GLaDOS, the Voice of Postfeminist Control

Warning, spoilers ahead. Image borrowed from ElderGeek.

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.

GLaDOS and Chell. Borrowed from gryphonworks @ deviantART.

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.

AT

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10 responses to “GLaDOS, the Voice of Postfeminist Control”

  1. Sir Edmund says :

    I would argue that GLaDOS’s insults concerning the pc’s weight is actually meant to be farcical illustration how little the computer comprehends human motivation and self-image. ‘She’ is attempting to insult a female character in a manner that her limited understanding and programming assumes will be effective, when in reality it has so little to do with the action of the game that it becomes a humorous attempt at social criticism. That these insults are paired with equally irrelevant comments about Chell being an orphan and attempts to motivate the character with the nebulous promise of cake at the completion of the test further emphasizes the ridiculous nature of GLaDOS’s comments and her inability to relate to her human test subjects.

    Additionally, in Portal 2, when the ‘male’ character attempts to re-used her own criticisms, it is GLaDOS herself who points out how irrelevant the insults are. I see this whole exchange as more of a satire of social assumptions about self-deprecation and self-image than as actually meant to encourage self-surveillance.

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    • Aaron Trammell says :

      There are some points that I agree with here, and some that I do not agree with.

      As I wrote in the final paragraph, the dialogue about Chell being fat IS clearly satire. But, that does not mean that it is without consequence. Problems like anorexia, bulimia, depression, and low-self esteem are actual conditions that many people struggle with. To assume that every player will be able to play Portal like you have, without questioning their own self-image, is just plain wrong. Users like BC2 Cypher (from the Steam user forums) who agree that this is all satire, but then in the same post demonstrate a need to justify their own size, or lack thereof, demonstrate how even satire can be problematically internalized.

      As far as your point about GLaDOS’s later dialogue with Wheatley, I considered including it in this post. You are right! There is a point where GLaDOS repents. At this point, however; the balance of power has shifted. No longer is GLaDOS the voice of authority and control, but now Wheatley, a masculine gendered robot, is. In my opinion, your point is moot here, although GLaDOS does defend Chell, the reiteration of gender norms through a male voice is no better.

      Please take these points as an attempt to read past the surface level of a video game. The point of this article is not that Portal is making us all self-conscious about our weight; but instead that Portal epitomizes a moment when mediated surveillance transforms into self-surveillance. Clearly, in your case, it did not; but for myself, and others. . .

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  2. mr. oyola says :

    I never thought of GLaDOS’s voice as feminine, but a robot voice without gender. This may have changed in Portal 2 (I have not played it). I find it fascinating that you (and many others, it appears) have equated the machine’s voice with a gender, and wonder if her alternating helpful and cutting remarks might have something to do with reading the voice in this way.

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    • Arielle Shander says :

      GLaDOS’ voice is modeled to sound like a woman’s, though. That doesn’t mean she’s a true woman (she lacks a biological body), but as the article said, Caroline (Cave Johnson’s wife) was apparently the “inspiration” for GLaDOS. I can see what you’re saying, but I still call GLaDOS a “she” since she’s based off a specific woman (Caroline). GLaDOS is closer to human compared to many other robots, so just like we call Bender from Futurama a “he,” it makes sense to call GLaDOS a “she.” If she had a gender-neutral tone, I’d call her an “it.”

      I think people would call GLaDOS a “he” if she had a male voice or gender-neutral voice (since, oddly enough, people often go for the so-called “male default” in language, as opposed to the more reasonable gender-neutral for genderless individuals or for those whose gender is not confirmed).

      I’m glad GLaDOS has a female-sounding voice– having a female protagonist *and* antagonist is almost unheard of, so Portal gave us a real treat there! As a female game design student, there are many times where I imagine a female protagonist in my game ideas.

      Anyway, I thought the article brought up some very interesting points. I didn’t even know GLaDOS was being called a “feminist icon.” Haha!

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      • Aaron Trammell says :

        Thanks, Arielle! You beat me to the punch. I will also add that outside of the Portalverse – in the “real” world of game production, Ellen McLain, a female voice actress plays GLaDOS. Here is an interesting excerpt from an interview with McLain posted at Retroplayer: http://www.thegaminglibrary.com.

        —-
        Retroplayer- In Portal you the very popular creation GlaDOS. What are your views on GlaDOS as a character?

        Ellen- I think if she had more dates she’d be a lot happier.
        —-

        Like it or not, even when modified, the voice takes on a set of gendered connotations. Along with these connotations come some of the problems I discussed in this piece.

        Thanks, both, for the great feedback!

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      • mr. oyola says :

        I was trying to comment on the fact that without knowing the gender of the voice actor and just playing through the game, _I_ never thought of GLADoS as feminine. I was trying to figure out why others (most players?) considered it as such (without recourse to information outside the confines of the game) as the _sound_ of the voice struck me as more mechanical than gendered (i.e. there must be something about HOW GLADoS says things), esp. when compared to say, the computer voice on Star Trek: The Next Generation which is clearly a recording of a woman’s voice.

        Perhaps a better question might be why DIDN’T I think of the voice as feminine gendered, and if at some level I am falling victim to the cultural assumption that all that matters is that it is NOT masculine, and thus not worth thinking about too much.

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