#2: Link Is Pretty and It’s Complicated

Gee, it sure is gender around here!

Elf boys have it so, so, so easy. Archery skills? Elf boys have them. Magic? Also elf boys. Pretty long hair? Absolutely, elf boys. Except Link technically isn’t an elf. He’s from the kingdom of Hyrule and he just happens to be elf-shaped.

My bias is showing. It will keep showing.

Recently I’ve put over 120 hours into Breath of the Wild (BoTW). I stopped playing for a while, but I finally got back into the swing of it. It’s a fantasy game where you mostly climb mountains and break swords. There is a part in BoTW where you travel to the western edge of Hyrule, to the Gerudo town, a land full of desert and extreme heat. 

However, there is one thing keeping you accessing the town—Link is a boy and the Gerudo only allow women in.

Yes, Link is pretty and androgynous. No, that doesn’t give him a free pass. Quick! Get that boy some skimpy clothes! There we go. Much better. Perfect to fight Ganon in.

This is a very important part in BoTW. The player learns that Hyrule is still a place where even pretty elf boys can’t go waltzing anywhere they like. The Gerudo insist that only women are allowed to enter their town, but in Hyrule all it takes in a costume change and you’re good to go. It’s silly and completely unrealistic, just like the part in Final Fantasy 7 where Cloud tries sleeping with Don Corneo.

But something about Link has always appealed to me—besides being a blond elf boy. Link always been androgynous by design. In the 1986 promotional artwork for The Legend of Zelda, he resembles a simple Ghibli character. Katsuya Terada’s artwork for Link to the Past invokes a gritty fantasy style with a very serious, albeit still anime-looking Link. This is contrasted to the goofy Link to the Past commercial where Link was played by a then unknown high school girl. This is also contrasted to the black sheep American 1989 animated series, where Link is a hopeless jock and make condescending comments to Zelda all day.

 In BoTW, Link is, well, a little in-between all that.

In a 2016 interview, producer Eiji Aonuma commented that it’s always been his intention for Link to occupy a space between masculinity and femininity:

“Back during the Ocarina of Time days, I wanted Link to be gender neutral. I wanted the player to think ‘Maybe Link is a boy or a girl.’ If you saw Link as a guy, he’d have more of a feminine touch. Or vice versa, if you related to Link as a girl, it was with more of a masculine aspect.”

So maybe it’s not my imagination. But a part inside of me still slightly envies Link, and that might partially be due to jealousy for fictional characters that effortlessly play with gender. Another good example is Samus from Metroid, who most people assumed was male until she revealed as a woman after beating the game (by removing her armor and showing she was wearing a skimpy bikini the entire time). Except, Link never does “reveal” he’s male or female—in the Gerudo town he’s essentially seen as a woman without changing much. He’s read as male everywhere else, so the player never exactly has genuine influence over how he’s perceived by other characters. 

What if everyone just referred to Link as “she” while wearing the Gerudo clothes? I wonder if Nintendo ever considered that some players might actually want that.

Protagonist Privileges

You can change clothes right in front of the Gerudo town guards. You can get kicked out and change immediately afterwards and walk right back in. It’s a supposedly comedic set-up much like Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida opera that sources its humor from the outdated “man in a dress” trope. As a trans person, that joke hasn’t ever been funny but it’s still a popular one despite the implications that trans people are only “dressing up” as their actual gender. 

And unfortunately, that’s exactly where BoTW goes.

The quest preceding Link’s entrance into the Gerudo town isn’t subtle—there is a scene that actually does employ a “reveal” after the NPC, Vilia, gives you the necessary Gerudo clothing. In the cutscene, a breeze kicks up and Link briefly sees her face under the Gerudo veil, where you can see Link’s appalled reaction without ever seeing Vilia’s expression. The hero of Hyrule is a little shit. Vilia isn’t seen again, but it’s still pretty clear that the developers meant her to be a one-time gag character.

A 2017 article by Jennifer Unkle puts it like this:

“The clothes Vilia used to blend in with other Gerudo women were now being worn by a brat looking to circumvent his way into an exclusive society. By making our hero grimace at the sight of a trans woman’s face in a consequence-free scenario, Nintendo makes it clear that they find my identity both illegitimate and humorous.”

Mainstream games still have a long way to go before queer representation isn’t treated like a novelty or a joke. Characters that play with gender aren’t new to Zelda—I remember having crushes on Sheik and Tetra as a kid despite being unclear whether they were boys or girls or somehow both. But Unkle’s point about Link being a brat is true—he reacts horrified to Vilia and then marches straight into Gerudo town like he owns the place. Nintendo assumes the player just accepts Link’s disgust without protest. What does that say about a character? Do we still like them after that? Can we empathize with them, or is it just weird now?

As a trans-masculine person, it was easy to insert myself into Link because he’s one of those evergreen androgynous anime boys everyone loves. But protagonists in game are never completely neutral—Link’s reaction to Vilia is still characterization, and was an intentional decision made by Nintendo. Everyone has a bias, intentional or not, and it always comes out in the work they produce.

Even if a protagonist is “speechless” that doesn’t mean they can’t send a message. Maybe it’s just easier to digest when it’s coming from the famous pretty elf boy.

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