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.
2. Portal 2 and Power
Portal 2 has a very interesting analysis of power, one that seems to me quite feminist. In the first game Chell is the protagonist and GLaDOS is the antagonist and that dynamic lasts for the entire time. In the second game, however, things are different. Those who begin as your companions might not end up there and those who began as your enemy might switch to your companion along the way. What mainly determines their antagonism is the relations of power between the other character and Chell.
One of the distinctions made by feminist philosophers and other critical theorists that I think is particularly useful is the distinction between racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism (etc.) as individual (or interpersonal) and as institutional. There has been lots of discussion of this point, one place to look is Ann Cudd and Leslie Jones’ paper “Sexism.” Cudd and Jones define sexism as:
“sexism is a systematic, pervasive, but often subtle, force that maintains the oppression of women, and that this is at work through institutional structures in interpersonal interactions and the attitudes that are expressed in them, and in the cognitive, linguistic, and emotional processes of individual minds… our very experience of the world” (105-6)
They say that sexism (and other ‘isms’) operates at at 3 levels: Interpersonal, Institutional and Unconscious:
- Interpersonal Sexism: involves interactions (actions, expressions, etc.) between persons not governed by explicit or implicit rules (Cudd and Jones 109)
I think that most who are unfamiliar with feminism think of sexism or racism (and other ‘isms’) along an interpersonal or individual level. The model they have in mind is of a person who holds, and would endorse, explicit statements that negatively characterize women, racial minorities (etc.) and who would advocate unequal treatment on this basis.
Perhaps there is one level where GLaDOS’ comments about Chell being fat might be interpreted as sexist on a superficial and individual level. But I think if we look at the subtext and at a deeper level the game might be making a broader point.
Interpersonal (or individual) sexism is not the only kind of sexism that interests many feminists. Instead, they also talk about Institutional sexism and Unconscious sexism.
- Institutional Sexism: explicit and implicit rules or norms that structure social institutions that function to exclude women, or place men above women. At some points in history these rules have been explicit, for example when women were explicitly denied the vote or prohibited from owning property. Other norms are implicit, rather than explicit. For example, while women are expected to do the majority of the work raising children and most people blame mothers rather than fathers for many child-related expectations, this rule is implicit because it is not written down anywhere as an explicit law (Cudd and Jones 109)
- Unconscious Sexism: psychological processes, tacit beliefs, emotions and attitudes that create, sustain or exploit sexual inequalities (Cudd and Jones 110-112). Cudd and Jones give a number of examples of unconscious sexism, if one is interested, one can also try the Implicit Association Test developed by Harvard psychologists to test for the presence of some of these mechanisms.
One of the reasons I find the concepts of institutional and unconscious sexism to be useful is because they help to explain how sexism (and other forms of oppression) can persist even in cultures that officially and explicitly repudiate sexism.
Further, although individual sexism is problematic, it is much less troubling than its institutional and unconscious forms. If it were only individuals who (randomly) held some negative views of other groups then this would be harmful to those individuals who were exposed to these negative ideas, but it would not be an injustice. When these prejudices work in concert because a number of people in a powerful group systematically hold these views and our institutions are arranged so as to reinforce the unequal status of some, then this becomes a matter of justice. The distinction between individual and institutional sexism also marks the difference between being a sexist (individual) and oppression (institutional).
In Portal 2 you are still working against individuals at different points, but you are also working against the institution (Aperture Science). One of the ways this is signalled visually is through the more dynamic nature of the environment (see for example, this promotional video made by Cave Johnson to encourage investment in Panels). In Portal 1, Chell used the environment to escape GLaDOS, but in Portal 2 we get a better sense that the environment is GLaDOS. Parts of the testing chambers move on their own and assemble themselves as Chell tries to navigate to the end. The environment is more threatening in Portal 2. There were several places where I found myself pausing because I was worried if I darted past the assembling walls, they might try to trap me. In Portal 2 there is the institution of Aperture Science, which is represented by GLaDOS, but also goes beyond GLaDOS.
GLaDOS becomes a less important figure in some ways. For example, Portal 2 introduces a new character in Wheatley. Wheatley is the first character you meet in the game as Chell awakens from her time in stasis. At the beginning he is rather incompetent and relies on Chell for assistance. He cannot do much other than follow a pre-ordained path (in the form of a track) and one of the first things he asks Chell to do is catch him as he tries to remove himself from the pre-set path. Wheatley is also dependent on Chell to plug him into the Aperture Science facility at various points so that he can work his electronic magic to get them beyond certain points.
If we take this as a metaphor, we might think about the cliche “Behind every great man, there is a great woman.” This quote might predate feminism, but it is a theme many feminists have taken up when they have discussed how much of the success of individual persons depends on whether they received support from others and the institutions within their society.
Wheatley can do some things that Chell cannot, but in order to do them, he needs her assistance and support. Without her support, his abilities are useless. But this is not a one-way relationship. Chell, too, has abilities that Wheatley does not and without his support her abilities are limited. We might think of this portion of the relationship between Chell and Wheatley as one of mutual support where each is able to enhance the abilities of the other by bringing their unique talents into the mix. It might represent a kind of difference feminism (though it is also important to note that there is a good deal of feminist debate about the sameness/difference dilemma in addressing inequality. Some feminists have noted that the sameness/difference dilemma is created by and sustains men as the unspoken standard of comparison).
We might also read this interaction as one that signifies the ways in which women participate in their own oppression. One strand of liberalism that some feminists have criticized is the idea that if something is “freely chosen” then it is not problematic. Feminists have noted that women often internalize their own oppression so that they come to interpret themselves as their oppressors see them. Further, since women have been tasked with raising children in many societies, feminists have noted that women often participate in raising men to accept patriarchal norms and eventually take their place in patriarchal hierarchies (in part this is the result of how the choices are structured. For example, if you want to do best by your sons, given existent power hierarchies, then you should raise sons who can wield that power so that they don’t end up at the bottom of the hierarchy. Feminists want to criticize the existent power hierarchies, rather than taking them as given).
During this part of the interaction between Wheatley and Chell, Chell is constantly plugging Wheatley into the institution of power (Aperture Science). In a sense, Chell is training Wheatley to become a part of this institution by giving him access to the mainframe, which gives him his power. Wheatley is still working with Chell, but he is learning to be a part of this institution.
As the game progresses, however, Wheatley turns against Chell. Together Wheatley and Chell defeat GLaDOS by plugging Wheatley into the Aperture Science mainframe. At this point, Wheatley gets a taste of real power. He discovers what it would be like to control the whole facility. And to him, it feels good: orgasmically good (see this video at about 1:15). Once Wheatley is plugged in he gets the urge to test (which reminds me of Nietzsche’s troubling discussion of the Will to Power) he can’t get enough. He needs more testing. As testing progresses, however, he finds it less and less satisfying. He needs ever greater displays of his dominance in order to feel dominant.
I think this, too, is an interesting comment on power. One of the issues with power is that it often does not feel powerful. We tend to take our own experience as neutral and we tend to compare ourselves to those who are more powerful than us rather than those who are less powerful unless we consciously choose to reverse this trend (as some essays in the book, Men and Power, discuss). Men often complain that they don’t feel powerful, because they are thinking of their place in the masculine hierarchy, and all of the gender-policing they experience from other men. They fail to compare themselves to women, and so deny their own experience of power.
At this point, GLaDOS is reduced to a potato from one of many “science” projects at a “take your daughter to work day” display in Aperture Science, perhaps even the one created by Chell herself:
GLaDOS becomes much less threatening. She still does not like Chell (individual sexism?) but her dislike of Chell is no longer backed up by the institutional structures of Aperture Science. Instead, GLaDOS somewhat begrudgingly suggests that she and Chell should work together to defeat Wheatley. For much of the remainder of the game, Chell caries GLaDOS around, and GLaDOS is completely dependent on Chell to get her from one place to another.
This, too, might be seen as a metaphorical commentary on power structures. Some forms of feminist thought have conceived of a time when rather than patriarchy we might have had a matriarchy (not just as a thought experiment, but also relying on some anthropological data from matriarchal societies). Some feminists think this would be a good thing, but many other feminists have objected that it would be bad because it still leaves in place the ‘logic of domination’ (an idea popularized by Karen J. Warren, and one that might be made even more relevant by the fact that GLaDOS is a potato).
A general form of the logic of domination is as follows:
P1. A has X characteristic.
P2. Whatever has X is morally superior to whatever lacks X.
P3. B lacks X
P4. Thus, A is superior to B (from 1-3)
P5. For any A and B, if A is morally superior to B, then A is morally justified in subordinating B.
C. Thus, A is morally justified in subordinating B (from 4 & 5).
Warren questions P5 and therefore denies the conclusion. Even if X were a trait that unproblematically identified moral superiority, it does not follow that one would be justified in subordinating those who lack X. (There are also many questions we could ask about whether any trait X actually does confer moral superiority, but the argument here is that even if we grant that point for the sake of argument, the conclusion does not follow.)
The problem with (some forms of) matriarchy, as responses to patriarchy, is that it leaves in place the logic of domination, but switches out the X of “masculinity” for the X of “femininity.” The more fundamental problem, according to Warren, is the logic of domination itself. Even if X trait were superior on some objective and non-problematic measure, why would that justify one who possesses X in subordinating one who does not possess X?
One of the elements of Portal 2 that I find interesting is that this “switching out” in terms of the power structure happens twice along gender lines. First, GLaDOS is in charge of the powerful Aperture Science facility and she behaves like a monster. Then, GLaDOS is reduced to a potato and Wheatley is given control. He, too, behaves like a monster and one who gets a kind of sexual gratification from his own monstrosity.
Finally, Wheatley is ousted from the system and GLaDOS takes over again. GLaDOS has regained her position as the antagonist of the plot, though one who has a slightly better understanding than she had at the beginning. But as GLaDOS regains control, she excises that part of her that understood the problematic of power-as-domination, and she deletes that part (see this video beginning at about 7:40). She does allow Chell to escape, but she is becoming thoroughly at one with the institutions of power represented by Aperture Science. In order to plug into the institutions of power, GLaDOS has to excise Caroline. This description also has an analog in some feminist discussions. For example, feminists who have criticized the whole sameness/difference debate have noted that in order for women to gain power under the current institutional structure that remains sexist, women have to “act like men” or take on the patterns of life characteristic of men. For example, women who succeed in academics and other professions tend to have fewer children. One of the big features of the gender-wage-gap can be attributed to whether someone is a mother. GLaDOS is able to regain her position in the structure of power, but to do so, she has to take on the requirements of that structure, which are themselves problematic.
At this point Wheatley is shown regretting some of the things he did while in power (see this video at about 13:30). Now that Wheatley is not a part of the power hierarchy, he can see that his behaviour when he was a part of that hierarchy was bad.
It is not better to have GLaDOS in control of Aperture science any more than it was better to have Wheatley in control. None of these situations is particularly “good” or “better” than the other because each retains the problematic power structure that lies at the heart of the inequalities. What requires criticism is the structure of power itself.
3. But Still, Portal 2 Exploits Fat-Hatred, Doesn’t It?
Perhaps there is a sense in which Portal 2 is still problematic because some of the stereotypes that it exploits in order to make its point are stereotypes that draw on prejudices against fat people, but I think this is text rather than subtext. Once again, there is “fat-hatred” in the text (i.e. characters express devaluing ideas about those who are fat), but I am not sure it is there in the sub-text (i.e that what the characters express also expresses authorial intent).
There certainly is a great deal of individual and institutional prejudice against fat people in the real world. But I think the pattern of fat-prejudice in Portal 2 is similar to that of gender prejudice. Fat-hatred is put into the mouths of those who represent the system of Aperture Science. For example, GLaDOS engages in fat-prejudice when she is plugged into “the system,” but defends Chell against Wheatley’s fat-prejudiced remarks once she is unplugged. Wheatley never accuses Chell of being fat when he is not plugged into the Aperture Science mainframe (though nor does he defend Chell against GLaDOS’ accusations of Chell’s fatness). Once he is plugged in, however, he does accuse her of being fat and unlovable.
If one plays the muti-player version then one is informed that part of the Aperture Science data-base contains the information that humans do not like weight variances, and referring to these variances is a way to insult them. I think this adds to the idea that it is the structures, or institutions of sexism and other forms of domination that are most problematic. Fat-hatred is part of these databases and can be drawn upon by any who are plugged into the systems of power-as-domination to insult those who it seeks to control.
So, yes, it is true that the gendered insults in Portal 2 do rely not only on ideas about which gender should be more concerned about their appearance, but also on cultural prejudices against fat people.
But this might also be either a sign of solidarity or a potential way-in to feminism. Gabe Newell, for example, is a large man. And there have been many criticisms of him that focus on his weight. But perhaps this is one of those aspects of the different ways-in-to-feminism that different people experience. Many people don’t really understand complaints about oppression until they have experienced or recognized an aspect of power structures that is oppressive against them. Perhaps the fat-jokes are a way to open the conversation to those gamers who have not experienced gendered insults, but have experienced weight-insults. They show a continuity among different forms of oppression and a way they are plugged-into the structures of domination. I don’t know whether that was the intent, but it is possible.
4. Absurd Commentary
This really has nothing to do with the post so far, but there are some aspects of the internet debate about the fat-feminism issues in Portal 2 that are really just annoying, uninformed and absurd.
Here is an annoying bit written by user GeorgeCostanza on Smash Patriarchy’s thread on the topic:
Cave Johnson, a major character in the Portal/HL2 universe, is a male who messed up the world and ruined everything. Chell, the protagonist in Portal 2, is fighting against the evil things he has done.
And look at you complaining it’s sexist.
But this misses the point. It is not the mere gender of the character or their actions that determines whether something is sexist. In many periods of history that were definitely institutionally sexist (against women), many people would agree that if things were messed up this was the result of a man’s actions. The reason this would not have been sexist against men, or been a way to disprove the institutional sexism that existed against women, was because women were not able to vote, run for president or any other political office, own or control property and so forth. If things went awry, then it was probably the result of something a man did because women did not have much non-local power to affect things.
Being held responsible can be a form of respect, and being denied responsibility can be a form of disrespect (when one is absolved of responsibility because one is considered to “child-like” or “emotional” as women of the time were considered). So the issue is not whether a fictional work portrays a man (or a woman) as having messed things up that determines whether the work is sexist against women. What matters crucially is the explanation that is given and the broader context of the society portrayed within the work.
5. Related Links
National Post Review of Portal 2 and Interview with writers Erik Wolpaw and Jay Pinkerton
The Border House’s rho has written a post about one part of the developer’s commentary where they mention refering to the generic gamer as “they” in the commentary rather than “he” as they did in Portal 1‘s commentary, which I also found quite charming when I listened.
Pop Matters has an interesting feminist take: “Her Name Is Caroline”: Identifying the Misbehaving Woman in ‘Portal 2’
GamePro describes GLaDOS as a Feminist Icon and compares her to Emily Dickinson.
This is Portal 1 commentary, but I just re-found these posts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and I had forgotten how much I enjoyed reading them after I played the first game. Argues that GLaDOS is teaching Chell to murder her because she wants to commit suicide to escape her bondage.
[ETA] This series of posts makes me somewhat uncomfortable, so I was not sure whether to include them here. But Rants from Planet Damon has been doing a series that Damon considers to be a feminist analysis of Portal 2. I have my reservations; for example, in the first post which is mainly a plot summary [spoiler warning for the link] Damon begins with :
TBH, when I first heard of Portal, I didn’t think it sounded all that interesting. And when I first heard of all the “Portal as a great feminist manifesto” buzz surrounding the game, I was like WTF, people take this shit way too seriously. Having played both Portal 1 and 2, I can now say: in both cases, I was so very wrong. And now! I want to yak at length about my thoughts re: the game, the characters, and, yes, the very awesomely (read: non-shrill/militant/batshit/beat-over-head) feminist subtext in the game.
Which is not very promising. Anyone who thinks both of the following a) most feminism is “shrill/militant/batshit/beat-over-head” and so deserves dismissal and b) they can give a publication-worthy feminist analysis of a game is suspicious in my books. But some of what Damon has to say is worth reading. I find Damon’s analysis of Chell a little thin, but Damon’s analysis of GLaDOS does have some interesting points regarding the relationship between Chell and GLaDOS. Still: “shrill”? Really? Damon, do you realize how gendered that insult is? It is so often applied to dismiss legitimate claims made by women, you think you can speak for us?