The legend of the damsel in distress: Zelda and feminism in video games

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When I was in elementary school, I used to convince the only boy in my class who would talk to me to “play Zelda.” This involved me sitting on a stone bench on the playground and waiting for him to come get me so I could tell him all about Ganon and the plot to destroy Hyrule. Even at age seven, I got bored.

I always wondered what the titular princess did in the meantime. Did she just sit in that courtyard all day? Did she go to school? I could never picture her apart from her patch of grass, with a window into the throne room and a door out to-? What did she know of what was out there? At age seven, I couldn’t imagine. That’s why I sat on that bench for so long.

To say that I wanted to be Zelda was an understatement. I’m pretty sure I put duct tape on my hand to get a tan in the shape of the Triforce one summer. In my twenties, this translates less into body modification and more into a deep desire to play as Zelda in the Legend of Zelda games. I have a much more practical outlook these days—if I can’t actually be her, maybe I can play as her.

This latest installment in the series, Breath of the Wild, gave me a hope I once thought I’d have to give up. It’s hard not to notice the disparity—the ratio of male main characters to female players is outrageously high in most games, not just Zelda. And before you crack your fingers to write a rebuttal in the comments, yes, there are improvements being made. But they’re slow. And far-between. When the promotional materials started rolling in for Breath of the Wild, I and young women like me were filled with renewed vigor. Perhaps Zelda wouldn’t be stuck in the courtyard this time. She’s out walking around. She’s in adventuring clothes.

Some may argue that because Zelda comes in at the end to help Link make the coup de grâce, she isn’t a damsel in distress. But swooping in at the end of every game doesn’t undo 31 years of being sidelined in a series named after her. She’s reduced to a plot device rather than a character with any real agency. This trope has been around for a long time, and many have criticized Breath of the Wild for being no different. I won’t argue that. But I would like to show that perhaps there’s still hope for women in Breath of the Wild.

While Zelda’s characterization in Breath of the Wild is limited to memories that Link finds scattered throughout the world, her personality is far more developed in this game than in any other. She’s determined, resourceful, courageous, wise. She lives up to her third of the Triforce in this game. Despite her father’s attempts to subdue her desire to understand the ancient Sheikah technology, she records her findings and continues to discover in whatever way she can. Zelda is a role model in this game more than anything else. And part of the driving force in this game is to follow her footsteps and discover the world of Hyrule just like she did.

Over the years, Zelda’s image has also transformed. Breath of the Wild is the first game in which Zelda is in a pair of pants instead of a gown. Yes, Sheik and Tetra were too. But Sheik is another beast – Zelda must be male-presenting in Ocarina of Time for her to be able to have agency and to make a difference in the storyline. Tetra becomes a passive character after being revealed as a reincarnation of Zelda. Once she’s in a dress, she gets locked up “for her own safety.” In Breath of the Wild, we get to see Zelda apart from the the castle courtyard, and not just thrown in as a last-ditch deus ex machina.

Here’s where I have a problem with Breath of the Wild: That’s where it stops. The Zelda series has made great strides—Zelda has made it out of the courtyard, but I want to see where she’ll go next. In real time. I want to take the reins of the royal horse and let Zelda learn by experience on her own. And we may have hope.

While Nintendo didn’t release any real particulars about DLC pack 2, they did show a graphic at the end of their promotional video. And Link isn’t in it. In fact, the majority gender in the graphic is female: three women (Zelda, Urbosa, and Mipha) and two men (Daruk and Revali). My hope is that the “Champion’s Ballad” DLC is actually a flashback. A story where we get to see the world through Zelda’s eyes before Calamity Ganon’s return.

A story where we finally get to play Zelda.

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