You don’t have to play Peach…
But you don’t have to play a male character just to prove you’re good, either.
Like Mandaray, I grew up watching my dad play DOOM and Blackthorne, then taking the reins for myself. The first video games I played obsessively were LucasArts classics like Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max Hit the Road, and Dark Forces. Gender was largely incidental in these games, even in Day of the Tentacle with its “token girl,” Laverne. She was a clever medical student with a fondness for dissection lab and mummies, and her gender didn’t affect that.
Imagine my surprise, a few years later, when I got a Nintendo 64 and Mario Kart for Christmas, and a (male) neighborhood kid told me I had to play Peach because I was a girl. I played her for the first few races we played, then rapidly decided that I wanted to be Toad. At the time, it wasn’t because of his faster acceleration; it was because, even at eight years old, I was determined to prove that neighborhood kid wrong.
From then on out, if there was a woman character in a game, I refused to play her. Not even Samus was safe from my discrimination, at least not in Super Smash Bros. When Pokémon games introduced the ability to play as a girl trainer, I adamantly refused. I wouldn’t create a female character in Icewind Dale or Baldur’s Gate; my Sim “self” was male even though I’m a cis woman.
I would often say it was because I liked the men characters better. Sometimes, that was true. Or I would say it was because the women characters didn’t have useful abilities. Sometimes, that was also true. Often in those days, women characters were clerics or healers with dampened offensive powers. They tended to get kidnapped or injured and require rescue, and if they had agency, they tended to have certain physical “assets” to offset their badassery.None of my girl friends were interested in video games. I mostly played with boys, who mostly thought of me as a joke. I made it my goal to destroy them at Super Smash Bros., or Goldeneye, or Soul Calibur II…whatever game we were into at the time. I also made it my goal to be more skilled, more knowledgeable, and just plain better than they were at non-competitive games, like RPGs. I think this obsession is why I’m such a completionist to this day.
Two things happened that changed my behavior: 1) I made friends with other women gamers, and 2) I got interested in cosplay.
The first one’s probably pretty self-explanatory. With a built-in support network, I stopped being ashamed if I wanted my Morrowind character to be a woman, or if I enjoyed fighting as Princess Zelda. We were competitive in the way games are supposed to cultivate, and not because we had to prove ourselves as “girl gamers.”
The second factor that changed me might be the less obvious one. In my early teens, I started out cosplaying men, who had always been my favorites growing up. I still remember binding my chest to cosplay for the first time at fourteen and finding it miserable – partially because I ignored all safety warnings. While I was struggling to breathe in ace bandages wound way too tight, my friends cosplaying women from Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy X, and Naruto were having the times of their lives at our tiny local con.
After another go at crushing down my chest to cosplay a man, I complained to my mom about how I hated cosplaying men because it wasn’t comfortable. My mom supported my hobby. She’s an outspoken feminist and thought I should do what I enjoyed, regardless of gender stereotypes or norms. But when I talked about discomfort, she suggested I cosplay a woman character I liked.
I’m pretty sure I scoffed at her and said, “There aren’t any.” My mom rebutted with a list of female characters I’d just dismissed. Princess Leia, Hermione Granger, Oracle, Uhura, Jem, She-Ra, Major Kusanagi, Princess Rosella…even Sailor Moon. My mom didn’t list all of them, but I loved these characters as a kid and into my teen years (and still do now). I couldn’t ignore how much I admired them.
She had a good point.
My next cosplay was Quistis from Final Fantasy VIII, and I was happier and more comfortable for it. FFVIII was the first Final Fantasy title I’d played, and as a teacher and role model for many of the game’s other characters, Quistis was always my (secret) favorite. At first I felt strange cosplaying as a woman, but I quickly got over it when other con-goers approached me and said things like, “I love Quistis. She’s such a badass.”I was also replaying the Resident Evil games at the time, and with so many RE games and characters to choose from, I ultimately decided to cosplay Sherry alongside Quistis. It was an easy costume, and fun to meet other RE cosplayers. So many people at the con had grown up with the series and had fond memories not just of Sherry, but of Jill, Claire, and Aida. So many people told me they loved my cosplays and the characters I chose to represent. Between Quistis and Sherry, I was hooked.
If I hadn’t realized it before, I realized then that my fixation on proving myself through avoiding playing women characters was a barrier I’d created for myself. I was still living the standards set by an eight-year-old kid who, unfortunately, hadn’t learned any better yet.
Since then, I’ve happily cosplayed any character who struck my fancy – man, woman, nonhuman, whatever – and I’ve happily played as any character too.
I didn’t mind making my Fallout New Vegas and Skyrim characters female; I even decided that playing FemShep wasn’t too shabby either. I loved playing as Ellie in The Last of Us, and I didn’t respect her any less when Joel saved her from the Fireflies. When I bought a Wii U with Super Mario Bros. U, I immediately played Peach. After all, her floaty jump proves incredibly useful when platforming for stars and stamps.
These are only a handful of examples of games and characters I might have experienced differently, or not at all, if I hadn’t woken up from my own hang-ups about women in video games.
That I was still letting things boys and men had said to me affect me speaks volumes about the way women are still viewed in the gaming community. The majority of let’s players and streamers are still men, but that’s changing. It’s always such a joy to discover new influential women in the gaming industry, and to find new games – or games that are new to me – with fascinating women characters. I’m glad that I’ve grown alongside the gaming industry to experience some of its lows, but also its highest highs.
Good friends and a good hobby – one that exposes me to a lot of different characters and different people who love and portray them – helped me get past how ridiculous and sexist I was still being. There’s no reason for a young girl, or any girl, to feel forced to play Princess Peach. But there’s nothing wrong with her choosing to play as Peach, either. She’ll still be an amazing gamer.
Lydia Mondy admits that it took her too long to stop worrying and love the Peach. She sometimes writes for BuyCostumes.com, because her need for cosplay is as enduring as her need to school people at Mario Kart.