Peach and Pauline: The Leading Ladies of Mario Odyssey

Books and films are the main media sources for most American citizens and have been for decades. Yet over the last few decades a newer and more immersive form of media has appeared in American culture: video games. 150 million Americans play video games, and most are probably familiar with the more popular franchises (“Industry Facts”, n.d.). One of those popular franchises would be the Mario series, a set of games that revolve around a plumber saving a princess from her evil turtle-like kidnapper. The newest installment, Mario Odyssey, follows Mario as he attempts to save Princess Peach from her forced wedding with Bowser. Examining the parts that Peach and Pauline play in the game reveals several traditional gender stereotypes, but also new roles for women within the Mario franchise.

As always with the Mario game series, the plot revolves around the main mission of rescuing Princess Peach from Bowser’s grasp. This has been the basic plot of every Mario game to date, and in each one Princess Peach plays the same part. Despite being royalty, she is not able to protect herself from being kidnapped, nor does she have an army. In fact, the Princess is never seen actually ruling over the kingdom like a monarch would; instead, she’s always seen playing outside or completing some recreational activity before being snatched away. Her title of leadership is essentially a farce, as Mario must always solve her problems. Even though she’s a princess she is still portrayed as a helpless victim with no power over her kingdom or over her fate. In Mario Odyssey, she even has a sidekick that could assist her in escaping away from her upcoming wedding. A young, female “hat person” poses as her crown but neither make any moves to free themselves. This lack of resistance points to the fact that Peach may be experiencing learned helplessness, as she never fights back or attempts to escape, despite being fully capable of doing so (Ackerman, 2018). Peach fits the stereotype of “The Damsel in Distress” perfectly with her constant need of rescuing and lack of self-helping behaviors. A man kidnaps her out of her own kingdom, while a man brings her back, over and over again, and each time she is Mario’s prize for chasing Bowser around the world. Peach is not portrayed as a ruler, or even as a capable person. Instead, she is only a helpless woman that waits for Mario to rescue her.

Aside from Peach and her sidekick, Mario Odyssey only features one other main female character: Pauline. Originally, she made her debut in the first Donkey Kong game as the woman being held prisoner by an angry ape. Yet in the newest game, Pauline is strikingly different in a much more positive way. Now she serves as mayor of New Donk City, a thriving area reminiscent of New York City. There she is beloved by all her citizens and regularly holds festivals to celebrate the prosperity that she created. Pauline wears her bright red pantsuit for work or her red dress for festivals, with purple eyeshadow and red lipstick. Unlike Peach, Pauline is able to be traditionally feminine while acting as a successful leader to a booming city, meaning she did not have to sacrifice her female traits in order to be seen as an authority figure. In fact, Pauline is excessively feminine with bold makeup, heels, and a purse; but this does not bring her any ridicule or disrespect. Her femininity and authority are able to coexist which is something that is not often true in the real world, where many professional women are encouraged to be “pretty” but not “too pretty” (Carpenter, 2017). The Mario world may be fictional, but Pauline’s character can be a source of inspiration to other professional women who are trying to gain respect.

While it can be very easy to write Peach off as nothing more than a helpless princess, her end game decision challenges that assumption. Instead of accepting Mario’s proposal or Bowser’s proposal, Peach chooses something entirely different: herself. Both the men are rejected while Peach takes her sentient-tiara-sidekick around the world on a girls only adventure. This is a huge change from the woman who idly stands by as she’s taken away from her home against her will. At the end of the game Peach is finished with being led around by the two men constantly vying for her attention, she’s finished with being a “prize” for a game well played. Finally, she’s broken out of her victim mindset and learned helplessness, so now she’s able to discover herself while traveling the world. Peach’s endgame assertion of independence is much more than a silly plot twist. It can be seen a sign of hope for women who feel trapped, or pressured, or powerless. If the classic “damsel in distress” of the gaming industry can break free then maybe one day those women can too.

References

Ackerman, C. (2018, August 23). Learned Helplessness: Seligman’s Theory of Depression (+ Cure). Retrieved September 10, 2018, from https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/learned-helplessness-seligman-theory-depression-cure/

Carpenter, J. (2017, September 20). How a woman's appearance affects her career. Retrieved September 10, 2018, from https://money.cnn.com/2017/09/20/pf/women-attractiveness-work/index.html

Industry Facts. (n.d.). Retrieved September 9, 2018, from http://www.theesa.com/about-esa/industry-facts/