A New Link in the Puzzle: Defending Exploration of Gender in Pop Culture’s Treasured Stories

Context: Nintendo has announced a new version of their legendary, green-tunic-wearing, puzzle-solving, time-traveling, fantasy hero: Linkle.

I love the new female Link. From the moment I heard that Nintendo announced “Linkle” (the named given to the “sister-like” depiction of the Zelda series protagonist) I only ever had one thought: It makes sense.

Sadly, it does not seem that all of the gaming community has taken to this depiction. Even more sad, I am not at all surprised.

I grew up on The Ocarina of Time, the Legend of Zelda N64 classic that ushered in open world exploration, item-based puzzle dungeons, and a fixation on the titular instrument to this day. As a child, I was surprised to play Wind Waker on the GameCube and coming to the realization that (since Majora’s Mask was a direct sequel to Ocarina and Wind Waker was the only Zelda title I played after Ocarina) the Link in Wind Waker and the Link of Ocarina were NOT the same person. Rather, the Wind Waker Link was a successor to the legendary title of the “Hero of [Time/Winds/whatever-gimmick-the-particular-Zelda-game-has]”.

Perhaps the most famous Zelda title, and just one of many retellings of the “legend”.

In the world of Legend of Zelda, that often misnamed hero (Link, NOT Zelda people) was, in fact, in a cycle of birth-rebirth that always involved Link (the hero) working with Zelda (the noble) to overthrow the usurper (Ganon, the evil king).

Now why would we ever presume that titles like “hero”, “noble”, or “usurper” have to fit certain genders? The story will always be about the legend of Zelda, but it’s not the legend of PRINCESS Zelda, nor is it “Farm boy overthrows evil king” (because why perpetuate a cliché?).

Rather, like Avatar: The Last Airbender, the role people play should be more important than the “who”. No one threw a fit over Korra succeeding Aang, and it’s best to view a possible Linkle (because no canon Zelda game has included her, she’s not even a part of the “true” Zelda continuity) as a possible female hero — and we should celebrate the fact that in one retelling of the Zelda legend, perhaps we have a hero who’s a cliché farm-girl than farm-boy.

But, as I said, people nevertheless seem upset.

Conservatism in Nerd Culture

Pop culture has become filled to the brim with the stories and characters I cherished growing up. What used to be “nerdy” or “geeky” has become the stuff of blockbuster hits, commercialized industry, and the ever-developing American mythos. As icons from Superman, Master Chief, and Mario become ever more ubiquitous, more and more participation by new demographics booms.

I’m happy for this. Especially when such new demographics include those typically stereotyped within the cultures: namely, women. It doesn’t take much to see the plethora of ways that women are sexualized, controlled, and pushed to the sidelines whether in comics, video games, or science fiction and fantasy, no matter the medium. And thankfully, the rise in popularity of these media and genres demands equitable depictions of women.

This seems to be the case when you see Marvel Comics releasing a revamped comic mythos on the coattails of the ever-successful Marvel Cinematic Universe. Suddenly, you have female Thor, female Wolverine, Spider-Gwen, an all-female X-men team, Harley Quinn solo series, and more. Suddenly, a new demographic is represented and celebrated in stories that they had always been cast as second fiddle.

And oh dear did the conservative nerd/geek tradition fight back. Comments on articles covering said topics take the attitude of: ‘Why change the characters? Just invent new ones! What if we made female characters male? Why do feminists ruin everything? [Insert character here] just IS male and isn’t the same [insert character here] otherwise!”

Such is the case with the brand-new Linkle, a character being presented in a new release of Hyrule Warriors for the 3DS. And I reject all these notions.

They represent a reprehensible phobia of women in the limelight — that heroes and saviors on the scale of entire worlds can be female. Not one objection really has any merit. Let’s examine a couple, and try to use Linkle as an example why we have to embrace such new depictions, not disparage them and destroy new anchors for females in pop culture.

“Why change established characters? If you want a [gay/female/black] character, just invent one!”

And you think people don’t?

There are hundreds, if not thousands of indie publishers creating and crafting new worlds to much acclaim. But in the psyche of pop culture, the big names matter. When you think about it, it’s surprising that even names like Iron Man and Starlord have come to such acclaim as Superman and Batman. Much of pop culture starts from where the money is, and the fact of the matter is the money lies with established story lines. People are willing to buy titles they know as a matter of economic cost. It’s easier to want to spend a ticket on a franchise like Thor than on a new franchise with characters we’ve never heard before.

Given this fact, Marvel and Nintendo go with a new tactic: let’s retell our myths with a new perspective. It’s easier, for one, to have powerful female characters if we introduce them to people already buying. Otherwise, terrific stories on different demographics get lost on the wayside where the money (and thus, the visibility) doesn’t flow. If you want female readers, watchers, and participants of culture to see representation, don’t beat around the bush and shoe-horn them in as sidekicks. Just allow them to flourish in positions that are at heart just positions.

Hence, Linkle could be a way for people to go: yes, in the cycle of the heroic tradition, maybe it could be a girl. The one courageous enough to go on her own and into the unknown to save all she loves, why could one cycle not be a girl? Is the hero, by nature a boy? Of course not. And certainly Nintendo could try and tell this story through a new franchise, but I can imagine now the crowds going, “This is just a copy of Legend of Zelda,” and then saying how not as good it is. So why not skip the room for calling it a copy? Just show how such a story could be done. A role is a role.

“[Insert character here] just IS [a particular characteristic, whether male/white/Christian/etc].”

This has never been true in pop culture.

In fact, superheroes inherently rest on the idea that it is a matter of dual identity. Just consider the Nolan Batman mythos: Batman is the symbol; Bruce Wayne is but a man. So why do we restrict a symbol to particular characteristics?

No one objects when Dick Grayson becomes Batman; no one objects when Link from Wind Waker dons the legendary outfit of the “Hero”; no one thinks it’s a bad thing when Bucky takes over for Steve as Captain in the comics. But these are because they fit the “bill” we label those heroes. But what makes Batman isn’t his white-maleness — it’s the fact that he’s a hero who strikes fear into those who would make others cowards. Link is a hero because he’s willing to stand against those who would use darkness to subjugate others. Bucky can be Captain America because Captain America stands for American ideals.

Which is why it’s sad to hear people disparage female characters who don these titles. Mind you, Wolverine and Thor are not “turned” female — their identities and their titles are passed. This is also the case with Linkle. And with examples like the new Spider-man and Captain America, too, black characters are able to stand in for those who decide to let someone fill their shoes. And that’s ok.

(Need I also remind anyone for a while Thor was a FROG and no one got upset, but if Thor is a women everyone loses their mind?)

The story matters. But people forget that. At its heart, pop culture acts as modern day myths. They tell us values — what makes heroes is their role, not their identity. I celebrate Linkle because it shows that gender can’t prescribe the Hero of Time, but what prescribes the hero is their role to combat evil.

I am just shocked that in a medium full of telling our values, there are still those who value, at base value, that things stay the same: that the characters just are male, and it’s ruinous to imagine them female. These are stories we have told ourselves, so we treasure them. But rather than make sure only our stories are told, we must yield stories to people who want to participate in heroism.

So celebrate the creative freedom we have in allowing new characters to take up the mantle. Because the stories I grew up on, of heroes and villains, of adventures and dangers, of community and self-sacrifice, must allow others to say “I can do that, too”.