In this, the first #FeministFriday post of 2015, Elle tackles the Legend of Zelda franchise and its somewhat dubious treatment of its female characters over the years.
My sister and I got a gaming system of our very own when I was a tween. Our N64 made us a bit late to the console party, but we were already well-versed in headshots and racing crashes, having practiced on our stepbrothers’ Super Nintendo and N64. In addition to getting our already-beloved Goldeneye, we got another brand new game called The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. I’m not sure if the game was a bundle that came with the system, or if some skillful clerk convinced my father of its worth, but either way, once I started playing I was thoroughly hooked. I was also thoroughly confused. “Who is Zelda?” I asked one of my more worldly friends after I had started playing. “The main character is a guy named Link.” “She’s a Princess.” My friend told me. “Oh, cool, later I get to play as a princess? This Link guy is just the starting character?” “No, she sends you on your journey, and later you have to rescue her.” “….That is so lame. It’s named after her, she should get to be the main character.” My disappointment, combined with an incident in which said friend took my game to help me get past a single fight and handed it back a week later having progressed through more than half the game to “help me,” meant that I never had a chance to play through the part that would have made me properly furious. I later learned about
This issue came up among my friends again recently as we discussed the issue of gender in the Zelda games. Friend R asked, “[A]m I the only one who thought it was a shame when they felt the need to ‘validate’ a perfectly good intelligent female character by turning her into a bombshell at the end?” Friend A replied, “I still have issues with the fact that in Ocarina of Time the SECOND Sheik becomes Zelda, she is completely useless against Ganondorf. Like what, you evaded this guy for seven years and now you can’t outrun him ‘cause you’re wearing a dress? You’ve been using poofy majiks to evade me this entire game and now you’re gonna get trapped in a crystal. Cause you’re wearing pink. Kay.” Adopting the role of Zelda I proclaimed, ‘“You’ve found my one weakness… Gender expectations!“’ Our discussion was in jest, but our discussion had more serious implications, namely, the inherent sexism in one of the most popular video game series of all time.
The first Legend of Zelda game was released in 1986, and as would make sense, Zelda has been a part of the games every step of the way, playing her recurrent role of “damsel in distress.” Despite being the holder of the Triforce of Wisdom, for the past thirty years Zelda hasn’t managed to figure out a way to thwart kidnap attempts. Anita Sarkeesian breaks down the many ways that Princess Zelda has been made into a quest object /luckless royal in the games that bear her name: “Over the course of more than a dozen games spanning a quarter century, all of the incarnations of Princess Zelda have been kidnapped, cursed, possessed, turned to stone, or otherwise disempowered at some point.” Sarkeesian acknowledges that in some of the later games Zelda becomes a pseudo-sidekick, or a “helpful damsel.” But, as Sarkeesian points out, Zelda is at her most useful when she’s not being… well, Zelda. Transformed into Sheik in Ocarina of Time or the pirate captain Tetra in The Wind Waker, she can be adventurous, feisty, powerful, and overall fairly capable. Once the dress goes back on, though, it’s as if she’s been exposed to kryptonite—she’s captured by Ganondorf in (what Sarkeesian timed to be literally) three minutes in Ocarina of Time, or forced to stay home in The Wind Waker, because apparently dresses mean that you forget everything you’ve ever learned about being an awesome pirate captain. It is suddenly too dangerous for her to go off and have the exact same adventures she had already been having without any trouble, because she has been revealed to be the princess. In that game Zelda, of course, is later kidnapped from the place that she has been obediently waiting in, because apparently even just sitting and doing nothing is way too dangerous if you’re wearing a skirt.
Zelda is occasionally able to do other marginally helpful things, like open doors or briefly shoot arrows of light. Yet when she is in her actual princess identity Zelda is never given a substantial role in the games that, lest we forget, have her name on them. It would be the equivalent of a Harry Potter series where each book is told from Ron’s perspective and has Voldemort kidnapping Harry sometime between the Hogwarts Express and the Halloween feast, and Harry only manages to get off a couple of Wingardium Leviosas while Ron defeats dark wizards.
Similarly strange gender politics are in play for Midna, the sidekick/raison d’être for Twilight Princess. She spends most of the game as an imp, and a rather bratty-but-kickass one at that. She rescues Link and proceeds to alternately treat him like a servant and help him out. She also can transform into an epic spider-monster thing. But after she has seemingly sacrificed herself to save Zelda and Link, she is suddenly resurrected as a blue-skinned supermodel, because the curse on her has been lifted. And with a single, beautiful tear, Midna separates her world from Link’s forever. As Friend R notes, this reads as an attempt to “validate” an already complex character. You can tell that despite the fact that she’s sarcastic and condescending she was really a “good” character all along, because she’s willing to die for her male friend and was secretly gorgeous the whole time! It’s okay to like her, because she’s actually just as pretty as Zelda. Because obviously there’s no such thing as an ugly princess who deserves help and to be the protagonist of her own story. It’s a common trope in fairy tales (and famous for its male counterpart in the story of Beauty and the Beast): the “uglier” form of a person isn’t actually their true form, but rather the unfortunate side effect of some sort of curse. When the curse is lifted, the afflicted character is vindicated, and the cultural correlation between inner and outer beauty is reaffirmed. Midna is not only a good person, she’s a good woman—that is to say, an attractive one.
For both Zelda and Midna, being traditionally feminine and traditionally beautiful means being a good princess, but a bad hero. Both of them have complex identities and active lives when they are not wearing their “true form,” but are quickly made useless or made to disappear when they are returned to their normal, gorgeous forms. A strict line demarcates “femininity” and “heroism,” so that both women can be crucial to the story, but not the active agents of it.
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week in Tomorrow. When she’s not being sarcastic on the Internet she studies gender in popular culture.