Opposites Attract in Media Criticism

Hello everyone, and welcome to my blog! I’m Taylor McQueeney, and I’ll be your host for this post…and the rest of the posts that’ll come in the near future. You see, I’m making this blog for a class at Towson University that focuses on media criticism. What is media criticism, you ask? It’s looking at different types of media, such as television and advertisements, through different views and seeing how we as viewers can obtain meaning from that. Remember when you were in high school, and your teacher asked you to decipher the true meaning of Frankenstein or some other required piece of literature? Same concept, except instead it’s all about culture and, most notably, not focused on old literature your teacher forced you to read.

So at this point, you might be asking yourself something along the lines of “Taylor, why should we even read this? You just compared media criticism to my high school English class!” And to that, I say that there’s quite a lot to learn from applying media criticism to the things you regularly watch. I call it learning to be more aware of the messages found in the stuff you consume regularly. It doesn’t have to be something that ruins the entertainment you watch, it’s just being aware and just knowing not to take the messages too seriously. After all, we’re all smart people. And being smart means knowing not to ruin everything for yourself. Because that’s just not fun, right?
But honestly, I could exsnow_compromiso_serahplain this for a long time and I don’t think just explaining is worth as much as actually doing it. So instead of droning on some more, how about we look at something and apply a type of media criticism to it? If you follow the little link here, you’ll find a cut-scene from the video game Final Fantasy XIII. For those of you who don’t know, Final Fantasy XIII is a Japanese role-playing game developed by Square-Enix. It follows the story of six different characters who become tasked with a mission to destroy their world. This task is branded onto them with a special mark that makes them a Pulse L’Cie, and not fulfilling their task means certain death. So throughout the game, the characters battle with whether to go through with it or not as they’re hunted as traitors by the police.

This particular scene is a flashback of one of the main characters, Snow, recalls the moments after he proposed to his long-time girlfriend, Serah, who was also branded a Pulse L’Cie. Before I get on with the whole analysis, I’m going to point out a few of the things that went on during the cut-scene. This will be relevant later, I swear!

So in the cut-scene, it begins with a view of fireworks. Serah and Snow fly into the frame on a little aircraft of sorts, with Snow the driver. They discuss their engagement and Serah also tries to talk about her status as a Pulse L’Cie. During their discussion, Snow flies into the fireworks, which nearly causes the two to be hit directly by a firework. Then they have a small romantic moment before flying away when Serah begins to cry.

maxresdefaultNow, after we have looked at the clip we’re going to be analyzing and picked out what happens during it, it’s time to apply the criticism. But media criticism isn’t just one singular concept applied to a piece of media. Instead, it’s a bunch of different theories that you are free to pick and choose to your heart’s content. What we’re going to be using in order to analyse this scene from Final Fantasy XIII is semiotics.

Semiotics is, simply put, the study of signs. Signs are anything that could signify something else like an actual thing or idea. An example would be how a cross is a sign of Christianity, which would be the signified. In this way of media criticism, one can sort signs by a syntagmatic approach, which studies the signs in sequence, or a paradigmatic approach, which studies signs as individuals working separately to create a message. In this example, we will be using both approaches just to show how differently things can work when looking at signs.

First, let’s identify the signs. Remember when I explained what happened during the clip? This will include a bunch of those! First, there is the fireworks. In most cultures, fireworks are used as celebration in most cultures. Sometimes, fireworks are even used as venues for a romance scene. In this  scene, based on the dialogue of Snow, it is also a source of hope. Snow states that he wished on the fireworks for Serah to say yes to his proposal, so it was wishing on hope for his dreams to come true.

maxresdefault1The second sign is in Snow himself, who seems to signify masculinity. He is muscular, much larger than Serah, and consistently shows that he is protective of Serah in both body language and words. Also, there is the fact that he drives right into the danger of fireworks just so he can impress his fiance. If you don’t know what I mean by body language, look at how he is when it comes to Serah. When they nearly get shot down, he tucks her into his chest acting as a shield. While riding the air vehicle, she is safe between his arms while he’s driving. And at the end, when Serah begins to cry, he holds her to him as they fly away.

On contrast, Serah acts as a sign of femininity. She is very small, with cute hair and a short skirt. Honestly, it looks like Snow can break her arm with a flick of the wrist. In addition, though this  isn’t shown in the clip, she does not fight the entire game and acts as a damsel in distress most of the time. While they were in the fireworks, she admires the pretty lights. When they are nearly shot down, she only screams and lets Snow save the day with his quick thinking. Not only that, but Serah is the only truly emotional one of the pair. Snow isn’t completely stone-faced, but he deflects raw emotion with distractions, using fireworks to keep Serah from thinking about sad things. At the end, Serah begins to cry despite Snow’s efforts.

So now that I have the major signs nailed down, let’s first look at the syntagmatic way of organizing the signs. In the sequence, the scene starts with the fireworks, a source of hope and romance for the two lovers. Then, Snow and Serah fly in and talk about their hopes for the future, such as their future wedding and Serah’s hope that her sister will accept her as a Pulse L’Cie. Then, they fly beyond the safety net and they nearly kiss in the middle of the romantic fireworks. When the fireworks nearly shoot them down, which can be seen as their hopes being shot down or dangerous, they fly off with Snow protecting Serah. They laugh and have a romantic moment only for Serah to be brought into tears, her feminine emotions, and they end the scene by flying off.

bodhum_fireworksNow, let’s look at the paradigmatic way of looking at the signs. In this version, we are going to use something called binary opposition to figure out how exactly know how these signs are figured out in our heads. Binary opposition is how two things contrast on opposite ends, and we regularly use it to figure out why something is based on what it is not. For example, we know that there are fireworks in the scene because it isn’t daytime and they are explosions that people are admiring instead of running away from. If Serah looked at the fireworks in terror instead of admiring them, we would have assumed that they were a bad thing. But since both Snow and Serah look at them with smiles, we know that they are a good thing.

Probably the largest example of binary opposition can be found in the two main characters that signify masculinity and femininity. Both Snow and Serah are binary opposites of each other, with Snow being everything Serah is not and vice versa. Serah is a small, helpless woman who needs Snow to rescue her from the fireworks. Snow is large, acts as a hero to Serah in both dialogue and action, and acts as Serah’s protector. They are complete opposites of each other as both characters and signs. This defines binary opposition. Because of how they are created, Snow and Serah act as the definitions of masculinity and femininity. If you want to know how Final Fantasy XIII defines what a woman is, then all you have to look at is what Snow isn’t and what Serah is.

And that is basically why someone should know at least a little about media criticism. Through looking at the signs of masculinity and femininity in Final Fantasy XIII, we figured out just how a woman should look like according to the game’s creators. The beauty of media that you take in a lot of messages while consuming them. People learn about their world partially through the media they consume, so just letting these messages go by undetected could alter someone’s world view. By knowing, we can see exactly what the creators of media want us to know. Even by just having a passing knowledge, we can be more aware of what’s going on.

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2 comments

  1. First of all I thought this was a great way to use semiotics. I know we say, “There are signs everywhere,” but to use a video game to represent this was next level to me. Video games have become so popular in our society; it’s almost, if not already as important/big as TV itself.

    I don’t know why I never thought to look at video games or was so shocked when you did. This was a really amazing idea.

    The examples you point out were excellent as well. The sign of masculinity being in a video game was great. Even though signs of masculinity are in everywhere in our culture, pointing it out in a video game shows you have a good eye. Maybe we’re drowned in the idea of masculinity that I subconsciously notice it in places, but don’t pay attention.

    Also tying in the syntagmatic and paradigmatic approaches was excellent, and transitioned well. I really felt like I would understand the approaches clearly if this was my first time learning about them, after reading you post.

    The only thing I wondering while reading is, do the signs you highlight work in both Japanese and American culture? I think they do, but you highlighted that this was a Japanese game. I was just wondering was some of these Japanese cultural signs more so, even though I think we can recognize them in American culture.

    Another slight tweak I would’ve made was introducing the approach you were going to use earlier in the post. When I first read through and you introduced the game and linked us to the trailer I had to reread because I thought I overlooked the approach you were going to use. Still, outside of that small change, great blog post.

  2. I love your choice of a video game as a text. Video games have many different influences in them (especially Japanese ones) that sometimes you can find multiple influences or have different interpretations of the characters and situations. It’s not unlike most media, but what video games have over television is the interactive quality. So I love that you went with a more unique media text on that level (pardon the pun).

    I have never played Final Fantasy XIII (with the exception of possibly XV, my gaming experiencing Final Fantasy is limited to Kingdom Hearts), but I did have a basic idea of what it was based on things my friends told me. The one thing they didn’t mention was the love story between the two characters you mentioned. And the cutscene you used was perfect in explaining who these characters are and the relationship between them.

    The compare and contrast between Snow’s masculinity and Serah’s feminity is very interesting and kind of “in your face” once it has been pointed out. Snow looks very much like a tough man and a fighter. And that is a great counterbalance to Serah’s sweet innocence. It’ is somewhat on the nose, but that is just my view of it. But that stuff also plays into the Syntagmatic organizing of the signs with how the cutscene plays out as a romantic evening and solidifies the character dynamics/roles in the game (I don’t know where the flashback occurs, so it could be something that is already explained prior to it playing).

    If I did have to suggest something, I would say that it would be interesting to do a binary opposition of some of the other characters in the game, like Serah and her sister, Lightning. Or Snow and one of the other male characters. The male/female dynamic is interesting in how they contrast, but it would be interesting to see the signs in how Serah, a sweet and innocent girl, is very different from Lightning, this badass warrior.

    Other than that, Fantastic job!

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