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):

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70 Comments »

  1. Aimless says:

    Hmm, well that italicisation didn’t work at all. Do we just use HTML-style bracketing for formatting?

    Ohh, all this talk of brackets. Clearly I’m obsessed with vaginas.

  2. Alec Meer says:

    Actually, the sentence in brackets about the carte blanche dismissal was responding to John’s comment that Barthes rendered much of the discussion in this thread unncessary, and not to you (I should have fully rather than partially quoted John to make that clearer).

    In regards to my original ‘dismissal’, the point was that, having endured all those bloody lectures for three years of my life, I personally can’t help but roll my eyes whenever anyone pops up with a woo-clever subtext (especially ones about sex) they think they’ve found, because I’ve simply heard too many of them. The fact (as you say, not theory, which was just lazy writing on my part) that the author cannot dictate the ultimate experience of the reader/player/whatever doesn’t mean I’m going to automatically take everyone’s reading of something seriously. I’m not referring to Bonnie’s Portal article here, which is a bit of fun clearly penned as a result of thinking “hey, this is a bit like…”, but a lot of the theories I had lectured at me seemed to be grown around the seed of specifically looking for something clever to say, rather than one of honest reaction. It’s that element of bullshitting to make oneself look good that made me wish I’d taken a different degree.

    Clearly, however, you took a far better English Lit course than I did. I wasn’t taught about Barthes in mine, for instance – found out about it seperately.

  3. CrashT says:

    Having just replayed Portal all I can say is I’m glad the Portals aren’t Pink and Brown…

  4. FaceOmeter says:

    “It’s that element of bullshitting to make oneself look good that made me wish I’d taken a different degree.”

    Yeah we seem to have reached a pleasing point of agreement here. Posturing is a deeply unfortunate part of the discipline, especially because it affects the opinions of those outside against some of the really cool guys who are still teaching awesome things about books, which is where it’s at. I THINK though that “idle theorising” is fine (and fun?) so long as the posturing is removed from both (a) it and (b) reactions to it. What I’m incoherently suggesting is that there is a difference between KNOWING THE PATH… AND WALKING THE PATH. Which is also the difference between thinking “oo portal is a bit like sex” and writing 16 books about how portal CANNOT POSSIBLY BE READ IN ANY OTHER WAY YOU IDIOTS.

    In fact for a subject which supposedly teaches PLURALITY OF UNDERSTANDING, english is unfortunately ridden with single-interest eejits pushing social and political agendas which annoy me greatly. I don’t think Bonnie is one of these people and neither do you, so I’m going to shut my big fat pretentious mouth at this point and blow up some shit in TF2… a game with no girls at all.

    Except Portal woman. Again.

  5. Crispy 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.”

    Femininity != lesbianism in the same way masculinity != homosexualism, but this does come back to the point I was making before about Bonnie’s arguments (observations, musings, whatever) being mixed up between two quite different things.

  6. josh g. says:

    Yeah, I dunno. Maybe there’s some gender analysis that doesn’t have to fixate on genitalia? That would be nice.

    http://joshg.wordpress.com/2007/10/18/portals-feminism/

    Hey, where did that URL come from?

  7. josh g. says:

    p.s. Okay, that was shameless. And it’s probably unfair for me to sum up the lesbianism take by calling it genitalia-fixated, even if I do think it’s a wonky interpretation.

  8. Aimless says:

    Well, I meant femininity more in the ‘female characteristic or trait’ sense, as Portal isn’t a stereotypically masculine game. On the other hand I’m not entirely sure what a feminine game would constitute, so I suppose I’d label it as androgynous.

    In any case, I shall try to be a bit clearer in future. Even if I’m not entirely sure what I’m saying myself.

  9. finished_okami_a_while_ago says:

    Thoughtfull and intelligent discussion about serious topics in a gaming blog. I have no idea if video games can be said to have grown up, but some of the gamers sure have.

  10. Crispy says:

    Josh that’s a much more interesting read than other takes on it. The comment about the leg braces might be stretching it, but given the hugely satirical nature of the writers and designers it could be intended as you perceive it.

    In gameplay terms we know the attachments were added to explain to the player why you are able to incur no injury from falls, no matter how long (or else, to try to convince players that this would be the case if they hadn’t jumped yet). But their design is totally up for debate. Other than the requirement that they clearly show their purpose, there are many possible interpretations on that concept, and in fairness Valve did choose to go with the ‘high-heel’ gait. It could be a coincidence,

    As far as the look of Chell herself, they based it on a model from a local talent agency IIRC.

    As far as GlaDOS being a female voice, she was voiced by Ellen McLain, who also provided the announcer for TF2 and the Overwatch announcer in Episode 2, having previously done it for HL2. It could simply be that she was a good voice actor and they used her out of convenience (makes a lot of sense in business terms since they could do the recording all in one bunch, not have to spend money and time on sourcing new voice talent), or it could be the evil computer nemesis was written as a female part and she just happened to fit in with it. Either way, reading around the game you can at least make the point that Valve has given a female employee a rather prominent position on all three games in the Orange Box, so much so she is now a mini-celebrity of sorts.

  11. Crispy says:

    Oh I forgot a comment I was going to make about Chell’s high-heel gait:

    Although originating from an equestrian design intended to reduce slipping out of the stirrups (and for the use exclusively of men), high-heels -or simply, heels in general- are now mostly worn by women. There are several oft-made comments about the phallo-centric enslavement revolving around the design of today’s high-heels and their inferred connotations of femininity. Firstly, the way the posture is altered quite considerably. This has the combined result of accentuating the calf (if shown bare), making the legs appear longer (and more slender if shown bare), and a moderate tightening and accentuation of the buttocks. It also makes the (female) wearer less mobile and more vulnerable. Secondly, the feet are placed in an unnatural and quite uncomfortable arrangement. If we run with these points according to a phallocentric notion (i.e. male-dominated society, where power is expected to be rendered up to the male), the way Chell is portrayed is either accidental, and perhaps symptomatic of phallocentricity, or else it is indeed an incredibly subtle yet astoundingly succinct comment on phallocentricity in games, especially with reference to the female avatar.

    I thought that this information supports your observation quite well. I’m not saying it’s correct, but provided Chell’s elevated heel position can give that impression quite readily, and the idea seems to correlate with supporting evidence (unlike a certain other ill-founded fantasy), I think it’s quite insightful.

  12. Crispy says:

    -that is to say, your original blog entry, not my subsequent podiatric wafflings!

    P.S. Oh, for an edit button!

  13. Thelps says:

    I love this thread. If anything it shows that games can be analysed just as deeply (and spuriously) as most literature. Of course, most academic-grade literature is making a serious point about a wider, real-world issue, and I can’t really see that Portal is, but hell, this is still one of the funniest, most entertaining articles and threads about a game I’ve read in quite a while.

  14. Bobsy says:

    Actually, Portal is a touching analysis of Bulemia as it affects young women. The constant, repeated imagery is that whatever is thrust into one gaping maw is inevitably regurgitated back out of an identical orifice. Note that at this point that the portal is ringed in sickly yellow. Coincidence?

    Hey! This shit’s easy!

  15. Joey says:

    Hmm.

    The player is the female body. Clever, capable, has lots of fun putting things in holes, but can’t make it through life without the aid of a companion.

    GLaDOS is the female mind. Deceptive, crazy, manipulative, murderous, and obsessed with baking.

    And the girl overcomes all solely through the manipulation of her valuable holes.

    OMG SEXISM!

    This is kind of fun. I think I can see why literary pricks do it so much.

  16. Adam says:

    That doesn’t make any sense. In the end, Chell sort of kills GLaDOS… why would the female body kill its own mind?