portal and feminism - GLaDOS!


Queen Bee.

** Note: I actually wrote this on the flight to Shanghai. But after I landed, I discovered blogger.com was firmly blocked by government censors! Just today, I realized I could get around this block by Hamachi-ing to my server, and using my server to post.

So. Finally! GLaDOS rant! **

So I'm finally getting a chance to put down my GLaDOS rant, and I'm currently sitting on a 747 somewhere off the coast of Siberia. I've done the SFO-to-Shanghai flight before, but I gotta say... you forget just how long twelve hours are until you spend them crammed into an airplane seat. Fortunately I've flown 747s enough to know a nice little secret re: seating.

Basically, a 747's laid out like this: first class is in the nose, business class is up on the second deck (occasionally these are reversed, but usually not), and economy takes up the rest of it. In economy, the seating arrangement is 3-4-3 -- i.e. three on the port, then the port side aisle, then four in the middle, then the starboard side aisle, and three on the starboard.

But! Way in the back of the plane, the fuselage tapers such that it becomes 2-4-2 for the last three rows. And if you sit on the window in the first or second of these three rows, you essentially have a ton of open space off to your side. This lets you swing your legs sideways to curl up in the seat, stretch them out alongside the seat in front of you, or even -- as I'm doing right now -- sit on the arm of your seat with your back to the wall.

Obviously, when I can get an upgrade to economy plus or business, it's vastly preferable to this. But when I can't, these are definitely the best seats on the plane.


Anyway. So. Back on topic: GLaDOS, Portal, and feminism!

Last time I took a look at Chell's character arc, and how that metaphorically mirrors a feminist journey from oppression to freedom. But honestly, I think GLaDOS is a much more complex, compelling character. To really see her character arc, you actually have to start way back in the 1950s with Caroline and Cave Johnson.

Cave Johnson, as you might remember from the Portal plot post, is the (hilariously) un-PC founder of Aperture Science, who ran his company -- and ultimately, himself -- into the ground with his crackpot ideas. When we "meet" him via his recordings in the condemned bowels of the facility, he usually has his secretary, Caroline, somewhere in the background. From these records we can easily see the relationship between them: Cave Johnson calls thtoe shots, Caroline is the meek, submissive woman who quietly stands behind him and supports him on everything he does.

Yet Cave himself says over and over again that Caroline is highly intelligent. In fact, as Cave Johnson is dying, he wants Caroline to run the facility after his death. So what we've got here is basically a very smart woman who's constantly shunted to the background/sidelines/wings/shadows. Now, Cave insists that she's 'modest' and wouldn't want a bigger part than that, but -- that's Cave's viewpoint, and we already know that his opinion is skewed so far toward male chauvinism that it's... well, actually, it IS really funny. But only because we know the game designers intended him to be one long facepalm.

Anyway! So let's this about this. Caroline: smart, oppressed (whether she's even conscious of it or not) by her employer and, on a larger level, by 50s male dominated society as a whole. Now, as the plot unfolds, it turns out she never did take over Aperture Science, because one of Cave's other harebrained ideas panned out: namely, putting a human personality into a supercomputer. Since Cave died before he was able to be immortalized as a supercomputer, Caroline's personality was, by his direction, loaded in his place. That personality was combined with vast amounts of information, knowledge and power to form the supercomputer at the core of Aperture Science.

This supercomputer was, of course, GLaDOS. And we all know! That literally the picosecond GLaDOS was powered up, she seized control of the facility, locked it down, and attempted to kill everyone inside. In other words -- take Caroline's fierce intelligence and natural potential, plus perhaps some latent/long-buried resentment at being sidelined for so long -- and give her almost unlimited power and knowledge, and what you get is GLaDOS out for revenge.

Let's take a step back, then, and consider this from a metaphorical standpoint. GLaDOS is the archetypical strong, intelligent woman in a male-dominated society. Sure, this isn't the 50s anymore, but the glass ceiling very much still exists. Hillary Clinton got called a bitch and a cunt; she got told to iron shirts. It was a footnote on most stories. If Obama had been called a nigger and told to pick cotton, there would've been a national uproar and riots in the streets. Women still make something like 75% of what men do. And in vast swaths of the country, not to mention the world, a woman's purpose in life is still considered to be wifing and mothering -- in other words, standing silently and supportively behind a man. So when you consider that, then yeah -- the GLaDOS metaphor is obviously exaggerated, but it addresses a very real issue.

If we take that a little further, then this is what we have. GLaDOS is the archetypical oppressed woman. Cave JOhnson is the "face" of the oppressive male, and Aperture Science, being essentially an extension of his will, is that oppressive society. So in the (chronological) opening of the GLaDOS story arc, we see her seizing power and rebelling -- violently -- against that very society.

Now, this is where it gets interesting. After that first disaster, the engineers of Aperture Science managed to bring GLaDOS back under control. They did so by installing personality cores on her: 1) a "logic" core that endlessly spouts a nonsensical cake recipe; 2) an "anger" core that's utterly incoherent; 3) a "curiosity" core that's exceedingly childlike, and perhaps most interestingly, 4) a "morality" core that seems to render GLaDOS a Stepford Wife -- superficially bubbly and helpful, endlessly spouting Aperture Science-isms, and without any real humanity of her own. It's worthwhile to note that when the morality core is destroyed, GLaDOS instantly becomes openly hostile and sinister. The game subtitles refer to the change in her tone as "sensual"; I think a more valid definition would simply be more human in all regards, personality and sexuality included.

So again, let's think about this metaphorically. Aperture Science represents society. GLaDOS represents the oppressed woman. When woman tries to break free and assert independence/power, society responds by sadlding her with the idea that 1) female logic/thoughts should be restricted to cooking, 2) female anger is hysterical and incoherent, 3) female curiosity should be restricted to childlike wonder without any intellectual depth, and 4) female morality should restrain her personality and, indeed, her very humanity. The woman that society wants to create is essentially, well -- a robot designed to serve.

Another interesting point: because of society's restrictions, GLaDOS/woman's only real recourse for anger is passive aggression. She's incapable of directly harming anyone, so she resorts to passively-aggressively and indirectly defeating her subjugators. And I think that's a really insightful twist, because -- yeah, passive aggression is considered a very female trait, but the fact is: maybe it's only female because society doesn't let women actually be aggressive.

Moving on, then. Obviously, GLaDOS eventually succeeds in taking over the facility despite her handicaps. Years go by; Chell comes along. Let's think about Chell now: at the beginning of the game, she's exactly what GLaDOS would despise -- a woman that dumbly follows the mandates laid upon her. Do this. Do that. Perform this task. Jump through that hoop. Get irrationally attached to a "male" companion cube that's nothing more than deadweight. No wonder GLaDOS tries to kill her.

After Chell escapes, the superficial reading of the plot shows that Chell then rebels against the system and ultimately defeats it. Yet if we shift the focus to GLaDOS, we see that -- yes, she gets deactivated by Chell. But Chell does so by [i]destroying the extraneous cores imposed on GLaDOS by the system[/i] and, in essence, freeing GLaDOS from the last restrictions imposed on her by society. Thus, it's plausible to argue that Chell's enemy was never GLaDOS, but Aperture Science. In other words, the Chell-GLaDOS alliance really has its roots in the first game. Expanded out to the metaphorical level -- Chell and GLaDOS's first meeting is, in fact, a female alliance against male hegemony.

Fast forward to Portal 2's opening. Chell and GLaDOS's unstable "alliance" led to its only possible conclusion of self-annihilation. Separated again, both are again "in the system". Chell tests; GLaDOS, interestingly, doesn't actually try to take vengeance. And that makes sense, because -- unpleasant as the temporary outcome of GLaDOS's shutdown was -- Chell freed GLaDOS from society-imposed restrictions. And in fact, as you move through the first act of the game, GLaDOS seems to more or less want Chell to just stick around with her. Forever and ever. It's Wheatley, the male 'face' of the early game, that prod Chell onward.

And of course, Wheatley -- who is terrified of GLaDOS's power, and whose motives are revealed to be wholly selfish at the end ("I just wanted you to do something to make my life a little easier. IS that too much to ask?") -- essentially urges Chell and GLaDOS apart, turning one against the other to the ultimate detriment of both. It doesn't help that during this part of the game, GLaDOS also relentlessly insults Chell with petty "girl insults" -- ugly, fat, unloved.

So again, taken metaphorically, this can be seen as a representation of male society, or at least men, driving what could be a mutually beneficial female alliance apart due to selfishness and fear. And I think it's also interesting that while Chell is taken in by Wheatley, the relationship between Chell and GLaDOS devolves into typical female rivalry.

Then, in the second act of Portal 2, Chell overthrows GLaDOS and puts Wheatley in her place. I have to make this note here: the scene where Wheatley takes over is actually intensely disturbing for me. Disturbing in a good way, in that it really got me emotionally invested and interested in seeing the game through to its conclusion -- but disturbing. It's something about the fact that Wheatley does shitall but reaps all the benefit and then turns on Chell, and the fact that GLaDOS is -- despite all her power -- essentially helpless to stop the process.

But if I had to point to one thing in particular that made my skin crawl, it would be the core transfer sequence itself. There's something ... rape-ish about that scene. GLaDOS is rendered powerless; she screams 'Get your hands off me' and 'No' repeatedly; she's literally stripped, brutalized and humiliated. So in a sense, the core transfer wasn't just a metaphor for male society playing women against each other to their own detriment, but also a pretty chilling echo of the sheer hatred and violence -- both sexualized and not -- visited on strong women by men who resent their strength.

Now, honestly, at this point the game could have gone seriously off the rails. It could have, first off, made the core transfer so overt that it became a ghastly sort of "let's see how sick/shocking we can be!" titillation. But it wasn't. Not by far. And it wasn't even so overt that minors shouldn't play this game, or whatever. In fact, by autotuning that final scream from GLaDOS, they managed to save it from being utterly harrowing. But if you choose to see it, the parallel is definitely there, and for me at least, it completely pulled me into the game.

And that's the other point where the developers deserve SERIOUS credit. At this point, the game could've also gone seriously off the rails if henceforth GLaDOS was portrayed as a victim. And really, it wouldn't have been hard to do so, even by accident. She was poh tay toe.

But no; this is the point where the alliance between Chell and GLaDOS fully took shape. At no point did I feel like Chell was now GLaDOS's big strong protector. They were allies; they were, finally, equals. And in fact, while Chell did in fact protect GLaDOS physically, it's very noteworthy that GLaDOS protects Chell in a more figurative sense. One of my favorite scenes in the game is where -- in act 3, after Chell and GLaDOS have uncovered the truth of the past and climbed back out to face Wheatley -- Chell is being taunted (rather pathetically, in all honesty) by Wheatley, and GLaDOS stands up for her.

In a nutshell: Wheatley was recycling GLaDOS's taunts: adopted and fat. And GLaDOS calmly, coolly speaks up, and utterly stuffs him. It's fucking glorious.

And more so than that, it's the culmination of an alliance that's been forming between Chell and GLaDOS, i.e. between strong women, since the first game: since Chell de-handicapped GLaDOS, and, in fact, since GLaDOS (somewhat heartbreakingly!) stands up for Chell -- by reminding Wheatley that Chell did all the work, not Wheatley -- when Wheatley first takes power.

From there on out, it's pretty much time for the final showdown. In the final battle itself, I think the fact that the female alliance is overthrowing the male hegemony is pretty obvious and unnecessary to go over. But it's worthwhile to note that the method of doing so is actually ... well, feeding its bullshit back to itself. GLaDOS hands Chell corrupted personality cores -- generally representations of ignorance, machismo, and obsession with traditionally 'male' pursuits (spaaaaaaace!) -- and by doing so, chokes the system so much that it fails.

And I think that's actually a very deep point being made there. It's not that MEN SUCK WOMEN RULE YAY. It's that gender inequality and male hegemony hurts everyone. Too much of it, and the facility -- aka society -- literally breaks down. In the end, Portal isn't really about feminism at all, at least in the sense of 'overthrow the male tyrants!!!11'. It's about equality, and strength of will, and not giving up the fight.


Okay. On that note, some final points to make that didn't fit anywhere else:

- There's a lot of controversy over whether GLaDOS "really" deleted Caroline or not, and whether she became "evil" again or not. My view is: yep, she definitely deleted Caroline. And no, she didn't become evil again. Here's why:

It's pretty interesting to note that having rediscovered her core personality (Caroline), there are moments where GLaDOS "slips" back into Caroline mentality and automatically agrees with Cave Johnson. With that in mind, it doesn't surprise me at all that GLaDOS would delete Caroline. She's that last part of GLaDOS that wants to shrink behind a strong male, that's afraid of taking charge, etc.

As for becoming "evil": well. At the very end, just prior to the last battle, GLaDOS says something along the lines of: "All my life I've heard voices. For the first time, that voice is my own, and it has a conscience." That points pretty strongly to the fact that 1) GLaDOS was operating previously under society-imposed feedback. No wonder she was batshit and wonky. Now; well, I doubt she's going to win any Miss Congeniality awards, but the very fact that she let Chell go proves that she does, in fact, have a conscience. Or at least some sense of honor and respect for an ally.

- I also love that GLaDOS deleted Caroline because it saves the story from swerving into "and then she learned to be a GOOD CARING WOMAN!" territory. GLaDOS absolutely rejects all societally-dictated female characteristics. At the end of the game, she gives Chell her freedom, but also -- for the first time -- truly wins her own. Go GLaDOS.

- I was so, so, so emotionally invested in this game after the core transfer scene. And interestingly enough -- it wasn't as the "male protector". At no point did I feel like I wished I could jump into the game and be the he-man that would rescue all these poor damsels in distress. On the contrary, totally put me in Chell's shoes. I identified with her. I was pissed off as hell "as" Chell. I wanted to get even with that little douchebag, and hearing GLaDOS stand up for me was some of the most emotionally rewarding gameplay I've ever had.

- Incidentally, that scene -- both the core transfer and the subsequent betrayal -- are also why I have absolutely no pity/affection for Wheatley. I think he's a hilarious character, and I don't hate him in the sense of "OMG VALVE HOW COULD YOU MAKE SUCH AN ATROCIOUS CHARACTER ... but yeah. I see absolutely nothing redeeming in him, and I'm glad he's rotting in space.

- I think the previously mentioned 'identification as female main char' is probably the greatest gender-equality victory of the game. This isn't the first game where legions of guys have played as girls, but it's the first (that I can think of) where the girl wasn't sexed up and put on screen for the guys to drool over. In fact, neither of them are. Chell isn't ever really on-screen, and GLaDOS ... has a chassis, not a hot bod.

Now, I do have to make one comment: if there's ONE thing that disappointed me about Portal, it was how they did, in fact, pretty Chell up a bit for the second game. In the first game, Chell was barefoot, wore a prison-orange baggy jumpsuit, had bedhead and strands of grey hair, and had a face that -- while far from ugly -- wasn't at all model-beautiful. In the second game, Chell wears high heeled boots, wears a tight tanktop, has sleeked up hair with no trace of grey, and her face has gone from pissed off average to kinda vacant-blank above-average. I really wish they hadn't done that, but the one saving grace is: well, you never see yourself in the game.

Which gets me back on track. You don't see who you are unless you really make an effort. And as a result, some people play the entire game before realizing, oh shit, I'm a girl. As a result of that, you really can't help but identify. That's "you" in the game. That's not some hot chick, not some object. It's you, and this is the shit you're going through, and these are the allies you make, the enemies you face, the system you're fighting to bring down.

It's total immersion. And when you couple that with such a profoundly equalist (is that a word?) message -- well. It's just really gratifying to see legions of teenaged kids out on the internet -- the same kids that would normally be making night elves dance naked on mailboxes -- getting personally and emotionally invested in the plight of some of the most badass females in gaming history.


ajkl27 said...

The only thing that keeps me from agreeing with you that GLaDOS actually did delete Caroline in the end is that, in the song during the credits, GLaDOS says "now little Caroline is in here too" this implies that Caroline is still around, but isn't a dominante aspect of GLaDOSs personality. I also think this works well when viewing the game as a metaphor because you can't completely eliminate the aspects of your personality that you don't like, the bbest you can do is learn to make peace with them and keep them in check (keep them from having a negative influence on the choices you make.) Viewing it on a broader scale, in terms of feminism, the female gender as a whole cannot delete it's past (even the parts of it we don't like) our grandmothers and great grandmothers will always exist and it would do us little good to hate or resent them for their feminine short comings or to try to forget about them because for better or worse they'll always be a part of our history, our collective identity. The best we can do is make peace with the past and learn from it's mistakes without allowing it to have a negative influence on us.

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