The Transgender Icon of Final Fantasy VII
Sephiroth is the most famous villain in gaming history. The complicated antagonist's tragic story resonated with me growing up as a young, confused transgender teen.
Illustration by Julia Kuo
Twenty-one-years ago, the most beloved villain in gaming history was born. Sephiroth is easily the most tragic figure in the Final Fantasy franchise: a fallen first class soldier caught in a web of deception, with alluring waist-length silver hair, a stylish black cloak, and a formidable weapon, the human-height katana Masamune. When I first played the 1997 Square Enix Release, I deeply identified with Sephiroth, though he was not characterized to be sympathetic.
On its surface, Sephiroth’s plot arc is a typical villain’s origin story: Tormented by the sudden realization that he is the product of a scientific experiment, born of genetic material extracted from an alien named Jenova, Sephiroth becomes manic, then delusional. He starts to obsessively question his humanity, becoming single-minded in his desire to reunite with his alien mother and leave this world. During this meltdown, Sephiroth acts out in a fit of apparent madness: On his way to reunite with his mother, Sephiroth burns down the village Nibelheim, which is near Jenova’s ancient remains.
“I knew, ever since I was a child, I was not like the others,” Sephiroth says after realizing he is a science experiment. “I knew mine was a special existence.”
To me, Sephiroth seemed like a misunderstood hero whose madness was rational given the circumstances of his life. The conspiracy of silence that kept Sephiroth from uncovering his true self resonated with me, an adolescent trans kid who was still trying to figure out whether or not I belonged on my planet, too. When Sephiroth set the world on fire I knew it was because, inside, his world was already burning.
I’m not the only one to see Sephiroth as a transgender icon; in certain online communities, there’s a subcultural discourse around the idea that he could be read as transgender. "Sephiroth was born female," one fan argued on Tumblr. "Sephiroth does not know this... This is the secret he discovers in Nibelheim, the root of his awkward behaviors, and the answer he has been seeking all his life."
“I think if anyone is secretly transgender it's Sephiroth,” wrote another fan on a GameFAQs forum in 2016. “With the Jenova cells he can finally make his secret dream come true.” Those who find this argument compelling point out a notable change that Sephiroth underwent in the aftermath of the Jenova revelation: According to a Final Fantasy wiki, in the Japanese version of FFVII, when Sephiroth was living as a dutiful soldier for Shinra, he went by the pronoun ore, “a common masculine pronoun used by confident males [in Japan].” However, “following the Nibelheim Incident, he begins to use watashi instead, a more formal pronoun with no attached gender.”
This sort of character interpretation is part of a broader practice within LGBT fandoms. It’s closely connected with the act of reading and writing queer fan fiction—something people have been doing with great enthusiasm since the days of Star Trek. In her examination of the queer fan culture surrounding the Harry Potter series, the theorist Tianna K. Mignogna explains the deep significance of queer fanfiction and fanart: “Queer fan works impact queer readers’ experience… by creating a highly personalized world in which they are free to express themselves in a fashion that not only boosts their self-esteem as well as their representation in fan media, but also more deeply connects them to the text.”
In other words, reading and writing queer fanfiction is a significant—and subversive—way for LBGTQ fans to actively see themselves in even the most heteronormative of books, films, and video games. Queer readings of seemingly static texts can be viewed the same way. As one LOTR fanfic author wrote, this kind of creative exercise transcends the boring and limited question of what is or isn’t “canon”: “Whether the author intended a queer interpretation or not is irrelevant: Books belong to their readers, and one of the great joys of reading is that no two people will experience a book the same way.”
As this is true of all art, it’s also true of FFVII. Fans of the game have plotted countless queer readings of it—including the subtextual existence of a romantic arch between the protagonist, Cloud Strife, and Sephiroth. The deeper these theories go, the less clear it becomes whether or not they’re actually rooted in canon, or whether they’re entirely made up. I’d argue that it doesn’t really matter—but it can be empowering to find what feels like concrete textual evidence to support an idea that holds great personal meaning to the fan.
I never had a hero growing up; while my friends had identified various pop cultural figures to emulate and look up to, I remember feeling confused, wondering why I didn’t really relate to the icons of my generation. My heroes were all make-believe.
Sephiroth’s dark identity crisis made sense to me. During Cloud’s final battle with Sephiroth, the transformative antagonist fights desperately, rapidly shapeshifting into two different forms with different bodies, different names. I felt like that. Every day in school, I tried to transform into someone else. Like Sephiroth, I knew something was wrong in my life. But at 13, I didn’t know what and envied the clarity Sephiroth had gained. What I really wanted was to discover my own Jenova.
It is Jenova’s role in FFVII that truly makes Sephiroth an ideal transgender icon to me. Jenova is a maternal figure in Sephiroth’s story who is distinct from Sephiroth’s biological family. The trans community has long embraced this kind of kinship—drag queens and trans girls mother each other, and you can’t spend time with a group of either for too long without hearing someone call out, "Mother!" with as much enthusiasm as Sephiroth.
“Sephiroth becomes Jenova's legacy. Because Sephiroth has willingly taken up her mantle, her genetic legacy will continue through him,” one YouTube commenter expressed.
Jenova is not Sephiroth's true mother. Rather, she is a part of Sephiroth that Sephiroth is desperately trying to connect with. Always, Jenova offers Sephiroth the promise of rebirth, another life, another body, another world. Their connection is perhaps the most meaningful example of Sephiroth’s complex identity, casting the one-winged angel as a clear icon for transgender women like me, who often also quest for reunion with their lost other half.
“You have to stop thinking there is a difference between Sephiroth and Jenova, because… there isn't,” wrote a fan on GameFAQs. “Sephiroth is Jenova, in mind and in body.”
It was only recently, while thinking about Sephiroth, that I began to realize how meaningful she was to my coming-of-age. Though it took longer than the playtime of FFVII, I eventually did find my own Jenova: The truth of my identity. To me, Jenova is the part of myself that the world told me did not exist, or shouldn't. Realizing that I am transgender was one of the most confusing journeys of my life. I looked for remnants of my true self for years, struggling to understand my place in this world until I found her. And like Sephiroth, when I did, I clung to her and never let her go.