Originally published on Big Tall Words, July 28, 2014
“That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive.”
Robert Browning, “My Last Duchess” (1842)
In The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Link saves a total of nine people from the villain, Yuga. They are (in no particular order):
Gulley, the blacksmith’s son and Link’s childhood friend
Queen Oren, ruler of the Zoras
Lady Impa, advisor to Princess Zelda
Osfala, apprentice to Sahasrahla, elder of Kakariko Village
Irene, a witch and granddaughter of the potion brewer
Seres, daughter of the priest
Rosso, a miner
Princess Zelda, of Hyrule
Princess Hilda, of Lorule
Notice anything about that list? That’s right: six of the nine people Link rescues are women. The sad part is that that’s pretty much normal for a Zelda game. In many ways, the latest Zelda title is very similar to its numerous predecessors, and it’s not exceptional here, either. In Ocarina of Time, five of the seven sages were female (Darunia and Rauru being the only men), and Zelda getting captured is the impetus for nearly every game in the series. But A Link Between Worlds goes one step further than its predecessors in that it turns women into literal objects who not only need saving but also serve no function apart from being a “lovely” piece of property for men to fight over.
Yuga is the villain of A Link Between Worlds and his goal is to merge with Ganon and possess Hyrule’s Triforce. To this end, he captures each of the descendants of the original seven sages and uses their power to open the realm where Ganon had been imprisoned many years prior. He captures them in a unique way: using a magic rod, he turns each sage into a painting. Now, one only has to read Robert Browning’s classic dramatic monologue “My Last Duchess” (quoted above) to realize that immortalizing someone in a painting can be as much an act of power as an act of art. Painting someone turns that person from a ‘someone’ to a ‘something’; you can possess a painting in a way that it is impossible to possess a person. So when Yuga is running around Hyrule acquiring pieces for his art collection (to use his words), he is, quite literally, objectifying these people. In my opinion, it is no accident that most of these people are women, since the Zelda games have a history of treating women as objects participating in a man’s destiny rather than agents of their own.
Though Link does rescue a total of six women, three of them stand out in my mind when looking at gender and power dynamics in A Link Between Worlds. These three women are Seres, the first woman to be captured, and a pair of princesses, Zelda and Hilda.
Seres is the daughter of the priest at the Sanctuary north of Hyrule Castle. As an apprentice to the Blacksmith, Link’s first quest is to head up to the Sanctuary in order to deliver a sword to the captain of the guard. Outside the temple he meets Seres and Dampé, the gravedigger. Link (silently) explains the situation to Seres, who promptly goes into the Sanctuary to get the captain. While she is gone, Dampé tells Link that the guard captain is “just makin’ excuses to see Seres.” Thus, all we really know of Seres is her relationship to two men, her father and her suitor. Dampé also calls her “lovely,” a word that will be repeated numerous times throughout the game in regard to women.
Before Dampé can finish his thought, he is interrupted by Seres’ scream. Link heads into the temple and meets Yuga for the first time. Yuga tells the priest that his mission is simple: he has come to Hyrule seeking perfection. “And you, my dear, are perfection,” he tells Seres, and says she is lovely. Embodying Browning’s Duke of Ferrara, he tells Seres, “I will put you on a pedestal. Or rather, upon a wall — perfect forever.” After he transforms her, he says she is “even lovelier as a painting.” Yuga then notices Link, but disregards him and disappears, taking the painting with him. The priest implores Link to save his daughter. So, after only a few minutes of gameplay, the player learns that Yuga and Link ironically share the same goal: both wish to acquire the woman (though for different reasons). Seres’ capture is the first of many times throughout the game that a woman’s only purpose is to be an object sought after by men.
Throughout the game, we see Yuga transform sages into paintings three more times. All other transformations are given to take place off-screen. Including Seres, three of the four sages we see him transform are female. The only male is Osfala, Sahasrahla’s apprentice. Osfala’s transformation happens between Seres’ and Zelda’s, and what is interesting to note is that Yuga hardly has much to say about Osfala’s appearance. He accuses the young man of “posing” and “preening,” but doesn’t say anything about putting him on a pedestal or about how lovely he is in painting form. These words are reserved only for women. In fact, immediately after he transforms Osfala, he states, “Oh, how I long to hang that exquisite Princess Zelda on my wall.” Therefore, Yuga, and the game, seem to emphasize that women are more suited than men to being desired and/or possessed.
Zelda’s transformation into a portrait is very similar to Seres’, with one notable difference: Zelda attempts to discover Yuga’s goals. I say “attempts to discover” because Yuga does not acknowledge Zelda’s questions, let alone answer them. Instead, he compliments her on her beauty (“Ah, what golden hair you have…”), speaking condescendingly and patronizingly. He tells her, “Rid your mind of all concern. I don’t want your portrait to feature any unsightly worry lines. I wish to preserve you at your very best.” Evidently, Yuga doesn’t see her as a viable threat, even though she supposedly rules the realm he wishes to destroy.
Yuga finishes his speech by saying, “I find your protests inelegant. Not to mention irrelevant,” which stresses appearance over everything else in terms of a woman’s worth. He continues, “I wish only to possess your beauty, Princess Zelda, not all of these ugly words of yours!” When he has transformed her, he cries, “My lovely masterpiece! […] Dare I say it’s my best work ever!” Yuga’s lines (complete with their possessive adjectives and pronouns) stress the fact that he sees Zelda only as an object to be possessed.
I would argue that the game sees Zelda the same way. Just as both Link and Yuga view Seres as an object to be obtained, both hero and villain wish only to have Zelda for the sake of having her. The game offers no explanation as to why Link must rescue Zelda, other than the fact that Yuga took her. It’s not like she alone has the power to defeat Yuga (oh wait, yes, she does, but more on that later). She doesn’t even govern Hyrule; it is called a “kingdom,” signifying that, somewhere, there is a King of Hyrule, perhaps Zelda’s father (as in Ocarina of Time). Seen in this way, Zelda represents no more than a political figurehead when she is not in Yuga’s possession, and when she is, she is merely a piece of property that has fallen into enemy hands. She is thus an object playing a role in both Yuga’s and Link’s clashing destinies, with no agency or control over her own fate.
The original Legend of Zelda was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1986, so by now, we’re used to seeing Zelda as a damsel in distress — the sole impetus for Link’s heroic journey. But the saddest part about A Link Between Worlds is we see the iconic “Princess Gets Captured By Villain” scene three times (not to mention the other three women who are captured off-screen). The third woman to be captured, much later in the game than Zelda and Seres, is Princess Hilda of the Kingdom of Lorule. While Link is in Lorule, Hilda is Link’s Navi, if Navi were invisible and only spoke once before becoming entirely silent. Link enters Dark Wor– sorry, Lorule, via portals scattered across Hyrule, and each time he arrives in a new area, Hilda offers some helpful advice about where he should go. Each time Link rescues a sage, the player is treated to a cutscene in which Hilda stares at Zelda’s portrait, sighing, “Oh lovely Zelda,” and lamenting the general crappiness of Lorule. Finally, once all the sages have been rescued, Hilda urges Link to Lorule Castle to confront Yuga.
Hilda reveals her true colours after the first phase of Link’s battle with Yuga. She reveals that she set Yuga upon Hyrule in an attempt to steal its Triforce. She steals Zelda’s Triforce of Wisdom and orders Yuga to give her the Triforce of Power so that she can finish what they started. But because a Zelda game just can’t handle a woman who isn’t a damsel in distress, Hilda gets transformed into a painting. Yuga is careful to put Hilda in her place: “Now you, my dark beauty, must serve your purpose.” After the transformation, he gloats: “I can hardly decide which of my princess portraits is prettier. But I do know which of you foolish royal girls has what I need. And now it will be mine.” At this point, because objectifying and insulting her just isn’t enough, he absorbs Hilda’s power.
When Hilda first revealed herself as the mastermind behind Yuga’s attack, I got really excited. I thought, “Wow, what an awesome plot twist!” (Though, really, I should have seen it coming, what with Yuga’s “Her Grace” comments earlier.) I thought, “Finally, a woman (other than that one time when Zelda dressed up as a dude) with agency! How refreshing for The Legend of Zelda series!”
Is it not 2014? Haven’t we been rescuing princesses for nearly 30 years? Can’t we have something different?
Some could argue that, because Yuga is the one who patronizes and objectifies women, and because Link eventually kicks Yuga’s ass, the game itself is presenting these behaviours as unacceptable. I disagree. Just as a text is not feminist just because its heroine is strong (MrsDawnaway. “The Stake Is Not The Power: Patriarchical Power Systems in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Arkham City.” bigtallwords. Dec 15 2013). A game does not become un-sexist when it features a villain rather than a hero acting in a sexist manner. Let’s face it: The Legend of Zelda’s history does not do it any favours.
Even apart from the series, there are within A Link Between Worlds aspects of the game (other than Yuga) that suggest that women are “lovely” objects to be possessed. For instance, there is “Blacksmith’s Wife.” She has no name. Plus, all she talks about is her son, Gulley, so she is strictly defined by the two men in her life. She has no personhood aside from them. To be fair, “Blacksmith” doesn’t have a name, either, but just as “Mrs.” is short for “Mr’s,” signifying the husband’s possession of his wife, here, she is only an object to be owned by the blacksmith.
I’ve already discussed how Hyrule (and Lorule) are called Kingdoms, meaning that their respective princesses are ceremonial figureheads, but something I’ll add to my previous point is that Zelda tells Hilda of a “sacred duty” that a princess has to her land and people. I don’t know what that duty entails, partly because Ravio interrupts the conversation, but mainly because I have never seen Zelda performing any duties. She is always admired and beloved by her people, but how is that a duty? Furthermore, in Link’s final battle with Yuga, Zelda gives Link a special bow (the light arrows) that he can only fire when he is in portrait mode. This twist confused me quite a bit. Up to this point, the game had told me that sages who had been transformed into pictures could not do anything to change their fate (hence, Link had to rescue them). Suddenly, Zelda is able to communicate and conjure a weapon for Link. My biggest question, though: why couldn’t Zelda have used it herself? Though she has the only power that can defeat Yuga, she is not allowed to use it. The game forces her to sit and wait for the hero to rescue her; therefore, the game does not allow her to be an active participant in her own destiny. She can only play a role in a man’s fate.
And one final note that I’ll end on: A Link Between Worlds features a quest in which Link’s goal is to save the Queen of the Zoras from… getting fat. Yes, you read that right. A thief stole her magic diet pill and she begins to swell. Link is tasked with retrieving the stone before the Queen becomes too large to fit in her throne pond. If that, on top of everything else I’ve discussed here about women being favoured only for their appearance, doesn’t convince you, I’m not sure that anything will.