Princess Peach: Every Boy’s (Forced) Fantasy
The advent of new media and technology has brought in the fascinating field of internet studies. Much at a similar time, another new media appeared in the entertainment and visual field: video games. Much neglected by scholars, video games are nonetheless very heavy in semiotic and visual meanings, and can be considered both as a reflection of and for its effect on society. For being at the artistic crossroads of music, literature, and visual art, very much like cinema, video games are endlessly analyzable, whether through semiology, discourse analysis, psychoanalysis and any other method of analysis of visual culture. The context and audience, however, is quite different from that of movies. The first main difference is that characters in video games are played. The player becomes the protagonist and controls his or her very actions. The player is made the master of the narrative in which he or she is immersed. This brings Laura Mulvey’s argument in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema that cinema forces viewers into a position of voyeur to a whole new level. Not only is the player a voyeur, but he or she controls the object of his or her gaze. He or she decides how the character moves, what it eats, how it fights, how it drives, whom it loves, whom it kills, and even if it lives. Mulvey argues that the power dynamics in cinema inevitably perpetuate a male gaze that is much hurtful to considerations of women as agents, as subjects rather than objects (11-12). Is this the case in video games, in light of the control the gazer has on his or her object of gaze? I wish to analyze here if this necessary agency of the voyeur shifts the gaze in video gaming, and if so, how? To answer this question, I will take a look at female characters in a long-standing video game series: Super Mario. Tangentially, I will ponder how best to analyze video games as visual media.
First of all, it is necessary to split video games into categories, for video gaming is a broad field. Much like cinema, one should not pretend to speak for all video games at once. Using Discourse Analysis I as coined by Gillian Rose in Visual Methodologies, one could split video games into their genres (e.g. fighting games, role-playing games, horror games), into their graphic style (e.g. anime, realistic, minimalist, dark), into the protagonist they use (male, female, animal), and so on, all of which would be quite relevant for the subject at hand. Using Discourse Analysis II, categories could be video game companies that make the games (Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony), or the gender and age of targeted audience (children, teenagers, adults), and so on. That is to say, Discourse Analysis I would focus on the content, on the interpretation of the visual images themselves, while Discourse Analysis II would rather look at the institutions that produce and market them, as well as the audience. There are indeed many ways to discuss this matter, all of which are relevant. Many of these categories will be equally considered in the present analysis so as to provide a multi-layered and broad – though not pretending to be all-encompassing – analysis of one particular character, as well as to highlight the specificity of the video game media.
In this particular case-study, I wish to take a look at female depiction of the most famous princess in video games: Princess Peach of the Mushroom Kingdom. Super Mario Bros. (1985), created by the Japanese company Nintendo, one of the very first games in home video gaming systems and certainly a pioneer in the platformer and adventure genres, showcases Mario, an Italian plumber, who goes on an adventure to defeat Bowser, a giant dinosaur-like turtle, who has kidnapped his belle, Princess Peach. The player thus takes control of Mario in a very classical ‘save the damsel in distress’ plot. The damsel in distress trope is nothing new, whether we think of fairy tales (Sleeping Beauty), movies (King Kong), comic books (Superman), literature (Goethe’s Faust), and so on. It is in fact the driving narrative of much of the artwork that has come to be central to Western cultures and define us as people. Now heavily criticized by feminists, who very rightfully argue that such narratives reinforce the position of women as weak objects longing for a man to save and possess them, the damsel in distress is still omnipresent in our society, and the video game industry is no exception, on the contrary.
It is nearly impossible to understate the influence of the Mario franchise. It has spawned over 200 individual video games, and it is valued to be worth over $10 billion US. It has totalled 856 million sales worldwide, and is the best-selling video game franchise of all times. Having made its way in many Western homes starting in 1985, it has come to define a generation and represent the main entertainment of millions of children and teenagers. It has entered private households by the hundreds and continues to do so. In fact, the video game industry as a whole, particularly the Nintendo company, and the Mario franchise even more so, targets a young market. They are simple games, with an equally simple narrative: saving the damsel in distress. The simplicity and centrality of the damsel in distress, added to the fact that this franchise is immensely lucrative and targets children internationally, makes it all the more relevant to analyze. It is not a coincidence if so many fairy tales, often told as bedtime stories, are about pretty princesses being saved by strong men. The simplicity of the damsel in distress narrative appeals to children. Let us look closely at the character in question.
Princess Peach of the Mushroom Kingdom’s appearance is almost always the same throughout almost 30 years and over 200 games. She has a very virtuous and distinctively feminine appearance, reminiscent of English nobility: a pink Victorian dress that covers the entirety of her body, long white gloves, earrings, big blue eyes, pulpy lips, blond hair, a pale complexion, and a crown. Her static visual representation is already quite evocative. Her femininity is emphasized, almost exaggerated. Visually, she fits all Western beauty standards. It is notable that a Japanese company would appropriate what is close to a caricature of femininity from the West in order to indeed market to them. Even her voice fits her overly feminine, vulnerable character. She has a soft, high-pitched voice. In the first few games of the series, where characters were not voiced, the only thing she could be seen to say is “HELP!” on every level selection screen.
Her sole role is to be captured by the antagonist, and to be the goal of the game. At the end, she rewards the player with a kiss, and the game ends. Therefore, the only two things that are emphasized about Princess Peach is her femininity and her helplessness, the two playing on one another and being inextricably linked. In fact, she is helpless and an object exactly because she is female, and she is female because she is the object(ive) of the game. The hero would have no reason to save her if she were not female, for she would not be his love interest in the first place. The whole narrative is centred on her being an object. Moreover, Mario games are completely linear, moving from left to right, leading directly to the woman as endpoint. She has no agency. She is merely a conclusion, an end to which the means amount to the narrative of the game.
One can also apply Freud’s concept of scopophilia to this franchise, as well as Mulvey’s theory of the female in cinema. Building on Freud’s concept, Jacques Lacan argues in The Mirror Stage that certain moments of seeing, and particular visualities, are central to the formation of sexuality and subjectivity (290). Children and teenagers therefore use visual elements to define their sexuality and their subjectivity, their identity. They are particularly sensitive as they are developing their own identity, and ‘looking’ is a central tenet of identity-building, as argued by Lacan. Having previously shown the importance of the video game industry and particularly the Mario franchise, this inevitably also underlines the paramount role of the characters in such games in creating gender constructs. Mulvey has shown this in film theory, but I argue that video game is no exception: it is actually even more influential. In fact, it specifically targets children, and specifically boys, as many studies have shown that boys tend to play more video games than girls. This therefore suggests that Mario games contribute to the male gaze, targeting young boys and already ingraining them with the idea of the woman as weak and as object. Furthermore, I argue that this is further emphasized by the very idea central to video games of playing – that is to say, players control the character and really become him or her. They do not only watch it act and associate with the characters, as shown by Mulvey, they are forced to make it happen. Althusser’s concept of interpellation, as brought up by Sturken and Cartwright, explains how viewers are made to recognize themselves and identify with the ideal subject offered by images” (73) is taken even further. Viewers become players (as well as being viewers), they take control of the narrative and save the helpless woman in actuality. Children of all genders, when playing these games, are empowered only insofar as they take on the role of the man. Children save the weak woman. The effect of the male gaze is, I argue, exponentially increased in video games. The Mario franchise, as I have shown through its content and its outcome, thus contributes, with its prevalent and overemphasized damsel in distress trope, to the harmful gender constructs in society.
On top of the elements reminiscent of cinema, there is also a way to relate a video game analysis to television. James Hay associates television with the idea of privacy, of the domestic sphere. In fact, video game systems hook up to televisions, so the setting is quite often the same, in the sense that they are played at home, in private. They become part of the (neoliberal) household, much like television. Interestingly, though, unlike television, video games are quite overlooked by adults. Video games become an inherent part of the children’s lives at home, often without the interference of their parents, influencing freely on these children’s process of identity-building.
Therefore, many aspects of video games can related to cinema, while some others to television, while many aspects are also unique to them, such the agency involved in playing, and the targeting of children and teenagers. So, even if television and cinema scholars offer many avenues for the analysis of video games, the latter are not a hybrid of these two, but something distinctively different which deserves particular attention – especially since it targets the most vulnerable and easily influenceable age group. Voices have arisen to criticize the violence in video games, but therein is not the real problem, I argue. Such games are rated by the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board), and retailers do not allow their sale to children and teenagers, unless a parent is present and consenting. Violence is therefore not readily available in video games. Harmful gender constructs, on the other hand, are omnipresent and extremely pervasive, especially since they are not considered as much. Princess Peach is not considered as harmful in any way, shape or form, on the contrary, but I argue that she – and I am using her as scapegoat for the whole phenomenon – causes more damage than violent video games could, for instance. Parents actually give Mario games to their children, and no one sees anything wrong by the gender roles therein, and so these games become part of these children’s education. The situation has not changed in any way: Princess Peach is still portrayed the exact same way that she was almost thirty years ago. There is a clear lack in video game scholarly work and critical thought, which leads to many misconceptions and obliviousness. As technology develops, gender roles (as well as other social constructs) take on new representations, and this is definitely seen in video gaming. With the advent of the Wii and the Kinect, which allow the player to actually move in reality and the character on screen executes the same movements, the agency I was explaining earlier takes on new layers of interactivity and control. As well, much of video gaming has now gone mobile, following us everywhere. Some games even have interactions with the outside world, such as an inner clock, a movement detector, a light detector, and so on.
If anything, I hope to have shown the urgency to dedicate attention to the ever-growing video game industry and its latent yet immense role in children’s identity- and sexuality-building process. Cinema theory and television theory both provide fruitful concepts to analyze video games with, but they also take on a unique dimension of their own. With new technologies being constantly implemented without the proper critique that comes with it, companies are infiltrating private households and educating children through video games. An analysis of Princess Peach, the ultimate object of the most famous video game franchise, has shown that this character perpetuates very harmful patriarchal ideas and gender constructs, and will apparently continue to do so, as it has for the past few decades.
Hay, J. “Unaided Virtues: The (Neo-)Liberalization of the Domestic Sphere.” Television & New Media 1.1 (2000): 53-73.
Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. London: Taylor & Francis, 1990.
Miyamoto, Shigeru, and Takashi Tezuka. Super Mario Bros. Kyoto: Nintendo, 1985. Software.
Miyamoto, Shigeru, and Takashi Tezuka. Super Mario Bros 3. Kyoto: Nintendo, 1988.
Mulvey, Laura. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. N.p.: n.p., 1975.
Rose, Gillian. Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to Researching with Visual Materials. 3rd ed. London: SAGE, 2012.
Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford ; New York: Oxford UP, 2001.