The Women of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

I mentioned on Friday that I was generally not impressed with the treatment of women in Breath of the Wild.  I don’t suppose I should really be surprised about this fact; Nintendo is a very conservative Japanese company with a corporate identity as being a producer of family friendly entertainment.  This is perfectly fine, except that “family-friendly” is often code for “featuring non-progressive depictions of gender roles and identities.”  You get that in spades throughout Breath of the Wild.

“I know, it really sucks to be a woman in Hyrule.” (Image credit: Fandom Wikia)

Perhaps the most egregious offense in terms of weird regressive characterization comes from the Zora Champion, Mipha.  Like all the Champions, Mipha was defeated by Ganon when he attacked Hyrule a hundred years before the start of the game.  That by itself isn’t so unusual, but what is is Mipha’s relationship with Link.  Where the other three Champions express respect and affection for Link in their various ways, Mipha has the misfortune of being in love with Link who was generally unaware of her romantic feelings.  Unrequited love is a perfectly fine story point, but it feels really icky given the fact that Mipha has been dead for a century and she’s still in love with this guy who was never interested in her in the first place (we all know that Link and Zelda are OTP).  Rachael commented once we finished the Zora section of the game that she was really mad that Mipha’s entire character seems to revolve around her undying love for Link (this is definitely not a crush; she made a suit of armor for him because he was the guy she wanted to marry) while other Champions appear to be psychologically healthy.  They all regret that Ganon bested them, but it’s actually possible for Link to help achieve the goals they all had in death; Mipha just really wanted Link to love her back, and all she gets is the consolation prize that he’ll accept her help.  It’s a raw deal, and because there’s literally nothing else about the character, she ends up feeling like the flattest in a cast that’s already mostly one-dimensional.

While Mipha is perhaps the most egregious example of poor female characterization, you get a lot of other more minor examples.  Many of the villages, if they have female characters, rely on a relatively narrow range of character types, from the painfully shy girl to the fawning fangirl.  Essentially, most any given female character is likely to be defined in relation to a man.  Even the Gerudo, who are effectively an all female race in the context of the game, spend an inordinate amount of time discussing the fact that they have to travel all over the country because they can’t find husbands in their home town where men are forbidden.  Perhaps most bizarre of all is the near total erasure of queer characters from the world.  Among the Gerudo you would think that at least some lesbian relationships would occur, but these sorts of dynamics among characters are left invisible.  Gay characters hardly fare better; the only character who reads as gay (primarily because of Japanese stereotypes about gay men) is Bolson, the head of the Bolson Construction Company.  His interactions with Link are on the flirty side, but there’s little beyond that.

Surprisingly, genderqueer characters are slightly better represented than gay and lesbian characters (though really only slightly).  Again, because the Gerudo are an all-female race and they forbid men from entering their city, the player has to solve the problem of how to make Link appear female so that he can gain entrance into the town.  The solution comes in the form of a character outside the town who is biologically male but wears Gerudo women’s clothing.  Other characters in the game alternately gender this person as male or female depending on whether they’re aware of the character’s sex.  When Link finally encounters the person and has a conversation, the player has the option of interacting with the character as either male or female; it’s a small, pleasant moment that you’re given the choice to decide how you’ll respond to a character’s preferred gender presentation (there’s not really enough information to be sure of the character’s preferred gender identity).  The scene’s almost perfect in this respect, except that it ends with the punchline of a gust of wind blowing aside the character’s veil to reveal their beard underneath and Link responding in shock.  It feels like the intended read is that if you treat the character as a woman, you are being fooled.  I was left with a bad taste at the end of the scene, but it came close to being a pleasant surprise (I know that the value of almost is subjective, so you’re mileage may vary on the quality of this moment).  Perhaps more interesting and respectful than the clothes seller is the way the game treats Link’s own use of female coded clothing.

Rachael and I were pretty delighted by the whole subplot of Link needing to get some women’s clothes in order to enter Gerudo Town precisely because it gave us the chance to reconsider Link as a genderqueer character.  Back when everyone was still anticipating Breath of the Wild, there was a lot of speculation over whether this was going to be the Zelda game where a female protagonist would finally take center stage.  The first images of Link showed a character who was exceptionally androgynous, perhaps the most androgynous we’ve ever seen in any Zelda game.  It was quickly confirmed by Nintendo that Link was canonically male, but then the game came out and everyone learned about Gerudo town and the women’s clothing you had to wear to gain access.  Because the game is flexible in how it allows you to use equipment, there are no hard and fast rules denying players from using the women’s clothing in other contexts.  The game clearly doesn’t mean for you to use the women’s clothing regularly (its defense is abysmal and unlike other special outfits it can’t be upgraded), but you’re not barred from the choice.  Even more importantly, the aesthetics of the clothing on Link’s body don’t read as humorous like in some other games that have depicted male characters in women’s clothing.  Link’s androgyny makes the clothing look attractive on his body, and there are no situations where he’s humiliated or made the butt of a joke for wearing that particular garment.  While he’s wearing this outfit, all characters simply take it for granted that he’s female.  It’s because of all these small details that Rachael and I agreed that this is a Zelda game where Link is a genderqueer character.

Of course, we can’t discuss a Zelda game and its treatment of gender without at least touching on Zelda herself.  The lore of the Legend of Zelda franchise has long necessitated that while Link fulfills the role of hero, Zelda is typically stuck in a more passive support role.  Perhaps with the exception of Tetra in Windwaker, this Zelda is the most explicitly uncomfortable with her identity.  Through the memories that Link can recover from visiting various spots around the world, we learn that Zelda’s relationship with her Champion was a complicated one.  From Link’s ordainment as the Hylian Champion, Zelda resents him for representing her own inability to act independently.  She doesn’t like having a dedicated bodyguard, and it takes Link saving her life a couple of times before she accepts his value (the fact that Zelda even needs to be saved by Link has complex tones to it; at the same time she begins to see and appreciate Link’s dedication to her well being, we’re also seeing evidence that she really does need a bodyguard; Zelda’s ambitions, like Mipha’s, are undercut by the story’s needs).  Even after Zelda accepts Link, we still see that she feels uncomfortable with her pseudo-priestly duties and would rather devote her time to developing as a martial leader so she can help defend Hyrule.  The final memory in the series has Zelda accidentally embracing her power as the avatar for the Triforce of Wisdom to save Link from certain death, which is great except for how it continues to undermine what she has really wanted to be able to do since the beginning.  The summit of Zelda’s story is her learning to accept a role she’s never really wanted, and (given that I haven’t finished the main story yet) I’m not sure that we see any sort of resolution for her that is built around just accepting what she was destined to do from the beginning.  Zelda’s struggles in Breath of the Wild are probably the more well developed for any character in the game, but even they are founded on a narrative that requires her to accept the passive role while Link goes off and has all the adventures.

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6 thoughts on “The Women of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

  1. Some thoughts.

    I don’t recall a lot of the specifics, but Mipha’s character gets fleshed out a bit in the Champion’s Ballad DLC. You see her being a cool older sister who teaches Sidon how to excel at Zora stuff, and he clearly looks up to her. And I thought Link’s “I must quietly bear this burden” attitude (which is a whole other thing to unpack) as a blank slate avatar at least allows the player to imagine that he loves Mipha in return, but has to give that relationship up for duty’s sake. Of course, that would be giving the game the benefit of the doubt.

    All of the champions are thinly drawn overall, but at least there’s 50/50 female representation. Mipha is naturally adept at piloting her Beast, Urbosa is an extremely competent bad-ass (one wonders why she can’t just take down Ganon herself, perhaps with an assist from Daruk), and Revali is a fun jab at men who can’t accept help or admit when anyone is better than they are.

    I liked Zelda’s portrayal in this game. She gets a story arc, which is more than you can say for any other character. Sure, it’s unfair that she’s forced into a role she doesn’t want and feels unqualified for. But at least the game gives voice to her feelings through the memories and some documents you find near the end. I won’t spoil the details of the ending, but I will say that it reinforces that this is Zelda’s story. It’s the first Legend of Zelda game I’ve played that didn’t feel like it should be called The Legend of Link.

    I’d love to see the next game in the series give Zelda the more active role that she clearly deserves. Maybe a blend of party-based RPG and real-time action elements, where Zelda and Link travel together and you can control either one while the other follows as an AI-controlled partner. Link could be the sword-and-shield-and-hookshot guy, and Zelda could be the puzzle-solving spell-casting ninja. Or they could be split up between parallel worlds (a la Link to the Past) and each one of them gets to do the dungeon-crawling thing using their particular strengths while communicating with each other across the dimensional void (kinda like McConaughey at the end of Interstellar). Their paths converge at the end, Courage and Wisdom team up to fight Ganon for the millionth time, maybe Link gets a Frodo moment where he wants to take the Triforce of Power for himself but Zelda smacks him out of it.

    Anyway, I liked the game a lot.

    • I’m really eager to finish the game so I can see how things resolve for Zelda based on what you’ve said! It is fair to say that there are a lot of things that Nintendo did right in terms of representation; gender parity among the Champions and Zelda is huge, and I am glad that there’s at least a story giving Zelda a chance to dissent with fate. My primary concern with that is that it doesn’t feel like a radical enough shift in the status quo of the series; Zelda’s allowed to dislike her role, but she still submits to it, right? That’s the sort of story set up that reminds me of the trope of queer tragedy; for the longest time you couldn’t tell a story about queer characters without giving them a bad ending or highlighting how much it sucks on a social level to be queer. The trope’s so common that it’s become cliche, and it demands thoughtful use in order to avoid turning into trauma porn for people who don’t experience that reality (see, or rather don’t because it’s gross, all the terrible things that happen to the Black characters in season four of Orange is the New Black). Zelda’s struggle with her destiny is certainly an interesting story, but I think it misses the fact that this is still a power fantasy for Link the Defender; many fans, myself included, wanted a female-led Zelda game, and Nintendo offered a half measure.

      All that aside, I’ll see what I think after I finish the ending. I’m also really curious about the DLC; the fact that a Zelda game has DLC is kind of blowing my mind…

  2. Criticism acknowledged on Mipha’s characterization, but I’m interested in what makes you think Mipha’s feelings were not returned? Playing through, I got the impression that they were returned. I don’t get the impression that there’s romance between Zelda and Link; with the memories I’ve unlocked thus far, they’re relationship seems more professional. Still, maybe we are seeing what we want to see, as Nintendo deliberately makes Link a blank slate so people can impose whatever motivations they’d like upon him.

    • For me, the big tell that Mipha’s feelings are unreciprocated are the fact that no one besides the Zora king was aware that she was in love with Link. Her one major memory with Link doesn’t read to me as an explicit confession of love; my recollection of it is more in that category of Japanese story beats where a character who is obviously in love with another character makes romance-adjacent promises (Mipha’s vow to always heal Link) that leave so much to implication that it’s entirely possible for the recipient to miss the subtext. Even in the present, after Link has remembered Mipha, he seems just as surprised that she intended to marry him as the chancellor who assumed she was going to marry a nice Zora boy before she got swept up in all the Champion nonsense.

      All that said, Link absolutely is a classic tabula rasa character with minimal canonical characterization, so YMMV with regard to how he responds to Mipha’s affections.

  3. Well put. I like your analysis. A few thoughts:

    On your first point, I too was disappointed with how Nintendo chose to characterize Mipha. Like many, I misunderstood the relationship between Link and Mipha at first. I assumed that Link had feelings for her as well, but expressed nothing now on account of memory loss. It was unsettling for me once I found out that Link only saw her as a friend, which meant (like you said) that she continues to love him despite 1) how long she’s been dead, and 2) how he doesn’t love her back. I don’t know if Nintendo thought her undying love and devotion would be romantic, but in context, it strikes me as unhealthy, and considering how self-deprecating she is (which comes across a lot more in the Japanese version), her entire character is a troubling female portrayal.

    Your observations on the Gerudo are also well made. Designing their community around the prohibition of men, having them take classes on how to get boyfriends, and sending them out to find husbands seemed like a bit much. For a society that’s supposed to consist of strong women (which is a topic for another discussion entirely), isn’t it interesting that the Gerudo are still defined in relation to men?

    The choice to leave out gender and sexual minorities was also quite odd to me, especially since there were several occasions for inclusion. Bolson was of course a complete stereotype, but it seemed like they almost had it with Vilia. But, Nintendo just couldn’t help themselves. Interesting that you bring up Link’s androgyny though. I remember all the hoopla surrounding Link’s gender ambiguous appearance in the 2014 teaser, which is what I think prompted Nintendo to make him look slightly more masculine later. Still, they didn’t take all of the androgyny away, and the fact that he’s never mocked or teased for wearing feminine clothing by those who know he’s male was comforting.

    I have to agree with your assessment of Zelda as well. The theme of choosing one’s one path, which some have claimed to be the underlying theme of the narrative, is ultimately undercut by the fact that she eventually submitted to an undesired destiny. Where as in other stories, the main character (often male) finds a way to overcome those expectations, Zelda doesn’t. I will say though that the developers couldn’t seem to decide whether or not Zelda was fully the damsel in distress they usually make her. She’s still shown to be helpless in memories, and characters continuously tell you to “save her,” but they also try to portray her as bravely going to fight Ganon on her own, restraining him for a century, and in the end, being the one to seal him away. This ambivalence toward Zelda may be a tiny glimmer of hope that someday she’ll actually be the hero of the story. But we’ll see.

    (P.S. I was almost expecting a mention of the Great Fairies.)

    • All good points! I don’t think I discussed the Great Fairies because their exaggerated femininity is a longstanding Zelda tradition that Nintendo hasn’t deviated from since Ocarina of Time (except for Windwaker). In a game that was trying to do a lot to change up the Zelda formula both narratively and mechanically, the reversion to type on the Great Fairies struck me as mostly unremarkable, especially since they’re not really plot relevant and have no characterization beyond finding Link attractive. It’s possible I’m not being too critical also because despite them being yet another Japanese trope (the uncomfortably sexual older woman), the joke about them being oblivious to others’ judgments doesn’t really feel like a joke in a Western context where we try to celebrate people who are unashamed of themselves in contexts where they’re doing no harm.

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