Nintendo’s Princess Peach is the quintessential damsel in distress. She’s such a damsel cliché that she’s more important as a plot device than as an actual character. Whether you know her as Peach or Toadstool, her name doesn’t matter so much as the “Princess” preceding it. Mario’s leading lady is such a damsel cliché that she can also provide valuable insight into the evolution of the damsel trope, from the 4th century BCE all the way to Super Mario Odyssey.
The Ramayana is an ancient Indian epic and cornerstone of Hinduism that dates back over 2000 years. In this story, Rama, a god incarnate, must go on a magical journey with his brother Lakshman to rescue his wife Sita from the terrifyingly ugly monster Ravana, who has taken her as his bride. The plot of 2017’s Super Mario Odyssey is the same as the Ramayana’s, only in this case the parallel to Lakshman isn’t Luigi but a a sentient hat named Cappy.
In many ways, the princess provides Mario with a reason for existing. This shares a lot in common with how damsels worked during the medieval period, a golden age for the damsel in distress. In stories, songs, and poems from this period, the damsel was literally the entire raison d’etre for knights looking to prove their strength and chivalry. Apparently this was impossible to do without a maiden to rescue.
Damsels surged in popularity yet again during the Romantic period, especially in gothic literature and art. Just take a look at some of the visual art from this time period and you’ll find maiden after maiden tied up in some way that conveniently reveals a bare shoulder or some cleavage—if she’s not already completely naked.
The modern industrial era and its emerging technologies provided entirely new media to represent the damsel in distress—film, television, radio—as well as entirely new dangerous threats. Olive Oyl, girlfriend of Popeye the Sailor Man and another of the most famous damsels of all time, constantly found herself in the clutches of Popeye’s mortal enemy Bluto, who tied Olive to railroad tracks, ship’s masts, and whatever else was around—seemingly just to piss Popeye off. And then there’s Ann Darrow, another classic damsel, whose screams were heard across all of New York City as she squirmed within the palm of King Kong, hoisted atop that 1933 symbol of industrial modernity, the Empire State Building. Talk about phallic.
Mario’s first game famously involved a very King Kong-like damseling incident, although it was a different damsel. In the 1981 arcade hit Donkey Kong, which marked Mario’s first-ever appearance, Donkey Kong carries The Lady (later named Pauline) around like an object he seems to have stolen from Mario (originally “Jumpman”).
To really beat us over the head with her’s lack of agency, ads for Donkey Kong featured images of each of the three characters with a speech bubble. Donkey Kong says “SNORT!”, Jumpman says “FIGHT!”, and The Lady says “HELP!” On cabinets and promo materials for the game, The Lady wears stiletto heels and a torn dress. She is a prize to be won by a man, from a man. Well: from an ape. Donkey Kong designer Shigeru Miyamoto has said that he had Popeye, Bluto, and Olive Oyl firmly in mind when he designed these characters.
The screwed-up love triangle between “The Lady,” Jumpman, and Donkey Kong set the pattern for hundreds of video games to come, including, in major ways, the entire Super Mario franchise. The lady was eventually named “Pauline.” This was after the wife of a Nintendo of America employee, but scholar Neil Lerner points out that Donkey Kong’s Pauline also strongly resembles the plucky hero Pauline from the early film serial The Perils of Pauline, produced between 1912 and 1920 in hopes of drawing a female audience out to the movies.
The Pauline of this weekly series was an unmarried, world-traveling adventurer—a female hero of early cinema. Scholar Ben Singer interprets her as a bold and independent hero, a “serial queen” representing the “New Woman” arising out of the women’s suffrage movement. But as independent as she was, Pauline was also one of the first damsels in distress on film, since she’s rescued by a man fairly often.
In 1985’s Super Mario Bros, Mario rescues a damsel in every single castle before finally reaching the princess at the end of the game. Super Mario Bros. 2, released for the NES in 1988, strayed drastically from the damsel format—in fact,you can actually play as the princess. This was so unusual at the time that when folklorist Sharon R. Stewart interviewed boy and girl players about Super Mario Bros. 2 shortly after it came out, she found that many boys were confused about the ability to play as the princess in the game because “she’s the one you’re trying to save.”
Super Mario Brothers 2 was so different because, although it was developed by the Mario team, it was originally released as a non-Mario game called Doki Doki Panic. That game starred a family of adventurers, so Princess Peach was called into duty to replace the mother character. The redesigned game ends with Mario waking up from a long dream, explaining away the princess’s brief stint as an active hero.
Over the years since the dream’s end, Bowser’s motivations for kidnapping Peach have fluctuated. In some games, like Super Mario Odyssey, Bowser seems to be kidnapping Peach because he thinks he’s in love with her or wants to marry her. In others, it seems he wants to get at Mario—they have an age-old rivalry and capturing the princess is more about challenging Mario’s masculinity in a kind of guy vs. guy macho conflict. In Super Mario Bros. 3, the motivations behind Bowser’s kidnapping seem more political than personal—Bowser is the general of a massive army seeking total domination over the Mushroom Kingdom, and he doesn’t snatch Peach until he’s about to lose the war.
In a Kotaku article tracking Peach’s “victimization record,” Mike Fahey gathered together some of Peach’s weirder kidnappings—the time she was trapped inside a stained-glass window in her castle in Super Mario 64, the time she actually did make it to the altar to marry Bowser in Super Paper Mario, the time Bowser blasted her castle into outer space in Super Mario Galaxy, and the time Bowser Jr. snatched her in Super Mario Sunshine because he thought she might be his mother.
More than a few critics have called for a new, more original plot line for future Mario games, arguing that the damsel rescue plot is tired and stale at this point. In a 2009 Time article titled “The Princess Is In Another Freakin’ Castle?”, writer Tracey John asked Miyamoto in an interview why Peach isn’t a playable character in the New Super Mario Bros. Wii game. Miyamoto replied by saying he had considered including Peach as a playable character, but that he chose to use Toad instead because Toad’s physique was more like Mario’s and Luigi’s. In other words, he chose to use a male character because it was more male.
He also claimed, laughing, that if one of the four playable characters wore a dress, it would require lots of extra programming work to animate it properly. (“Then give her pants!” a friend exclaimed to me later, in response to this.) John rightfully pointed out that what Miyamoto doesn’t say is that if Peach were a playable character, she wouldn’t be able to be rescued, and the game would have no plot. “Does it bother anyone that the paper-thin plot surrounding Peach is recycled every time a Mario game comes out, no matter what the gameplay elements?” John asks. “Do Mario games get a free pass because it’s Mario?” Peach was absent again from the playable roster in New Super Mario Bros. U, but finally became a playable hero again in Super Mario 3D World. That game still featured damsels in distress, but Peach wasn’t one of them.
In the end, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having damsels in distress—as long as we also have dudes in distress. Saving a person from harm is not a bad trope in itself—it only becomes problematic (and boring, honestly) when the damsel is always a woman and the hero is always a man. Rescue narratives are innately compelling, but they need to be gender-equitable and exist in as many combinations as possible—men rescuing men, women rescuing women, women rescuing men, and, yes, men rescuing women.
And there are, of course, already games doing just this—Mario games, even. Consider that in Donkey Kong Jr., the “damsel” isn’t Pauline but Donkey Kong. In this hilarious re-working of the hero-villain-damsel triangle, Donkey Kong Jr. is cast as the hero, working to rescue his father from the clutches of the “villain” Mario who captured him in the first game. In Yoshi’s Island, the sequel to the SNES classic hit Super Mario World, a tiny baby Mario is the “damsel” you’re protecting, while a tiny baby Luigi is the “damsel” you’re journeying toward to rescue, all while you play as the gender-less Yoshis.
In one of the most interesting damsel system re-workings in the franchise, Super Princess Peach, Bowser kidnaps Mario, Luigi, and Toad and Peach must set out to rescue them. The Nintendo DS game is, however, widely criticized for its sexist mechanics, in which Peach uses extreme emotions like rage and gloom to defeat enemies—there’s even an emotion meter that measures her inner state throughout the game.
A few rambunctious designers have had a lot of fun with re-gendering damsels, hijacking game code and premise to empower the damsel in various ways. In 2013, for instance, a game developer dad whose daughter loved Donkey Kong re-programmed the game for her as a gift, swapping the characters so that it’s Pauline rescuing Mario at the top of the platforms. The father, Mike Mika, wrote in a guest piece for Wired that he re-coded the game not to make a statement about gender, but just to make his daughter happy. His daughter loved the new game (and the father received hate mail and death threats toward his daughter from strangers).
Many indie games like Braid, Limbo, and The Walking Dead have also experimenting with the damsel trope in fascinating ways, at the same time as popular kids’ movies like Frozen and Moana shatter it altogether. And more and more mainstream game franchises like The Elder Scrolls and Mass Effect series allow characters to play as any gender and save, marry, or slaughter NPCs of any gender, as well. It’s this kind of openness that was missing from the Mario games in my childhood and are still missing today. And while it by no means makes the Mario games any less fun, it does make me hopeful that my future kids will grow up with more options than ever before—starting with Peach’s decision, at the end of Mario Odyssey, to tell both Mario and Bowser to take a hike and embark on a world-spanning journey of her own.