Jean Armstrong

Welcome to VBR’s LGBT Spotlight, an on-going, non-consecutive series highlighting my stumbling across LGBT characters in videogames, explicating their use as a character, and examining how their sexuality is treated. This particular post will contain spoilers for both Phoenix Wright: Justice for all and Phoenix Wright: Trials and Tribulations.

The Phoenix Wright series operates largely on humor; much of that humor is drawn from gross stereotypes–sometimes subverted, at other times not.

This is why I raised an eyebrow during Phoenix Wright: Justice for All during the third case, Turnaround Big Top, when I first encountered Maximillion Galactica.

Max, to put it one way, is flamboyant. Think Richard Simmons, except a magician and you have a pretty solid picture. Words that I recall being used quite often were along the lines of ‘Fabulous!!!” Considering what I have said of the previous titles in the series and the construction of characters as farcical stereotypes, I expected a gay male. Mea culpa.

No, for you see, the case brings to light that Max has proposed to Regina Berry. The two coo sickingly sweet opines to each other, which serves to play on the vacuousness of both characters. Max does have a rather large secret to be revealed, however, and it’s that opposed to the world-famous magician he is known as now, he used to be country bumpkin. The last behavior anyone would expect of a person from the country is that he would be flamboyant (they’ve obviously never lived in the South).

What we need is a man of refinement. Enter case three of Phoenix Wright: Trials and Tribulations, Recipe for Turnabout. Enter Jean Armstrong:

Jean is the owner of Tres Bien, a restaurant in which a rather confusing murder took place. Jean Armstrong is very, very gay and there is no mistake about it. Beyond his overly dramatic mannerisms and expressions, commonly associated with the stereotype of the gay queen, and his penchant for pink (code: feminine), he openly flirts with other male characters in the game, eliciting rather confused expressions. In fact, he calls himself a coquette, a word whose definition is a woman who flirts with a man for his favor or admiration.

It’s odd looking at Jean critically. In many ways, it’s reminiscent of the early days of gay men appearing in mainstream, non-niche television shows and movies (I’m thinking of the 80s, particularly the movie Mannequin); if they were not dying of some sickness, they were commonly flamboyant, colorful characters. They were essentially dramatic, fashion-obsessed people coded as feminine, but possessing an XY configuration in their genes. This is what made them gay moreso than any actual attraction they professed.

The comedy, therefore, lies not in the fact that Jean is gay, necessarily, but that he is a character of contradictions from what we’re supposed to expect. He plays himself as dainty and a delicate flower, but is a heavy-set gentleman. As Phoenix can state in case five, Bridge to the Turnabout, “There’s only one reason. One as obvious as Jean Armstrong in a thong on the Riviera.” What’s supposed to be funny is that it’s Jean, in particular, that is in the thong, and that he would likely be the chap to do it. We are supposed to be similarly disgusted and laughing.

What does one make of a gay man being himself being the butt of jokes and being a joke himself? Rather than just being shocked that a gay man could desire the male cast, it’s as much an issue that this type of gay man has these desires. It is one thing to be desired by an attractive male, but another entirely from someone coded as not desirable.

The entire case hinges on Jean being involved in creating a phony murder and thereby being an accomplice. This is all due to rather exorbitant debts he has accrued in buying his restaurant. In every sense, we are told, Jean is a failure. He cannot present the right gender, run a business, and is ultimately too much a woman to stand up and grasp control of his life. He submits to the Alpha male. In almost every way, we are given essentialist feminine traits as Jean’s personality, which is the cause of his mishaps and misfortunes.

Again, this is what I would expect of a gay representation from film and television in the 80s. Even though almost all bit players in the series are couched in foibles and comedy, I found myself extremely uncomfortable when the game wanted me to laugh at Jean, rather than the situations he caused (a criticism to be leveled at more than just Jean in the cast of the characters, unfortunately).

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About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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3 Responses to Jean Armstrong

  1. Jonathan M says:

    Great post.

    A couple of things though.

    Firstly, I think that we can chalk the differences in the depiction of gay men up to cultural differences. If you watch a film like Kung fu Hussle you’ll see that parts of South-East Asia finds nothing quite as funny as fat and gay people. Jean is both and so he’s doubly funny.

    Obviously, there are Japanese films and anime that do not fall into such broad stereotypes but evidently Japanese mainstream culture is still tolerant of them in a way that we in the West are not.

    Secondly, I’m not sure whether this is better or worse than the depiction of LGBT people in Western games as they tend to be completely invisible. Every game to be released on the XBox seems to star a gravel-voiced psychopath and I don’t think that they have sexualities. I mean, can you imagine Alex Mercer having sex with anyone… male OR female?

  2. Chris Lepine says:

    Very thoughtful and stimulating post Denis!

    It makes me wonder – and this is just a thought experiment – what would have your response been if Jean had been physically depicted as a woman? Or a transexual? Or as a very machoistic portly gentleman?

    What I’m getting at is that while the gender/sexuality exposition in Phoenix Wright does lend to a great deal of the tension in the comedy, there is *some* gender-independence to it. Many are willing to laugh at a pathetic failure, or someone who orchestrates their own failure owing to a character flaw (greek tragedy), or serious identity confusion leading to “comedic” life circumstances. I’m not saying that any of these elements are particularly morally justified or deep, but it would worry me to disqualify humour on the basis of personal moral offense alone. Half of the reason outrageous stereotypes are ‘funny’ are because they twinge the unfair, repressed, and morally reprehensible practices of modern society. Dramatic/comedic tension relies almost purely upon our social and cultural frailties.
    Whether or not they subvert those stereotypes in expressing them is a valuable question, but I’d hate to rid the world of repressive humour in favour of a particular ideological view.

    I guess I’m sitting on the fence in this case, or at least playing devil’s advocate since the question “what is funny?” is always a dangerous/difficult one to answer.

  3. Denis Farr says:

    Jonathan, good points both. It brings up the question I think we’re facing constantly: is no attention better than that which paints a group into a corner and perpetuates stereotypes? I wish I had the answer to that, though I’m still struggling through it myself.

    Chris, I agree that humor is hard to discuss; it’s all very subjective within a certain confine of reliable tropes. The particular problem I have is there is a way to display these tragic flaws and other cornerstones of comedy on which we rely and still give us that knowing wink; that wink that tells us that this is all being taken in jest. The Phoenix Wright series is very much a melodramatic tragicomedy, so that it becomes difficult at times to tell if there is any sarcasm or relief in sight. This, as Jonathan above states, may well be due to cultural differences, but it’s also something that illustrates to me a not thought out character beyond a stereotype.

    I suppose my expectations of comedy have been raised through studying it in theater, particularly as it has progressed and seen older formulas reinterpreted in contemporary hands.

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