Bioshock Infinite's Damsel Dilemma: Hey Girl, If You're So Omnipotent Why Can't You Find Your Own Damn Airship?
Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style
When I last wrote about Bioshock Infinite, I was practically gushing about how interesting and dynamic companion character Elizabeth is. All her context-sensitive interactions and visual cues make her one of the best companions I've ever had in a videogame. That said, she's definitely not one of the best female characters. As I mentioned in my previous post, she's... Problematic. Today I want to talk about why, and get a few things off my chest in the process.
Spoiler alert: I can't write about this topic without mentioning the ending. Sorry folks. Avert your eyes.
Anita Sarkeesian has done a good job at making many of us even more aware of the Damsel in Distress trope lately. Don't get me wrong, I don't think anyone thought it wasn't an issue in games, but after so many titles and so many damsels it all becomes a bit of a blur. Sarkeesian's brought it all back into sharp focus and as much as I wish it wasn't true, Elizabeth fits the damsel model perfectly... And I'm far from the first writer or player to point it out.
When you first partner up with Elizabeth, you're told that you as the player don't need to protect her during fights. "She can take care of herself," the game tells you, and that's... Uh, I guess it's not untrue, but it definitely didn't live up to the jolt of excitement I felt when that tip flashed on screen. She does take care of herself, and she takes care of you too. She cowers behind cover for the duration of your fights, waiting to toss you supplies or open up a strategic tear if you ask her nicely. Grrl power!
Not that it matters anyway, since no one else seems to even see her.
She points to useful items for you to pick up, including lockpicks which you dispense to her when there's a lock you need her to pick open. When she finds money, she surrenders it to you immediately. While a couple people I've talked to about this read it as a sort of maternal caretaking behavior, I read it more as the behavior of a submissive wife. Everything goes to Booker and he doles out what she needs when she needs it. He's the one responsible for managing resources, even when she's the only one who actually needs or uses them. Booker remains the provider, even though Elizabeth is providing too.
So we can agree that the lockpick swapping is silly, but what would Elizabeth need with money if she doesn't fight or get hurt? She doesn't need supplies or upgrades, that's all that money's used for anyway. But why can't Elizabeth fight? When she gives you ammo, she tosses you a whole gun she was presumably carrying around. Why not use the damn gun?
"Well," you might say to me, "She doesn't have experience with guns. Booker does. He's a professional fighter, but she's just some girl who grew up in a tower."
Luckily the world of Bioshock Infinite has a whole array of potions that grant magical powers ideal for combat, advertised for use by even the layman. The bottles are all over the place, couldn't Elizabeth down a couple and lend a magically charged hand?
"She already has magic," you could interject.
Yes. She sure does. Magic she uses in fights, even. When you tell her to. This is the part that really got under my skin: Dearest Liz, when we're fighting two dozen soldiers and all the civilians are hiding away safely, do I really need to tell you that summoning a friendly gun turret would be helpful? Do you really need to wait for my okay on that manoeuvre? It's issues like this that can make Elizabeth feel more like an offhand weapon or a power-up than a person, outside of those carefully constructed story moments.
It's not just that she's a damsel, saved from a tower and entirely dependent on the player character for almost all progress and action. It's that she has so many opportunities where she could or should be acting for herself, but instead she just shrugs, empties her pockets into your hands, and deposits herself somewhere out of the way.
She might run off ahead of you, but only when she already knows which direction you're going.
The plot itself reveals Elizabeth to be headstrong and impulsive. She runs away from Booker when she disagrees with him, she has her own agenda distinct from his... But only in those scenes. None of that manifests itself during actual gameplay as anything more than crossed arms or pouting. When she's with you, she's with you. She's still just as helpful, and just as helpless, even when she's mad at you or when she ought to be in a mood to kick some ass. She shouldn't even need Booker at all. Come the fuck on, she can essentially split the fabric of reality and even calls it "a form of wish-fulfillment", and you're telling me that when we spent hours chasing our tails to get access to an airship she couldn't just find a tear where the airship happened to be in another reality (or whatever we're calling them) and hop on? "Nice knowing you, Booker! *FWOOSH*" Honestly, this girl could probably manage just fine on her own if the story didn't artificially demand otherwise. She has to get through all this with Booker for narrative reasons, but that's a really unsatisfying excuse.
Even the moment in the end when Elizabeth seems to be saving herself... or herselves... She's not. Booker is still saving her, by letting himself be killed. In the lead up to that last scene, she asks again and again for permission, even though it's not entirely clear what she's talking about. In the end it's still Booker telling her/permitting her to do something, and not her doing it for herself.
Earlier, she asks Booker to kill her out of mercy should their escape fail. It's a disturbing and poignant scene... But it's also kind of bullshit. There are guns absolutely everywhere, maybe even in her hand in case you happen to need it. And what about the scissors she killed Daisy with? Where did those come from? There are weapons literally everywhere but no, even that is left in Booker's hands.
Honestly, just about every significant action Elizabeth takes in those big story moments is enabled by Booker, one way or another. He boosts her into a vent to stop Daisy Fitzroy, he turns off the siphon allowing her to destroy the lab, he destroys the giant tower siphon so she can use her full power even though she could just as easily use the damn whistle herself instead of handing it over to Booker... She can't even pick out a piece of jewelry without your input. You could easily argue that Booker as Comstock enabled future Elizabeth's attack on New York long after his death... Not that we even see any action on her part when all that's revealed. All we see is an old woman acting as passively as Elizabeth ever did, reaching her hand out to Booker for help one more time.
She has the power to manipulate the millions of facets of existence, but she still needs Booker to fix shit. I know, I know, narrative reasons, gothic romance and girls with dead mothers and daddy issues, blah blah blah... If this game had come out 6ish years ago I promise I would have found a way to work it into a paper for my 19th century lit course. It's all by the book and I can appreciate that, to a point.
But it's not the 19th century. I want and expect more, which is why she is just so damn frustrating to me.
Elizabeth is a perfect example of how bad a good character can be, and we shouldn't ignore her shortcomings just because everything else about her is so polished. Elizabeth herself is undeniably a step forward compared to innumerable female companion characters in the past, and you can bet your ass I'm still adding that Elizabeth action figure to my collection, but that doesn't mean that we're done, that the hard work is over. It's okay to want and expect more, so that maybe the next Elizabeth will be just a little better, and make just a little more sense -- that's what progress looks like.
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Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.