Male (Is Not) Default: Exploring the Gender Disparity

Nintendo trolled everyone at E3 by cheekily pointing out: “No one said that was Link.” They clarified shortly after that it is indeed Link, and he is male.

Last summer, right before E3 2014, a lot of rumors started circulating on the internet that the new Legend of Zelda game for the Wii U was going to introduce a huge change that would shake up the entire series. If the comments online were anything to go by, I was not the only person whose immediate reaction to this news was to scream at the top of my lungs: “FEMALE PROTAGONIST!” We were all wrong, of course. When the game’s promo trailer was released at E3, the “big change” turned out to be that the new Zelda game would be open-world as opposed to the more linear, controlled design used almost exclusively in the rest of the series. However, Link’s new, somewhat androgynous design emboldened many of the vocal “FemLink” fans to press the question: Why couldn’t we have a Legend of Zelda game where Link was female, or where Zelda was the main playable character?

Of course, that’s such a crazy idea it couldn’t possibly work, and those who dared to voice it online were quickly shouted down by those who disagreed. “You can’t change a character that already exists!” was a frequent complaint—this, despite the fact that Link and Zelda have gone through no fewer than six major character redesigns apiece, and the series has a timeline so convoluted it’s now a multi-branched tree with three different parallel universes. The retort that really bothered me, though, was the stock response: “What would be the point of making Link female?” What would be the point? We have talked over and over again about the point of gender representation in popular media. Right now I want to ask a slightly different question: What was the point in making the hero of The Legend of Zelda male in the first place? Why are we treating “male” as the default?

Male-as-default is not a phenomena restricted to games with a recognizable male hero as the face of the franchise, or to games released as part of a mainstream series. It’s widespread even in games with a selection of male and female characters, in games with one single protagonist whose gender is selected by the player, and in games where the player’s gender is not immediately specified and is largely unimportant.

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