Despite being pretty good about letting players do what they want, the Animal Crossing series only recently made clothing gender neutral. New Leaf, released on the 3DS in 2012, was the first game to allow players to wear clothes traditionally meant for a different gender, and New Horizons takes that a little further by removing some dialogue that applied a strangeness to the practice.
Mabel and Sable are hedgehog sisters who run clothing shops in newer Animal Crossing games. While you can eventually befriend Sable, players will mostly do business with Mabel, who manages the storefront. She tends to the player’s needs, asking them about any clothing in which they may have interest and sharing her opinion on their choices.
But if you’re a male character that happens to pick a dress or skirt in New Leaf, Mabel will be slightly surprised at the decision and ask if it’s a gift.
Trying on the traditionally feminine clothing prompts another comment from Mabel that, while not overtly rude, still manages to make things awkward.
I never found this dialogue offensive, but it certainly felt out of place in Animal Crossing. The game is all about living in a fantasy world surrounded by animal villagers of mostly indeterminate gender while paying off no-interest loans to a forgiving and understanding landlord. Why does Mabel care if I choose to wear a skirt or hair barrette while I track down rare fish and figure out the best color scheme for my bedroom?
While playing New Horizons over the last couple weeks, I was ready for more of the same from Mabel. The selection of clothing she and her sister carry is much improved from past games, but I still found myself drawn to a few of the more feminine pieces they had on display. Much to my surprise, Mabel had nothing but positive things to say about my choices, even as I stepped out of the dressing room in a ruffled dress and strappy pumps.
Society has made a lot of clothing gender-specific, but in both Animal Crossing and in real life, it can be fun to wear whatever appeals to you. It can really change your relationship with both clothing and gender expression. Instead of seeing, say, suits as masculine and skirts as feminine, you can use these items to express whatever you want. When you remember women used to be jailed for wearing pants, of all things, it really shows how arbitrary these preconceived notions are in the long run.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons may still ask players to choose between only two genders at character creation, but at least the series has improved when players buck this rigid, traditional binary in other ways.