Portal: Totally Gay?

By Alec Meer on October 18th, 2007 at 9:55 am.

Whether it’s a book, a film or a game, a sure sign of something being an important work is when someone starts reading hidden subtexts into it. Having been an English Literature student and subjected to this or that tutor’s crackpot theories about this or that novel on a regular basis, I unfortunately have a very thin tolerance these days for seeking underlying meanings that the creator probably never intented to be there. So personally, I’m not quite buying the argument in this interesting, funny (and OMGspoilerz) analysis by Bonnie over at Heroine Sheik of how Portal could be a tale of lesbianism, but you may. It’s certainly a fine read, and it makes me happy that a game is inspiring this kind of thoughtful, if wry, critique.

But in a world of women, this gun doesn’t shoot bullets. It shoots orifices. Openings. Fine, vaginas. Vaginas you, a female character, have to enter/exit to solve puzzles. I don’t say this often, and almost never with so much support and enthusiasm, but that is so gay.
Bonnie Ruberg

Whether it’s gay or not, as a game with an all-girl cast (WCC aside), at least one female lead developer (in Kim Swift), and minimal emphasis on the traditional FPS pursuits of destruction and violence, there’s certainly much to be said about Portal and gender. It doesn’t present the potentially oppressively masculine scenario that us meatheaded boys usually play, and that’s probably why we’re hearing sporadic tales of “my girlfriend plays Portal” and the like. Though I suspect that, really, it’s much more to do with Portal actually innovating rather than sticking doggedly to the genre’s guns. So to speak.

Edit – any game can, of course, have its gender appeal entirely reversed with just a few simple tweaks (with thanks to Tom from ThinkingGames for the link):

, , .

70 Comments »

Sponsored links by Taboola
  1. Xerxes says:

    People will read into anything. Usually it’s indicative of their own state of mind, rather than the content they are discussing.
    Like you, I grew tired of hearing those theories in English Literature studies. When you realise that you could say anything, no matter how crazy, as long as you find some tentative link in the novel to justify your silly claims. Worked for me throughout that class.

    Oh and Gordon Freeman represents liberals and the Combine is the right wing… so Half Life 2 is actually a liberal training tool to turn today’s youth against conservative thinking.
    You can see this in Gordon Freeman helping people and the Combine oppressing them…

    Do I get my own news story now?

  2. Masterdog says:

    (Spoilers)

    I reckon Portal is actually a thinly disguised allegory of life. You start out with little idea of what’s going on, you learn about what you can do inside this comfy little world. Then you burst through a portal and find the world outside is a lot different, it’s grimy and murky and a struggle to survive. Then you kill a homicidal robot and don’t get any cake. I don’t know about you, but that’s a lot like my life.

  3. The unexplained whooping of Gladys McCartney says:

    Sometimes an interdimensional rift is *just* and interdimensional rift.

  4. Wroth says:

    The game originally featured a male protagonist for quite a while. He featured in one of Portal’s trailers and in many demonstrations of the game.

  5. The unexplained whooping of Gladys McCartney says:

    The WCC is presumably ambiguously gay himself? Male, but emblazoned with pink hearts and likes to talk about his feelings and eat cake.

  6. The unexplained whooping of Gladys McCartney says:

    The game originally featured a male protagonist for quite a while. He featured in one of Portal’s trailers and in many demonstrations of the game.

    Then it would have been an allegory for consensual rape and the ubiquitous phallocentrism of blah blah blah…

  7. tcliu says:

    “The game originally featured a male protagonist for quite a while.”

    That would be something for the psychologists to chew on: A man equipped with a gun that shoots vaginas.

  8. mno says:

    “That would be something for the psychologists to chew on: A man equipped with a gun that shoots vaginas.”

    Yep, I guess Valve’s playtesting concluded that men playing men jumping into vaginas would result in:
    * men perpetually jumping through portals, and thus never finishing the game (bad, as most gamers are men)
    * getting a lot of feminist flack

  9. Andrew says:

    Oh God. Having also been an English student (before I dropped it because of the massive overanalysing of everything), this sort of stuff is anathema to me.

    Ah well.

    At least it’s not ‘Hamlet was a woman’.

  10. Monkfish says:

    Bonnie’s thoughts on the WCC made me chuckle:

    “if we’re sticking with the idea that it’s a ‘man,’ we could call it commentary on the usefulness of men: they’re cute, but they’re a burden”

    Of course, let’s not forget that the test chamber featuring the WCC cannot be escaped without the aid of the cube. Burden, indeed! :)

  11. Crispy says:

    Well if she really needs so desperately to cling on to Portal as her closest example of a lesbian game until a game is released that actually purports to dealing with the lesbian condition is out, that’s fine by me. Very post-modern blah, blah, blah, but if the opinion is really to be given any weight then a study of the principle designers is in order.

    For example, up until one point apparently the portal was going to be square, but certain gameplay and engine advantages made it necessary to switch to an oval form. I can only presume that if this change hadn’t been necessary good ol’ Ruberg would be referring to the portals instead as ‘box-shaped orifaces’ in a desperate attempt to cling to her theory. Without any more than pure conjecture this argument is far too contrived for me.

  12. Kast says:

    Slightly off subject, I did become to be quite worried when GLaDOS announced the “Bring Your Daughter to Work Day”. Why ‘daughter’? Why not ‘child’? What is it about the female sex that GLaDOS particularly requires? Especially in the context of the portal tests?

    Does GLaDOS want to train an army of super-women with perfect 3D spatial awareness (a trait the gender supposedly lacks)? Worse, an army of super-women breeders?

    It was all vaguely disturbing.

  13. mno says:

    “the lesbian condition”

    Makes it sound like something you could contract from prolonged exposition, or something that could/should be cured. I’m quite not sure thats how sexuality works.

  14. Nate says:

    I dunno. There’s nothing wrong with seeing shapes in clouds. It’s a form of introspection. Judging from the tone, the author isn’t implying any particular intent to the authors.

    Meaning and theme are strongest, not when they’re built-in to something, but when they’re discovered, when they’re a particular (and sometimes unique) relationship between a creation and a connoisseur.

  15. Kast says:

    “Meaning and theme are strongest, not when they’re built-in to something, but when they’re discovered, when they’re a particular (and sometimes unique) relationship between a creation and a connoisseur.”

    It’s called ‘making it up’. And is especially heinous when the artist hasn’t even implicitly invited the audience to analyze/investigate the work’s meaning and implications.

  16. Man Raised By Puffins says:

    Kast, GLaDOS was only brought online on “Bring Your Daughter to Work Day” (hence why she mentions it, presumably) so I don’t she had a hand in its organisation. Also I’ve only ever heard of “Bring Your Daughter to Work Day”s (although they seem to have expanded their remit recently) so any sinister undertones probably aren’t intentional.

    As for this lesbian stuff, it’s all a bit of fun as far as I’m concerned.

  17. Matthew Craig says:

    “Bring Your Daughter to Work Day”

    I wouldn’t be surprised if that event – and that specific phrasing – is designed to promote the idea that young girls can (and should expect/demand to) break through the glass ceiling.

    I mean, I dunno – aren’t most of the top jobs in the sorts of white collar workplaces these things are intended for still held by chaps?

    That said, I’m sure I saw something on the news last year about young lads lagging behind, academically. I guess the aspirational door swings both ways.

    (I had an on-topic gag here, but I’ll save it)

    //\Oo/\\

  18. tom says:

    Well at least it should be “ghey” or “ghay”. I mean come on get with the pr0gr4m…

  19. Kieron Gillen says:

    Idly, I should write up my gay-examination of Rainbow Islands at some point.

    KG

  20. John Walker says:

    I find myself as annoyed by people’s reaction to analysis as those people are by the analysis. I think this essay raises interesting ideas in terms of a reading of the text. Not only are portals inherently vaginal, but the game makes many references to its being a girl’s world, from the menioned Bring Your Daughter To Work Day, to the “Aperture Science Self-Esteem Fund For Girls”.

    Sniffy pooh-poohing of analytical readings strikes me as inverse snobbery.

    And this entire debate is rendered somewhat unnecessary by Barthes, thanks to Death Of The Author.

    http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/barthes06.htm

  21. FaceOmeter says:

    “Having been an English Literature student and subjected to this or that tutor’s crackpot theories about this or that novel on a regular basis, I unfortunately have a very thin tolerance these days for seeking underlying meanings that the creator probably never intented to be there.”

    They clearly didn’t teach you much! Every first year undergraduate can give you the MO on the Death of the Author…

  22. FaceOmeter says:

    PS – As it seems that John is keenly aware…

  23. Alec Meer says:

    FaceOmeter: I was and am well aware of death of the author, thank you. It didn’t meant I could magically stomach yet another lecture banging on about phallic imagery in The Turn of The Screw for an hour, however.
    To be clear, I don’t believe that there’s anything wrong with reading Portal this way, and nor do I say so. I just don’t go with portal=vagina myself.
    (I also don’t personally feel that Barthes’ theory gives carte blanche to deem discussion on the merits of other readings unnecessary).

  24. tom says:

    “Idly, I should write up my gay-examination of Rainbow Islands at some point.”

    I always thought there was something up with bub n bob too….

  25. Kieron Gillen says:

    Bub + Bob are tiny lesbians. I know they’re meant to be boys. But they’re not. They’re tiny little butch-dykes.

    I’m not even joking. LOOK AT THEM.

    KG

  26. Kieron Gillen says:

    (Seriously, I’m a Le Tigre fan. Trust me on this.)

    KG

  27. finished_okami_a_while_ago says:

    As far as Bub’n’Bob are concerned: I don’t really care if they’re gay or not (I guess they are) but I can’t understand why they didn’t want to remain dragons?

    Seriusly, their dragon incarnations have it all: They are cute und cuddly, they can spit bubbles, fire and lightning and are generally all kinds of cool. And then they go and become fat little boys that shoot rainbows from their crotches?

    Why would anybody do such a thing? Why not stay a dragon?

    Seriously, this question has been bothering me for the last 15+ years…

  28. Feet says:

    Perhaps the female theme running through Portal will be tied into Ep3, with Alyx being made a new test subject or something.

    Perhaps the Combine are actually entirely female and they want to destroy Humanity and the Vortigants for having a male gender as well and they think it’s BLASPHEMY! Perhaps. Perhaps not.

  29. Crispy says:

    I’m sorry but ‘claiming something is there’ is not the same as ‘analysis’. For me to consider it analysis, I’d want to have some discussion of the implications of the supposed vaginacentricity on the player, and some examination of whether the game was intentionally designed to be this way, or if not, what subliminal.

    At the moment the ‘theory’ has no more substance or interest for me than ‘portals = vaginas’. She is really mixing up her arguments, too. She says: “We’re dealing with a reshaping of a highly masculine genre, the FPS”, but there’s a big difference between masculine and male heterosexual. Just because, there’s a female lead, it doesn’t mean she is lesbian.

    She touches on an important point, far more valid than her main one, and then clouds it in lesbian crusadery. I think there’s much more to gain from an analysis of Valve’s quite conscious decision to bring in more strong female lead characters to the aforementioned male-dominated FPS. But I’m guessing her preoccupations would get in the way of that.

    P.S. “‘the lesbian condition’ Makes it sound like something you could contract from prolonged exposition [sic], or something that could/should be cured. I’m quite not sure thats how sexuality works.”

    – Ever heard of the term ‘the human condition’, the ‘male/female condition’? It’s a turn of phrase, it’s not an attempt at devaluing lesbianism.

  30. Crispy says:

    Forgot to finish a sentence: “For me to consider it analysis, I’d want to have some discussion of the implications of the supposed vaginacentricity on the player, and some examination of whether the game was intentionally designed to be this way, or if not, what subliminal factors could have influenced the deseign of the game in this direction. Without any actual analysis of the background surrounding the game it’s little more than a title for analysis.”

  31. John Walker says:

    I do disagree that it’s inherently lesbian. If anything, you’re holding a penis gun that allows you to penetrate vagina-portals.

  32. Iain says:

    Worse than that, John, you’re holding a penis gun that rips holes in the fabric of reality to create vaginas that you can insert yourself through for your own personal gain.

    YOU’RE RAPING THE SPACE-TIME CONTINUUM, JUST SO YOU CAN GET SOME CAKE.

    It’s nothing to do with lesbianism, it’s a morality tale highlighting the inherent violence within human nature that makes us destroy the world around us for our own short-term benefit.

    Okay, I just completely made that up… but you get the point – you can read anything into anything if you try hard enough.

  33. finished_okami_a_while_ago says:

    I’m really quite amused by the, sometimes heated, discussion here about a little piece that is obviously satirical in nature.

  34. finished_okami_a_while_ago says:

    And another thing: I’m one of those people who not only can read anything into anything but actually will read anything into anything, just to keep me amused. So I couldn’t help to be anything but delighted by Bonnies whacky analysis.

    I also seriously need to get the OrangeBox. Like, right now.

  35. Wroth says:

    How is it satirical exactly? Is it parodying other over-analytical perspectives on Portal? Because so far, this is the only one I’ve seen.

  36. Dracko says:

    The FPS genre is a deeply homoerotic mask for the loss of homosocial bonding due to the Nanny State’s incursion into attempting to minimize the innate gender differences between young boys and girls into a homogeneously passive third sex that is neither penetrative nor receptive. by inserting the spermal bullets into the bodies of idealized (and overly stylized) male bodies in games like Far Cry (muscle boys at the beach where the only female figure is a distant prize) or even Half-Life 2 (the Combine are fetish-wear wearing zombies whose personalities have been removed leaving them only with prostheticized penis/gun interactions, and whose limp bodies lay still only after having been invaded – and conquered – by the player)… Hell, even F.E.A.R. features a female antagonist who only become truly deadly to the player when she’s featured as a post-pubescent nightmare; the rest of her time is spent attempting to annihilate all male contact and eroding the homosocial bond innate in male groups as a way of subsuming the natural inclination of domination within said groups.

    In S.T.A.L.K.E.R. there are no women at all, just a barren landscape from which The Mother has been erased and only the hard masculine features of male-male combat and camaraderie are left.

    Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay takes place in an all male prison camp in space. Nevermind.

    In short, all of my favorite games are about forcible sodomy. (The best kind!)

  37. cloudy-b says:

    Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  38. finished_okami_a_while_ago says:

    Ok, maybe satire isn’t the right word. English is not my native language and I fear I can’t express myself with it the way I’d like to.

    But it’s clear that the analysis doesn’t take itself to seriously. I really doubt that it was intended as a serious theory or anything like that but just to play around with a few ideas and entertain it’s readers.

    That’s a word like “partner” that often gets used as a euphemism for lover or girlfriend. Is that stretching things? Of course. All the more fun!

    Doesn’t really sound like a full blown scientifc analysis to me..

  39. Kast says:

    “Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay takes place in an all male prison camp in space. Nevermind.”

    Yeah, too easy. Just listen to the commentary about Waman and his cell-mate (who’s name escapes me). Fascinating, actually.

  40. Kieron Gillen says:

    Okami: I think I agree people are having a bit of a sense of humour failiure. It’s a playful analysis.

    KG

  41. Iain says:

    cloudy-b says: Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

    Try telling that to Monica Lewinsky…

  42. Dracko says:

    I don’t know about you guys, but when I go in a vagina I generally don’t come out the other end because I’m pretty sure that’s a) impossible and b) murder.

  43. finished_okami_a_while_ago says:

    This might not seem to be related to the topic at hand at first glance, but please take a look at the new Witcher trailer over at GameTrailers.

    http://www.gametrailers.com/player/26580.html

    That monster at the very end: Am I the only one who’s reminded of a giant penis with teeth by it?

    And if indeed I am, should I be worried?

  44. mujadaddy says:

    I like vagina?

  45. CrashT says:

    So, should I be worried if my girlfriend starts to enjoy playing Portal?

  46. Willy359 says:

    I don’t think the game is training women to break through the glass ceiling because the portals don’t stick there.

    The portals are clearly a metaphor for the gastro-intestinal tract. Things go in one opening and come out the other.

  47. Nick says:

    Why are they inherently vaginal? When I go into a vagina I don’t suddenly poke out another vagina somewhere else.

    That would just be weird.

  48. George says:

    Hmmm, It’s defininately a great game…

    BUT.

    in the ending song – it says the word GLaD (as in GLaDOS) but if you look up GLAD on google…

    Gay and Lesbain Advocates & Defenders…
    lol

    http://www.glad.org/

  49. FaceOmeter says:

    wheee! reading back over my last i came over as about 200% twattier than intended, so I apologise for that…

    “I also don’t personally feel that Barthes’ theory gives carte blanche to deem discussion on the merits of other readings unnecessary”

    I actually agree with you insofar as I disagree with blanket use of the theory to automatically invalidate any other discussion (I believe Barthes himself recanted of it later for this reason) but I think that regardless of your commitment to structuralism it’s still quite dangerous to rely so high-handedly on the all-knowing-author when, at the end of the day, 1967 was more than ‘just’ a theory, it *has* had a lasting and interdisciplinary effect on the way we view texts… dodgy though a lot of structuralism is, I’m still not sure that Death of the Author is something you can “choose to subscribe to” any more than Darwinism is at this point… the bickering academic community has agreed that far?

    What I’m trying to say (and again, John said it better and much more conscisely) is that my (twatty-looking) comment wasn’t a “carte blanche dismissal”, but rather a refutation of YOUR “carte blanche dismissal”. Of a sensible approach which commands the respect of nearly everyone.

    PS. If this gets into a proper flame-war (I’m really not as gitty as this make me look), then won’t it be NICE to be flaming about THE BIG ISSUES instead of whether the wii has good graphics or not?! “derrida is gimmick lol” “u trolling marxbots always pushin yr economic arguments, get a life lol” &c.

  50. Aimless says:

    The article just seemed like a bit of fun to me, something for gaming brains to chew on whilst being made aware of the talking point of femininity in games.

    If it were serious then I might have to roll my eyes a little, mainly because I’m fed up of causes trying to claim all the good things in life for themselves. For instance, after helping someone out I was once told that was, “very Christian of me.” No it wasn’t, I’m just not a complete bastard; if I don’t believe in God then it’s rather annoying to have people claim my goodwill is inherently associated with their religion. Likewise, to have [i]Portal[/i]’s greatness credited to lesbianism would make me sigh.

    Anyway, that isn’t what is happening here. I’m simply trying to expound why I, and possibly other people, find the idea of things they love being spuriously accredited to causes or ideals as an agitative one.

    Incidentally, I’ve always wanted to make a first-person game with no shooting in it. Am I secretly a woman?