On Kirby,
Gender Ambiguity,
and Safe Spaces of Play

Note: the following piece is anecdotal and personal in nature. I cannot and do not speak for all trans people. This is only what I’ve experienced. I will also be using they/them pronouns for Kirby for the purposes of this article. CW: sexual assault mention, transmisogyny.

The alarm bell rings. Kids sling their backpacks and lunch bags over their shoulders and rush out of the cafeteria toward sunlight, a blacktop, and playground equipment. They run towards the swings so they can hog them for 30 minutes. Self-elected team captains begin picking teams for another day of touch football. The rest of the rabble ends up somewhere in between.

Nighttime Activities, Kirby Super Star, 1996

I don’t really remember elementary school that well, but this could be because I spent all of it glued to my gameboy. I’d be perched on the sidewalk of the blacktop craned over a tiny screen, trying to catch all the pokemon or failing to defeat Zoma yet again (with a severely underleveled and unoptimized party, no less). A few of my best friends would congregate and play with me, sometimes breaking out Magic card decks (after we gave up on Yugioh, of course).

Of course, I wasn’t taught what sex and gender were. I didn’t know what genitalia cis women had. I just assumed it was different, but it was a nebulous difference. Without sex education, I’m not sure how long I would’ve gone thinking that cis women “just had different parts”.

Full disclosure: I’m a trans woman. I spent my childhood as a boy. This was extremely difficult and very confusing. Imagine being systematically denied every mode of presentation or expression you wanted because it didn’t fit the norm. Imagine not understanding that anything could be outside the norm. Imagine being really good friends with most of the girls and then being told that you were weird for sharing interests with girls instead of boys. Some of you may not have to imagine; for many, this is childhood.

Of course, everyone has their own demons to fight, and I had mine. What I want to address is how I got through it, or rather, what that tiny screen did to help me repress my desires and survive until I had the words and the emotional wherewithal to deal with this effectively.

I’m talking about Kirby.

Kirby’s a great series! It features a gender ambiguous protagonist, with gender ambiguous enemies and characters, bosses, etc. If you hadn’t watched the anime or read the manuals (back when manuals were the only way to find out about a game’s inner workings), games were like blank slates, with characters you can superimpose your own feelings on, a true Dreamland.

Kirby and their friends! I think as a young kid, seeing all these colorful cuties together made me yearn for something impossible: living in a world without negative socialization or hurt.

I remember browsing around in a game store and seeing a deal on the first few Kirby games bundled together. They weren’t boxed up, so I ended up with a bunch of loose gameboy cartridges. No manuals, no set-up, no previous notions about this world I was about to dive into.

I was immediately engrossed.

The pastel world of Kirby had me enthralled. Here I was, a 10-year old trans-woman-presenting-as-cis-boy playing a game that did not stick me with a male lead, or implied masculinity. It’s no small exaggeration to say that Kirby’s Dreamland does not really have gender. Perhaps it is a post-gender world, or my personal favorite theory: a pre-gender world. Even King Dedede, the only patriarch of the series, isn’t taken particularly seriously by the rest of Dreamland’s inhabitants. His rule means next to nothing. He just sits at the top of a mountain and fights Kirby for ownership of Dreamland’s food. And loses, mind.

And let’s not forget the lead to this story: Kirby! They’re just a pink ball, amorphous and squishy yet tough and powerful. They’re the cutest force-to-be-reckoned-with I’ve ever seen in any media. And the best part is that Kirby is an endlessly maleable character. Kirby can take on the properties of any enemy they consume, and transform into something new, something that the player is more comfortable with. Maybe you like Sword Kirby because the movements feel right, or maybe Cutter Kirby is better for you because button mashing is your thing, or maybe Mic Kirby is your favorite because you like to destroy a bunch of opponents with a single push of a button.

Or, y’know, resting. Heroines need rest too.

Kirby, to me, feels like a blank slate. Entirely transformable, does not have an agenda aside from the purging of nightmares from Dreamland and helping their friends. Best of all, the world of Kirby seems like one where at the end of the day, all the bosses and enemies get together, say they’re sorry for messing something up, and go back to bouncing around aimlessly.

Kirby’s is a world that is created, inhabited by, and maintained by dream creatures. It is a safe space, and one where regardless of what evils may be occurring, will remain safe. It was a safe space for me, a world that I could run to if I didn’t want to deal with mean comments, homework, or parents. It was a world where play did not have a required socialization quota.

Finally, I was free of the bigger things, the issues that a conversation couldn’t just fix. At least, for 30 minutes. Until we went back inside, had our lunch, met with our friends and talked about how much the other team cheated in touch football or who won tag. I couldn’t take out my gameboy then because the teachers would see me trying to escape their world.

Because that would mean them taking away that one little privilege I was granted. The one thing that kept me alive and away from bad thoughts. It’s always the little things.

Fight the Nightmares, save Dreamland. Fight the Nightmares, save Dreamland.

Now, I don’t think Kirby is perfect by any means. The entry on the Kirby Wiki about Kirby reads:

“Kirby’s age[6] and gender[7] are never directly stated by Japanese sources, although this rule was initially broken when he was introduced to western audiences as a “spry little boy” in the English manual for Kirby’s Dream Land. In most translations, Kirby is consistently referenced with masculine pronouns by default in subsequent games and in the anime.”

This gets to an issue that I’ve talked about previously, that characters that are gender ambiguous/genderqueer/agender are defaulted as male without a second thought, either because they are ferocious or monstrous and monsters can’t be girls, or because we are socialized to believe that male is the default gender. Especially for a game that was formative for me personally, it hurts to see this because the Kirby series gave me freedom to feel safely feminine while playing it.

Fountain of Dreams, Super Smash Bros. Melee, 2001. AKA the best track in any Smash game, fight me.

I wasn’t saving the princess as her knight clad in a green tunic, or jean overalls and a red hat, or a robe and a light saber. The Kirby games have a consistent theme of helping to defend a safe place from encroaching lovecraftian horrors.

In later games, you team up with several old enemies to save the world again. Meta Knight, who originally set out to conquer Dreamland with his army of Meta-Knights, loses to Kirby after offering to duel them in a sword fight (Meta Knight even tosses Kirby a sword to defend themself!). King Dedede gracefully accepts defeat after being beaten so many times and joins up with Kirby on subsequent missions, but only as an assistant. All of Kirby’s friends know that Kirby is Dreamland’s most powerful defender, and they know that Kirby is more suited to the job of heroism. They don’t wanna steal the spotlight.

“AND MY HAMMER”

All of these characters and more become Kirby’s friends over time. And while occasionally they’ll become foes for narrative purposes, they always come back and apologize after.

This all culminates to one conclusion: this world is a dream, unattainable in our current world model. At the end of the day, we don’t just apologzie. We don’t always make up, and identities aren’t always respected. In some ways, Nintendo’s consistent treatment of Kirby in regards to identity (among other things) is fairly analogous to the “real world vs Dreamland” dichotomy. Our safe spaces aren’t always respected and left intact, and we certainly can’t eat other animals in order to take on their characteristics (though I’m sure some have tried).

A lot of the time, we have this discourse about fantasy that revolves around wanting more realistic depictions of fantastical situations: we see this in D&D, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, etc. We often see people bemoaning fantasy’s theme of escapism, and how easy it is to get caught up in those situations. I want to propose that perhaps these escapes aren’t just valuable to our continued creation of entertainment media, they are essential. And bemoaning the simpler escapes, like the Kirby series, belies that they might hold a lot more merit in their idealistic natures than one would ever get trying to figure out how long an orc can hold their breath underwater or reading another passage about sexual assault in Game of Thrones.

Sometimes we just wanna fight Whispy Woods again. Oh Whispy, when will you ever learn?

While those early days of escapism have passed for me, there will be more young trans women out there with few ways out of their inevitable socialization, self-hatred, and potential suicide attempts. Being consistently inundated with fiction that confirms our long-held suspicions (the world does hate you, you aren’t really a woman, you are statistically likely to be sexually assaulted or murdered or both) does nothing for us.

Sometimes, we need our Kirby’s. Sometimes, we need stuff that isn’t heavy or “realistic”. Sometimes, our escapes are all we’ve got.

Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards opening, 2008