If you polled a room full of non-straight men about the women they consider to be “queer icons,” you’d probably hear a lot of “Beyoncé,” “Dolly Parton,” and “Grace Jones.” But there’s one name you might not hear that totally deserves a spot on that list: Princess Peach.
Yes, Princess Peach. The perpetually-kidnapped love interest from Nintendo’s Mario franchise. As a kid in the late ’90s, Peach was always my go-to racer in Mario Kart 64; a decidedly femme choice of character for a boy—a choice that often raised questions from others in the room.
“Why do you like playing as the princess?” I remember my mom asking me in 1998, in a supportive yet vaguely concerned tone. She didn’t say “Why are you playing as the girl?”, but she didn’t have to say “Why are you playing as the girl?” Her meaning was clear to my 9-year-old self.
Whenever I was questioned, I’d always cite Peach’s speed and agility (or the fact that she could float short distances, if I were playing Super Mario Bros. 2 for the NES). But, honestly? I liked playing as a girl. A girl with long blonde hair, a pink dress, mascara-laden eyelashes, earrings, and a tiara—a 64-bit hodgepodge of feminine signifiers and white beauty ideals.
Playing as the Mushroom Kingdom’s benevolent, levitating ruler gave me a space space to channel a level of femininity I’d been shamed away from inhabiting in the real world. It was the same desire that led me to ask for Barbies instead of Hot Wheels whenever McDonald’s rolled out their annual month of gendered Happy Meal prizes. It was the same desire that led me to prefer my Michelle Pfeiffer Catwoman action figure over my brother’s Michael Keaton Batman. They were a means of being, beyond myself and the compulsory gender norms placed around my identity.
I ALWAYS PICKED THE GIRLS WHEN I PLAYED VIDEO GAMES. IF FOR NO OTHER REASON, THAN OUT OF SHEER SPITE AT THE EASE OF IDENTIFICATION THE BOYS AROUND ME HAD WITH THEIR UN-INTERESTINGLY PHALLIC/KAMEHAMEHA SUPER-HEROES… WITH THE ASSUMPTION THAT THERE WAS SOME SORT OF INHERENT OR TRAGIC FLAW IN PRINCESS PEACH’S MARIO KART 64 PERFORMANCE.
This idea of projected self-identification is also something that queer theorist David M. Halperin discusses, at length, in his book How to be Gay.
“That queer way of feeling—that queer subjectivity—expresses itself through a peculiar, dissident way of relating to cultural objects,” Halperin writes. “As cultural practice, male homosexuality involves a characteristic way of receiving, reinterpreting, and reusing mainstream [cultural objects]… so that they come to function as vehicles of gay or queer meaning.”
And for 9-year-old me, there was perhaps no greater, or more literal, “vehicle of queer meaning” than Peach’s neon rose four-wheeler in Mario Kart 64.
But what about other bb queers? Were they all as #teampeach as I was growing up?
Apparently not! Vidal Wu, a writer based in Toronto, told me that he always chose Luigi.
“I strongly identified with the gangly awkward sidekick who deserves more credit than he gets,” Wu said. “Luigi is at least a little queer in my head. The fact that Daisy was created as a romantic love interest [for him] very late… kinda made me clue-in to his queerness.”
Anthony Smith, the managing editor for Mic, told me that he always played as Yoshi—a “happy dinosaur” who, Smith noted, lays eggs “despite his gender presentation.”
“Yoshi just feels super queer!” he explained. “His intention was never really to get to the end of the game. It was just about being really fun and helpful and bringing joy and then peace-ing. If Mario is a linear narrative, then Yoshi enters the linear narrative perpendicularly.”
Peter Moskowitz, a writer from New York, would opt for Wario, Mario’s palette-swapped nemesis.
“Peach was too ‘gay,'” Moskowitz said, “and I wasn’t really out at that point. But I also didn’t really identify with Peach… I identified with being an outsider, and Wario is a kind of swarthy outsider—the daddy who corrupts your twink or whatever.”
Alex Weick, a Chicago-based multimedia artist, told me that he always liked to play as “lithe and female characters” like Toad in Mario Kart 64. These days, in Mario Kart Wii, he goes for newcomer Baby Peach.
“I always preferred [these] characters… because I was an overweight, effeminate child who wanted to play an ideal self,” Weick said. “[But] also because winning as these characters felt like a victory over the patriarchy—the enormous other characters [like Bowser or Donkey Kong].”
So, I guess I was the only one of us who chose Peach as a kid. That’s not exactly surprising—much like being queer, there’s more than one way to read queerness into Mario Kart 64‘s roster.
But despite our different answers, all five of us seemed to identify with our 64-bit selves for very similar reasons: because they felt different; because they felt other; because they embodied qualities, like femininity, that little boys were not expected to idealize or identity with.
Peach might have been the only princess among Mario Kart‘s eight playable characters, but she was far from the only queen.
A version of this piece was originally published on Fusion’s Snapchat Discover on Jan. 9, 2016. Hit up our Discover channel every day for more cool stuff like this.