Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Sexual Themes of the Mario Universe

WARNING: The following contains suggestive themes, language, and ideals. If you are offended by offensiveness, crude humor, poor puns, shoddy metaphors, or risque talk, now is the time to back out.

It's come to my attention that there is something really wrong with Mario. And not in the way that he's a plumber in the magical Mushroom Kingdom and eats mushrooms to grow large and jump on turtles and other various creatures all day. Everyone recognizes how fucked up that all is. No. I'm talking about something far, far worse. Something terrifyingly obvious, once you see it. Something that has forever warped my appreciation of the Mario series:

The Mario games, by and large, are inherently sexually charged.

Let us begin with everyone's favorite damsel in distress, Princess Peach. Peach is inherently sexualized. Not only is she the typically portrayed feminine figure in the Mario universe (she gets captured, gets mad, but sits around and gets saved) but there are also great efforts being made to capitalize on her image as some sort of bizare, fetishistic sex symbol for those males who grew up struggling to save the princess who was always, sadly, in another castle.

What is she doing in this other castle? Typically being stolen by Bowser, who regularly has plans to marry her and thus steal her Kingdom. But his plans run much deeper than that. Bowser's plan to marry Peach isn't just constrained by political gain. Instead, he intends to take it further to some sort of twisted bestial romance. It is revealed even in Super Mario Sunshine that Bowser has told his son that Peach is his mother. Given how much time she's spent in captivity, it would not be surprising if it turned out to be true.

As the games have progressed to the RPG front, Peach's sexualization is not only acknowledged, but revelled in. In Paper Mario and the Thousand Year Door she is captured by a sentient robot who monitors her every move. He even films her while she options to take a shower, something the player can do every time they are in control of Peach. The robot, over the course of the story, falls in love with the unwitting Princess, thus leading to her means of escape. Peach doesn't seem to mind, using her wiles to charm the robot just long enough to make good her escape. One wonders if the same trick was what got her into trouble with the much more aggressive and sexually dominant Bowser. The man wears a spiked choker, for Christ's sake.

In Super Paper Mario, something very similar occurs, though only in a more surreal, post-modernist fashion. The player is guided into the castle of a giant Iguana named Francis, who is apparently obsessed with anime and video games. His household is populated with butlers that look disturbingly Hello Kitty-esque, while his rooms contain every Nintendo system ever created, plus multiple volumes of DVDs (not only the original releases, but the Collectors Editions as well). When this very stereotypical example of a 'fanboy' meets the Princess, what does he do? He instantly falls in love, and decides to win her over by treading the conversation as if it were a dating sim. The player is suddenly forced to control the sim choices, as the enemy tries to make the moves on an increasingly frustrated and angry Peach. In the end, Peach uses her power over him to catch him off guard, spelling his doom and her victory.

I don't need to point out, I hope, that even the name Peach is sexually suggestive. The original American name of Princess Peach was Princess Toadstool, but that was mostly because she was a member of the mushroom kingdom and yet bore no similarity to a mushroom in any way (as though naming her Toadstool would grant her monarchy legitimacy, but that's an argument for another time). However, the Japanese name has always been Peach, and the American games began using the name starting with Mario 64. This was also shortly before the invention of Mario Sports.

Mario Sports is the worst thing that could have happened to Peach. Whether it be golfing or tennis or soccer, Peach is typically portrayed as the token female of the group. She is one of the weakest characters, but she always makes it out for some face time. And by the looks of her revamped costume design, she takes great pride in showing off the latest fashions in dangerously high (for a cartoony character with G-rated appeal) mini-skirts.

But Peach is not the only one who has been scandalized as part of the Mario tradition. There is one who is even more maligned than Peach. A statement for transgendered gamers to rally behind. A character that defies all normal stereotypes and lives in a world all it's own: Birdo.

Birdo was first introduced in the American release of Super Mario Bros 2 for the NES. Birdo was one of the common mid-level bosses, spitting eggs from its mouth-shaped protrubance at the character to catch and throw back to do damage. A little weird, but pretty par for the course for Mario. It even sported a bright, pink bow. Cute, and charming. That is, until the gamer decided to peek into the instruction booklet where the enemies were given summaries.
If this is not a telling statement, I don't know what is. Birdo is not a female, as would be obvious. Instead, Birdo is an egg-laying male who thinks that he's a female. Not only that, but he dresses as and identifies with being female.

In every Nintendo publication since then, Birdo has been referred to as a she, but who can be sure? Perhaps Nintendo didn't change their minds, but were simply willing to accept Birdo on he/she's own terms. A progressive move for a traditional Japanese company in the late 80s, but also a rallying cry for transgendered people everywhere.

Then again, Nintendo has major issues with gender and their characters anyway. Yoshi the Dinosaur, Mario's faithful companion, is always described as male, yet is one of the few characters in the Mario universe capable of laying eggs. Not just laying eggs, but laying fertilized eggs that hatch into other Yoshis. Either there is some seriously twisted biology in the Yoshi anatomy, or Yoshi is equally suffering from transgender problems.

It might be worthy to note that in Mario Sports titles that feature doubles (such as Tennis or the two-'man' Mario Kart Double Dash!!) Yoshi is always paired with Birdo by default. Coincidence, or Nintendo grouping like with like?

Of course, there are other symbols of sexuality in Mario. One of the most obscure, but also the one that inspired this whole piece, is the Tanooki Suit Mario from Super Mario Brothers 3 for the NES. The Tanooki Suit Mario is based on the Tanuki of Japanese mythology, of which more can be found here. In brief, however, a Tanuki is a Racoon-like fertility symbol that is typically known for its enlarge scrotum, with which it has even been reported parachuting and sailing with.

The Tanooki Suit that Mario wears is similarly racoon-like, but gone is the enlarged scrotum. Instead, the Tanooki Suit is nearly genderless, though it does contain a protruding tail. The identification of 'tail' and the removal of the scrotum symbol could be seen as signs of Mario's castration, in his powerless struggle to once again free the sex-savvy Princess from her recurring bestial trap. One might think that this is reading too much into it, but the Tanooki Suit serves only one useful purpose within the game: like a Tanuki gliding on its giant scrotal skin, the Tanooki-suited Mario can fly.

I leave you with one last damning image, and perhaps the most absurd. The Mushroom Kingdom is home to the Toads, anthropomorphic mushroom-headed creatures that are generally peace-loving and friendly. Yet, in direct opposition to them, Bowser's main shock troops are typically seen as the Goombas, twisted Mushrooms who have turned to evil.

A mushroom is already a phallicly-oriented symbol, but the Goomba design goes one step further, in deliberately recreating the shape and structure of a glans. It is this scowling penile-shape that forms the brunt of Bowser's bestial rape of the Mushroom Kingdom and the Princess Peach.

What does this all mean? Let me break it down for you, real easy like. Bowser, King of the Koopas and all evil, is a mean, animalistic, sadist/dom character who wears aggressive fetish wear. His army is spearheaded by shock troops that are all phallic in nature. These troops march into the Mushroom Kingdom, attacking gender-neutral toads left and right, enslaving them and oppressing their idyllic ways. These asexual toads are ruled by the hypersexualized Princess Peach, a symbol of all that is feminine, once virginal but now sexually aware and powerful, in a commanding female way.

Given this clash between feminine sexual dominance and bestial male brutality, is it no wonder that the Mushroom Kingdom is populated by sexless denizens? Is it no wonder that Birdo and Yoshi, the two characters who are removed from this clash of gender due to them transcending it, are paired together? Can we really be surprised that Mario, hero of the realm, a figure of general masculinity, wears a male fertility suit that has been effectively castrated and feminized? Of course not. To side with the Mushroom Kingdom is to side with the female. To side with the Koopa King is to side with inherent male-ness.

And that is the true source of the everlasting conflict that drives the Mario universe.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Halt, now. Mario's Tanooki Suit has two functions: the ability to fly and the ability to harden up into a tall, cylindrical 'statue'. Just something to think about.

Anonymous said...

Now thats just reading too much into things. You might as well say that every fantasy story about some guy saving some chick from some dude is obscenely sexual. And it may just be me, but aren't almost all bosses in japanese games and anime strangely efeminate or balatently transexual for some reason? Maybe a topic for a next essay?