Today we’re going to talk about Princess Peach and Princess Zelda, two of the most iconic ladies in gaming, as well as the tropes they inhabit in their respective games.
One such trope is that of the Damsel in Distress; it’s one of the most used and clichéd tropes in all gaming, cinema, and writing. It’s a character (usually female) who is kidnapped by an antagonist and used as a motivation for the main character to save the day.
A lesser-known trope is that of the Barrier Maiden. This is someone (usually female) whose very presence maintains the balance of good and evil in the world. She IS what keeps evil at bay and enables others to live normal daily lives. This trope typically leads to the forces of evil resorting to subterfuge to subvert her authority and turn the Barrier Maiden INTO a Damsel in Distress.
The Barrier Maiden idea originates from the “miko” or “shrine maiden” in the Shinto Religion. In this role, women perform sacred dances, convey the words of the gods, and fill other religious (and even political) functions.
Our beloved monarch has been with us since 1985, debuting in the original Super Mario Bros. Since then she has been our staple Damsel in Distress, being carted off by Bowser and/or his children in almost every core Mario series game (In fact, if you click the “Damsel in Distress” link above, her picture is the one that comes up).
Outside of the main series, she’s been known to wield her emotions like weapons, kick soccer balls with enough force to behead her opponents, and smash brothers with her surprisingly explosive hips!
Where Peach is concerned, the Barrier Maiden trope has been present since her debut, but has been wildly downplayed in favor of the Damsel in Distress idea.
In the original game, her power was needed to restore the kingdom to order after she had been kidnapped; that changed a bit when Bowser’s intent evolved from conquering her kingdom to winning her affections. He doesn’t remove her in order to curse her kingdom, he just plain kidnaps her (though there are few games nowadays where he’s starting to emphasize his conquering ways again, but that always comes after he kidnaps Peach).
Whenever this happens, the kingdom tends to fall into chaos the moment Peach is removed from her throne. Goombas run rampant while Toads get turned into breakable bricks; and then the moment she’s returned to power, order is miraculously restored! Toads roam free and there is cake for all.
The Mushroom kingdom effectively only has two states; one of chaos represented by Bowser’s rule, and one of order represented by Peach.
Thus, the Barrier Maiden trope SHOULD be more easily associated with Peach than it is—her mere presence is enough to maintain order in her kingdom. It’s because of her everyone is allowed to live normal lives, free of the worry that some sinister turtle beast might be lurking about. Even Mario and Luigi get to be simple plumbers.
Peach bears the burden of maintaining society upon her shoulders, and it’s only when she is overthrown that Mario has to worry about anything outside of his job as a plumber.
Even though Mario may be the one to save her from Bowser’s clutches, he doesn’t represent the status quo for the Mushroom Kingdom. He isn’t the one governing the kingdom or maintaining order—he’s merely a knight who is called upon to reinstate the status quo, and nothing more (and for little-to-no reward, I might add—seriously, even Kirby gets a medal once in a while).
When it comes to down to it, yes, Mario has the long, thrilling adventure. But Peach has the actual job of maintaining a kingdom and keeping its enemies at bay. Yes, she spends an awfully large amount of time making cakes and playing sports. But those are only a few sides of her that we see.
(Unless there’s a SIMCITY or Civilization Mushroom Kingdom edition out there that I don’t know about… That should totally be a thing… I’d play the hell out of that.)
We may not know much about her; but we do know that when she’s in her castle and there’s cake to be had, then all is well with the world.
Zelda got her start in 1986 in the original Legend of Zelda. In most Zelda titles, this princess is usually relegated to the role of a support character. In some cases she calls directly upon Link to save the kingdom of Hyrule, while in others she takes a more active role in safeguarding her people.
It’s also important to note that every iteration of Zelda is different, unlike Peach, who is essentially the same character throughout the entire series.
Each Zelda has her own way of doing things, and her own specific set of wants or desires. For example, one wants to spend her days sailing the vast seas of her world, while another likes to take on the disguise of a sheikah and take a more active role in subverting Ganondorf’s plans.
One thing that does link every Zelda together is that each of them embodies the aspect of Wisdom—this balances with Ganon and Link, who embody Power and Courage respectively.
In each of her incarnations, Zelda has always done her best, and tried to make what she believed to be the best decision. Even in instances where she couldn’t do anything herself, she always found a way to facilitate Link’s adventures.
Like Peach, Zelda embodies the Barrier Maiden trope, but it’s in a much more literal sense.
In many of the games, Zelda (and sometimes the seven sages/maidens) is responsible for keeping Ganon locked away, or they protect the powers he needs to overthrow her rule. Even the sages and maidens themselves are mikos for the temples they represent (or “shrines”—sound familiar?), but Zelda effectively outranks them because she’s a “saiin” (which, from what I’ve researched is basically a princess who became a high priestess).
She cares deeply about her kingdom and utilizes her knowledge and skills to keep it safe. She’s not an action hero, but a tactician. Zelda often sees Ganon’s bid for power coming and sets plans in motion to stop him early on.
Zelda may be a Damsel in Distress, but she doesn’t just sit around and wait.
Rejecting the Tropes
I don’t particularly enjoy the way others sometimes paint these characters.
Because of the Damsel in Distress trope and its overemphasis in most character reviews, both Peach and Zelda are often demoted to the status of object. Yes, the Damsel in Distress trope is a valid means by which to estimate the worth of a character and their place in a story, but it isn’t the only point worthy of note where these characters are concerned.
I don’t think you’re supposed to think of either of them as prizes to be won; you’re supposed to think of them as people who need your help. Within each game’s context, I think of them as the representations of order and peace.
More along the lines of “We need THEM” than “They need US.”
These are two of the most recognized and important characters in gaming history and I think they deserve more credit than they are usually given!
What are your thoughts? Do you think these tropes have a place in our cultural subconscious? Or can we look at the characters as individuals? Leave a comment below!