Elizabeth is not a "useful damsel"

| Thursday, April 11, 2013
Recently Syl asked on Twitter, "So, is Elizabeth just another 'helpful damsel'?"  (she's the woman in blue in Bioshock Infinite).  If you don't want to watch the entire video, here are the bits I'm focusing on: subject vs. object (around minute 10) and "helpful damsel" (around minute 15).

Elizabeth as object

If you've just started the game then she's going to look like an object.  The recurring phrase of the game is some variation of, "bring us the girl and wipe away the debt."  It's something between rescue and kidnapping, as it's not at all clear what they want with her.  You fight your way in, killing a lot of people, and break her out.  And then you chase her down repeatedly because you keep getting separated.

Elizabeth as subject

You don't get separated because someone swoops in and kidnaps her from you.  She's not your instant friend.  She's instead someone who's been in a cage a long time and justifiably isn't so sure about the next cage you're trying to bring her to, and isn't a fan of the constant killing either.  If that second part sounds like the weak, scared woman trope, put yourself in her shoes: imagine you've been locked up but safe, and all of a sudden you're ducking behind cover while a complete stranger kills dozens of people every few minutes.  Maybe the first cage doesn't sound so bad anymore...

To be clear, the player character still treats her as an object.  He's on a job and people on jobs tend to treat people as objects, whether it's the object to retrieve, the object to kill, or the many objects that get on the way.  Objectification is rampant in videogames and it is not always a gender issue.

However, the game treats her as a subject.  She makes decisions.  She forces the player's actions.  I previously described her as a support class during combat, which certainly looks like the "helpful damsel."  But during combat I'm just a mindless killing machine, so that's hardly the way to determine the personality of a character.  Since there is more to Bioshock than just the combat, evaluating the characters based only on their roles in combat would lead to an incomplete picture.

I'm a bit limited with what I can say due to spoilers, and I hate sticking up tags and forcing people to skip posts, so here goes.  She has a mission of her own.  It ends up being Elizabeth who grabs the player, shoves him through time and space, and puts him on the path to fixing something.  That's her initiative, her plan.  Right before that she sacrifices herself to save the player character from what I'm pretty sure was certain death.  You might point out that she probably intended to be rescued, but in my mind that's part of her plan rather than an indication that she is helpless.  One step back and two steps forward, if you will.

DeWitt as object

Elizabeth started the game as an object, something to which things happen.  The same was the case for the protagonist.  You're stuck on an island, told to do something, trapped by your past, and pushed forward along a narrow path.  You're manipulated along the way, attacked and branded as a false prophet.  The character did not choose to be the false prophet, it was forced upon him.  He's as much dragged along by the world as Elizabeth, maybe more so since he can't pick his world.

Why'd she change clothes?

Something I'm still puzzling over is her change of clothes.  She switches to a more revealing set of clothes early in the game.  However, these are not the transition to helpless female.  Instead she knocks you out with a wrench, probably because at that moment the player character is treating her as a prize to capture.  Resisting being an object seems like a strong argument in favor of being a subject.

In conclusion: Who's using the conformation bias here?

Maybe I'm just trying to defend and justify a game and story that I enjoy.  I suppose I could break out a calculator and add up the incidents of helplessness for each character, with some modifier for degree of seriousness and the extent to which they are saved by luck vs. the actions of the other character (I exclude saving themselves since that would not be a helpless situation).

Elizabeth spends a great deal of time helpless or supporting the more violent male.  She also spends a great deal of time saving him or going off on her own.  The characters are linked and dependent on each other; it's not a one-way street.  To say that she's merely a "helpful damsel" is selective, picking out the times when she's helpless and ignoring the fact that the other lead character, DeWitt, is helpless at times as well.  Nor is his helplessness merely in the form of being unable to stop her from being kidnapped.  Instead, he is unable to help himself, unable to save his own life.  Mutual rescue is not sexist unless you're only looking at one side.


Jondare said...

I'm pretty sure the change of clothes is due to her old clothes being quite dirt/torn by that point. As for being revealing, she does mention that that was the only thing in there that fit her.

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