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.

  • Sebastian Hahn

    A few things to note here. for one thing, you’re exaggerating (permanently offended mentality, unfortunately very common these days). In a society made up of only women, of course there’d be curiosity regarding men. The high heels are a bit much, but honestly I never noticed it and am taking your word on that.

    And the “women’s boundaries thing”… really? First off, the idea that a society could exclude individuals based only on their gender, and that’s just supposed to be respected by everyone, even when the fate of the world is at stake, is completely ridiculous. Historically, Gerudo almost never give birth to men; how this translates into excluding men from their society, especially when the survival of their culture and society is at stake, is beyond me; but that may further explain their strong interest in voe. (I hate to break it to you, but vai can’t procreate amongst themselves).

    But I’m honestly only making this comment to mention that Gta is an embellished, cynical parody of real life. Prostitutes exist in the game because they exist in reality (regardless of either of our views on the issue). Yeah, you can “abuse” them. You can abuse just about anyone in gta. You play as a murderous, criminal sociopath.

    Also, in the majority of Zelda games that I’ve played, I don’t recall Link and Zelda having any sort of romantic relationship. I can’t speak for botw because I haven’t finished it yet, but in many LOZ games Zelda is a fairly distant character. Link is a hero and Zelda is a Princess (a soldier of sorts and a political figure), and they play their respective roles in the story, without any romantic involvement whatsoever.

    That’s not to say that some people won’t read more into their relationship in various games, but in most of the games there’s little if any substantial implication of any romance between the two.

    Final note, Link doesn’t “save the princess”. Link serves the royal family, and protects the kingdom of Hyrule.

  • marv
    • Sebastian Hahn

      Great answer! As far as I know, prostitutes have no legal protections, and can’t turn to the police if they want an out because they’re considered criminals. Decriminalizing prostitution while maintaining criminal status for pimps and… I’m assuming “johns” refers to the people that um… employ… prostitutes? That seems like the best solution to help end or at least reduce prostitution.

      I’m aware that there are some who would legalize and regulate prostitution, like any other form of employment. I don’t agree with that, but what are your thoughts? Logically and ethically, I’m not sure if sex labor can be held as distinct from other dangerous, disgusting work, even if I don’t personally like the idea of it.

      Also, should pornography be considered distinct from prostitution? I have a strong suspicion that modern pornography strongly overlaps with prostitution, and in some cases maybe even human trafficking.

      Would the solution, in that case, be to ban pornography? To regulate it? What do you think?

      • marv
        • Sebastian Hahn

          In response to the first two articles, I’d like to state that I was looking for more of a short, logical argument that isn’t full of holes (that I could use myself in later conversations). The issue with the arguments in these articles is that they’re based on easily refutable subjective biases.

          Issue 1: Prostitution is dangerous. That is certainly the case, but many jobs are dangerous, and were it not for the illegal nature of prostitution, I don’t have much reason to believe that it would be an especially dangerous occupation.

          Issue 2: Prostitution is disgusting/traumatizing. Yes, that may be the case, but many other jobs are also disgusting and traumatizing, and also require the ability to psychologically disassociate.

          Issue 3: prostitution is sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is a nonconsentual sexual advance. Ideally, a prostitute would be consenting to any sexual advances. If a prostitute is being sexually harassed, or physically abused, raped, etc, there’s currently no one that they can turn to, as they themselves are considered criminals. That wouldn’t be the case if prostitution were legalized and regulated.

          Issue 4: Prostitution isn’t a choice. In that case, it depends. Prostitution in it’s current state encourages individuals who use intimidation and threats of violence to keep their… employees… in line. That is clearly abhorrent, but is also due to the illegal and unregulated nature of the field.

          But statements like “For 90% of women, they would not ‘choose’ prostitution if capitalism wasn’t forcing it on them. This is not a choice that is made freely, it is made under extreme duress”; statements like this could be applied to many jobs, if not all jobs. No labor is entirely consensual, and much of it is degrading and undesirable.

          It’s not as if the entire workforce isn’t basically being held hostage by the entrenched hierarchy of wealth, where their choices are either make themselves useful to the existing hierarchy, or die; and prostitutes are somehow an exception. Our entire society is built on and run by slavery-lite.

          Now, all that being said, I’m not stating that I believe that prostitution should be fully legalized and regulated; but I do think that we need more sturdy arguments against it. Preferably a set of solid, irrefutable arguments that can be conveyed with only a paragraph or two; without the need to cite lengthy articles that don’t actually say very much.

          • marv

            You could be unconvinced because of male bias which means no feminist argument would be irrefutable to you.

            http://www.feministcurrent.com/2011/11/07/why-does-the-left-want-prostitution-to-be-a-job-like-any-other/

            “…Prostitution is disgusting/traumatizing. Yes, that may be the case, but many other jobs are also disgusting and traumatizing, and also require the ability to psychologically disassociate.”

            “But statements like “For 90% of women, they would not ‘choose’ prostitution if capitalism wasn’t forcing it on them. This is not a choice that is made freely, it is made under extreme duress”; statements like this could be applied to many jobs, if not all jobs. No labor is entirely consensual, and much of it is degrading and undesirable.”

            If you think thrusting cock into the soft tissue of a woman’s vagina, anus and mouth and cum shots to the face are not substantially different than other forms of exploitation you are demonstrating male privilege and mansplaining. The male supremacy of society and capitalism make prostitution distinct. It is arrogant for a man to argue differently. Try taking it up the ass and down the throat for money over months and years to see if you want it regulated or abolished.

            “Preferably a set of solid, irrefutable arguments that can be conveyed with only a paragraph or two; without the need to cite lengthy articles that don’t actually say very much.”

            No matter how sound we believe arguments are, vested self-interest and other types of disagreement will dispute them. Workers have been divided over the abolition of capitalism since inception. The search for a perfect rationale is not the solution. It is a liberal presumption.

  • marv

    A sure sign a man is mansplaining is for him to deny it. Men claim the authority to decide when sexism occurs. It could be those other men who are sexist but not the first person pronoun.

    Women can rarely provide enough provable objective harm of sexual harassment, rape and prostitution because men define the standards of objectivity, something you are doing. Dozens or hundreds of women have to come forward to even have a slim chance of being believed when a man violates them. If a man or boy lodges accusations against another man, the victim is credible. See the Kevin Spacey fiasco:

    http://www.feministcurrent.com/2017/10/31/gay-men-arent-special/

    Your quest won’t be fulfilled as men have constructed prostitution, the economy, the state and the whole legal system.

    • Sebastian Hahn

      See, now you’re getting into illogical, biased, subjective territory. You’re basically stating that a man, due to being a man, cannot hold an opinion on, debate, or understand anything relating to any issue which predominantly effects women; which is an entirely ludicrous statement.

      A trendy pop-term like “mansplaining” doesn’t justify or excuse calling someone’s opinion on an issue invalid—regardless of their stance—based on their gender. At this point you’re being hypocritical.

  • Sebastian Hahn

    you’re the one trolling instead of making any real arguments; and wasting not only the moderator’s time, but mine as well. Maybe you should make a donation.

    • Meghan Murphy

      He does donate regularly, you tool.