Paper Mario’s Vivian: Transgender Done Right

So, let’s talk about Vivian.

In an effort to create an engaging story-based adventure game with Mario on the Nintendo 64’s limited graphical abilities, Paper Mario was a brilliant piece of work. A turn-based RPG using series staples of a cast of varying supporting characters against progressively difficult villains amidst a vast and involving landscape, it started off yet another franchise for the Mario juggernaut. Its sequel, Thousand Year Door, has been hailed as the best of the series, and for good reason – it introduced new gameplay mechanics that were an evolution of the previous iteration, with remarkable (yet not jarring) fourth wall breaking, multiple ways of approaching the same battles, and we got to watch Princess Peach send email to the GameBoy Advance SP in a forgivable moment of product placement.

Amidst the characters, there is one in particular I’d like to discuss, who is introduced (spoilers for a 14 year old game) initially as part of the set of apparently generic villains called the Shadow Sirens. She’s brought in as the strangely excessively bullied sister, and is reasonably swiftly defeated (provided you remember to knock out Beldam’s buffs early enough). Roughly halfway through the game, you discover Twilight Town, an excessively depressing place where the sun never shines, which reminds me of an ancient English saying. To add insult to injury for the town’s long-suffering inhabitants, they are randomly being turned into pigs by a mischievous ghost up in Creepy Steeple. You don’t know the creature’s name, but fortunately he seems vulnerable to standard attacks, and the entire level seems to be wrapped up, up until you realise that the ghostly shadow lying on the floor at the end of the level is not the monster, but in fact – uh, you.

Then begins a truly disturbing part of the game, where Mario’s sprite is replaced with a purple shadow, and no one seems to recognise him. There is another confrontation with the creature – who, it turns out, has stolen your identity, as well as your image. The spell will only be broken if the creature’s name is revealed – which, it can not. For the first time in the game, Mario is completely alone – having lost all of his friends, powerless against a new enemy, and with the entire world having forgotten him.

It is then that you see Vivian again. Distraught at having lost a weapon that she was entrusted with by her evil sisters, you decide to help her, and explain to her the situation. She decides to join you at that stage of the game, and is your sole companion.

She is also, by the way, transgender.

In the original Japanese iteration of the game, Vivian is written as a transgender individual – Goombella’s “Tattle” skill, which lists enemy descriptions, had

カゲ三人組の一人だった オンナのコのようで

ホントは オトコのコ
(“One of the shadow group, Vivian appears to be a girl but is really a boy.”)

In fact, looking back at the writing, it now makes sense why she’s so horribly bullied. When she first arrives, she proudly describes her group as the shadow sisters, and is immediately beat down by Beldam, her not terribly tolerant big sister.

Vivian: “We’ll defeat that Mario guy! ‘Cause we are ‘The three shadow sisters’!”
Marilyn: “How can you define us as ‘The three shadow sisters’? You are a man! A MAN!”
Vivian: “Sorry, sister… It was my mistake… Sigh…”
Marilyn: “I’m sure it wasn’t just a mistake. You deserve a punishment!”

When the game was translated to English, for purposes of localisation and classificatory codes Vivian’s transgender status was lost. This is a real shame, but knowing this makes what comes next in the game so much more significant.

Mario and Vivian make their way back up to Creepy Steeple, to discover the villain (whose name is revealed as Doopliss), completely unrepentant. But then there are two more shocks – all of your supporting crew, friends previously made in the game up till that point, have all banded behind Doopliss whom they believe to be Mario. It is then that Vivian realises the truth about who you are – and immediately abandons you. Alone, you face all of your friends, as well as a being that has all of your skills. You wage a losing battle against your own former companions, and things rapidly turn south.

And then Vivian returns, with

“I’m sorry, Sis, but this Mario is the only person who’s ever been kind to me.”

It doesn’t matter to Vivian about Mario’s identity – all that she responds to is his act of kindness, and the realisation of who she wishes to follow. This continues to the end, where Vivian is always shown to be vulnerable, but steadfast in only one issue – her loyalty to Mario.

As a species, we still have a large amount of difficulty with transgender individuals. Gender dysphoria is listed in the DSM (Diagnostic Statistical Manual, a reference guide published by the American Psychiatric Association for research and clinical use) as a mental illness, and for good reason, as distress regarding one’s gender identity is a real phenomenon. However, this does not invalidate the identity itself – regrettably, the diagnosis has been used as a tool to argue against transgender identity altogether, claiming that the notion of nonbinary gender identities itself is pathological. Transgender individuals still suffer from ridiculously high rates of suicide – the majority of studies cite a suicide rate of about 40%. That is, if you are born transgender, you have a 40% chance of attempting suicide. This statistic, by the way, is steadily improving.

Your family is supposed to be your primary source of support – yet, when it comes to issues of gender, it is not always true that this can be expected, for various reasons. Transgender individuals cite dissatisfaction not just with their own bodies, but also with society’s perception of themselves – not just society at large, but friends, family, even intimate partners. We still don’t have a concept of what transgender beauty looks like that can be generally accepted.

Which is why a creation like Vivian is so striking. In a game that appears simplistic and 2-dimensional (it is called Paper Mario, after all), Vivian’s arc comes to a peak during a level preoccupied with desolation and identity destruction. Every character believes that everything about themselves is about to be destroyed at any moment, and a malevolent force is wiping them out. Vivian has known nothing but bullying and disconnection her whole life – she does everything her sisters tell her to, because she knows nothing else about who she could be, save the one thing that she knows for sure – that she is female. This sole issue is what drives her disconnection from everyone, but it’s what she can not abandon, because it is who she is.

That’s probably why she is so keen to support a nameless stranger who arrives with a strange tale of stolen identity. It’s suggested in the game that this is the first time she has ever experienced kindness – and, in so doing, is able to identify who she wishes to be. It is not a decision she takes lightly to abandon her family – but, once made, it’s a decision she never backs down on, despite her vulnerability. And it does not matter who this person looks like, or what his name is – what matters to her is the presence of kindness, which elicits kindness from herself, and a steadfast devotion to same.

Paper Mario: Thousand Year Door has many standout moments, but the creation of a truly sympathetic – and accurate – transgender character is where it deserves praise. Vivian is not merely the best transgender character representation in a video game. She is the best transgender character ever created, period.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Contributing writer for The Artifice.
Edited by JamesBKelley, Misagh.

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22 Comments

  1. Donette
    0

    Never trust Nintendo of America with Transgender Character stories!

  2. IVAN
    0

    I would like for Nintendo to not deem transgender identities as too risque for western releases. Hell, we’re in a time where good representation would be fantastic. If she is ever brought back into the spotlight in a future Mario game, or a character has a similar scenario, it would be great for them to use this as a chance to make it a positive representation.

  3. Cristal
    0

    If Vivian identifies as female, her “true gender” is female.

  4. Trinn
    0

    I’m french and in the french version of the game Vivian is 100% boy, the translation refers to the Japanese version. Tbh the fact that Vivian is transgender makes her even cuter!

  5. jayne
    0

    Mario appeals to a lot of people, and while there are a lot of people who are okay with Vivian being a boy, there are also some groups, specifically in America , that would make a huge fuss out of it, and Nintendo really doesn’t want to deal with controversy.

  6. MeeSass
    0

    Vivian was (and still is) my favorite Paper Mario character! If she’s a boy or girl, trans or not, she is still so cute! Since she’s kind of fire based, she reminds me of Blaire White! Blaire is trans, super cute, and another one of my favorite people!

  7. Mathilda
    0

    I’ll admit, at the time when I played this game on the GC, this would have sent all the wrong shivers through my body. Not that I’m defending censorship because obviously the kids over at Japan are handling it just fine. I’m just saying that my sheltered teenaged mind wouldn’t have handled it since I never even knew about the very existence of transgendered people at the time. Boy or girl, Vivian is really cute and needs all the hugs after the way her sisters treated her.

  8. Read
    0

    Defiantly censorship.

  9. Braxton
    0

    Vivian shouldn’t be censored.

  10. Eldon
    0

    She (he) stills being my best party member… I like when videogames add LGBT characters.

  11. Sachiko
    0

    I think it’s kind of dumb that they would include a trans girl and only have her get insulted. It feels like they only do that for an unfunny joke.

  12. Gwenn
    0

    Vivian is female in all versions. Beldam was just calling Vivian mannish as a form of insult and Vivian just relented because she wanted the abuse to stop. At the end of the game, she makes it clear to Goombella that she was always a girl.

  13. danglah
    0

    In another universe, Vivian is a girl, not a boy. In the Japanese release, Vivian is a boy, but in the U.S. version, Vivian is really a girl. So there you have it, Vivian is really a girl.

  14. Halina
    0

    I always kinda figured they made Vivian female in the west because they already did that schitck earlier. Basically this situation is the inverse of the Birdo situation. If memory serves the american SMB2 manual states that Birdo is a boy though it prefers to wear a bow and be called Birdetta. Without any such instance occuring in the original Doki Doki, or any SMB game since. America gets a Female Vivian and a Transgendered Birdo. Everywhere else, gets the inverse. Then again…

  15. Very interesting article. I am a Nintendo fan but I’ve never got into Paper Mario. It’s really interesting that Nintendo explored Vivian like this. Not a lot of mainstream games especially one starring the most famous plumber ever

  16. ro0b
    0

    Interesting discussion. The thing is though that she’s not objectively proven to be male in the Japanese version. The only things that call her that biased by nature such as Beldam’s insults and Goombella’s info dumb which is based on her own knowledge at that time.

    The game doesn’t treat her the way it actually would treat someone if it had a pro LGBTQ message in it as it never respects what Vivian’s identity would be by always saying that “She’s a man who wishes she was a woman” rather than “She’s a woman with a male body”. If Nintendo were actually trying to get across a message about treating people with GID the way they want to be treated they would have worded it better and would have made it a more central element to her story.

    The transgender thing is just an insult used by Beldam to make Vivian feel less beautiful and like a woman (Which is a more heavy no no in Japanese culture) but with pure intentions at best, and poking fun at something that they don’t understand in an innocently ignorant way at worst. Neither objectively prove Vivian as not being female.

    Manual information is also not as valid as information provided in the game itself as it is oftentimes written by people with only a face value knowledge of the characters and not of the actual intricacies of the personalities, motivations, and backstories . Unless Vivian comes out and says “I have a male body but identify as a female” then this is just speculation on a line that was only used in comedic scenes and not any serious character scenes.

    You could argue that this is speculation as well but it honestly feels more egregious to assume a character’s biological sex by word of mouth from third party sources rather than from their own mouths. In real life if we believed that someone was the opposite sex of what they are presenting to us based on the words of family members who are known to be abusive and insulting to them by calling them ugly and blaming them for everything, and by the word of people who only heard what said abusive family member said about them without actually learning from said individual what their biological sex is then we’d be committing a huge disrespect to the person if it turns out they aren’t actually the opposite sex of what they present themselves as and would be shamed as being uneducated and in the wrong for it.

    Objectively speaking as far as we know by not using any speculation and interpretations of what strangers and abusive family members say about her Vivian is in reality a member of the female sex.

  17. Mica
    0

    If they ever remake The Thousand Year Door I hope they keep Vivian being transgender.

  18. SaraiMW

    Wow, okay that was a really interesting read, thank you for sharing.

  19. Archie
    0

    Vivian was one of my favourite characters.

  20. Robb
    0

    Reason why vivian isn’t male in America? Our ignorance, that’s why.

  21. Yvonne T.

    I am shocked that this happened. Never in my years of playing Mario would I have guessed that it also involved social issues such as discrimination. Very interesting read.

  22. It’s a shame this was lost in the translation.

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