The other day Game Informer‘s Dan Ryckert put a link on his Twitter to an article on the news website Salon by Jon Hochschartner titled “‘The Legend of Zelda’ is classist, sexist and racist“, which sounds like awful click-bait and it fulfills that promise. Now, this article is nothing if not a failure because no one will read it without knowing what The Legend of Zelda is (because lol video game criticism), and it’s not like anyone who actually gives a shit about The Legend of Zelda is also going to be the sort of person who takes an article like this seriously. So it’s very difficult to guess who this article’s target audience is.
But Hochshartner’s article reads like something just the worst kind of English major would vomit up after two days of class. It’s a muddled mess of poorly developed points depending on overdetermined signifiers and false profundity; Hochshartner’s article is the equivalent of a high school AP Literature student writing about how everything in a book totally makes sense when you think about how trees are totally penises. So, not that I especially enjoy writing response articles to awfully written crap on the internet that I hated or anything, but I worked in my college’s writing center, being paid to help people learn how to identify poorly written arguments, so I kinda feel like I have a duty here.
So let’s break down this article. What’s the thesis?
the ways it deals with class, race, gender and animal rights are all deeply problematic
First, here’s how you know this article is gonna be awful: right at the very beginning, Hochshartner spends more time defending himself than his argument.
- Some readers may take criticism of “Ocarina” as dismissal of the game. But this isn’t the case.
- I suspect the title’s reputation is somewhat inflated due to nostalgia of critics of a certain age. But it’s a nostalgia I share.
- So criticism here should be interpreted as loyal opposition.
Fucking own your criticism, man. If you’re titling your article something as inflammatory as “X is classist, sexist, and racist,” there’s no need to waste time singing the praises of X; you’re just tidying the flower arrangement around the guillotine. Don’t beat around the bush telling your reader how they’re supposed to read your argument, which, as the author, you don’t have any authority over anyway. Intentional fallacy applies to literary criticism too (yeah, English major-ed, motherfucker).
Now let’s move into your first issue: Classism in Ocarina of Time.
The game’s perspective on class issues can best be seen in its portrayal of the Kakariko carpenters and the wealthy family in the House of Skulltulla.
Okay, well, your first sentence about class issues doesn’t even mention what class issue you’re talking about, but, uh, yeah, just go ahead into that example before we even know why you’re doing it. That’s a good B-paper movie.
The relationship between the self-described “boss” of the carpenters and those he calls “my workers,” appears to be one of a guild member and apprentices or journeymen. The boss refers to himself as a master craftsman, and says the workers were hired by the royal family to improve the village. Karl Marx described this relationship as one of “oppressor and oppressed,” comparing it to that of “freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, (and) lord and serf.”
“Ocarina” portrays the apprentices or journeymen as lazy and shiftless, and the boss as the only one willing to work. “Young men these days don’t have any ambition,” the boss says. “Do you know what I mean, kid? My workers are just running aimlessly around the village, and they’re not making any progress at all … Even my own son doesn’t have a job, and he just wanders around all day! They’re all worthless, I tell you!”
This is your entire first example about classism in Ocarina of Time. Like… this is it? You’re not even going to analyze your example? You can’t just say “this is a Marxist reading of this example”, you have to actually say why it’s important to consider a Marxist reading of the example at all. Hell, if I were to look at this Marxist reading of this (very insignificant) detail from Ocarina, I’d see a mean character we’re clearly not supposed to sympathize with representing – not glorifying – an oppressive system. His disdainful diction is clearly determined to turn the player against him and his views, so if anything these characters are a criticism of classism.
And you know why I can come to that conclusion? Because you didn’t bother including your own conclusion in your argument. Your reader has no idea why we’re considering this minor detail from a Marxist perspective at all, because you’re letting your critics speak for you. Again, this is your paper and your criticism. Own it.
Your second (and final – did you bother researching this?) example of classism in Ocarina is, admittedly, more convincing.
Some may interpret the fate of the wealthy family, who are transformed into spiderlike creatures, in the House of Skulltulla as a condemnation of an exploitive class system, but that would be a mistake.
Oh! I already see improvement! You’ve actually written what your argument is! X would seem like Y, but it is actually Z! It’s worth pointing out that the word is “exploitative” and not “exploitive”, but, you know, baby steps.
“Folks around here tell of a fabulously rich family that once lived in one of the houses in this village,” an elderly character in Kakariko confides. “But they say that the entire family was cursed due to their greed! Who knows what might happen to those who are consumed by greed.”
By focusing on the greed of individuals, the game ignores how private property incentivizes and even mandates such behavior. And with this moralizing focus comes a belief that society’s economic ills are intractable because of humanity’s flawed nature.
First of all, congratulations on your first complete thought in the entire article thus far! You proposed a debatable interpretation, you cited an example, and you explained why that example supports your interpretation. (In case you forgot, you missed that last step in the Kakariko Village thing, Hochshartner). It would have been nice if you could have spent more than 38 words analyzing your example, but, hey, you have three fairly unrelated other topics to talk about in this article. Time is money, although I’m not certain you’d particularly care for that expression because of its belief about society’s economic ills. While I could go into how I personally disagree with your argument or about how I’m pretty sure I could make a good case for objectively saying you’re reading into this example way too much, I’m really not trying to criticize your argument itself. Just the insultingly, hilariously, “did someone actually give you real money in exchange for writing this” bad job you did of arguing it.
And so rather what I find absolutely absurd is that you decided Ocarina of Time is, what, alone in this regard? This isn’t a criticism of a single video game; this is a criticism of capitalism. It would be harder to think of video games that aren’t examples of this. Actually, the more I think about it, the video game is an especially conducive medium for this sort of thing because of how games hinge almost exclusively on predetermined systems of player-reward. This isn’t even the low-hanging fruit. This is, like, “Hey, I found a stick.”
Next, we move into Hochschartner’s analysis of why Ocarina is racist, which is given all of a single, 88-word paragraph. I’m starting to suspect it’s taking me longer to write this response piece that it took to write this article.
The racial, ethnic and religious traits of the “good characters” and the “bad characters” within the game also demonstrate a certain xenophobia. All of the good characters, such as the Hylians and Kokiri, are white. In contrast, all of the bad characters, such as the thieving Gerudo and their king, Ganondorf, have brown skin. The Gerudo live in the desert, and in case it wasn’t clear what real-life group of people they are based on, the original Gerudo symbol is strongly reminiscent of the Islamic star and crescent.
This is a stronger point, if only because it’s more obvious to see color than it is to see Marxist economics. And, yes, it does sound problematic that all of the good characters as white and all of the bad characters are brown-skinned. Unless, of course, we count the Gorons as good guys – which they are – who are also brown skinned, albeit not humanoid. And unless we count Ingo, who forcibly takes over Lon Lon Ranch and holds your horse hostage, as a bad guy – which he is – who is light skinned.
Okay, so “all” is too broad of a generalization, but isn’t Hochscharnter’s point, for the most part, true? The dark-skinned Gerudo race are depicted as thieves, and their king, Ganondorf, is the game’s primary antagonist. Although I think that Hochschartner’s 88 words don’t really depict the source material accurately. It paints an entirely different picture if I were to summarize the role the Gerudo play in the narrative by saying that at the start of the game they had good relations with the Hylians, their king Ganondorf met with their king, and then Ganondorf began his evil plan to take over the world, and if your king is trying to take over the world, yes, that probably influences how the rest of the world perceives your society. Not to mention how many of the Gerudo are not villains, including Nabooru, who openly disagrees with Ganondorf throughout the game and is ultimately one of the Seven Sages, which, in other words, makes her one of the “good characters” who is so good she is instrumental to defeating Ganondorf.
So are there some race issues at play here? Well, it’s very difficult to talk about them when you limit the issue to 88 words.
Here we move into why Ocarina of Time is sexist, where Hochschartner interestingly opens with criticizing some of the game’s original advertising.
The title’s perspective on sex is arguably summarized in an advertisement for “Ocarina,” which asks, “Willst thou get the girl? Or play like one?”
This is an interesting one. Does advertising count as “the text”? If it doesn’t, does Nintendo make a special case where it does because Nintendo was both developer and publisher? Man, this would be an interesting issue to analyze. But we already know that Hochschartner doesn’t really like analyzing things when he can generalize and move on to this next, completely different point.
Just like in every other game in the series, Princess Zelda is incapacitated and in need of rescue from the central character, Link. The repeated use of this sexist cliché helps to, as Sarkeesian says, “normalize extremely toxic, patronizing, and paternalistic attitudes.”
Okay, but, again, Hochschartner’s own argument betrays how poorly theorized it is. We’re talking about one game here, and the issue is described as “repeated use”. Much like with the Marxist point from earlier, is Ocarina of Time really the example?
For a portion of the game’s plot, Zelda is represented as an imposing warrior. But, as Sarkeesian points out, she is only able to achieve this disguised as a man and she’s kidnapped within minutes of revealing her true identity.
Sure, Link is also at times injured or captured. At one point, for instance, he’s locked in a Gerudo jail cell. But, as Sarkeesian says, Link, and male protagonists in general, usually get themselves out of the situation. And that ability to overcome obstacles is integral to their development as heroic characters.
Now this is way more interesting. I should read Sarkeesian’s analysis of Ocarina of Time. The only good, supported ideas in Hochschartner’s article are the ones he steals from Sarkeesian. What are Hochschartner’s own ideas in his section on why Ocarina of Time is a sexist game?
Link also rescues other female characters who arguably fall into damsel trope, such as Saria, a friend from his Kokiri childhood, and Ruto, princess of the aquatic Zoras.
Okay, but throughout the course of the game, Link also rescues the male character Darunia from the exact same circumstances as the aforementioned female characters. He also saves the entire world. And a tree.
Although, yes, there is something archaic about the captured princess plot which carries the pall of sexism about it. But is Ocarina of Time really the disease, or is Ocarina of Time among the symptoms? Ultimately, it’s cyclical, both created by and feeding into a social construct irrelevant and devaluing in modern society. And Sarkeesian does make a lot of good, thought-provoking points about female agency in Ocarina of Time. So good and thought-provoking, in fact, that Hochschartner creates his entire argument out of Sarkeesian’s. The best part of Hochschartner’s article isn’t even his.
But Hochschartner’s next point about animal rights is all his.
From the perspective of domesticated animals, agriculture of the past was a gentler prospect than the modern, factory-farm system. But for non-humans the pre-industrial farm, as symbolized by Lon Lon Ranch, was still a place of exploitation and violence, where their lives, in general, would be significantly shorter and more circumscribed than those of their nearest, wild cousins.
Once again, I’m not totally sure what his argument is, here. Domestication is bad? That’s… wow, that’s an incredibly deep-seated issue. We have to go back a seriously long time to take a look at that wrong.
But in the game, domestication is portrayed as a mutually beneficial, voluntary arrangement. The anthropomorphized cows of Hyrule speak to Link, literally saying, “Have some of my refreshing and nutritious milk!” Of course depicting a relationship as anything like symbiotic when one party kills and eats the other, as well as the latter’s children, would be laughable if it weren’t so appalling.
Actually a relationship in which one party gives to the other while receiving nothing from the other is not mutually beneficial by definition (it’s actually commensalism), so this entire paragraph – and closing point of the article – is invalid.
No, seriously, what exactly is the argument here? Much like in his section on classism, Hochschartner never once actually, explicitly says what his point about animal rights is. Even if my goal here was to refute his arguments, I would have no idea what to refute. And this is Hochschartner’s great failing in his article: in attempting to pull back the curtain on Ocarina of Time and reveal its offenses, he still just implies what the offenses are. I have no idea what class issues or animal rights issues are up for discussion here, both because he never actually said what they are and because whatever he is arguing rests entirely on overdetermined signifiers – little tiny pieces of evidence that so much meaning is stretched out of, it’s stretched unsustainably thin. Even the better argued parts of the article are completely flawed: the racism paragraph is oversimplified to the point where any actual analysis is impossible, and the sexism section is 100% lifted from someone else’s argument (which probably suggests there’s no coincidence why it’s considerably better than the rest of the article).
Overall, Hochschartner’s article is attention-seeking, minimally-researched, and flimsily-argued drivel. It reads like an unfocused early draft, written the night before the deadline and passed off as a completed piece. It is excessive in its complete lack of content. It is Kaepora Gaebora, the much-reviled owl from Ocarina of Time, who blathers on and on and on, not saying anything of any value to anyone.