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.

Second Quest

Second Quest

Title: Second Quest
Artist: David Hellman
Author: Tevis Thompson
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Fangamer
Pages: 120

Second Quest is a beautifully drawn comic that reimagines the Zelda mythos and explores just how bizarre it is that the Hylians consider themselves to be “the chosen people” who need to be “protected” from other races. What was Ganon really trying to do? Did Zelda really need to be rescued? Why is Link valorized for running around with a sword and smashing everything he encounters? What sort of cultural legacy does this create, and who suffers when outsiders are removed from historical narratives?

Of course, The Legend of Zelda is a keystone franchise of the global game industry, and licensing it is not cheap or easy, so all of the serial numbers have been filed off in David Hellman and Tevis Thompson’s interpretation. What this means is that Second Quest is accessible to non-gamers and people largely unfamiliar with the series, and it’s of special interest to readers interested in how Japanese stories have influenced people around the world to begin their own conversations.

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Second Quest is about a young woman named Azalea who lives on an island that floats high above the clouds. The island is sparsely populated and immense, and vast ruins are buried just underneath its surface. Azalea is fascinated by this uncharted territory, especially since she has the mystical ability to perceive the past history of the objects she touches. The story begins when Azalea is struck by an especially forceful vision of a young woman fleeing from a unseen pursuer when she picks up a broken key deep underground.

Unfortunately, Azalea’s interactions with underground artifacts trigger an earthquake, an event that is especially frightening to people living on a floating island. The tremors lead to mass panic, and it is decreed that a cleansing ritual must be performed. This ritual involves the re-enactment of a great battle against the evil “pig thief” who, envious of the sky island people’s prosperity, had captured the human vessel of their goddess. Azalea, whom the island’s religious leader has designated as the newest member of an order of secluded women who silently pray for the prosperity of the island and its inhabitants, must play the role of the sacrificial princess in this ritual before she retires from the world to become a symbolic reminder of the past and future glory of people other than herself.

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David Hellman’s line work is both intricate and forceful, but what I especially appreciated was the artist’s color palette. The majority of Second Quest is warm and dark, with the twilit purples of the first half giving way to the angry reds of the second half. These colors emphasize the enclosed and suffocating nature of the floating island and its society, and the sky, when we see it, is a frightening orange or black. When the sky suddenly turns blue during the enactment of the purification ritual, presumably to emphasize the characterization of the island’s people as being “on the side of light,” the effect is disquieting. The appearance of teal and green at the very end of the book is breathtakingly dramatic, as the major theme of the story – a quest for freedom from the past – explodes onto the page through a series of textless spreads.

Second Quest was promoted and published through a Kickstarter campaign, the seed for which was planted by an essay written by Tevis Thompson about how the Zelda series has been declining in quality since the early games. While the first Zelda games forced the player to explore a boundless world, the more recent games are nothing more than an extended linear obstacle course. Tevis writes:

Players are constantly reminded that they’re shackled to a mechanistic land. There is no illusion of freedom because the gears that keep the player and Hyrule in lockstep are eminently legible. You read the landscape all too easily; you know what it’s asking of you. One of the greatest offenders occurred early on with A Link to the Past: most bomb-able walls became visible. What had been a potential site of mystery in the original Legend of Zelda (every rockface) became just another job for your trusty keyring. Insert here. Go on about your business.

Personally, I don’t think the Zelda series is broken. Even in Skyward Sword, which can indeed be frustratingly linear, there is more than ample room for exploration. My own favorite thing to do in Skyward Sword is bug catching, an activity that encourages the player to explore the world of the game both thoroughly and nonviolently while closely observing the game’s lush scenery and the behavioral patterns of the creatures that move unobtrusively within it. There are any number of different ways to play the Zelda games; and, if the huge body of Zelda fanfic is any indication, there are any number of different ways to read the games as well.

Last summer, however, there was a small backlash of fannish frustration over Aonuma Eiji’s denial that the Link character in the upcoming WiiU Zelda game might be female, a possibility that had been met with surprising enthusiasm. Furthermore, Aonuma stated that the gender of the Link character is inconsequential; instead, the important thing is that the player is able to identify with the character. The implication of this statement, of course, is that it’s easier for gamers to identify with a male player-protagonist than with a female player-protagonist. Let us never forget that the normative identity is “male,” after all. Men are subjects, so it makes sense for the player to control a male character, while women are objects, so it makes sense for them to act as McGuffins that enable the plot.

It’s important to the critique implicit in Second Quest that its protagonist is female. This is not simple fanboy pandering but rather a conscientious effort on the part of the creators to tell the “legend of Zelda” from the perspective of someone who is forced into a role that doesn’t suit her. When the reader first encounters Azalea, she is actively exploring the secret and hidden places of her world. We later learn, however, that women are not allowed entry into the knight academy that trains the elite police force that seems to govern the floating island. She’s not allowed to question authority or to develop her talents, even despite her obvious leadership qualities and intelligence. Azalea thus allows us to see the story of so many video games, a story frustratingly repeated time and again, from the perspective of someone excluded from shaping this story in any way. Azalea sees things that we usually aren’t shown, and what she sees is troubling and thought-provoking.

Second Quest is absolutely brilliant. If you’re a gamer, get this book. If you’re a comics person, get this book. If you’re into the darker side of religion and folklore, get this book. If you’re into feminism, gender politics, and the deconstruction of gendered tropes, then by all means, get this book. Second Quest is a beautifully published and a true pleasure to read and share with friends. I’ve been waiting for this book to come out for a long time, and I’m thrilled that it turned out to be so fantastic and inspiring.

For more information, be sure to check out:
http://www.secondquestcomic.com/

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