I've heard it said that FF females are weak and one-dimensional. While I see their reasoning, I'd like to point out some of my observations on the former. I'm only going to refer to females from Final Fantasies 7 through 12, because they're the fandoms I'm most familiar with. I've only just begun playing 3 and 6, and haven't formed an opinion about their characters yet. These are only opinions, although I will try to present evidence from the games to justify them. I welcome any discussion, regardless of whether you agree or disagree.
Female characters have a lot of expectations pressed upon them by the fan community. I can't speak for males, but females seem to want to relate to and admire the female characters. FF is produced by Square-Enix, a Japanese company, and so their female characters are influenced by the traditions and beliefs of Japanese society, although they also want to appeal to a worldwide fanbase. When discussing female characters, several people seem to define them in two groups: dominant and submissive. According to them, the dominant types are women who are masculine in their ways, physical, and aggressive in personality or actions. The submissive types are meek, emotional, and maternal. Luckily, the majority of FF female characters do not seem to fit into either of these categories but are more realistic and complex, though they still do not achieve the complexities of the male characters. Forcing them into categories such as Fighter and Healer does not recognize their true potential as characters.
This brings me to my second point: physical strength as opposed to emotional strength. Now, I enjoy characters who can compete with the guys on a physical level, but female characters don't need to be butt-kicking Lara Crofts to be acceptable role models for girls. Several FF characters are dismissed as weak while still possessing emotional strength (strong conviction, determination, a positive outlook, etc). Also, some strong female characters are emotionally undecisive. To further illustrate this concept, I will show examples of female characters from each of the games.
Tifa -- physically strong. Emotionally insecure but brave. Connections to a male character. Sexualized.
Aerith -- physically weak. Has a strong resolve. Protected by a male character.
Yuffie -- physically strong. Emotionally immature.
Quistis -- physically strong. Intelligent and fairly emotionally healthy, yet insecure. Her emotions are affected by a male character. Stands up to a male character. Sexualized.
Rinoa -- physically neutral. Emotionally immature but has strength of will. Romantic relationship with a male character.
Edea -- physically weak. Has great mental powers. Needs a male knight.
Selphie -- physically neutral. Immature but confident and self-assured, except where romance is concerned.
Garnet -- physically weak. Emotionally mature and courageous. Romantic relationship with a male character.
Beatrix -- physically strong but cold in personality. Sexualized. Romantic relationship with a male character.
Freya -- Physically strong and emotionally mature. Sadness arises from feelings for a male character.
Yuna -- Physically weak (in first game). Emotionally mature and has strength of will, although it could be argued she is determined to finish her pilgrimage due to the brainwashing of Yevon. Romantic feelings for a male character and in a position of weakness due to a male character. In second game, gains physical abilities and becomes sexualized.
Lulu -- Physically weak. Emotionally mature and confident, but feels sorrow because of a male character.
Rikku -- Physically neutral and emotionally well-developed. Feelings for a male character.
Lucil -- Physically and emotionally strong. Becomes subordinate of male character in X-2.
Paine -- Physically strong but has emotional scars due to feelings for a male character.
Ashe -- Physically neutral. Has determination but motivation arises partly from past relationship with a male character. Receives protection from a male.
Penelo -- Physically neutral. Emotionally strong and confident. Maternal feelings for a male character.
Fran -- Physically and emotionally strong. Connections to a male character.
Drace -- Physically and emotionally strong. Connections to a male character.
As you can see, the female characters who exist above have certain common similarities. Women who are physically strong are made sexually attractive, yet they still retain a sense of innocence and self-doubt, and have an emotional connection to a male character. Those women who are weak physically are stronger emotionally, though they also have connections with a male character. This shows that just having physical strength is often not enough. However, having relationships with a male does not make them weak. This brings me to my next issue.
Yes, the females of FF are closely associated with males. Being emotionally reliant on another person is not necessarily weak. As long as the relationship is healthy and equal, emotional connections with others shows the emotional depth of that character. The exceptions of this are Tifa, Paine, and Quistis, whose emotional attachments are possibly needy and until they learn to let go of those attachments they will not fully be confident.
In terms of personality, a character does not have to be fiery and aggressive or a stoic ice queen to have strength of character. Having qualities such as kindness, sensitivity, and optimism (typically considered feminine traits) does not make the character stereotypical or weak. Yuna and Penelo have these qualities, and yet they are some of the most emotionally mature and healthy characters in their respective games. Yuna has compassion for others, but also has a firm resolve and possesses great courage. Penelo cares for Vaan in a brotherly way, yet pointedly tells Basch in the Sandsea that she is not as weak as she looks. She's brave and calm and one of the most balanced characters. Lulu and Fran are emotionally strong, but their chilly personalities isolate others.
A woman should not have to possess masculine traits to be considered strong. Lucil is one of my favorite female characters because she is a leader but also has compassion for those under her command and treats them with kindness. This is a contrast to Beatrix, whose sense of duty is admirable but leads her to blindly follow her queen, and Ashe, who recklessly goes on even while her actions may cause suffering for others.
In terms of appearance, characters seem to be overtly sexual when physically strong (Tifa, Quistis, Beatrix, Fran), more innocent when weak (Yuna, Rinoa, Penelo), and childish when emotionally immature (Yuffie, Rikku). The sexualized characters obviously are meant to attract the male fanbase, and perhaps the reasoning is that men will not accept a strong female character (a threat) unless she is physically attactive and therefore a sex object. The more innocent types seem to appeal to females, demonstrating the virtues of emotional fortitude and dedication. However, I don't believe it's bad that the characters are sexualized. Square-Enix does it with the male characters too, so they just want to create attractive characters in general.
In summary, Square-Enix's characters could be worse. There are some characters who are admirable in their physical and emotional strengths (Lucil, Drace). Just because a character is physically strong does not mean she is emotionally confident, yet her process of development makes her more interesting and by no means implies that she is a flat character. Neither is it a bad thing if she is physically attractive. Having feminine traits such as kindness does not make a female character weak, nor do her relationships with men. For instance, Rinoa is immature, but she has the ability to form healthy relationships with others and possesses confidence in herself despite her undeveloped understanding of the world.
In the end, your experiences and beliefs will affect how you see the characters, and so certain combinations of virtues and flaws will either appeal to you or repel you. In short, give the FF females a chance and appreciate them for the positive qualities that they do have.
Inspired by a previous post on this community, regarding female characters being defined by romance and why I don't think it makes them less valid.