t the end of Sora, Riku, and Kairi’s story, it does mean they still have time to correct their missteps. In Kingdom Hearts 3.14159 or whatever, they could actually, finally give Kairi that heroic arc they’ve teased ever since she showed up swinging a keyblade in KH2.
In order for that to happen, though, the series will have to learn how to follow through on its promises with its female characters as well as it does its male ones. I’d be lying if I said I had faith in them at this point, but I encourage them to surprise me. Nothing would make me happier than to fall back into the arms of the franchise I’ve loved for so long.