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Is BioShock Feminist? A response in defense of Bridgette Tenenbaum

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.

Is BioShock Feminist? A response in defense of Tenenbaum

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.

Read more on the While !Finished blog.

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   PS3   PC  
Developer(s): Irrational Games   2K Boston  
Series: BioShock  
Genre(s): Shooting  
Articles: Editorials  
Topic(s): Gender Roles  

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A few things...

I think you dismiss the "girls as commodities" argument too easily. This is tied in with the larger critique of the moral choice in BioShock, because saving the girls also results in material reward -- not just ADAM, but also ammo, tonics, and unique plasmids. The first-time player who has never used a walkthrough may save the first few girls as a purely unselfish choice, but after he receives his first teddy bear it is equally possible to view saving the girls as an acquisition of ADAM. In this light the girls lives are much like commodities on a market: one can choose to consume them for their resources, or trade them for other resources.

Whether their status as commodities has any bearing on a pro- or anti- feminist message is another question, where you make a good point. Because they are children, the message (if there is one) is somewhat obscured. If it were little boys, would we accuse the game of misandry?

Also, I think you're missing some of what's going on with Tenenbaum's transition. The revelations about Tenenbaum are meant to sculpt the player's attitude towards her. Specifically, we are supposed to hate Tenenbaum the scientist, and like Tenenbaum the nurturing mother, even if she creeps us out a little. I think part of Terell's point is that the game conditions us to dislike Tenenbaum when she is in a non-traditional role and like her when she is in a traditional one. The question is not whether some post hoc rationalization can show Tenenbaum is still just as smart when she's being a mother. The question is whether BioShock achieves its immediate psychological goals by trading in or reinforcing traditional patriarchal ideals. I don't think you've addressed that as comprehensively as you could.

As for the case of Julie Langford, consider mhat in our much more limited interaction with her, she addresses her daughter (in the tape "The Lazarus Vector"). A positive attitude towards Langford may be sculpted by her actual motherhood, as well as her symbolic motherhood as caretaker of the Arcadia Gardens.

Sparky, you hit on a lot of

Sparky, you hit on a lot of the things I've been thinking about since writing this piece. In particular, the subject of the Little Sisters is one I've rethought again and again--there are so many ways of looking at it and I can't pick one that satisfies me. In some ways they represent how people are indoctrinated into patriarchy, and at the same time they are commodified, as you say. Ultimately, it seems like BioShock has progressive aims, but sacrifices clarity of message for gameplay (not that that's a bad thing).

The author of the initial criticism actually commented on this piece when it was originally posted, and we had an interesting conversation in which both of our original positions evolved quite a bit. If anyone is interested in reading that conversation, the original piece is here: http://tinyurl.com/isbioshockfeminist

I hope to take a second look at the game and hopefully write more about it in the near future.

Why it's not intrinsically bad to cuddle with a cat

This post usefully problematizes the interesting but somewhat one-dimensional discussion found in Terrell's article, but I think his take on the Mother Goose theme was more or less right. As with so many phenomena discussed by feminist theory, there's nothing wrong with maternal feelings as such (and they clearly serve an important role in the story's moral rejection of Rapture's pseudo-Randian utilitarianism), but when used (as I think it partly is used in BioShock) as a way to "humanize" (=feminize) the coldly rational Tenenbaum it serves an all-too familiar purpose. To take a more trivial example, it's not intrinsically bad to cuddle with a cat, but when the tough and resourceful Ellen Ripley does so in a brief scene in "Alien", it's difficult not to see it as the movie's way of reminding you that she is, after all, a women...

The plot hole regarding her

The plot hole regarding her not shooting at the player; she knows who and what the player is and even had a hand in his creation. It wouldn't make sense for her to kill the player even if he does start harvesting little sisters; she would know precisely what was at stake.

Also, I got the impression she was actually one of the medical experimenters at the concentration camp rather than an inmate.

I can't read the original

I can't read the original piece (the site seems to be down; I found my way here through RockPaperShotgun), so I can't comment on the original piece. But some of the counterpoints you brought up bug me such that I think I can guess at the original point - and maybe try and explain it better.

Commentors above me have addressed most of the specific points pretty well, so I'll take a shot at the general gist; the bit at the end, where you ask if you're missing something. I think I know what it is.

You assert that you're approaching this with "practical" feminism, while Terell's approach is one of theory. I'd argue that it's the other way around. Basically, what Terell is doing is recognizing a pattern. There's a way society's conditioned us to expect things to happen, and if we pay attention we can see things in fiction playing out according to those rules.

Terell's being practical. He, familiar with antifeminist logic, is pointing out the ways it shines through in the game design. The ways it fits the pattern.

. . .

Lets look at the Little Sisters thing. They're explicitly gendered, and fill a traditionally helpless and passive role. Contrast to what we'd expect from Little Brothers, say; it'd be a little odd that they'd take their plight so passively, since little boys are supposed to be willful and rambunctious and aggressive.

But they're Little Sisters. Little girls for you to rescue. They fit the classic pattern pretty well. I mean, yeah; the point is totally to reject the premise of them being disposable Adam-taps, but you aren't given the opportunity to reject the premise of them being helpless little girls.

So the point, really, is that the fact that there's more to them *beyond* fitting antifeminist patterns doesn't make them not antifeminist.

Tenenbaum works the same way. The fact that she's a complex character with emotions and secrets and motivations doesn't mean that she *doesn't* fit the pattern of aloof, independent women being revealed to be significantly more "womanly" then they'd previously let on. Compare to the very similar development where the icy no-nonsense female character melts and becomes the male protagonist's love interest.

The problem isn't that she's a shallow character, or that she's a caricature. She's neither, but she *is* fitting a very well establish pattern that we seriously should've gotten over by now.

And ditto to the cartoons, and the various Splicers. Both are technically part of the antagonists; technically, they're "bad" things. But the cartoons are one of the rare bits of light and color and humor in the otherwise garishly lit and energetically disintegrating - and extremely threatening - city. And the Splicers' insanity is painted in broad, dramatic strokes; yes, they're insane, but it's a very theatrical and tragic sort of insanity, and they aren't portrayed entirely unsympathetically.

The game does nothing to point out the misogyny involved in either. It just quietly slips into a familiar pattern, and immerses you in a game world that's got this logic playing about in the background. So the patterns are very much there.

. . .

And that's what you're missing, I think. We're all pretty used to the patterns by this point, to the point that we don't really notice them half the time when they show up. Terell's approaching this practically: he sees the patterns show up, and he points them out where he sees them. You, on the other hand, are responding with a lot of rationalizing and a lot of "Well things are also like this so that makes it different."

But it doesn't, really. I mean, it *would,* if the game actually used these as points from which to tackle the issue? But it doesn't, and the fact that there's this *other* narrative there *also* doesn't mean that this stuff isn't actually present.

Anonymous wrote: The plot

Anonymous wrote:

The plot hole regarding her not shooting at the player; she knows who and what the player is and even had a hand in his creation. It wouldn't make sense for her to kill the player even if he does start harvesting little sisters; she would know precisely what was at stake.

Also, I got the impression she was actually one of the medical experimenters at the concentration camp rather than an inmate.

She was an inmate AND an experimenter; she begins with blurred lines from the start. Regarding her not shooting the player: if she recognises him she also knows he's not even older than the Little Sisters, just accelerated to adulthood and given paper-thin false memory. She isn't fooled by his appearence and doesn't want to shoot a four-year old no matter how brutalised and dangerous.


Noc, I don't think that the author is missing these points. Yes Terrell points out these patterns, but he seems to be highlighting them as if they are just another example of misogyny or anti-feminism insinuating itself into mainstream media.

I'm sorry, but I refuse to believe that Bioshock is on the same level phenomenologically as a Brut commercial. Someone *chose* to make them Little Sisters instead of Little Brothers. There was a deliberate intentionality about having Tenebaum be referred to as "Mother Goose" and to be put into the role of taking care of the Little Sisters, as well as setting the game in early 20th century, and the protagonist be male. I certainly doubt the design of the game went: "hey wouldn't it be dope if we had little girls that were all freaky and scary?" "But why?" "I dunno, cause it would be cool. . ."

The game is a critique of (gamer) culture. It's a soliloquy on the FPS. The intended audience is the 18-35 male who is getting carpal tunnel from clicking the shoot button or pulling the right trigger. This should be apparent from the much lauded Andrew Ryan "a man chooses, a slave obeys" scene.

People have argued that the second half of the game was tacked on. If it was, it's for the best. Because then, the game is not about saving the world, but about saving these little girls who we, up until the very end, didn't really think about except as objects. That makes me pretty happy, because I've saved the world a thousand times over, but that was the first time I saved someone from being objectified (in a game :).

Mothers and Fathers.

I’ve only recently started to develop my interest in, and knowledge of, feminist theory however I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and discussing BioShock.

I found it noteworthy that of the many genius’ the player meets throughout the game the only two who retain some degree of sanity are both female and both contextualised as mother figures; Tenenbaum with the Little Sisters, Langford with her plants. The mother as a cultural archetype is traditionally identified as feminine so in some ways it’s a little obvious and clichéd that the two mothers in BioShock are actually female. However their very nature as mothers is shown to have saved them from the decline witnessed in their male contemporises, they are sane, vital, functioning individuals in what is left of Rapture’s society because they are shown as having something to live for. They have be able to resist the descent into madness and self destruction because they are relied upon by others.

Though conforming to a traditional feminine stereotypes both Tenenbaum and Langford are shown to be at once caring and strong, they are mother figures who will put themselves in danger to protect their children; their motherhood is not a weakness it is a tremendous strength. Ultimately the game shows them both to have been brought low by men, Tenenbaum is exploited by Fountaine, Langford is murdered by Ryan. In neither of these cases are the men shown to have acted directly or for the service of anything other purpose than their own “enlightened self interest” (*Scoff*). Whereas Tenebaum and Langford have acted directly to save another, Langford even uses her dying moments to help the player save her “children” and the rest of Rapture.

Contrast this representation of motherhood with that of fatherhood as embodied by the Big Daddies, I’ve mentioned previously that they are “lumbering, difficult to communicate with, yet extremely protective” and “are not merely a refreshingly concept in their own right, but also an interesting representation of a father as seen through the eyes of a little girl.”

The Big Daddies are in some way a slightly idealized representation of how a little girl sees her own father, strong, protective, yet somewhat distant and a little scary. Like the mother figures of Tenenbaum and Langford, the Big Daddies remain alive because of their need to protect their children. However unlike the mothers, the Big Daddies are shown to have very little free will, it is even debatable whether they are aware of anything beyond direct threats to their charges.

Men in general are shown as self serving and often deranged, whereas fathers, possibly the noblest masculine archetype, are shown as extremely altruistic but at the expense of their own identity. Rapture is a world where a man’s choice is to either become self serving and treat everything as simply a means to an end; exemplified in bad ending. Or to become the ultimate protector, to the extent of sacrificing their own freewill to protect those who cannot protect themselves; the good ending.

(Personally I would have limited the transformation into a Big Daddy to the “good” path because that seems to fit the central metaphor better, but sometimes the realities of development get in the way.)

Both motherhood and fatherhood are shown as sources of great strength but only for the mothers is that strength allowed to exist alongside freewill. For the fathers that strength comes at the expense of their own identity. In Rapture only women can be both strong and independent. That said in the final act both mother figures require the help of a man to protect their children, albeit a man stripped of the most basic human traits of self awareness and free will.

I’m not sure if this is a testament to the strength of women, an implication that only women who are mothers can be strong, that men sacrifice themselves when they become fathers, or whether it’s all of these things.

I’m not certain there is one single answer, and I think that’s the point. Ken Levine has said that BioShock’s theme is it has one was about the rejection of extremes and “what happens when ideals meet reality”, so for there to not be one answer seems perfectly appropriate.

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