Sadly, the “Damsel in Distress” trope is still in use and can still be a big influence on female characters. But as women are now seen more as people rather than assumed gender roles, their appearance and characters in media have changed in a more powerful and positive light. Before the 90’s women were, for the most part, still portrayed as fragile, weak, naive and often catty or even major witches. In media, they were shown as needing and wanting to be saved from something, whether a bad relationship, a broken nail, or a dirty kitchen after a family gathering. Writers and producers figured out as women became more influential in the economic spectrum that their demographics didn’t find heroes rescuing princesses practical and realistic anymore as most saved themselves with little to no help from anyone else. With video games, rescuing a princess made for an easy plot when you didn’t have much room to make one (aka “your princess is in another castle”). Castlevania, Double Dragons, Hudon’s Adventure Island, Streets of Rage, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, DRAGON’S LAIR 1 and 2, and many more fell into this trap. But even that was little excuse in gaming when Metroid’s hero turns out to be a woman. TA DA.
I find it odd that some still see Zelda as a “Damsel in Distress” type. She was when she first started out it seems. But you have to give Zelda’s character some credit. She was the one that broke up the Triforce into pieces and hid them from Ganon before getting herself nabbed. At the end of the original Zelda, there was no romantic gesture or hint at; it was a simple thank you and congrats. That’s it. Ending things platonically; the Japanese way. But after LOZ, things become a tad, well, odd. In Zelda 2, we have a bit of a Sleeping Beauty deal, only a kiss won’t wake her. Though not shown in the game she’s asleep by magic for a rather noble reason. If you read the game pamphlet, she refuses to tell the prince, her brother, the secrets of the Triforce and he has a wizard pal attacks her with a sleeping spell. However, this game falls into the romance trap as when you put the Triforce together and wish for Zelda awake, she presumably kisses you as the curtains close.
Fortunately, that predictable outcome ends after A Link to the Past. With each new title, it shows that while still over powered, Zelda is known to take charge whether as herself or an alter ego like Sheik and Tetra. She is not always put in the most fortunate of situations, as reflected in Twilight Princess where she must either surrender or risk everyone getting killed (damn, that got dark fast). Although she is in positions where she is in constant danger and you have to go rescue here, she does show that she is as independent as she can be and has powers all of her own. She comes to your aid in the games more than you probably realize. It’s not that she doesn’t fight back and try to face the darkness on her own; she’s still only one part of three, after all. Sometimes all a person needs is a bit of a boost, especially from another side of the triangle. But at the same time, the games are more than just your basic “rescue-the-girl”. With the series, it’s become more about aiding a community in chaos, making new and sometimes weird friends (Tingle), and bringing a land scattered by darkness together in hopes of light. So, if anything is the damsel, it’s Hyrule itself.
On a scale of Pauline (Donkey Kong) to Lara Croft, Zelda falls somewhere in the middle. She’s a princess with a pretty dress and constantly in need of help from the main villain, but she is also a powerful and independent woman who don’t need no man unless he’s got a Triforce piece. She’s got a great tutor to thank for that (thanks Impa). Zelda is a busy lady with busy things to do as is apparent in every single Legend of Zelda game from staving of Twili attacks to running a pirate gang. As annoyed as I can get for her being under Ganon’s control more often than not, at least her alter ego is a ninja or a pirate that kicks ass and takes names when not providing some sort of assistance to Link (that’s you, Player 1). She doesn’t stand around and do nothing, but fights and gives it her all. More than anything, she is a victim of circumstance. Ganondorf kidnaps her and takes control, but not because she’s pretty and not so much for control of the holy land of Hyrule. All he wants is her part of the Triforce. THAT’S it. Not her, not because she’s pretty and runs a clean kingdom, it’s that little gold triangle that grants wishes. It’s the only reason she’s a priority to Ganondorf. And every time, EVERY TIME, she tries her best to defend her kingdom from peril. Princess Peach, on the other hand, is awful at kingdom management as her realm is in constant goomba peril. She is always kidnapped, doesn’t put up a fight, and all she can thin of to do for you is bake a cake for all your hard work gathering stars and overthrowing a giant lizard king. Hell, she even get’s kidnapped on VACATION (Super Mario Sunshine anyone?). but every once in a rare while, Peach actually shows some initiative when Mario get’s kidnapped or in trouble, but don’t expect her to do it in a less girly fashion than beating things to death with her bustle and a parasol.
So why is Link not attacked for holding the Triforce of Courage and being the Hero of Time when it seems Zelda is always the target? Other than being the monarch of the holy land of light, it’s finally explained in Skyward Sword that she is the reincarnation of the demigoddess Hylia as Ganondorf is the reincarnation, or possessed victim, of the dark demigod Demise. Link, however, may or may not be a reincarnation, just a “random” guy that wins the blonde haired blue eyed hero of courage lottery and gets a Triforce piece stuck in his hand. What would be interesting to see if LINK becomes the one that gets captured by Ganon first and Zelda pulls out the Master Sword. Some fans would probably enjoy seen a Zelda game where the title character in finally the lead. It has been made apparent in Twilight Princess, Wind Waker, and Super Smash Bros, and even the 1989 LOZ animated series that she can fight with the best of them.
After A Link to the Past, most female characters in the Zelda games don’t fall into the “rescue me” trap either. Every incarnation of Impa is loyal, helpful, and kick ass whether she’s young or old. Others show strong character in their roles whether big or small. Side characters like the spunky Telma and Malon are more than happy to help you if you help them with what they need to get work done. Saria, the most mature child of the Kokiri, stays by you as a friend no matter how old you get. Nabooru and the Gerudo thieves are crafty and no pushovers, even stating that men are weak (how rude). And Ruto and Midna, well, sassy as hell and they tells you how it’s gonna be: their way or the high way. And that’s just a few examples. None of them are disempowering representations of women in this land of fantasy. Their entire world was created by women, the three goddesses, so you would think they’d keep that in mind.
It just goes to show that developers try more and more in the games to shake off the assumption that Zelda’s the “damsel” type, especially with Hyrule Warriors making her a playable character. More and more female characters are becoming stronger and more realistic in video games. I enjoy what Zelda has become in the series. She’s wise (duh), trusting, and always thinking of Hyrule over herself. Even as a child, she tries to take charge for the sake of others. Though most of the time she wears the dress and the crown, in no way does that means she’s your typical pretty princess. Sure, despite her powers and gifts she still gets captured time and time again. But even though it can still categorize her as a damsel, they never fail to show the fact that she tried her best to stop it all from happening in the first place unlike other girls, who can’t handle a bottle of mace let alone a bow and a sword. Without her efforts, evil could have completely taken over anytime it saw fit in this universe. She shows that you don’t have physical might to be mighty; power comes in more than one form. So if anyone ever assumes Zelda is a pushover because she happens to be a princess, remind them it’s called The LEGEND of ZELDA for a reason. And I want to see her wear pants some more.