Bioshock and feminism, point/counter-point

Posted by | October 21, 2009

A recent series of articles about Bioshock brought out an interesting thought-exercise into play when Richard Terrell wrote an article about how the video game is anti-feminist, “Look. Don’t Touch: A feminist critique of Bioshock.” But that was quickly noticed by another blogger, who took a decidedly different approach to not only criticizing Bioshock but also Terrell’s article on the matter by Alex Raymond, “Is Bioshock Feminist? A response in defense of Bridgette Tenenbaum.

Certainly, Bioshock has a lot of elements resplendent in the nature of it’s Jules Verne 50’s atmosphere and the Cold War era stereoscopy but it does seem that in its attempt to portray a multitude of characters, it didn’t leave out its own profound narrative about the human condition. This is something particularly brought out by the moral dilemma presented in the game play: The Little Sisters.

Neither article does a good job of fully examining the moral dilemma—which has become a mainstay of a lot of different action-rpg style games like Mass Effect, Fable, and their kith—but it is central to the moral play of the video game itself. Although, Bioshock really does not go far enough, at least it certainly doesn’t try very hard. It makes a good show of displaying how the interaction of the different characters works and lays out a landscape for the player to traverse, but it even the moral dilemma is a bit mute on the subject of treatment of gender.

Little Sisters, for what they are, exist in only one state. Why they are orphaned girls, they have essentially become conditioned tools that work for the complex that runs the Bioshock universe. Even though they happened to be brainwashed little drones, they are presented as actually having external humanity and human lives—if only they could return to them.

Is Bioshock feminist or counter-feminist? The story certainly has multiple layers for the player to navigate and there is a moral story hidden in there. The presentation certainly extends from a male character, but when the breadth of the human condition is being narrated it will provide plenty of fodder to hand-wave any number of intellectually stimulating discussions about.

If this is your cup of tea, peruse the links, tell us what you think the case is.

No, says Richard Terrell. Yes, says Alex Raymond.

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