She's Always A Woman

GladDOS from Portal 2

Hey, Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?" "No, have you?" — Hudson and Vasquez, characters from the film Aliens

Every time there's a discussion of female portrayals in games (usually around the time another Lara Croft or Dead Or Alive game is about to come out) someone always ends up asking, "Well, then who IS a good portrayal!?"

Each time, we all roll our eyes and someone starts listing off the standard examples. Jade from Beyond Good and Evil, Alyx Vance from the Half Life series, etc. And then the conversation proceeds along its accustomed rutted path, discussing their various merits and demerits. But thanks to the latest Steam sale and the release of the new level tools, I've been re-playing the Portal games and I realized that a key example that gets missed from those lists time and time again is GlaDOS, particularly as she is portrayed in Portal 2.

"She's not a woman! She's a robot!" you exclaim. But that's not all she is. This may be somewhat of a spoiler if you haven't finished Portal 2, but she's actually the personality/mind of Cave Johnson's girlfriend and personal assistant, Caroline. But even with her metal shell and all the subsequent programming from Aperture Science staff obscuring her human origins, GlaDOS is far more a real woman than Ms. Croft and many of her cohorts have ever managed to pretend to be.

My definitions are not the same as many people's. Describing what I'm looking for in a character for my "good" female character list isn't easy. I'm not judging the individual character and what they personify as much as looking for examples of portrayals that expand our horizons on what it means to be a female character. I want someone that's frankly female, but strong in ways that don't involve her nethers or the player's nethers, and doesn't use brute force to solve all her problems.

First thing I should probably do is lay out a working definition of "female" for the purposes of this conversation. That's not an easy thing to do. We are not all of a piece. There as many types of girls as there are bras in the room. And there are overlaps between stereotypically male and typical female traits. But there are features, like our biological functions and shape, that are commonly used as storytelling and design shorthand. But just sticking with them doesn't give you a good female character.

A "more is better" approach isn't as much help as one would hope. You can't just dial up the secondary gender characteristics to 11. It takes over the character's whole being and warps their sexuality into a skeezy caricature that is more of a nod to the desires of others than to femininity. Or worse, it can be used to indicate that there's something wrong or broken about her. Here's where you get Ayumi from Xblades, Black Widow, and Cat Woman.

Female sexuality is a potent force; I'm not arguing that. But why is she like that? When it's only there to play on the player's sexual desires, or as a caution to others, it's not in service of the female character. Then you have to make an uncomfortable value judgement. For me, it comes down to one question: If all she boils down to is an ogling-target, how can I call that a good portrayal of a woman? We're much more than that.

For an example of what I would call a good female character with a strong sexuality, you could try Kaylee from "Firefly." She has an unabashed interest in the opposite gender, and has no problem with acting on it. And yes, there are a lot of viewers who are attracted to her. But that's not all she is. Her engineering skills (and her other people skills) are far more important to her success in her world than whoever she's getting bunk-time with.

Even with GlaDOS not having any effective physicality at all, our 2nd-hand view of her relationship with Cave Johnson through his expansive pronouncements and her reactions to them show that, whatever else may have been taken away by time and his loss, her feelings are very much still there.

It's a hard line to draw. Removing all of her gender characteristics isn't much better. Some people consider Dame Judi Dench's portrayal of "M" in the latest James Bond films to be a step forward for females. The fact that she is there and in power is an interesting dimension to the story, and her gender makes an interesting foil to our tuxedo-wearing horndog main character. But in casting and writing her as old as she is they've also effectively diminished her gender. If she's so outside our boy's strike zone that he won't interact with her on that level, you lose what it could have been.

In our society, the symbols of power (physical strength, stoic demeanor, forceful action, etc) are traits that are often defined as masculine in nature. So in the case of female characters, many storytellers stick to what they know. The effect is that most female lead characters come off as a male with a malformed upper body model and a higher-pitched voice. The things that demonstrate their power are the very things that misdirect, minimize or mask their gender. Brute force and blunt objects are their watchwords.

In the case of Lara Croft, it doesn't seem like they tried all that hard to include any female traits beyond standing hipshot, "tracts of land", and a Rubenesque backside. You could replace her with a male model at any point in the game and all you would have to do is have a man with a gravelly voice re-record the same lines. She talks like a man, thinks like a man, and solves her problems like the thickest stereotype of a muscle-headed man. And ironically, she's a good one. She makes a better action hero than half of The Expendables.

I'm not saying a good female character can't have physicality as her hallmark. I used to know a woman who was a heavy equipment operator who would be a perfect COG in Gears of War. She was over six feet tall, definitely a girl but built like a linebacker. She could out-spit, out-drink, and out-shoot most of the guys, but would not swear. She never seemed to spend much time lonely, either. She was blonde, and her face was squarish but still beautiful. She loved roses. She was much in demand for her delicate touch with a very big hammer. But she was a whole person, too.

There are many ways to demonstrate power outside of that, but most of them don't see a lot of use. In the case of GlaDOS, her shape has been sort of rendered a moot point by her change to computer form. But her approach to solving problems, despite the overwhelming physical power her installation gives her, is quintessentially female.

If I had to describe a woman who was as feminine as she was powerful, I would have to go into real life and talk about my grandmother. She was very much a stereotypical older woman. She dressed up even to clean the house, collected macrame owls, and liked to shop at secondhand stores so much she referred to the local Salvation Army store as "Sally Ann's." But she was also a no-nonsense woman who raised five children and ran a remote roadhouse during the Pipeline construction years, and she used to play drums in a band. She listened to Patsy Cline and Meatloaf, and watched Lawrence Welk and old-school WWF with equal fervor. She'd seen it all, and frog-marched it out of the bar and head-first into a snowbank at least once. There wasn't enough beer in the world to make anyone I ever saw stupid enough to mess with her, but you would never mistake her for a man.

GlaDOS is ineluctably powerful, intellectually and physically. She controls the very shape of her realm. She is possessed of a staggering intellect and problem-solving skills that let her use it to great effect. She's the only one who can run the Aperture Science facility and keep the nuclear meltdown from destroying North America.

But at the same time, she's vulnerable. Her time spent installed in a potato shows that. Cave Johnson's grieving attempt to use science to stop death has had horrible consequences for his darling Caroline. She's trapped, a powerless ghost in the machine. But from another angle, that powerful, soulless shell that was wrapped around her becomes her weakness, and the trapped part of her is what actually saves the day. She wins, and loses, all at the same time. And then she lets you go.

That intertwined dichotomy between weakness and strength is a large part of many aspects of the female experience, and I can't think of a single example of another place where it is explored in games without any involvement with the character's sexuality.

Since she's the "bad guy" (or as close as anyone gets to be in that very complex setting), she's free to explore something we even more rarely see in all literature - a bad girl who isn't defined as such by direct physical force or inappropriate use of her nethers. It's subtle, but devastatingly effective.

They shape her essential femininity by eschewing all the usual physical and psychological power-play frills and giving her a role that would never work for a man; she's an abusive, guilt-mongering mother.

Don't kid yourself. She could kill you at any time in the game. She controls the very floor you walk on. Every step in that game is taken at her sufferance, but, in a twisted parody of nurturing and teaching, she repeatedly sets you up to kill your only friend, and then yourself.

Every line she speaks drips a delicate, bitchy poison. She spits poniards, and every word stabs. The most often discussed examples are the snide comments about weight. The first time I heard one, I gasped at the sting — then burst into delighted laughter at the genius of the approach. Please don't get me wrong, I don't want to every game to have an antagonist that makes fun of my size. But in this context, it's perfect.

There are very few games that explore relationships between women in any depth. Even the examples of parents in games are usually men relating to daughters and sons.

In Portal our main character is a first-person cipher. They don't even tell you her name in the game itself. But GlaDOS is so vivid that Chell is painted in silhouette by their interactions. By the end of the game, we've built a picture of ourselves, and enough of a relationship to her and GlaDOS that it drives our actions.

This is nothing like my relationship with my mother, and I've done my level best to make certain my daughters don't see me this way — though there are uncomfortable parallels in some of the conversations we've had, and I've seen echoes of it elsewhere in my life. I've had bosses and older female relatives and grumpy neighbors all around me. And GlaDOS invokes them in a visceral fashion with every barbed comment.

I'm not saying that women like Lara don't exist, because they do. But they are a very small part of the female condition, and their numbers in the female game character realm are vastly out of proportion to their percentage of the female population. It's time we had more kinds of women portrayed, in comparable positions of strength. GlaDOS is a good example of how to start doing that even within the current context of society and the games industry.

So the next time that whole women-in-games conversation comes up, toss her name into the ring and see what happens. You might be surprised.

Comments

A second great piece of writing this week on the front page. Are you all just stacking the deck for when the magazine stretch goal is hit?

There as many types of girls as there are bras in the room.

Absolutely true. Also, I'll try not to think of it via this metaphor.

Rahmen wrote:
A second great piece of writing this week on the front page. Are you all just stacking the deck for when the magazine stretch goal is hit?

I've got a secret when it comes to our Front Page: We have really awesome, smart writers.

Each time they produce a piece that becomes less and less of a secret.

Momgamer wrote:
In the case of Lara Croft, it doesn't seem like they tried all that hard to include any female traits beyond standing hipshot, "tracts of land", and a Rubenesque backside. You could replace her with a male model at any point in the game and all you would have to do is have a man with a gravelly voice re-record the same lines. She talks like a man, thinks like a man, and solves her problems like the thickest stereotype of a muscle-headed man. And ironically, she's a good one. She makes a better action hero than half of The Expendables.

I wish I could remember where I read the article, but I recall reading that the original Tomb Raider game protagonist was a fedora wearing, whip wielding male; and half way through designing the game, they realized they would be sued by Lucasarts re: the Indiana Jones games, so they changed the character to a female.
So in that case, Lara Croft reads as a male because that's how the game was designed long before they chose the final character, not as some kind of inherent commentary on feminine mystique. And when the first game was such a success, they just ran with the concept. I always feel that the Lara Croft character invoked in these discussions gets the short shrift due to this.
Not that this actually invalidates anything you said. Great article!

Y'know, in a lot of ways it is obvious, but you're right, GLaDOS is very much a strong example of a female character. Even in the first game, before she is identified as a woman named Caroline trapped in a machine, she is a strong female character.

Sexuality seems to be a weird realm in terms of female character development. On one hand, removing their sexuality (such as making them an old woman) helps to remove some of what makes them feminine. At the same time, a woman is not defined by their sexuality. It is important and yet a detriment simultaneously.

Mousetrap wrote:
Momgamer wrote:
In the case of Lara Croft, it doesn't seem like they tried all that hard to include any female traits beyond standing hipshot, "tracts of land", and a Rubenesque backside. You could replace her with a male model at any point in the game and all you would have to do is have a man with a gravelly voice re-record the same lines. She talks like a man, thinks like a man, and solves her problems like the thickest stereotype of a muscle-headed man. And ironically, she's a good one. She makes a better action hero than half of The Expendables.

I wish I could remember where I read the article, but I recall reading that the original Tomb Raider game protagonist was a fedora wearing, whip wielding male; and half way through designing the game, they realized they would be sued by Lucasarts re: the Indiana Jones games, so they changed the character to a female.
So in that case, Lara Croft reads as a male because that's how the game was designed long before they chose the final character, not as some kind of inherent commentary on feminine mystique. And when the first game was such a success, they just ran with the concept. I always feel that the Lara Croft character invoked in these discussions gets the short shrift due to this.
Not that this actually invalidates anything you said. Great article!

Not what you're talking about, but your comment reminded me of this video interview of Toby Gard (one of the people who created Tomb Raider) at Critical Path.

Do you feel that SHODAN falls into the same category?

Great article. Thoughts on Falls-From-Grace and Annah in Planescape? Both are clearly sexual creatures, and attracted to the main character, but the sexuality doesn't completely define either one.

GlaDOS is far more a real woman than Ms. Croft and many of her cohorts have ever managed to pretend to be.

F'ing nailed it. And I don't want to detract from the specific purpose of this article, but in terms of video games in general, what helps GLaDOS is that she's far more a real person than the sweeping majority of game characters have ever managed.

Great stuff, momgamer. Excellent article.

ClockworkHouse wrote:
Do you feel that SHODAN falls into the same category?

There's a couple games I need to play.

Gravey wrote:
ClockworkHouse wrote:
Do you feel that SHODAN falls into the same category?

There's a couple games I need to play.

You can safely skip SS1 and jump right into SS2, IMO.

Also, dammit.

I remember you talking about this upcoming article in the Feminism in Pop Culture thread. Nice! The comparison of GLaDOS to an abusive mother is spot-on.

Bravo!

Nice article, as usual.

gravey wrote:
what helps GLaDOS is that she's far more a real person than the sweeping majority of game characters have ever managed.

That about sums it up for me. Good characters are good characters, no matter the gender. There are some very poor stories out there in gaming.

Question for the group: Do you think that the fact GLaDOS effectively can't move helps her become more of a woman?
Let me explain before everyone starts throwing fruit.
Lara runs, jumps, scales impossible cliffs, and completes other feats of acrobatics that I could only dream of, but has very, very few spoken lines. The point of the Tomb Raider games is Action!!! And because of that, the developers/writers removed any hint of personality other than "badass".
GLaDOS, on the other hand, doesn't move. She can't move. So the writers were free to develop what Lara is missing. A personality. We get to learn what makes GLaDOS tick, how she thinks (and in the process we learn that she DOES think, not just react to the world around her).
Of course GLaDOS' personality all comes down to the writers, and the writers for Portal were brilliant, but I feel that the setting in which GLaDOS exists allowed the writers to more fully realize her.
And I'm not so sure that if Lara had been replaced with GLaDOS, you would have ended up with the same character. Even if you had the same writers.

I've certainly had a long going complaint about female characters in games along these lines. Nothing about sexuality, really - that's well trodden ground. Rather, that female characters generally aren't characters at all. People will trot out all their favourite female characters, but they are all hollow, empty shells, or pure stereotypes. They never have real personality or depth.

I hadn't considered GLaDOS, but that's a brilliant catch for a really excellent female character, one that really seems human. It's curious that one of the best really human feeling video game characters isn't human at all, but I'll take what I can get.

First of all, really great article.

ClockworkHouse wrote:
Do you feel that SHODAN falls into the same category?

Not really, if you compare the two SHODAN, comes off as having a much more masculine mindset. Compare these quotes:

SHODAN: Idiot! I will shortly complete the process of downloading my magnificent psyche into Earth's computer networks. Then I will be content to leave you as new master of this doomed space station. Goodbye, irritant; we shall not meet again.

GlaDOS: Well, you found me. Congratulations. Was it worth it? Because despite your violent behavior, the only thing you've managed to break so far... is my heart. Maybe you could settle for that, and we'll just call it a day. I guess we both know that isn't going to happen.

Try to imagine these lines coming out of Schwarzenegger during the terminator years. SHODAN's lines seem to work just fine, but the GlaDOS via Schwarzenegger is so jarring it just makes me laugh.

Good article. Funny enough I had just finished re-playing Portal 2.

Great piece momgamer, agreed entirely.

Taharka wrote:
Question for the group: Do you think that the fact GLaDOS effectively can't move helps her become more of a woman?
Let me explain before everyone starts throwing fruit.
Lara runs, jumps, scales impossible cliffs, and completes other feats of acrobatics that I could only dream of, but has very, very few spoken lines. The point of the Tomb Raider games is Action!!! And because of that, the developers/writers removed any hint of personality other than "badass".
GLaDOS, on the other hand, doesn't move. She can't move. So the writers were free to develop what Lara is missing. A personality. We get to learn what makes GLaDOS tick, how she thinks (and in the process we learn that she DOES think, not just react to the world around her).
Of course GLaDOS' personality all comes down to the writers, and the writers for Portal were brilliant, but I feel that the setting in which GLaDOS exists allowed the writers to more fully realize her.
And I'm not so sure that if Lara had been replaced with GLaDOS, you would have ended up with the same character. Even if you had the same writers.

I think it ties in to momgamer's point. By removing her body, therefore both her sexuality and ability to move, it frees up the writers to focus on the actual personality of GLaDOS. There's no need to focus on her physical portrayal and the consequences of that(bad-ass/sexy/fearful/insert stereotype), so they can go full "abusive, guilt-mongering mother" in her portrayal.

On the other hand, if you do focus on the physical portrayal of GLaDOS, it leads to some very interesting analysis.

Fantastic piece, momgamer. Bravo, and thanks.

That was a most excellent read!

I still need a female perspective on the Chase character in Uncharted: Golden Abyss! Someone on here please play it. GLaDOS still takes the cake as the most awesome female character.

Great article! I'm not sure if GLaDOS is a woman though, but still, she's a b*tch!

Every line she speaks drips a delicate, bitchy poison. She spits poniards, and every word stabs. The most often discussed examples are the snide comments about weight. The first time I heard one, I gasped at the sting — then burst into delighted laughter at the genius of the approach. Please don't get me wrong, I don't want to every game to have an antagonist that makes fun of my size. But in this context, it's perfect.

It's interesting how differently we reacted to that -- there was no sting involved, from my perspective. Yet, when thinking of GlaDOS's taunts, the phrase "of your generous... ness" comes to mind first. It was so unexpected, and so well-delivered, that I will probably never forget it. And I also laughed aloud after hearing it, and then again at the 'blimp' comment not long after.

But it didn't sting, and I didn't feel that I was the one being made fun of, but rather Chell, and it was so clearly wrong that it had no hurt in it, it just struck me as GlaDOS being intensely jealous. And catty.

Now I'm really, really wondering how I would have reacted if it had been a male avatar, and GlaDOS had called him weak, or lazy, or stupid. Would that have stung? And if the avatar had been Chell, would those taunts have hurt more than 'fatty!'?

I just don't know. Seems worth thinking about a little.

One useful metric when discussing characterizations of women is the "Mo Movie Rule":

http://www.amptoons.com/blog/the-mo-...

When applied to movies, a film passes the test if:
a) There are two women characters who have names.
b) Those two women talk to each other.
c) They talk about something other than a man.

A really astounding number of films fail this rule, despite the fact that few films fail the rule if we swap genders.

Now, games rarely have characters talking to each other (the player often doesn't really count) so this rule doesn't really help. Maybe something like:

- Is there a female character who is fundamentally indifferent to the player, because she's really interested in her own life and motivations?

I think GlaDOS satisfies this, at least in part.

Anyway, good piece.

*cough* that's actually the Bechdel test, and has been called that for years.

Hypatian wrote:
Bravo!

Brava!

It's a shame when a game can't have female lead that's more than hyper-sexualized eyecandy with the traits of a man. It's also a shame when a good game (or movie) has everything right going for it, but a strong female character. The movie Drive comes to mind for me. Great movie IMO, but the women in it were nothing more than heavy-breathing, damsels-in-distress.

I agree with Wintersdark that in order to be a good female character, a simply good character has to be developed first. However, momgamer does an excellent job of pointing out the fact that there are female specific traits. "They shape her essential femininity by eschewing all the usual physical and psychological power-play frills and giving her a role that would never work for a man; she's an abusive, guilt-mongering mother." Of course, not every woman is a mother, but it's a role only a woman can fill. This means that once a good character has been developed, specific gender traits can be applied in order to define that role.

I also like what you said about the dichotomy of a woman and the dichotomy of a woman's sexuality. You didn't point this out directly, but you do reveal the problems with polarizing a woman's sexuality. In the case of Dame Judy Dench's "M", take away her sexuality and you "effectively diminished her gender." In the case of Lara Croft... well, that's been discussed at length already. But, when you hyper-sexualize a woman, you're diminishing her gender just as effectively. A woman is a sexual creature, but is not limited to or defined by her sexuality.

Great article, momgamer. I'll be recomending this for a long time to come.

I'm really curious to see what happens with Assassin's Creed Liberation - it's not only going to have a female lead, but a female POC lead, which may not be a first (Chell), but she'll actually have voiced lines

I spent some time this weekend sort of marveling at the way I felt female NPCs in Skyrim, speaking to my female character, all seem to be putting up this strange mock masculinity. The voice straining to sound deep. The detachment when speaking about things that should be very emotional. ("Oh yeah, he killed my SO, and I desire vengeance. You know, whatevs.")

It's off-putting.