GLaDOS, the Voice of Postfeminist Control
Much has been written about Portal, it has won at least seven “Game of the Year” awards and has been ranked as the “Best Game of all Time” by Gamesradar. Perhaps because both the hero and antagonist are women, it has also been the object of several cultural critiques. One blogger writes, “GLaDOS [the game's villian] is the archetypical oppressed woman.” In an article published by GamePro (a mass-market game review magazine) GLaDOS is considered a “feminist icon.” Although “feminist icon” is a bit extreme, GLaDOS does have a lot to do with feminism. When seen in light of Rosalind Gill’s (2007) essay, “Postfeminist media culture,” GLaDOS, and her wry, disembodied voice, hold striking parallels to the immanence of surveillance in today’s world.
At their core, the games in Valve Software’s Portal series are relatively straightforward: you are put in control of a female character named Chell, who is attempting to escape from the Aperture Science Laboratory complex. Equipped, mainly, with a portal gun (think Yellow Submarine, “Hole in My Pocket”), Chell traverses precipices, laser drones, acid pits and everything in-between. As she navigates and manipulates these obstacles, a disembodied Orwellian voice guides Chell from one puzzle to the next. This is the voice of GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System), a self-aware computer who runs the joint (at least in Portal 1) and is keeping you around for further “testing.” Where Portal is claustrophobic, just you and GLaDOS, Portal 2 is a little more dynamic. A third character, Wheatley, is introduced. In both games, however; there is an inescapable feeling of surveillance and scrutiny. GLaDOS’s monotonous voice is everywhere, the robotic platforms of the Aperture complex are the only appendages of her body to be found.
What to make of the GLaDOS’s character? Although she is helpful at first when guiding Chell through the early tests, GLaDOS quickly adopts a sarcastic tone - putting Chell down, and belittling her mistakes. G. Christopher Williams of PopMatters reads into the backstory a bit. He points out that GLaDOS is modeled on the personality of the Aperture Science CEO, Cave Johnson’s, wife: Caroline. In the second game there is a tape of Johnson elaborating:
Brain Mapping. Artificial Intelligence. We should have been working on it thirty years ago. I will say this—and I’m gonna say it on tape so everybody hears it a hundred times a day: If I die before you people can pour me into a computer, I want Caroline to run this place.
Now she’ll argue. She’ll say she can’t. She’s modest like that.
But you make her.
Hell, put her in my computer. I don’t care.
GLaDOS, then, has a bit of a history. Within this history there is a glass ceiling. GLaDOS has had a dampening sphere installed to limit her “irrational thinking,” and curb her “misbehavior.” Tellingly, this sphere whispers terrible ideas to her in a babbling male voice. At the end of Portal 1, Chell destroys the dampening sphere, and GLaDOS is free to get revenge on the society that has caged her. At this key moment, the tonality of her voice shifts from accommodating to sultry.
This change in voice accompanies a change in disposition. As Chell continues her adventures in Portal 2, GLaDOS returns with a set of suspiciously cutting remarks. Several barbs are made about Chell gaining weight, being unintelligent, and being adopted. In the sequel, GLaDOS is especially critical of Chell’s body. These pot-shots figure perfectly into Gill’s (2007) hallmarks of postfeminism: 1) the increased self-surveillance of the female body, 2) the increase of surveillance in new social sectors, and 3) a focus on the psychological transformation of one’s self, or interior life. Chell, the avatar, isn’t being judged on her weight (or lack thereof). Instead, GLaDOS’s remarks cut to the player, who recognizes that neither they nor Chell fit GLaDOS’s ideal. Although, in the narrative, GLaDOS typifies an extension of invisible and disembodied surveillance into new spheres of life, her comments act to foster self-surveillance in the embodied player.
GLaDOS’s comments have even jarred some users in the Steam Users’ Forums (Steam is Valve’s online distribution platform). In a thread entitled, “Portal 2 Sexist,” one user, loodmoney, asked if anyone else found GLaDOS’s fat jokes off-putting. To this, another user, Killalaz replied, “GLaDOS is trying to discourage/dishearten the testers. Chell is a woman, what bothers a woman more than being called fat? Not much. . .psychological warfare so to speak.” Although Killalaz may be reading too literally into Portal 2’s narrative, he is right about one thing: to some extent, GLaDOS, and therefore Valve Software, is waging psychological warfare on us all. Later in the thread another user, BC2 Cypher, demonstrates the extent that attitudes of self-surveillance can work to mold one’s psyche, “I don’t see the issue he’re. I actually used to BE fat. Lost 72 pounds when I was 15. 232 – 160. It’s not like Chell is even fat. That is the joke.” The real joke, if there is one, is that so many players are content to reduce GLaDOS’s comments to a self-contained dialogue between fictional characters. What is heard, actually, relates directly to the way dialogue from Portal is internalized. In these forums, the voice of GLaDOS is reproduced; it mediates the bodies of some fans (by supposing an ideal weight), and surveils the bodies of others (by guiding the dialogue).
But, when I play Portal, I occasionally smirk at GLaDOS’s comments. They are cutting satire. If GLaDOS is a feminist icon, it is because she is a voice that everyone carries with them at all times. The voice in our heads, that causes us to judge and shape ourselves, while simultaneously passing unkind judgment on to others. GLaDOS is iconic of the postfeminist condition – a condition where surveillance is assumed and internalized. And, our bodies are shaped through the hyper-mediation of games like Portal, and characters like GLaDOS, as they replicate themselves in web forums, and in our own voices.
Tags: Aperture Science, bodies, Caroline, Cave Johnson, Chell, feminism, G. Christopher Williams, Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System, GLaDOS, hyper-surveillance, mediation, Portal, postfeminism, Rosalind Gill, sexism, surveillance, weight, Wheatley
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