The Legend of Zelda: Female Representation
*Spoilers for the Legend of Zelda Franchise*
Since the first game’s release in 1986, Shigeru Miyamoto and Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda has served as an astounding conundrum to gamers and new gamers worldwide. The title suggests it is a game revolving around a person, place, or thing named Zelda, but – in fact – the aforementioned Zelda is a plot device to push the game forward. Princess Zelda has existed in a multitude of incarnations throughout the franchise and, usually, in the form of a “damsel in distress.” Even when she has an opportunity to be powerful, her autonomy is taken by the patriarchy. The E-3 announcement for the next Legend of Zelda game spurred discussion for a heroine playing the protagonist rather than Link. Unfortunately, this was nothing more than hearsay, as an article on Gamespot points out that the protagonist is, in fact, Link.
This is disappointing. For years the franchise has grown and given more power to women, but never quite enough. The issues revolving around feminism in The Legend of Zelda does not primarily exist in Zelda’s character, but throughout the entire franchise.
The Three Goddesses
Din, the goddess of power, created the land. Nayru, the goddess of wisdom, created order. Farore, the goddess of courage, created the diverse inhabitants. Upon leaving the world, the goddesses left behind the Triforce: three golden triangles. It is said that any wish the possessor of the Triforce desires will come true…(Thorpe)
The Three Golden Goddesses are at the pinnacle of power in the Zelda universe. Although their existence has fallen to that of legend, the effect they have had on the Zelda universe is evident in the cycle of war perpetuated through the existence of the Triforce. It is unfortunate that such powerful beings are degraded into damsels to be saved in The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons (2001) and The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages (2001).
In Oracle of Seasons, Din is an enchanting dancer in the land of Holodrum that appears to have feelings for Link. In reality, she is an omnipotent oracle of seasons that, as the name implies, controls the four seasons in Holodrum. However, the power to control the different seasons does little for her as she is literally whisked away by Onox, General of Darkness. The rest of the game is entirely dependent on Link’s own ability to save Din.
The Oracle of Ages is the sister game to Oracle of Seasons in form as well as function. In order to get 100% percent completion in either game you must first beat one and then use a code to beat the other. While this may sound fun, it is problematic how yet another goddess is degraded through her characterization. In Oracle of Ages, Nayru is a gentle singer in the land of Labrynna that also seems to have strong feelings for Link. She is captured by the evil sorceress Veran because Nayru is actually the Oracle of Ages, and capable of governing the passage of time in Labrynna.
In either game, there is also an Oracle of Secrets named Farore. Her role within the game is more helpful than the previously mentioned oracles, but a lot less active in contributing to the game. She essentially exists if the players wish to have any extra oomph added to their game but she is not necessary.
While the two games are fun in their own right, it’s embarrassing that the creators of the universe have fallen from power. The Zelda franchise took a step in the right direction by placing creationism in the hands of women, but then it took a hundred steps back when these games were conceived. And no woman is spared from these same choices.
The Goddess Hylia
The Goddess, Hylia is the creator of humans in the Zelda Universe. The Goddess is an unsung heroine mentioned for the first time in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (2011). She is responsible for taking the humans to Skyloft to protect them from Demise. After doing so, she united with the creatures dwelling on the land below and sealed away Demise. However, her success is only temporary. Hylia’s battle would then pass on to a boy (Link) and a girl (Zelda) destined to save the world.
In the manga made for the 25th anniversary special, Hylia’s power is evident. With the master sword she single-handedly rends a chunk of earth and sends it to the Heavens so that she may protect her people. Link initially exists as a prisoner for supposed traitorous actions, but this was also planned.
Your imprisonment was willed by the Heavens. It was meant to make you strong. Like a sword hammered and honed so that it would never break. (Thorpe)
She did what was absolutely necessary to protect her people, and she takes it one step further to continue her defense of Hylia. She gives up her divinity so that she and Link would both be reborn whenever Hylia is in danger so they may protect it from Demise.Out of all of the characters, Hyila has the most potential to be great, but every reincarnation of Zelda does more than add a “human” factor to her character. Instead her reincarnation turns her into someone that (almost) constantly needs to be saved by Link.
Princess Zelda is the human reincarnation of Hylia. Since the very first Legend of Zelda game she has been a damsel in distress. She is often a beautiful young maiden that is waiting for a daring hero to save her and it is only in her most recent forms that she takes a more active role in the world’s salvation. She is the bearer of the Triforce of Wisdom and, while she often needs Link’s help, she has all of the potential to be a very powerful female character.
1. Skyward Sword
In Skyward Sword (2011), Zelda is the classic “girl next door.” According to the designers, Hirono and Kobayashi, they “wanted her to look like a typical village girl, but [they] also wanted to establish her as a heroine at the same time…[they] had a director who requested Goddess Zelda be ‘dressed simply, and in white'” (Thorpe).
Her character is spunkier than past versions of Zelda as she has no qualms with standing up to Link’s bullies, Groose and his gang. After being pulled to the surface world by a black tornado, Zelda finds herself on a quest to reawaken her memories as the goddess, Hylia. She gracefully accepts her fate and journeys alongside Impa, a servant to Hylia, so that she may reclaim her memories as Hylia.
This version of Zelda clearly has some power because she and Impa are able to journey through monster-infested temples with ease while Link must battle hordes of monsters and solve complex puzzles to reach the end. She is a responsible human that knows what she must do and does so gracefully, but she is still a female, and females in the Zelda verse are destined to need saving.
From Link and the player’s perspective, Zelda has been a damsel in distress. When Link journeys to the first two temples he is searching for his friend, Zelda, who is presumably in danger and must be saved. It is not until Link catches up to Zelda and learns of her true identity that Link realizes that Zelda had not needed him at all. At the precise moment this happens, Zelda and Impa escape into the past through the Gate of Time and Link seeks a way into the past to bring Zelda back to his own time. When he finally makes his way to the past, Zelda informs him of her true identity.
In order to protect the world and keep Demise imprisoned, Zelda seals herself in a crystal in the past and falls into a deep sleep. It is from this point onward that power is consciously given to Link.
Even though I am Hylia reborn, I am still my father’s daughter, and your friend. I’m still your Zelda… So I’m going to ask you a favor, sleepyhead. Ever since we were kids, I’d always be the one to wake you up when you slept in. But this time, when all of this is over, will you come to wake me up?
The rest of the game is less about Link’s journey to save Zelda, and more about his responsibility to the world. Zelda’s role is to sleep, and wait to be saved, a recurring theme in almost all Zelda games.
2. The Ocarina of Time
In Ocarina of Time (1998) Zelda takes a more active role in the salvation of Hyrule, and all of time itself. The first time that Link meets Zelda, she charges him with the job of saving Hyrule. At a very young age, the princess understands that Ganondorf is not to be trusted, and that something must be done. While at this time she lacks the ability to take direct action because of her societal position, she still has no qualms with sending a fellow child on the quest to save the world.
When Link arrives to open Sacred Realm and fully take on his role as the Hero of Time, Zelda is forced to escape from Hyrule in order to keep the sacred relic out of Ganondorf’s hands. She entrusts the Ocarina of Time to Link who uses it to open the Sacred Realm and unwittingly send the world into seven years of darkness.
After the seven year time skip, Zelda is nowhere to be seen. Instead, Link is guided by Sheik, a young man from the Sheikah tribe. Zelda disguises herself as Sheik so that she may take a more active role in helping Link towards his destiny. Every time Link searches for a temple Sage, Sheik is there to guide him and teach him what to do. So there is only one question, why become a guy?
If Zelda could not travel as the princess, why couldn’t she disguise herself as a female sheikah with the same capabilities? It would seem that the only way that Zelda could have any form of autonomy is by disguising herself as a man. In a world dominated by men: the king, Ganondorf, Link, etc. Zelda had to, almost literally, become one to function in this world. Upon first glance, this is not problematic. However, the moment Zelda reclaims her identity, Ganondorf kidnaps her and Link must climb Ganondorf’s tower to save her. In a patriarchy, the “dashing hero saves the princess”, but a man like Sheik doesn’t need any saving.
3. Wind Waker
In Wind Waker (2003), Zelda is first introduced as a scrappy, clever pirate by the name of Tetra. In her first appearance, she must be saved by Link but this “damsel in distress” trope is immediately turned around by Tetra’s own capabilities. Unlike other princesses who are trapped in castles and forced to wait, Tetra dictates her own choices and actions.
Do you understand what you’re asking? We’re pirates! You know… PIRATES! The terror of the seas!
Her authoritative position actually gives her power over a crew entirely composed of men, and she is not afraid to do what is necessary to help Link on his quest. She also is not afraid to do something for herself. Upon saving Link’s sister, Arya and two other girls from Windfall Island, Tetra manages to take all of the profit she can from the deal. She isn’t limited by the need to serve anyone but herself and to present herself as a worthwhile captain. Tetra is likable in a variety of ways, and she did more to help Link as Tetra than previous incarnations of Zelda. She even stands up to Ganondorf without fear or worry for her own safety. What ruins Tetra is her transformation into Zelda.
When descending under the ocean to Hyrule, Zelda’s true destiny is revealed. Instead of sailing the seas, she is kept holed up in Hyrule to keep Ganondorf from taking her. Her character is ultimately weakened by this change, and even though she did not know who she was meant to be, she suddenly becomes apologetic for events that are out of her control.
Everything that’s happened to you and your poor sister.. it’s all been my fault. I’m sorry.
The game leaves room for Zelda to reclaim her “Tetra” persona in the end as she plays an active role in Ganondorf’s defeat, but it is not quite enough. Her character already lost a lot by being forced to wait.
4. Twilight Princess
The Zelda from Twilight Princess (2006) exists only at the beginning and at the end. However, it is during this time that she takes a more active role in promoting a woman’s power than any other Zelda game. Link initially meets her as a wolf and Zelda initially exists as someone to deliver exposition. She tells the tale of Hyrule and its relationship with the twilight realm and she assists Link in restoring his true form. She is more than an informant though, she is truly the reason why Link can go on his quest at all.
With all of the wisdom that earns her the Triforce of Wisdom, Zelda understands Midna’s true identity and uses her power to give her life-force to Midna. While she may disappear after this moment, her selfless act sets in motion the steps necessary for Midna to ultimately save the Twilight Realm with Link’s help. Zelda’s final appearance has her fighting alongside Link to defeat Ganondorf with the light arrows. Initially she is possessed and forced to battle against Link, but she (although it is out of her control) is still doing more than staying in one spot.
What ultimately ruins this rendition of Zelda is that there is so little to say about her. She exists at the beginning and the end of the game but nothing more than that. It could be argued that this same issue revolves around all versions of Zelda, but this is most disappointing because this Zelda had the most potential. She has more maturity, and more capabilities than previous renditions. Unlike the Zelda from Ocarina of Time she embraces her womanhood, and unlike the Zelda from Wind Waker she does not allow a man to dictate her decisions.
According to the Hyrule Historia, Fi’s early concepts were inspired by 1980’s anime shows. The idea was for her to be designed in “the style of beautiful secretary at the protagonist’s side.” Needless to say, she is not meant to be more than a “trophy” of sorts to travel around Link. What is most unfortunate about Fi is that she never had the opportunity to shine as well as she could have.
Fi was originally intended to be a battle partner to Link. For the first time in the history of the franchise there would be a female companion that did more than inform or annoy (think Navi). However, as the franchise has clung to a singular, fighting protagonist, Fi was tossed to the sidelines and maintained her role as a “beautiful secretary.”
The Gerudo in Ocarina of Time have all of the potential to be powerhouses. The Gerudo women are thieves comprised almost entirely of women that live in the harsh conditions of the Gerudo Desert. When Link approaches the women in-game they capture and lock him away. Their toleration for an unwelcome, male presence secures their roles as feminist figures in the game. This would be splendid if it were not for their age-old tradition. Every hundred years, a male is born into their tribe and made king. In Ocarina of Time this particular male happens to be Ganondorf, the primary antagonist in Ocarina of Time.
The Gerudo clan features the Twinrova sisters. These women represent maternal instinct and precisely how far a woman would be willing to go for a child. According to Navi, the sisters together form Ganondorf’s surrogate mother. They happily capture Nabooru (the eventual Spirit Sage) and relentlessly battle Link in order to protect their loved one. While, on one hand, it would seem that these two women are in the service of a man, it could be argued that they more accurately represent the best of maternal instincts. Although, while the sisters take an aggressive approach, another maternal figure has taken a variety of different forms throughout the franchise.
Impa has existed since The Legend of Zelda (1987). Initially presented as a mother-figure to Zelda, Impa has come a long way from the young princess’s nursemaid in 1986. Out of all the characters within Zelda she has the most potential to stand as a symbol for women everywhere.
The original Impa in The Legend of Zelda, Impa is displayed as nothing more than a servant. She sets Link on his adventure but does little else. In Zelda II: The Adventures of Link, Impa takes a slightly more proactive role. Instead of merely asking Link to save Hyrule, she elaborates on Link’s destiny to save Hyrule and serves as Link’s guide. It is when Ocarina of Time is released that Impa is presented as more than a guide.
In Ocarina of Time, Impa is presented as a thinner, younger woman sworn to protect Princess Zelda. She is one of the last surviving members of the Sheikah tribe. Impa’s personality is more three-dimensional than previously mentioned characters. She opened up the former Sheikah town, Kakariko village, to non-Sheikah and offered up her home as a safe-haven after Ganondorf took over Hyrule. She is a strong character with a maternal side, but most of all she is loyal to Zelda and concerns herself with Zelda’s well-being even as a sage.
The Impa in Skyward Sword is – within the timeline of the franchise – one of the earliest renditions of the character. She is a member of the Sheikah tribe who honors Hylia’s request to protect Zelda and escort the reincarnated goddess to the Earth Temple, the Sky Temple, and the Temple of Time. This rendition of Impa also has the pleasure of having two different versions of her character: the young and the old. The young Impa is unafraid to judge Link for his failures and is quick to chastise his ability to protect Zelda. She clearly has excellent fighting capabilities and her character, unlike other Impas, is not so quick to trust someone because of fate’s designs. The young Impa accepts her role to defend Hyrule to the extent that she waits for centuries while Zelda sleeps and waits for Link to wake her.
During her waiting period she ages severely and takes on the role of a seer at the Sealed Grounds in the Temple of Hylia. Instead of playing the cynical woman, she mentors Link and persuades Groose to assist in protecting Hyrule. While she is technically portrayed as two separate characters, the revelation that she is the old woman and Link’s mentor proves that she has had the most character growth of anyone in the series. Even Zelda in Ocarina of Time did not change in character as much as Impa did.
In Twilight Princess (2006), Midna is introduced as a female lead unlike any other. She is mischievous, cynical, and unafraid to take control. From the beginning of the game she delights in Link’s form as a wolf, and – unabashed – mounts and rides him. Midna is a step in the right direction as, while she is dependent on Link, she is primarily using Link for her own ends. That is not to suggest that “women in power use men.” Instead Midna’s role is fantastically pro-active and she does not merely stand on the sidelines and waits for what is going to happen.
Prior to the events in Twilight Princess, she was chosen over Zant to rule the Twilight realm as she promotes peace and harmonious living over the war that Zant wanted against the Light realm. In revenge, Zant turns Midna into the impish form that fans are familiar with and Midna works with Link to restore her true form and her realm. Midna exists as the character that Zelda should have been all along, a useful companion capable of fighting and informing.
Her character is another excellent example of someone that exists in more than two-dimensions. She is a ruler that has had her entire world taken from her and she insists on taking it back at whatever cost. Yet, she is more than her heartbreak and cynicism. When she feels ready she openly apologizes to Link for everything her actions have put him through (actions that she was aware of from the beginning) and she continues to work with him for the benefit of everyone. Her character is clever, entertaining, and – most of all – interesting and the series would benefit from more characters like Midna.
There has been a definite progression in female representation in The Legend of Zelda franchise, but there can be so much more done. With the impending release of Hyrule Warriors Aonuma has claimed that he is open to having more female playable characters in Hyrule Warriors. However, this seems to be more in the interest of selling more copies than the interest of gender representation. That is not to say that Nintendo is necessarily “anti-feminist”, but more so that it is a company produced by and for the patriarchy.
The gaming industry has catered to the patriarchy for many years. From the impractically dressed fighters in games like Street Fighter to the classic damsel in distress trope in the original Donkey Kong (1991) arcade game, women have not been given many opportunities to show what they can do. While The Legend of Zelda attempts to rectify this issue by providing a matriarchal society. However, the fact is that this game was created by men establishes certain tendencies. The male hero saving the princess implies that women always need to be saved by a man.
When a man is playing, he can feel more represented by the player character than a woman playing might (Shreier).
This mentality creates the dichotomy between “real” gamer girls and “false” ones. The lack of respect for women in the gaming industry divides males and females, and females with each other. These types of games perpetuate endless stereotypes and destroy the identity of the modern female. Even the women that are very capable of fighting are hyper-sexualized and reduced to objects.
Male service has run rampant within the games and a Legend of Zelda game that features a female protagonist would be a brilliant step (provided that she is acknowledged for her abilities and not for her looks). Doing so would not take away from the gaming experience, in fact, it could very well enhance it. Zelda’s character obviously has plenty of capability. However, after almost 30 years of expectations, the odds of this happening is slim to none. Instead, Zelda should be able to play a more active role without needing salvation. As the bearer of the Triforce of Wisdom, she clearly has capabilities beyond that of Ganon or Link, and it’s time she and other females take a step into the forefront of change.
Patrick, Thorpe. Hyrule Historia. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Books, 2013. Print.
Schreier. “Aonuma Says He’s Open to Playable Female Characters in Zelda Wii U, If Hyrule Warriors Goes Down Well.” My Nintendo News 18 June 2014: n. pag. Print.
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