Growing up, there was one conversation I could always count on having at slumber parties.
“Clare has a crush on Sheik.”
“Clare, you know Sheik’s a girl, right?”
“NO, HE’S NOT!”
In the year 2018, this conversation may sound ludicrous. As we all know, The Legend of Zelda’s Sheik is and always has been Princess Zelda’s handiest disguise and occasional drag act. And it’s pretty normal for me to have crushes on girls, seeing as I am very, very gay.
But this is a real thing that I, in my larval form as a scene-adjacent kid in the early aughts, occasionally shrieked at my friends, extremely tender over what I couldn’t yet bring myself to accurately name: my first crush on a female character.
Growing up, I was very confused. Despite the obvious signs—panic attacks and a near-obsessive need to impress my brother’s pretty brunette friends—I had no clue that I was experiencing anxiety, let alone attraction to other girls. You see, my mother had told me that girls didn’t get crushes on other girls. To be specific, she told me that if girls got crushes on other girls, it was just a “phase,” a word deployed in our household with dripping sarcasm to discourage supposedly immature behavior, like popped collars or hair color on men. Luckily, I read, like, books and stuff, so I knew she was lying. But what little queer representation I could see in the media told me that gay people knew they were gay from day one. They suffered in silence until they couldn’t bear it, came out of the closet in a single conversation, and then were immediately rewarded with a boyfriend or girlfriend for their noble efforts.
Essentially, I thought you either knew you were gay or you knew you were straight, and there was no room along that binary for the confused, undecided, and terrified of everything.
Luckily, there wasn’t much pressure to face the music in my friend group. We were a girl gang of geeks and our burgeoning affections were initially at the fictional. We watched what anime we could get our hands on, thanks to Kids’ WB, Toonami, and Adult Swim, and religiously played Nintendo. Faced with the reality of middle school boys, we instead swooned at the feet of beautiful anime boys, who we wrote sprawling self-insert fanfiction epics about.
And Sheik? Well, Sheik was my beautiful anime boy, after I’d graduated from Digimon. A brooding, mysterious musician covered in knives who spoke in ominous portents and cast long, lingering gazes at Link? Sign [childhood] me up, sister!
But I’d watched the big reveal at my brother’s feet as he beat The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Why did I insist that Sheik was a boy? And why did my friends, despite their teasing, buy my excuse?
In franchises that encompass different media, there are levels of canon. You might be more familiar with this idea from, say, Star Wars or Star Trek, where the core product—the films or the television series—is canon, and everything else—novels, comics, video games—is canonish. The Legend of Zelda, as one of the most venerable video game series of all time, was no different. Its spectrum of canon ranges from the games themselves to game manuals to the Philips CDI abominations that we will never speak of again. I’m sorry I brought them up.
In 2000, a two-volume manga adaptation of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released in Japan in January and April. In the second volume, instead of being told by Zelda at the end of the game, Link discovers Sheik’s true identity after rescuing her from an ambush. A weakened Zelda explains that, after Ganondorf took power, Impa decided it would be best to disguise her as an exiled Sheikah recently returned to Hyrule. In order to do so, Impa says, “Until the right time, Princess Zelda's consciousness shall sleep... to awaken as a young Sheikah boy."
With these panels in hand, the Zelda fandom began trying to divine what this could mean, skipping right over the Shakespearean tradition of women disguising themselves as youths and into more literal territory. I wish I could report that the fandom embraced the implication that magically assisted transitions existed in Hyrule with an open and inclusive heart, but I’m not here to lie to you. This 2010 Zelda Dungeons forum thread asking after Sheik’s gender—and the endless, gross speculation therein over whether or not the changes were physical—is a pretty bog standard representation of how it went in the aughts. Even today, you can find plenty of videos on YouTube trying to divine her “true” gender or “correct” her models in-game by giving her more overt breasts to “prove” her gender.
And that was just in the forums, which were largely populated by male gamers. The mostly female transformative Zelda fandom I found on LiveJournal and Fanfiction.net didn’t argue over Sheik’s “true” gender—because they insisted on a male Sheik as a separate entity to Zelda, in order to ship Sheik and Link together. The main Sheik and Link fanfiction community on LiveJournal included a disclaimer on its profile telling prospective members that, while female Sheiks were welcome, the community’s focus was on a male Sheik.
Looking back, there’s something troubling about the lengths the fandom would go to in order to prove Sheik’s “true” gender. The wonderful variance of this particular Zelda’s gender expression—the fact that she seemed to be equally comfortable as a femme princess as she was a soft butch ninja—was flattened out to better force her into existing patterns of fannish consumption. It’s one of slash fandom’s worst impulses: the rejection of women, especially queer-coded women (Sheik was the first character I ever saw who wore a binder, for Pete’s sake), in its pursuit of a specific kind of gay ship.
But when I was a kid, I didn’t know any of that. All I knew is that this was my loophole. I didn’t know if I liked boys or girls or, for that matter, anyone, so I couldn’t be gay, because if I was gay, I would just know. But according to my mom, you didn’t get crushes on girls (unless, of course, you were silly enough to be going through a “phase”). If I had a crush on Sheik, then, ergo, Sheik wasn’t a girl. See? That was easy!
This kind of tortured logic was the closest I ever got to admitting my attraction to girls to myself as a kid. One of the strangest things about being a queer adult is that you end up playing archeologist with your youth, brushing away the dirt from a memory and holding it up to the light to realize that, yes, that was gay, that was my root, I was in love with that girl for years and had no idea. But people rarely talk about how melancholy that can be, that no matter how much I understand it now, it doesn’t change how I experienced it, in fits of confusion, anxiety, and, yes, anger. I once told a friend’s boyfriend that I what I craved most in this world was context, and I think that stemmed from having to grow up outside of a context I desperately needed—the context of knowing that queer women existed, queer women were wonderful, and that it was okay for me to be confused and unsure on my journey towards growing up.
So it means the world to me that I had Sheik when I needed her. That I cut screenshots of her out of Nintendo Power and hid them under my bed, that I read fanfiction epics in which she starred, and spent countless hours playing as her in Super Smash Bros. Melee. Given the shield of fandom’s insistence on reading her as her disguise, I just ran with it. And that means that I have the gift of being able to look back at one moment in my young life when I wasn’t confused or anxious or fearful about what was going on inside of me. I was just a kid with a crush on a badass ninja who was also a beautiful princess.
Ever since Nintendo’s Bill Trinen, the head translator for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, confirmed that yes, Sheik is just Zelda in disguise, the invasive speculation has largely died down—though there are still skirmishes—and we’ve finally been able to just enjoy Sheik for who she is. She’s a constant presence on the Super Smash Bros. roster and recently appeared in Hyrule Warriors, sporting shinier hair and even more knives with every incarnation. (SWOON.) And there’s even been discussion of a Sheik spin-off that would presumably capitalize on her popularity as one of the more independent Zeldas in the series and her infamously agile moveset from Smash. I’m heartened to see that Sheik and I have both evolved since the dawn of the millennium, coming into our own as women free from the assumptions and expectations of others.
And that crush? Still raging. I mean, she has so many knives.