It may be a bit flip of me to make the kind of post that I am making here and now, in New York City after a major storm has passed through and left such devastation as it has. But there is some value in trying to return to normalcy as quickly as can be done after upheaval--insofar as anything I put on this blog can be called "normal." And this has been on my mind for a while...
I have written about The Legend of Zelda before (here), and over the past few weeks, I have returned to playing Nintendo's Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (which my beloved wife bought for me for Christmas a while back). As I did so, enjoying the experience thoroughly (because I have played many of the games in the franchise over quite some time), something else occurred to me that I had not noticed about the game before. Whether I had simply not paid attention in my earlier stretch of playing the game, or whether I had simply not had enough exposure to the material for the revelation to break upon me, I had not seen that in the characters Greba and Gondo, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword perpetuates racist stereotypes.
Greba and Gondo are a mother and son who live, along with the eponymous Zelda and the protagonist, Link, in Skyloft. Gondo, the son, is the proprietor of the Scrap Shop, a large stall in the Skyloft bazaar which offers repairs and gear upgrades. His mother, Greba, largely stays around their home. The two are the only dark-skinned characters in Skyloft, and their features appear as caricatures reminiscent of American minstrel shows. In addition to their darkened skins, both display large, flattened noses, much more so than any other characters in Skyloft or elsewhere. Too, their lips are overly pronounced, bulging and pale against their dark skin. The depictions evoke racist imagery in the United States, suggesting discriminatory attitudes at work in the game.
In addition, both Greba and Gondo are afforded ungainly, unflattering appearances. Greba is a hunched figure and bow-legged, a posture hardly indicative of regard for the character on the part of those who created her. Too, her eyes are covered, and while it is the case that there are other characters in Skyloft whose eyes are not exposed to view, there are professional reasons for their wearing goggles; this is not the case with Greba. Nor can they be ascribed to age; there are a number of other elderly characters in Skyloft who have no obvious corrective lenses. If eyes are the windows of the soul, and if characters within a video game can be considered to have some semblance of a soul, Greba's are shuttered, almost as if the house in which the soul ought to dwell is abandoned and falling into disrepair. And the disrepair is connoted by her attire, as well, which is the least ornate of all female characters in Skyloft; even the demonstrably financially disadvantaged Mallara wears more decorated, nicer clothing than that in which Greba is unvaryingly clad. None of these things present Greba as particularly valued among the inhabitants of Skyloft, and the positioning of a dark-skinned character in what amounts to abjection by other features of appearance couples denigration with dark skin, a racist trope somewhat shocking to see in a major media release in the early twenty-first century.
Gondo suffers under a similar onus. Although it would be expected that a character engaged in mechanical labor would display features of physical strength, and Gondo does have the broad shoulders and deep chest that suggest great muscular power, he is otherwise ill-proportioned. His arms extend almost to his knees, far longer in proportion than the other residents of Skyloft and more evocative of the apes with which dark-skinned persons have been likened by racists across long stretches of time. Too, like his mother's, Gondo's eyes are kept out of view. While it could be argued that his work with machines merits eye protection, the covering that occludes his forehead from view is not standard safety equipment. Rather, it functions as a mask, one that inhibits the full presentation of the character. There are, in the story of the game, no major revelations which depend on Gondo maintaining some level of secrecy, so keeping his face veiled comes off as an implication that his face is something which should be kept from view, not because of a plot concern, but because it is not worthy of being put on public display. In him, dark skin becomes associated with ugliness, another long-standing racist trope, and one reinforced by the deplorable state of his clothing. For while it is the case that his mother's attire is unornate, at least it fits her form and covers her fully. Gondo gives the impression that he has not been able to afford new clothing for some time; his shirt is obviously too small for him, and his pants, alone among those of male characters in Skyloft, are tight to his legs. In addition to ugliness, then, poverty is associated with having dark skin in Gondo, and that, too, is a racist stereotype.
Both characters also reenact racist discourse in their occupations. Greba is introduced as one of a group of women complaining about having to do laundry.* While it is admittedly true that taking care of the wash is an onerous task, it is one from which the female characters with which Greba is initially introduced are able to extricate themselves. Throughout the game, however, Greba is depicted as tending to her son's laundry. She is fixed in a particularly menial role, the only female character so relegated, and the only dark-skinned female character. It is another unhappy association, if not quite as much so as that of her son's work.
Gondo, as has been mentioned, is the proprietor of the Scrap Shop, the very name of which implies it lesser status among the stalls in the bazaar; he deals in scraps, leftovers, cast-offs, and the connection of a dark-skinned character to such things serves to reinforce ideas that the dark-skinned are dependent on the leavings of others, on charity spared from the rubbish heap. Too, at the Scrap Shop, Gondo deals only in altering the goods produced by others; he makes nothing of his own, only tinkers with what is made by others. This is markedly distinct from the actions of the light-skinned other vendors in the bazaar, who for the most part provide direct services or actually manufacture products.** They create, he does not, and because he, the only dark-skinned vendor, does not, being dark-skinned is equated with unoriginality and intellectual dependence. Neither is a pleasant association, and neither, since tied directly to one of only two dark-skinned characters in the game, speaks well for racial sensitivity on the part of the game's designers.
That there are racist tropes reiterated in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, a major media release and the continuation of a nearly generational series of games, serves as a reminder that racial parity has yet to be achieved. There is also a warning to take away from it; significant threads of the cultural tapestry are still dyed with discriminatory ideology, and while we may not throw away the blanket because of a few loosened threads, we probably ought to see about cleaning it.
*There is sexism in so strongly associating femininity with clothes-washing; no men are depicted cleaning what they wear. There is some mitigation of the sexism, however, and discussion of it needs to take place elsewhere. Maybe it can be another one of my blog posts, or it can be taken up by commentators on this one...
**There is the parallel character in the bazaar of Bertie, who augments potions rather than brewing them himself. Bertie is very much put upon, however; he is remarkably self-derogatory and clearly the inferior partner in his marriage. To be parallel to him, then, is not a position of privilege.