To start this off, I’m going to offer my predictions for the next eight female Mario characters: Marble, Tea, Snowflake, Olive, Diamond, Soap Bubble, Cute Hat, and, oh, I don’t know… Walnut.
So where the hell do I get off making such a stupid prediction?
Well, in the first of my two-part look into female characters spinning around among the floating coins and grinning clouds of the Super Mario games and their extended network of spin-offs, I discussed the odd tendency for Nintendo to create many female characters in the image of Princess Peach, the dainty-to-the-max, pink-and-blonde embodiment of all things girly. The “why” of it is easy: While not the first, Peach is easily the most famous female video game character. But the result of this trend is interesting, when viewed from a distance: Considering how many children grew up or are growing up playing video games, what might the effect be of having a popular series’ best-known female character be so often helpless and so frequently kidnapped? Furthermore, what’s the implication of making Peach the physical model for so many other female characters?
Issues of gender equality exist to such a great degree in the Marioverse that one game-loving women’s studies major could easily author a kickass thesis on the subject. For this column, I’m choosing to focus specifically on names of female characters in these games. In case you haven’t noticed, these names follow one of four rules: things that are pretty, things that smell pretty, edible things, or things that are just plain old brainless objects.
A list: Peach. Daisy. Captain Syrup. Candy Kong. Bow. Flurrie. Eclair. Queen Bean. Lady Lima. Azalea. Maple. Plum. Sherry. Kalypso. Melody. Petunia. Penny. Tiaramisu (whose name combines something pretty with something sweet). Valentina (whose name isn’t far removed from “valentine” and whose Japanese name was “Margarita.”) Even WarioWare’s cute-as-buttons ninja twins, Kat and Ana, form an inanimate object when their names are joined together as “katana.” Then there’s Ashley, Wanda, Birdo, Sushie and Cackletta, each of whose names are some sort of object with a few letters tacked onto the end. When you think about it, comparatively few ladies in the Mario, Donkey Kong, Wario, or Yoshi games have names that don’t imply some sort of diminutive status. For example, Wendy O. Koopa and WarioWare’s Mona — named after a punk rocker and a painting subject, presumably. While Dixie Kong is all good, Toadette and Kammy are hurt by the fact that their names are feminine versions of more established characters, Toad and Kamek. Pauline works now, but don’t forget that her original name was simply “Lady.” And while we’re talking about diminutive status: Tiny Kong? Really?)
Cleary, it’s a pervasive practice.
I’ve been exposed to enough Japanese culture to know that female characters are frequently named after inanimate objects. (Shampoo and Kodachi, characters in the first anime I ever saw, Ranma 1/2, leap to mind.) And such names frequently pop up in games. (There’s Lip in Panel de Pon, and Cream and Rouge in Sonic, just to name a few.) And it’s not like male characters completely escape this fate. (Mallow in Super Mario RPG, Pine in Yoshi’s Safari, and Cricket in WarioWare, among a few others.)
However, I can’t help but wonder if this trend casts female characters in a very specific light: that of them being less than their male counterparts. Until recently, this was quite literally the case, as Peach — quite literally the object of Super Mario Bros. — for years either spent games as the imperiled damsel or the solo female selectable character. Things have begun to swung the other way, with the Paper Mario in particular games featuring a wealth of female characters, and in roles both heroic and villainous. But now that video games creep gradually closer to evening out the gender ratio, having so many female characters running around with names like “Thing That Tastes Good” and “Thing That I Can Hold in My Hand” seems all the more conspicuous.
Don’t take this as a judgment of Japanese culture. Japanese people have their own naming conventions — for people and for fictional characters alike — and certain systems have worked for them for generations. Besides, girls-named-for-objects exist here aplenty, though more of the Heather, Rose, and Jasmine-variety than the Eyelash, Seashell, Mint Leaf-types we see in Japanese-made games. And I’m also not trying to imply that Nintendo has some nasty agenda to make women feel worthless. (It’s fashionable to court female gamers these days, don’t forget. ) I don’t even think this trend should be abolished, even. No, this is just one of those unusual trends that people like me—who, given free time, think too much—pick up on and deem to be worthy noting, if not as funny bit of pop culture obscurity than as a phenomenon that many gamers may have encountered without wondering what its subliminal effects might be.
What validates me in my beliefs—and, indeed, what prompted me to write this column when I did—is Rosalina, a character introduced in Super Mario Galaxy and who I wrote of at some length in the previous column. News of Rosalina’s inclusion in the game hit the gaming blogosphere a few months back with her name specified as “Rosetta,” like the famous stone that enabled linguists to finally decode Egyptian hieroglyphics. By the time Galaxy came to North America, however, Nintendo switched her name to “Rosalina.” Is that not strange? Wasn’t such a name discrepancy the very situation Nintendo was trying to avoid with the whole “Peach”/”Toadstool” transition? I can’t help but wonder if Nintendo might have ditched a perfectly good name like “Rosetta” in favor of the remarkably similar “Rosalina” in an effort to steer the naming trend away from the realm of inanimate objects. Just maybe, Nintendo is recognizing the differences between Japan and North America and is willing to differ its presentation ever so slightly to cast female characters in a more positive light for non-Japanese audiences. (Of course, Spanish-speaking gamers now know Rosalina as “Estela,” or “star,” so maybe this thinking isn’t shared internationally.)
I’d be stoked if, in fact, I’m not the only one who’s noticed this, anyway. Of course, if a conscious movement away from this trend means Mario won’t be rescuing the princesses Soap Bubble, Cute Hat and Walnut, then maybe I’d want the trend to persist just a little longer.
Drew also writes about pop culture on his blog, Back of the Cereal Box.