Thursday, May 17, 2007

Princess Peach: Feminist?

NOTE: If you subscribe to the "games only" feed of this blog, you maybe be confused as to why this is showing up. In truth, this is a re-post of an entry I put up on another blog quite a while ago. However, given that Back of the Cereal Box has focused more and more on gaming, I feel like it belongs here. Consider this posted for posterity's sake.

Yeah, I'm picking on Peach today. If she's the most visible female character in the most popular video game franchises ever, I feel comfortable examining whether how well she represents gender in the Marioverse.

Had I asked the question posed in this post's title ten years ago, the answer to the above question would be a resounding "no." To be blunt, Peach — who only had then only recently shed the first name "Toadstool" in the States — was a big pink sissy whose primary function in life was to get kidnapped and scream for help. Peach didn't even have the honor of being the first leading lady in Mario's life. That character, of course, was Pauline, who did about as much and at least got to wear a more modern-looking outfit. With her floor-length royal gown and odd, flipped-out Farah Fawcett hair, Peach was a deadweight character — a reminder of what a woman's place was 50 years ago. She was an uber-stereotype of what women should be, injected into the Mario series to balance out the overwhelmingly male cast with a double dose of sugar-coated girliness.

It's a Man's World… on the NES

I suppose it's interesting that Peach is the apparent ruler of the Mushroom Kingdom. But does it make sense that she's the head honcho and still saddled with the title "princess" instead of "queen" or "prime minister" or — I don't know — "admiral"? The American version of the instruction manual for Super Mario Bros. makes sure to explain away the confusion with the alleged existence of the Mushroom King. Presumably Peach's father, the guy never appears in the series. On top of that, I have to question whether Nintendo's placement of a female character at the helm of a fantasy nation like the Mushroom Kingdom is really such a noble move, considering that Bowser promptly toppled her reign and enslaved her people. It's a good lesson: Girls can't be in charge.

Sure, Nintendo made an initial effort to give Peach something to do besides get carried away. They gave her a fully playable role in the American Super Mario Bros. 2. She could jump, pluck and run with the rest of the cast. And if anybody wanted to, they could easily play through the game's twenty stages solely as the princess. I know I always picked her — perhaps because choosing a female character was novel for a platformer junkie like myself. However, if you really think about it, Peach is a beginner's character. Unlike Luigi — who can reach such great heights with his bicycle-kicking legs — Peach's jumping ability's let her hovercraft over baddies, thus negating any direct interaction with them.

And while having one active female character may be notable for American releases of its day, keep in mind that the game Super Mario Bros. 2 was based on, Doki Doki Panic, featured two heroines alongside two heroes. The long-jumping Peach was initially the pink-veiled Lina, while the high-jumping Luigi was initially the blue-veiled Mama. That's Even Steven, not the token girl role seen in the Super Mario Bros. 2 version. In my book, that a step backward.

See Peach Run… in the 16-bit Era

Heroics in Super Mario Bros. 2 aside, Nintendo didn't gave much of anything for Peach to do besides overcoming captivity until well after Super Mario World. She finally got her second playable role in Super Mario Kart, in which she and Yoshi formed the quick-accelerating faction of the available characters. Out of the eight available racers, Peach was the only female. Nonetheless, it cemented her status as a playable character in future Mario spin-offs.

Given the relative unpopularity of the Virtual Boy, likely next-to-nobody played Mario's Tennis. The game did, however, mark the first Mario sports outing in which Peach was playable. (The immediately preceding sports title, NES Open Tournament Golf notably featured Peach and Daisy as non-functional caddies. Boo on that.) Even this game, however, makes Peach a notable minority. Recently, it surfaced that the planned line-up was to include Birdo as playable as well. However, before the final version hit shelves, Birdo was cut, rendering Peach a token once again.

Perhaps her first chance at doing anything respectable since Super Mario Bros. 2 was Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. Once again, Nintendo allowed Peach to tackle baddies alongside Mario. (It's possible that RPG giant Square, which co-developed the game designed it to be so. Generally, Square had a better track record with active female characters.) And Peach played her role with flair, too. Although the game could have relegated to the status of party healer — as her Group Hug ability was an ideal all-member HP-raiser — Peach was at least allotted a weapon that put her on par with heavy hitters like Bowser and Geno. Tragically, that weapon was the Frying Pan. The item alluded well to Peach's future as a capable cake-baker, it was yet another reminder that Peach is, in fact, a girl.

Out of the Kitchen and Into the Action

Only during the years of the Nintendo 64 and Gamecube did Peach finally come into her own. Nearly any Mario game now featured Peach in some kind of playable role, from Mario Kart 64 to the first Mario Party to sports titles, Peach is dependably playable. Not in Super Mario 64, of course — that's a "big" Mario game.

But she did in others — and that's a start.

For example, Peach appeared in the Nintendo 64 version of Mario Golf with Plum and Maple — two generic human characters who never appeared again. Granted, Plum and Maple may not have ended up mattering all that much in the grand scheme of the Marioverse, but it's important to note that Peach was finally the main female character and not the only female character. The trend was repeated with the Nintendo 64 Mario Tennis, when Peach was joined by Birdo and Daisy, both of whom were promptly admitted to the regular Mario spin-off cast.

Her biggest coup of this age would have to be Paper Mario, in which the game's interstitial segments featured the princess as playable and prowling around her castle, the whole of which had been abducted by Bowser. Peach did so with the aid of her own partner character, a counterpart of sorts to the little buddies that followed Mario throughout this game. Peach's little friend, Twink — a suggestively named but nonetheless helpful star-creature — even helped Peach in her one-and-only fight in the game: the penultimate against Bowser's second-in-command, Kammy Koopa. It's noteworthy, I guess, that the series pitted its number one female character against the the game's most prominent female villain.

It only makes sense, given that the Paper Mario games are the unofficial inheritor to the legacy of Square's Super Mario RPG, but Peach ended up being even more prominent in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. Again, Peach starred in her own segments — many of which featured her creepily romancing a supercomputer — but the game also posed her as the second-to-last boss. The Shadow Queen — herself a powerful female character — possesses Peach at the game's end, forcing Mario to battle a demonic, black-clad Peach in order to save the world. For what it's worth, she puts up quite a fight. But Mario still knocks her on her ass.

Smash Bros. Melee — A Study Unto Itself

Leaps and bounds above typical Mario action though her RPG outings might allow, the biggest testament to Peach's place in video games as a whole, however, would have to be the Gamecube installment of Smash Bros.. Nintendo contrasts Peach and her super-femininity against a handful of other female characters, all of which are masculinized in some way. For example: Peach, Samus, and Zelda are all slender, blonde video game heroines. Samus, however, fights solely in her Chozo suit space armor. To the uninitiated gamer, Samus might as well be a dude. Zelda, much like Peach, appears in her default appearance as a princess in a pink dress. However, half of Zelda's powers stem from her transformation into her "male" alterego, Sheik. If a player wants, he or she could select the Ice Climbers with the female member, Nana, as the leader. That, however, is not the default arrangement, which instead doffers the male member — Popo, suited in masculine blue — as the leader and Nana — suited in feminine pink — as the follower. Even Jigglypuff, whose alternate costumes include bows and tiaras, is not clearly gendered.

Thus, it's Peach who, of the game's 25 available characters, is indubitably, irrefutably the most feminine. More so, she's quite the effective character. Even when her most powerful attack involves swinging that damned stereotypical frying pan, Peach manages to fend off her opponents with an interesting mix of aerial maneuvers — that is, retro Super Mario Bros. 2-style hovering — and close-quarters combat. She's the only female character whose arsenal of attacks doesn't require to deny her femininity in any way.

Superficially, Peach is just one of Melee's more effective fighters. Deep down, she's the sole combatant who is entirely feminine — and none the worse for it

Highs and Lows of Late

Easily, Peach's lowest point in recent days would be that one scene in Super Mario Sunshine in which Mario confronts Bowser Jr. and the tyke reveals the big plan for kidnapping Peach. Junior elaborates that Bowser told him to nab the princess because she's his mother. Stunned, Peach puts her hand to her mouth. "I'm your mommy?" she asks, with all the self-awareness of a refrigerator magnet. From the way the line is spoken, it hard to say whether Peach is just shocked at the revelation of the plan or if she honestly thinks she could be the mother of Bowser's son. Before anyone can ask a follow-up question, Bowser Jr. makes of with "mom" and she is not scene again until after Bowser — both senior and junior — are vanquished.

Given my affection for Peach during her playable appearance in Super Mario Bros. 2, I was perhaps more excited than anyone about her starring role in the Nintendo DS title Super Princess Peach. Perhaps because Melee set my expectations so high for an empowered princess, I was especially disappointed with Nintendo's decision to arm Peach with such a stereotypical set of weapons: her quickly-changing emotions. As was pointed out in the article "Trouble in Super Macho World," having a series's only female star be manipulated by her own emotions may not have been the most progressive notion for her first starring role. Furthermore, the game was insanely easy, as if the people who'd want to play as Peach wouldn't be good enough to tackle a "real" game. At the same time, however, the game did finally feature Peach stomping and bopping on her own — and on a quest to rescue Mario and Luigi, no less.

The only other social advance that can be credited to the days of the Gamecube would be fashion-related. For example, Peach's outfit in Super Mario Sunshine. She finally gets to shed her courtly clothes and dress like a normal person. As far as athletic competition goes, Peach got another first in the soccer title Super Mario Strikers: pants — or shorts, anyway. I seriously wonder if the game's developers had to ask special permission to put the princess in something besides a skirt.

Piich and the Wii

We'll have to wait and see how Peach fares on the Wii, as the vast majority of her appearances so far have been in Virtual Console titles. However, Peach received a sizable role in Super Paper Mario. It nearly makes up for her misogynistic portrayal in Super Princess Peach and her absence in Super Mario 64 DS. In short, Nintendo lets her do everything the boys can do. Though it's technically a platformer, Peach hops and bops with the best of them. She can fight bosses — causing the same amount of damage as Mario does — or she can flit around with her umbrella, which seems to have replaced her natural hovering ability seen in Super Mario Bros. 2. Even more to the point, Peach isn't a playable character that you unlock after defeating the game. She's there nearly from the get-go and she teams up with Mario even before Bowser does.

An especially interesting aspect of Peach's appearance in Super Paper Mario is the game's set-up: a forced wedding between her and Bowser. It's a little heartening to see her rebelling against that kind of bossiness. Sure, she's not rejecting marriage outright but just to the guy who kidnaps her on a regular basis. But it's still good to see her turn up her nose at the idea of becoming Mrs. Bowser. She has a spine after all.

The Answer?

Given her history, Peach has a lot to work against — more so than, say, Ms. Pac-Man, who by virtue of that title "Ms." became a feminist figure almost immediately. However, Nintendo is doing better. Peach is no longer the only playable female character in a given game. And as Nintendo adds more characters to the mix, I'd be shocked if they don't continue to even out the gender ratio. We may not see another Super Princess Peach in the near future, given lackluster sales figures and poor critical reception. But if Nintendo does decide to put the princess in the spotlight again, we can hope they'll know not to make her any more girly than she already is making her emotions fluctuate in the kind of violent manner that usually necessitates medication.

In the end, I have to give a tentative "no" to the question of whether Peach could be considered a feminist figure. That answer may not surprise too many people. Take one look at that dress and hear her cutesy giggles, and most would assume she's worse than a Disney princess on a high after her weekly prettiness injections. However, if you think about it, Nintendo's gotten better about treating her more like an actual character and not just a pretty pink thing waiting in Bowser's jail.

Smash Bros. Melee-level respectability aside, however, she's got a ways to go before Nintendo can stop dragging her into the depths of the sewer of stereotypes. Ask me again when we're awaiting the dawn of the next generation of video games, however, and I might well have a different answer.

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