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Whether Sheik is fundamentally a man or a woman continues to be debated. Perhaps it's a pressing matter to the makers of fanfiction, those unlucky souls who are burdened with the task of sorting out, in the words of that old limerick, "who did what, and with which, and to whom." But those left grasping at straws can take solace in the fact that Nintendo doesn't seem to have much of an idea on the matter, either. One comic book explains that Zelda's magic did indeed transform her into a man. But according to the trophy information in Super Smash Bros. Melee, only Sheik's hair, skin, eyes and clothing were transformed. Unfortunately, there's no word on whether this type of magic stops short of altering one's bits and pieces, and it seems uncharitable to peek.
Though this debate highlights how unconventional Sheik is, it also draws focus away from the inherent revisionism of such a project. Just as Sheik's gender ambivalence within Ocarina eventually succumbed to Zelda's fated role as feminine captive, Sheik's status as transperson seems to be dwindling. In the more recent Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Sheik is reimagined - softer, curvier, unmistakably more feminine.
It seems that the same androgynous presence that threatened Hyrule's archetypal order now threatens Nintendo's peaceful gaming multiverse. Perhaps they came to see an unabashedly transgendered character as a threat to the proven success of that tried and true formula: "Boy saves Girl from Guy With Big Eyebrows." The danger of a character like Sheik is that the hero may become redundant, and thus the player irrelevant. What fun is a princess who saves herself?
But beyond Nintendo's tendency toward reinvention and reassignment, questions of gender and identity in games are not so easily magicked away, and it must be said that Sheik does not exist in isolation. As gaming progresses and our understanding of the medium matures, we will continue to see more characters of Sheik's vein: not content to prescribe to the stagnant archetypes of centuries past, striking out new roles in a generation of new tales. This is the treasure trove of narrative: Given enough time and enough insistence, the very rudiments of our stories may shift beneath our feet.
This is all fanciful thinking for a bit of digital cross-dress, but it's not without precedent. With the emergence of new media comes the opportunity to radically reposition how we tell our stories. In the case of videogames, this may include new ideas about our characters and the relationship between hero and gender. I envision new games, with new refrains: "We're sorry. But your prince is in another castle."
Brendan Main hails from the frosty reaches of Canada, where there's a very different reason to bundle up with scarves. When not questing for the Triforce of Gender-Neutral Pronouns, he blogs at www.kingandrook.com.