Nintendo’s worrying treatment of femininity
Samus, Princess Zelda, Princess Peach, and how Nintendo use femininity to devalue the women in its games
I have always felt that I owe Nintendo an enormous debt of gratitude. Growing up isolated, without friends, and with a family who conflated engaging their children with sitting in silence near a television, access to a series of Nintendo consoles was all I had to engage a mind whose only other entertainment was books. Receiving an N64 for my seventh birthday remains one of the few positive memories of my childhood, and so intensely did I play it that I got into serious trouble at school for replacing a diary homework project with a series of stories set in Hyrule. Looking back and examining what was a pretty empty childhood mostly spent indoors, I have to retroactively give credit to video games for my development — in particular, Nintendo.
From the NES up to the Switch, I’ve hammered away at all of Nintendo’s consoles with varying degrees of intensity. In all that time, Nintendo has delivered example after example of tight, fun, and accessible games. Even as it struggled through its Wii years, it was still apparent that Nintendo was dedicated to well-made games that continue to surprise. And with the release of the Switch in 2017, Nintendo showed us that it still has what it takes to innovate and excite in a market steadily drawing away from the days in which Nintendo was the dominant gaming force.
That being said, there is one area in which Nintendo is persistently falling behind the times, and that’s its treatment of women — and in particular, femininity.
In the two decades since Ocarina of Time’s release, Nintendo hasn’t stopped punishing femininity and perpetuating the idea that being a woman is, fundamentally, something to be ashamed of.
Nintendo has continually failed to present its women as having their own agendas without completely stripping them of their femininity. Should a female character want to take part in any kind of meaningful action within a Nintendo game, then they have to present traditionally male characteristics. The moment any character takes on traditionally female traits they become one of two things: comic relief (often in the form of effeminate men) or a glorified prize. In short, to be a Nintendo hero, one has to be male or a tomboy. Otherwise, you wear a dress and get captured. There doesn’t appear to be much in the way of middle ground.
Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with portraying women with what are regarded as traditionally male traits, but it becomes a problem when it is used — as Nintendo utilise it — to devalue female characters and rob them of their power, driving them into the role of trophies for male characters and players.
One of the more obvious signifiers of the value Nintendo places in women is Samus Aran. So comprehensive were Nintendo’s attempts to cover up her femininity that no one knew she was a woman in Metroid until they finished the game. Even the instruction booklet referred to Samus as “he” and “him.” This was an effort to appeal to the perceived market of young boys who the developers felt might be put off by playing as a girl.
Except, it wasn’t really. Rather than an empowering message hidden at the end of the game, the revelation that Samus was, in fact, female was conceived as a reward for male players. Samus didn’t stop at revealing she was a woman, complete the game faster and faster and she would remove her whole suit to reveal a leotard, and then a bikini.
When you combine this with how neatly Samus’ suit erases her femininity in the first place, a clear picture emerges that Nintendo has a meaningful fear of the feminine. In referring to Samus exclusively as male and presenting her as a presumed male character right up until the point she swaps her suit for a bikini, Nintendo is making it obvious that her only value as a woman is as a reward to titillate male players. She can be the hero of her own story, but only when she dresses and acts like a man. It feels like a perverse way for men to have their cake and eat it too.
Like any discourse that examines their favourites, it’s a conversation many male fans don’t want to have, as shown in the vitriolic reaction to the theory presented by Brianna Wu and Ellen McGrody that Samus is actually transgender. But it’s important to realise that, while we can appreciate Samus’ exploits as a woman on an individual basis, Nintendo consistently make it clear that we shouldn’t.
But that article made an important point about how Nintendo has handled Samus. Over the years, Samus has changed from a 6' 3" powerhouse “into a petite blond woman with large breasts.” And it is important to note that as Nintendo have grown more comfortable with portraying Samus as an actual woman outside of the neutralising influence of the suit, their focus has been on stripping her of her lone wolf status and introducing male characters to whom she is subservient, all while altering her looks to make her more appealing to male gamers. Because again, in the suit she’s genderless and powerful, out of it she’s just a woman.
Perhaps the saddest element of this is how the typical male gamer crowd holds Samus up as a cornerstone of their argument to protect male bias, insisting that there’s actually plenty of female representation in games so there’s no need for change. It’s been shown that men have a rather warped view of gender parity which often leads them to strange leaps of logic such as this. And it’s an argument we see everywhere — only a little while ago, in discussing the Grand Canyon of a pay-gap in professional cricket, the responses were overwhelmingly in support of paying women as little as possible. This is just one:
Unfortunately, these crowds generally shout the loudest and, as a result, we are often distracted from the real issues in Samus’ portrayal. Namely that her womanhood is something to be erased whenever she needs to shoot things and is then a tool for rewarding said shooting.
This idea that once a character is revealed, in some way, to be a woman or feminine they somehow became lesser is a major theme within Nintendo games. It is especially virulent in The Legend of Zelda, in which the titular character is not the protagonist but the perpetual McGuffin to motivate the male hero.
We could spend hours dissecting the ways Breath of the Wild negatively presents femininity and women. You’ve got the Gerudo, whose whole history appears to be one of negative appropriation, running around the desert in high heels and moaning about boys — not to mention their all-female city, a woman-only space that you, as the male protagonist, deceive your way inside of. There’s Zelda, locked away in a castle and waiting to be rescued, whose whole journey is that of working out that only being in love with a man can unlock her magic powers; powers that are persistently questioned by her, her father, and everyone else. There’s also a whole new wave of camp characters used for comedic effect. Under the banner of breaking series conventions, Breath of the Wild cements all of the worst elements of Zelda, hiding them behind a beautiful landscape, ripe for exploring.
But more glaring is 2002’s The Wind Waker. If any game threatened to actually break Zelda conventions, it was this one. The principal female character, Tetra, is a rough and engaging pirate captain. For much of the game, it is her that saves Link rather than the other way round. She is also a tomboy who rejects everything feminine as she ignores the light teasing of her male crew. Everything points to her being capable and of having her own agenda until she is revealed to actually be Princess Zelda.
At once, this formerly engaging character is transformed into a passive waif who wrings her hands waiting for the hero to return, only to get captured to set up Wind Waker’s endgame. All of this is done by putting her in a dress. The moment Tetra begins presenting in a more feminine guise, she is stripped of all agency and, more jarringly, her entire personality. An interesting character is relegated to set dressing for the male protagonist's final push.
It’s the same narrative we see in Ocarina of Time, in which Zelda is a hapless princess until she dons the disguise of Sheik, an outwardly male character, only to be captured by the big-bad once she reverts to Zelda, all to push Link to his final confrontation with Ganondorf.
Defenders of Nintendo’s particular brand sexism tend to fall back on odd rationales for keeping female characters in their traditional roles. A piece on NerdMuch? titled “The Truth About Zelda and Female Representation” (which does not tell the truth about Zelda and female representation) tries to reject claims that Zelda isn’t good representation — specifically from Anita Sarkeesian — by confirming that Zelda isn’t good representation:
“In Ocarina of Time, Zelda dresses at [as] Sheik to escape Ganon and provides the extremely necessary songs used to unlock each of the four Temples. In Twilight Princess, Zelda is a prisoner of war and gives her life force to Midna…”
As this piece unwittingly highlights: Zelda’s only influence outside of being a trophy waiting for rescue is either to sacrifice herself for the male protagonist (something we see most prominently in Breath of the Wild and Twilight Princess) or to dress as a man (Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker).
It goes on to refer to Breath of the Wild, “Link must keep in mind that Zelda is no passive Princess Ruto here.” Again doing our job for us in highlighting just how passive Breath of the Wild’s women are. And this is where so much of the defense of Nintendo’s sexism goes: there’s no acknowledgment of issues, no true rebuttal — all negative criticism is just plain wrong, and the proof they present of that often just makes the case for us. One refuter of the “Samus is transgender” theory (don’t click the link, folks — I read it so you don’t have to) even goes out of his way to refer to Brianna Wu by her deadname. It’s vile, aggressive, and in the particular case of “The Truth About Zelda and Female Representation” extremely misguided.
While Breath of the Wild was in development, it was briefly considered that Zelda should be the protagonist. It would have been a monumental shift that finally saw the series’ titular character being moved into the primary role. It would have made for a far more interesting — and less overtly creepy — Gerudo plotline and, providing the all-male development team actually brought in some women, could have made for a much better game. But Nintendo quickly demurred. “If we have Princess Zelda as the main character who fights, then what is Link to do?” said producer Eiji Aonuma. The idea that Link might not be necessary apparently never crossing their mind.
And while Zelda has been poorly served throughout the franchise, it is the way that Nintendo uses her femininity as a crutch that is the most galling. Tetra was almost Zelda’s most interesting character, but Nintendo undermined everything she could have been by exploiting her gender as a symbol of ineffectiveness.
It’s worth noting that Nintendo’s problem with femininity isn’t limited to creating women with traditionally male traits. Rather, its most famous female character is arguably its most girly, and where a character like Zelda tends to lose her agency whenever she presents as overtly female, Princess Peach has never had any at all.
If you needed any convincing that Nintendo views femininity as a weakness, Peach is your reference point. She’s a cultural icon, ranking alongside Mario and Bowser as one of gaming’s longest-serving and most enduring characters. And yet, much like Zelda, Peach’s legacy is one of being there to be rescued. In every mainline Mario game since Super Mario Bros. Peach has been kidnapped within the first ten minutes. The rest of the game is spent endeavouring to rescue her, after which she is presented to you as a reward for a job well done.
It was Peach that Nintendo used to cement the trope of women as damsels in distress back in the 80s, and in the thirty-plus years since they haven’t demonstrated the slightest inclination to move on. We, as human beings, are all too susceptible to passive reinforcement of ingrained views, and in this Nintendo — through its use of Peach — is guilty of fortifying the prevailing attitude that women fundamentally owe men something. It may not be the most egregious perpetrator of dangerous tropes, but its one of the most stubborn.
Super Mario Odyssey gives Peach a holiday after she’s rescued, in which she sets off to the game’s locales on her own — because she don’t need no man. Male defenders are quick to identify this as evidence of progress. But if anything signals just how far behind Nintendo are with treating femininity with respect, it’s that 90s sentiment.
Even in her own game, Super Princess Peach, her whole character is based around an empty portrayal of femininity as intensely emotional — and little else. The mechanics of the game revolve around how you can utilise Peach’s wildly volatile emotions to progress.
That there isn’t a whole lot to say about Princess Peach is testament to how much Nintendo have turned her into a baffling caricature of womanhood. In thirty-plus years of gaming, she remains something of an empty vessel. She has little to no influence on the games she appears in outside of motivation for the male protagonist and player. Over time, at least some elements of nuance have filtered into characters like Zelda and Samus, for better or worse, but throughout her existence Peach has been nothing but a reward.
Male gamers will always try and derail criticism of their favourite creators and franchises. They argue that these portrayals are traditional and necessary, that to change anything would undermine Nintendo’s games. And in this, they ignore that Nintendo’s priority has never been their characters, but gameplay. It is one of the reasons that the same themes and stories keep recurring, because they are simply a framework for celebrating Nintendo’s next innovation. So how would it really affect these series if the characters were different, if Zelda was the protagonist of her own game or if Peach was given a personality? The answer is: it wouldn’t.
But Nintendo’s problems run deeper. That they appear to believe that femininity — that womanhood — cannot be associated with strength or individuality is increasingly reprehensible the longer it goes on. And while the company’s defenders will argue that it is the women in games that are choosing their behaviours, how they look, etc. It is a theory that ignores that agency lies with Nintendo in this, not its characters. As Jeremy Winslow states about Zelda, “It’s not that she actually isn’t strong enough, but that she was designed not to be strong enough.”
And it’s not just Nintendo’s adherence to these trends that is the most worrying, it’s that they genuinely seem to buy into them.
Ocarina of Time’s trailer launched with the slogan “Willst thou get the girl, or play like one?” One of my most enduring memories of the game was how many of my male peers were playing The Legend of Zelda in the playground.
We would run up to the boys and ask, “Which one of you is Zelda?”
Every time, someone pretending to have a sword and shield would say it was him and we would laugh.
“Zelda’s the girl!” we’d shout and run off.
In the two decades since Ocarina of Time’s release, Nintendo hasn’t stopped punishing femininity and perpetuating the idea that being a woman is, fundamentally, something to be ashamed of. In using femininity to enfeeble its characters, in using women as prizes for male protagonists, and in using the former to create the latter, Nintendo has created a worrying history that they have shown no inclination to rectify. And despite it being 2019, Nintendo still looks like a child in 1997 pointing and laughing at someone because they’re a girl.
Cover image source: Polygon