Alright, this is kinda long, but I hope you’ll find my first blog post (my apologies if I screw anything up) interesting and enjoyable.
I originally wrote this after Anita Sarkeesian released her video
on the use of the “Damsels in Distress trope” in video games. There’s been a lot that’s been said about this topic, both in criticism and in defense of her, and after a while, I just decided not to post this as it seemed that there were quite a few people that were addressing various issues far better than I thought I could. However, with the recent wave of articles across the web about various character-swapping projects in classic games, and about sexism in gaming as a whole, I changed my mind; specifically, it was because of this beautifully conceived yet, as I see it, sadly misguided fan art
, inspired by Sarkeesian’s video, swapping Link and Zelda’s roles. Thus, I really wanted to add my thoughts to the mix, specifically about the Mario
franchises: I believe there are some serious problems in Anita Sarkeesian’s assessment of the “Damsels in Distress” plot, its use in the Mario
franchises, and her argument that they are sexist.
I believe that these problems first present themselves when this particular trope is examined further. Sarkeesian traced the origins of this trope back to the Greek myth of Perseus and Andromeda, and although I cannot be certain as to whether or not this tale is indeed the earliest example, it’s age and consistency with the central elements of this trope make it, at the very least, an early example. I believe these elements, reused again and again in the literature of the Middle Ages, up through the early 20th Century, and beyond, are defined as follows:
1) A damsel is kidnapped, cursed, or in some shape or form disempowered.
2) A male hero rises up to save her.
3) The hero sets forth on a journey, during which he gains skill, power, and/or renown.
4) The hero saves the damsel and claims her as his own, usually through marriage.
I believe that it is also interesting to note that, in most cases, the damsel does not possess any significant level of power prior to being placed in her distressing situation; while she may be of noble—even royal—blood, she is not a significant source of power in her own right. Andromeda, for example, is a princess, but her mother is the ruler. I believe that it is fair to say that this holds true in most cases when this trope is used. A further, and rather odious, point is that the damsel never really regains whatever power she lost; in being rescued, she has been reduced to nothing more than a prize for the hero, who frequently gains even greater power at the end of the tale (rule of a kingdom, for example), even if it is nothing more than the power he holds over his new wife.
The problem, however, is this: these elements don’t apply very well, if at all, to the Mario
To begin with, the “damsels” in both series hold a great deal of power prior to their victimisation. Princess Peach is the sole monarch of the Mushroom Kingdom, while Princess Zelda is usually the sole monarch of the Kingdom of Hyrule; there are exceptions in this latter case, where Zelda is younger, and thus may still have a living father who acts as king or she may have an advisor/regent. I’ll return to this last point in a few moments.
Secondly, these series do not exclusively place Peach and Zelda, or even women, into the role of the victim. Mario has rescued various Toads and his brother Luigi from time to time, and Link rescues male characters, too. For example, in Majora’s Mask
, Link rescues a Deku Scrub princess, but he does so because of the male
monkey boy that has been accused of kidnapping her and is about to be punished for a crime he didn’t commit; they are both equally powerless without Link’s help, and their genders are meaningless.
Conversely, in the case of Mario and Link, while they do gain power, skill, and renown throughout their quests, it cannot be ignored that they are almost always stripped of their power when the adventure ends.
Mario, after saving Peach, returns to living in the small wooden house he shares with his brother, awaiting the time when he is called back into the fray; Peach, however, returns to ruling the Mushroom Kingdom by herself
from the comfort of her large castle.
Link, when he has saved Zelda, may set out on other adventures, remain in Zelda’s service, or both, depending on the game (and in some cases, we’re not really told what happens to Link at all); the point is that Zelda has been restored to the throne of Hyrule, where she and she alone holds power. In the event of her having a father or regent, and thus not being the sole source of authority in Hyrule, by the end of the game, this may no longer be the case; in Ocarina of Time
, for example, Zelda’s father is gone by the end of the game.
Regardless of the specific circumstances of the game in question, Peach and Zelda always reclaim the power they have lost. In the end, it is impossible to overlook the fact that Princesses Peach and Zelda are royalty while Mario and Link were never anything more than their servants.
It is also important to note that Mario and Link are not rewarded by claiming the princesses as their own. This reveals the problem in Sarkeesian’s claim that Peach is nothing more than a ball being batted back and forth by the two men trying to lay claim to her; while the villains of Mario
may be trying to claim the princesses, that is never Mario or Link’s goal. These two characters are heroes because they choose to do what’s right solely for the purpose of doing what’s right. Mario may receive a kiss on the cheek for his troubles, or a cake, but Peach never becomes his wife.
In the case of Link, we don’t usually see any reward other than the restoration of peace in Hyrule. In fact, Link’s treatment is often startlingly harsh. At the end of Ocarina of Time
, Link (now a young man) is sent back in time, stripped of all his power except the knowledge that Ganondorf seeks to claim the Triforce, and even this he gives away to the young Zelda. In the sequel, Majora’s Mask
, Link is depressed and lonely, searching for his nearest and dearest friend. The worst part of his condition though is that he’s trapped behind a mask; yet no matter how many other masks he wears, no matter how many times he plays his magical ocarina, no matter what mysterious powers the Happy Mask Salesman possesses, nothing can remove the mask that really matters—the mask which is keeping a young man trapped in the body of a child. In fact, not until the events of Twilight Princess
does this Link, as the Hero’s Shade, find peace through instructing the new hero. If there’s a lesson in this, it has nothing to do with sexism; it’s that, as C.S. Lewis put it in The Horse and His Boy
, “[If] you do one good deed your reward usually is to be set to do another and harder and better one.” And Link, like Mario, does what’s demanded of him every single time.
The problem with Anita Sarkeesian’s analyses of the Mario
franchises is that she makes a number of false assumptions. To begin with, she believes that placing a damsel in distress as part of the plot is inherently sexist, which is false; both women and men can be placed in distressing circumstances which they are incapable of extracting themselves from. The fact that they may or may not be rescued by a member of the opposite sex is unimportant; there is nothing unrealistic about this plot, and its use within video games, films, plays, and books is perfectly legitimate. Next, in her attempt to apply the label of “sexism” to the Mario
series, she strips out and ignores everything except for the basic details which relate to the “Damsel in Distress” aspects of their stories. In so doing, she unfairly disregards much of the evidence which contradicts her beliefs: Peach and Zelda are
powerful women, and are returned
to their positions of power—sometimes greater positions of power—at the ends of the games. Neither are they the only people, nor is their's the only gender, to be made victims or to be rescued. Mario and Link, meanwhile, are little more than servants; what power they’ve obtained by the ends of their games is usually lost or put to use in the service of the princesses. Furthermore, Mario and Link don’t set out to rescue Peach and Zelda because they desire to own or control them; rather, they do so because it is the right thing to do. The reward, if they are rewarded at all, is irrelevant.
This being the case, how can these games be sexist? Can we please stop supporting the politically correct “fixing” of these perceived injustices and just go back to playing and enjoying these games for what they are? read