Roles of Female Characters, as Examined in BioShock

(Light BioShock spoilers!)

You’ve got your oversexualized female characters: ones with daddy issues, ones that need constant protection and saving, the mere quest-givers, the escort, etc. They seem to be limited to these roles, and even when they take center stage as the protagonist, they’re handled improperly. I’ve discussed how these characters are portrayed physically, and I will now present my observations concerning their psychological and emotional representations within the narrative.

When thinking of what roles I want to examine, I realized the Bioshock series provided a variety of examples, which I will detail below.Let me know your thoughts in the comments. I’d like to hear what other roles you’ve picked up on and the female characters that fit them.

Little Sisters BioShock 1 & 2 Role: the Young Girl
Little Sisters (images source: BioShock Wiki)
BioShock 1 & 2
Role: the Young Girl

Alas, the main character is still trying to protect a female character (I mean, if he doesn’t choose to harvest one for ADAM), but here that character is a child. This opens up the topic of other representations of females in video games. Throughout the Bioshock series, young girls known as “Little Sisters” are each protected by a Big Daddy. This instance differs since the male guardian is justified given the Little Sisters’ ages, and it’s important to point out the dynamic wouldn’t work as well with young boys, as they are typically characterized as getting into trouble and breaking things. “Little Brothers” would require discipline, not necessarily protection. Also, Big Daddies are not the standard male guard because they are not human, but they are male nonetheless.

Food for Thought: Compare the Little Sisters with Clementine from The Walking Dead. Realize why they have to be girls. How did this come about in the first place? Can this be changed? Is it even problematic? For the male counterpart, consider Duck!

Dr. Sofia Lamb
BioShock 2
Role: the Evil Bitch

Here we have another non-traditional female role, as Sofia Lamb takes the place of the main antagonist, or what I’ll call the Evil Bitch. She plays the role of a cruel and critical mother, whom you hate pretty much from the start. She is often compared to the villainous Andrew Ryan from the first Bioshock, since she took his place as the leader of Rapture.  As a whole, video game companies do not typically characterize females as the main antagonist, as male gamers would have to fight women, who may not be seen as an actual threat. Of course, these companies don’t hold back with violence against women in other contexts. But in general, female villains are not unheard of.

Rosalind Lutece
BioShock Infinite
Role: the Ms. Male Character

Rosalind Lutece is very strictly the male version of Robert Lutece, so by definition she is a Ms. Male Character. I’m pointing out the trend here, but let me get to my main point. I say that, despite the trope, I making an exception for this portrayal, at least in terms of being unoffensive. Rosalind wasn’t created in an after-thought to supplement Robert, such as Ms. Pac-Man was to Pac-Man.  Instead, the two co-exist, forming a union that underlines Infinite’s central theme (you’ll have to play to find out, or… cheat and look it up). While Rosalind is generic, Robert is equally so — but I must emphasize this isn’t why I’m justifying the trope’s use here (as that logic would also say sexualization of women is okay as long as men are sexualized too and vice versa, a line of thought that is wrong and offensive). There’s a way in which the game’s narrative frames it so neither Rosalind nor Robert could exist in the game without the other.

Elizabeth
BioShock Infinite
Roles: the Escort, the Damsel in Distress, the Reward, the Main Character

I started writing my thoughts on Elizabeth, as she serves a few different roles. But I realized… she’s going to need her own post. I will provide a brief summary here, though.

As the Escort: Elizabeth accompanies the protagonist, Booker DeWitt, throughout the game. She serves little purpose here other than to give directions and help you find things.

As the Damsel in Distress: Your mission is release Elizabeth from her imprisonment in the tower and then later save her when she is captured and experimented on. Elizabeth is certainly more than a damsel in distress, but she still falls into this category.

As the Reward: Repeatedly you hear, “Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.” Though not a love interest, Elizabeth is a goal.

As the Main Character: In Burial At Sea: Episode 2 (the second BioShock Infinite DLC), Elizabeth takes center stage! There are differences, of course, between playing as Booker and playing as Elizabeth, both good and bad.

Again, I will discuss Elizabeth’s characterization and development more in-depth in another post — hopefully next week!

Stay tuned.

Featured image: [ source ]

0 thoughts on “Roles of Female Characters, as Examined in BioShock

  1. I don’t think roping Elizabeth into the category of “damsel in distress” is a fair assessment of her character, especially from a player’s perspective. Sure, initially she’s the mark; the endgame reward for Booker. Yet, she literally get’s Booker, and therefore the player, out of the most precarious situations throughout the game, especially when you are completely outnumbered by waves of enemies. Her ability to create tears in dimensions to give you cover, find you ammo, and find you health is an unparalleled aid in the game that must be utilized in order to complete the story. So implying that Elizabeth is somehow powerless as an “escort” is a severe mistake on your part, in my opinion. I also won’t spoil the end of the game here, but you know where I’m going in terms of her relationship to Booker, which further deepens her connection with the player as more than a “damsel in distress.” If anything, Elizabeth is a minor character, which isn’t a bad thing; all it means is that she isn’t the protagonist, that’s Booker’s role and therefore the player’s role.

    1. I think it’s easy to get defensive when seeing “damsel in distress” describe a character in a game you enjoyed. But I noted that Elizabeth fills multiple roles. The post I’ll be centering around her will discuss her development across the narrative, including not only elaboration on her weaknesses, but also her strengths. What I will say now is she starts out weak and defenseless, but to your point, she has use. Escort missions in other games involve actually protecting a character in gameplay, whereas Infinite involves protecting Elizabeth only in the narrative, as she is never attacked in combat. You don’t protect her during the game, but that doesn’t mean Booker doesn’t protect her. You aren’t Booker. The player isn’t protecting Elizabeth. So when she’s helpful by tossing supplies, she’s not simply offsetting the work that goes into protecting her. Therefore, her presence is only seen as a net positive from the gamer’s perspective. So she may be useful, but she certainly is weak.

  2. I think weakness is all in the perspective that you choose to analyze these examples. I think you could equally make the argument that Robert is the Mr. Woman of Rosalind based on the story of the game. I also think that the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth is a fairly balanced version of the Big Daddy-Little Sister bond. With the latter, the BD cannot survive without a bond to a little for long. In effect there is no BD without a LS. Whereas a LS can choose to bond to different BD. The agency, such as it is, is in their hands. With Booker and Elizabeth, they both rely on each other. Elizabeth could easily tear a hole and leave Booker, but she chooses not to. Sure, she isn’t shooting the baddies next to Booker, but she is helping him be the best that he can be in the fights. One of my favorite scenes in that game, which I think nicely sums up their relationship is when they find a little urchin in a basement, Booker can pick up the guitar and start playing. The urchin does not come out. However, Elizabeth starts to sing and the urchin comes out long enough to grab the food she is offering. It is when you blend their skills together that they manage to accomplish all that they did.

  3. Rosalind I think is a stronger female character than you really give her credit for. She is not really a “Ms. Male Character” since she is more story-central than Robert is, especially through voxophones. She is a female scientist in a time period where women were not taken seriously, which is notable about her character and adds to the complexity. I don’t know, just my two cents.

    1. That is an excellent point! I haven’t thought about that before. Part of me wishes the strength of her depiction was more apparent to players who leave stones unturned (who wouldn’t listen to all the voxophones, for example), but that doesn’t discredit the deeper value available to players who do take the time to appreciate everything Infinite has to offer. It’s also been a while since I’ve played the game, so it’s possible there are more obvious examples. Would love to hear more.

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