My Life In Neon

Sci Fi / Fantasy writer Autumn Nicole Bradley – Dream in digital, live in neon

Archive for the tag “feminism”

“I am Zelda, and I’ll be fighting for my own kingdom!”

How a sprite swap changes the story

Yesterday, Leon Arnott dropped several links related to gender-swapped games. Among them was this gem.

(The Legend Of ) Zelda Starring Zelda by Kenna W

According to Kenna, this came in reaction to Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs Women in Videogames – Part 1: Damsels in Distress. (If you haven’t seen it, open it in a new tab and make that the next thing you do today.) In it, Sarkeesian deconstructs the “Damsel In Distress” narrative trope, which is very nearly a defining characteristic of The Legend of Zelda series. Zelda is captured by Ganondorf, Link grabs a sword to rescue her, rinse, repeat.

Yet, this is all in retrospect. When I was a kid, I had no concept of any of the gender issues* with the game; this was just a really cool game. I do recall asking why the title was The Legend of Zelda since it was about Link, and in fact, I discovered the secret Second Quest because I named Link “ZELDA” in order to make the title make sense in my 6 year old head. My most powerful memories of the original game weren’t related to gender theory, my most powerful memories were of playing side by side with my father as we mapped out each dungeon ourselves because I was still getting terribly lost. (For the young’ns, we didn’t have GameFAQs in the 1980s) I learned my right hand from my left hand by telling my dad which rupee to pick in the rupee gambling tree.

(*I recognize that its transparency was due to the normative nature of dominant gender categories, not because I was somehow immune to that indoctrination.)

"I am Zelda, and I'll be fighting for my own kingdom!"

“I am Zelda, and I’ll be fighting for my own kingdom!”

So when I sat down to play the romhack and saw Zelda hoist the sword above her head for herself, ready to take back her kingdom, I cried.

Already, this is not the same game I played as a child.

This idea of a woman doing it for herself brought to mind something else:

How did we get here? How did we get to the point where simply seeing Zelda with the sword is enough to cause such intense feelings to well up? Well, with regards to The Legend of ZeldaSarkeesian makes this point:

“Over the course of over more than a dozen games spanning a quarter century, all of the incarnations of Princess Zelda have been kidnapped, cursed, possessed, turned to stone, or otherwise disempowered at some point. Zelda has never been the star in her own adventure, nor been a true playable character in the core series.”

The eponymous character in a series of save-the-world adventure games has never saved her own kingdom. All of her power as princess, as guardian of the Triforce, and as a person with agency are swept aside every single time. In fact, the very idea that all of her power is useless compared to a boy with a wooden sword makes me doubt every claim made about her ability, wisdom, and magical power. Instead, those sound a lot more like selling points, things that make her a more valuable prize to whichever man (Link or Ganon) has control of her when the clock runs out, and a lot less like reasons to think she’s a person in her own right.

She’s not just any girl, she’s a rich girl with a kingdom and a magical trinket! But don’t worry! She’s not actually powerful enough or willful enough to be a threat to your rule once you capture her.

That pattern of disempowerment and the refusal to give the title character a playable role in the main series can’t possibly send any other message.

More than just pixels

It’s easy think of this as just a simple flipping of the script, or to look at what Kenna W did and write it off as just shifting pixels around. But in fact, flipping the script works as a tool to highlight sexism precisely because it puts front and center the way men and women are regarded and treated differently. It is not, itself, a solution to sexism, but the very idea that a story’s meaning and spirit can be changed by such a simple thing as a sprite swap shows that the language of gender and its related norms are infused into every aspect of our lives.

What changes when it is Zelda firing the silver arrow into Ganon’s heart at the end?

The Legend of Zelda becomes a story about her deeds, not about what men around her do. Perhaps this is too facile, but it really does change the game on a visceral level. No longer are you a boy conscripted by an old man to save a princess from another man (pig-man, I suppose, in this first incarnation of Ganondorf). You’re a woman on a quest to save her own kingdom, her own people, with her own wits and skill.

All those people you meet throughout the game are your people. They are looking to you to save them from Ganon’s tyranny, not to save their helpless, ineffectual princess. It’s easy to picture them not as simply ill-thought game mechanics (why are all these people hiding in caves?) but rather as secretive resistance, hiding in caves to avoid Ganon’s grasp. They’ve squirreled away these items to help you reclaim your homeland, their homeland. You aren’t some knight errant fighting someone else’s battle out of misguided chivalry; this is personal. This is your battle.

It’s easy to picture that old man in the cave as one of your family’s advisers, who spirited you out of the castle just in time and offers the one last thing he can: a wooden sword. It’s not your family’s heirloom blade, it’s not sufficient for the battles you have ahead, but it’s all he can offer. It becomes a physical token of hope. It may seem a trivial thing, since it was just as much a symbol of hope when passed to Link, but in investing that hope in Zelda herself and not Link, it changes everything about the meaning.

That way it changes the context tells us something about what the original story really was.

I'll be taking my Triforce piece back now, thank you.

I’ll be taking my Triforce piece back now, thank you.

When Zelda takes back the second piece of the Triforce from Ganon at the end, she’s reclaiming the power he took from her. When Link does it for her, we see it as a noble gesture that he returns her stolen Ultimate Power That Apparently Isn’t So Ultimate. When she takes back her own power, we see her as deserving in a way that she wasn’t before. When the Triforce was reduced to a bauble to be given to her as a gift, it tells us that it wasn’t anything special to begin with. Or it tells us that Link is that much more chivalrous for magnanimously returning something he has no obligation to return. After all, he did even more than Ganon did to get it. We can rationalize it with magical woo that by keeping it for himself he’d be somehow undeserving blah blah. But that’s an incredibly broken metaphor compared to the unity provided by Zelda proving herself worthy of its power by reclaiming it for herself and by extension, for her people she’s fighting to protect.

Another thing it reveals is just how unnecessary Zelda was to the original story. Being a sprite swap means that the pre-scripted ending sequence just features Link in her place. But now that we know that Zelda has been fighting to save her own kingdom, to reclaim her own power, and to save her own people, who the hell is this dude at the end? She wasn’t fighting to “get the boy.” The purpose of the adventure wasn’t to “win the heart of the prince”, it was to save her fucking kingdom from a tyrant. He’s not a prize, he’s an afterthought.

That disparity between Zelda’s motivation and Link’s should tell us everything we need to know about the Damsel In Distress trope.

Spaces

So, a friend of mine asked me the following question:

Do cis women deserve a space to talk about the ways in which misogyny and issues that uniquely affect FAABs (like reproductive rights) intersect?

Yes. If you ask if any marginalized group deserves space to discuss issues specific to them, yes. Absolutely. So long as we live in a society in which patriarchal structures leave a pregnant or potentially pregnant person’s control over their own body as an open question fit for debate without them present, there is absolutely reason to create and maintain spaces to discuss ways in which they are affected by that control and organize the means to unravel that system away from interference by that system.

However, I want to ask a question of those who would specify that this hypothetical space is for cis women only: what purpose is being served by making that that explicit declaration?

Would you also make an explicit declaration that cis women who, for whatever reason, are known to be infertile are similarly not welcome to share stories about how presumptions about their fertility have led to misogynistic treatment; or stories about how learning they were infertile led them to question core assumptions about their womanhood; or raise the issue that their body autonomy is in jeopardy because men have already made laws blackmailing pregnant people into allowing themselves to be forcibly penetrated in a twisted caricature of medical care, and they show no signs of stopping at that law?

Would you declare any infertile cis woman to be out of bounds for raising those topics? Would she be accused of imposing herself on the group, of centering the debate on infertile women and distracting from the conversation, of triggering participants by reminding them that they can become pregnant (possibly against their will)?

Or would she be thanked for sharing her struggle, welcome in the knowledge that everyone there understands that when women are reduced to their presumed reproductive ability, when they are reduced to their parts, the misogyny catches all women in the blast regardless of their ability to reproduce?

When laws about marital partnerships are intended to reduce women to chattel for birthing children, where does the issue of reproductive rights stop affecting all women and start affecting only those who know they can become pregnant?

Fertility is a presumptive quality, not an inherent trait. No one knows they are fertile (or virile) until they succeed in producing a viable zygote that is carried to term and born live. Even then, we only know in retrospect that they were fertile; there is no biological mandate or metaphysical certainty that their body will ever be fertile again. All qualities associated with fertility are presumed based upon having anatomy that appears fully functional and has not been proven otherwise, or removed or altered by surgery or medication.

I am not demanding the floor at a reproductive rights rally, nor am I demanding a seat at a support group for people who have chosen to abort a pregnancy. I will never know the fear of having control over that aspect of my body taken away by men I will never meet. But I am questioning the true intentions of any meeting that must explicitly declare it is for cis women only on the premise that there are some issues that only affect cis women. Unless the issues discussed are firmly restricted to only those people who are, have been, or have no reason to assume they could not become pregnant, then I put forward that the space’s organizers are being disingenuously cissexist at best, and openly transphobic at worst.

If someone expects infertile cis women to either: A) not be interested enough to attend, or B) behave appropriately if they do, or C) leave when the moderator asks anyone who is unaffected by the issue at hand to please leave; and if you would not attribute to their infertility any hamfisted attempt to center the conversation on them, then that expectation ought to extend in the same manner to trans women, as well as trans men and non-binary CAFAB people. When the sign on the door preemptively declares an event is for “womyn born womyn living as womyn”, it advances a biologically essentialist standpoint. When that standpoint is defended on the grounds that there exist some topics that are only relevant to CAFAB people—reproductive rights, menstruation—the space had better be dedicated to those topics or else it shamelessly exploits people who need space for those topics as human shields on the front line of a woman-on-woman war that doesn’t need to be fought.

I want to be clear about something: if you have a space dedicated to survivors, no one ought to be trying to recenter it on how hard the abusers have it in the justice system; if you have a space dedicated to queer issues, no one ought to be trying to recenter it on how hard it is for them as a straight person to accept their bisexual child; if you have a space dedicated to people of color, no white person should be trying to recenter it on how awesome of an ally they are. Those are actions that drip with patriarchal, colonial entitlement and are rightfully condemned as such when someone has the gall to do them.

So it is with that understanding in mind that I ask fellow feminists to ask themselves whether they are being honest with themselves about the intentionality behind a space that supposedly has a built-in need to exclude trans women.

Why I Love Being Trans

Transgender symbolI wasn’t always ok with being trans. I’m certainly not ok with where my body is at, and where my life and financial security are at, or what impact that has on my ability to complete the work I want done. But the actual being trans part is something I have come to love about my life.

I would not trade being trans for being cis.

There, I said it. I said the thing no one wants us to say. I mean, we’re “supposed” to not just wish to be male, or female, but to wish we were born that way. Right? It solves all the problems, doesn’t it? We’re expected to want to be cis so that we never had to mess around with any of this trans stuff.

Because who would want to be trans?

Me.

I didn’t start out that way. Just as recently as two years ago this was an idea that would have horrified me. That alone should tell you how much damage our society can do to a person. Though I don’t think I need to tell any of my trans brothers, sisters, and siblings this, cis people might be surprised to learn that the jokes you make can actually harm trans people.

By laughing, you teach us that we are hated. By laughing, you teach us to hate ourselves. By laughing, you teach us that the proper thing to do is to laugh at people like us. By laughing, you teach us that we are the joke. By laughing, you teach us to never want to be someone like us.

It is little wonder that in a world that has taught us to hate ourselves and everyone like us that the most hurtful things ever said directly to me came from other trans people. I can forgive that. I can forgive that because the hateful words they are spewing aren’t words they learned in a vacuum. I learned those words too. And I didn’t learn them from trans people.

But I also learned not to use those words because they do harm. And the way I learned that was that I experienced the harm. I have done the harm to myself because of those words, and the ideas those words represent.

I considered myself a feminist prior to my transition. I considered myself a radical gender abolitionist. As an atheist and a skeptic of religion in general, I didn’t have to reconcile my transition with any deity beliefs. But I did have to reconcile it with my feminist ideals.

Being trans with that history in feminist thought means being able to look at this wave of anti-trans radical feminists and (even though they will not believe me) tell them that I understand why they fight the way they do: women who eschew femininity are the women most harmed by the rigid binary. I understand because men who eschew masculinity are the men most harmed by the rigid gender binary. It is unfortunate that that is such a taboo thing to say because the bullying is real. The trauma is real. And the privileging of masculinity—not synonymous or inseparably linked with maleness—means that much vaunted “male privilege” can be revoked in an instant the moment you are not seen as a man. That is a perspective too many refuse to accept.

I accept it because I experienced it. I experienced it again when I transitioned. When I turned in my man card, I didn’t get to keep the male privilege. Or the masculine privilege. In many ways, I never had the male socialization that is so often held up as “why” trans women somehow retain male privilege. [I wrote about that here] For the first time I experienced the full weight of misogyny. I experienced the full weight of transmisogyny.

Most importantly, though, I have been on both sides. I have experienced what it is like to have both testosterone and estrogen flowing through my veins and I know how potent their effect on emotion and thought can be. I no longer have the luxury of presuming biology has nothing to do with socialized behavior as a means of condemning behavior I disapprove of.

The biology is inseparable. Hormones matter. Ask any woman who has been on the “wrong” birth control how much control hormones can have over a person’s state of mind. And those who have experienced it know exactly what I mean by “wrong”.

This is not an excuse for misogyny. This is not an excuse for violence. As moral agents with a cerebral cortex built to overrule base urges, it is not acceptable to allow “it’s my biology” to excuse behavior. But we cannot close our eyes to the matter of the biology and expect it to go away if we ever hope to solve the problems of gender oppression.

I love being trans because it means I have first hand experience with altered hormone levels that I can directly relate to a change in emotional state and thought processes.

I love being trans because in experiencing a loss of privilege, I understand what it is like to have it, what it is like to be blind to having it, what it means to lose it, and what it means to be without it.

I love being trans because it is a first hand experience with every reason why we must work together to make things better.

Experiences matter. I don’t have a choice about whether or not I get to understand what it feels like to experience injustice, dehumanization, violence, sexualization, trauma, self-loathing, self-harm, fear, hopelessness. I’ve experienced it.

It is the cruelest form of gift, but while there are others out there who still suffer these same things, I would not sacrifice the understanding I have gained for the comfort of having been cis.

I choose to love being trans. I refuse to pity myself for not being cis.

It is not a choice I made one time. It is a choice I make daily. Like forgiveness, it is work. It is empowering.

It means I can look a woman who just got talked down to like a child in the eye and say, “I understand your anger.”

It means I can look a survivor in the eye and say, “I understand why you can’t confront them.”

It means I can look someone with triggers in the eye and say, “I understand why you walked out on that movie.”

It means I can look someone with scars in the eye and say, “I understand what it means to have so little control over your environment that controlling your body is all you have left.”

It means I can look someone who doesn’t understand in the eye and say, “It’s not right that you try speaking to my experience just because you think you can imagine it. And now I know why, when I’ve done that in the past, I was wrong to do so.”

It means I can look my trans brothers, sisters, and siblings in the eye and say, “It’s time we stopped taking this shit with a smile.”

Post Navigation