The character “Birdo” premiered in the Mario-verse in 1988 in the Nintendo game Super Mario Bros. 2. She is a pink dinosaur-like creature of the same species as Yoshi, steed sidekick to protagonist Mario. Sources such as The Advocate have described her as one of the first trans characters in the video game industry, but there’s an obvious problem with this characterization.
While many fans identify with her, the Nintendo company has yet to fully embrace Birdo as trans. The company instead has waffled on how to treat her character — sometimes depicted using “she”; other times “it”; always unaccepted — her depiction underlines a contentious issue in both fandoms and media consumption alike:
What types of representation are valid?
Do you call out Nintendo’s transphobic characterization for what it is, or do you accept the interpretation of her fans?
And how does this rewriting of history shape the video game community’s collective understanding of queer history?
The initial portrayal of Birdo’s transness was complicated. She was initially not in a Mario game at all, but the 1987 Nintendo game Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic or Dream Factory: Heart-Pounding Panic. It took place in an Arabian setting and was a promotional game for the characters of a carnivalesque event in Japan called Yume Kōjō ‘87.
That previous year in 1986, Nintendo of America had rejected a prototype of Super Mario Bros. 2 (later called Super Mario: The Lost Levels) because they thought it would be too hard for Americans to play. Doki Doki Panic was easier and met many of the series requirements. So with some minor modifications, they reskinned the game with classic Mario characters and released it in 1988 as Super Mario Bros. 2 for American audiences. Characters such as Shy Guy, Birdo, Pokeys, and Bob-ombs were initially designed for Doki Doki Panic and were kept in the sequel for the sake of convenience.
In the game, Birdo was a minor boss who fired eggs at the player. The manual for the Japanese version refers to her as Catherine, a man who thinks of himself as female, and the name Catherine is still used in Japanese descriptions to this day. The manual for Super Mario Bros. 2, also misgenders and deadnames the character (i.e., the practices of refusing to use a trans person’s preferred pronouns and name), but in this instance, she is referred to as Birdo. The text in the manual is as follows:
“He thinks he is a girl and he spits eggs from his mouth. He’d rather be called ‘Birdetta.’”
It’s important to remember that this transphobia comes from a clear cultural context. There are few places in the world that have known trans equality. The United States has an abysmal record on transgender acceptance, and so does Japan. As recently as 2019, the Human Rights Campaign defined the process for changing one’s gender there as “regressive and harmful.” The misgendering and deadnaming of Birdo in the manual above would sadly not have been considered strange in the 1980s in either the US or Japan.
LGBTQIA+ representation existed in the 80s — queer people have always existed — but insensitivity to such groups was the norm. Several years before Birdo debuted, the textbased game Mad Party Fucker (1985) started with the text: “The object of this game is to fuck as many women as you can without getting bufu’ed by fags (contracting AIDS).” The makers of this misogynistic game were using homophobia here as a punchline to appeal to conservative straight people.
It should surprise no one that Birdo, as an early piece of trans representation in video games, followed this trend of using queerness as an edgy punchline. When the Satellaview version of Super Mario Bros. 2 was advertised to the Japanese public as BS Super Mario USA (1996), the character Birdo was used to promote it. One commercial has a sexy Birdo laid out on a couch, beckoning the viewer with text that translates to English as “Welcome to Catherine’s Room.”
This commercial (as well as the BS Super Mario USA game itself) employed an “Okame” voice actor to play Birdo, which is derogatory Japanese slang that can describe a range of “sexual deviant” people from homosexuals to transsexuals to crossdressers. The term Okame, like with the English term transvestite, is complicated, and now is mostly considered to be offensive. It would not have been uncommon, however, for cisgendered people (and even some trans people) during the 80s to use the term to describe the sexual or gendered “other.”
There were famous queer people in Japan during the 1980s (cabaret singer and drag performer Akihiro Miwa, real name Maruyama Akihiro, immediately comes to mind). This acclaim earned by a few, however, does not change the reality that trans people were (and still are) not widely accepted in larger Japanese society. The humor here for Birdo comes not from a place of empowerment, but the all too common trend of the majority ridiculing the disenfranchised as a means of control.
Birdo is supposed to be funny because she is an “other.”
A strong example of this otherization is the Japanese exclusive Wii game called Captain Rainbow (2008). The protagonist of the game is a human named Nick, who has a superhero alter ego, Captain Rainbow. There is a sidequest in the game where Nick has to rescue Birdo from jail after she was arrested for using the wrong bathroom (i.e., the women’s bathroom). You then have to find an object from her house, probably her vibrator, that “proves” to the robot police officer that she is a woman. The bathroom debate for trans people is a very contentious issue, and this joke plays into that painful history.
While transphobia in Japan translated into a belittling trans caricature for Birdo, in America, it (mostly) resulted in silence. References to Birdetta were scrubbed following Super Mario Bros. 2’s initial release. Her secondary sex characteristics (e.g., pink bow, pink skin, etc.) meant that she was primarily portrayed in US media such as the Super Marios Bros. Show! (1989) as a cisgendered woman. She was even shown to be in a relationship with Yoshi in Mario Tennis (2000).
This omission in the states is often depicted as censorship, and it is to some degree, but as we have seen, Nintendo’s portrayal of Birdo was predominantly transphobic. When her transness would bleed into English-speaking media, it would problematically always come from the perspective of a man wanting to be a woman.
When, for example, a minor character named Popple introduces Birdo in the 2003 game Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, the character hesitates to call her a dame. When she asks to be called Birdie instead of Birdo, Popple refuses:
Popple: This, uh…dame passed my audition perfectly, see? She’s my all-new, bigger-and-better rookie, Birdo!
Birdie/Birdo: Darling…don’t call me Birdo. Call me Birdie!
Popple: …I don’t care about names, see?
This perspective of Birdo “being a man” has remained unchanging throughout her thirty-plus-year run. Her gender has flipped-flopped across translations between he, she, and sometimes something far more ambiguous. In the fighting game Super Smash Bros: Brawl (2008), a trophy of Birdo refers to her as it.
“A pink creature of indeterminate gender that some say would rather be called Birdetta. A big ribbon on its head is its most distinguishing feature. In Super Mario Bros. 2 you can return fire by jumping in the eggs from its mouth. Be careful not to get psyched out by fake-egg fireballs!”
While gender fluidity and agender identities are 100% valid, this portrayal is not coming from the perspective of trying to respect and understand these marginalized identities. She is being portrayed here as an other. This has been a problematic perspective throughout the franchise, and it is one that did not die in the late 2000s. As late as 2018, fans noticed discrepancies with her gender across various translations for the switch release of Marios Party (2018).
There has been no evolution of Birdo’s characterization from Nintendo. Progress has been assumed from what actually appears to be a disconnect between the Japanese construction of her identity and the English-speaking one — a vacillation between offensive caricature and oppressive silence.
We should be able to classify these various portrayals from Nintendo as transphobic, but that’s largely not how the greater fan community has reacted to her. She is depicted by many as a trans icon.
This reading of her character not only ignores much of the history we have already discussed, but it has the effect of erasing queer history.
The classification of Birdo as a trans icon can be traced as far back as 2000 when designer Jennifer Diane Reitz argued for Birdo’s transgender status in an article titled “The First Transsexual Video Game Character?” Reitz made the argument that Birdo had received the magical equivalent of a sexual resignment surgery, saying:
“To the best of this game otaku’s knowledge, Birdo is the very first transsexual video game character, and best of all, succeeded in achieving full transition and acceptance. You go, Birdo!”
We can find a more contemporary version of this argument with Trans Youtuber Riley J. Dennis. She argued in her video essay Why Birdo is a trans icon that Birdo had effectively gone “stealth,” which is the practice of transitioning and then going about the world as cisgendered.
These arguments do not follow the strictest interpretation of history; in fact, they run counter to a lot of the points that we know. They are instead “headcanons,” which, for the non-shippers out there, is the practice of a fan interpreting a character or characters in a way that is not officially supported by the text.
This practice is prevalent in the queer community because, for much of history, it allowed LGBTQIA+ people to feel represented by a world that shunned us. A great example of a popular headcanon is the speculated relationship between Science Officer Spock and Captain James T. Kirk on the science fiction show Star Trek. Many fans noticed a tension between the two characters and decided they were in a relationship.
It should surprise no one that headcanons fall neatly in line with slash or fan fiction. Fans often rewrite characters, so they satisfy the reality they wish to portray — a reality that is often denied them. That’s the beauty of the human imagination. Once a character is out in the world, no one can control how others remix it. Spock and Kirk may not be romantically inclined in the original series, but are here, here, here, and here.
Birdo may be a little iffy in the franchise, but in my version, she is queer AF.
A person’s headcanon, however, does not undo the textual representation we see in the original work. The transphobic caricature in games such as Captain Rainbow and Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga still exist, and that deserves to be highlighted. The problem with depicting Birdo as not only a Trans icon, but the originator of Trans representation in video games, is that it reshapes history to problematically place Nintendo at the epicenter of a story it does not own.
When you search for LGBTQIA+ representation in video games, Birdo will come up time and time again as the first trans character, and she simply is not. While Birdo has been depicted as an “other” that exists outside the gender binary, she has never been officially confirmed as trans by Nintendo — let alone confirmed as having sexual reassignment surgery, and going stealth.
She was a joke character, and us placing the start of LGBTQIA+ history here erases actual representation.
Do you want to know what game came out three years before Super Mario Bros. 2?
The Rocky Horror Show on the Commodore 128 (also on Amstrad CPC, Apple II, ZX Spectrum, etc.). The admittedly bad arcade game was based on the cult queer classic of the same name, and it has its protagonist (you choose between either Brad or Janet) racing through Frank-N-Furter’s mansion before it blasts off to planet Transsexual.
The year after Mario Bros. 2 debuted, in 1989, game designer CM Ralph released Caper in the Castro, a murder-mystery adventure on HyperCard for the Mac Plus. You play lesbian detective Tracker McDyke searching for her missing friend and drag queen, Tessy LaFemme, in San Francisco’s famous Castro district.
This game is considered by some to be one of the first LGBTQIA+ games ever (the 1992 D&D parody GayBlade has also been given this accolade). It was released as “Charity Ware” and asked players to donate to the local AIDS charity of their choice.
The following year in 1990, the game Circuit’s Edge, based on George Alec Effinger’s 1987 novel When Gravity Fails, was released by Westwood Associates. Circuit’s Edge is a game that centers on private investigator Marid Audran as he navigates the seedy underbelly of the fictional Arab city of Budayeen. Marid has a trans-ex-girlfriend the games’ introduction describes as follows:
“Yasmin was Marid Audran’s long-time girlfriend, although she hadn’t been born female. They seem to have grown more distant lately. Yasmin may be tricked into being an excellent source of data on Marid.”
Circuit’s Edge is far from perfect. It, at times, exoticizes the Arab world in an unhealthy way, and it treats its sex worker characters poorly. The game’s treatment of Yasmin, however, is surprisingly not terrible, especially for the 90s. We have a trans woman who is not deadnamed or misgendered, and while her portrayal is oversexualized, she has far more characterization and empathy than Birdo just two years earlier.
Developer Jennifer Diane Reitz was probably unaware of this history when she argued that Birdo was the first transgender video game character. There have been decades of research done since then by organizations like the LGBTQ Game Archives. We simply know more than we did in the year 2000, and we shouldn’t start the beginning with Birdo anymore.
Even if Birdo were the first trans character, however (and she is not), that doesn’t make her a trans icon. Her portrayal has been actively transphobic for much of her history, and that makes sense given the conservative nature of the company which birthed her.
Since its inception, Nintendo has advertised itself as a family company. The colorful graphics and child-friendly imagery have been part of a purposeful campaign to capture an early, lifelong, and committed fanbase. When asked about their family-friendly focus by the Toronto Star in 2018, then-president for Nintendo of America Reggie Fils-Aimé said:
“It’s been an incredibly important market because the kid who’s 5 or 6 today is going to be 12 or 13 and not all that many years later 18 or 19 … And when you have an affinity for Pokémon or The Legend of Zelda series or Mario Kart or Super Mario Bros. that affinity carries with you.”
Nintendo has always tried to be a company that capitalizes on nostalgia. They have created characters that follow you for your entire lifetime. This focus on younger viewers — on being family-friendly — has typically meant appealing to the broadest, most conservative portion of society at the expense of marginalized identities.
For queer viewers, this has translated to a lot of queer subtext with characters such as Birdo, Zelda, and Vivian, but an outright hostility to anything that affirms queer relationships both on-and-off the screen.
For decades, this meant no recognition whatsoever. When queerness was mentioned in Nintendo’s orbit, it was usually through the lens of homophobia, not positive representation. Several examples include that time Bayonetta director Hideki Kamiy made it clear to the world “he was not gay” or that DS Homebrew, where players had to avoid gay blobs.
It was only when LGBTQIA+ rights started to more seriously solidify in the late 2000s and early 2010s that this oppressive silence started to be addressed. A flashpoint came in the mid-2010s when Nintendo refused to let same-sex relationships in their quirky Sims-esque simulator Tomodachi Collection: New Life (2013/4). Male-on-male pairings were initially allowed in the game, and when Nintendo caught wind of this feature, they labeled it a bug and released a patch to remove them.
Unlike in previous decades, however, this omission was not met with silence. A fan named Tye Marini led a campaign for “Miiquality” to try to push for same-sex pairings in the game. When Nintendo responded with the tone-deaf statement that it “…never intended to make any form of social commentary with the launch of Tomodachi Life,” there was an immediate fan backlash. The company had to apologize, and although it refused to reinstate same-sex pairings in that game, the stage was set for future conflicts.
In 2019, another scandal occurred after the company removed a user-generated Super Smash Bros. Ultimate course for being “inappropriate and/or harmful.” The course had a trans flag with the title “Trans Rights Now.”
User Warm Safflina claims their account was suspended for nine hours for making this course. When they asked for clarification, they were told it was because the map was a “political statement,” and that they should appeal to corporate.
We have only started to experience more positive representation within the Nintendo-verse in the last year or so. The newest chapter of Animal Crossing, for example, has some queer references and greater gender customization. The Fire Emblem series has also had queer characters for years (though not always positive ones).
These subtle nods, however, are small when compared to the bolder representation happening with companies such as Bioware. Nintendo is a very conservative company that has frankly not demonstrated the desire to be at the forefront of queer representation in video games.
Its icon status is unearned.
In November of 2019, DONTNOD Entertainment (e.g., Life Is Strange, Vampyr, etc.) released a trailer for their upcoming game Tell Me Why. Reports for the game tell us that there will be two main characters — Tyler and Alyson Ronan. Tyler is a trans man. DONTNOD Entertainment worked closely with the LGBTQ media advocacy organization GLAAD to make sure they portrayed Tyler’s character respectfully.
He will be, by all accounts, one of the first playable trans characters in a mainstream series.
Several years earlier in 2014 — the same year Nintendo refused to add in same-sex relationships for Tomodachi Collection: New Life — Bioware made headlines with the introduction of the character Cremisius Aclassi or Krem in their fantasy game Dragon Age: Inquisition. Krem is second-in-command of the mercenary group Bull’s Chargers, and the way his story was handled earned Bioware praise from publications as far left as the Mary Sue.
The age of divining representation from half-assed subtext is quickly coming to an end. We are soon going to have actual representation, and that makes Birdo’s status as a trans icon contentious.
Nintendo means something to queer people around the world. These were the stories we grew up with. Although Nintendo has not handled the issue of gender particularly well, that proximity to childhood means that plenty of queer people saw themselves in ambiguously gendered characters such as Zelda, Vivian, and Birdo.
That beautiful, queer subtext was never something Nintendo purposefully brought to the table.
That was the work of Nintendo’s unappreciated queer fans.
Hopefully, one day Nintendo’s version of Birdo will more closely align to the reality the queer community wanted: that of a trans woman, out and proud to her boyfriend Yoshi, the Mushroom Kingdom, and the world.
To get there, however, it means accepting the reality that we are in. We must be critical of Nintendo for their historical and current conservatism, and that involves uplifting stories with trans characters in the actual text, not just the subtext.
We must painfully admit that Birdo is not a trans icon. She never was, but hopefully, one day, she can be.