5 Secret Feminist Easter Eggs You Didn't Notice in 'Portal'
The two Portal games are memorable for their clever physics puzzles, funny writing that's been run into the ground by Internet memes, a cooperative campaign that ruins friendships, and a popular female protagonist who doesn't serve as eye candy. That last one isn't as unusual these days as it once was, but we think Portal goes deeper into feminism than you probably realize.
Amidst the killer robots and hyper-masculine scientists is a clever exploration of a woman's struggle in a male-dominated culture, and we're not just saying that because your only weapon is a gun that shoots vagina metaphors. If you think we're reading too much into it, well, give us a chance to make our case:
The Female Main Character Is a Blank Slate (In a Good Way)
Right away, Portal doesn't make a big deal about the fact that you're playing as a woman. And that, oddly enough, is a big deal. Hey, remember that Jurassic Park game where you could look down at your own tits?
"Dude, I bet women do this, like, all the time!"
As we've mentioned before, there's a reason so many action/fantasy heroes seem to be devoid of personality. It's not bad writing, or a mistake -- Han Solo is cooler than Luke Skywalker because the latter isn't supposed to have a personality. Neither is Frodo. And it's for the same reason Mario, Half Life's Gordon Freeman, and Skyrim's Dragonborn are all silent protagonists with hardly any character traits of their own: They are blank slates onto which the player/audience project themselves. They're you. That's why the wooden and befuddled Keanu Reeves was so perfect as Neo -- he's the stand-in for the audience, the "everyman" character we can all relate to. It's a storytelling technique that's literally older than written words.
But it is very rare for that "everyman" character to be a woman.
And even rarer for it to be an appropriately dressed woman.
Sure, Metroid's Samus was a silent character, but her gender was originally used as a plot twist for shock value ("Surprise! All of these heroic things were done by a woman! And if you beat the game a second time, you can see her in a bikini!"). Other games are all about calling attention to it, even if it's a strong character -- in Bayonetta, you're a flamboyant, trash-talking sex goddess who gets naked in mid-battle. Lara Croft's original design was entirely about the boobs.
Portal's protagonist ("Chell"), on the other hand, is an empty form designed so that players can step into her skin. When you're talked to or chastised, no name is given, to maintain the illusion that they're addressing you directly. You are given no backstory -- Chell isn't trying to rescue her boyfriend or overcome some emotional trauma. Her goals are your goals: to escape, and to stay alive. You only know you're a woman when you see yourself in a mirror (or through a portal, if you do it just right). And ... that's it. It's kind of like the first time you saw a gay couple in a movie where they didn't call special attention to it -- treating it like it's no big deal becomes a bold move.
It's like her name is some sort of clever reference.
But once you get into the game ...
There's a Hidden Backstory Full of Overbearing Men
The genius of Portal 2's level setup is that you're basically playing your way through the game's backstory. As you traverse the abandoned laboratory of the franchise's villains (Aperture Science), you stumble across little bits of their history. How much of this you take in is all about how much time you spend listening to / reading the clues instead of devoting all of your brainpower to figuring out the next puzzle ("GOD DAMN IT THERE IS NO PLACE TO PUT A PORTAL MY COPY OF THE GAME IS CLEARLY DEFECT- oh, there it is").
What you find out is that Aperture was founded during the 1940s by macho man Cave Johnson (one of the great fictional names of all time, by the way), and we get a lot of hints that, even for its era, Aperture was not a progressive company. Aside from Johnson's assistant Caroline, the only other evidence we have of women being employed by Aperture is a Girls of Aperture Science pin-up calendar tucked away in a hidden room. A promotional tie-in comic showed us an Aperture Science that was apparently made up entirely of male scientists even in the modern era.
"See, shit like that is why no one wants to work with you, 'McConaughey.'"
See how those guys are talking about having to "control" her? They're working on "personality cores" -- little artificial intelligence modules designed to run Aperture's facility and control GLaDOS, the "female" AI that serves as the main villain of the game. Players meet a bunch of cores, and all but one of them has a male voice. The only female is the Curiosity Core, an AI whose defining trait is that it's overwhelmingly confused by absolutely everything it sees. Kind of what you'd expect from a female personality created by a bunch of sexist men, right?
One of the others, for instance, is the John-Wayne-esque Adventure Sphere, who hits on you, encourages you to take a "lady break" and let him handle things, and peppers almost every sentence with old-timey sexism.
"Your funeral -- your beautiful lady corpse open casket funeral" is not a line we'd suggest busting out at the bar anytime soon.
And then there's "Wheatley" (played by Stephen Merchant), the dumbass core who is the other main character of Portal 2. He was literally designed to dampen GLaDOS's intelligence. All of the cores were intended to keep GLaDOS in check, meticulously designed by men of science to suppress a female AI. Which leads us to ...
The Female Antagonist Is the Product of an Abusive Relationship
We referred to GLaDOS as a "female" artificial intelligence. It's not just because she speaks with a female voice and refers to herself as such -- we find out that she was, at one time, a flesh and blood woman.
For much of Portal 2, your guide is a series of prerecorded messages from the aforementioned Cave Johnson. His approach to business and life is summed up by his speech about lemons: When life gives you lemons, burn life's house down.
Cave is joined in many of his recordings by his loyal assistant Caroline, and they seem to have a close connection. An in-game portrait of the two of them implies intimacy and a relationship that might have extended beyond the workplace, if you know what we mean.
At one time, 75 percent of all white males looked exactly like this.
Cave eventually starts talking about "pouring" people into computers, and declares that if he dies before it's possible for his brain to be transferred, he wants it to happen to Caroline instead. Offering his assistant immortality would be a sweet declaration of his love and gratitude, were it not for this line: "Now, she'll argue. She'll say she can't. She's modest like that. But you make her!"
That scene was originally written to sound like rape, as Cracked has mentioned before. And when Caroline is stripped of her autonomy and humanity and becomes GLaDOS, her new form as a psychotic AI resembles a woman in bondage.
And now you can't unsee it.
GLaDOS then spends the bulk of the game torturing Chell with passive-aggressive insults, as if there is some element of jealousy, or rivalry. She carves away at Chell's femininity without ever outright mentioning it, tapping into stereotypically feminine areas of anxiety like weight and appearance ("Look at you, sailing through the air majestically. Like an eagle ... piloting a blimp"). Even the closing credits song, while hinting that GLaDOS will miss you, is full of passive-aggressive barbs.
And even after everything Cave did to Caroline, GLaDOS is still left with a misguided respect for her abuser. As a machine with supposedly zero respect for human life, her gleeful, almost orgasmic reaction to the sound of his prerecorded voice is downright disturbing. Cave still has power over her, even in death.
So you've got a brilliant, successful, ambitious man in Cave, guiding the younger, female Caroline through a large chunk of her life -- at which point he uses his position of power to do something unforgivable. It is a textbook abusive relationship. Hell, you literally help her climb out of it by freeing GLaDOS and ascending through Aperture's laboratory.
So GLaDOS is a woman whose very existence was perverted by an evil man, and the only way she is able to overcome that adversity is by defeating "Wheatley," the incompetent male AI specifically designed to dampen her intelligence. And the only way to do that is to ally herself with Chell -- a woman whom she has been taught to reflexively tear down up to that point. The females have to cooperate to overcome a cruel, illogical system designed by powerful men in the past.
Hell, it's almost too on the nose at this point. But there's more ...
A Guy Comes Along to Offer Help, Then Gets Rough When the Relationship Goes South
When you first meet the dim-witted Wheatley, he seems like a typical comic relief character. He wakes you up, bumbles you towards a failed escape attempt, and generally acts like a benevolent moron who means well despite his chronic ineptitude. He's endearingly pathetic. He doesn't even have arms.
Both thanks to and in spite of his help, you overthrow GLaDOS, and Wheatley takes charge of Aperture. The story could have ended there, but instead, meek little Wheatley gets drunk on power and turns on you. In the final confrontation, it's revealed that his change of heart wasn't quite so sudden -- Wheatley taunts you with the fact that five other test subjects died horrifically while trying to overthrow GLaDOS. You were just another stooge in his plans.
Now, there's nothing remotely sexual about your interaction with Wheatley, outside of some very strange and definitely unofficial artwork that we've seen. But the dynamic they share hits many of the same beats you'd find in a toxic relationship. Imagine you're a normal girl who's down on her luck. A nice guy turns up with all the right answers, or at least an honest attempt at them. He wants to help you, so you follow him for a while, and sure enough, things start to look up. Life isn't perfect yet, but you're not in that rut anymore, and that's partially thanks to him. But the moment you start to succeed on your own? That's when you find out he was using you.
In fact, the trigger for Wheatley becoming evil isn't the sudden influx of power; it's GLaDOS giving you all the credit for defeating her. Wheatley immediately gets paranoid and jealous (with lines like "You know what you are? SELFISH! I've done nothing but sacrifice to get us here! All you've done is BOSS ME AROUND!"), and when his frustration boils over ... he gets physical. In this case, by punching you with his new giant robot appendage.
Many a relationship has been ruined by the introduction of giant robot appendages.
And just to drive the parallel home, when you encounter Wheatley again hours later, he's calm and content to ignore the previous incident. At least, until you cross him again, at which point he becomes even more cruel and abusive. But in the end, you deliver him the ultimate insult -- proof that you didn't need him after all, and worse, that he was actually holding you back from success. And then you exile him to space. Because hey, it's still a video game.
But that brings us to ...
The Game Employs Subtle (But Important) Symbolism Throughout
We'll sidestep any more talk of how your gun shoots vaginas, in the name of keeping this classy. In fact, we'll even ignore that the game is peppered with names like Cave and Aperture, and the potential implications thereof. Instead, we want to talk about the Moon.
Which, as Portal 2 taught us, is in space.
What does the Moon have to do with femininity, we're going to assume you're asking? Well, look around you -- there's a reason menstrual cups are called "moon cups" and snack bars for women are called Luna bars (complete with a Moon symbol in the logo) and new-agey treatments for women have words like Moon Goddess in them. Ask any mythology enthusiast or new age type at your local health food store (if you're not sure who's a new age type at a health food store, it's everyone), and they'll all tell you the same thing: The moon is a symbol of womanhood that's been associated with dozens of goddesses throughout the ages. Also werewolves and crazy people, but mostly lady gods.
Now, the recordings of Cave Johnson reveal that Moon dust is responsible for the liquid goo that you can zap portals onto throughout the game. Initially this just seems like general backstory, but as Cave's ranting progresses, it's revealed that life finally handed him some lemons he couldn't blow up -- the Moon dust was poisoning him. The patriarch of Aperture choked to death on symbolic femininity, which we believe is called irony.
"I just hope my hairline is waiting for me on the other side."
But then the payoff/punchline comes at the conclusion of Portal 2. At the end of your fight against Wheatley, it looks like all is lost because there are no surfaces to hit with a portal. But then the ceiling caves in, you see the night sky, and bam: Your only option is to take a leap of faith and shoot a portal onto the goddamn Moon itself.
Fuck you, physics!
The scene is staged to seem implausible -- the fact that it works is surprising, even though you're the schmuck who tried it in the first place. You pray to the lunar goddess, and she answers. GLaDOS, a woman, is put back in charge of the facility, and she saves your life, while Wheatley is left to his fate. The End.
So what you have is a game that puts the player into the body of a woman, placed in a powerless position in which you are tormented by another woman before finding out both of you are products of a system created by some powerful (and ridiculous) males. You have to overcome abusive father figures and male companions to ultimately take control of your own life.
And to think, all of this came from a puzzle game remembered primarily for its cake memes.
Michael Vincent Bramley writes comics like the successfully funded Kickstarter project 'Sherbet', which is about a lesbian version of Sherlock Holmes from the future who solves paranormal mysteries.
For more video game messages you may have missed, check out 5 Classic Games You Didn't Know Had WTF Backstories and The Insane Stories Implied by 4 Misleading Video Game Covers.
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