Ridiculous as it may seem, while I have had a copy of Mario Kart since I got my Wii this past October, it's really only in the last couple of months that I've become aware of just how much unlockable content the game contains. My boyfriend and racing partner responded to my complaints about the lack of female characters by looking up a game FAQ online, which okay, I could definitely have done myself, but it just never occurred to me. Unlockable content is something that the majority of console games seem to incorporate; PC narrative adventure games and multi-player worlds, not so much. This dependence on player familiarity with a body of game mechanic conventions strikes me as particularly problematic when you put all your "non-normatively gendered" content—read: feminine—under lock and key. Female gamers are still much less likely to be heavily steeped in gaming culture (if they're not complete novices, which of course they're more likely to be) and thus more likely to assume that what they see is basically what they're going to get out of the game. I suppose in the short term, it doesn't matter how happy a female gamer is that she purchased Mario Kart, but I don't even have, like, a business degree and even I feel like it might be in a game maker's best interest to convince her that she wants to buy more of their games—how I feel about Rayman's Raving Rabbids at the moment, for instance, but I'll get to that.
Of the 12 characters initially available to players in Mario Kart, only two are female—and notably, they are actually two versions of the same character: Peach and Baby Peach. And while I, personally, adore pretty-pretty-princess playable characters, I am not terribly enamored with them being my only female option. Unfortunately, this is another console trope: female characters are pretty-pretty-princesses. As I emphasize to my Intro to LGBT Studies students every spring, we rely on various culturally coded markers to judge the gender (and by extension, the sex) of everyone we meet. While in some ways girls and women have more latitude in their gender expression (the tomboy is not the social pariah that the sissy is; women can walk around in sweats and jeans, etc.), femininity is still the Other gender, the one that has to be clearly marked and set apart and obviously divergent from "normal." Women can wear jeans, but a man wearing a dress is asking for trouble; in the words of Madonna, "For a boy to look like a girl is degrading, because you think that being a girl is degrading."
Dresses, high heels, make-up—they're all shorthand for "there's a vagina in here somewhere," and video game character designs push that shorthand straight through pretty-pretty-princess and into drag queen territory. I would argue that masculine avatars in the game have a range of gender presentations—consider: Baby Mario, who is "cute" and possesses some childlike vulnerability; or Bowser, who is big, scary, and butch; or Toad, who verges on androgyny; or for that matter Diddy Kong, who is a race-representation disaster and unfortunately beyond the scope of the current column, but still another version of masculinity. The feminine characters, conversely, are all in basically the same mode: Toadette is quite obviously not androgynous, with her pink pigtails and overexcited squeak. Daisy is basically Peach with a new color scheme and slightly coarser vocals. Rosalina verges into pretty-pretty-fairy-princess territory. Birdo has a giant bow on her head, classic Disney girl-wildlife eyelashes, and a giant diamond ring, for godsakes—except, apparently, Birdo is male.
This is something else I evidently missed through lack of console ownership in my childhood. The documentation for the original release of Super Mario Bros. 2 specifically states: "He thinks he's a girl and he'd rather be called Birdetta."
SMB2 was not only the first Mario property to feature a playable female character, it also introduced a transgender NPC. Unfortunately, most American titles since have reduced Birdo to one-dimensional cartoon femininity without acknowledging her trans identity. I realize that the original was almost certainly intended as a joke rather than a legitimate transgender representation, but in a sea of heteronormative princesses, it's nice to know there's at least one instance of queer inter-species dinosaur love.
The characters in Mario Kart, like most avatar stables, run a gamut of features and abilities. My preferred toon—Peach, of course—gets significant acceleration and drift bonuses. Experimenting with different characters (and vehicles, too) is a good idea for a player trying to maximize her performance, and some tracks in particular may call for certain bonuses—Toadette seems to be a good choice for Moo Moo Meadows, for instance, because she does better off-road—but there's definitely a point of diminishing returns, where one's energy would probably be better spent becoming an expert with one or two characters.
Counting Birdo, about one-third of the playable characters are feminine-gendered (7/24), though as noted the majority of them require unlocking. This could be relevant in the sense that players may be more likely to work more with characters that are available from the beginning, unless they have a vested interest in, say, playing Toadette.
Other games may handle their avatar stables somewhat differently, however, pushing players to use more characters in order to progress. Lego Indiana Jones, for instance, allows players to switch back and forth between various available characters in order to complete different tasks. Since different characters have different tools and abilities (female characters apparently jump higher, a weird little feature that calls to mind both Peach in SMB2 and various strands of sex role essentialism, so obviously the model has its problems), players have to alternate the characters that they use. The game features 85 playable characters total, 23 of which are unlocked by progressing through game "episodes." The first female character, Marion Ravenwood, is unlocked in the second part of the game, so players are using female avatars from quite early on—probably even sooner than they might unlock Toadette or Birdo in Mario Kart time trials; definitely sooner than anyone is going to complete the 150CC Special Cup for Daisy.
I see the potential for an even more interesting approach to avatar gender, however, in the costume pieces that become available to you in Rayman Raving Rabbids. While the protagonist of the game seems to be clearly conceived as masculine, with the name "Rayman" and masculine gender pronouns, after the first couple of days of trials, you gain access to a polka dot dress and purple granny glasses as costume pieces. Donned by a character with a kind of generic anthropomorphized animal aesthetic, they present a version of elderly femininity that is certainly convincing in the context of the game—which is to say, just as convincing as any other in-game gender presentation. Dress, one might reflect, is the only gender difference between Wii Miis: male Miis wear a shirt and pants while female Miis wear a dress that flares out a bit and, one presumes, leggings or something (funny how they look just like the pants—maybe the male Miis are wearing leggings, too). Gender markers are, ultimately, arbitrary and quite malleable; this is the underlying principle of drag and the only reason it makes any sense for me to claim that Birdo is biologically male while presenting a feminine gender.
For well over a decade now, people have been making arguments about the need for avatars with whom players can identify, and assuming that gender is an essential factor that will encourage or discourage such identification. Lara Croft was hailed as a great advance for female gamers just by virtue of being a feminine protagonist, the problematic aspects of her femininity aside. In more recent releases, Animal Crossing provides only one point of difference between its two playable characters—and that difference is gender. Massively multiplayer online games and intensively avatar-focused offerings like Rock Band at least allow players to customize their gender presentation with a fair amount of detail, although they continue to promote a paradigm in which one's presentation options are constrained by gender; that is, one selects a gender (masculine or feminine) and then has available certain avatar options based upon that gender. This might be contrasted with Mii creation, where gender does determine the lines of one's outfit, but otherwise, masculine and feminine Miis have access to all the same features and pieces.
More games might appeal to a broader user base with this kind of blank-gender protagonist. Just as Rayman is still Rayman in granny gear, other avatars might present a recognizable face for the game product while still allowing players more freedom to shape the protagonist—not necessarily in their own image, but with more options and more nuance for everyone.
The Internets seem partial to the idea that Yoshi is both Birdo's boyfriend and a different kind of dinosaur.
It turned out that my boyfriend's favorite playable character was also Peach. Since it is my Wii and I am Princess Peach, dammit, he was relegated to Baby Peach. It all worked out, though, as he discovered that he actually prefers racing light characters.
I'm undecided as to whether or not the humanity of playable female characters matters in this discussion. Certainly Toadette and Birdo are just as gendered as Daisy—hell, they're a lot pinker than she is, and Toadette is also squeakier. It's hard to really pinpoint why it really should matter if the character in question is "human," but it just seems like it might.
Why, yes, I did hit a Wii game bargain bin this weekend.
We will, for the moment, abandon questions of how much sense it makes to claim that any video game character has a "biological sex."
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