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

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