Don't ask me how or why, but this morning I started thinking about gender in Tales of Vesperia.
A few months ago in Marina, someone asked Yuri point blank whether his life had ever been easier for him just because he was a man. He thought about it, and so did I; and then he said, "No, not really."
Because in Tales of Vesperia, gender roles seem to be pretty damned egalitarian.
Point the first: Estelle was going to be Empress.
Estelle and Ioder, in ToV, are completely equal candidates for the throne. Estelle is preferred by the Council of Nobles, possibly because she has the pink hair that signifies the potency of her inherited powers as a Child of the Full Moon (thereby possibly making her royal blood bluer), but just as likely because she was recognized as being more naive (and malleable) than Ioder.
Meanwhile, Ioder is preferred by the Imperial Knights.
These two groups have equal power in ToV (and an imbalance in that power, shifting it towards the Council, is one of our underlying plotlines), both being subordinate only to the Emperor or Empress.
Never once in the entire game is there ever made any mention of Ioder being better-suited for the throne because he's male, or any mention that Estelle would have to marry. In fact, when I say "Empress", I think I may be pulling that out of my ass; I'm not completely sure they don't just say "Emperor" all the time and that Estelle would have ended up "Emperor". I like the word Empress, but I'm just saying: they only ever call her a candidate for the Imperial Throne. There is so little mention made of her being a "woman Emperor" that they never use a gendered term for it at all.
In a society with sexism present, you would expect this to be made an issue of. In a truly sexist society, you wouldn't expect Estelle to be a candidate at all.
Point the second: Kaufman, Belius
The Empire is, of course, only half of the game's governing body. The other half, opposed to the Empire for most of the game, is a coalition of Guilds called the Union. One of the five master guilds is run by a woman (Fortune's Market) and one is a question mark (we know nothing about the Soul Smiths and hardly ever hear their name).
And then there's Pallestralle, the only major independent Guild, which is also run by a woman. And I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Belius is, in fact, KNOWN to be female by everyone, and that it was a translation hiccup that caused the game to spend half of its time referring to her as "that person".
If the Soul Smiths isn't run by a woman -- and from now on my personal headcanon is that it is -- then the imbalance is caused only by the fact that two of the guilds are secretly run by the same man, so there's only actually four leaders, split -- for all we know -- evenly down the middle.
Again, there are no mentions ever made of it even being unusual that they're leading.
Point the third: Sodia, Casey
In the Raven novel -- and nowhere else -- we are told that female knights usually opt to be mages rather than swordsmen or arches. Casey, it notes, is an exception to this general rule; and so too is Sodia. But in neither case is there ever any actual surprise directed at these women, let alone noticeable prejudice. Much noise is made throughout Vesperia about how Alexei, Schwann, and Flynn are all commoners rather than being noble-born, but nobody ever spares a sneer for Sodia or Casey.
Not to mention Estelle, who is a princess but was still trained to defend herself with a sword and a shield.
So this tells me that, rather than being something women are forbidden to do, it's something women are less inclined to do, which I don't mind or consider to be evidence of sexism. I also think it's tremendously significant that the writers, upon deciding to make this part of the Knights' gender makeup, also decided to make the only female characters we actually know both exceptions to the 'rule'.
It's hard to feel, in that situation, like the point wasn't to show us that women can do whatever they want, rather than that they usually take roles that don't involve direct combat.
Point the fourth: Karol and Estelle's crossdressing
Karol is embarrassed to be told to seduce the guard, especially after he just suggested one of the girls do it, but there's never a horrified moment from anyone about the idea of Karol wearing girls' clothes. And no one objects at ALL to the idea of Estelle playing the prince: in fact, since the outfit fits her perfectly, the original actor who played the prince was probably also a girl.
Additionally, both the description of Karol's female costume in the 360 version and several extra scenes in the PS3 version all imply that Karol kind of likes being pretty and wearing a dress. X3
Point the fifth: Flynn is the worst cook in the game
(Note: This IS also true in the 360 version. You just have to read between the lines during the skit you get for having Yuri cook repeatedly -- he never mentions Flynn's name, but he's obviously talking about him -- and complete the Wonder Chef Cooking Battle in Dahngrest with Yuri. Flynn will be the Empire's cook, and if Yuri wins you'll hear all about Flynn the Disastrous cook.)
Flynn is a type of cook that is always, always female in Japanese media. He is the enthusiastic, hopeful, but horrible chef who always puts the wrong ingredients into his food in a puppy dog-like attempt to make it taste better. This type of cook is always female because it subverts the expectation that a sweet woman will necessarily be a good homemaker.
I can't even put into words how much I love the fact that the disaster chef is male and Flynn.
The fact is that gender is never really mentioned in Vesperia, and it is mentioned in other Tales Of games: for example, in Symphonia, there are multiple scenes to the tune of men being useless for traditional manly duties. (Presea and Colette, both possessing unnatural strength for plot reasons, are shown more than once to lift enormous objects effortlessly, and male characters around them become insecure. "I've lost my confidence as a man," says Lloyd. "Me, too," says Genis. "Men are so useless these days," says Raine.)
So, I'm going to go ahead and say that there COULD have been gendered roles in Vesperia, and that we go out of our way to avoid them.