This isn’t going to be an easy post to write, but I’m challenging myself because if you can’t trust someone named Mighty Ponygirl to be intellectually honest, who can you trust? I, like many girl gamers, hold a special place in my heart for the Legend of Zelda series. I love it. And because of that, I’ve been reticent with regards to the topic of sexism in the Legend of Zelda series. But no more!
The Zelda franchise travels a dozen unique titles (14 if you want to count the CDI titles, which I don’t), and so individually dissecting the titles for their themes would be a little longwinded, particularly because the series has so many similarities.
Link and Zelda
First, we’ll focus on the only absolute constants in the series: Link and Zelda. As the protagonist of the Legend of Zelda series, you can’t call it a Zelda game without Link, decked out in green, charging around with a sword and shield. The Hero of Time, the Hero of the Gods, he’s the one who quests for the Triforce (the Golden Power) and works to defeat evil. But for as much screen time as he gets, we don’t know much about Link. He doesn’t speak, he merely nods compliantly whenever someone suggests he (you) goes off on a mission to save the world. In this way, the player is free to see themselves in the character, which may account for the frachise’s huge success. (Similarly, Hello Kitty, another invention of a Japanese company, doesn’t even have a mouth. I have read accounts of how this helps to create a tabula rasa personality onto which consumers can project themselves).
Link is, however, the very definition of the hero. He wields a full compliment of weapons including sword, bow, boomerang, hammer, and hookshot with ease. There is no mission he will fail to undertake. Whenever he detects a person in trouble (Hylian, Goron, Zora, or otherwise), he will not hesitate to charge into whatever dungeon holds the monster afflicting them and kick some ass. You don’t get this sort of rote heroism written anymore; he might have been written from a French lai for all of the soul-searching he has to do before agreeing to help someone. This may have something to do with the fact that he has the Triforce of Courage embedded in his being.
While it is difficult to determine Link’s driving animus, one thing that adds an interesting element to the discussion of whether or not his behavior is gender-determined is the evolution of his physical appearance over the years.
He has gone from this:
While it’s hard to extrapolate anything from 8-bit data, the trend over the last 20 years has turned Link into what it known as a Bishōnen (or “Bishie” for short). Let’s just say that when they decide to turn the Zelda series into a movie, they’d better give Orlando Bloom a call. This may play a part in the series’ popularity amongst female gamers. Typically, women like playing games where they can choose to play a female character, however Link may just be ‘close enough.’
The other constant of the game is the titular character, Princess Zelda. She has appeared in most every Legend of Zelda game, even if for only five minutes. The princess of the land of Hyrule, Zelda is the possessor of the Triforce of Wisdom, and naturally is a bit of a target as a result. While Link’s courage can offer him the sort of get-up-and-go he needs when Ganon comes a-callin’, Zelda finds herself captured.
Over, and over again.
The good news is that she’s friends with Link, who naturally will come to her rescue when she falls into the evil clutches of Ganon (or Vaati, or Agahnim, or Zant). The bad news is that despite some pretty impressive advancements made to her character over the years, she still sits passively by until Link comes to her rescue.
I find myself struggling to imagine a game where Zelda isn’t captured. After all, as Link–the hero of the game–it doesn’t follow that you should spend hours of your life completing complex story lines only to have the heavy lifting done by someone else. The only Zelda game which featured Zelda as the protagonist was, well, stupid. And Nintendo franchise spinoff games haven’t always done so well (I don’t know anyone who’s ever praised Luigi’s Mansion). This unfortunately has to remain a mitigating factor when discussing the problem of sexism in the series — it wouldn’t be a very fun game if you gathered all nine shards of the Triforce, battling monsters and puzzles, unlocking the tallest tower of a magically-sealed Hyrule castle, only to walk in on Zelda standing over a trussed-up Ganon, asking what the hell took you so long.
But if Zelda’s damsel-in-distress act is an unfortunate side effect of the Zelda series, Nintendo can at least be credited with making Zelda a little more proactive through the years. She’s gone from Sleeping Beauty (in Zelda II: The Adventures of Link), to the leader of the maiden sages in Link to the Past, the desert-ninja in Ocarina of Time, to pirate captain in Windwaker. In the last few titles, Zelda has taken bow in hand to fight alongside Link in the final battle sequence, offering him some support while not depriving Link (you the gamer) your right to kick the badguy’s ass yourself.
It would be nice if Zelda were seen as a little more active in the series. Even her character in Super Smash Brothers: Melee doesn’t exactly scream ass-kicker:
Someone didn’t quite convey to Zelda that Dazzler was not the most badass X-man
The good news is that Zelda’s character has progressed, the bad news is that as the only constant female character of the series, she simply fulfills too many stereotypes of the passive, caretaker figure. While it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to have characters who are compassionate, cerebral, and nonviolent, it seems that the moment Zelda puts on her pink dress, she forgets how to be a ninja, or a pirate, or whatever skills of the secret identity she’s hiding from Ganon from with would give her. If I can dig up an old savegame, I might just see if, in the last battle of WindWaker, I could just have Link avoid and defend while Zelda keeps capping him; but I’m going to bet that the arrows are doing negligable damage in the overall fight.
One of the other near-constants of the Zelda series is Ganon. Whether he’s a human Gerudo king named Ganondorf (which, I’m sorry, has never sounded any less silly in all of these years I’ve seen it in the games), or a big blue pig, he’s the bad guy. He wants to rule the world, it’s your job to stop him — there isn’t a lot to be said, really, except…
An interesting element to Ganon is the backstory behind Ganondorf. In the canonical Ocarina of Time, we learn that once every 100 years, a male child is born to the Gerudo tribe (an Amazon-like tribe of desert bandits). This male child is destined to become their king. If that isn’t patriarchy, I’m not quite sure what is. However, the point of this story in Ocarina is that this is categorically a bad idea. Nabooru, the leader of the Gerudo’s before Ganondorf seized power, knew that he was up to no good, and didn’t want to serve under him. It may be grasping to look into the events that followed–her imprisonment and brainwashing at the hand of the two hags; but the point of this article is to look at these issues knowing that no one else will. The hags (Twinrova) represent a duality, bickering women who work together to advance evil…
Hey, that sounds familiar:
Maybe? No? Okay.
Nabooru and the Gerudos aren’t the only female ass-kickers in Ocarina of Time: Impa (Zelda’s minder) is obviously a very capable warrior, though she necessarily ultimately fails in her job of protecting the Princess.
Not every woman in Zelda is empowered, however. In Ocarina alone, in fact, two women are ‘betrothed’ to Young Link (in a tongue-in-cheek fashion). It’s bad enough that the first girl is handed over to Link because he brought her father a chicken… but then you have Ruto, princess of the Zoras, who can’t even be bothered to walk — she plunks her ass down on the ground as soon as you find her and the only way to move her from room to room is to carry her over your head. Once you’ve carried her out of the dungeon, she tells you that she’s going to marry you when you’re older.
(Naturally, this is where I enter with a shrill: What sort of example are we setting for our children? Won’t somebody please think of the children?!)
Other female characters in the Zelda series
- Anju, from Majora’s Mask, a quiet shop girl whose fiancÃ© has mysteriously disappeared. Since she has to mind the shop, she puts you in charge of finding him.
- Aryll, Link’s sister in WindWaker, who is mistaken for Tetra and kidnapped by a giant bird at the beginning of the game,
- Link’s grandmother in Windwaker, who sits by the fire while he charges off to save his sister and occasionally makes him chicken soup when he can be bothered to drop in and make sure she isn’t dead,
- Romani from Majora’s Mask — a spirited little girl who wants to save her farm from aliens invading her farm and spiriting off the cows, but once the invasion begins, she disappears into the barn and leaves you to do all the work…
- Ilya, Link’s “friend” in Twilight Princess, who is shy and kind and takes care of sick and wounded creatures… oh yeah, she’s kidnapped at the beginning of the game,
- The Roma Sisters, a dancing duo in Majora’s Mask whose impatient disposition is only cured when Link shows them how to really dance (they fall prostrate before him and give him their heart).
- Telma, the owner of the bar in Twilight Princess. This one hurts because she could have been such a great mitigating factor: she was brash, “ballsy” if you will, and not a little stick of a thing. She had her eye on the Shaman from Kakariko Village, but you learn later on that he can’t stand her, which is a little depressing.
- Medli, from WindWaker, a young bird-woman who is being primed to become the caretaker of Valoo the dragon (Virgin sacrifice, anyone?) She’s saved from that gruesome fate by learning that she is to be the sage of the gods, and will likely spend the rest of her short life hanging out in a dungeon with her harp, until Link completes his mission and the next round of monsters comes seeking to destroy the power of the Master Sword and kills the sage in order to do so.
- And oh yes…
The Great Fairies.
I’m not sure what I can add to this except… wow.
That’s not a canonical list by any means. But there is a very disturbing trend to the games — it’s not that all of the female characters are helpless whereas all of the male characters are powerful, it’s that the frailty of the female characters is so pronounced in relation to the male characters that it goes beyond simple “You’re the hero and you have to save the day.” The most interesting, powerful female characters seemed to appear in Ocarina of Time, and the strong female has been on the decline ever since. Hopefully, Nintendo will remedy this problem, but I don’t think I should count on it.
- Link is becoming more gender-ambiguous as the titles progress,
- Some improvement has been made in showing a more proactive, self-reliant Zelda,
- The patriarchal rules of the Gerudo tribe were obviously a very bad idea.
- Zelda is always captured and held for Link to rescue
- Female characters are almost uniformly passive, healer-types.
- What the hell is going on with the Great Fairies?!