Last week saw the latest Nintendo Direct, a livestream hosted by the Japanese games company to announce and promote their current projects. It mostly consisted of the content one might expect: some more information about the plot of the upcoming Metroid Dread, a showcase of Undertale-sequel Deltarune, and a list of titles coming to the Nintendo Switch in the next year or so. One announcement that surprised fans, however, was that of the main cast for an animated Mario movie slated to release at the end of next year.
Unsurprisingly, the announcement sparked a lot of conversation online. Some people were quick to draw attention to the widely mocked and criticised 1993 Super Mario Bros movie. Others took issue with the revelation that Mario himself would be voiced by Chris Pratt, rather than professional voice actor and supplier of Its-a-me-Mario’s for several decades, Charles Martinet. More positively, many people were very excited to hear that Jack Black has been cast as series villain Bowser.
Now, discussing the merits and failings of a film that is still over a year from release is clearly futile. Its success can’t be determined until people have actually had a chance to see it, and that’s a long way off yet. All anyone can know right now is which primary characters we’re going to be seeing.
Using this framework, however, there’s at least one concern: where are all the women?
Women in the Mario Universe
The Super Mario games have always been dominated by male characters. Focusing on the main games in the series, a reasonable suggestion of the core cast would be thus: the protagonists Mario, Luigi, Yoshi, and Peach, antiheroes Waluigi and Wario, and villain Bowser. There are, of course, other characters who appear periodically but these seven are the most enduring. A six-to-one ratio of male-to-female isn’t exactly brilliant gender representation by anyone’s standards.
That’s not to say there aren’t female characters in the Super Mario universe. Besides Peach, there are two other princesses, Daisy and Rosalina, who have both made appearances in multiple games. Peach’s Mushroom Kingdom is been home to both Toad and his female counterpart Toadette. More recently Pauline, originally the damsel-in-distress from the 1981 game Donkey Kong, made a decisive move into the Mario milieu in Super Mario Odyssey as the mayor of New Donk City. Even the villains have a few female faces to choose from, such as Bowser’s daughter Wendy O. Koopa (although with Wendy’s six brothers, the Koopalings are still a male-orientated bunch).
Although they’re certainly in the minority, the Super Mario games are not without a diverse set of female characters. They rarely have much time in the spotlight, unfortunately; they’ve traditionally served as a goal rather than characters with their own agency – someone to be rescued instead of someone to be played as. Even modern mainstream games, including Super Mario Odyssey, have largely stuck to this damsel-in-distress narrative. Fortunately, however, some spin-off titles have put these women front and centre. Take Super Princess Peach, for example, which puts players in the titular character’s tiny pink shoes with a quest to rescue Mario for change.
It’s still far from an equal gender balance, but it’s impossible to deny the female characters have their own part to play in the Mario franchise.
The Cast List
Let’s start by saying that the currently available cast list of nine confirmed characters (and an unspecified collection of ‘cameos’ by Charles Martinet) is highly unlikely to be the total cast list of the final movie. There’s sure to be a host of secondary characters filling up the world. Without any information to go off, we can’t speculate on who they will be. What is likely, however, is that the list makes up the majority, if not all, of the main characters.
Why, then, is only one of those nine a woman? As shown above, it’s not like there aren’t pre-existing female characters to choose from. Worse, two of those same nine, Donkey Kong and Cranky Kong, aren’t technically even Mario characters and yet they’ve somehow outranked a character like Daisy who has been a recurring character in the series since 1989. (While Donkey Kong and Mario technically featured together as far back as 1981, that series has been firmly categorised as Donkey Kong, rather than Super Mario. Trying to keep track of Nintendo’s internal canon is wild).
None of this is to say that the Mario movie should take away traditional male characters and replace them with female copies. Doing so would add nothing new to the narrative and would likely anger fans. More importantly, it would be utterly needless when there are plenty of long-standing female characters to use instead. There’s no one out here arguing that a gender-bent Mario would make a better movie, or that Mario’s character would be strengthened by suddenly having a sister instead of a brother. (Although given the incredibly popular Bowsette from a few years ago, maybe there is?)
What Nintendo could instead do is highlight some of the characters who have previously been relegated to the background. In doing so, they might just bring a little more gender balance to a series that has, historically, lacked it.
Why Does It Matter?
You might have got this far wondering who on earth cares about the gender diversity of an animated film not out for another year. Well, clearly, I do, but it’s more than simple taste. Nintendo is one of the most well-known and successful video game companies of all time. Ever since their early arcade cabinets in the 1980s, the company has driven innovation across the industry. Almost anyone who considers themselves a gamer will have had at least a brush with a Mario title at one time or another. Importantly, their games also tend to skew more towards younger players. Nintendo, perhaps more than anyone else, is in a perfect position to help to guide the gaming community’s future.
By selecting almost exclusively male characters for a video game film, Nintendo is playing directly into a stale and exclusionary trend of gaming being a male pastime. This has been a long-standing concern for a lot of people in and around the industry. We’ve come a long way from titles like the sexist nightmare of Duke Nukem Forever, but it’s still easy to see the dominance of male protagonists and male-targeted marketing and development. All of this is despite recent studies proving that women make up almost half of the gaming community.
One animated movie from Nintendo isn’t going to change decades of habit and opinion; at least, it wouldn’t yet. That’s why it’s important to highlight the young age of the company’s target demographic. If a lot of young people see a film about their favourite video game, and they have the opportunity to see a diverse cast of both male and female characters, then it helps to build a foundation of accepting diversity they can carry through as they grow older. A lot of female gamers were thrilled when Metroid protagonist Samus Aran revealed herself to be a woman in 1986; young girls today deserve that same excitement.
Given Nintendo’s prominence in the industry, they could have given them better representation than 11% of a cast list.