The new Zelda video game is improved, but can’t escape the industry’s princess problem

Nintendo has created a slightly less sexist video game this time, but Zelda: Breath of the Wild still suffers from a male-centric design team.

Princess Zelda and Link

Save the princess! Beat the bad guy! Win a woman as your prize! This sexist cliché has driven the plot of many video games, including those in The Legend of Zelda series, for decades. But thanks in part to Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian, the video game industry has come under fire in recent years for relying on sexist tropes that portray women as passive objects to be won in competitions among men.

So now the question is: has the industry actually learned something from all that heat? If we take the biggest game of the year, Zelda: Breath of the Wild, as example, the answer is yes and no… But mostly no.

Princess Zelda is not quite a damsel to be saved. She’s been holding the evil Calamity Ganon at bay, by herself, for the last 100 years. Plus she wears PANTS.

But considering that Nintendo assured us this game was going to “break the conventions” of the Zelda series, would it have killed them to shake up that tired, predictable triangle between hero, princess, and bad guy a tad? When your series is literally based on reincarnation, with a new protagonist every game, there’s really no excuse for never having a female main character. (And cutesy non-canon “Linkle” in thigh-high boots is lame and doesn’t count).

While in development, Breath was rumoured to perhaps be the Zelda game to finally have a female Link. But sadly, no such luck. Instead, the closest thing players are offered, in terms of being able to play as a woman in this game, is playing as a man disguised as a woman in order to sneak into women-only space. (I kid you not.)

In Breath of the Wild, the all-female Gerudo race is back, and this time they have an entire “forbidden city” that no man is allowed to enter… But this is a video game, and video games are about acting out male fantasies in a virtual world, so of course the Gerudo women’s boundaries aren’t going to be respected.

Link meets a man on a rooftop who gets a thrill from wearing the skimpy Gerudo outfit, which is basically an exoticized belly dancer/harem costume, complete with veil. Oh the feminine mystique! Link buys his own sexy outfit and can suddenly fool almost anyone he meets into thinking he’s a woman — including horny men and the Gerudo guards. Praised by critics and fans as the “best quest in the game,” it’s a pretty creepy testament to the pervasiveness of the voyeuristic male fantasy that involves violating women’s spaces through deception.

A Gerudo woman

And as a secret voyeur, what “feminine mysteries” does Link get to observe? What do the women all do when there are no men around? They talk nonstop about men, of course! I mean, what else could there possibly be for women? They gossip, pine, daydream, and even take a special dating class all about men. Even though the Zelda series shows male characters flirting with Link, the designers clearly want to ensure no one mistakes the Gerudo for lesbians.

That same all-male character design team apparently came up with the brilliant idea of putting the Gerudo in sexy high heels, as well. Yes, that’s right: Every single Gerudo woman is inexplicably tottering around in high heels — even the soldiers in training, and even though they live in the desert and are walking on sand.

To be fair, not all the women in Hyrule look ridiculous. For once, it seems like Link isn’t the only person in the world with wanderlust, as he meets many other rugged, adventure-seeking Hylians out in the wild, including women, who look awesome in their traveling gear, armed with sword and shield. Some flirt with Link and are searching for love, but many are striking out on their own just looking for fun and treasure, like any man would.

Similarly, Princess Zelda’s character in Breath of the Wild is (at first) the opposite of man-crazy. She’s a huge science nerd who’s annoyed by Link and wants him to scram so she can focus on her work. She’s having trouble unlocking the magic princess powers she’s supposed to have, but is fiercely dedicated to using logic and rationality to find a solution.

Little does she know that the key to her destiny turns out to be [spoiler alert]…

… LOVING A MAN! *gag*

Over the course of the game, the player uncovers memories from Link and Zelda’s past. At first Zelda is cold and analytical, but slowly warms up to Link and starts to fall for him. In the final memory, a light shines from Zelda’s body as she fully gives herself up to love, and all her magic mojo finally comes rushing in.

The message is, of course, that a woman can never be complete without a man.

Nintendo’s family-friendly games are less in-your-face sexist than games like Grand Theft Auto (which allows players to simulate abusing prostituted women), but the sexism is still there. Girls are still told that they are the pretty princess, rather than the hero of the story — destined for a loving and supportive role.

I doubt the nearly all-male team who created this game even noticed this sexism when writing the story. As demonstrated by the fact that the vast majority of movies fail the Bechdel test, it seems men have immense difficulty conceiving of female characters as independent beings who exist beyond their relationships to men.

Overall, I still loved playing this game. The open world and clever new gameplay mechanics truly were a breath of fresh air for the series. But if Nintendo really wants to shake things up, they should probably start by hiring more women.

Susan Cox
Susan Cox

Susan Cox is a feminist writer and academic living in the United States. She teaches in Philosophy.

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  • Kara Karate

    The thing that really got me about this game was the weird pedophilia references in Zora’s Domain. The people there supposedly live for many hundreds of years so even though Princess Zora is old, she looks like a pre-teen and was set to be married to Link. There’s a small girl character in that area too who is writing love letters to an adult man and makes a joke about people judging them because she will be so much older than him. There’s also the construction company characters that are the typical gay male tropes that have been included in every Zelda game (usually as a bad-guy character, but in this game played off as a jokey character). The Gerudo women were ridiculous and every single one of them that you run into outside of the city tells you she is looking for the love of a man.

    • Susan Cox

      The Gerudo women were definitely the thing that pissed me off the most about this game. I thought they were so cool when I was a kid playing Ocarina of Time. I loved how they had an all-female society. They were so ridiculous in this game.

    • Susan Cox

      But yes, the Zora’s Domain thing was SO WEIRD. Clearly it was a relationship between a child and an adult man. Even if the Zora age more slowly, it’s still… wtf.

  • Meghan Murphy

    I think Anita does amazing work but have also felt disappointed at her decision to distance herself from her radical sisters on this issue. She is super smart, and I always am surprised when women who ‘get it’ on issues like porn, sexualization, prostitution etc. don’t ‘get it’ when it comes to gender identity. All that said, I haven’t heard or seen her speak too much about this issue, so who knows what she is really thinking. Have you seen her comment on it recently?

    • Tired feminist

      Maybe she does get it but is going out of her way to avoid yet another shitshow of online abuse… (I have no idea, I don’t follow her, and it’s still disappointing, but it’s a possibility.)

  • Meghan Murphy

    Oh dear… I guess I haven’t followed what is being published over there lately. And yes, her videos are amazing.

  • Atheist

    “I doubt the nearly all-male team who created this game even noticed this sexism when writing the story.”

    I love this article but I disagree with this point. I think the men KNOW they are doing this, and it is absolutely deliberate.

    I clicked on the “Linkle” story and it’s an understatement to say I’m disturbed. An eleven year old girl in thigh high boots? That not progress. It’s pedo culture.

    • Leo

      Is her age explicitly stated? I don’t really have a huge problem with the boots, since they look practical ones not fetishy, Link wears similar (sometimes pretty high) boots, and other male characters in games wear thigh high ones – it can be a warrior/military-look thing.

    • Susan Cox

      Wow, did they explicitly state that she’s 11? She doesn’t look 11.

  • Meghan Murphy

    For sure.

    That said, I’m not convinced she is simply toeing the line to protect herself (something I most definitely would forgive).

  • Leo

    Disclaimer: You can take my ‘knight saves the Princess’ type stories from my cold dead hands. Zelda lets me live a childhood dream, sorry not sorry. ; )

    …yes, Ok. : D This is where it’s probably fortunate that female socialisation has basically just always bounced off me. No reason I was going to see the Princess-archetype as having a thing to do with me just because she was female, the knights had the horsie, so, I’mma be the knight. I get that new stories don’t have to be based on old, sexist patterns. But I think this is a problem we have, as feminists, that the old stories aren’t going away unless we switch to the book burning route, people are often very attached to them, so, they will get translated into new media, like games. So I tend to think asking for new ones might be more effective, than suggesting changing established ones – especially as geeks *hate* that. Come on, work with me, please. ; ) We could maybe still have male knight saves the Princess, female knight saves the Princess, Princess saves the knight (which, they often do, actually)…

    Overall, I’d wonder if Nintendo *are* trying. They’re just trying to do what LibFems want, rather than what most of us might have. No surprise when things actually get worse and not better…

    Still, I think there have always been good female characters in Zelda, including Zelda herself. It’s more the pattern overall that makes it an issue, with lack of playable female characters, than what one specific series is doing. I don’t have a problem with not having a playable female character in every single series and think it’d be totally counterproductive to change an established character – a token female Link won’t automatically improve matters now, it’s a bit late, and even the reincarnation concept was actually only really explicitly explained relatively recently (before, some players interpreted each game as just being like how a legend about a specific hero-character might acquire variations, or that an established hero-character might be added into retellings of events that involved different people), and not all players responded well to the concept to begin with.

    There’s always Horizon: Zero Dawn, which is better than recent Zeldas anyway.

    • Tired feminist

      We can have all of the alternatives Leo. We can have new stories. We can have the old. We can have the old redesigned. This is what a democratic culture should be like, imo. Who cares if the geeks hate remakes? The originals won’t disappear, they can stick with them if this is so important to them. For every remake of anything there will ALWAYS be someone saying the original is better. Whatever.

      • Leo

        “Who cares if the geeks hate remakes?”
        Me, ‘cos I’m a geek.. : D We can’t help it. Messing with something I love is basically like knives in my geeky soul.

        I didn’t mean remakes in this instance though, this is a new instalment in an established series. If people want to play something other than Zelda, they can play other action adventure games like Horizon (female lead), Okami HD (wolf main character, sex somewhat ambiguous, but more clearly female in English version, character based on female Shinto goddess Amaterasu)…both of which are better than recent Zeldas anyway, especially Okami. Why change Zelda, not the easiest series to do that with (FF is a much better candidate storywise, for instance), potentially spoiling it for people who liked it (which Nintendo already did for me) rather than asking for more like that, and for even better female-character led new games? Gaming needs new franchises more than tinkering with the old, as a medium, and there’s a lot more freedom in a new franchise to not include dubious elements, whereas those elements might be entrenched in an established series and something players are expecting to see. It also helps avoid the trap of looking tokenistic.

    • Susan Cox

      Why would the female Link be a token? Because there’s only one of her? Well, you have to start SOMEWHERE, right?

  • Susan Cox

    Yes, she does a great job in those videos making the feminist analysis clear and accessible.

  • Sashimi73

    Wow, thanks for saving me the money and for helping me understand why so many men are effectively brainwashed by each other.