What happened to transgender Birdo?

Western adaptations of video games lag behind the rest when it comes to diverse gender representation

It’s common knowledge that video games don’t have a great history when it comes to balanced portrayals of women, but what’s often neglected is their sub-par approach to LGBTQI+ representation. Nintendo, in particular, is rather behind the times. In the early 90s, the company put in place strict rules to exclude “adult material”, which, according to employees, unofficially encompassed depictions of LGBTQI+ individuals. While the policy has been long abandoned, vestiges still linger: whether it be the removal of same-sex relationships from the 2010 Nintendo release of The Sims, or the use of the slur “newhalf” by game developer Hirofumi Matsuoka to describe Samus, one of the first female video game protagonists. Most interesting, however, is a trend of erasing non-binary characters, specifically when Japanese games are remarketed for Western audiences.

The most notable example of this is also perhaps the most unexpected: Birdo, the pink dinosaur we know from Mario Kart, is widely regarded as the first ever transgender video game character. When first introduced to Japanese audiences, the description of Birdo was: “He thinks he is a girl and he spits eggs from his mouth. He’d rather be called Cathy.” While this was printed in US releases at first, it was edited out in later editions, along with any hints of ambiguity surrounding Birdo’s female identity. Over the years, different Japanese game releases have varied between using male, female and neutral pronouns for Birdo; Western games, however, refuse to deviate from “she”. Even now, on the official Japanese site for Mario Kart, the character introduction reads: “[Birdo] appears to be Yoshi’s girlfriend, but is actually his boyfriend”. On the other hand, Western releases repeatedly list Birdo as a female in character menus and game descriptions. Birdo’s gender is a fairly minor aspect of the Mario games, but the consistent rewriting of this aspect shows how queer representations are being closely monitored, and censored.

A more subtle illustration of this can be found in the Legend of Zelda series, when the titular character adopts an alter-ego, Sheik, by cross-dressing as a man to hide her true identity. In original Japanese releases of Ocarina of Time, Sheik was described with male pronouns and called a “young man”, but these were re-written as female pronouns for Western release. The Western character design was also updated to make the character more overtly feminine, adding breasts, longer eyelashes, and more traditionally feminine clothing. This confusion was a long-running source of debate within the fan community, which was eventually settled in 2014 when Nintendo executive and translator Bill Trinen stated, “The definitive answer is that Sheik is a woman”, putting an end to the question of gender ambiguity in the game’s universe. 

Some commentators have argued that this process of rewriting is simply a necessity born of cultural differences. Nintendo worker Janet Hsu, responsible for the English localisation of the Phoenix Wright series, engaged with this in a 2007 blog post. She describes her and series creator Shu Takumi’s frustrations at having to alter aspects of the identity of the cross-dressing character Jean Armstrong for Western audiences. Hsu also discusses how Japanese approaches to gender “do not map one to one onto Western ideas”, and that while Japanese culture has long accepted the notion of “okama”, a non-gender specific term similar to “queer”, she felt that Western audiences were comparatively intolerant. For what it’s worth, Jean’s cross-dressing did “cause a lot of confusion” in the English release, pointing toward a culture of lesser acceptance in the West.

This does not necessarily mean that Western audiences are inherently less capable of accepting non-binary characters. It certainly appears that Japanese gamers are more willing to tolerate deviation from the mould of cisgendered video game characters, but in Japan, Nintendo has also spent decades establishing a tradition of LGBTQI+ representation. Culture is an interaction between audiences and artists, and the latter have an active role in shaping the views and appetites of their audiences. Perhaps if Western censors hadn’t pored so pedantically over every pronoun, we wouldn’t be seeing such confusion and controversy today. The removal of  any traces of non-binary characterisation in Western translations can’t be solely attributed to cultural confusion — there is a clear unwillingness to accept even minor, accessible elements of queer identity. While some progress has been made, for example, with the 2013 release of Animal Crossing making references to same-sex attraction, the vast majority of games still lack any representation. Some virtual life games, such as the recently released Tomodachi World, don’t even have the possibility of same-sex relationships, let alone nonbinary characters.

This all acquires a new dimension when considering that Nintendo has always positioned itself as the ‘family-friendly’ video game platform: the implication of this censorship is that deviations from traditional gender depictions are somehow unsuitable for young people. It’s reminiscent of anti-gay platforms that criticise queer lifestyles as corrupting or unnatural, pushing homophobia under the guise of protecting “the children” from drawn to other sexualities. But Birdo is no sexual icon — the argument against the representation of non-binary gender reads more like a paper-thin excuse to hide an older generation’s inability to understand queerness. You needn’t look any further than the success of Nintendo in Japan, however, to see that the younger generation doesn’t share these qualms. Video games offer immersion in experiences beyond the scope of your everyday life, and this makes them a unique platform for normalising non-binary gender identities. Hopefully, with time, this potential can be realised.