How Princess Peach's Story Draws On 2000 Years Of Women In Peril

Nintendo’s Princess Peach is the quintessential damsel in distress. She’s such a damsel cliché that she’s more important as a plot device than as an actual character. Whether you know her as Peach or Toadstool, her name doesn’t matter so much as the “Princess” preceding it.

Mario’s leading lady is such a damsel cliché that she can also provide valuable insight into the evolution of the damsel trope, from the 4th century BCE all the way to Super Mario Odyssey.

The Ramayana is an ancient Indian epic and cornerstone of Hinduism that dates back over 2000 years. In this story, Rama, a god incarnate, must go on a magical journey with his brother Lakshman to rescue his wife Sita from the terrifyingly ugly monster Ravana, who has taken her as his bride. The plot of 2017’s Super Mario Odyssey is the same as the Ramayana’s, only in this case the parallel to Lakshman isn’t Luigi but a a sentient hat named Cappy.

In many ways, the princess provides Mario with a reason for existing. This shares a lot in common with how damsels worked during the medieval period, a golden age for the damsel in distress. In stories, songs, and poems from this period, the damsel was literally the entire raison d’etre for knights looking to prove their strength and chivalry. Apparently this was impossible to do without a maiden to rescue.

Detail of a 1780 painting depicting Rama and Sita. (Image: Public Domain)

Damsels surged in popularity yet again during the Romantic period, especially in gothic literature and art. Just take a look at some of the visual art from this time period and you’ll find maiden after maiden tied up in some way that conveniently reveals a bare shoulder or some cleavage—if she’s not already completely naked.

A promotional still of actress Fay Wray in King Kong (1933). (Photo: RKO Pictures, Getty Images)

The modern industrial era and its emerging technologies provided entirely new media to represent the damsel in distress — film, television, radio — as well as entirely new dangerous threats. Olive Oyl, girlfriend of Popeye the Sailor Man and another of the most famous damsels of all time, constantly found herself in the clutches of Popeye’s mortal enemy Bluto, who tied Olive to railroad tracks, ship’s masts, and whatever else was around — seemingly just to piss Popeye off.

And then there’s Ann Darrow, another classic damsel, whose screams were heard across all of New York City as she squirmed within the palm of King Kong, hoisted atop that 1933 symbol of industrial modernity, the Empire State Building. Talk about phallic.

Mario’s first game famously involved a very King Kong-like damseling incident, although it was a different damsel. In the 1981 arcade hit Donkey Kong, which marked Mario’s first-ever appearance, Donkey Kong carries The Lady (later named Pauline) around like an object he seems to have stolen from Mario (originally “Jumpman”).

Detail from the Donkey Kong arcade flyer. (Image: Nintendo)

To really beat us over the head with her’s lack of agency, ads for Donkey Kong featured images of each of the three characters with a speech bubble. Donkey Kong says “SNORT!”, Jumpman says “FIGHT!”, and The Lady says “HELP!” On cabinets and promo materials for the game, The Lady wears stiletto heels and a torn dress. She is a prize to be won by a man, from a man. Well: From an ape. Donkey Kong designer Shigeru Miyamoto has said that he had Popeye, Bluto, and Olive Oyl firmly in mind when he designed these characters.

The screwed-up love triangle between “The Lady”, Jumpman, and Donkey Kong set the pattern for hundreds of video games to come, including, in major ways, the entire Super Mario franchise. The lady was eventually named “Pauline”. This was after the wife of a Nintendo of America employee, but scholar Neil Lerner points out that Donkey Kong’s Pauline also strongly resembles the plucky hero Pauline from the early film serial The Perils of Pauline, produced between 1912 and 1920 in hopes of drawing a female audience out to the movies.

The Pauline of this weekly series was an unmarried, world-travelling adventurer — a female hero of early cinema. Scholar Ben Singer interprets her as a bold and independent hero, a “serial queen” representing the “New Woman” arising out of the women’s suffrage movement. But as independent as she was, Pauline was also one of the first damsels in distress on film, since she’s rescued by a man fairly often.

Actress Betty Hutton in The Perils of Pauline (1947). (Photo: John Springer Collection, Corbis via Getty Images)

In 1985’s Super Mario Bros, Mario rescues a damsel in every single castle before finally reaching the princess at the end of the game. Super Mario Bros. 2, released for the NES in 1988, strayed drastically from the damsel format — in fact,you can actually play as the princess. This was so unusual at the time that when folklorist Sharon R. Stewart interviewed boy and girl players about Super Mario Bros. 2 shortly after it came out, she found that many boys were confused about the ability to play as the princess in the game because “she’s the one you’re trying to save.”

Super Mario Brothers 2 was so different because, although it was developed by the Mario team, it was originally released as a non-Mario game called Doki Doki Panic. That game starred a family of adventurers, so Princess Peach was called into duty to replace the mother character. The redesigned game ends with Mario waking up from a long dream, explaining away the princess’s brief stint as an active hero.

Over the years since the dream’s end, Bowser’s motivations for kidnapping Peach have fluctuated. In some games, like Super Mario Odyssey, Bowser seems to be kidnapping Peach because he thinks he’s in love with her or wants to marry her. In others, it seems he wants to get at Mario — they have an age-old rivalry and capturing the princess is more about challenging Mario’s masculinity in a kind of guy vs. guy macho conflict.

In Super Mario Bros. 3, the motivations behind Bowser’s kidnapping seem more political than personal — Bowser is the general of a massive army seeking total domination over the Mushroom Kingdom, and he doesn’t snatch Peach until he’s about to lose the war.

Princess Peach was a high-flying adventurer in Super Mario Bros. 2, but it turned out to all be a dream. (Screenshot: Nintendo, VGMuseum)

In a Kotaku article tracking Peach’s “victimization record”, Mike Fahey gathered together some of Peach’s weirder kidnappings — the time she was trapped inside a stained-glass window in her castle in Super Mario 64, the time she actually did make it to the altar to marry Bowser in Super Paper Mario, the time Bowser blasted her castle into outer space in Super Mario Galaxy, and the time Bowser Jr. snatched her in Super Mario Sunshine because he thought she might be his mother.

More than a few critics have called for a new, more original plot line for future Mario games, arguing that the damsel rescue plot is tired and stale at this point. In a 2009 Time article titled “The Princess Is In Another Freakin’ Castle?”, writer Tracey John asked Miyamoto in an interview why Peach isn’t a playable character in the New Super Mario Bros. Wii game. Miyamoto replied by saying he had considered including Peach as a playable character, but that he chose to use Toad instead because Toad’s physique was more like Mario’s and Luigi’s. In other words, he chose to use a male character because it was more male.

He also claimed, laughing, that if one of the four playable characters wore a dress, it would require lots of extra programming work to animate it properly. (“Then give her pants!” a friend exclaimed to me later, in response to this.) John rightfully pointed out that what Miyamoto doesn’t say is that if Peach were a playable character, she wouldn’t be able to be rescued, and the game would have no plot. “Does it bother anyone that the paper-thin plot surrounding Peach is recycled every time a Mario game comes out, no matter what the gameplay elements?” John asks.

“Do Mario games get a free pass because it’s Mario?” Peach was absent again from the playable roster in New Super Mario Bros. U, but finally became a playable hero again in Super Mario 3D World. That game still featured damsels in distress, but Peach wasn’t one of them.

In the end, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having damsels in distress—as long as we also have dudes in distress. Saving a person from harm is not a bad trope in itself — it only becomes problematic (and boring, honestly) when the damsel is always a woman and the hero is always a man.

Rescue narratives are innately compelling, but they need to be gender-equitable and exist in as many combinations as possible — men rescuing men, women rescuing women, women rescuing men, and, yes, men rescuing women.

And there are, of course, already games doing just this—Mario games, even. Consider that in Donkey Kong Jr., the “damsel” isn’t Pauline but Donkey Kong. In this hilarious re-working of the hero-villain-damsel triangle, Donkey Kong Jr. is cast as the hero, working to rescue his father from the clutches of the “villain” Mario who captured him in the first game.

In Yoshi’s Island, the sequel to the SNES classic hit Super Mario World, a tiny baby Mario is the “damsel” you’re protecting, while a tiny baby Luigi is the “damsel” you’re journeying toward to rescue, all while you play as the gender-less Yoshis.

Peach’s first starring role in Super Princess Peach. (Screenshot: Nintendo, MobyGames)

In one of the most interesting damsel system re-workings in the franchise, Super Princess Peach, Bowser kidnaps Mario, Luigi, and Toad and Peach must set out to rescue them. The Nintendo DS game is, however, widely criticised for its sexist mechanics, in which Peach uses extreme emotions like rage and gloom to defeat enemies—there’s even an emotion meter that measures her inner state throughout the game.

A few rambunctious designers have had a lot of fun with re-gendering damsels, hijacking game code and premise to empower the damsel in various ways. In 2013, for instance, a game developer dad whose daughter loved Donkey Kong re-programmed the game for her as a gift, swapping the characters so that it’s Pauline rescuing Mario at the top of the platforms.

The father, Mike Mika, wrote in a guest piece for Wired that he re-coded the game not to make a statement about gender, but just to make his daughter happy. His daughter loved the new game (and the father received hate mail and death threats toward his daughter from strangers).

Many indie games like Braid, Limbo, and The Walking Dead have also experimenting with the damsel trope in fascinating ways, at the same time as popular kids’ movies like Frozen and Moana shatter it altogether. And more and more mainstream game franchises like The Elder Scrolls and Mass Effect series allow characters to play as any gender and save, marry, or slaughter NPCs of any gender, as well.

It’s this kind of openness that was missing from the Mario games in my childhood and are still missing today. And while it by no means makes the Mario games any less fun, it does make me hopeful that my future kids will grow up with more options than ever before — starting with Peach’s decision, at the end of Mario Odyssey, to tell both Mario and Bowser to take a hike and embark on a world-spanning journey of her own.

Alyse Knorr is an assistant professor of English at Regis University. She’s the author of Super Mario Bros. 3 from Boss Fight Books, as well as several collections of poetry.


    This is a new and interesting take on Princess Peach and has never been said before.

      I know right. I have never seen someone criticise the mario plot like this. It's going to be taken to heart and fixed thanks to this isn't it?

      "I've heard this before; therefore, nobody else ever needs to hear it".

      The topic was quite clear in the title. If you're tired of hearing about this, you could have simply not clicked and spared yourself the repetition, you know. :)

        Haha the article was written 3 days ago. Are you still hanging onto this?

          You realise just because you read it the day it was published doesn't mean everyone did, right?

            I assumed kotaku deleted the articles daily to keep it clean and fresh?
            This is amazing!

              I had to ask because you were trying to give pylgrim shit for 'still' hanging on to something he obviously only read today. But hey, ignorance of how the internet works is still better than clumsily trying to stir shit and failing.

          As ZJ pointed out (thanks!) I only today read about it. I have an RSS reader so it's easy for me to go over stuff that I missed out in previous days. For that same reasons, sometimes I don't realise that I'm commenting on stuff that is days old. Sorry about that! I still stand by my comment, though.

    See your problem is you expect the mario formula to change. why? how about if you don't mind the damsel trope you ask for different IPs that cater to all the different variations you want. of course others will still complain about it anyway so it won't really solve anything.

    Honestly for every game that has a damsel in distress there is another one that doesn't. Mario get's a pass because why wouldn't it. It's the story Nintendo wants to tell. Let them tell whatever story they want. If you find it stale, then move onto something else. These days there are games that cater to basically every audience anyway with every variation of every trope out there. Are they independant? Sure. Is that a bad thing? No. I expect to AAA companies to cater to the largest demographic. As long as they enjoy the trope it's going to keep popping up.

    So this is a non-article, from a non-writer (they've written 3 articles in 2 months, and one was about mario's nipples), about a non-issue (which they themselves admit isn't true for all games, or even all games in the series) which isn't even researched well. The main hypothesis is that the storyline of many of the Mario games that feature him saving Princess Peach is similar to Ramayana. And the topic states that this draws on 2000 years of history. But even the briefest of research shows that that story came out over 2000 years ago, at least 2300 and as much as 2700 years ago.

    And stories have always built on that which has come before. In fact, the Ancient Greeks, over a thousand years before Ramayana knew of the seven basic plot lines.

    So a millennium before Ramayana, which is almost 3 millennium earlier than what you state, the Greeks were already saw there was a finite amount of stories.

    You then mention how this singular trope has happened continuously through history, throughout the world independently.

    This is a story humanity has essentially been sharing since humanity was able to do so. So calling Mario to task about it seems undeserved. Especially when you yourself states that the Mario games aren't all like this.

    And in the end, you come to the conclusion it doesn't matter, it doesn't make the games any less fun, and that Princess Peach, after being saved valiantly by the hero, should not thank the hero who risked it all, but instead essentially give him and her captor the middle finger and then embark into the world alone.

    Yeah, that sounds smart.

    I can guess why this was posted at 10pm on a week day.

    The lessons from this article are clear. Next time I see a woman in distress, as a man I will not render aid because that would be misogynistic and sexist, and would deny agency to the strong, independent woman who I would otherwise have foolishly tried to help.

      Point out which part of the article said anything remotely of the sort. It sounds like you didn't even read it.

    I think this kind of analysis is a good thing. The trope will never go away but it's a very good thing to have other options. If i can be a guy rescuing a female, it's not much more work to allow me to be a female rescuing a man, and more options are only a good thing for all of us.

    Historical analysis of human storytelling across cultures.
    Several paragraphs dedicated to making sure nobbody gets butthurt about a woman daring to think out loud that maybe the stories could change for variety's sake.
    Specific mention of how the trope isn't inherently bad and that the games are still fun.

    Damn near every comment is butthurt dudes putting the author down because SJW MADNESS.

    Stay classy.

      It's always the same small group of people. I don't think they even read the article, just read the headline and assumed.

        Don't forget "upvoted each other and downvoted each person even remotely agreeing with the article", as they always do.

          i love you man but you really need to ignore this upvote downvote bullshit

          I get downvoted a lot too. I try not to care.

            I seriously don't give a crap about the downvotes themselves. However, emailing Alex every other week to ask him to take me out of auto-modding because of mass downvotes to every one of my posts in certain threads has gotten rather old.

      I didn't see anything about SJW madness, what i do see is people saying if u want to change the gender roles do it somewhere else don't mess with my Mario which is perfectly reasonable considering the article says there is nothing wrong with the current roles just that they are now bored of the sameness.

      Maybe if your bored with it you can just stop buying the games instead of saying they need to be changed, because no @rowan "more options are only a good thing for all of us" that is not true there may well be people who only want to play mario if hes rescuing peach and no other combination. You may well want to play the reverse which is also just fine accept that it is not what mario is and you would therefore be changing what appears to be a very popular game for a stupid reason. (before someone gets it in there head to make the butthurt dudes crying dont change ma gamez comparison i have never played mario and only really understand how the the first 2 games work)

      That being said i think the "fix" for this apparent issue which appears to be several years old at least would be to allow you to pick for example to play peach and therefore the story is to save mario and u could also do the reverse which would be the old standard model. What you don't get to do is decide that because your bored or you think it's sexist that the very popular game has to change to the hero/damsel gender dynamic of your particular choosing.

      Also i think if your only argument is i find it boring or "change for variety's sake" which are essentially the same reason and also considering the attacks gamers have suffered in recent history around misogyny and sexism. Can you understand why people seeing this article might fly off the handle and assume they are being attacked again. A bit of reading the actual article from one side and a bit of empathy from the other side and maybe you could all come together COMPROMISE and make a better mario experience for everyone.

        Quite honestly, there's so much here that is hypocritical or normalising your own opinion as fact that I don't know where to start.

        So I'll just say that if you think gamers are being attacked by any of this, your sense of perspective is comically out of whack.

          well done. typical entitled response i would expect from someone trying to dictate how mario "should" change, you didn't even read what i wrote you just skimmed through and your brain heard what it wanted to hear so you could dismiss me because I opposed your point of view.

          I think i made it pretty clear when i asked you for some empathy towards gamers feeling attacked and also that those particular gamers should actually read the damn article implying that they were not attacked at all. I actually agreed with you on that point you imbecile and it is the only thing you chose for your rebuttal?

          next time you get a reply maybe try and dial back your impeccable bias and objectively read the response it really will help. i at least tried to do this with the article and your original post.

            Your response was all over the place. Hell, arguing that Mario should or shouldn't be about a thing is bizarre because, you know... he's everything.

            It's good that you mostly agree. It's not good that your solution is that I should have empathy for the people who did all of the fucked up bullshit that has come out of gaming in the last few years and meet them halfway. The answer is no. They are entitled, hypocritical garbage who routinely spew bile at everyone and I will have none of it.

            I probably should have been a bit less dismissive of what you said, but I'm so fucking sick of having this conversation about how the people who would like a new thing are somehow the entitled, whining assholes when the other side of the fence are literally threatening rape and death to anyone who wants change. There's no both sides, here. No compromise. Not until the rhetoric calms the ever loving fuck down.

              I enjoyed reading your response thank you.

              i don't know exactly what encompasses all the bullshit in gaming recently but i do know what your talking about with the rape and death threats and you are right they are scum, although i will say that as far as in this comment thread nobody has done that and you don't know if any of the people here have ever done that.

              I understand your insensate rage, you want to punish the people who did this or perhaps not engage with them period but i think your also catching a lot of innocent people in the crossfire as a result.

              (incoming slightly hyperbolic rant) My experience of gamergate and the other recent atrocities aimed at me as a gamer from the mainstream media and games journalism: Gamers are misogynists (fact apparently) and you are harming women simply by enjoying your hobby, your a filthy basement dwelling cheetoh dust covered virgin who contributes to "rape culture" and the only reason you haven't raped someone yet is because your socially retarded and afraid to leave the safety of your cave like abode. I'm sitting here thinking um what the hell did i do?

              I am in the same position as most gamers having not done any of the rape threat death threats etc and yet all the backlash was thrown back at anyone who identifies as a gamer, although i think that was just people being too lazy maybe to use a better description than gamers but still i am a gamer and all that crap was laid at my feet for no reason.

              This is becoming incoherent so in conclusion the disgusting behavior your describing was performed by a handful of actual sick bastards, but the overwhelming majority was just trolls looking for a reaction some of which may not even be gamers and some real edgy bois who will grow up eventually and regret what they did. Just make sure your not assuming some guys crying "leave my mario alone" or "i disagree with you" did anything discussed above and try to see where they might be coming from, a lot of us gamers are now caring around massive chips on our shoulders.

                I'd like to ask a question in reply to "I'm sitting here thinking um what the hell did i do?"

                Do you feel the same thing when it comes to "Not all men?" When someone says that men rape women, do you feel personally affronted by that? Or "Christians go to church on Sunday," even if it's true?
                Because what I generally find is that when someone makes a generalised (but not all encompassing) statement about a group, only the people who feel like they're being called out respond that way. I sure had the "Not all men" reaction at first, but when I thought about it, nobody ever accused me personally. It wasn't "All men" followed by a counter claim. It was me feeling like someone called me out. I sure as hell never raped anyone, but i did let shitty people say shitty things. I did stay more or less friends with people who I was reasonably sure had done something shitty. I wasn't The Problem, but in a small way i had contributed to it. As soon as i realised that and decided I wouldn't do it anymore, the urge to defend myself just evaporated.
                So what I'm wondering (not accusing, mind you) is that when all of that shit went down, did you do anything to contribute in any small way? Even without realising or meaning any harm?

                I guess what I'm getting at is that if it doesn't apply to you, then you don't need to defend it. Even if it did in the past in some small way, you can be safe in the knowledge that you don't anymore. Someone says "gamers are misogynists" and you can say "yeah, what a bunch of assholes. They make my hobby look bad" instead of accidentally allying yourself with a group that includes some (but not all) shitty people.

                  i wasn't in any way involved in the gamergate stuff or any of it i don't even have any social media to "rape threat" anyone, i did however see all the crazy feminist bullshit that proceeded it and follow the whole thing via youtube videos (both sides).

                  also bro "but i did let shitty people say shitty things" you can't hold yourself responsible for what other people said or did regardless if they are your friends or they are the same gender as you or whatever ties you to that person. ("reasonably sure had done something shitty" done something shitty in context of what you said sounds like your saying u know someone who raped someone just so u know i don't think that is what u meant but some other people might if u want to edit that post)

                  i do feel personally slighted when people make statements like "men should stop raping" or "we need to teach men not to rape" 1 because it is completely fucking stupid and 2 because i am a man and i was never taught not to rape so it does imply that as a MAN that was never taught not to i am somehow a liability to society. I cannot accept generalisations its lazy and it blurs the conversation as well as the actually perceptions of the person talking and the people listening should they side with the person talking. I really firmly believe if you want to talk about these sorts of things you should be precise and truthful we both know the mainstream conversation has never managed truthful so for fuck sake could we at least get accuracy?

                  Maybe that is a character flaw of mine but i hardly think it matters now since you understand i'm that kind of person =S

                  The thread is too long so I can't reply to your post.

                  There's a lot to unpack in what you said there, but basically, you weren't taught not to rape. Nor was I. It's not as simple and blatant as all of that, but it's there. The problem with institutionalised wrongdoing is that it's invisible. You literally can't see it because it's normal and has always been there. You have to go looking for it and be willing to admit that when you find it that you helped make it that way. It's hard to do because it means admitting that you need to be better. It took me years. I mean like 2 years of actual, formal study to start to figure out something I'd been told a million times and never believed because I couldn't see it. But once I did, it was like a Magic Eye picture. It was right in front of me the whole time.

                  The fact that you called it "crazy feminist bullshit" is very telling. Your bias is clear. What was the bullshit, exactly? Because no matter what some people said, it's far less than what some people did and the people doing shitty things weren't the "crazy feminists." Frankly, if you consider yourself part of any social group and you aren't actively involved in stopping bad actors from acting badly, you're part of the problem. You're a liability. The generalisations apply to you. Just like they do to me. Or at least did before I started trying to actively curtail bad behaviour instead of taking a pissweak "both sides" stance.

                  Are there weirdos on youtube who latched onto gamergate to take personal revenge on men who wronged them? Sure. Every group has shit people in it. But what did they actually do except yell into the void? Did they make credible threats? Did they assault anyone? Did they engage in an organised political movement directly rooted in the desire to put uppity sluts back in their place? Were any of their targets driven into hiding out of fear for their lives? I don't think so. But on the other side of that fence, all of those things are true. Gamergate was a disgusting shitpile based on lies and misogyny and unless you found yourself on the side that was against that, you were on the wrong side. There's no middle ground on that one. If you were on the wrong side, even only a little, that's a forgivable offense, but it was an offense, nonetheless. That's why it made me uncomfortable and made me feel attacked. Because i had a niggling feeling in the back of my mind that it might be a little true. Maybe in the mildest of possible ways, but every little bit makes a difference. If you accept the true statements in generalisation, you can start finding the nuance. But until you stop getting offended by uncomfortable truths, you can't find it at all.

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