I’ve known you for years. I remember standing in the technology department at the back of a Kmart with my parents, buying my first Game Boy because of you. I remember sitting on the carpet in my cousin’s bedroom, trading cards and discussing first generation starters. I remember playing Pokémon Gold so many times that I lost count.
A lot’s changed since then. I relate more to the Teachers that I battle now than I do to the Youngsters of games past. But then, you’ve changed a lot too; with 802 Pokémon in your universe, I feel like I hardly know you anymore.
Still, I traded in the Game Boy for a 3DS so that I could spend more time with you. I’m trying, Pokémon. Are you?
Sometimes I wonder if you even notice that I’m here. It wasn’t until Pokémon Crystal that you let me feel as though I could finally be the very best (like no one ever was) as a girl. Do you know how important that is for a seven-year-old, Pokémon?
That’s how old I was when Crystal was released. Seven. Before that, I saw girls in the Pokémon universe as sassy but secretly helpless, like Misty, or objectified, like Nurse Joy or Officer Jenny. I saw women as gym leaders that Ash rarely actually beat - instead, through strange events, he was often privileged enough to just be given gym badges he hadn’t earned.
But at seven, I wasn’t really mad at Ash for having all that fun and good fortune. I loved his journey and I just wanted to be a part of it. I wanted my own adventure. I was excited when you finally let me have one.
I was lucky, Pokémon. I was lucky to find someone close enough to myself in Pokémon Crystal, and therefore feel like you were telling me that I could be a hero too. But there are still people you’re leaving out.
I was pretty excited when I started playing Pokémon Sun last week because instead of asking me if I’m a boy or a girl, you simply asked me to choose a photo for my passport. I could decide between eight faces, with varying skin tones. Four faces had short hair, determined expressions, and tomboy caps; the other four had longer hair and eyelashes, gentle expressions, and pretty bows.
At first, the professor called me ‘cousin’ a lot. It was a simple, gender neutral term that could have worked with any face. But then, the dialogue slipped into calling me ‘he’, ‘boy’, and ‘buddy’, and I realised that I had chosen a ‘boy’ photo. Thinking I had been selecting my favourite appearance, not a gender, I felt like I had been tricked into playing a boy in a Pokémon game again.
I guess I could have made a new game. But if I did, I would have had to choose one of those ‘girl’ photos, and they just didn’t work for me. I didn’t realise until I’d caught too many Pokémon that there would be plenty of customisation options later in the game and that choosing a passport photo was more about gender and skin colour than it was about style.
I’m confused, Pokémon. Why changed the format, if only to be so misleading? If you wanted to know my preferred pronouns and skin colour, why not just ask me that instead of presenting me with this riddle?
Is it because you think some people don’t like your famous question: ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ I’m sure you’ve heard the whispers. And it’s true; a lot of people don’t like it. But I want to make something incredibly clear: it’s not the question that people have an issue with.
Tell me, who are you to say that every eleven-year-old boy must have short hair and a frown? Why must every girl have pigtails and an adorable smile? Are boys or girls outside these norms - or people outside those binary genders - not allowed to be a protagonist?
I’m sad, Pokémon. Not just because I am now playing as a boy in a Pokémon game again, but because you gave me - and so many others - false hope. I thought perhaps you had taken steps towards being more inclusive. I was optimistic for a moment, thinking you were going to allow more people to feel the excitement I did when I was seven and you finally let me be the hero of my own Pokémon journey.
I’ve changed a lot since we first met, Pokémon. On the surface, so have you. But deep down, you’re still asking all the same questions and relying on all the same stereotypes. Kahuna Olivia pretends to be strong at first, but soon describes herself as the opposite of the tough rock-types that she battles with. She tells you that she feels like a mother figure for the children who take the island trials, yet she never had any children of her own. She has ‘never even gotten married’, she says, as though children must come after marriage, and it’s a travesty if neither happen at all.
I think of the seven-year-olds that are spending as much time with Pokémon Sun and Moon as I spent with you when I was their age. Do you remember how many hours that was, Pokémon? I worry that you’re teaching children that women can’t be tough like rock-types. I’m telling you now, they sure as heck can.
I’ll always love you, Pokémon. We’ve had some great times, haven’t we? But I just don’t think you understand me anymore. Perhaps you never did. So it might be best if we just stay friends, at least for now.
It’s not me; it’s you.