Sexual harassment in ‘Persona 5’ is a big problem — and we need to talk about it

Sexual harassment in ‘Persona 5’ is a big problem — and we need to talk about it

The Persona series has developed a reputation for discussing and portraying sensitive topics in their games — even if doesn't always get them right

Persona 3 deals with suicide. Persona 4 discusses sexuality. In turn, the latest title, Persona 5, explores serious issues like exploitation, suicide and physical abuse. 

However, even this far in the series, Persona 5 still has some issues with its depiction of these very sensitive subjects — specifically, sexual harassment. 

In Persona 5, your first enemy is a sexual predator 

If you've never played a Persona game, the fighting takes place in another parallel world called the Metaverse, which is based on our events or people in our world. 

If a person is filled with enough corrupted desire, a "palace" will be formed in the Metaverse with a cloned — or "shadow" — version of that person as its leader. The main characters in Persona turn into superpowered, costumed heroes while in the Metaverse, and they attempt to stop the leaders and destroy the palaces.

In the beginning of Persona 5, your first antagonist is the volleyball coach at your school, Kamoshida. In the "real world" of Persona 5, Kamoshida is physically abusive to his students and sexually harasses the female students at the school, specifically targeting a member of the main team, Ann Takamaki. 

Shadow Kamoshida appears as a king in a castle, a direct reflection of how he views himself in the real world. Also in the castle are representations of people in real life, in the way Kamoshida views them. In Ann's case, her clone is dressed in a neon cheetah-print bikini and cat ears. 

In theory, having Ann depicted in this way makes sense, since the palace is a reflection of Kamoshida's view on the world. However, narratively, it seems unnecessary to have the main female character represented in a bikini when there are so many other indications that Kamoshida sexualizes his female students.

The main indication being that in his final boss form, he eats the legs of female students in order to heal himself. We don't need more evidence by placing Ann into a bikini — which further gives into a popular trope in anime and other RPG games to sexualize a specific female character, often high school-aged. 

The way Ann becomes a playable character is by standing up to her harasser. Upon transforming, she promptly cuts her sexualized self in half.

This symbol, by itself, is powerful — a young woman standing up for herself by awakening her true power and using it to destroy a misogynist effigy of herself. Unfortunately, the story doesn't end here. 

In Persona 5, you turn your friend's body into bait for a predator — and it's a baffling plot point

After you beat Kamoshida, the second arc introduces a young artist named Yusuke Kitagawa and his teacher, the next antagonist, Madarame. Part of the plot in this arc is that Yusuke requests Ann model nude for him. Around the same time, the main protagonist and his teammates decide to investigate Madarame. 

It's suggested that Ann should model nude for Yusuke in order to distract him and open up the opportunity to investigate further. Despite Ann repeatedly expressing her hesitance, her teammates insist that she must go nude for the sake of the plan. 

In general, the dialogue options for most interactions in Persona 5 are inconsequential. In this specific arc, they stand out when the main character — and, by extension, the player — can do nothing but agree or be complicit in what amounts to sexual harassment. 

In one interaction, shown in the image below, Ann simply asks, "Do I have to be the bait?" Based on her facial expression and the tone of the question, it is clear she's uncomfortable with the situation she's being put in. As the main character, you can respond with only three options: "There's no other way," "Good luck, Ann" or "Hmm..." 

Eventually, regardless of Ann's wishes, she's forced to strip. Ann starts losing her clothes while in Yusuke's room. In yet another way of showing her reluctance, Ann shows up to the modeling session with a comically large amount of clothes on her body. 

As the scene goes on, Ann loses her clothing until she's in a tank top and denim booty shorts. There's no nudity, but the scene has served its purpose: catering to the male gaze and turning sexual harassment into a visual sight gag.

Persona 5 completely misses the mark as a statement against harassment

If Ann were comfortable with being nude and the stripping scene were consensual, this particular plot point would feel a lot less exploitative. A large part of the problem in this subplot is that Ann has to be reluctant to strip; her discomfort is key to the sexualization of her character. It plays into an old, tired trope about Asian women: that they are submissive — and therefore innocent. 

The way Persona 5 handles sexual harassment, and many social issues, is complex and filled with grey areas. The game's political viewpoint feels much more coherent in the first part, when players fight Kamoshida, the volleyball coach who harasses his students. 

The Persona series has the opportunity to use its fantastical superhero genre to tell a story of high school students overcoming their problems through metaphorical dream locations. In many ways, the games succeed at this mission. When the game targets harassment itself, and then undermines its own messaging by making the player complicit in an act of sexual harassment themselves, it shatters the credibility it so carefully earned. 

More Persona 5 news, updates, tips and tricks

For more on the latest entry in the Persona series, check out the rest of what Mic has to offer. Here's a guide on how to capture Personas, and here's one on building relationships with the game's Confidant system. Here are some tips on beating the first boss and the second boss. Finally, here are the answers on some of the crossword puzzles.