Pity the princess – all dressed up, and nowhere to go. While the hero gets to scramble about to his heart’s delight, the videogame princess exists in a state of eternal kidnap, perpetually “in another castle.” It is a thankless task. She sits. She waits. She does the odd crossword puzzle.
This idea didn’t originate with videogames, of course. The archetypal damsel has been around for as long as people have been telling stories. But it does serve as a reminder that our games, even at their most simple, convey ideas about sex and gender. The “damsel in distress” is an explicitly gendered role, comprised of archaic models of femininity: They are pink, frilly heaps, made up of equal parts helplessness, uselessness and hysteria. Put another way, a damsel is not simply a helpless female – a damsel is helpless because she’s female.
Most videogame vixens, in their hour of need, conform to this model. But occasionally there’s a character that doesn’t just defy this mold, but breaks from it altogether. Occasionally there’s a character like Sheik.
As an alter-ego of Princess Zelda, from Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda series, Sheik is everything Zelda is not – in fact, she’s everything that Zelda cannot be. As far as princesses go, Zelda gets off better than most. She brings a certain stately grace to the role, and is a figure of wisdom and insight. Operating in a trinity that includes the villain, Ganon, symbolic of power, and the hero, Link, symbolic of courage, Zelda serves as seer and spiritual conduit. But though she is elegant and refined, it is exactly these traits that keep her off of the field of play. As an oracle, she may offer advice and comfort, but she’s still a captive to forces beyond her control.
All this changes in Ocarina of Time. At a crucial point in the story, Link is sequestered away for seven years in order to mature into the hero he is destined to become – quite the wait. But rather than sit back and break out the Sudoku, Zelda springs into action, transforming into Sheik to directly influence her troubled kingdom. Lithe, quick and capable, Sheik is a hero. Of course, Sheik is also a man.
Or nearly a man, anyway. Though Sheik is explicitly referred to in Ocarina as “he,” there’s room for confusion. Swaddled in a bandanna and scarves, Sheik is as ambiguous in form as in motive. Like the feminized “bishonen” men of manga, Sheik is an odd assortment of stylized gender features. There are those expressive red eyes, those broad shoulders, those ropy muscles, all tied together by a relaxed, almost feline agility. In combining expressly male and female bodily ideals to land somewhere in between, Sheik is both, and neither. S/he is trans.
There is certain symmetry to this transformation. If, according to the game’s own logic, to be female is to be a captive, then to rid oneself of one’s femininity is to be liberated. Existing in the subliminal space between conventional notions of male and female, Sheik is freed from the constraints of either. The result is an inversion of the usual order of videogames: While Link incubates, he is passive, inert – a prisoner. Meanwhile, Zelda-as-Sheik is free to wage a covert war against the forces of evil. During this time, it is Sheik, not Link, who is the hero of the tale.
Even when Link returns to the world, Sheik assists in an entirely different capacity than Zelda. As an omnipresent source of intelligence, Sheik proves to be an ally and an equal rather than a simple plot hook. Where Zelda needs constant guardianship, Sheik is removed from the classic triumvirate of hero-villain-maiden. Any idea that is formed about the character must be weighed solely by Sheik’s individual presence and actions. Put another way: In ceasing to be strictly male or female, Sheik is free to simply be a person.
This sort of instability is inevitability short-lived, however. Though Sheik is able to operate for a time outside of conventionally gendered archetypes, the game has not forgotten about them. Without Zelda, there is a vacuum; with nobody to kidnap or save, Link and Ganon seem dangerously close to calling the whole thing off. Once Link conquers the penultimate dungeon, Sheik reveals himself as Zelda, returning to her original form. Mere seconds later, as if on cue, she is snatched up again and imprisoned in crystal. The message could not be clearer: Sheik may be free to roam the world, but Zelda belongs under glass.
But while the problem of identity is quickly reconciled within Ocarina‘s story, the uncertain space that Sheik occupies within the game world remains unresolved. Is Sheik simply a character devised by Zelda, a stock figure in her play-within-a play? Is it her attempt to “pass,” or disguise her gender so well as to survive inspection, a process so tied to personhood that to hide one’s self is to adopt another? Or is Sheik something more definite, a separate, alternative identity, produced in response to a world without a savior? It becomes a question of autonomous self: Where does Zelda end and Sheik begin?
Whether Sheik is fundamentally a man or a woman continues to be debated. Perhaps it’s a pressing matter to the makers of fanfiction, those unlucky souls who are burdened with the task of sorting out, in the words of that old limerick, “who did what, and with which, and to whom.” But those left grasping at straws can take solace in the fact that Nintendo doesn’t seem to have much of an idea on the matter, either. One comic book explains that Zelda’s magic did indeed transform her into a man. But according to the trophy information in Super Smash Bros. Melee, only Sheik’s hair, skin, eyes and clothing were transformed. Unfortunately, there’s no word on whether this type of magic stops short of altering one’s bits and pieces, and it seems uncharitable to peek.
Though this debate highlights how unconventional Sheik is, it also draws focus away from the inherent revisionism of such a project. Just as Sheik’s gender ambivalence within Ocarina eventually succumbed to Zelda’s fated role as feminine captive, Sheik’s status as transperson seems to be dwindling. In the more recent Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Sheik is reimagined – softer, curvier, unmistakably more feminine.
It seems that the same androgynous presence that threatened Hyrule’s archetypal order now threatens Nintendo’s peaceful gaming multiverse. Perhaps they came to see an unabashedly transgendered character as a threat to the proven success of that tried and true formula: “Boy saves Girl from Guy With Big Eyebrows.” The danger of a character like Sheik is that the hero may become redundant, and thus the player irrelevant. What fun is a princess who saves herself?
But beyond Nintendo’s tendency toward reinvention and reassignment, questions of gender and identity in games are not so easily magicked away, and it must be said that Sheik does not exist in isolation. As gaming progresses and our understanding of the medium matures, we will continue to see more characters of Sheik’s vein: not content to prescribe to the stagnant archetypes of centuries past, striking out new roles in a generation of new tales. This is the treasure trove of narrative: Given enough time and enough insistence, the very rudiments of our stories may shift beneath our feet.
This is all fanciful thinking for a bit of digital cross-dress, but it’s not without precedent. With the emergence of new media comes the opportunity to radically reposition how we tell our stories. In the case of videogames, this may include new ideas about our characters and the relationship between hero and gender. I envision new games, with new refrains: “We’re sorry. But your prince is in another castle.”
Brendan Main hails from the frosty reaches of Canada, where there’s a very different reason to bundle up with scarves. When not questing for the Triforce of Gender-Neutral Pronouns, he blogs at www.kingandrook.com.