Linkle, the Female Gaze, and the Sailor Moon Paradox

Or, is Linkle’s character design sexist garbage?

My answer: NOT NECESSARILY.

Linkle is a female version of Link, the green-clad hero of The Legend of Zelda video game franchise. The character Linkle was formulated for possible inclusion in the 2014 Wii U title Hyrule Warriors, an action game in the Dynasty Warriors vein developed by Koei Tecmo in collaboration with Nintendo. In the Nintendo Direct video message broadcast on November 12, it was announced that Linkle would be a playable character in Hyrule Warriors Legends, a port of the game for the Nintendo 3DS.

The internet exploded, with some fans going wild with glee and other fans becoming consumed with righteous feminist anger.

Before anything, let’s look at the design itself.

HW Legends Linkle in Famitsu

The design element that stands out the most is the exposed flesh between Linkle’s boots and her black shorts. In anime-speak, this design element is known as zettai ryōiki, or “absolute territory.” I don’t want to get into the history and context of this expression here, but basically, the bit of naked skin between the top of a female character’s leggings and the bottom of her skirt is the area where all the moé feels are.

If you’re a queer lady or a straight dude, you’ll probably understand this already, but I want to make the sexualized appeal of this design element absolutely clear. The zettai ryōiki suggests the coveted thigh gap (the desire for which transcends culture) even if the character is wearing a skirt or tunic. The insides of a woman’s upper thighs are soft and smooth and heavenly; and, although this area of the body is generally hidden, the zettai ryōiki exposes it to the viewer, who can run their eyes (and imagined hands) up the curves of the character’s legs and into the promised land between them.

So, is Linkle’s design sexualized?

OH MY GOODNESS YES.

In addition, feminist critics have decried how Linkle seems subordinate to the male Link and merely tacked onto a spinoff of a spinoff game in order to reinforce the idea that the star of the really important games will always be male. These are the sort of comments that have been going around:

“Are we really this satisfied with crumbs, people? Is the bar that low?”
I Love Linkle. But Linkle Is Not Enough.
(by Maddy Meyers, via The Mary Sue)

“The message was clear: Shut the fuck up and be happy with what little you get.”
The Legend of F. Scott: A Response to the Response to the Response to Linkle
(by Carolyn Petit, via Tumblr)

Regardless, a number of female artists and Zelda fans have been celebrating Linkle’s inclusion as a playable character in Hyrule Warriors Legends with enthusiastic joy. What’s going on here?

I’m going to argue that this is the female gaze at work.

The dreaded “male gaze” as classically formulated casts men as subjects. This means male characters have agency and interiority, and female characters are just there to serve the needs of the male characters and male viewers. In contrast, the female gaze treats female characters as subjects, even in media intentionally (or unintentionally) designed to cater to a male audience.

Part of the female gaze lies in objectifying male characters, which is not unproblematic but perfectly natural – and one might even say that it’s borderline radical in its resistance against mainstream configurations of gender. Many female-identified gamers have crushes on Link, who embodies an attractive “soft” masculinity and respects and cares for the women in his many lives. In addition, many gamers of all genders have not-so-secret crushes on the villainous Ganondorf, whose design in Ocarina of Time features its own zettai ryōiki.

That being said, the main function of the female gaze is to perceive female characters as self-defined subjects and not merely as sexualized objects of male desire. This brings me to something I call “the Sailor Moon paradox.”

When Sailor Moon first aired in the 1990s, feminist media critics hated it, saying that its appeal revolved entirely around the oversexualized bodies of teenage girls. This is not wrong, as Sailor Moon had and still has legions of older straight male fans who create and consume porn based on the characters.

Nevertheless, girls from elementary school to college loved both the anime and manga versions of Sailor Moon, which became a foundational geek girl text all over the world, from Japan to Indonesia to Russia to France to Brazil to the United States. Why?

The 1980s and early 1990s were a period of transition out of the conservative cultural backlash against sexual liberalism. “Good girls” didn’t show skin, and influential feminists encouraged women to deny their sexuality in the name of fighting the patriarchy. If you were female and didn’t want to be a social miscreant, you had two choices: be pretty but hide yourself from the male gaze, or put on a suit and become a de facto man yourself.

Sailor Moon rode the cusp of third wave feminism, which held that young women didn’t have to choose between being feminine and being respected; this is where the slogan “girl power” comes from. What Sailor Moon exemplified was the idea that you could present as girly and still be treated seriously. In other words, young women (and plenty of young gay men) read Sailor Moon with a subjectifying female gaze, seeing the Sailor Scouts as powerful role models of female agency and homosocial friendship even despite the fact that they all wore tiny little skirts into battle.

I obviously can’t speak for everyone, but I still feel comfortable making the generalization that, when girls and young women saw those skirts, they weren’t thinking about phallocentric economies of desire in which the exposed flesh of youthful females is privileged in the fantasies of straight men. Instead, they saw the freedom and vivacious energy represented by unapologetic girliness that refused to acknowledge that the male gaze was even a thing they needed to be worried about.

This paradox, in which a character can seem to cater to the male gaze and still be an empowering icon to non-male people, applies to Linkle as well.

Although the international gaming industry is ever so slowly becoming more inclusive, lady gamers have been wandering in a desert largely devoid of positive female representation for a long time. In order to keep ourselves spiritually hydrated, we apply our female gaze to everything we encounter, thus allowing ourselves to find pleasure even in video game titles and franchises with overt elements of misogyny.

But let’s be honest – female-friendly undertones are no match for female-friendly overtones.

Even though Linkle’s design inarguably contains traces of male-gaze moé bait, the fact remains that she is a playable character who isn’t sidelined but is being given the attention she deserves. We asked for a female version of Link, and we got her!

Sure, Linkle isn’t perfect, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that Nintendo is allowing the Zelda franchise to take baby steps, as in Tri Force Heroes, in which Link is allowed to dress and present his gender however he wants. Tsunderin of the feminist media blog Lady Geek Girl explains the progressive nature of this gameplay element as follows:

When crafting these outfits, Link changes into them immediately and one of the customers in the boutique comments on them. Every time, she has something nice to say about Link’s chosen outfit; she always mentions how cute he looks and that he’s very stylish. While this is a simple thing that can be taken as a throw-away, I do think it’s important. How often do people, especially kids, get to see in media someone being complimented for wearing something that may not be stereotypically for their gender? Without it being a joke?

In my own essay The Legends of Zelda, I argue that Zelda fans have been applying a female gaze to the franchise for years, and that the engagement of these fans is finally starting to be acknowledged by the gaming industry:

I could give endless examples of how media production companies in North America, Europe, and Japan have responded to fan demands for more female representation in video games, but I’d like to emphasize that the active and creative fans who thrive in social mediascapes do have voices that are heard not just by their peers but also by the senior producers whose positions they will one day inherit.

If you find Linkle’s character design to be kind of gross, I hear you, and I understand. I can get totally behind the frustration and anger surrounding Nintendo’s apparent refusal to be more overtly inclusive, but I still think it’s okay for feminist gamers to celebrate small victories.

I’d like to think Linkle is another step in the right direction. Her female subjectivity will hopefully inspire a female gaze in younger players who are just starting to acquire the tools that will help them undermine the dominant male gaze. More female representation is always welcome, especially in the world of video games.

Just as Sailor Moon once exploded into an important period of cultural transition, so too is Linkle, who is boldly carving out room for girliness in a high-profile gaming franchise on a ridiculously successful handheld console known for its popularity with girls and young women.

I have been waiting for a female Link my entire life, and now that she’s here I adore her.

Linkle by Aatmaja Pandya

The above illustration is by Aatmaja Pandya on Tumblr.

13 thoughts on “Linkle, the Female Gaze, and the Sailor Moon Paradox

  1. I only wish she was the protagonist of Zelda Wii U, as rumours had it at first, based on the particularly androgynous look of that Link version.

    Female gaze reminds me of that lesbian woman who wrote about her attraction to Bayonetta: a gaze at once eroticized, but also recognizing the lusted-for character as a subject, as a mirror of herself.

    About the paradox: Sailor Moon hit me like a hammer when I was 15, burning with puberty. My gaze was definitely a male one: I distinctly recall being astonished at my own capacity to get erections from two quasi-parallel straight lines, if those two lines of ink happened to represent Sailor Moon’s thighs. But, at the same time, Sailor Moon just oozed with female power. Unlike, say, sexy characters in shōnen anime, Sailor Moon was undeniably about women, for women, by women. I’d tune in the relevant Brazilian TV channel at once ashamed and eager. As Michael S. Kimmel has argued, male homophobia has less to do with homosexual attraction than with gender-policing; and my own internalized homophobia had always been about the fear of being seen as a sissy—that was a lot worse than the fear of admitting homosexual feelings, and indeed, sissy-phobia was the terror that kept me in denial in the first place. Sailor Moon taught me that femininity was totally cool, and that was a crucial step in my accepting my queerness.

    1. I agree! Let me try to put an even harder spin on this.

      My earliest memory involves playing the original 1986 The Legend of Zelda on a thirdhand NES console that someone had donated to my daycare center. I was probably four or five at the time, so I wasn’t too terribly skilled, but I was playing with older kids who were. We all loved the game to death and took turns being Link on the playground. Although we sometimes argued about Link’s gender, the character was never “not female” to me.

      I’ve followed the Zelda series to the best of my ability for the past 25 years, and I still think of the androgynous protagonist as female. It’s not hard. Every great once in a while an in-game character might call Link “boy” or “he,” but they’re probably just mistaken. I mean, Sheik is genderqueer too, right?

      What I therefore want from the developers is not an explicitly female Link (although that would be nice!!), but rather an acknowledgment that, as a “link” to the player, the character does not have to be expressly male and can be interpreted however the player wishes.

      I’m not entirely sure I want Zelda to be a playable character, though. She has an enormous deal of agency in the games, but the story as told from her perspective would be less of a fun adventure game and more of a fantasy-themed political strategy simulator. The same applies to Ganondorf, whose perspective would turn the game into something along the lines of Shadow of the Colossus, in which achieving the goal he started with would be the opposite of victory.

      Anyway, I first saw Sailor Moon on broadcast television when I was about twelve years old, and it hit me pretty hard too. Rewatching that show as Nozomi has released it in North America has been painful, but oh man did it ever make an impression on me when I was younger. I sometimes tell people that Sailor Moon made me gay, and I’m not entirely joking.

      1. That’s a great solution, I think; it rolls with the “Silent Protagonist” trope and improves it, allowing player identification even at the level of gender, and for everyone, including non-binary people. Action Button’s “Ziggurat” (http://www.zggrt.com/) has a protagonist whose gender is deliberately left open.

        I tried to avoid gendering characters for my daughter. When she watched me play Ico, she decided that the horned kid was a girl; for her, it was a game about a princess (“she’s a princess because she has a pretty dress and she’s pretty”) and her sword-wielding female friend. She also decided that the blinking human figure in traffic lights was a woman; we could only cross a street when the little woman flashed green.

        Sadly, once she was 6 or so, she had already internalized that male is default (even in our native language, which has grammatical gender). When I manage to notice it happening, I try to gently remind her of other possibilities.

        I love me some fantasy politics, and seeing Hyrule’s from Zelda’s POV would be awesome IMO, but I guess gaming technology isn’t up to par yet. But that would be a great premise for novelization, in the “commiteepunk” style of Sarah Monette’s “The Goblin Emperor” (which I believe may be up your alley, in case you haven’t read it yet).

  2. I haven’t found (made) time for video games in ages, and so I’ve not really been up on the controversy. But, there’s something about this piece that’s just amazingly compelling – this is the first Internet thing in days that I’ve read all the way from beginning to end.

    Also, there’s a comment from me somewhere here on your blog, from years ago, in which I was questioning how Sailor Moon could be seen as so empowering when it’s so girly, and when it’s also clearly appealing to the male gaze. I get it now. Your explanation in this post is amazing. Thank you.

    1. You totally have to make time! I write papers and have given conference presentations on games, and I still have to schedule time to play. Fooling around with video games feels nothing like work, so I have to trick myself into not feeling guilty.

      I think the reason why “the female gaze” argument is so difficult to process intellectually is because hardline feminist critiques are so smart and so good and so true.

      What inspired me to start thinking about the backlash against Linkle was a short chain of posts and responses by Betterbemeta on Tumblr, which can be summarized by her closing statement:

      Sexualization of girls and women is an industry standard. If you deny this, you have your head in the sand and I can’t help you.

      The post got hundreds of notes, and there were some ridiculous trolls going after her, saying things like “you are racist because you don’t understand the beauty of Japanese geimus” (no joke).

      While I was watching her defend herself like a righteous badass, however, my dash was crowded with Linkle fan art, much of it drawn by artists I had met at New York Comic Con and the Small Press Expo and the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. I’ve read multiple physical publications by many of these artists, and if they’re not feminists then I don’t know who is.

      A cynic might argue that these women were just drawing fan art for the attention, but the announcement of Cloud from FFVII as a new contender in Smash Brothers was not met with near the same amount of collective enthusiasm.

      Linkle is not everything we wanted, BUT SHE IS A FEMALE LINK FINALLY THANK YOU. We can critique her and celebrate her at the same time, perhaps even from the same account on Tumblr.

      It’s like, when I first realized that my enjoyment of shōjo romance posed no ideological contradiction to my position as a staunch feminist advocate, it blew my mind. Because that’s what feminism is about, right? Having your cake and eating it too – or feeling secure and supported enough to present your gender however you like while still acknowledging that “gender” is a social construct that can always be renegotiated.

  3. Speaking as a queer woman, I find the fetishization of the zettai ryouki absolutely repulsive. In fact any sexualization of clothing strikes me as rather pathetic, as if viewers have to be constantly reminded that, oh, yes, don’t worry, under those clothes lie *female genitalia* zOMG! It’s a battering ram of stupid for my eyes. And, as a lesbian I really want to say unequivocally, we do not look at women the same way men do. We are ourselves women and understand the disempowerment of the moe fetish.It’s not really “cute” at all, it’s an insistence on infantilization and a way to keep us children.

    I’m glad for a female Link. I’m not glad it has a baby name and silly clothes. But I’m also a radical feminist, and inclined, I’m told toward “righteous anger”…except it’s not. It’s exhaustion. I and many other people are simply exhausted at the inability for male game/anime creators to envision woman as actual human being like creatures who might want our inner thighs covered in battle. I know, crazy women amirite? Only men get to be fully clothed here on Ferenginar.

    That said, I appreciate your perspective, even if I don’t agree with your interpretation of the female gaze as seen by queer women.

    1. Thank you so much for this comment – this is such a good point!

      I thought a lot about that line but ultimately decided to keep it in the name of privileging the agency of a broader spectrum of queer female viewers/players.

      Here’s some background on that statement: Back in the summer of 2012 I got really into the Madoka Magica fandom, and I remember there being some serious debates on Tumblr and Mixi about the character designs, which are what they are. At the time I was reading a ton of dōjinshi based on the television series, and I found that, with a few (very upsetting) exceptions, it was difficult to distinguish between those drawn by male-identified artists and those drawn by female-identified artists. Ditto for the illustrations appearing on Pixiv.

      It took me a long time to make my peace with moé as a broad stylistic genre, but what I finally realized is that the sexualities it encompasses are extremely fluid. There’s just so much going on with gender identification and objectification that I started to feel uncomfortable passing judgment.

      I’m usually the sort of radical feminist who sees Kate Beaton’s comics about “straw feminists” (part one and part two) and is like, But that is not a joke, that is me literally, let’s smash the patriarchy and build a lesbian colony IN SPACE, but I’ve given up caring about anyone else’s sexuality. If young self-proclaimed queer women want to say that they find KyoAni heroines attractive, then whatever, good for them. (At least somebody understands that nonsense, right?)

      That being said, I agree with everything you’ve written. The female gaze, straight or queer or otherwise, does not function in the same way as the male gaze, and it’s not a simple reversal or redirection of objectification. I hate constantly feeling obligated to “use a female gaze” to “queer” a text or “read against the grain.” I’m also exhausted by casual and deliberate sexism, and I wish female subjectivity were taken for granted in infinitely more pop culture products.

      I’ve actually gotten to the point where I’m spending at least half of my media budget every month on Kickstarter projects because I just can’t deal with most mainstream entertainment anymore; gay male couples (canonical or otherwise) just aren’t cutting it.

      Personally, my Hyrule Warriors mains are the gender-amorphous Sheik and the older warrior woman Impa (both of whom are fantastically effective as fighters), but if younger players want to get excited about a little sister character who is cute and warm instead of mature and self-assured, then more power to them. My problem isn’t with the female fans but with the senior male developers who make stupid sexist statements that probably don’t even reflect the opinions of their teams, who are most definitely not all male or all straight.

      But let it be raised to the heavens for everyone to hear that queer female sexualities are not what the male gaze is intended to appeal to, amen.

      1. Completely valid. I should probably have been even more granular – as an American queer woman, because I definitely see a cultural bent (if you will) towards the infantilizing of women in Japanese culture as something pervasive beyond their male gaze…and problematic for me, personally, especially as I get older.

        Great stuff and much to think about!

    1. Thank you!!

      This business with Linkle has scared me off Tumblr for the weekend. Things are really intense right now, with trolls crawling in from one internet sewer or another to harass the vocal feminists of the Zelda fandom.

      In the end, I think it’s the “anti-SJW” asshats who are radicalizing the conversation. Instead of reacting with something along the lines of, “Yes, it makes sense that girls like a girl character, jolly good, carry on,” feminist critics are like IT’S BECAUSE OF CHARACTERS LIKE THIS THAT MALE GAMERS FEEL ENTITLED, which is not entirely incorrect.

      Sigh.

  4. The internet exploded, with some fans going wild with glee and other fans becoming consumed with righteous feminist anger.

    I can’t but ask, though – how much of this simply comes down to a LOT OF PEOPLE being introduced, all at once, to how playable female characters in (Japanese) videogames are frequently depicted? And not quite being able to wrap their minds about a design that has both positive and negative aspects – that definitely doesn’t fit a Western feminist hope of how female characters would be represented, but at the same time, again, can’t be dismissed outright? So, maybe, beyond anything else, it’s also a great case study of audience reactions to media that they are actually a lot less familiar with than they assumed? I mean, we know there’s not a whole lot that’s new to this character design in general – but we’re definitely not representative of the video game-playing public…

    1. This is an interesting question and a compelling argument, but I’m tempted to disagree with it for two reasons.

      First, I would hesitate to make assumptions about any lack of knowledge on the part of professional game journalists and lifelong gamers. Sure, everyone has blind spots, but I doubt any of the writers of these essays is so ignorant of Japanese games as a whole as to not understand the context of Linkle’s design.

      Second, although it might make a certain amount of sense to posit that players are protesting the intrusion of Koei Tecmo game aesthetics (with which they might not be familiar) into the Nintendo universe, the original release of Hyrule Warriors prominently featured two character designs that are almost classically sexist, those of Lana and Cia (who also embody the virgin/whore stereotype, fun times), and people mostly just rolled their eyes.

      What I think is going on here is not a lack of awareness of the Japanese gaming industry, but on the contrary a hypersensitivity regarding it.

      Although gamers of all genders didn’t start wanting the option of playing as a female Link when Nintendo began to release more details about Zelda Wii U, a number of staunchly sexist comments from older male Nintendo representatives regarding the reception of these releases has turned a “wouldn’t it be nice” fantasy into something of a crusade, which even other people in Nintendo’s home and regional branches have subtly acknowledged. Many fans saw Hyrule Warriors, which already features playable versions of characters like Zelda and Impa, as something of a testing ground, assuming that if there would be a female Link anywhere it would be here.

      At the same time, there was a bit of mild curiosity regarding the Linkle design, which was compared to other male-gaze designs from the Dynasty Warriors franchise. The consensus seemed to be something along the lines of “surely they wouldn’t actually use this, or they would only use it in conjunction with a more classic portrayal of a Link who happened to be female.” Precisely because many of us have been closely following what’s been going on in Japan, there was a lot riding on “female Link.”

      I don’t want to discredit your argument, though, because I think you’re making an important point by suggesting that many critics in the Anglosphere seem to be insisting that Japanese companies play by their rules instead of operating within the context of the Japanese market. Nintendo is always very conscious of the global market, because it has to be, but Koei Tecmo? Not so much.

      Like you said, I’m so deep into the Japanese gaming scene and so inured to this sort of design that my personal reaction was completely neutral. I think what was going on in my head as I watched the live broadcast of that Nintendo Direct was “Cool, that will be another ten hours of my life, I wonder how those crossbows work.”

      What I’m really writing about here is not the cheap and unoriginal character design itself, but rather its reception, which is much more interesting and complicated. There’s no way I can get to the bottom of it here, but so many people have been so angry in the face of so much happiness that I felt someone needed to at least try to make the argument that we should all stop fighting amongst ourselves and be friends instead.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s