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.
So 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 another 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.