She's Always A Woman
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.