Portal’s Feminism

Portal is simply fantastic. The game play is incredibly well-polished; the puzzles are fantastic; the portal gun is tons of fun; the style and writing are hilarious. You really should go finish the game just for the credits alone (no, I’m not kidding, although don’t go digging up spoiler videos because you really need to play the game through to get the full comedy impact). So now that the context has been properly set, I want to dig into something I’m not entirely certain about.

What the heck is Portal saying about gender and femininity?

Spoilers after the break – if you haven’t played and finished the game yet, go do so! Then come back.

We need a little context here. Portal is a fantastically funny game in a way which, if you’re not careful, you can totally miss until the ending smacks you in the face. The humor is dry and “pitch black”, coming mostly through the writing and delivery of GLaDOS’ paranoia-inducing instructions. I thought that the dark humor and sarcasm seeped into the game play itself as well. The level design puts you through the paces of a series of “enrichment center activities” in which the fictive environment mimics the game design function of training the player on how the game works. The repeated promise of “cake” at the end of the training process felt to me like a sarcastic nod at how games dangle carrots in front of their players in order to convince them to jump through hoops. Others have noticed this as well, but I bring it up here to emphasize that this is a game which I already read as being thick with dry sarcasm in general.

Portal player character 2So with that in mind, let’s look at how Portal aims at gender issues. First stop: the player character. Our avatar in Portal is a mostly unnamed Latin American woman (although the credits seem to give her name as Chell). What can we read from her appearance? Her hair is suitably frazzled for someone who’s been abducted and spent the night in a “relaxation cell” only to be woken up and immediately dropped into a rat maze. She seems average-to-notably attractive. But, as GLaDOS’s curiosity node wonders, what’s wrong with her legs? Apparently she’s wearing some sort of leg braces designed to, we presume, enable her to jump higher and land from longer falls.

It’s worth reminding the reader (who should know this already, because they’ve already played the game rather than spoiling possibly the Best Game Ending Ever by reading this, right?) that we only find out what Chell looks like via portals; we get a glimpse at the beginning of the game, but are only able to get a closer look by lining up portals in tricky ways so that we can see “ourselves”. You can even get the PC to see a direct face-to-face with herself by stepping halfway between a portal in a wall with anoPortal PC 1ther portal directly beside it, and looking sideways. But the effect is that while you actually do see “yourself” (unlike, say, Gordon in HalfLife 2), until you deliberately look for ways to see the player character you’ll mostly get only accidental glimpses through portals.

When I first played, I didn’t linger on the initial cell scene to get a clear look at the leg braces. The later glimpses I had gave a weird impression – why was her movement so awkward? Without a clear view of the braces themselves her pose looked strange in a way that was hard to put my finger on. Once I caught a better view of the leg springs, it was clear – she was wearing something that forced her into an exaggerated version of high-heeled shoes. The weirdness of the animation fits this – she’s running smoothly yet in the awkward stance which is usually caused by high heels, which generally limit running rather than enabling it.*

The whole result to me was a player character that mixes realistic womanhood with a cruel twist of enforced pseudo-sexuality. Reading way too much into it? Maybe, but keep in mind the already dry black comedy of the game, and let’s move on to other details to see how this all fits together.

GLaDOS and Chell are the only characters within the game, both (seemingly) female. But what does their relationship in the game say about gender? While GLaDOS may have been designed to sound female, she shows signs of being hostile to Chell’s femininity and perhaps femininity in general. The two instances that show this attitude are the following lines (quoted as best I can remember them):

Remember, the Aperture Science Bring-Your-Daughter-To-Work Day is the perfect time to have her tested.

Did you know that you can donate one or all of your vital organs to the Aperture Science Self-Esteem Fund for Girls? It’s true!

Frankly, maybe it’s best for me to let the reader unpack these creepy and biting statements. What is GLaDOS implying that daughters in particular should be tested for? Why would Chell’s organs be useful for girls with low self-esteem? The implications are nasty, as is the case with most things GLaDOS says, but here she’s being rather pointed towards femininity in particular. Combined with the assumption that GLaDOS is making Chell wear the awkward leg springs in the first place, and we get a picture of a supposedly-feminine artificial intelligence who seems deeply bitter towards real femininity.

Can we wrap this into the larger sarcastic humor of the game? I think so. I already mentioned how Portal uses dark comedy to poke fun at the very game design conventions and strategies that it uses to create such a well-playing game. Within that viewpoint of the game, we can see GLaDOS as a twisted and cruel Game Designer. Similarly, perhaps Chell’s identity as a fictive character becomes a metaphor for the Avatar in general. Could GLaDOS’s nasty attitude towards Chell be a sarcastic jab at the traditional way in which game designers often (mis)portray femininity in player characters? It’s subtle, but that’s what I took from it while playing.

* Footnote: I don’t know if this sort of leg spring device exists in exactly this form in real life. I’ve seen pictures of leg-spring prosthetics that enable their wearers to run very fast, but the ones I’ve seen do not involve having the balls of your feet on the ground. Either way, I’m going to assume here that these were a deliberate choice and not just randomly pulled from a catalog of wacky sports equipment. There is a mention of the visual choice in the game’s commentary, but it’s brief and could be read as either supporting or contradicting this analysis.


18 thoughts on “Portal’s Feminism

  1. What is GLaDOS implying that daughters in particular should be tested for?

    I figured this was referring to the very enrichment center tests that the game is based around. According to the hidden timeline from aperturescience.com, GLaDOS was first activated on BYDTW Day. This suggests that Chell might be the daughter of one of the employees who was poisoned; I found more on that theory here.

    Why would Chell’s organs be useful for girls with low self-esteem?

    I figured this was a wink to the traditionally exaggerated femininity of video game characters, which seems to be your conclusion as well.

  2. Good point, I forgot that detail from the website-revealed backstory. Although I think that also emphasizes the gender message – why would an office have a specific Bring Your Daughter day as opposed to a gender-neutral Bring Your Kid day? It does perhaps put a different spin on that testing comment though.

  3. Left some comments on RockPaperShotgun. I’m glad you linked it considering the original subject matter.

  4. They had commercials showing those leg braces; and darned if I can’t remember which company it was for. I think it was some investment company starting with a Z. Oh well, I’ll try and catch it next time. Yes, I think this seems like someone’s soapbox on gaming and femininity issues. I’ll have to try it and really see.

    However, I do remember you remarking one time, long ago, about Disney animators with the way they made their heroines and those hidden sexual bits, as “lonely animators.” Perhaps these are the products of lonely game designers? It really isn’t that surprising either. Media of all types lends toward this image. Is there a comparable image for males? Is there enough attention paid to this possibility?

  5. Except the leg springs aren’t actually glamorous or sexy; they look weird. The designers are aware of this – GLaDOS’s curiosity node exclaiming “Eww, what’s wrong with your legs?” at one point. There are plenty of games that thoughtlessly over-sexualize female characters, but I don’t think that claim can stick in this case.

    I don’t see this as a soapbox stance by Portal’s designers. These were subtle details in what is first and foremost a very well-designed puzzle game packed full of black humor. The embedded statements on the nature of game design and feminism are there, but they’re easy to miss.

  6. No, I agree, by your description they are doing the opposite in trying to dismantle the “thoughtless” oversexualization of female characters. I wonder, really, if such content is so thoughtless. I remember remarking on the way female avatars were portrayed on a certain MMO I play, and a friend stated it was obviously targeted toward the large teenage male market (or thereabouts). That seems to make sense. I’m sure that’s no surprise to you, of course. The only reason a lot of these things are gotten away with is that people buy into it. I can see this game as being a reaction by its author to this media image selling-out.

    However, this all makes me take a little deeper look into other games I play. See if I catch any messages the designers may have been trying to make that aren’t quite so obvious. I doubt I may find that sort of thing in, say, Quake 4 than in some others. Actually, I wonder if a lot of the Abandonware out there, the old stuff, has interesting messages within it that have gone unnoticed for so long.

    Thought-provoking. Here I was just trying to shoot stuff or finish a quest, right? 😉

  7. Although all your points are viable, if not–and forgive me for saying this–a bit outlandish, I believe you were correct in wondering if you were reading too much into it. When I read the title of this post I actually was dumbfounded to recall a thought of what was off-color in such a regard in this game, because I thought of nothing even in the ballpark of gender foul-play while playing Portal. I had to read this article to find out what could have possibly offended you. And I don’t mean that in a negative way toward you, it’s just that it was such a foreign category to associate my wonderful experience in Portal with. =)

    About the leg braces:

    If you listen to the developer commentary, VALVe reveals that playtesters were always confused at why she could land from such insane heights. Once the devs added the braces, no one wondered where she got her super-human abilities. That’s really the only reason they were added. Physically, it wouldn’t make sense to have her flat-footed if she’s wearing the braces, because there would be no room for the energy of impact to travel, thus making them pointless. Aside from that, Eli Vance from our more familiar side of the Half-Life universe wheres a similar brace due to a would-be physical limitation; I’ve never heard someone call foul-play about his frailty.

    But even aside from all that, you do realize that the project lead from this game and its project predecessor (Narbacular Drop) is female, right? That’s most likely the reason the main character is finally not a stereotypical male. I, for one, enjoy the breath of fresh air given by this female game developer.

    The second issue of the quotes from the game is what I read as an over-analyzation–again, no offense. =) I’m not sure how many others heard them and thought anything but how dryly humorous it was, but I hope it wasn’t many, because though thoughtful, turning comical writing into something more sinister sours a bit of what I perceived the game intended. And that is to make a game that stirred up the gaming community, but with simple, addictive gameplay, not social commentary.

  8. I think you’re misreading me. None of the above details I mentioned offended me – I loved the game, including its dry black humor. That said, black humor is, by definition, making light of morbid and disturbing topics. Serious topics. This doesn’t detract from the humor – it’s what makes it so friggin’ great.

    The Valve commentary re: the leg braces is something I mentioned above. Yes, I’ve heard it, and when I did my first thought was that perhaps it was just a random coincidence after all. But the fact that playtesting prompted them to put *something* on her legs doesn’t change the fact that they chose this specific visual look among many options. Why the awkward pose? It probably made more work for their animators – it’s not like this was the simplest choice possible.

    Frankly, when the commentator says that after they added the leg braces playtesters no longer complained about how she could survive such long falls, it seemed kind of laughable – these leg augmentations allow her to land a hurtling 5+ story fall or being flung across huge rooms without any injury? It’s ultimately a silly concession – which in my mind is fine, it fits in with the humor of the game.

    None of what I was writing about takes away from the game’s experience to me. It adds to it.

  9. About the feminism : The braces have nothing to do with it, glados is an a ‘AI’ with a female personality it doesn’t mean she is actually ‘female’ it’s just easier to call her that. Chell is attractive but not overly so, she doesn’t say a word, the speculation about her ‘origins’ is totally debatable as there is no direct link to her past, even glados does not give any direct links to your past, I’m actually certain valve did this on purpose as they did with gordon freeman, you know almost nothing of his past in half-life1, they wanted you to feel like you were the character.

    On a side note, I’m fairly certain glados isn’t ‘evil’ at all, she says in a round about way during the credits that her purpose was to help the humans still alive no matter the cost, and if she had to kill to do and die herself she would. That doesn’t make her evil, it makes her apathetic and driven. She does mention that you won’t get anymore help from her up there, then makes that sarcastic joke about black mesa which seems to indicate that she doesn’t hold black mesa (which we all know is evil) in high regard, which would point to her working ‘for’ humanity as a whole, not just themselves… sorry this is turning into a full note. 🙂 I’ll stop now 🙂

  10. Someone remarked earlier: “why would an office have a specific Bring Your Daughter day as opposed to a gender-neutral Bring Your Kid day?”

    I wouldn’t take that as anything sinister on the part of GLaDOS or Valve. I can remember back in the early to mid ’90s when it was a pretty widespread thing, here in the U.S. anyway, for a specific day where a bunch of girls, sometimes myself included, would be gone from school for “Take Our Daughters to Work Day”, which wasn’t something specific to a particular company but was in fact observed by lots of companies. It was about the idea of getting girls interested in different careers beyond motherhood and stereotypically “female” careers.

    After a while, at least in my area, it was more of a gender-neutral thing, but it was a very big thing for a while for it to be specifically daughters. So that remark is definitely based on a real-life event.

    Considering the team’s website for Narbacular Drop mentions that team leader Kim Swift had just turned 21 (at the time of Narbacular Drop being released), and we can assume the rest of the team is around the same age, that makes them only slightly younger than me, so I’d imagine the women on the team were fully aware and may have taken part in Take Our Daughters to Work days themselves.

  11. Ok, fair enough. I suppose I was so used to GLaDOS being slightly sinister by that point that everything she said was starting to sound suspicious. 🙂

    The leg brace design and the comment about donating organs to a Self-Esteem Fund for Girls still create (for me, at least) a general feel of gender-snarkiness. But I knew when I wrote this that I was piecing together some vague impressions that were nagging in the back of my mind – and vague impressions are bound to be interpreted in different ways by different people.

  12. A; chell has been there for around a decade, show by the “application”, wich is a quarentine period due to the projects secrecy.
    also made evident when glados says “the world has changes sence you entered”, a refrence to the aftermath of the Black Mesa incident

    B: Glados is not antifeminest, apeture labs was looking for female subjects (probly due to there ability to adapt quickly, or there (suposed) superior inteligence, or most likely that women are less likely to rebel)

    the self esteme fund, well, the owner suffred from mercury poisning (causing insanity) the portal gun was only 1 of 3 branches he created, along with the “counter heimlich maneuver”, and the “take-a-wish foundation”
    or maybe it is sposed to sound stupid, to add to the satire.

    the leg devices, Glados is not making her wear them, apeture is, they are most required to complete the testing, most likely added years ago, (pre-evacuation)they were added most likely because its easyer to incorperate the 2 tests into 1, than to do 2 diffrent tests, and build 2 diffrent test facilities

    it is obvious that Apeture has done portal testing on alien likeforms, (a clipboard shows a chickenlike skeleton structure next to what seems to be testing data, with a big red stamp mark across it reading “FAILED”) or maybe it IS just a chicken

    ***this has nothing to do with portal, but i just have to get it out there, in HL-1, it was the G-Man, who supplied the crystal that triggered the portal storms that led to the HL series, as said by Eli Vance in HL2 ep2, in white forrest, while alyx (Mmmmm, alyx) was getting tea

    ***i made detailed records of the Apeture Reasurch Facility, email me if anyone is intrested in the images and summaries, T_Q_O_F@yahoo.com

  13. Wow. This is probably my favorite blog, as you achieve exactly what I’m trying to start doing on my blog.

    I like the commentary about Glados as a cruel game designer / dungeon master. The promises of cake become all the more amusing when you apply the game designer interpretation. Is this a commentary on how designers bait or promise to reward player? I definite need to replay Portal paying attention to the “game” of the experiment.

    I pretty much have suspended any impulses to rationalize the legbrace on the character.

  14. Just a comment on the leg springs–there is a part in the game where you can find all these observation rooms right? Well there are clip boards everywhere. They mention on one of those clip boards the Knee-Replacement. It actually replaces the kneecap of the test subject and then has the spring come down around the foot. I can’t read it quite, but it would make sense to me that this is for speed.

  15. I’m not sure you really answered your question : “What the heck is Portal saying about gender and femininity?”

  16. Good point – although I’m not sure there’s a clear answer. In the context I saw of this being a kind of meta-commentary (or a snarky response) on women in games, I think the ultimate message may be that the real woman triumphs over the pseudo-femininity imposed by the oppressor.

    (Although I would be willing to bet that the actual writers would laugh at how completely pretentious that statement sounds. Which doesn’t change the fact that the message was there, it just means it came out naturally in their worldview and sense of humor.)

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  18. Im qite sure i read somwere thatthe kneereplaces was added ingame cause the testplayres doubted she culd survive jumps trough multiple portals at once withouth some gear.. and the kneespring is from an earlyer valve game making the player able to “superjumps”

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