Breath of the Wild is light on plot, which makes any missteps stand out. One brief costume change illustrates how designers can fail and how fandom is left picking up the pieces.
Here’s the moment: looking for help in the desert, Link seeks to enter Gerudo Town to speak with their ruler. Gerudo Town is off limits to men. Hearing that a man did manage to sneak in, he seeks them out until he finds a woman named Vilia who turns out to be the individual who snuck into the city. They offer to make Link a set of Gerudo clothing and fawn over his new look as Link bashfully wears this new outfit. Link stands in a cropped top and veil, blushing feverishly as Vilia complements his looks. As the wind picks up, it blows Vilia’s veil off to reveal a full beard that Link responds to with visible shock.
This scene relies on tired tropes. Vilia is a fey dandy character, an expression of queerness as weak and wispy. There’s a fetishizing quality at play, a reveling in the chance to objectify Link. Vilia becomes a punchline as her features are revealed. The bearded lady. The freak in the cage.
The moment feels careless, presented without regard for the weight of things it implies about finding humor in the discovery about someone’s gender. It calls to mind the occasional stares I get on the subway. Passing in the real world is full with anxiety. Every time you don’t pass, your mind reels with potential outcomes. Will someone laugh? Will they insult you? Will they assault you? This scenario feels like it was made without much thought for its implications. At least one other critic has broken down the moment’s flaws in detail, calling out the carelessness. Such lack of consideration is a genuine problem as gamers become more diverse.
But I also don’t have a lasting resentment for this moment. It played like farce but I also find such farce easier to dismiss than transphobia that colors Grand Theft Auto or the abhorrent Kill the Faggot game that snuck onto Steam in 2015. I think Nintendo needs to do some self examination but I was also eager to turn this into something I could reclaim.
The moment passed and I was now left with the clothes and could use them however I wanted. One of the most radical things you can do when you are marginalized is to reassert and reaffirm the value of your own identity. The game afforded me that opportunity though I doubt it was intentional. Link could be fabulous, if I wanted. He could dress like a girl and still be the hero. I could walk up to the Master Sword and so long as I had journeyed enough, I could claim it. It didn’t matter what I was wearing.
For some people, this will be little comfort. After all, we should not have to reclaim anything or fight to stress the importance of our identity. Least of all in a Zelda game. But for me, the ability to dress up provided a chance to be a less traditional hero, if only from time to time. Judging by community reaction, I’m not the only one who has found ‘Gerudo Link’ to be beautiful:
In creating this artwork, fans have twisted whatever negative connotations found in the game into something empowering and strong. In the game, the Gerudo outfit is a plot contrivance, the solution to a brief puzzle. At best, its heat resistant set bonus makes it a useful tool. On social media, it’s a symbol of grace and exuberant queer expression.
Let’s be clear: fans shouldn’t have to make up for developers’ shortcomings. Fans shouldn’t have to twist and bend to take back an image and affirm their identity or to deal with gendered jokes during their time playing a game.. They shouldn’t have to forge a path for greater inclusion themselves, shouldn’t have to draw Link as a girl or Zelda on her own quest in a major game in the franchise.
But they can and they do. Breath of the Wild drops the ball with Vilia and Link’s crossdressing. Thankfully, fans picked the ball right back up and ran it upcourt for a slam dunk.