In June, after the release of the Portal 2 trailer at E3 I wrote about some concerns I had reading interviews with the developers of Portal 2. Now it has been released and I have finished the main story and co-op, gone through again for the trophies and to listen to the developer commentary, so I thought I should return and assess whether the worries I had were warranted. [Note: The following discussion contains spoilers]
1. Portal 2 and Gender
This version of portal is certainly more gendered than the first version was. But just because something is gendered, that does not necessarily make it sexist. Gender can be used in subversive ways as well as being used in sexist ways. Arguably, the first Portal game used gender in subversive ways (for an analysis see Joe McNeilly’s discussion here).
Portal 1 is not very explicitly gendered. When I first played I did not notice Chell’s gender much at all. Some elements of the environment were gendered (GLaDOS was clearly a female computer, if such a thing makes sense). McNeilly argues (pg. 4) that many of the elements of the environment are gendered (the turrets are ‘boys’ and the companion cube is male–from the GLaDOS line (about 3:30; the link is a spoiler for Portal 1): “A big party that all your friends were invited to. I invited your best friend the Companion Cube. Of course, HE couldn’t come because you murdered HIM,” which I took as the generic “he” but perhaps McNeilly is right).
In the first game you really did not get a sense of Chell’s gender unless you happened to catch a glimpse of yourself through one of the portals. That lead to some magical moments for many gamers, as Jenn Frank wrote about and I discussed in a previous post. It was really great to play a woman in a game without that making a huge difference to the story or the heroism of the protagonist. As Frank writes,
But here is the next surprise: your being a girl doesn’t mean anything. It means nothing. You play on, and nothing has changed, and the game is still the game, and you are still you. But something has substantially changed, and fundamentally changed, because now you know. You have seen yourself.
But the surprise at playing a woman was never really an option for Portal 2, once they made the decision to keep Chell as the main character (and thank goodness they ditched the jumpsuit revision they were considering at the time. This Chell is somewhat more sexed-up, but not overly so. I don’t find her to be any more sexed-up than Faith from Mirror’s Edge. Also, they seem to have kept the racial ambiguity that allows players to project their own race onto Chell. Chell is still modelled on Alesia Glidwell, a Japanese-Brazilian actor.). So now that the player knows they are a woman, there is a choice about how that will be treated.
Chell is definitely more gendered than she was the first time around. As a few people have already written, some of the jabs that GLaDOS levies at Chell involve calling Chell fat as a particularly gendered insult (see below). For example, loodmoney writes,
Secondly, it seems a poor way to write female characters. In Portal 1, the player might very well have completed the game without knowing the protagonist was a woman. Her sex was irrelevant to the circumstances, thus it was not worth commenting on. Chell is a stronger character as a result.
But here I get the impression that the writers got lazy: ‘Chell is a girl, right? And GLaDOS is also a girl, right? And they’re enemies? Well then, obviously the latter is going to say stuff about the former’s weight! I mean, that’s something that girls do, right?’
I agree with loodmoney that Chell is more gendered in this game. I also agree that ‘fat’ is a gendered insult in this particular instantiation. Why is it a gendered insult? Because Chell is not fat, and despite the obvious truth that (fat) men are sometimes called fat with the intent to insult them, and men can also be hurt by being called fat, it remains a gendered insult because non-fat men are not usually called ‘fat’ whereas non-fat women often are. Further, it is generally considered more important for women to maintain their appearance than it is for men, and men get greater leeway before the label ‘fat’ is applied to them. But this is the text, and there is (I think) a different subtext.
I disagree that this is lazy writing or that it fails characterization and feminism 101. The reason is because of the relationship to power that Valve has included in the game.