Damsel Decisive: Bioshock Infinite and Elizabeth as a Credible Agent

Elizabeth doesn't take too kindly strange Pinkerton agents falling through her ceiling. PHOTO COURTESY Irrational Games.

Elizabeth doesn’t take too kindly strange Pinkerton agents falling through her ceiling. PHOTO COURTESY Irrational Games.

By Alexander Leach

Bioshock Infinite has arrived.

Though it’s been a while, I did a blog post on the game, criticizing the portrayal of Elizabeth in the trailers. In them, and based on interviews with Levine and others, she’s portrayed as having exaggerated mannerisms and features designed to make the players want to protect her, coupled with an outfit that sexualizes her unnecessarily.

This issue’s come up in the foreground again thanks to Anita Sarkeesian’s much-criticized Feminist Frequency video on Damsels in Distress, discussing the trope. I can’t agree entirely with the video, since I don’t think it supports the conclusion it presents, it ignores the actual factors and problems its symptom of, and it doesn’t investigate the trope and why it’s so widely used beyond a very bare-bones historical summary (which should be critical if she’s asserting that it inherently objectifies women and represents a patriarchal oppression of feminine agency). Perhaps I’ll write about it in detail some other time, though given the controversy regarding response to her endeavor on her side and the other, it might be better to leave it. I will say that it’s something that needs to be discussed regardless of why you’re discussing it.

On the subject of Elizabeth, however, I was pleasantly surprised. Impressed, even, with how Irrational managed to take the traditional damsel plot and character, and invert it in a way that doesn’t feel like a blatant attempt at deconstruction. Better yet, I think she’s one of the better female characters in a video game outside of the protagonist model – something that the game industry isn’t known for.

Elizabeth isn’t an extended escort quest, in the vein of ICO or similar games (a game I’m not fond of, due to the focus on escorting a helpless waif through hordes of enemies). Elizabeth is not expressly in danger of being kidnapped during a firefight. In cut-scenes, she fights back when grabbed, punching and kicking, and using her ability to open Tears to escape capture. In fights, she’s immune to damage, and enemies largely ignore her.