For those of you who listened to episode 12, it will not shock you that the first piece I chose to write was about Portal 2. (I couldn’t help myself!) Note: I have yet to play the original Portal, so anything I say here is only in relation to the single-player version of the sequel. There will be spoilers.
I believe Portal 2 is unique in a way because of its limited number of characters. You play as mute testing subject Chell, meet two A.I.s who serve as both friends and foes, and encounter a small number of other incidental characters who are (mostly) there for comic relief and have little depth. For this piece, I’m going to focus on GLaDOS.
GLaDOS (“Genetic Life-form and Disk Operating System”), the female A.I., is the controlling force behind modern-day Aperture Laboratories. Aperture’s CEO, Cave Johnson, created GLaDOS using a mental map of his assistant Caroline before Aperture fell into disrepair. She is cold, calculating, sharp and sarcastic, showing almost no emotion except when she is in danger. She knows her purpose and doesn’t hesitate to eliminate anything that interferes with it, if possible. Based solely on this information, I don’t think it would be unreasonable to say that she is a strong female character, even if she isn’t human, or even an actual life-form.
She is still, however, a villain. She was the antagonist in the original Portal and as revenge for being defeated at the end of the first game, she wants Chell dead. Soon after she is revived and retakes control of Aperture, GLaDOS starts right in on belittling Chell:
- "Here come the test results: You are a horrible person. That's what it says: 'a horrible person.' We weren't even testing for that. […] It's just a data point. If it makes you feel any better, science has now validated your birth mother's decision to abandon you on a doorstep."
- "Most people emerge from suspension terribly undernourished. I want to congratulate you on beating the odds and somehow managing to pack on a few pounds."
- "That jumpsuit you’re wearing looks stupid. That’s not me talking; it's right here in your file. On other people it looks, fine, but here a scientist has noted that on you, it looks stupid."
Her character is truly the archetypal ‘bitchy woman’; because of her mental origin is that of a human woman, she knows that if you go after your female rival’s weight (this happens throughout the game, to both my amusement and annoyance), general appearance, morals, family issues and/or negative opinions that others have of her, she’ll likely be a mess in fairly short order — at least, that’s what society says should happen, and for a lot of people, that would hold true. It’s also interesting to note that there is a “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” aspect to GLaDOS as well, which becomes apparent once the male A.I., Wheatley, has truly gotten on her bad side:
- "Crushing's too good for him. First he'll spend a year in the incinerator. Year two: Cryogenic refrigeration wing. Then ten years in the chamber I built where all the robots scream at you. Then I'll kill him."
She isn’t cold straight to the core, though, so to speak; her roots starting with the very-human Caroline become more and more evident after Wheatley takes over the facility, making her more than just some mechanical voice with an attitude. Based on recordings left behind by Johnson (in a span from approximately 1965 to 1980), Caroline sounds like the ideal secretary — bright, eager, cheery, and perhaps a little dim (that last assertion is an inference on my part, based on her speech and the fact that intelligence wasn’t exactly a prized quality in women at that time). From the time GLaDOS first hears Caroline’s voice (shortly after Wheatley replaces her) to the moments before the end credits, GLaDOS softens considerably as recognition and confusion take hold. Caroline’s identity, hidden away in binary code, affects GLaDOS to the point where she actually views Chell, her attempted murderer, as a friend and even saves her from dying. After she is sure Chell is safe, however, the surge of emotion tells GLaDOS where Caroline is ‘saved’, and she deletes her, after which she immediately reverts to her cold, unfeeling self and sends you packing with a smile and a song (literally).
The contrast is fascinating to me; it's great to be able to see the same character act in such different ways, showing compassion and concern one moment and apathy the next. This suggests that GLaDOS feels the need to be void of those warmer emotions in order to feel powerful and in charge; feeling anything positive about Chell is weakness to her and would also leave Chell as a continuing threat to her existence.
Everything we know about GLaDOS matches up with the ideas that many people have about any woman who is in a position of power, be it as a leader of a company, a movement or a country: they cannot show emotion, they cannot share power, and they cannot let anything get in their way; otherwise they will be seen as unfit for the position they hold — as weak, vulnerable, and ultimately of little consequence.