Balancing nostalgia and changing gender norms is tough but not impossible.
To bring Super Mario into the iPhone age, Nintendo redesigned the game to have the main character run automatically and changed the orientation of the screen to make it easier to play one-handed.
However, when it comes to gender stereotypes, Nintendo appears to be stuck in the previous century.
The sexism begins from one of the game’s earliest screens, where Princess Peach encourages Mario to join her at the castle for a party, adding, “I’ll bake a cake.”
So much for social progress. It has been 30 years since Mario first rescued the princess back in 1985. Since that time, more than 50 women have gone into space, more than two dozen have been elected to the U.S. Senate and several hundred have climbed Mount Everest.
More importantly, the next generation of girls and boys are learning gender norms from, among other things, games like Super Mario Run. Personally, I think it is about time for a game where Peach rescues Mario.
Peach and Nintendo’s medieval notion of gender roles drew immediate notice, both on Twitter and among academics.
Balancing a character’s legacy with changing societal norms is a challenge, but not an impossible one.
“Nostalgia and rose-tinted glasses are not inherently bad. The question is, what are we nostalgic for?” said machine learning researcher and designer Caroline Sinders. “Mario and co. are really fundamental and fond childhood characters for a lot of Americans. I don’t think most people are nostalgic for rescuing Princess Peach but they are nostalgic for going on adventures with Mario.”
While the Mario franchise is deliberately simple, Sinders and others say there are opportunities for the female characters to grow over time, as the company has done in Super Mario Brothers 2 and Mario Kart, where Princess Peach drives alongside the male characters.
“Beloved franchises survive and thrive through evolution,” said scholar and gaming critic Katherine Cross, who is getting her doctorate at the City University of New York.
Nintendo is missing out by not doing more as it extends to the iPhone generation.
“We’ve already seen that Peach can do more than bake a cake,” said Cross, “and in reaching out to a mobile market where women are in the clear majority, it would behoove developers to explore alternate roles for the series’ best-known female character.”
Peach isn’t totally helpless in Super Mario Run. She can join in the Mario fun as a playable character, but only after being unlocked via gameplay (and hers is one of the hardest to unlock.)
Sexism, of course, remains a huge problem in video games industrywide, with Princess Peach’s cake-baking hardly the worst thing out there.
“At least the princess is fully clothed,” said Cowboy Ventures’ Aileen Lee.