How Portal Powers Through the Patriarchy


Have you played Portal? It’s been out for a good, long while now, but I’ve only recently gotten around to playing myself. I’ll be honest here. The entire time I played, I asked myself over and over again, “Why didn’t I do this sooner?”

This game is challenging, hilarious, entertaining, and just downright fun. A friend suggested it to me time and time again, and I kept putting it off, saying it didn’t seem that interesting. Well, if you’re reading this now and haven’t yet played, do yourself a favor — Go play it! Right now!

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I, for one, do not welcome our evil robot overlords.

In a previous post, I mentioned that only 15% of games have a playable female protagonist. I am betting the number of games with a female antagonist is even smaller. Well, guess what? Portal has both.

You play as Chell, a silent but extremely clever woman who awakens as part of some grand experiment run by GLaDOS, an A.I. computer system gone haywire. GLaDOS is unique as a villain. She hates Chell, but instead of the usual threats backed by fire and brimstone, she commonly uses humor and sarcasm to taunt the heroine. I literally laughed out loud at some of the quips our villain throws out in attempts to dispirit Chell. In fact, GLaDOS has been called the greatest video game villain of all time. She is extremely powerful, having been responsible for the deaths of all the other scientists in the facility before Chell awakens to find that she has to face this monster-computer with the help of only her sharp mind, some fancy boots, and a handy portal gun.

Speaking of our portal gun-toting protagonist, you rarely get to see her. Without explaining the intricacies of the physical portals you create in the game, the only way you ever really get a glimpse of your character is usually for just a few seconds when passing from room to room, and only if the portals line up just right.

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To the left is what our heroine looks like, and to the right is what gameplay looks like – lots of puzzles and portals, very little protagonist.

Of the 15% of games with a playable female lead, I bet an even smaller number has that protagonist mostly out of sight, her gender ultimately inconsequential (this is not your typical damsel in distress story!), and does not in any way, shape, or form sexualize the heroine. She is fully clothed, very intelligent, and completely independent.

Like perhaps many of you, I played a lot of Tomb Raider in the past. (Like, the way past. We’re talking the era of Playstaion 1 here.) Now there was a strong female protagonist. She ran obstacle courses for fun, explored ancient ruins, completed puzzles, and bested both wild animals and wild men with her trusty pistols (or sub machine guns, if you had the cheat codes).

Where Portal improves on the Lara Croft model is that sure, you’re kicking ass and taking names (albeit those names are more like “turret number 4” instead of the various thugs and kingpins like in the Tomb Raider world), but also, you’re not in constant fear of your giant, extremely angled uniboob popping any nearby balloons while you go about your business.

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I have got to know where Lara Croft shops for bras.

What I’m getting at is that Portal’s protagonist is there to save herself from one maniacal villain (who has several bullet-and-laser-wielding robot minions at her disposal), and she’s not concerned with how hot she looks while she does it.

While a lot of video game developers seem to believe that being sexy is a woman’s highest priority (they likely imagine it’s right there at the base of some special woman version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs), in actuality, when it comes to all things life-or-death, staying alive is usually the end game, no matter what you end up looking like when you get there. While most real-life people aren’t particularly worried about what their mascara looks like when they’re being shot at, for instance, video games would often have you believing otherwise. The creators behind Portal know this and apparently agree that it’s pretty silly. That’s why they made this game about Chell’s brains and not her breasts, her cleverness and not her clothes, and her attempts at survival, not her attempts at giving teenage boys wet dreams. (Not even pointy, triangle boob-filled wet dreams.)

And to end on an entirely different topic, aside from getting to control a mostly unseen character with command over some pretty exciting new technology, we’re fighting against some fairly dangerous tech in this game as well. Our villain, GLaDOS, is pure evil and hilarity rolled into one. You genuinely hate her while also immensely enjoy interacting with her. Additionally, and I think it probably goes without saying, but as mentioned before, GLaDOS is literally a computer, so there is no sexualization of our female antagonist either.

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Well hold on, now. There might be someone out there who finds this sexy.

Really, though, Portal does everything right. Shoot, if we could listen to the turrets’ private conversations, I bet they’d pass the Bechdel test. (That was a joke, of course. Turrets are programmed to kill, not chat idly. What, do you live in some sort of turret-friendly wonderland?)

In this game, you are just two powerful ladies facing off against each other in a battle of wits and intelligence (peppered with some frustration and a good dash of laughter). This game will crack you up, it will make you angry, and it will make you excited for the next level. I give it an A+ and am a little disappointed that you’re still reading this article and not already playing it right now!

Just don’t forget: The cake is a lie.

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