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Archive for May, 2011

An image of Chell from Portal 2: A woman of slender to medium build with somewhat messy dark hair. She wears an orange jumpsuit, the same jumpsuit as she was in Portal 1, but now it is tied around her waist to reveal a white tank top. Chell has braces on the back of her calves, and carries a handeheld portal device, which looks like a futuristic ray gun. She is modelled on a woman of Brazilian American and Japanese descent. The image also has a portal to Chell's right and we can see GLaDOS in an environment over-grown with weeds. (Thanks to rho and bluestar for elements of this description; photo from The National Post).

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.

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Happy Star Wars Day to all.

No! Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.
–Yoda

Princess Leia Organa as Rosie the Riveter in a Rebel Recruitment Poster

The obvious reason for choosing May 4th as Star Wars day is the homophone between “May the 4th be with you” and “May the Force be with you.” But the lore behind the day does not end there. As ABC News reports:

German news TV channel N24 mistranslated George Lucas in an 2005 interview, interpreting his famous line, “May the Force be with you,” as “Am 4. Mai sind wir bei Ihnen” (We are with you on May 4). Thus a holiday was born.

The first film was released on May 25th, 1977 and I can’t help thinking that Lucas missed an opportunity there.

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Vodpod videos no longer available.
Here is Hillary Clinton’s Speech in response to the news that Osama Bin Laden was found and killed yesterday.

At about minute 3:30 Clinton Says:

“You cannot wait us out. You cannot defeat us, but you can make the choice to abandon Al Quaeda and participate in a peaceful political process.”

This seems like an odd construction to me. Is it possible to have a “choice” when there is only one option? It seems to me that a “choice” involves at least two options. If there is only one option then it is no choice at all. Why is the rhetoric of ‘choice’ being invoked when the speech also makes clear that only one so-called “choice” will be supported?

It is not that I think other options (e.g. continuing to support Al Quaeda, or engaging in violent political processes or something else) should be supported. But nevertheless it still seems odd to couch this in the language of choice. It would be more honest, I think, to simply say something like:

“You cannot wait us out. You cannot defeat us, but we will offer you support if you decide to abandon Al Quaeda and participate in a peaceful political process.”

Why is volunteerism being invoked in a place where it so clearly does not belong? To support a “choice” is to support both (or many) possible options. But that is not what Clinton is suggesting. The USA will not support any option other than the abandonment of Al Quaeda. They are not therefore supporting “choice,” but instead supporting an outcome they desire. With force, if necessary. That is not choice, but coercion. It might be a justified form of coercion, but it is coercion nonetheless.

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