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).