He-Man and Zelda

So, this video’s been around the internet a couple times by now.

Go ahead. Watch it. I’ll wait.

…would you believe it got the song (“What’s Up?” by 4 Non Blondes) stuck in my head on Thursday?

I never watched the He-Man cartoons, nor owned any of the toys. But I saw this video, and then read a few of the Wikipedia articles, and a few interesting things jumped out at me:

  • He-Man’s real-life, non-superhero identity is “Prince Adam”.
  • He wears a sleeveless pink jacket.
  • His hair falls below his ears, and actually sways. It’s long enough to flip.1

There’s nothing wrong with any of these…but none of these fit in my mind’s Western stereotype for “the manliest man in the universe”. So it’s interesting that this is how the design turned out for a toy line and then a show designed to appeal to (?) young boys.

One more, just for the interesting anti-parallel:

  • He-Man’s superhero form wears underwear, boots, and some kind of thing over his chest. That’s it.

Compare with Michael Lee Lunsford’s “Fully dressed Superheroines” (via GeekNative) and you’ll see why I called this out as unusual.

Hm, who else has long flowing golden locks? Link!

I’m a fan of Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda adventure game series—they’re a fun mix of puzzles and hack-and-slash non-level-based adventuring. The basic plot always starts out with a boy (Link) of various humble origins getting caught up in a plot to take over the kingdom, often by assassinating and/or kidnapping the royal family. It turns out Link is part of a trio destined to repeat this pattern in one life after the next, with the other two in the trio being Ganon, the corporeal manifestation of evil, and the titular Zelda, usually Princess Zelda.

For the first few decades of the franchise, Zelda usually played a bit part—she was the princess in another castle, occasionally managing to leave behind clues or useful items for Link, but never actually doing much of anything (other than leading you through a particular dungeon and opening doors in A Link to the Past). A more calm Damsel in Distress than Mario’s Peach, perhaps, but still just filling that role.

That’s changed a bit in recent years, starting with Ocarina of Time and continuing with Wind Waker, Twilight Princess (sort of), and most recently Skyward Sword. I won’t go into detail on any of them because I don’t want to spoil Zelda doing cool stuff, but I will note that in Wind Waker you don’t know she’s Zelda (i.e. part of the destined trio) when you first meet her, then you find out and she’s put aside for safekeeping, and that pretty much allows Ganon to almost win. Smart move, boat.

Anyway, Zelda’s passive role is kind of a problem for several reasons; the simplest one is that people not familiar with the series see the name “The Legend of Zelda”, associate that with the (admittedly often effeminate) Link, and decide that he’s (she’s?) “Zelda”.2

But the real problem, of course, is that we shouldn’t be perpetuating the Damsel in Distress trope in this day and age. It helps a bit that Zelda hasn’t been Link’s prize since Zelda II (except hm, maybe in Skyward Sword…), but she does generally need to be rescued. So what do we do about it? Well, there is one obvious solution…

…which Aaron Diaz of the webcomic Dresden Codak got to literally days before I sat down to write this post.

"The Legend of Zelda: Clockwork Empire"

That’s right, a gender-swapped Legend of Zelda—a real “legend of Zelda”. In Diaz’s concept, Zelda is the hero3, while Link is a sheltered member of the royal family. (Ganon’s avatar Ganondorf is still male, though I could see the twin witches Koume and Kotake being elevated to primary villain status in another game.) If you’re familiar with Zelda canon, you’ll enjoy clicking through and reading Diaz’s explication (and seeing more artwork).

I actually started thinking about this around when I finished playing through Skyward Sword, both from that particular game’s Zelda (more below) and also some of the amazing cosplay I saw from fellow audience members at “Symphony of the Goddesses”.4 Clearly, Diaz gets credit for actually implementing this, but I want to talk about some of the interesting issues that came up during my thought experiment.

First of all, it’s very canonical that Link is associated with Courage, Zelda with Wisdom, and Ganon with Power. All three of them have some measure of everything; the abilities Link picks up are often aligned with the Three Goddesses of Hyrule, who are themselves associated with these three virtues/forces. However, it seems a little strange to have an adventurer whose primary virtue is Wisdom, and a passive prince whose virtue is Courage. Diaz works out the former by placing emphasis on hero!Zelda’s5 magic and abilities over canon-Link’s sword and shield, giving her a magic gauntlet that can probably, say, cast a shield spell, rather than have a shield that occasionally has secondary puzzle-solving abilities. The latter problem is a little trickier, but I think it could be justified with a sort of Mulan/Shang dualism: Prince Link is encouraged to rally the forces of the land against Ganon’s agents, while Zelda sneaks into the fortress, undoes the evil plan, and destroys Ganon himself (preferably with the Master Sword).

Okay, that’s not what Shang did at the end of Mulan at all. Whatever.

My other thought was to gender-swap the characters, but not the roles: a female Link and a male Zelda. While this is more canonical, in that the player character stays as “Courage”, you end up with another, simpler problem: what is the male form of the name “Zelda”? (I’m willing to accept “Link” as a female name, but maybe others would object to that as well.)

Finally, I will mention that apparently Zelda has been the hero—but only in Zelda’s Adventure, part of the almost-universally panned CD-i series. I have never looked into this series because of how bad its reputation is.

EDIT: My brother pointed out that Zelda was also Link’s equal and partner in the short-lived cartoon series. The bits of the cartoon that I’ve seen don’t really feel like the games at all, but this, at least, is one aspect that was superior.

Before closing, though, I do want to circle back to the present-day depictions of Zelda, specifically in Skyward Sword.

As I said, in the past Zelda’s hardly had a personality. Part of that was the limitation of the systems and the focus of the games: in the first few Legend of Zelda games, each character’s personality was limited to a few lines of dialogue, initially in all uppercase. (“IT’S DANGEROUS TO GO ALONE! TAKE THIS.”) Later on, things got a little more interesting. But (possibly excepting Wind Waker) Skyward Sword was the first game where Zelda immediately had a personality—where she was an actual character rather than just a plot device.

(Zelda rides her Loftwing, acting cute)

What was interesting is that that character was girly.

She giggles, pouts, winks, and flirts. She loves her dad (who, incidentally, is somehow completely unruffled about her disappearance). She’s no weak character—she shuts down your rival and his unwanted affections several times, and she goes to get help when you’re in trouble—but she is following the (Western) patterns for the behavior of young girls, instead of…

…instead of what, exactly?

It took me a while to think it through, but of course this is okay. The freedom of girls (and women) to act however they like and not be constrained by society includes the freedom to express the same personality traits in the stereotypes today—and not be looked down on for it. So I was definitely in the wrong here. Since clearly Zelda can take care of herself (well, at least as much as Link can take care of himself), it’s perfectly okay that she’s “girly”. It wouldn’t automatically be better or more progressive if she were more of a tomboy in the game, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that someone who’s “girly” can also be a badass.6

(And that it’s okay not to be a badass, like the other inhabitants of Skyloft, both female and male. The “knights” of the island are about 40% women, which is…an improvement, we’ll say.)

Anyway, that’s it. Looking forward to more stereotypes breaking down, and to a Zelda game with a female protagonist, one way or another.

P.S. Several people have linked me to Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs Women in Video Games”, and indeed Diaz lists Sarkeesian’s video as the inspiration for his redesign. I actually…haven’t gotten around to watching it yet, cause it’s 25 minutes long. I will, though; I promise!

Other links that didn’t make it into the article:

Coda: I realized partway through writing this that nothing I focused on here has anything to do with “What’s Up?” by 4 Non Blondes. That is, I could have just shown a picture of He-Man and everything would have worked just as well. I suppose the cognitive dissonance between He-Man and my stereotypes about Western masculinity stereotypes could be linked to the dissonance in a ridiculous song being “lip-synced” by cartoon characters, but I don’t think He-Man being the cartoon made this any more or less ridiculous.


  1. “Toss toss!” ↩︎

  2. This is a true story. It has happened multiple times with different friends. ↩︎

  3. As I’ve mentioned before, I actually try to avoid gendered terms now, so I call Zelda a hero, not a heroine, consider Felicia Day to be one of the three lead actors in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, etc. ↩︎

  4. Aside: Link is an interesting cosplay character. Since he’s a boy, usually between 10 and 15, it’s often just as easy for a women to cosplay him as for a man. This applies to full-time cosplayers, such as the most famous Link cosplayer PikminLink, as well as occasional participants, like experimental musician Lindsey Stirling. ↩︎

  5. The notation “hero!Zelda” comes from fanfiction, in which alternate universe changes are represented by prefixing a description on the character or place in question. So a gender-swapped Pride and Prejudice might have a “fem!Darcy”, and the protagonist of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality can be referred to as “rational!Harry”. ↩︎

  6. Cue Rachel from Animorphs. ↩︎

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