Is Super Mario Run sexist? Absolutely not. In fact, it's home to some surprisingly progressive female roles that many players may have completely missed out on.
Nintendo's most recognizable franchise has finally touched down on mobile devices, and there's already controversy surrounding its debut. Since Super Mario Run released for iOS devices back on Dec. 15, it's been scrutinized for everything from its $9.99 price tag to its lack of true online multiplayer. While it's true the game has its fair share of missteps, there's one thing it shouldn't be under fire for: sexism.
The game has been decried as inappropriate for children, "not family-friendly" and supportive of what some might describe as outdated gender stereotypes, as detailed on Mic. Chris Suellentrop, writing for the New York Times, said he will be forbidding his 6-year-old daughter from playing.
Of all the video game franchises in the world to deem problematic, Mario is certainly the last one I'd expect to elicit such negative opinions. Sorry, fans, but your sexism is in another castle.
Many of the complaints leveled against Super Mario Run, at least in the case of the Times essay, revolve around female characters Princess Toadstool (Peach) and Toadette and their representation. They're "helpless"; their roles are diminished. They're treated like "prizes."
All of these assertions are not only extremely silly, but just false — and that should be obvious if you've played through the game.
Peach isn't weak — her storyline's about friendship, not helplessness.
Tour mode kicks off with Peach being kidnapped by seminal Mario ne'er-do-well Bowser after baking a cake she intends to have everyone's favorite plumber enjoy. The argument here is that Peach is a "hostage" who is kidnapped and thus acting as a damsel in distress. When she's rescued at the end of the game, she kisses Mario in return for seeking her out. Suellentrop argued this places her in a position of "near-helplessness," but to assume this digital representation of a woman is helpless in any way, shape or form requires a logical leap.
Peach may have been "rescued" several times over in the past, but it's never been explicitly stated that she's hanging around on her own, twiddling her thumbs, waiting for Mario to knock the door down and take her away because she's powerless to escape on her own. It very well may be that she is helpless: chained up. Caged. Trapped in a dungeon. These are situations in which it is fine, expected even, to ask for assistance.
If there's a lesson in 'Super Mario Run,' it's this: You help the ones you love. You help your friends. No matter how impossible the odds.
If your partner were kidnapped, wouldn't you do anything in your power to rescue them? The choice is an obvious one, much like Mario's: You would go after your friend or loved one, regardless of what you think about their personal strengths or weaknesses. You'd likely kiss them, embrace them or express your relief at rescuing them or seeing them happy and healthy once more. Gender wouldn't play a role in those situations, much like it shouldn't in a simple Mario title, especially one that sends a positive message: You help the ones you love. You help your friends. No matter how impossible the odds.
Toadette is no "prize" — she's the most badass character in the game. That's why you unlock her.
Toadette herself isn't a big player when it comes to Tour mode, but she can rescue Princess Peach just the same. She's an unlockable character just like Luigi, Yoshi, Toad and Peach herself. Princess Peach will lay a big smooch on any single character who braves Bowser's army of lackeys and dungeons to reach her (even Toadette) as a token of her gratitude, or you can switch things up and play as Peach to rescue a Toad who has been kidnapped by Bowser. Peach has a special relationship with the Toads in her kingdom, but more importantly, she's tasked with going after one of her own. If this denotes any kind of helplessness or reveals any sort of malevolent gender dichotomy that would be harmful to children, it's massively difficult to see.
Suellentrop further said making female characters unlockable turns them into "prizes," since you have to complete certain tasks to play as them. More accurately, Peach and Toadette are unlockable and available as "prizes" because they make the game simpler and in many cases more fun to play.
Toadette is special. Suellentrop asserted that she's been given the role of flag-waver, like women in the movie Grease. Actually, as is made quite obvious in the game, Toadette is a referee who signals both the beginning and end of each Toad Rally, judging who deserves the spoils of additional Toads and who's the winner and loser. She's also got an ability that can turn the tides beyond personal ability when it comes to rallies.
These women aren't trophies. They're important and integral pieces of the game. They're locked to keep the game balanced.
Because of that, Toadette is the most difficult character to unlock in-game, requiring you to obtain 200 of red, blue, yellow, green and purple Toads in the competitive Toad Rally mode. She's one of the fastest characters you can choose out of the lot (just like Toad), but her special ability is one of the most useful you could ask for: When you use Toadette in Toad Rally mode, she'll convert spectator Toads to the player's side before the final tally occurs.
This means she can make or break victory for you if you partake in rallies against others, giving you a higher Toad count and thus allowing you to unlock additional in-game content. Toadette could determine a win or a loss, giving her a considerable amount of power over the rest of the characters. In fact, you might say she has the ultimate say over how well you do in Toad Rally if you choose to use her.
Moreover, these women aren't trophies — they're important and integral pieces of the game. They're locked to keep the game balanced, because their abilities make things simpler, and Nintendo has always been about preserving a challenge wherever it presents one.
As a woman who loves games, I'm tired of being spoken for.
If you complete Super Mario Run and dabble in everything it has to offer, all of these things become abundantly clear. There is no championing of male characters or reinforcement of staid gender roles. There are fun characters, responsibilities given to the women of the world of Mario and plenty of reasons to share them with children. If there's anything to get angry about, it's the fact that a player can complete it so quickly.
As a woman who grew up on a steady diet of Wolfenstein 3D, Duke Nukem and Quake, I can tell you, it's tiring to be spoken for — especially when I was that little girl who may have had parents keeping media like this away from me due to manufactured notions of sexism.
If you want to talk female empowerment, Nintendo is leading the way.
The entertainment industry as a whole has issues when it comes to representation of all genders, races, professions and the things that make us who we are. But the simple, bright-eyed world of Mario isn't out for you or your children. It's fun — for fun's sake. If you want to talk female empowerment, there are very few designers who know how to make memorable (and playable!) female characters as well as Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto, or Nintendo as a whole.
Miyamoto himself is responsible for bringing us Peach and the cadre of women in the Mario universe, even when he wasn't so sure women were visiting the arcades so long ago. Perhaps an even better example of female representation from Nintendo is Princess Zelda, a woman who isn't afraid to get her hands dirty and fight her own battles alongside Link in the Legend of Zelda series — the woman's name is in the title, for goodness' sake. Aside from Zelda and Peach, however, Nintendo has introduced a cavalcade of women who have taken enormous strides in cementing women's roles in gaming. Consider Metroid's Samus Aran, Fire Emblem's Lucina and even Bayonetta, who's become just as big of a part of Nintendo's legacy as Zelda's Tetra or Super Mario Galaxy's Rosalina.
So if Mario's going on a quest for "his" princess, I'll happily accompany him on that journey.