While most people are reluctant to talk about spoilers for Zelda: Breath of the Wild, one screencap was shared far and wide ahead of launch depicting Link dressed in traditional female attire, blushing, as they were told they made a pretty girl. Much of the trans, non binary and gender nonconforming gaming community cautiously rejoiced. Were we about to see a good example of non-traditional gender presentation in a AAA video game?
Now that the game is out, and I’ve had time to reflect on this plot thread and my relation to it as a trans woman, I’m left feeling conflicted. On the one hand, this is a AAA video game that canonically has people who were designated male at birth living comfortably within the confines of an all-female city, but equally these characters are repeatedly misgendered as part of the progression path to quest completion. Sure, Link likes being told they are a pretty girl, but Link also reels back in horror when a beard is momentarily exposed from underneath the veil of a woman using female pronouns.
So, let’s dig into the highs and lows of how Breath of the Wild handles its all-female city, starting with the core quest line before expanding into additional info hinting at further gender nonconforming characters.
If you’re coming into this completely blind, here’s a brief run down of the quest line. In Breath of the Wild there are four quest points in the world that, while not necessary to complete the game, are necessary to get the game’s best ending. One of these quest markers leads out into a desert, passed an oasis market trading post, and to Gerudo Town. Gerudo Town is an all-female city, with men banned from living within the city walls. The Gerudo as a race typically only see one birth designated as male every 100 years. The most well-known of these is Ganondorf from Ocarina of Time, who attempted to destroy Hyrule. The Gerudo as a race have a lot of emotional baggage surrounding men.
When you arrive at Gerudo town, attempts to enter will see you thrown out by a pair of guards, being told that Voe (men) are forbidden from this all-Vai (women) city.
Talking to a couple of non-Gerudo men outside of the town will lead you to the knowledge that a man has been using deception to sneak in and out of the city. You’re told this man often travels to the nearby oasis trading post. This leads the player back to the oasis to begin asking if anyone knows of a man who enters the all-female city.
One of the Gerudo women working at this oasis tells the player that she’s unaware of any men fitting that description, but to try talking to a non-Gerudo Hylian woman who often spends her time on the roof of the building. This is the woman who enables link to acquire the traditional Gerudo women’s garb.
When talking to this woman, there are options to misgender her. You can call her a man, but this shuts down the conversation quickly and prevents you progressing. In order to progress you have to use female pronouns to refer to her, compliment her appearance, and ask her to sell you women’s clothing.
This is where we get blushing, shy, “good-looking gal” Link.
Let’s get a few things out the way. Yes, this woman has a beard under her veil. When this information is accidentally revealed to Link by a stray gust of wind, it’s played as a punchline where Link reacts in shock. The fact that Link is dressed in women’s clothes when reacting with shock to this beard is tonally odd.
Still, let’s talk about some positives. This woman has clearly been living and working within Gerudo Town comfortably for some time. The fact she has a beard hasn’t been a barrier to her comfortably existing within the walls of this all-female city. The Gerudo in the store below who points you her way explicitly doesn’t tell you where to find “the man who snuck into Gerudo Town” but instead to the “Hylian Vai (woman)” she knows we are likely referring to. This shows a level of acknowledgement, but respect, for her female identity regardless of her having a beard.
Also of note, numerous people within the city walls acknowledge that Link is designated male at birth, but none of them report Link or get them kicked out for this discovery.
The spa in town recognises your body as traditionally masculine, or non-typically feminine. Their responses to this information are to compliment your muscular frame as advantageous and rare within your race, or to assume it’s a product of battle-worn circumstance. They comment on your battle scars, confirmed elsewhere in the game to only be visible when Link is undressed, but not on your lack of breasts. They do not use this information to invalidate your presented gender.
There’s also one curious comment made by spa attendees about Link’s shyness within the spa. While the below comment (“Hey… you seem a little tense. Relax, we’re all vai here…”) could merely be a simple attempt to calm tense customers with an assertion they’re safe from the male gaze within the city walls, I like to read it as an affirmation that the spa attendee is aware that Link’s nerves and tension are due to exposing the body they’re meant to hide within the city, and the employee attempting to reassure Link that they will be acknowledged and treated as a woman while within the spa and the city.
Lastly of note, and something I have not seen discussed elsewhere on the topic of potential gender nonconforming representation within the city walls, is the presence of a hidden secret shop within Gerudo Town selling masculine Gerudo garb.
It says a lot about Gerudo culture that the sale of male clothing is prohibited by law. With the baggage their society has regarding men as rulers, it is in some ways understandable that the Gerudo as a people would be wary of a member of their race presenting as male as a play for power. Still, a market for male clothing not only exists within town walls, but also the demand is seemingly high enough to be of note by this shop keeper.
While I obviously don’t know the intent of the localisation team or writers, I like to read the existence of this store as an acknowledgement that there is a community of trans men living within the city walls, designated female at birth but desiring to present as masculine in spite of the cultural taboo present in that presentation. If accurate, this would go a long way to explaining the town’s seeming level of acceptance of trans women living within and visiting Gerudo Town. They’re well aware trans people exist, even if it’s not acknowledged on the surface, and not one person who discovers that you may have been designated a different gender at birth is going to get you in trouble for that.
Interesting to note, if you attempt to enter the city in male Gerudo garb, you will be kicked out. This does suggest perhaps the Gerudo society is more trans woman friendly than trans man friendly, regardless of the acknowledgement that a market for male clothing exists within the city.
Also of note, Gorons are allowed to freely enter the city. This seems to be because the Goron are born from rock rather than existing as the product of sexual reproduction. This implies the Goron are an agender species, using masculine pronouns but presenting feminine or masculine freely. As such, we learn that the Gerudo view agender species as non male, which is enough for them to permit them entry to gendered spaces.
Trying to take in all the information available, I feel really mixed on the inclusion of this content as part of a core mission if you want BOTW’s best ending. It at times plays like a “men decieving women to sneak into their gendered spaces” narrative on the surface, something damaging and depressingly common, but there’s also enough content away from the core progression path to suggest there’s more to the picture of Gerudo Town than meets the eye.
Within the city walls, Link can buy additional women’s clothing beyond what they needed to complete the quest, suggesting that perhaps Link likes wearing that clothing beyond just the utility of entering the town. The disparity between seeming support for trans women but banishment of trans men within the city walls feels like it implies a flipping of many trans narratives. Within this all-female city people wishing to present as women are accepted, while those wishing to present as men are banished for fear of them pushing for power the way Ganondorf did. Regardless, there’s a network within the city trying to provide options for those wishing to present as men outside of city walls.
While I was initially iffy over the use of deception narratives and a woman’s beard as a punchline, I ended up feeling like there was a more interesting trans narrative within the city walls than I initially gave credit.
Also, trans girl Link who discovers her identity as a result of having to dress as a woman on this quest, buys additional clothing in town, and then runs off to save the world in female Gerudo garb that she wears for the entire rest of the game is a piece of female Link headcanon I can totally get behind.