Archetype I: The Perky Refugee
Archetype II: The Jaded Beauty
Archetype III: The Sad Clown
Archetype IV: The Failed Hero
Archetype V: The Pipsqueak
Archetype VI: ???
I am going to kick this series off with perhaps one of the most easily recognized archetypes in Final Fantasy—one that is often brought up with no reference to archetypes whatsoever, and regarded, as often as not, with a certain amount of ire: the Cute Girl. A perky and somewhat obnoxious teenager, she maintains a cheery disposition despite any trials she and the party face. She is always there with a smile and a silly phrase, singing about trains, skipping through a desolate ruin, or writing cutesy love letters to the male lead. She is something of an emotional compass for the player—more than any other character, if something dampens her mood, it’s meant to be nothing short of a tragedy. Famous and infamous examples of this archetype include Yuffie Kisaragi (FFVII), Selphie Tilmitt (FFVIII), Eiko Carol (FFIX), Rikku (FFX), Penelo (FFXII), and Oerba dia Vanille (FFXIII). This archetype is also one of the longest running, and can be found as far back as FFIV with Rydia, and FFVI with Relm.
However, it seems disingenuous to suggest that the Cute Girl’s titular cuteness is the limit of her impact, or the extent of the commonalities between these characters. There are additional common threads that bring these girls together, specifically similarities of foreignness and large-scale oppression. That in mind, I believe a better moniker for this archetype would be the Perky Refugee.
Hear me out.
As noted above (and by an impressive number of wrathful forum posters the internet over), the Perky Refugee is cute. In some cases, that is the player’s first impression of her, carefully calculated by the developers: Selphie’s introduction cinematic has her tumbling down a hill in an endearingly clumsy manner; Eiko is found stuck to a branch and trading adorable verbal jabs with Mog; and Penelo strolls into her first appearance by scolding Vaan, then pilfering his stolen earnings with a wink and a wave. Other times, she is initially seen as formidable, only for that to be contrasted with (and subsequently highlight) her cuteness. For example, Yuffie and Rikku are met in battle, but after being defeated, pout about their loss in a way that establishes their “cute” persona.
The Perky Refugee also represents something of a muted romantic rival to the female lead: her attraction/attractiveness to the male lead is made clear early on (Eiko’s instant attraction to Zidane, for instance), and something of a history may be established between the two of them that predates the female lead (Selphie meeting Squall before Rinoa, for example, or Rikku knowing Tidus before he met Yuna). She is also more forward than the female lead with any romantic interest she harbors—Yuffie and Eiko being prominent examples. However, her potential as a romantic threat is neutered by her cuteness: her silly, sweet, sometimes infantile nature largely undercuts any serious threat she might otherwise represent. She is, therefore, often relegated to the position of Girl Next Door, in that she maintains a close friendship with the male lead, but any hinted romantic tension never comes to fruition.
However, while cuteness is a prominent aspect of her character, it is not the sum total: her cheeriness, while genuine, always, always, ALWAYS disguises something darker about her, revealed over the course of the adventure: amongst the party, she is an outsider who is uniquely familiar with the destruction or oppression of her people.
While each character has their own set of personal tragedies (which are, often enough, pivotal to their archetype), the Perky Refugee’s is always the largest in scale, and the most associated with systematic oppression. Often the party will see this occur for themselves as a major part of the storyline: Selphie, the lone SeeD in her party from Trabia, is unable to stop a missile launch that obliterates her former Garden; and Rikku finds Home, the base of her already oppressed people, being decimated at the hands of one of Yevon’s religious leaders.
Even when the party does not witness the violence perpetrated against the Refugee’s people, it is still felt. Cloud’s party discovers that the once proud nation of Wutai has been turned into a tourist attraction by Shinra, which catalyzes Yuffie’s journey to return it to its former glory. Eiko is the last of a summoner race annihilated by Garland and Kuja, the remains of which can be found in Madain Sari. Penelo lives through the takeover of her nation by the oppressive Archadia, the loss of her family but one of many scars left in Rabanastre by the war. Even Vanille experiences this brand of tragedy, for as one of Gran Pulsian origin she feels the vilification of Pulse centered on her—all while her people, feared by the denizens of Cocoon, have long since been wiped out.
The Perky Refugee’s national origins set her apart in an otherwise nationally homogenous group—Wutai is separated both physically and culturally from Midgar, Nibelheim, Rocket Town, and even Cosmo Canyon; nearly all of Selphie’s compatriots come from Balamb, with Irvine hailing from the geographically similar Galbadia; Eiko is the only party member from the Outer Continent; and Rikku is the only full Al Bhed in her cousin’s guardian group. Subsequently, the Refugee is largely alone in experiencing the sort of systematic harm visited upon her people (with later games taking a step back from this concept, Penelo and Vanille sharing their experiences with Vaan and Fang, respectively.) If there are any other “outsider” characters in the party, such as Tidus or Irvine, the Refugee often develops a strong bond with them, partially due to a sense of shared experience.
Her cheerfulness is seen by some as a direct reaction to the adversity she has experienced—even, as some have suggested, acting to mask her true sorrow. While this theory has some weight in the case of Vanille, who says she acts cheerful to cover her despair, the Refugee’s perkiness largely appears to be genuine: Yuffie, Rikku and Penelo maintain their archetypal demeanors in future appearances, and Selphie and Eiko end their stories on a characteristically cheerful note. Even Vanille, as bittersweet as her conclusion is, is hopeful in the game’s final moments.
It is perhaps better to say that while tragedy does not define the Perky Refugee, it has changed her deeply, and affects how she sees the world in ways that are alien to her fellow party members.
Notably, the Refugee’s experiences often goad her into becoming a champion of her people, though different characters approach this status in different ways. While Yuffie (perhaps the most brass) liberates the worldly goods of travelers to increase Wutai’s wealth, Selphie is a prominent member of the recovery efforts in Trabia. As Eiko keeps the histories and practices of her people alive, Rikku leads the charge for the Al Bhed people to assert control over efforts to combat Sin. Penelo and Vanille are perhaps the quietest in this regard, but still leave their mark—Penelo stands to alter the course of the Archadian Empire through her friendship with Larsa, and Vanille slowly changes the party’s preconceived notions of Gran Pulsians, which becomes pivotal after the game’s end.
The Perky Refugee is, for all intents and purposes, optimism incarnate. Despite the vilification and tragedy she experiences, she is the first to offer words of encouragement or a goofy (and, yes, slightly annoying) ramble about happiness and friendship. Even though her past is dark, and she experiences prejudice in a way that the other party members are not familiar with, she is still always there with a smile.
Of course, for many even the most tragic of back stories will not make up for all of her cutesy dialogue, or even one instance of Booyaka. Some of us will never quite get over Yuffie’s dastardly theft. And sometimes, no amount of sympathy will stop one from throwing a controller at the television when Vanille starts to laugh. But in the end, like or dislike her, she is more than just the Cute Girl. She is a proud fighter, one who has struggled through great challenges and adversities to become a beacon of optimism—a beacon that, yes, uses Duck Soup as a battle-cry. Still, she shines bright, lightening what could otherwise be a set of very somber stories, and makes for a pivotal member of any Final Fantasy team.
Provided she gives back the materia, of course.