Kingdom Hearts fails most of its women

Kingdom Hearts, a series where light prevails against darkness, is rarely kind to women. While the franchise is infamous for its complicated story, Kairi, the leading Kingdom Hearts heroine, is never granted any agency. After all, Kingdom Hearts women are rarely given satisfying character arcs. Most women in the franchise end up in underdeveloped supporting roles, or are killed off for the sake of the plot.

Since 2002, millions have fallen in love with Sora, Riku and Kairi, three friends who embark on a Disney adventure involving Heartless, Nobodies, and Keyblades. Kingdom Hearts 3 wraps up the “Seeker of Darkness” saga, which is the storyline that spans all installments in the series. After failing the Mark of Mastery exam in Dream Drop Distance — a test that Sora, the protagonist, must pass to become a Keyblade Master — he sets out to stop a war by defeating Master Xehanort. Kairi is one of the key figures who helps Sora on this quest.

[The following contains major spoilers from throughout the Kingdom Hearts franchise.]

In the first Kingdom Hearts, Kairi is used as a pawn by Ansem, Seeker of Darkness. Kairi is a Princess of Heart, which means that she’s unable to turn into a Heartless. She spends the majority of the first game in a comatose state after losing her heart at the start of the story.

Kairi’s biggest scene happens when Sora fights Ansem and sacrifices herself to get her back. She ends up saving Sora, though the moment is brief. Afterwards, Kairi is sent back to her home and kept out of crucial narrative events until the end.

In Kingdom Hearts 2, Kairi is largely kept out of the narrative until she gets kidnapped, manages to escape, gets kidnapped again, and then breaks free once more. From start to finish, she watches as the men around her do all the fighting and ultimately decide her fate.

In the side games leading up to Kingdom Hearts 3, Kairi is only mentioned in passing to emphasize her importance as Sora’s love interest. But given Kairi’s slim character development, the relationship between her and Sora lacks conviction. It’s a repeating situation that has turned Kairi into a generic amalgamation of outdated tropes for fans, who still hoped that the series would find a way to make use of her character.

Kairi’s latest role in the series

Square Enix

Prior to release, a Kingdom Hearts 3 trailer revealed that Kairi would train and fight with her own Keyblade. The clip in 3DS game Dream Drop Distance (seen below) announcing this information felt hopeful — Kairi’s gaze was bold and defiant. Up until this point, Kairi had been set up primarily as Sora’s love interest, relegated to the sidelines instead of being his equal on the battlefield or in the narrative. And so fans rejoiced: After 15 years of damseling, the series’ lead heroine finally seemed to get in on the action.

The trailer, unfortunately, was a fake-out.

In Kingdom Hearts 3, Kairi is finally given a Keyblade, which fans took as a sign that she would break out of her passive role. However, she spends most of the game training off-screen, and she’s never shown properly preparing for battle. She’s seen comforting Axel, whom she trains with, and she is shown writing letters to Sora. In other words, she is largely visible for the sake of the men. When it’s time for Kairi to fight alongside everyone else, she mostly stands around the battle helplessly.

Up until the end, Kingdom Hearts 3 only offers flimsy excuses to justify Kairi’s existence in the game. In the last hour, Master Xehanort kills Kairi to provide “motivation” for Sora. While Kairi does get revived in the ending, the plot development makes little difference in Kairi’s overarching role in the story. Fans noticed.

On March 3, slightly over a month after Kingdom Hearts 3’s release, the official Kingdom Hearts Twitter account shared a video of Kairi with the caption, “This time, I’ll protect you,” alluding to her supposedly more active role in Kingdom Hearts 3. Given what actually happens in the game, the tweet immediately got ratio’d: There are over 2,200 replies, many of which are memes, criticism, and disappointment with Kairi’s role in the game. “So that was a fucking lie,” reads one of the top image replies to the tweet. The content of the replies speaks to a frustration that has been brewing in parts of the fandom for well over a decade — and one that seems to have no end in sight.

The March 3 tweet isn’t false, but it is misleading. Kairi technically does save Sora, but it’s not because she’s a capable fighter. Instead, Kairi’s love for Sora activates a dormant ability known as the Power of Waking, which keeps him from dying. Kingdom Hearts 3 never fully explains how or why this twist happens, but it doesn’t matter. By that point, the player understands that Kairi is a device that exists to advance Sora’s narrative.

Being a plot device is, unfortunately, what Kairi shares with the majority of the women in the series.

Fridging, and other disappointing developments

Square Enix via Kingdom Hearts Wiki

Most of the antagonists in Kingdom Hearts hail from Organization XIII, a group of robe-wearing Nobodies who desire the ultimate source of power and wisdom in the world (incidentally also called Kingdom Hearts). The faction is made up of twelve men and a single woman — or two if we’re counting Xion, whose existence is forgotten for most of the narrative. The discrepancy in Organization XIII’s gender ratio is a perfect visual metaphor for the series as a whole.

Larxene, the Organization’s sole woman, shoulders the burden of representing all women in a group otherwise entirely made up of men. In Chain of Memories, Marluxia and Larxene devise a plan to take over the Organization. She fulfills the classic ‘bitch’ archetype, malicious and cunning. Known among the ranks as “The Savage Nymph,” she cackles as she fights. The implication is that Larxene finds joy in being vile and causing pain. For a long time, that’s all she really was. Currently, mobile game Kingdom Hearts Union X is in the process of adding more depth to Larxene by introducing Elrena, Larxene’s human form before she joined the Organization. However, it’s taken 15 years for Larxene to evolve from an archetype to something resembling fleshed-out character.

Union X introduces four new women in the series: Strelitzia, Skuld, Ava, and Invi. In a textbook case of fridging, Strelitzia kicks off a wider mystery by being murdered shortly after her introduction. In Union X’s timeline, she’s currently a major character, serving as one of the five new foretellers after the Keyblade War. A popular Kingdom Hearts 3 theory developed from the game’s secret reports posits that Skuld becomes a disposable woman after two men fail to save her. While it was assumed that Invi and Ava died in the Keyblade War, Kingdom Hearts 3’s epilogue reveals that the two might still have a role to play — but given that Invi was irrelevant in Union X’s story and Ava’s whereabouts remain unknown, there isn’t much to get excited about.

Ava and Invi share similar fates to Namine and Olette, the two remaining women of the series. Since her introduction in Chain of Memories, everything Namine does is tied to either Sora or his Nobody, Roxas. Namine otherwise has no aspirations or defining characteristics of her own. Olette, the last female character in the list, is Roxas’ friend who resides in Twilight Town. Olette likes to hang out with her pals, Hayner and Pence. That’s the most that can be said about Olette.

Exceptions to the rule

Square Enix via Kingdom Hearts Wiki

While Kingdom Hearts features a cast of 43 original characters, only two women, Xion and Aqua, possess something resembling a proper character arc.

Xion, the secret fourteenth member of Organization XIII, begins Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days on dubious ground. She’s a literal extension of a male character, a replica created from Sora’s memories and therefore not an actual person. Fortunately, the game explicitly centers on how Xion becomes her own person. Xion takes her origin and grows from it, eventually becoming a character with her own motivations and desires. She goes on to die and is erased from the memories of those who knew her, but the narrative still honors her through allusions in side-games. She is also brought back to life near the end of Kingdom Hearts 3, and is shown becoming a whole person.

Aqua, meanwhile, is the only one out of her group of friends who becomes a Keyblade Master, as well as the only woman in the series to lead her own game. The strength of her will and her wisdom are the defining aspects of her character. While Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep sometimes positions her as a motherly figure who constantly saves her male friends, she is arguably the most central character of the game. In Kingdom Hearts 3, her significance to the story is largely unsurpassed by any other woman. Sora and his friends spend the first half of the game working to save her from the darkness (which she plunged herself into to save Terra at the end of Birth by Sleep). Once she escapes the darkness, she plays a crucial role in defeating Master Xehanort. Her conviction in defeating Master Xehanort is driven not by her connection to Sora, but by her own motivation to save her friends and get justice for all they’ve suffered at his hands. By the end, she is the woman with the most screen time and relevance to the story.

And … that’s it for Kingdom Hearts women with real character arcs. They both have debatable caveats, too. Xion is figuratively and literally taken out of most of the narrative, and her purpose in the story is largely dependent on Roxas and Sora. In Birth by Sleep, Aqua’s storyline is centered on saving her friends, while Terra’s revolves around his struggle with the darkness within him and Ventus’ focuses on his identity. In other words, Aqua’s arc in that game doesn’t fully belong to her. But they’re better off than the rest. The other eight women included across all Kingdom Hearts games typically function as uninspired plot devices, or they are literal embodiments of cliched tropes.

Kingdom Hearts’ women deserve better

At the end of Kingdom Hearts 3, Master Xehanort gets a happy ending. His old best friend, Master Eraqus, manifests back to life and peacefully asks him to surrender. A beautiful scene plays out, sending off the series’ most evil character with an unearned redemption arc. The narrative seems to forgive his evils as Master Xehanort passes from old age, and his heart is shown to depart with Master Eraqus’ heart to the afterlife. It’s touching, but it leaves a bad aftertaste when you think about how he receives more characterization in one scene than the majority of the women of Kingdom Hearts have gotten in the entire series.

The men of Kingdom Hearts have always been able to lead their own adventures, form meaningful relationships with each other, and have a role in almost every scene. They are villains who are larger than life, humanized antagonists, leaders of grand operations, and drivers of the narrative. In the case of Kairi, her fate is a particular letdown because the game poses so many opportunities for her to be more than just a love interest or a catalyst for the actions of male characters.

Disney, which provides the backdrop for much of Kingdom Hearts’ story, has definitely stumbled with its own inclusivity efforts. Even so, there’s an undeniable attempt to rectify these faults in recent Disney Princess films. One of the new worlds in Kingdom Hearts 3 is Frozen, a story that centers around the sisterhood of two women over their romantic prospects. The women of Kingdom Hearts, meanwhile, barely interact with each other — and even the best-written ones don’t lead their own arcs. Kingdom Hearts has used Disney worlds as backdrops for 17 years, but the series hasn’t managed to progress nearly as much as its source material.

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