Mod Aria’s back with another fun installment of Feminism in Gaming! Since this week is Zelda Week in celebration of Breath of the Wild, most every segment of our blog/channel will be discussing Zelda in some form. Which means it’s time for me to ruin yet another beloved game series by rubbing my gross progressive hands on it. But, hey, if that’s what you’re into, keep on reading!
The Legend of Zelda is one of the most popular game franchises for Western audiences. So, naturally, feminist critics of video games that came before me have long since perused the games with their fine toothed feminist combs. So there’s not much that I can say that you don’t already know if you’ve read articles or watched videos about the topic. Nevertheless, I think it’s an important argument to consider, so that means I’m going to try to throw my hat in with the rest to see if I can bring another varied perspective.
Let’s start out by addressing the elephant in the room, an elephant that will either make you stop reading this all together or keep going in anticipation: are Legend of Zelda games inherently feminist games? From me, the answer is not really. But there are a few caveats to that “not really”, so stay with me if you can.
So the second uncomfortable question is: Why are the LOZ games not really feminist experiences? Answering this question will be the bulk of this article. To summarize why, it’s got a lot to do with the treatment of the characters in the game as well as some of the subtle messages that are sent in the Legend of Zelda games.
Let’s first look at the two main characters of the Zelda franchise: That would be Link and Princess Zelda. The formula for Zelda games is one that has been repeated so many times I’m honestly surprised more people other than me aren’t sick of it. Link is, yet again, the reincarnation of a hero that had saved -insert proper noun here- years ago and the one who inherits the TriForce of Courage, and Zelda is commonly the Princess of Hyrule who inherits the TriForce of Wisdom. More often than not, they are fighting the evil Ganon/Ganondorf, inheritor of the TriForce of Power, who either wants to destroy the world, conquer Hyrule or a combination of the two.
Save for a few monkey wrenches thrown into the mix, this basic template of a plot and character design usually doesn’t change in any of the Legend of Zelda games. Same thing, different t-shirt. It’s part of the reason why I myself don’t identify as a LOZ fan, and it’s also why this game has some pretty toxic elements to it in regards to a feminist portrayal of the game.
Link, Zelda and even Ganon are forever stuck on this infinite treadmill, forced to repeat the same tired routines again and again and again. That leaves no room for improvement; it’s constant stagnation that many people find themselves complaining about in the gaming industry. We want change! Just…don’t change the things we like, okay?
But the resistance against change, against going against what’s considered normal, is what makes the idea of gender roles dangerously harmful. But wait, Mod Aria: are you saying that Link, Zelda and Ganon/dorf are trapped into their roles because of something as arbitrary as gender?!
Yes. That is exactly what I’m getting at.
Link, Zelda and Ganon/dorf are trapped into their roles as Hero, Princess and Villain, and gender does play a factor in trapping them there. It’s this idea that we as humans are just now trying to push away that men and women have their space, their role to play, and we should stick to it. And this idea has no logical foundation. There is nothing that logically says that Link must always be the Hero or that Zelda must always be the Princess. There is nothing logical that says that Link must always be male or that Zelda must always be female. But the way we have humans have been socialized, women are the damsels that must be rescued, and men are the heroes destined to save the world.
If this wasn’t something that we’ve been taught, why is it so reinforced in video games? For years, the heroes of video games, our childhood heroes, have more often than not been male. Link, Mario, Fox McCloud, Master Chief, even Kirby. With the beautiful exception of Samus Aran, the females have always been princesses, damsels in distress, secondary assistants with no purpose by to serve as a love interest, or all of it. Zelda, Peach, Crystal, Cortana. Ganon/dorf is Link’s arch-rival, incredibly powerful and captures Zelda constantly, and he’s male. Male villians are also just as common. It’s always the same. And female gamers are done with it. They’re done with it because the notion that men and women have set roles is insulting to males, females, those who fall on the non-binary spectrum, and to transgendered individuals.
Now before you say “Wait a second, Zelda does stuff in some of the games! She fights and stuff”. You’re right, in some of the games she does take a more active position in the fight to save the world/Hyrule against Ganon/dorf. That is something I do approve of.
But that’s not what I’m getting at. I’m looking at the bigger picture; not at Link and Zelda’s roles in individual games, but their roles in the franchise as a whole. Link is the focal point, the controllable character, the center that the game gravitates to. He is the main body while the rest are hanging limbs. And he is male. Ganon/dorf is terrifying, powerful and important. And he’s male. What I’m getting at is this strangely perplexing notion that female characters deserve to be the center of their own games. They deserve to play more than just a submissive, subsidiary role. And I’m going to throw caution to the wind and say, why not give LOZ that chance?
Why not give Link the chance to be female? Linkle has already been made; let her be the main protagonist of a Zelda game! Make a game where Zelda dreams of wielding a sword, discovers she is a chosen hero that must save a handsome prince locked away in an endless slumber. Give Ganon/dorf a chance to be female. Change. Something.
Everything above is why I love Wind Waker so much. Tetra. Arguably one of the most feminist portrayals of Zelda I’ve ever seen…kind of. Tetra, in Wind Waker, is a swashbuckling pirate captain who, spoiler alert, ends up being the lost Princess Zelda. And as soon as Tetra becomes Princess Zelda, she’s no longer the adventurous hero. She’s demure, passive. Easily captured. And in the end, what does she do? She casts off her role as Zelda to remain Tetra. And who would blame her?
Princess Zelda’s identity is so entrenched in the traditional female gender role that it completely changes the dynamic of a character when they adopt it. Zelda cannot be like Tetra because even though they are technically the same, there is so much that comes with the identification of Zelda. Because of her place in the story of the Zelda franchise. And the only way to let Zelda be different, to let her escape, is to make her someone else entirely. Even Sheik in Ocarina of Time doesn’t escape this.
Another great example of Zelda coming into her own as a character is her role in the story of Hyrule Warriors. She’s the commander of a battlefield, fights as Sheik, though still not necessarily the focal point. But it’s something different! It’s not the same copy/paste situation that happens so many times in so many Zelda games.
I know it’s a hard sell to advocate for so much change, but I honestly don’t think some people understand that change is necessary. The world will change regardless of whether or not you try to stop it. More women are playing video games now than ever before. The demand for female protagonist has already caused game companies to implement more female and gender neutral protagonists. And there’s more change that should happen than just gender; there’s race and sexuality to consider as well, but I could probably write a whole other article on why games should have more LGBT characters and characters of color.
The main point that you should glean from this article is that unless Zelda starts to move with the time, explores the avenues that gender/genderlessness, race and sexuality provide it, the game series might not last as long as we believe it will. How much static video game development can we as gamers accept? Tolerate? Endure?
I’m already done.