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).

Moral "Choices"

(This post contains spoilers for the ending Fable II.)

I’m currently playing Bioshock and will be writing a lot about it in the coming weeks (and I know talking about how awesome Bioshock is at this point is kind of like saying “Hey, have you heard of this thing called ‘The Internet’? It’s super neat!” but bear with me!). To kick things off I’d like to address the hook of the game: the decision whether to “harvest” or rescue the Little Sisters.

A brief summary, for those who don’t know or have forgotten: In Bioshock‘s game world of Rapture, the Little Sisters are essentially little girls that have been genetically altered to harvest a substance called Adam from dead people. Adam is used by the inhabitants of Rapture to modify their own genes to give them super powers. Because it is a very valuable substance, the Little Sisters are protected by the now-iconic Big Daddies from the people and creatures who want the Adam from the Little Sisters.

When you kill a Big Daddy you have the option of either rescuing or “harvesting” the Little Sister: harvesting takes all the Adam from her and kills her. Rescuing her takes only some of the Adam and frees her from the creepy enchantment-like state. Thus the game’s “tough moral decision” is set up: do you kill the Little Sister and get more Adam, allowing you to upgrade your powers more quickly and thus be more likely to survive Rapture? Or do you rescue the Little Sister, putting yourself more at risk but doing the Right Thing?

The thing is, during playtesting the Bioshock team found that because the “evil” path was more rewarding, players would almost exclusively choose that path, no moral agonizing. This led to a change in the final game: saving the Little Sisters actually ends up netting you more Adam and more powerful Plasmids (super powers) because in addition to the small amount of Adam gained from rescuing the Little Sister, you are given a gifts from one of the game’s characters as thanks for rescuing them.

So, ultimately, the “tough moral decision” was anything but, even with a charming Scotsman trying to convince me otherwise. For me, saving the Little Sisters was an easy choice: I did the Right Thing, and got better rewards for it.

The choice did, however, leave me to wonder what an actual agonizing moral choice would look like in a game, and how it could be implemented. There is one recent game that possibly does this, or comes close: Fable II.

Unfortunately I haven’t played Fable II, but this is what I know about the ending: during the course of the game your family, your dog, and thousands of people die; after the final boss is defeated you get three choices: 1. You can have 1 million gold (which is fairly meaningless because when playing the game you probably have more than that already), 2. Revive your dog and your family, or 3. Revive the thousands of other people that were killed.

Now just from reading about it, the choice between 2 and 3 seems like a truly difficult choice. Choice 3 nets you more “good” points, and is generally the right thing to do for the greater good, but because by this point the player really cares about her dog (and likely her family as well, depending on what she brings to the table) so doing the not-so-good thing is much more tempting.

Of course, because the townspeople aren’t real, it’s probably easy for a lot of players to simply do what is best for themselves (revive the family) because the game world truly revolves around their character. But I think the emotional connection to what is being lost is something that was missing from the Bioshock choice; so while the ending of Fable II might still be a fairly easy choice for most people, it’s definitely on the right track.

(Next I’ll be getting into some feminist analysis of Bioshock, which I’m really surprised hasn’t been done yet because there is a lot to talk about!)