csanyk.com

video games, programming, the internet, and stuff

Tag: gender

Why arguing about Link’s gender is dumb, and why it’s important

So there is a new Legend of Zelda game coming out, as there always is. Nintendo have shown it at E3, and fans have been speculating about it endlessly in anticipation, as they always do. I guess somewhere or other, people glommed on to a rumor that Link might be a girl in this next incarnation.

Nintendo shot down that rumor with some spurious logic about balancing the triforce, which apparently becomes unbalanced if it goes from 2/3 male to 2/3 female. See, in the original Legend of Zelda, a Triforce was a golden triangle made out of 8 pieces of smaller triangles, and there were three of them: a triforce of wisdom, a triforce of power, and uh I forget let me look it up, oh yes a triforce of Courage. These triforces brought “balance” to the world, and whenever the balance gets out of whack, Link (using the Triforce of Courage) has an adventure to restore balance and peace to the world.

Later, I guess, these triforces became identified with the major characters in the Zelda world: Link, Zelda, and Gannon. And because these characters have gender, and because a 2M:1F gender ratio is apparently “balanced”, you can’t make Link a girl. Because apparently there’s no way to restore that imbalance through adventuring, or rewrite Zelda to be a dude, or whatever. It would just ruin Zelda as we know it, according to Nintendo. This, despite the fact that Link takes on a wide variety of identities in many of (immutably) his adventures.

Link can be anything you can possibly imagine... except a girl.

Link can be anything you can possibly imagine… except a girl.

My point in writing this is not to slam Nintendo for their decision to keep Link male, but to point out that Link is Nintendo’s property, and they can manage their property however they want to. They don’t have to make up dumb excuses (and they are dumb) why Link has to be male. They don’t owe fans a female Link. If they decided to offer a female incarnation of Link, there’s nothing wrong with that, either. But Nintendo created and own the Legend of Zelda world, and they’re the ones who get to decide how it works.

Except…

We get to play in that world. As it unfolds for us, we take part in the creation, and so each of us owns a small piece of it. We are invited to become Link — as is the common convention with nearly every videogame ever made: you are the protagonist.

And, it turns out, about half of us are girls.

So, regardless of what the instruction manual says, or what the pixels look like, or what Nintendo wants, about half of all Links are girls.

For some girls, they may think of Link as a boy, and so they’re playing “in drag” while they use Link as their avatar, in much the same way that, in Shakespearean times, men played the women roles too, since real women weren’t allowed to be actors back then.

Some girls playing as Link may think of Link as a girl. That’s fine. Maybe Link’s a tomboy. Or maybe she’s disguised as a boy, because Hyrule doesn’t accept that women can be action adventure heroes. Or maybe some other thing.

Who cares? If someone wants to play the game and use it with their imagination that way, who are we to tell anyone that they’re wrong? That’s the experience they had, playing their game. There’s nothing official about it of course, but that doesn’t matter.

The thing with videogame characters is, we inhabit them for the duration we play the game. It’s like putting on a costume and playing a role. Each actor brings something different to a role.

But if we neglect this aspect of theatrical artifice, and consider the character of Link as a real person, who is a distinct individual, the character has its own identity. Its original incarnation as designed by the original creator seems to have some sort of magical hold on the character concept that defines it. Link is small. Link wears green. Link uses a sword and shield. Link explores the world and finds things. Link is heroic. Link is… male.

But every time a serial storyline has a new story written, or goes on a new adventure, the author of that story takes the opportunity to create new things. If there wasn’t anything new, there wouldn’t be much point to creating a new story. These new stories may be said to extend the existing body of canonical stories that have to agree in continuity. Or they may have an “alternate” reality, often thought of as subordinate in some sense, or subject to pre-existing continuity where possible, but existing in a loosely connected multiverse of worlds surrounding different incarnations of the characters. Sometimes serial stories are “rebooted” or “reinterpreted” by new authors who take aspects of the original work, and use them as raw materials for writing completely outside of the canonical milieu.

There’s some core conceptual things that we sense in the character that can’t be changed, and everything else is subject to the interpretation the author/publisher chooses to present, and the vestiges of the actor’s persona that a player brings for the time they inhabit the role. In cinema, characters like James Bond and Batman have been portrayed by different actors. On stage, over 4+ centuries, different actors have portrayed the characters of William Shakespeare in countless different interpretations. In comic books, different writers and artists crank out new stories in a world that has been worked on in some cases for 75+ years, while the characters never seem to age, despite the world around them always being contemporary to the time of publication. Sometimes these characters go through dramatic re-inventions or spin-offs.

People debate whether these things are good or not, but the world keeps on going.

What’s different about videogames is, we all inhabit the role of our videogame protagonists. This is different from Christian Bale inhabiting Batman for a while, and then handing it off to Ben Affleck, etc. Each of us who plays a Zelda game is Link, contemporaneously and privately. Link *is* a girl, in hundreds of thousands of living rooms, right now. And Link is a boy. Link is all things to all people.

And Link is Link, the published work offered on the market by Nintendo. We’re invited to play with him, and as him, and become him. Or her. But Nintendo gives us a set of traits and constraints to work with.

People just need to get over it and accept it, or ignore it and substitute their own reality. It literally doesn’t matter which you choose.

If the publishers want to reinvent the character or take it in some really different direction, it’s up to them to do so in a way that brings the bulk of the fanbase along, or to be willing to leave a chunk of the fans behind. Either way, it’s fine.

Just do a good job with it.

Fiction is all in your head: Everyone can have it their way

Personally, I don’t buy this theory of Metroid’s Samus Aran being transgender under our noses all along.

In the 1980’s, the secret of Samus being female was cool, and I liked the surprise. I don’t know of anyone who didn’t. Literally no kids who I know of played the original Metroid back in the day, learned of the reveal and thought it stunk, or felt betrayed to learn that “they” had “been” [playing as] a girl all along. Gamers have pretty much universally always accepted Samus as a female character.

I grew up with a few notable female heroes in sci fi, like Ripley from Aliens, and one of the Metroid minibosses was an alien named Ridley who takes some design cues from Giger’s alien, and it was later revealed that the creator of Metroid was doing homage to Alien with the character. Samus’s gender reveal has been understood to be another homage to the Ellen Ripley character. There was also Star Wars‘s Princess Leia, who, although at first seemed to be another damsel in distress needing to be rescued, stood up to Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Freaking Vader and his interrogation droid, and upon being rescued turned out to be a strong and formidable character every bit as wily and capable of the heroic male characters who broke her out of Death Star detention block AA-23.

Nonetheless, I do think it’s fair to say that there’s plenty of sexism and stereotyping in our culture. In fact, it’s more than fair — it’s obvious, blatant, pervasive. While individuals are all over the map in terms of how open and accepting they are, as a culture overall we have made a tremendous amount of progress toward gender equality in the time since I was born. Yet, there’s still plenty of sexism and misogyny everywhere you look. It’s true there is a lot of the closed-minded thinking still around, and I’m sure it will continue to persist in our culture after I’m gone.

The Japanese culture that birthed the Metroid universe is different enough from American culture that we do find some of their ideas about gender and sexuality to be strange. But that’s part of what makes learning about other cultures cool. It is a subject that is too complex for me to adequately summarize in even a few paragraphs, but suffice it to say for the purposes of this article that comparative cross-cultural sexuality is a pretty fascinating field to study if you want to get into it, and aren’t too uptight. (Seriously, go out and do a PhD on the subject if you want to.) For our purposes here, it’s probably enough to know that there’s a streak of chauvinism, and in terms of traditional gender roles in Japanese culture the differences between traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine is even more pronounced than in American culture. But there’s also a lot of counter examples in Japanese entertainment, of strong, heroic, badass female characters as well. We might say that in Japanese culture, as compared with American culture, there’s greater contrast between gender stereotypes, but perhaps a greater acceptance of the exceptional.

I’ll admit that I don’t really feel like an authority on such matters, so I could be well off the mark. But I feel reasonably safe in assuming that the guys who came up with Samus were probably not the most advanced thinkers at the time when it came to gender identity. We should not hold an expectation for them to get it “right” or be “sensitive” or “politically correct” in how they think about, or talk about, or portray the character of Samus Aran. And when looking for characters to become more realistic as they develop over time, we should not hold an expectation for them to mirror our ideals. Real people are complex and flawed, and have similarly “problematic” views with regard to social justice issues as is present in our real culture. So for a fictional character to conform to some ideal in order to be a role model is neither necessary, nor realistic.

Even if that’s “problematic” for some, that’s acceptable. Nobody has all the answers, or has it all figured out. And the stories about how we struggle with ourselves are usually a lot more compelling than stories about ideal perfectly who always behave in exemplary fashion that should serve as a model for the behavior of others. The notion that “problematic” depictions of characters is acceptable doesn’t mean that there aren’t things that are problematic. But that people aren’t perfect, and sometimes artists offend, sometimes without meaning to. People talk about things they don’t understand all the time, and that’s great. That’s a part of how we make progress toward greater understanding.

I don’t pretend to know everything that I’m talking about, either, and that is why it’s important that I talk about it. I’m not trying to tell everyone “the way it is” or how to think. I’m talking about how things appear to me, from my perspective, and to the best of my knowledge. I think that’s all we can ask of anyone at any time. That, and to go and dig for the truth. Which, you may never know, but can often get closer to.

But basically, at its core, Metroid didn’t feel to me at the time like it was a game about any of that gender stuff, at all. And it still doesn’t today. For all I know, maybe the creators of Metroid did consider it in designing Samus, or perhaps joked about it as a way of getting around their own lack of comfort in thinking about a female character who does things that are more traditionally regarded as “masculine”. Perhaps they even really did conceive of the character as transgender, at least in terms of what their concept of transgender means. But in any case, regardless of Samus’s gender or sexual identity, the important aspects of Samus are that she runs, jumps, and shoots, explores, powers up, and is a galactic bounty hunter and a total bad ass who is fearless, cool under fire, and utterly competent. Because that is what Metroid is mainly about. “Surprise, you’re a girl!” was a twist at the end, revealed only to players who beat the game fast enough to deserve to be let in on something cool. But it wasn’t what Metroid was about.

Samus’s character and story becomes more important in later games in the series, where storytelling elements of the game design became stronger, but Metroid was in its conception a game about exploring a hostile alien world and defeating a grave danger. Whether it was a man in the suit, or a woman, was secondary. But it was cool that Samus was a woman. And if she’s a transgender woman, then OK. But regardless of what the creators might have said about the character while creating the game, or left on the cutting room floor, there’s basically nothing in the published material that points to Samus being trans.

Which means, of course, that if you like Samus and have a need to see her as a transgender character for whatever reason, the published material is open to such interpretation. Just like we can have black Santa Claus for black people to better identify with for Christmastime, why can’t we have Samus as a transgender woman for the trans community, and people who don’t prefer that “edition” of Samus can have it the way they want it? Why does every detail in every fan’s head about a completely fictional universe have to agree with every other detail in every other fan’s head? It doesn’t!

Nintendo did have a transgender character in the 80’s, though — Birdo, introduced in the US release of Super Mario Bros. 2 — so it’s not completely out of the question that they might have had others, but I still think that the early concept of Samus that we got in 1985 was a cisgender female warrior. Birdo was a creature, though, not a human, and the portrayal of Birdo’s gender confusion is, I’m sure, a bit problematic for GLBTQ allies in 2015 — Birdo is presented as “confused” about his/her gender, and this is presented as at least somewhat comical, and (as I’m trying to indicate by my use of his/her, which normally would be considered offensive to a transgender person who knows what gender they are) the folks at Nintendo weren’t entirely sure what to make of Birdo’s gender, or at least didn’t want to spell out all the answers for their audience, and instead wanted to raise questions. That was in 1988. Whereas, in 2015 I think the message we get from the transgender community these days is that they are not at all confused about their gender identity — it just doesn’t happen to match up with their genitalia. So, Birdo’s treatment is not exactly a paragon example for GLBTQ allies to hold up as an ideal of what they might like to see in popular culture. But while Birdo may not be the answer to questions for those who are curious about non-binary gender norms, he/she was a starting point for asking questions and having conversations.

Although, there’s nothing to suggest that Nintendo intended to open up a serious dialog about any of this. I suspect that most of us just took eggs and threw them at him/her until we got past the end of the level, and that was about it. Whatever Birdo’s gender, it doesn’t affect how you play the game one bit.

As my friend Jacob says, “As long as it’s side scrolling and has a screw attack, I don’t care who’s in the suit.” I think that sums up the attitude of the largest block of gamers in gamer culture. That’s not to say that there aren’t minorities who are vocal with their opinions, of course.

All that said, characters from video games and, more broadly in all types of serial fiction, are always open to redefinition. This happens all the time to comic book characters, and they routinely do radical character changes, not especially caring about preserving continuity — because ultimately it’s not important. Character driven serial fiction has come to be understood as a form that explores a mulitverse of possibilities around a loosely defined core template for the character. The original incarnation is usually received as canon, but as new artists work with the character and write new stories, they take liberties, and always have. It’s not about making sure that everything ever published about the character is logically consistent and describes a concrete, objective reality. It’s about taking a core concept that is malleable, and running with it to tell cool stories that inspire and entertain. And about being allowed to take risks and maybe miss the mark sometimes. Not every story is the best. And not every fan will agree about which story is the best.

This is why we get to be entitled to our own opinions and to have our own preferences, and why no one can tell us we’re wrong about what we like and what we don’t. Samus isn’t just a person. She’s a mannequin which we can dress up with our imagination. She’s the paint on the brush, with which we may paint vivid pictures. She was created by Nintendo, and Nintendo may hold the copyright and trademarks, but in an important sense, Samus belongs to us.

So, I am a “geek” who can “handle” trans Samus, even though my Samus is a cisgender woman, and I can also have my Samus multiple ways, depending on how the creators who are working with the character decide to use the elements from her milieu to create new works that (hopefully) I will enjoy, and allow different interpretations of the character. I could enjoy Black Samus, Boy Samus, Shapeshifting Alien Samus, Trans Samus, Hetero Samus. Original Samus. As long as they don’t suck. I don’t even mind Samus as an adult sex fantasy.

The point is this: It’s all fiction. If you want to point at a “canon” of fiction that is “more true”, and divide it from alternative fictions that are “less true”, or unofficial, or false, and attack those who posit an interpretation you don’t happen to like, maybe you don’t understand what fiction is, and need to get out more.

csanyk.com © 2016
%d bloggers like this: