“I mean, it’s not like I want to have sex with the guy. There’s just…something there, you know?”
The above is the paraphrased conclusion of many a conversation that started out normally with me and friends or acquaintances at conventions, conferences, or local area developer meet ups. The “guy” in question is the long running big bad of Nintendo’s trademarked plumber adventures, a reptile saurian with a penchant for abstract world construction and – apparently – a possessor of a subtle sexual prowess in the eyes of gay human dudes.
I don’t pretend to have enough of a sample size to venture into a scientifically valid study on the theory, but the sheer regularity of this two-drink-minimum confession is excuse enough for some unauthorized reverse engineering on a character that has more to him than eight world’s worth of contract negotiations. And to be clear, this character’s clout in the furry community is thoroughly established, but not our subject for today. I checked, re-affirmed the depths of Rule 34, and can no longer play Super Mario RPG because of it.
No, herein we shall dare to answer the question no one thought needed to be asked: why do so many people consider Bowser a sexualized character?
We begin with the Goomba leader himself, Bowser (King Koopa if you’re nasty). Sexualized or not, Bowser’s duration in gamer’s minds is a result of repetition. The big guy appeared early on in NES-gen kids’ lives, and has been stomping and karting around as they all grew up and started having weird tingles all the time. The most recognizable game villain there is, Nintendo has crafted Bowser’s power-hungry ethos through a wide variety of media tactics.
The recurring end goal of all Super Mario Bros. games (regardless of how Wind Whistle-y players may get or how many Koopa kids they mangle, the end all baddie is always the turtle-dino king), encounters with Bowser play out an initially left-to-right framed affair, even so far as to pause momentarily on the spatial dynamic as the camera scrolls into the screen. In most Westernized media, the camera frame is split into uneven vertical thirds. The Western method of reading left to right decodes positions of power on said portions of the screen.
Mario, perpetually left-sided in his early adventures, is cast in a position of filmic weakness, that side of the screen viewed as inferior to the right-hand portion. His travels from left to right across a level can then be interpreted as a conquering of an initially more intimidating march of Bullet Bills and Piranha Plants. Bowser, eternally revealed on the right-hand side of the frame, is coded as the dominant adversary to overcome. Such a dynamic may or may not have been intentional on the part of the developers, and was common development tactic even before popularized by the plumber, but it helped make up for the fact that the supposedly titanic Bowser was only a few pixels taller than Mario’s mushroom-ed up state.
As technology evolved, cinematic teams and sequencers were able to give a much more evocative size difference between the foes. Bowser’s entrance in Super Mario 64 came with ground-rumbling footsteps and a major growth spurt. Super Mario Galaxy would tilt the camera up to a pitiful low-angle to show off a planet-sized Bowser, and Bowser’s Inside Story made the koopa fat, fit and several stories tall, all while shrinking down the plumbers into digestives for a Magic School Bus adventure in end-boss bowels. As caricatured and comedic as it was, we’ve been more intimate with Bowser than most subjects in romance sims.
Every promotional image of the guy has his bulky frame spilling out of go-karts or roaring over a tennis court, rotund but strong. Built like a brick warp-pipe house, complete with downward glares and defiant sneers. We know Bowser is all about power and control, and Nintendo knows how to sell us that. But an undercurrent of gay gamers and industry professionals don’t harbor confused sexualized awareness of every game villain with a decent cutscene behind him.
The answer may then lie with where so many sexual deconstructions of the Mushroom Kingdom begin, Princess Peach. The parasol-wielding MacGuffin’s long-term relationship with Mario and Bowser has been fodder for a wide variety of long-running gags: from a metaphor to Mario’s blue balls to a family friendly endorsement of proto-bestiality. Why else would this bro Bowser continually entrap a female, other than to have shell-rocking sex with her, amirite?
But, due to Nintendo’s OCD PR cleanliness, Bowser’s possession of Peach is officially cast as a more platonic reward than anything else. Read as much as you want into Bowser Jr.’s matriarchal affection in Super Mario Sunshine, the most this responsibility-less leader seems to do is float and write expository letters. Her confectionary abilities seem to be the closest thing to her key asset as a captive for Bowser, the boss taunting Mario in Galaxy 2 with a galactic slice he’s going to force Peach to craft him before he ditches the plumber to once again go up against his armies. She is a tool to interact with Mario, an ice breaker more than a person. She can hardly be a dictator’s trophy wife while elbows-deep in flour. If cake really is a vaginal metaphor here, then a) it’s the most inconsistent adult gag in video games and b) Peach is really messed up down there.
If conquest really is Bowser’s end goal, why taunt the singular individual proven to dismantle your offenses before you mount your first strike? Mario would obviously leave any Peach-less armies alone, no one can craft eight themed blitzkriegs without some interference from the one guy everyone hires to stop you. Does the single dad with a sweet tooth just like to make short, plump men sweat? Or is Bowser just an intensely problematic glutton for punishment?
To personify any sort of psychology onto this video game character (and if you’ve never done so, you need to drink with more people offline) results in a depressing diagnosis of cyclical self-defeat. A leader both intensely capable and ambitious, able to amount global front line offensives in all weather and spatial conditions, yet always deploying both his troops and (more importantly) himself with fatal, sometimes glowing, weak points.
The guy obviously learns, albeit slowly. We – as Mario – destroy eight bridges under him, a few years later the guy is outfitted in a pre-Robotnik aircraft; a few years after we destroy that we’re flinging him – via his own stubby rear appendage – into his own defensive perimeter. We have been confronted with this ever-aggressive alpha-dood Bowser, and given the means to punish him from the behemoth himself. This kind of role reversal jock fantasy, this subversion of male-dominated societal imagery, still sits as its own sub-genre behind the back curtain next to the military on military videos. The kidnapping of Peach is a purposeful method of urging punishment from Mario, and thus the player. Bowser’s been a naughty boy, better grab him by the tail and fling him around some more.
And yet, the big lug survives the lava pits and is back, begging for more, constantly compensating for his defeats through enlargements and body augmentations, later even dragging his children into his battles. The more self-reflexive – read: Paper – the Mario game, the more likely a delusional Bowser will show up to play comic relief.
This isn’t being vigilant; this is defining your own existence through the defeat and humiliation of an adversary too busy with doctoring and mini-game partying to consider you more than a repetitive nuisance. In building a two-decades-plus career around recursive, ever-changing weak spots, Nintendo has written Bowser into a self-loathing mess of a corner.
Whom we are left with after this long, heavily meta-textual spelunking is a big, dominant alpha male disguising a perpetually agonized masochist. The versatile possibilities of such a caricature seems particularly attractive to the gay gamers and game makers naïve enough to let me buy them a drink. A jock with the self-image problems of a nerd, a power-top sympathy lay; the kind of binary internal conflict that inspires empathy in most, an “I can fix him!” nurturing instinct in many. Could be why a significant percentage of people that inspired this silliness refer to the nine-to-fourteen-hundred-foot tall scaled monstrosity as “cute.” After all, what’s more adorable than a pudgy mid-section from too many deserts?
And it is straddling this line which allows Bowser to live out a non-canonical sex life that Leisure Suit Larry ruins sheets dreaming of. Mechanically, he’s shown off as the dominant Omega in the Mario universe, respectable in the sheer magnitude of his ambitions and often his own body size. Dig a little deeper, and we have a cyclically un-satisfied loner only sated through the thrill of defeat. Bowser’s a cake-loving, plumber-hating, emotional-fetish onion. And despite the Big N’s best intentions, many people can get behind, or on top of, that.