9 mins read

Recently a really interesting discussion topic emerged over at the NintendoLife forums: it started with a simple question “what if Link was a girl?” and evolved into a broader discussion about Nintendo and its approach to gender in its games.

It’s a long discussion, but let’s boil it down to a basic theme and run with it here: are Nintendo’s female characters reinforcing negative stereotypes of femininity? Indeed, are Nintendo’s games sexist? I would argue that they are, even the supposedly ‘strong’ female character of Samus Aran.

Let’s start with the easy two characters – the princesses Zelda and Peach. These two characters are two of Nintendo’s most prominent female roles, and throughout almost the entire history of Nintendo games, they have been bound by a similar theme – these are women in distress. They’re either prisoners of the game’s ultimate boss, or they’re unable to effect change in the world without the direct assistance of the (male) hero.

In this way Zelda and Peach are typically presented as rewards for a job well done. They are essentially virtual trophies, and this goes to the very definition of objectification.

Now, a common counter-argument is that “it’s tradition/ if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” These people essentially claim that as modern fairy tales, the simple plots of both games excuse maintaining a traditional approach to the relationship between men (heroes) and women (victims). The problem with this argument is twofold – firstly, the fairy tale is an obsolete plot device now precisely because it reinforces negative gender bias, but more importantly this argument ignores the fact that both the Mario and Zelda franchise began life in the 80s. At that time the games industry was largely focused on appealing to the male youth market – the teenage and young adult boys. This was not an industry overly concerned with fair representation of the genders, and it was not an industry that was all that important as an entertainment medium. In other words it sat on the periphery of society, where gender ethics are easily overlooked.

Fast forward to now, and men and women of all ages play games, and the games industry is one of the most important forms of media in the world. Suddenly gender ethics are very important. Like cinema and literature before it, games now play a significant role as a social barometer – the values reflected in games are based on the attitudes of society. In other words, the games industry is now a cultural influence, as other forms of art have been in the past.

Japan is a nation where traditional male/ female roles still dominate. Men are the breadwinners, women are the house keepers. This much explains why Nintendo has been able to maintain an approach to storytelling that the western world has largely left behind, but it is high time for an update, I would argue. Those rare times where Nintendo have let Peach and Zelda come to the fore as characters, they have invariably done so in such a way that the sexism remains a concern. For an obvious example, look at Princess Peach in Super Princess Peach on the Nintendo DS – the first time she’s a leading character she is excessively feminised and Peach is characterised as being excessively emotional – indeed emotions are turned into a core gameplay mechanic in Super Princess Peach, unnecessarily drawing attention to female stereotypes.

Most people then point to Samus as an example of a “strong female character,” and proof that Nintendo has an answer to Peach and Zelda, but I’m going to be really controversial here and argue that Samus is not a strong female character at all. She’s a strong character, yes, but that’s because for all intents and purposes Samus is a man.

Let me explain. In the original Metroid game on the NES, there was no indication that Samus was a female character. Indeed, the instruction manual introduced her as a “he.” What a surprise it was to complete the game, then, and find that Samus when stripped down to a bikini was indeed a woman! And that is our first introduction to Samus the female; a bikini-clad reward for playing the game well. Until that point, we all thought she was, in fact, male.

With subsequent games we were, of course, aware that Samus was actually female, and yet Nintendo continued to dress her in the armour that was masculine enough to fool us through the first game, and continues to hide Samus’ femininity until the end of the game, where it was presented as a sexualised graphic.

The issue here is that Samus can apparently only be a ‘strong’ woman when she dresses as, and behaves as a man. Or, alternatively, her only value as a woman is as a semi-naked reward for finishing the game. This is not female empowerment.

Compare to Metroid’s close inspiration, the Alien movies. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley (the film equivalent to Samus) is at all times a woman. What she accomplishes in each film she accomplishes as a woman. She is never objectified, and nor do the Alien films treat her maternal instincts as a weakness. It is a stark contrast to the Metroid games, where the developers have continued to feel the need to “cover up” Samus’ femininity.

That is, until the later games, and specifically Other M on the Nintendo Wii. That game almost relishes Samus’ femininity, but it’s at the expense of her strength. The more the series acknowledges Samus’ maternal instincts (such as her relationship with the baby Metroid), and the more it is willing to uncover her face and body in cut scenes and the like, the more the series also presents Samus as a subservient character to the grander whims of her male peers – in this case, Adam. It seems that the only way that Samus can be a female is if she is following orders.

We are starting to see a more progressive approach to female roles in games – Juliet Starling is a remarkably empowered female character, and the rebooted Lara Croft tale looks to be a deeply human one. It is high time that Nintendo started to look at building female heroes that don’t need to be disguised as men, subservient to men or in desperate need of rescuing by men.

This is a very interesting topic to debate – I’ve outlined my opinion above and I’d love to hear constructive comments from people who either agree or disagree below!

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  • Excellent points, Matt. Love that ya touched on the possible influence between the company's Japanese culture and its ideas towards women.
    While the argument can be made that Nintendo is appealing to a primarily (at least in the traditional and, I would posit, still the dominant perception despite plenty of data that shows a good number of girl gamers) 8-30 yr old male gamer audience, I don't think anyone can argue that building examples of more modern, independently willed and equally strong women would be a bad thing.

    One issue to expand a bit on is characterization versus utilization. While both princesses are generally utilized in the game structure as "the prize" I think we should point out that there is significant difference in their characterization. Whereas Peach is indeed generally the "girly-girl" who needs saving by Big, Manly Mario (to be fair, there are also games where she is a strong, independent character like in the RPG-series) Zelda in all her incarnations has always been a very strong, fairly independent, resourceful and moralistic character. Samus, ironically, given her function as main protagonist and player-controlled avatar, is indeed probably the most objectified of the three…it is interesting to me that I feel her design has been especially backwards in modern titles (oh gawd the high heels).

    In closing the article however, you wrote:
    "It is high time that Nintendo started to look at building female heroes
    that don't need to be disguised as men, subservient to men or in
    desperate need of rescuing by men.

    Jumping back to Nintendo and their use of female characters in a broader sense, I want to point out that they have created a good number of equally positioned strong female characters throughout their history. These can be found in abundance particularly in their less casual Wars and Fire Emblem series and even the blockbuster Pokemon games. Coupled with some of the modern characterizations of their most popular female characters, my judgement of the company on this matter is less harsh.

    From their activity I would also conclude that Nintendo, if not always in their popular legacy characters like the Big 3 you discussed, is actually very mindful of the growing female gaming audience and their position in the customer base. After all, they have been very active in marketing to those segments going as far as creating content such as fashion and face-training games specifically for girls and women who like…y'know, girly stuff :p

  • Brilliant response. I'm hoping this topic can generate a lot of debate, as I do think it is a very important topic.

    I think my main concern with both Zelda and Peach (and you're right, at times Nintendo has given Zelda a strong role, though I disagree that Peach has ever been anything but a demure princess character) is that both ladies have had largely the same role in every game for over 20 years. Zelda, even when she's a relatively empowered heroine, is still, in terms of gameplay mechanics, completely at the mercy of what the human player, in control of a male character, is doing.

    Not once in either series has the main character been an empowered female. Players can't even select a female alternative to Link in the Zelda games, despite the fact the character is essentially mute and would be technically quite easy to put together.

    So in sort I guess my criticisms of Nintendo's gender policies with both those two series has been the consistency in which Nintendo has stuck to these gender roles.

    I do certainly agree with you that Nintendo's "lesser" franchises tend to have a better balance in terms of gender. Fire Emblem in particular has always impressed me in that it has female characters that manage to remain female while also not being objectified. Lyn from Fire Emblem on the GBA is Nintendo's best female character so far in my opinion.

    And yes, I agree with you that Nintendo has, outside of games, done a great job in reaching out to women. Nintendogs, the Brain Training games, the Wii itself – this has done a great job in broadening the market for games. And that's exactly why it's becoming more important to get the gender balance right. Nothing could be more offputting than an industry dominated by characters that are essentially demeaning towards women.

    Thankfully even the Japanese culture is opening up to stronger female character rolls. Lollipop Chainsaw was, after all, a Japanese game project. And Square Enix seems quite genuine about Lightening being a strong character rather than a "Samus V.2", even if there were a few missteps there.

  • "That game almost relishes Samus’ femininity, but it’s at the expense of her strength." – I always feel like there's a bit of missed potential in the characterisation of Samus. In the 2nd game for the Game Boy, Samus outright commits genocide without a second thought. This very act makes her an extreme character – someone who exists on the very boundary of morality, and I think some of the later games haven't really discussed this at length. As for the victory pictures in the Metroid games, I agree that the earlier ones basically reward the player's skill with fanservice, but the later ones actually delve a little more into Samus's backstory and her upbringing. If any character is going to be positive example for gender equality on Video Games, they need to have a really full and rich character. The fact that Peach and Zelda were just a bunch of pixels and 5-6 words of dialogue in the NES titles contributes to their one-dimensional nature, both as a character and a representation of gender.

    I think the tides are changing though, albeit a little slowly. To add to Andrew's list, we have Cynthia from Pokemon Diamond/Pearl, Lin from Advance Wars: Days of Ruin and even Zelda herself in Spirit Tracks. I think with the advent of better technology for better characterisation, more female gamers and most importantly more women working in the industry, all these sexist elements in the older games can be rectified in the future ones.

  • I think one of your last points is especially important – there are more women working in the industry now, and at positions of leadership. This can only be a good thing for the broader industry – consider the sharp wit of the Portal games (and Quantum Conundrum).

    Thanks for your input! 🙂

  • Zelda and Peach are ultimately harmless; they're about as sexist as a fairy tale princess. As for Samus, after seeing the childish hissy fits that people threw over Other M I don't think gamers were ready to see a female protagonist be "strong" (which, let's face it, is a b.s. way of saying "hardass so I don't have to think about my own insecurities") while at the same time being vulnerable, tragic, flawed, and wounded.

  • Hi Aiddon,

    First up, thanks for taking the time to comment, I hope this piece was interesting to you. 🙂

    One thing you might be interesting in reading up on is social criticism of fairy tales. They're generally considered a very outdated literature genre precisely because they maintain a old-fashioned and often offensive imbalance between gender.

    So for instance you could read the following book:

    I haven't read that one, so I have no idea how good it really is, but it's just one example of a vast body of writing looking at this precise topic. In fact at university level its possible to take entire classes on feminist critique of the fairy tale.

    Having read a fair few such essays myself over the years, I can't really resolve the phrase 'innocent as fairy tales' any longer, because the message of those fairy tales is usually anything but innocent.

  • "In the 2nd game for the Game Boy, Samus outright commits genocide without a second thought."

    She's hunting to extinction, which is morally problematic, certainly, but importantly distinguishable from genocide!

    Also, the pivotal moment in the game revolves around Samus having second thoughts, and the effects of those second thoughts carry through at least three other games.

  • Regarding the original Metroid:
    Let's assume you didn't play the game when it first came out but several years later, so chances are high that you didn't have the manual. You'd probably still assume that you're playing as a man, right? Because we're all taught to believe that heroes are male. So it's not only a problem with the video game itself, it's also about what parents and the society teach children about gender roles. And video games are of course a part of that.
    Another example is Pokemon breeding: Apparently the Pokemon's gender is decided upon the value of the attack strength or something like that. (I've never played a Pokemon game, I just read about it somewhere.) If the attack strength is higher than some mean value the Pokemon will be male, otherwise female. What kind of BS is that? That's not something I want my kids to be taught by a video game. So parents should pay more attention to what their children are playing and lead them in the right direction regarding gender.
    Yet another example is Nintendo's advertising. Recently I saw an ad for the pink 3DS. It was specifically addressed to girls. Why? I don't know. Apparently only girls like pink. Now you might think: But girls DO like pink more often than boys. That may be true for the status quo, but it's not a preference you're born with. Again, it's all about what parents teach their children and which toys they give them to play with.

  • Oh look another white knight dipshit wrote an article about a non existent issue. Good for you.

  • That's a good point. I should have explained that better, so I apologise.

    I did not mean to simply recommend you read a single book, but rather read up on feminist criticism of fairy tales. You called fairy tales "innocent," but in reality most gender studies are deeply critical of how both men and women are represented in fairy tales. They're not "innocent" at all – in fact they simply reinforce gender roles that we don't really want in the modern world.

    There are literally thousands of academic papers and books out there on the topic. I simply linked over a book I found after a five second Google search.

  • I agree with you here. Ultimately it is up to the educators (I would argue schools should have mandatory gender studies classes as well and the parent's job) to encourage kids to develop healthy attitudes towards gender. But, as TV and children's literature has evolved to be far more careful with gender representation, as should the games that children play, and let's face it, kids play Mario, Zelda and even Metroid, and these games are often their favourites.

    Just the response this article has had at N4G (and the unpleasant post I had to delete here) shows there's a lot of work to be done yet.

    Regarding advertising, that one is more understandable. Hardly acceptable, but the marketer's hands are largely tied there. Advertising is about reaching out to the largest demographics possible. And as long as the majority of us are brought up with the "girls = pink, boys = blue" childhoods, marketers will have to continue tailoring Pink DS ads to girls.

    Advertising is actually the best way to see what the dominant attitudes are in society – that's why advertising is so different from country to country. And, again, looking at our advertising at the moment there's a lot of work that needs to be done.

  • You're absolutely right. Schools should have some kind of gender study classes. But as of now, schools kind of do the opposite. At least in Germany, where I live. Example: We have separate PE classes for girls and boys and the girls' requirements for a particular grade are way lower than the boys'. I just don't get it. Gender has nothing to do with how good you are at sports. A lot of other things have (how and how often you exercise, what you eat, and especially how your parents encourage you to be active) but not gender. If at all classes should be separated based on a fitness test. But personally I think PE classes shouldn't be separated at all.
    What kind of message is that to girls?: 'You will never be as good in sports as boys, because you're a weak girl that needs to be protected by strong men.' Okay, I'm starting to exaggerate here, but I hope I made my point.

  • Wow. That is a bit disturbing – I had no idea that happened anywhere in the world.

    Women are clearly capable of physical feats well beyond the capacity of most men. While a woman is likely incapable of breaking Usain Bolt's record, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce is certainly faster than almost everyone else – man or woman – at running. There is no reason that girls and boys should not have the same requirements for PE classes at school.

  • Manuel, I totally get your point…but in terms of PE class, well males are generally more muscular right? Thus, just as an example, if one category counted the number of pushups a student could do it would make sense to me that the scale is different for females. (And this was certainly the case in the military…events relying on core or abdominals however were pretty much equal scale).

  • Yeah a very salient point is that indeed this medium (alongside social norms and views) are evolving generation by generation. I would not be surprised if the sense of divide we feel even now between the genders is radically evened out in another few decades…in greater USA at least!

  • Wait…Lollipop Chainsaw!? I admittedly havent played it, but from the reviews and screens I perused the main character seems to be very much positioned as an object of male utilization. I do get that she kicks zombie ass and herself literally uses a male as an object, but I am referring to her hyper sexualized depiction.
    Back on the subject of Nintendo, I think it is to bad that they have not created any new human IP in quite a while. Their new creations of recent cycles have seemed focused on critters or concepts. I feel that their usage of Peach and Zelda for instance is driven by what they feel the market expcts for those characters….its a symptom of what I see many folks criticize as a "creative funk" where the company churns out similar products and concepts and characters to dependably drive revenue.
    From a business standpoint I certainly can understand, but exploring those characters more deeply in spin off games should be a realistic route they can take, especially if they utilize modern digital formats and a controlled budget to mitigate the risk of such an undertaking. There is plenty they could do, for instance, with the Zelda character and her own magical and transformative abilities. Heck. It would probably be more compelling than the tried-and-true Link's Quest structure. I know one such venture resulted in Super Princess Peach (which sold decently!) but it doesnt have to be that way. :p

  • Unfortunately Lollipop Chainsaw was marketed as a hypersexualised game because it's a little hard to sell the game as a "in this game we take a close look at the use of gender in games and take the piss out of otakus" kind of deal.

    It's not that Juliet kicks zombie backside – that in itself doesn't mean an empowered character. In the game itself, Juliet is a sexually-aware, very feminine character (unlike, say, Samus), but she's also far more intelligent than anyone else in the game (she's multi-lingual, for instance), and she is very aloof of the childish innuendo and behaviour of her peers (including Nick).

    She's also a very self referential character. She'll cover herself if the player tries to tilt the camera down to look up her skirt, for instance. The game gives players a mocking trophy for doing that. And if you consider it's possible to upload trophies to Facebook, the game is in a subtle way embarrassing players that buy into the hypersexualisation.

    The great irony is of course that the most oversexed game in recent years in terms of marketing is the one that features the most genuinely interesting female character. I recommend playing it – it's fascinating.

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