Ladies in Gaming: Twilight Princess's Midna
Despite being called "The Legend of Zelda," this (nearly) 30-year-old franchise isn't actually about the princess. For a long time, Hyrule's Princess Zelda existed as little more than a distressed damsel used to motivate the true hero, Link.
Those days of hostage'd Zeldas are hopefully behind us. Over time, the series and its namesake have evolved. While Zelda's female representation has been historically spotty, many of this century's installments feature excellent examples of well-written women. Twilight Princess, in particular, has been praised for this, playing a part in its wide critical acclaim.
Midna gets more development in one game than Princess Peach has gotten in three decades.
At the forefront of every review, ad, and essay for the game is the Twilight Princess herself: newcomer Midna.
Whether you love her or hate her, you can't deny she's had a huge impact on the fandom and Midna is arguably the best female character to join the series since Epona.
Into the Twilight
Midna is not known for her sweet nature. Since her first introduction to Link, she's snarky, bossy, domineering, and just plain rude. And we love it.
A lot of media, Fantasy RPGs in particular, succumb to a particularly dominant trope: the Madonna-Whore Complex. This trend falsely dichotomizes female characters as either virtuous Madonnas or, well, immoral "whores." Hyrule Warriors is a recent example, featuring the sweet and "cute" Lana contrasted against the dark (but sexified) Cia. Oh, and both are in love with Link. That's Cia's driving motivation. Lana is Madonna. Cia is the "whore."
Midna can't be pigeonholed into either category. She's not a saint, but she also isn't a seductress. It helps that her imp form can't be sexualized for most of the game, leaving plenty of room for writers to treat her as a character rather than eye candy. Because of this, Midna gets more development in one game than Princess Peach has gotten in three decades.
It's dangerous to go alone . . .
With Link playing up the strong silent type, the bulk of the narrative rests on Midna's silver tongue. It's through her interactions with other characters that we get the greatest insights into her character. While an unfortunate number of video game ladies get side-lined, fridged, and damseled to move the plot along for their male companions, Midna is front and center throughout the whole experience.
When Midna first meets Link, it's clear that she doesn't really care what happens to Hyrule. She's fighting for the Twilight Realm. Why should she care about the denizens of light that once banished her ancestors? Initially, she maintains a generally cavalier attitude while manipulating Link. Throughout their quests, their uneasy alliance evolves into a mutually beneficial partnership. By the time Zant returns to proposition the true Twilight Princess, Link throws himself into protecting her and Midna adamantly refuses to sacrifice the realm of light.
The most definitive turning point, however, is shortly after this point, when Zelda sacrifices her corporeal form to save Midna. After that, Midna no longer veils her compassion with snark. Twilight Princess does a great job of letting Midna's interactions affect her character without taking away her agency.
She also never loses her edge. The writing gives her room to evolve without destroying her original personality.
Damsels dealing out distress
Mechanically, Midna is clearly filling the support role first carved out by the fairy Navi. While both provide helpful information, Midna goes above and beyond targeting and yelling at Link to "Listen!" She's a fighter. And a powerful one at that. Because of this, she gets to be an active participant in the story, rather than a passive bystander.
Her feelings don't detract from her abilities, they give her character more depth.
Too often "strong female characters" are really just "female characters that kick butt with no actual characterization necessary." This isn't the case with Midna. For example, after (brutally) impaling Zant, she doesn't just marvel at her own power. She feels conflicted about her actions and her ruthlessness. Her feelings don't detract from her abilities, they give her character more depth.
Midna's most sensitive moments actually only further empower her. Near the climax of the game, she unites the Fused Shadows to transform into a massive godlike monster and take on Ganondorf herself to save Link and Zelda. So let's just put that in perspective: Midna cares so much about her friends that she takes on awesome Twilight superpowers to perform a heroic sacrifice. Female characters hardly ever get to sacrifice themselves heroically! That's always the dark brooding male hero's job.
Female characters are more often sacrificed to make the male heroes even more dark and brooding. LoZ's heroes aren't even dark and brooding to start with, anyway.
And at the end of the day, Midna is ultimately driven by love. Not the annoyingly romantic kind of love (despite being ship teased with Link), but a genuine affection for her friends and her people. She's specifically cited as a better leader than Zant because she doesn't want power, she wants peace for the Twili. Her compassion isn't a limitation, it's a strength. That's the kind of hero I can get behind.
"See you later"
As always, the future of female representation in Legend of Zelda remains unclear. While we already know we won't be getting any playable women in Triforce Heroes, there are more active ladies than ever in Hyrule Warriors and I'm not giving up hope on a female Link. Hopefully, the series's next installation will remember the importance of Midna ten years down the road and deliver more leading ladies worthy of the Triforce.
The Ladies in Gaming column will be back August 21st. Until then, happy questing.