Feminist Fracas: The Debate over Gender Roles in Video Games

Yep, we’re getting into this again.

Back in October of 2014 I published a post about Gamergate, that controversy that brought issues of sexism within video games to the forefront of the debate.  That movement has long since died down and the debate has once again relegated itself to a quiet corner of the world, but it is still one worth having.

In that post I also referenced Anita Sarkeesian, an outspoken feminist critic of the video games industry.  Now, back then I said that I didn’t have much of an issue with her.  And that’s still true in a sense.  However, I have found myself frustrated with the movement that she represents.  Often, it feels to me that they’re critiquing certain portrayals of female characters in video games but (willfully or not) ignoring others that would serve as evidence against their agenda.

But that’s getting a little ahead of myself.  Let’s start at the beginning.  Let’s start with what triggered my interest in talking about this again.

Thirty years ago, the original Legend of Zelda video game released on the Nintendo Entertainment System (or NES for short).  It was an adventure game steeped in the age-old fairy tale of “hero saves princess”.  You trekked through the world, clearing dungeons and defeating bosses until you came to the final boss and rescued Zelda.  Now, this series has gone on to have over a dozen major entries in the franchise as well as other spin-off titles.

Now, in recent years, the series has gotten some flak from feminist critics (including Sarkeesian) for the fact that it is always the male Link saving the female Zelda.  Now, to be fair, many of these people are also big fans of the series (again including Sarkeesian), but feel that it would be nice to see a change.  To her credit, she seems at least level-headed when she talks about the issue, which is far removed from the so-called “feminazis” who think that a man simply looking at a woman for too long could be constituted as rape and once pulled a fire alarm at a university to silence a speaker who didn’t agree with them.

No, I’m not joking.  This actually happened.  And the speaker they silenced was a woman no less.

Now these people do not represent feminists as a whole of course.  Far too often these days I’ve seen people cherry pick one person or subsection of a group and use them to represent the group as a whole.  “Look at this stupid liberal,” conservatives on Facebook often post when sharing a video.  “Aren’t liberals dumb?”  Of course, this can go the other way as well.

But I digress.  Recently Zelda gained some internet notoriety when producer Eiji Aonuma gave this statement on why Zelda would not be the playable character in the latest announced Zelda game Breath of the Wild:

“…if we have princess Zelda as the main character who fights, then what is Link going to do?  Taking into account that, and also the idea of the balance of the Triforce, we thought it best to come back to this [original] makeup.”

People critiqued the statement, saying that the reasoning seemed flimsy and a poor excuse.  Some accused Nintendo of simply being lazy and not wanting to make that change.  But is the change really necessary?  As I said earlier, the Zelda franchise is very much based in the old tradition of storytelling where a hero embarks on an epic quest to save the princess.  Sarkeesian herself acknowledges this in a video on what she calls the “Damsel in Distress” trope.

“Of course the Damsel in Distress predates the invention of video games by several thousand years. The trope can be traced back to ancient greek mythology with the tale of Perseus.  According to the myth, Andromeda is about to be devoured by a sea monster after being chained naked to a rock as a human sacrifice. Perseus slays the beast, rescues the princess and then claims her as his wife.”

But unlike the old Greek myth, Link never takes Zelda as his wife.  They never get married and have kids (the games never show or even hint at it).  As far as video games go, Zelda is one of the lesser offending ones when it comes to gender tropes which is why it baffles me as to how it can get so harshly critiqued compared to some other games.  An example is this Salon article, which is literally titled “‘The Legend of Zelda’ is classist, sexist and racist”.

And yet, despite Nintendo’s refusal to make anyone other than Link the playable character (at least for the main games…they’re open to doing a side game with a different character), they did budge on one issue.  Some started petitioning for a playable female version of Link, so Nintendo did create one in the form of Linkle.

 

Linkle.

Linkle as seen in the game Hyrule Warriors Legends.

 

But this of course didn’t satisfy the people who were clamoring for a female version of Link.  Sarkeesian herself tweeted under her “Feminist Frequency” twitter handle that “Linkle’s cutesy name and appearance make it clear that she is not actually a female Link but a separate female character modeled on Link”.  She goes on to say that “because of the ways in which she is so clearly set apart from Link, Linkle only works to reinforce the notion of ‘male as default'”.

Now, I agree that Nintendo’s reasoning can be a little flimsy on the issue (they can pretty much write the games however they want).  But here’s the thing: I don’t think they should have to justify their decisions.  It’s their property.  It’s their creative product.  If they want Link to be the main character in all the core Zelda games, then that’s their business.  Besides, these people complaining about the lack of a female Link weren’t very clear on what they wanted.  They can talk all they want about how Linkle isn’t truly a female version of Link, but I haven’t seen any clear definition for what WOULD be a female Link.  And besides, why is Zelda the one getting lambasted when there are far worse offenders in terms of gender stereotyping out there?

 

Armor woes.

Armor woes.

 

In any case, that’s all besides the point because there are plenty of video games out there that do female characters well.  In The Last of Us, the female character Ellie becomes a playable character at one point because the male character Joel is grievously injured and has to rely on Ellie to find something to treat his wound.  And this isn’t just a five-minute affair.  This section of the game lasts at least an hour if I remember it correctly.  But Ellie isn’t the only one.  We have Sam Greenbriar from Gone Home, a game I’ve talked about at great length before.  We have Elena from the Uncharted franchise.  We have Samus Aran from Metroid, another Nintendo character who seems to be conveniently left out of the discussion (and she’s blown up an entire planet in her games).  Hell the new Tomb Raider games take Lara Croft, a character that was originally given gigantic breasts as the result of a programming mistake, and made her into a well-rounded, interesting protagonist in the franchise reboot (sans over-sized cleavage of course).  In the first reboot game, she starts off afraid and largely powerless against the danger she faces, but gradually grows stronger until she’s rushing headlong into danger without hesitation.

One of my favorite moments in the game is when she first acquires an grenade launcher.  She uses it to blow through a weak section of wall, causing the enemies behind it to scatter and retreat.  “That’s right!  Run you bastards!  I’m coming for you all,” she yells after them.  It’s a satisfying payoff to a character who starts off panicking and hiding from the enemies she encounters.

But even Zelda herself isn’t without some kind of agency.  In Ocarina of Time (WARNING: SPOILERS FOR AN EIGHTEEN-YEAR-OLD GAME AHEAD), Zelda evades capture for most of the game by disguising herself as Sheik and assisting Link on his journey at crucial points.  Sarkeesian even acknowledges this, although she simply calls it the “helpful damsel” variant as if trying to brush it off.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I don’t think these issues are meaningless.  I do believe they deserve to be talked about.  However, I think we tend to lose ourselves in the bad, which paints video games as this culturally backwards thing when in reality they can deal with subject matter in ways movies and television shows have yet to touch.  I think people like Sarkeesian have a tendency to nitpick, to choose things that advance their agendas while ignoring anything that goes against it.  There are still some backwards elements in video games as a whole, but focusing on them alone casts games in this negative light which only perpetuates the dismissive attitude many people have toward the medium.

Remember, movies and books were once looked at as little more than entertainment before they became the renowned forms of expression they are today.

 

Well that’s all I have for you this time.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

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One thought on “Feminist Fracas: The Debate over Gender Roles in Video Games

  1. Great article. While equality in protagonists has been an issue in video games, recently I feel that is beginning to subside a lot, Recore, Horizon:Zero Dawn and Tomb Raider just a few examples of current/upcoming games with strong female protagonists. As for the Legend of the Zelda it’s fine as it is and always will be, I feel some are using it as a scapegoat, a big name game with a long standing male protagonist, “perfect” for highlighting/enforcing an issue, I almost feel like some are trying to shoehorn equality in rather than let it be more natural development. Nintendo arguably did not help themselves in the matter with their comments and like you said they did not need to defend or justify their decisions.

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