Is BioShock Feminist? A Response in Defense of Tenenbaum

So via Critical Distance I found this feminist critique of BioShock, written by Richard Terrell (who, you may have noticed, is a man). But it is really not sitting right with me. His thesis is that BioShock depicts women as weak and men as strong. So I thought the rest of the article would try to show how BioShock upholds patriarchal values.

And it does, at first, but I don’t really agree with the analysis. He starts off talking about the Little Sisters. Obviously, everyone else has pointed out the sexist dichotomy of the Big Daddies and Little Sisters. But he states that when you play either good or evil, Little Sisters are commodified. I disagree with that, based on my friend’s* analysis that I wrote about over here: the entire point of the good path is to show that the Little Sisters are PEOPLE, not commodities; as Mighty Ponygirl states, you have to reject Randian philosophy and accept that they AREN’T resources for the taking in order to save them. And if you don’t, and you harvest them, you get the bad ending–you’re evil.

I’m also not totally sure I buy the argument about taking away the girls’ agency when you save them, since you are ignoring their resistance. These are very young girls we are talking about, not adult women, though I suppose your mileage may vary on this point.

The criticism of Tenenbaum is where the feminist analysis is really weak. Terrell describes how Tenenbaum is initially shown as logical, protective, and strong, saying that she is “a woman whose life style flies in the face of the patriarchal woman,” but then she “begins to artificially morph falling into the patriarchal gender role of women.” While I agree that Tenenbaum not shooting the player when zie harvests the first Little Sister (if that path is chosen, mind) when she had just shot a splicer for even trying to do the same is a bit of a plot-hole (though she could have known that the player was much more powerful than any splicer and could have feared getting killed, leaving the Little Sisters with no protection whatsoever), I don’t think that Tenenbaum morphs into a patriarchal woman. She doesn’t change, we just find out more about her, and as it turns out, she is rather complex (the post doesn’t touch on her background in a German World War II concentration camp). Just because we find out that she cares about the little girls doesn’t make her NOT a brilliant geneticist, and a Holocaust survivor, and everything else she is.

Terrell’s analysis is based on the idea that “logical = male = good / emotional = female = bad,” an association that is used and repeated by the author with no critical examination when he says that Tenenbaum defies patriarchy at first by being logical but succumbs to it by being emotional. I mean, should Tenenbaum have NOT been emotionally invested in the Little Sisters? I think that would have been entirely unrealistic, and even bizarre since in order to follow the good path, you must care (to some degree) about them yourself. In addition, an important concept of feminism is that logic and emotion are not exact opposites (example: it is logical for one to feel sad after one’s dog dies), the two qualities aren’t inherent to one gender or another, and they are both essential for all human beings. A feminist critique should take into account the fact that it is natural and human to be able to both reason and feel emotion, often at once.

Further, the author notes that Fontaine puts down Tenenbaum by calling her a “Mother Goose.” The author seems to forget that Fontaine is the villain of the game, so the player isn’t necessarily supposed to agree with him. I didn’t quite get his point here, but the Critical Distance post sums it up as “Dr. Tenenbaum’s redemption comes through an acquiescence to patriarchal ideas of motherhood.” But I don’t see what is specifically patriarchal about Tenenbaum’s maternal instincts. She has them, and that is enough to make her a tool of the patriarchy? (Should Tenenbaum, and women in general, NOT have maternal instincts in order to be feminist?) I would contend that Tenenbaum is actually a feminist mother in that she is a genius with a career AND a single mother figure! She is the head of her little non-traditional family, after all.

Tenenbaum is not an unproblematic character from a feminist perspective, but she is a lot more complex than the author of this post gives her credit for. The post also doesn’t mention the botanist, who is a woman and another genius; this gives the game at least two female geniuses, when most forms of entertainment rarely give us any.

I also take issue with this statement: “Throughout the rest of the game Tenenbaum guides the player through various tasks and objectives. She tells the player what to do, and the player does it. Simply by playing through the game, the player fulfils [sic] the typical patriarchal male role of a strong, proactive, decisive force.” How is the player proactive and decisive? I believe the player is actually reactive and obedient. The fiction supports me on this one: the entire point of the twist with Atlas, the line “A man chooses, a slave obeys,” is that the player has been doing what zie is told the entire time, without any true free will; zie is not a Randian genius but a cog in the machine. This is pretty much the entire point of the game and is, as others have written, a critique on the limitations of video games.

As my friend* pointed out to me, the game takes this critique even further by showing how the Little Sisters are conditioned to feel safe around and attached to the Big Daddies and negative toward women (Tenenbaum in particular). This social conditioning is something everyone goes through, and it affects (and to an extent controls) peoples’ thoughts an actions in a deep and subtle way. In feminist theory, patriarchy is a form of social conditioning that teaches people that there are certain traits that are inherent to men and women, that men are strong and logical and intelligent and women are weak and emotional, and so on and so on. In this sense, the game is actually agreeing with and explaining feminist theory.

The post goes on to describe the misogyny present in the game: the cartoons that cheerfully show violence against women, Dr Steinem and certain characters’ obsession with beauty. After several paragraphs describing these things in a negative tone, the post ends with: “[Rapture is] a place where women are forced to play in a man’s world according to his rules, and there’s nothing the player can do about it. And what’s worst of all, Rapture is a place that is like our own in many ways.”

… Right. At first I thought the author was criticizing the inclusion of the cartoons, the character of Diane McClintock, etc., but at the end he seems to understand that these things were included as criticism of the time period the game takes place in as well as the modern world. But doesn’t that undermine his thesis that the game isn’t feminist?

Even though the game may seem very problematic on the surface, overall I found it to have some deep feminist thought and themes behind it. It seems like Terrell couldn’t decide either way.

I would really like to hear from you guys about this one. Am I missing anything? I think part of the problem here is that Terrell looks at the game purely through a cursory understanding of feminist theory and I am coming at it as a practical feminist. (Another problem is that I use way too many parentheticals.) But a lot of you are probably more well-read about BioShock than I am, and I would like to hear more from that perspective.

________
* The friend I keep referring to is Alex, who sometimes comments here (hi!). He’s a lot smarter than me (just ask about the Merchant King in Assassin’s Creed).

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17 thoughts on “Is BioShock Feminist? A Response in Defense of Tenenbaum

  1. Posts like this make me wish I had played Bioshock. At any rate I’m not sure the creators had intended for people to think too hard about the game. It’s been said that the latter half of the game was really put together at the last minute with barely a thought.

    • I’m not sure that one would make a game in which the over-arching story-line and setting is very clearly a critique of a moderately obscure school of social philosophy and not intend for people to think about it much 😉

      Anyway, nice blog post, and good points all.

  2. At the time when I wrote the essay, I didn’t have much experience at all with feminist theory or critique. I thought I’d try my hand at it anyway. But even with a “cursory” understanding of feminist theory, I’m sure my functional analysis and specific examples make a solid argument.

    I can see that you had a lot of issues with the points I made. After reading your response, I must say that I have issues with the way you think about video games / game critique / BioShock. To quickly sum up the ideas that I’ve spent a lot of time carefully explaining, video game’s most unique feature is their interactivity. Therefore function becomes very important, even privileged over other facets/aspects of a game. This means that graphics, music, and even back ground stories all take a back seat to function/gameplay. Not only is analyzing function more complicated than these other elements, but it can easily communicate ideas in very subtle ways.

    So, I started with analyzing how the first person shooter point of view creates an expectation and functional relationship between the player and the game world. To support this idea, I found examples (functional/interactive elements) that encourage or allow the player to control the environement, steal/take what he/she wants, and kill others.

    Then I moved on to the commodification of the little sisters. I explained this idea already in my Marxist essay on BioShock. The whole good or bad morality choice design of the game has been widely criticized for a few reasons. One of those reasons is that you get about as many rewards for being all good as all bad in the long run. The player can’t escape playing into this economic idea when getting EVE or other rewards from these little sisters is so functional and overt. There’s nothing to disagree with at this level. You’re looking at things based on the fiction while I’m looking at things from a functional and fictional view.

    So from this point, we have to consider where our examples come from and what they mean in context. By looking and function and fiction, I’m aware that some of my statements/arguments may not be so obvious. Though, a bit of ambiguity and contradiction is something that I anticipated: “A Feminist analysis can become more complex when finding examples of actions toward women if a game doesn’t feature any women or the game allows for limited interaction with women. Writing essays about such games often leads to finding evidence by absence. In other words, a Feminist critic’s central piece of evidence may be what can’t be done to women instead of what can.”

    I would like more specific examples in your counter arguments. Saying “I think” and referencing the general backstory/fiction of Tenenbaum isn’t specific enough for me: “I don’t think that Tenenbaum morphs into a patriarchal woman. She doesn’t change, we just find out more about her, and as it turns out, she is rather complex (the post doesn’t touch on her background in a German World War II concentration camp).” She may have history in her past, but how she acts right in front of you and how you can interact with her is much more dynamic, real, and potent to her character. Actions speak louder than words.

    “Further, the author notes that Fontaine puts down Tenenbaum by calling her a “Mother Goose.” The author seems to forget that Fontaine is the villain of the game, so the player isn’t necessarily supposed to agree with him.”
    It’s not that we, the gamers, have to agree with the villain. It’s that the idea is inserted into the work (game), which makes the implications (positive or negative) impossible to ignore. There are so many little things in BioShock, which I talk about throughout the essay, that add up to paint a very specific picture of Rapture. This essay was written to point out many of these little/subtle things.

    “But I don’t see what is specifically patriarchal about Tenenbaum’s maternal instincts.”
    It’s not so much that her instincts are evidence of her patriarchal role. It’s how the function between the player and Tenenbaum changes in context to the new missions/actions the player must do to progress through the game. To understand this, you have to keep the presented fiction in mind while considering all the subtle and not so subtle ways the action and interactivity of the game communicates ideas.

    “Tenenbaum is not an unproblematic character from a feminist perspective, but she is a lot more complex than the author of this post gives her credit for.”
    Complex? Sure. Contradictory with the actions/functions of the game? You bet.

    “How is the player proactive and decisive? I believe the player is actually reactive and obedient.”
    How? How about all the thousands of decisions, actions, and movements the player makes to accomplish the objectives. Every inch moved, bullet shot, and switch flipped is the decisive even proactive part of BioShock the interactive game.

    “The fiction supports me on this one: the entire point of the twist with Atlas, the line “A man chooses, a slave obeys,” is that the player has been doing what zie is told the entire time, without any true free will; zie is not a Randian genius but a cog in the machine. This is pretty much the entire point of the game and is, as others have written, a critique on the limitations of video games.”
    I’ve found that the critique on BioShock concerning the limitations of video games was blown way out of proportion. A lot of false academics and arty games writers latched on to this idea centered around this plot twist as a sort of last ditch effort to salvage some “true meaning” from BioShock. Perhaps these writers should have looked at the function and the fiction of the game. There’s “true meaning” in all video games outside of their story and plot twists. The player has freedom, choice, and expression through their choices and actions like with all video games. Pointing this out may be clever, but it’s not as neat or interesting as the other aspects of BioShock that I’ve written about already.

    “But doesn’t that undermine his thesis that the game isn’t feminist?”
    Not exactly. The world of Rapture believes and promotes these ideas. Even if we, the gamers, can look at and understand the time period/historical context, these cartoons and other examples still make Rapture a less than friendly place for women.

    In the end, video games are not books. You can’t look at the words/story/fiction and understand what they’re all about. In other words, you have to get your hands on them to get it.
    “Touch. Don’t Look?”

    I’m glad you took the time to express all of your thoughts and concerns. I’d rather have someone who disagrees with me than to have no one speak up at all.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful response!

      I’m still not seeing how Tenenbaum is patriarchal. The patriarchal woman is silent, demure, supportive of her man, sexually available, motherly (to name a few). Tenenbaum really only fits that last one, and reluctantly. My point in bringing up her backstory was to show how she doesn’t fit into the patriarchal ideas of what a woman should be–successful, independent, strong, a genius. I see what you’re saying about interacting with her, but how is listening to the tapes not a mechanic, a way of interacting with the world? I don’t see how the interactions with her are significantly different from the other male and female characters in a way that makes her patriarchal.

      “The player has freedom, choice, and expression through their choices and actions like with all video games.”

      I disagree. In BioShock the player has the illusion of choice–kill your enemies with a zap or a gun or sic robots on them or throw mines at them! (even these choices are limited by programming: you can’t dismember people, for example)–but they all have the same result: a dead body and perhaps some loot. As you said about the Little Sisters, that choice is an illusion as well as far as mechanics are concerned–the result is the same. And no matter what you choose to do at any given moment, the only way to progress is to listen to and obey the people telling you to do things. Is it really a choice if the world remains static unless you press that one switch or collect those ingredients? You can’t jump back in the bathysphere and leave Rapture, or break the glass and swim away. There’s only one path and two possible endings. Two! You find an underwater city and there are only two possible ways that can turn out, really? (Three, if you count death.)

      “The world of Rapture believes and promotes these ideas.”

      Yes, but Rapture is also a dystopia. It is not something to aspire to, it’s something to fear (and personally I was scared shitless). It’s Randian philosophy taken to its extreme but logical end. And in fearing it we fear patriarchy and misogyny. (The same line of thought was behind the comment about Fontaine–he’s the villain and a proven liar, don’t listen to him any more.) The mechanics do support this–from the very start the player is positioned in opposition to the city and its inhabitants. And if you get the good ending, you destroy it (freeing girls from oppression); if you get the evil ending, it becomes yours (you become a patriarch).

      If simply including misogyny automatically makes the game anti-feminist, regardless of how it is framed, how can we possibly make a game that truly criticizes patriarchy/oppression?

      The fiction is what separates BioShock from Call of Duty or even Guitar Hero. When it comes down to it, all you are really doing is pressing buttons. You have to draw the line somewhere, and I certainly don’t think there is any one right place to put it.

    • “Dr. Tenenbaum’s redemption comes through an acquiescence to patriarchal ideas of motherhood.”

      I GET THIS PART NOW! Okay. Taken. I don’t think it outweighs the more feminist-minded aspects of the game though.

      My question is, where does the ludonarrative dissonance come in? How does how we interact with Tenenbaum differ from what we are told about her?

    • To quickly sum up the ideas that I’ve spent a lot of time carefully explaining, video game’s most unique feature is their interactivity. Therefore function becomes very important, even privileged over other facets/aspects of a game. This means that graphics, music, and even back ground stories all take a back seat to function/gameplay. Not only is analyzing function more complicated than these other elements, but it can easily communicate ideas in very subtle ways.

      You know, it’s completely fair to do an analysis that positions function/gameplay as the main focus and privileges it over other aspects. However, it’s not cool to say that because you find that area to be important that it is, objectively, the most important and complex aspect of game critique.

      Positioning yourself as the definitive authority on the “right” way to go game critique is pretentious. There is no “right” way to critique a game; we all have our own focuses and decide our own frames for our critiques. One of Eleniel’s criticisms of your analysis was that she felt your chosen frame was too narrow; the proper response to that is not, “My frame is the One True Frame!” but to explain why you chose to do your piece with a function/gameplay focus.

      Another example of this would be where you condescend to Eleniel, telling her: “To understand this, you have to keep the presented fiction in mind while considering all the subtle and not so subtle ways the action and interactivity of the game communicates ideas.” You’re implying that she’s not understanding your frame, rather than considering that she is simply rejecting your assumption that gameplay/function should be positioned above other aspects of the game.

      In general, I think a lot of what rubbed Eleniel the wrong way about your writing was the way you communicate your ideas. As with the above where you take a binary approach (“game analysis means gameplay = main, everything else = background”), when you discuss Tenenbaum you make this statement:

      By embracing her emotions and assuming a strong nurturing role that not only takes care of these little girls but the player as well, Tenenbaum fulfils the traditional patriarchal role of woman.

      Again, you create a false dichotomy of “liberated woman” and “traditional patriarchal role of woman”. The reality, as Eleniel points out in her critique of your piece, is much more complicated. By equating expression/realization of maternal instincts (and, as is implied in the opening of the paragraph, even the simple “acknowledgement of her femininity”) with conformation to patriarchal gender roles you reduce Tenenbaum to a stereotype.

      That kind of binary/reductive approach, combined with your assumption that your particular lens (gameplay/function) is the only correct one and people who disagree with that simply don’t “understand”, doesn’t make it easy for people to see your point of view, even when their opinions aren’t all that different from what you’re arguing.

  3. Here via Irisgamers, where I occasionally lurk. This was a pretty insightful and nuanced exploration of the issues at hand, and I like how you pointed out the “logical = male = good / emotional = female = bad” fallacy. The gendering of language/character traits is a trap that people seem to stumble into a lot when discussing what makes a “good” or “bad” woman (the real answer being, of course, whichever the patriarchy finds convenient) –or even a “good” or “bad” argument– and the insistence on these false binaries is precisely what feminist theory combats.

    I enjoyed the older posts on your blog as well, and I’m looking forward to your next update!

  4. Wow. A lot has happened in 10 days. Let’s jump right in, shall we?

    @ eleniel

    Looking at Tenenbaum is a tricky and complicated matter. Instead of pointing out how much of a patriarchal woman she is when she isn’t anything near the obvious example you described (silent, demure, supportive of her man, sexually available, motherly), I mostly commented on the interactive/functional change in her character and the trend that the change sets. With that said, my comments aren’t necessarily pointing to the obvious facts but the subtle undertones. In this case, what makes Tenenbaum’s transformation subtle is all the reasons we’ve already pointed out. Though her backstory characterizes Tenenbaum as one kind of woman (strong, smart, independent, etc.), some of the ways you interact with her introduce some evidence to the contrary.

    “see what you’re saying about interacting with her, but how is listening to the tapes not a mechanic, a way of interacting with the world? I don’t see how the interactions with her are significantly different from the other male and female characters in a way that makes her patriarchal.”

    Without getting too nitpicky over words, I will say that the action of listening to the tapes itself is no more interactive than pressing play on your DVD player. It’s a clever way to present background information, but has little other function in the game.

    I think the biggest thing that sets Tenenbaum apart from the other NPCs is how the player eventually gains control/responsibility over the little sisters. Depending on how you look at the relationship between Tenenbaum and the sisters, her mothering impulses and decisions to help the little sisters is very significant. Likewise, putting the little sisters’ lives in the hands of the male player character would also be very significant. I understand that this may not be enough to give Tenenbaum a patriarchal label for some.

    Just because the choices have limited outcomes doesn’t make the act of choosing an illusion or insignificant. The things you describe in the paragraph below are inherent limitations to all video games. To help illustrate this point, I’m going to replace some of your worlds in (parenthesis). I mean no offense.

    “I disagree. In (SUPER MARIO BROTHERS) the player has the illusion of choice–kill your enemies with a (JUMP), (KICK A KOOPA SHELL) on them or throw (FIRE BALLS) at them! (even these choices are limited by programming: you can’t dismember (A KOOPA), for example)–but they all have the same result: a dead (ENEMY) and perhaps some (POINTS). As you said about the (WARP PIPES), that choice is an illusion as well as far as mechanics are concerned–the result (GETTING TO WORLD 8) is the same. And no matter what you choose to do at any given moment, the only way to progress is to (MOVE TO THE RIGHT AND AVOID DANGER). Is it really a choice if the world remains static unless you (JUMP ON THE FLAG AT THE END OF EACH LEVEL)? You can’t (RUN) back (TO) the (LEFT) and leave (THE MUSHROOM KINGDOM), or break the (BRICK ROOF) and (RUN) away. There’s only one path and (ONE) possible ending.”

    Every game has some kind of limitation. The variable control players have while playing a game and the way they express themselves through actions/mechanics are all real, significant choices. Just because the developers at 2K Boston decided to poke fun at the limitations of the videogame medium doesn’t make BioShock any more/less of a video game. Just because what should/could have been choices with very different outcomes were really very similar, doesn’t make the choices illusions. They’re just weak choices. Wimpy even.

    “Yes, but Rapture is also a dystopia. It is not something to aspire to, it’s something to fear (and personally I was scared shitless).”

    I find this statement very interesting. There are so many lenses to view the game BioShock through that getting to the bottom of this issue will take a more focused looked (at least on my part). In the mean time, I’ll rethink a few things.

    “The fiction is what separates BioShock from Call of Duty or even Guitar Hero. When it comes down to it, all you are really doing is pressing buttons. You have to draw the line somewhere, and I certainly don’t think there is any one right place to put it.”

    I know what you’re trying to say here, but let’s be frank. Everything from the title, genre, core design, graphics, and even the controller you use separates BiShock from Call of Duty, Guitar Hero, and any other video game. The neat ideas put into BioShock don’t automatically make it more interesting or better than any other game. Video games communicate meaning in a wide variety of ways. Though many can identify story elements in games most easily, there are games with far less production and dialog/text that do a better job meshing their fiction and gameplay to communicate meaning.

    Function not only communicates meaning but it also contextualizes things.

    Though I’m not entirely sure what you mean by “draw the line,” I will say that I try not to draw the line anywhere. I try to look at a product in every possible way (videogames = graphics/sound/music/fiction/story/mechanics/etc) and then I evaluate on what it does and communicates.

    Now I think I know what you’re saying and where you’re coming from. In my essay I took a bold stance. If I had more time, I’d expand it with all the new information that you’ve help me realize. This middle ground between our sides of the discussion is very interesting.

    I want to respond to your question about ludonarrative dissonance. You ask where it comes in, which I take to mean, how do we factor in the dissonance when/if we’re talking about just the story, gameplay, or the game as a whole.

    To be a bit brief, when talking about gameplay ludonarrative dissonance doesn’t matter. Gameplay is all about interactivity and function. Looking at the design of a game from mechanisc->interplay->variation->counterpoint and level design are some of the best ways to look at gameplay.

    On the other hand, when talking about the fiction/story of a game AND/OR the game as a whole, I think we must consider how the gameplay and the story merge. Afterall, stories are filled with events and in a video game the player’s actions power the events. By looking at the range of possible actions/events the player can do, the story/fiction is expanded. Some games do this well, and some games do this very poorly. But it’s all part of the game.

    When you think about it, chances are, you learn everything about a game’s story/fiction you learned by playing the game. Playing through the game to get to the next cut scene counts. Finding hidden rooms/characters/tapes counts. So if you accept those parts of the game as composing its story even though you had to work for them, then it’s probably best to consider every story revealing possibility that you can uncover by playing.

    In other words, it’s not that the ludonarrative dissonance issue comes into play. It’s always the issue at hand when considering a game’s story. I think it’s nearly impossible to find a case that it’s not being considered (on some level).

    Thanks again for responding so well.

    On, and … Tekanji, I’ll respond to your common later today.

  5. @ Tekanji

    Alright. Let’s take this one paragraph at a time.

    >>>>>>>>>”Positioning yourself as the definitive authority on the “right” way to go game critique is pretentious. There is no “right” way to critique a game; we all have our own focuses and decide our own frames for our critiques.”

    Where did I explicitly say I was the definitive authority on game critique? It seems like you’re reading too much into the implied messages that may or may not be intended.

    >>>>>>>>>”One of Eleniel’s criticisms of your analysis was that she felt your chosen frame was too narrow; the proper response to that is not, “My frame is the One True Frame!” but to explain why you chose to do your piece with a function/gameplay focus.”

    Too narrow? You mean looking at the static and interactive fiction is too narrow versus just looking at the static fiction? I didn’t think Eleniel took issue with my critical framing. I thought she had a problem with my definition of a patriarchal woman and how much credit I gave to Tenenbaum’s character. Either way, I did explain why I chose to do my essay with a functional focus. I stated it at the beginning of my essay. I’ve stated it all over my blog in the 200,000+ words. And I’ve stated it somewhere in the comments now. So when I said I spent a lot of time explaining this in detail on my blog, I said that to indicate a direction you may wish to go for clarification; not to present myself as some kind of overbearing authority.

    >>>>>>>>>”Another example of this would be where you condescend to Eleniel, telling her: “To understand this, you have to keep the presented fiction in mind while considering all the subtle and not so subtle ways the action and interactivity of the game communicates ideas.” You’re implying that she’s not understanding your frame, rather than considering that she is simply rejecting your assumption that gameplay/function should be positioned above other aspects of the game.”

    You say condescending. I say, there’s a misunderstanding here. I use “you” in place of “one” not “you [Eleniel].” To rephrase I could have said: “Seeing the patriarchal change lies in the intersection of the game’s presented fiction and its interactive narrative.” You see? I assume that this misunderstanding occurred simply because you’re not used to the way I write/speak. Or perhaps I should be more careful in the future?

    >>>>>>>>>”Again, you create a false dichotomy of “liberated woman” and “traditional patriarchal role of woman”. The reality, as Eleniel points out in her critique of your piece, is much more complicated. By equating expression/realization of maternal instincts (and, as is implied in the opening of the paragraph, even the simple “acknowledgement of her femininity”) with conformation to patriarchal gender roles you reduce Tenenbaum to a stereotype.”

    Yes. I agreed that the stance I took was a strong one. And I already commented on how at the time (and now) I’m not very familiar with the different intricacies and variations of feminist ideas/critiques. But for a moment, consider that I didn’t hastily reduce Tenenbaum to a stereotype. I know you may have issues with how I privilege function/interactivity over the more passive elements of a game, but consider this:

    As I said in my second comment post above, it’s probably best not to arbitrarily exclude some parts of a game’s story from consideration. After all, it wouldn’t make sense to completely ignore whole chapters in a book when writing a critique, would it? Just because some story elements are more traditional (text/cut scenes), that doesn’t make the interactive story elements any less legitimate. When you think about it, even the text and cut scene based story elements are results of player interaction. Therefore, all static and interactive story elements should be considered. I hope you don’t disagree at this point.

    So, part of my stance is that, basically, actions speak louder than words. IE. interactive story elements are more impactful, profound, and persuasive than the more traditional static elements. An easy example of this is if an NPC told you an area was safe to travel and when you walked through it you got burned. You would trust the fact that you lost health over what the NPC told you. In the same way, if a game told you a character was very brave in a cut scene, and while playing that character would scream and cower in corners forcing you to help him get a grip, you’d probably think of the character as a big baby. This ludonarrative space can easily create dissonance or ambiguity in a game’s story.

    Thinking along these lines, how players interact with Tenenbaum could be so impactful that the new characterization of Tenenbaum might create a strong enough contrast to justify the sudden change.

    Though I know there are many ways to critique anything, I think some ways can be arbitary and foolish. Would any of us consider a book critique that only takes into account the first and last pages of the book? Probably not. Likewise, is it any different to exclude the interactive fictional elements in a game? All I’m saying is, if you’re going to look at a game’s story, then look at all of it (or at least as much as you can). Otherwise, one should be specific in stating that they’re only considering a limited part of the story.

    >>>>>>>>>”That kind of binary/reductive approach, combined with your assumption that your particular lens (gameplay/function) is the only correct one and people who disagree with that simply don’t “understand”, doesn’t make it easy for people to see your point of view, even when their opinions aren’t all that different from what you’re arguing.”

    I hope I cleared up any misunderstandings. I’m glad we could continue this discussion with such civility.

  6. All right, we’ve got a lot of threads going on here so I want to get back to just my criticisms of your post, since they have evolved a bit over the course of this conversation. The other stuff is really interesting but it will have to be on hold for now in order to keep this thread on-topic. My first criticism is your reading of Tenenbaum, and the second the sexism in your critique.

    You lay out your reading of Tenenbaum via interactivity a lot more clearly in these comments than in your original post. They are interesting observations, but I still disagree that they show Tenenbaum to be weak and patriarchal. In thinking about your examples and considering how they also apply to the botanist (who we never encounter face-to-face, either), AND taking into account how both characters are portrayed, in my opinion the lack of interaction, etc., tells us more about Rapture and the nature of patriarchy than the characters themselves. I’m working on a full post about this to elaborate on the idea (sorry to leave you hanging!).

    “I understand that this may not be enough to give Tenenbaum a patriarchal label for some.”
    Heh, you might concede that perhaps a female feminist who writes a feminist blog knows a bit more about what constitutes patriarchal than yourself? Trust me, I am not in the habit of saying something isn’t patriarchal–usually the exact opposite!

    “And I already commented on how at the time (and now) I’m not very familiar with the different intricacies and variations of feminist ideas/critiques.”
    Isn’t this something of a fatal flaw in a feminist critique, though?

    I mean, props for giving it a go, truly. But tekanji and myself have repeatedly pointed out the sexism in your critique and you keep dismissing it (lack of knowledge isn’t really an excuse, especially after it’s been pointed out). If a feminist critique is at least partially based on sexism (and yours is, with the false dichotomy between logic and emotion and the gender assignment of these traits), then it fails as a feminist critique. I think this point got lost in the discussion of interactivity vs fiction when it is the one part that is simply wrong, rather than a matter for discussion as the rest is.

  7. >>>>>>>>”My first criticism is your reading of Tenenbaum, and the second the sexism in your critique.”

    >>>>>>>>”You lay out your reading of Tenenbaum via interactivity a lot more clearly in these comments than in your original post. They are interesting observations, but I still disagree that they show Tenenbaum to be weak and patriarchal.

    Well, I did write that post over a year and a half ago. I’ve learned a lot since then and have gotten better at explaining a few things.

    You may not agree that Tenenbaum is weak, so to speak, but depending on how you define power she definitely gets weaker. If you look at it in the context of the current state of Rapture and the primary function of the game (combat), Tenenbaum starts off with a gun in hand protecting the little sisters. By the end of the game it’s the player with the gun in hand protecting the little sisters enabled by Tenenbaum. If the innocence of the little sisters is something worth protecting, then at the end, it’s the player that fulfills that protective, powerful, and important role. From shooting to standing around, this change/trend in Tenenbaum’s actions are very telling. It’s not a lot to go off of alone, but when you consider all the other little details about Rapture and how fuction/action can communicate ideas more effectively/persuasively than backstory, the undertones solidify. The interactivity vs fiction ideas are necessary to make Tenenbaums small change even more significant when compared to her impressive (yet non interactive) history.

    >>>>>>>> “In thinking about your examples and considering how they also apply to the botanist (who we never encounter face-to-face, either), AND taking into account how both characters are portrayed, in my opinion the lack of interaction, etc., tells us more about Rapture and the nature of patriarchy than the characters themselves. I’m working on a full post about this to elaborate on the idea (sorry to leave you hanging!).”

    These details may tell us more about Ratpure and the nature of patriarchy than the characters themselves, but that still doesn’t mean it doesn’t tell us something about the characters.

    >>>>>>>> “Heh, you might concede that perhaps a female feminist who writes a feminist blog knows a bit more about what constitutes patriarchal than yourself? Trust me, I am not in the habit of saying something isn’t patriarchal–usually the exact opposite!”

    Considering our experience, you should know more about what constitutes patriarchal values than I do. And I would trust you on this one, but that won’t help me understand whatever information I’m lacking (if I lack at all). So if you don’t mind, please respond with a brief but thorough explanation of what kind of person/role would qualify as representing patriarchal values, where you draw the line, and why.

    >>>>>>>>”Isn’t this something of a fatal flaw in a feminist critique, though?”

    It would only be a flaw if I said something really contradictory and/or failed to define and back up my claims. You don’t have to be a expert with lots of experience to say something fairly simple and back it up with examples. I did a bit of reading and tried to stay within the boundaries of my experience/understanding.

    >>>>>>>>”I mean, props for giving it a go, truly. But tekanji and myself have repeatedly pointed out the sexism in your critique and you keep dismissing it (lack of knowledge isn’t really an excuse, especially after it’s been pointed out).”

    Oh. I wasn’t aware that the way I defined how a character can support patriarchal values was the real issue at hand.

    >>>>>>>> “If a feminist critique is at least partially based on sexism (and yours is, with the false dichotomy between logic and emotion and the gender assignment of these traits), then it fails as a feminist critique.”

    Here’s where the problem is. Allow me to explain how I see things from this point. My essay does not fail as a feminist critique. I am well aware of the possibility of multiple ways to do a feminist critique of a video game like BioShock. However, preferring to look at things or do things a different way does not devalue my essay.

    I understand the book that I learned about literary feminist criticism from and adapted for video games may not be the best reference. But the general ideas should be accurate enough on some basic level at least. Here are a few quotes that should pin point where I’m coming from.

    <<<<<<<<<<“Broadly defined, feminist criticism examines the ways in which literature (and other cultural productions) reinforces or undermines the economic, political, social, and psychological oppression of women.”

    <<<<<<<<<<“By patriarchal woman I mean, of course, a woman who has internalized the norms and values of patriarchy, which can be defined, in short, as any culture that privileges men by promoting traditional gender roles. Traditional gender roles cast men as rational, strong, protective, and decisive; they cast women as emotional (irrational), weak, nurturing, and submissive.”

    <<<<<<<<<<<“Patriarchy is thus, by definition, sexist…”

    Pointing out the sexist ideas is part the feminist critique I was taught. I wasn’t dismissing the fact that you were pointing out the sexism in the essay. I thought it was a given that these ideas should be defined and identified within the product.

    Experience or not, that’s exactly what I did. If you have any other material you think I should read (preferably free and online), I’ll be happy to read it.

  8. Okay. I’m going to address your comment backwards. Let me first clarify where your argument actually enforces sexism rather than just identifying it.

    You started out with a reasonable definition of patriarchy. The problem is that you define a “patriarchal woman” as a female character who fits the traditional female gender role. In doing so you are accepting the validity of that dichotomy. By saying that “As a scientist, Tenenbaum is both logical and rational.” and then later, “Appealing to emotions further positions Tenenbaum into a more traditional patriarchal female role.”, you are positing these two aspects of Tenenbaum as a contradiction, that she changes from rational to emotional. But feminism REJECTS the division between “male traits” and “female traits” all together, saying that ALL people have both sets of traits to varying degrees regardless of their gender. Therefore Tenenbaum being a logical scientist and an emotional mother isn’t contradictory at all, just different facets of her character (this is what I meant when I said that just because she cares about the Little Sisters doesn’t suddenly make her not a brilliant geneticist).

    Perhaps you didn’t intend this, but when you say that Tenenbaum is patriarchal because she appeals to emotion, you are saying that a feminist character would or should NOT appeal to emotion. This is problematic because it is just another limitation forced upon female characters. The idea behind feminism is not to reject stereotypically feminine traits, etc., but to remove limits completely and allow women to do and be what they want, whether that is a stay-at-home mom, or a scientist with three PhDs, or both.

    It will help if I answer your question about what makes a patriarchal character. I said in my previous comment that, “The patriarchal woman is silent, demure, supportive of her man, sexually available, motherly (to name a few).” I was referring here to the patriarchy’s model of an ideal woman, not a judgment of an actual specific woman or character. A patriarchal female character doesn’t need to be all of these things, just LIMITED to whatever patriarchal ideals she does fit.

    For example, look at Megan Fox’s character in Transformers. Her entire purpose is to be sexually available to the male protagonist and eye candy for the assumed straight male audience. There is nothing else to her, and even if there was, it would be secondary to Looking Hot. This is a patriarchal character because she is not a full human being, just an object that fulfills one of the patriarchy’s designated female roles (in this case, sexual object). Another example would be Spock’s mom from the Star Trek film released this year. She has no role to play other than Loving Mother; she has no other ideas or emotions or thoughts than about how much she loves her son; she does nothing but stand around and then she dies so that Spock can be upset about it. She has no agency and is not treated as a full person, just a Mother. In video games, Dead or Alive Extreme Beach Volleyball is an easy example.

    In contrast, feminist (or at least non-patriarchal) characters may have one or more of the traits of patriarchy’s ideal woman, but they are not limited to those traits. A really good example of this is some of the wife characters in the TV show Mad Men. The show takes place in the 1960s; the wives know what is expected of them; they don’t have careers of their own and put taking care of their husbands first; they may even turn a blind eye to the husbands’ affairs with their secretaries. HOWEVER, the viewer gets to see things from their perspective–how living in this extreme patriarchy tears them apart, how they want something more, and how they deal with it. They are treated as human beings in complex situations, not happy smiling Stepford Wives.

    In video games, Jade from Beyond Good and Evil is a feminist character even though she is motherly and deeply caring toward the orphans under her care. This is because there is a lot more to her than that. She is also a determined and tough photojournalist. The motherly part of her does not contradict her toughness; they exist simultaneously because she is a complex character, more like a real human being.

    Tenenbaum has a lot in common with the wives of Mad Men in that she is an intelligent woman who is constrained and exploited by an extreme patriarchy. This is what I mean about the lack of interaction with the female characters saying more about Rapture/patriarchy than about the characters themselves: where you read Tenenbaum as weak and patriarchal, I read the situation as a brilliant and complex woman working within the confines of an extreme patriarchy to battle the system. She can’t dismantle the patriarchy on her own, no–she does need the help of the male protagonist–but this doesn’t necessarily mean SHE is weak, it means there are certain insurmountable boundaries placed on women by the patriarchy that can only be overcome with cooperation from those with the power to do so (men). This is something I will elaborate on in the post I’m working on.

    (Out of curiosity, what book did you read? I’m always looking for more feminist reading material. Also, there are a whole lot of great feminist blogs out there on the internet, but a good starting point is http://finallyfeminism101.wordpress.com .)

    • Awesome post. In terms I understand, some of the characters from “Handmaid’s tale” would be Patriarchal Women, Lady Jessica & most of the Bene Gesserit (from Dune series) would be feminist characters.

  9. >>>>>>>>”By saying that “As a scientist, Tenenbaum is both logical and rational.” and then later, “Appealing to emotions further positions Tenenbaum into a more traditional patriarchal female role.”, you are positing these two aspects of Tenenbaum as a contradiction, that she changes from rational to emotional. But feminism REJECTS the division between “male traits” and “female traits” all together, saying that ALL people have both sets of traits to varying degrees regardless of their gender.”

    I know that feminism rejects the division between “male/female traits.” But the purpose of that part of my essay was to point out that some aspects of BioShock paint certain traits of Tenenbaum in a negative light when they would otherwise be perfectly acceptable from a feminist perspective. This bias exposes some of the underlying gender roles that exist to some degree for the characters. Tenebaum at first rejects her maternal instincts. This fact alone shows that Tenebaum sees the different parts of her character as contradictory. Also, Ryan refers to Tenenbaum as a Mother Goose in a derogatory way. The lines are clearly drawn somewhere for these characters. This is the point I wanted to make. I’m not sure the original essay did a clear enough job of this.

    >>>>>>>>”Perhaps you didn’t intend this, but when you say that Tenenbaum is patriarchal because she appeals to emotion, you are saying that a feminist character would or should NOT appeal to emotion.”

    I see what you’re saying here. Sorting out the implications here is tricky. Here’s how I saw things at the time….

    One possible goal of a feminist critique is merely to identify/expose examples that support patriarchal gender roles. It’s completely possible to find some examples that undermine patriarchal values and other examples that reinforce its beliefs all in the same work/scene/character. Just because I pointed out that Tenenbaum moves closer to the side of supporting the patriarchal gender roles doesn’t mean that the idea can be extended to all feminist characters. I thought I could isolate the implications because of how the characters feel toward the different roles. hmm.

    >>>>>>>>”Tenenbaum has a lot in common with the wives of Mad Men in that she is an intelligent woman who is constrained and exploited by an extreme patriarchy. This is what I mean about the lack of interaction with the female characters saying more about Rapture/patriarchy than about the characters themselves: where you read Tenenbaum as weak and patriarchal, I read the situation as a brilliant and complex woman working within the confines of an extreme patriarchy to battle the system. She can’t dismantle the patriarchy on her own, no–she does need the help of the male protagonist–but this doesn’t necessarily mean SHE is weak, it means there are certain insurmountable boundaries placed on women by the patriarchy that can only be overcome with cooperation from those with the power to do so (men).”

    That’s one way to read it. Fulfilling a supporting role in order to aid a male character so the he can be proactive and beat the man to beat the system is a complex scenario that can be read many ways. I’m sure you can see that both of our readings straddle the feminist/patriarchal line so to speak. Depending on what details we each focus on and how we weigh those details, we could end up with very different conclusions even when using the same examples.

    I think this is as far as it goes. We have 2 different readings. I’m satisfied with pointing out a bit of the patriarchal underworkings even if Tenebaum only supports my findings in a small/slight way. I’m sure your post on BioShock will be well worth the investigation.

    >>>>>>>>”Out of curiosity, what book did you read”

    I got my start from a book called “critical theory today: a user-friendly guide” by Lois Tyson. It was for my literary criticism course.

    I appreciate all of the detailed examples. They really help put things in perspective. I’ve seen Transformers 2 and Star Trek and I’m sure we could talk at length about those movies.

  10. To Richard Terrell,
    what a coincidence that I should run across this peice as I am attempting to do research for my final term paper. I was taken aback by all the posts’ and loved word for word. the returning feedback from all the other’s on here are quite interesting. this is the kind of work I like to find when doing research. Thank you all, I will have to keep note of this site for future amusement. I am also reading “Critical Theory Today: a user-friendly guide” by Lois Tyson.

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