Ganondorf, Villainy, Race, and Fandom

Despite a few occasional bouts of drama, I love the Legend of Zelda fandom, and the only real unpleasantness I’ve encountered has had to do with Ganondorf. I want to talk about this briefly, because I think it’s representative of an alarming tendency in fandom as a whole.

The United States is in a strange and difficult place right now. It’s been like this for as long as anyone can remember, but the current presidential administration has brought some very ugly sentiments right out in the open. It was never particularly easy to be a Muslim or an African-American in this country, but since 2015 or so the violence of the rhetoric of prejudice has been omnipresent and overwhelming. We now have, for example, black women whose children were effectively lynched being subjected to all manner of humiliation and abuse for speaking out against police violence even as a mainstream presidential candidate won voters by belittling the Muslim family of a soldier who was killed in the line of duty.

This is just one of the myriad reasons why many of us are very sensitive to expressions of hatred against ethnic and racial minorities. Some people may feel confident in saying that ethnic stereotypes exist for a reason and that they don’t understand why people get upset over certain depictions of fictional characters, and I think it’s important to point out that not everyone who feels this way is (or identifies as) white. Fandom is supposed to be fun, after all, and no one wants to feel as if they’re being given a lecture when all they want to do is talk about video games.

I completely understand the desire to make fandom a politics-free zone, but I also think fandom should be large enough to accommodate multiple views and approaches. When it comes to Ganondorf specifically, I think there should be room for both silly jokes and serious analysis. On one hand, how ridiculous is the fact that Ganondorf built himself a giant murder castle in Ocarina of Time? On the other hand, how is Ganondorf’s intense love/hate relationship with Hyrule representative of the legacy of colonial ideologies both within the game and in the real world?

Ganondorf is clearly a villain in the Legend of Zelda universe. There are people in the Zelda fandom who love Ganondorf because he’s a charismatic and fascinating character, and there are also people in the Zelda fandom who hate Ganondorf because he’s just not a very nice person, to put it mildly. Both receptions of the character are totally understandable and valid.

The complication that arises with Ganondorf is that he is demonized according to real-world patterns of white supremacy, one of which is the common narrative that holds that “the Evil Barbaric Dark-Skinned Oriental Other” must be defeated by the virtuous heroes of a holy empire. Accordingly, the trouble I’ve experienced with fandom is that it can be easy for people to inadvertently slip into projecting negative racial and ethnic stereotypes onto the fictional world of the games.

Like men of African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian descent in the real world, Ganondorf is portrayed in a number of fanworks as unintelligent, bestial, violent, and incapable of human emotion. This is a gross oversimplification of how Ganondorf is canonically characterized in the games, but there are powerful cultural forces in our own societies that attempt to ensure that many of us become invested in the narrative of “the Brutal Evil Dark Man” to such an extent that we replicate it without intending to. Because of the nature of the narratives of the Zelda games themselves, in which Ganondorf is portrayed with very little sympathy, dealing with the character is always going to be tricky. This is why there needs to be a multiplicity of voices addressing these issues. For example, what does it mean that Ganondorf is imprisoned without a trial in Twilight Princess? Meanwhile, it’s equally worthwhile to make silly jokes and shitposts about the character; because let’s be real, you can bounce a quarter off that man’s leotard-clad ass. In other words, there needs to be room in fandom for humor and smut and serious analytical meta essays and silliness.

Unfortunately, Tumblr-based fandom has become so polarized that this sort of exchange is almost impossible. On one side of Tumblr are people who insist on ideological purity, and on the other side are people with good intentions who nevertheless feel alienated by “The Discourse,” an expression that refers to an incendiary argument that something or someone is “problematic.” What this means in practical terms is that, while one side of Tumblr is quick to attack anyone who engages with a “problematic” character like Ganondorf, the other side of Tumblr has come to ostracize anyone who’s interested in a more nuanced critique of popular media.

What’s happened within the specific context of Zelda fandom, then, is that many people will only draw and write about and reblog work featuring the light-skinned protagonists, while many of the people who are interested in the darker-skinned antagonists are surprisingly tolerant of what would generally be considered borderline racist representations in any other context. It’s not that any one approach to a character like Ganondorf is upsetting in and of itself, as it’s only natural that different people participate in fandom for different reasons, but rather that the aggressive refusal to consider or even acknowledge the validity of alternative opinions and perspectives can make the Zelda fandom a very weird and uncomfortable place to be sometimes.

To minimize potential confusion, I’d like to clarify the points I’m making about race and villainy:

IT IS OKAY to have dark-skinned characters who are not good people.

IT IS OKAY to have dark-skinned characters who do bad things and make mistakes and gradually grow and change.

IT IS OKAY to have dark-skinned characters who are irredeemably evil.

Let racial and ethnic minorities be villains! While you’re at it, let women and LGBTQ+ people and neuordivergent people and differently abled people be villains! Villains are great!

However:

IT IS NOT OKAY for a large multinational corporation to tell stories about how everything that is or has ever been bad in the world is the fault of one person whom we are supposed to know is evil because he is the only person in the story with dark skin.

Likewise, IT IS NOT OKAY for fans to tell stories that purposefully reproduce overt white supremacy in their portrayal of dark-skinned characters. For example, it’s not okay for fans to tell stories about how a dark-skinned character is “saved” by light-skinned people who teach him that his cultural heritage is bad so that he can be fully integrated into the “good” culture of the light-skinned majority ethnicity, or for a dark-skinned character to redeem himself by learning to apologize to representatives of the light-skinned ethnicity for his anger regarding the slavery and genocide of his people.

In other words, it’s totally normal to have a character who is a villain with dark skin, because expecting characters with dark skin to be perfect while denying them the full range of human experience and emotion is a ridiculous and counterproductive way to approach representations of racial and ethnic difference. That being said, it’s weird and gross to have a character who is a villain BECAUSE he has dark skin.

I’m excited that the recent Breath of the Wild sequel trailer has inspired a renewed appreciation for Ganondorf. It’s my hope that, while fans are enjoying the design and storytelling potential of a fun and interesting character, they’re also able to engage in critical discussions of the politics and ideology of the Zelda series without the conversation devolving into an exclusionary black-and-white mentality. The real-world implications of video game ideologies are multifaceted and complicated, and it’s important for these issues to be discussed outside of academia. Transnational fandom cultures are a perfect place for a wealth of diverse perspectives to come together, which is why I’d like to advocate for a better tolerance of a multiplicity of fanworks and opinions, as well as gentle and nuanced pushback that doesn’t take the form of death threats, bullying, or other forms of harassment.

Left Behind

This comic was drawn by Moonjelly Creations (@moonjellybeans on Twitter) and written by me, Kathryn Hemmann (@kathrynthehuman on Twitter).

I’m really interested in the relationship between Ganondorf and Tetra in The Wind Waker. While Link’s journey is full of light and laughter and discovery and growth, both Tetra and Ganondorf are associated with some fairly dark themes. They’re also literally in the dark in Hyrule Castle, which has lain dormant for centuries under the Great Sea. The Gothic creepiness of this scenario is fascinating, and I love how both Tetra and Ganondorf are painfully human even as they represent mythical forces that are much larger than themselves.

Fanfic and Commissioned Illustrations

I’m currently writing a Majora’s Mask AU in which Termina only exists because of Link. In my story, after Link “saves” Termina, it begins to disappear. The only two people who are even marginally aware of that anything is strange are Zelda and Ganondorf, who have been drawn into Termina by the strength of Link’s dream. Zelda is seeing it in a vision, and Ganondorf is experiencing it from where he’s imprisoned in the Sacred Realm. Neither of them realizes this until the end of the story, when they figure out that they have to wake up into the “real” world of Ocarina of Time, which is a much harsher reality than the one contained within Termina.

At the moment Tumblr seems to be the main platform people are using to engage with fandom; and, unlike LiveJournal or even Twitter, Tumblr exhibits an extreme bias toward images. What this means in practice is that fan art gets a ton of love, while fanfic receives relatively little attention. People complain about this all the time, and I routinely tell fic writers I’m friendly with that they should stop trying to write for fandom. Instead, it might make more sense for them to file off the serial numbers of their work so that they can publish it as original fiction.

This is easier said than done, of course, and in fact I declined to follow my own advice when I began outlining the plot and character details for this story. Two people trapped in a fading dreamworld is a fairly broad and open concept, and the characters obviously don’t have to be Zelda and Ganondorf. It would be fairly easy to change the names and smudge the identifying details and thus write a completely “original” story… but I don’t want to.

I recently finished my third playthrough of Breath of the Wild, and instead of moving on to something different I decided to pick up Majora’s Mask, which I hadn’t played since the game was released on the Nintendo 3DS back in 2015. I love the dark and foreboding atmosphere of the game, and I’m fascinated by all the many ways that Termina is falling apart at its seams. I read Majora’s Mask as a deep dive into the trauma that Link experienced in Ocarina of Time, especially his guilt over the fact that, even with the ability to travel through time, he couldn’t save everyone. I’m fascinated by Majora’s Mask, and I want to spend more time in the world of the game. I also want to explore its themes from a different perspective.

Specifically, what trauma did Zelda experience in Ocarina of Time? And what about Ganondorf? Who would these two characters be if they weren’t trapped in their respective roles? And what does it mean that they are trapped?

What I’m trying to do with this fanfic is to read Majora’s Mask through a critical lens. I’m a big fan of analytic meta essays about the game and its story, but I want to do something a little more creative in the way I examine its themes. For example, Majora’s Mask strips away Link’s identity as the “Hero of Time” and places him into a new environment, but the core of his character remains – he’s still a hero. So what would it look like if Zelda’s identity as the “princess of Hyrule” were stripped away? Who would she be? And who would Ganondorf be if he weren’t the “Demon King Ganon”? I want to play with these archetypes, but I’m also interested in the challenge of adding greater depth to seemingly one-note character tropes.

One of the nice things about working in the discursive space of fandom is that there’s a pre-existing community of readers who might be interested in a story like this. There’s also a large community of artists, especially in the fandom of a well-established gaming franchise like Legend of Zelda. Even though I don’t have much artistic talent myself, I’m primarily a visual person, and I find it inspiring to collaborate with artists on illustrations. This generally works in the same way it does in the independent comic publishing business, namely, the writer commissions an artist. Although most of the actual labor of illustration is done by the artist, it’s the writer’s job to find someone whose style and interests would be a good fit for the project. In fandom, this is relatively easy, but it’s still very cool when sparks fly and magic happens.

I’m very lucky to be able to work with Thali (@snoozeforever on Twitter / @ponthion on Tumblr) to create illustrations for this story, since I’ve been a fan of her art for years. In fact, it’s her critical engagement with the Legend of Zelda games as expressed through her artwork that encouraged me to start engaging with the Zelda fandom on Tumblr.

It’s a little embarrassing to commission an illustration for my own story, especially if it’s fanfiction. On the other hand, it’s an incredible experience to watch my ideas and characters come to life in visual art. The process of communicating with artists about design elements is also a lot of fun. It can sometimes be a challenge to try to express a complicated character concept in just one or two sentences so as not to overwhelm people with long emails full of extraneous details, but I am continually amazed by the brilliant interpretations created by the artists with whom I’ve had the honor of collaborating.

In any case, Thali has created as created multiple incredible designs based on the character concepts I sent her, and you can see some of my favorites below!

( Character designs by Thali )