Gender, myth and capitalism: An academic view of Portal 2

Warning: The article you are about to read contains long-winded discourse relating Portal 2 to various academic and political topics, the consideration of which may actually decrease your enjoyment of the game. Consume at your own risk. The views expressed are those of Joe McNeilly, formerly of GamesRadar, who’s currently developing a game design program at a local university and begins teaching this fall.

All the structural ways Portal subverts the FPS genre's gameplay mechanics, discussed here, apply to the sequel. This time around we’re treated to a more fully realized world and a hefty dose of narrative, making Portal 2 more Hero’s Journey than Tetris. The complexities of Portal 2's story and setting invite a deeper look at representations of gender, myth and capitalism.


Portal 2 contains a dizzying number of mythological references that weave seamlessly together to create a rich, resonant narrative. Most obvious are the references to the myth of Prometheus, with clear implications for our technology-saturated culture.

When GLaDOS is stripped of control, attached to a potato battery, and cast into the bowels of the earth, a raven swoops in and carries her away. The raven is depicted as a divine messenger in many cultures and myths. Raven also has the power to see into both the material and spiritual worlds simultaneously, a trick that mirrors artificial intelligence's capacity to exist as both hardware and software, logic and emotion, programming and spontaneity. In Norse mythology, Odin has two ravens (named Thought and Memory) who circle the world every morning and return to tell Odin everything that's happening. GLaDOS is an acronym for Genetic Lifeform (Thought) and Disk Operating System (Memory). The nest where Chell eventually finds the raven pecking at PotaDOS is lined with wires and other technological detritus, reinforcing the raven's mystical connection to communication technologies.  

The importance of the moon and moon dust in Portal 2 further extends the power of the feminine that was established with the subversive core mechanic of the portal gun. Aside from facilitating the creation of portals, moon dust also poisons alpha male Cave Johnson and brings about his untimely demise, suggesting that he was incapable of coexistence with a strong female presence. His assistant and collaborator, Caroline, is another example of this – though he jokes about needing her, he feels the need to constantly dominate her. He keeps her in an inferior position and insists that she be forced to become GLaDOS, a final assertion of his superiority and control.  

Chell's Electra Complex

Portal 2 also has hooks into the myth of Electra, and to Freud's theories on psychosexual development. Though Freud has been renounced, reviled and otherwise discounted, his ideas were influential as a starting point for generating new and better ideas and thus are worth looking at.

Freud's Electra complex is named after the Greek myth of Electra, who conspired to kill her mother much as Chell and Wheatley plot against GLaDOS. Portal 2 contains a significant amount of evidence indicating that the mother/daughter relationship between GLaDOS and Chell is more than symbolic – that Chell's mother Caroline actually had her consciousness transferred into a computer to be used as the basis for GLaDOS. Psychoanalytically, Chell's killing of GLaDOS in the first game could be seen as the actions of the infantile id. But when GLaDOS is restored from backup, it gives Chell the opportunity to explore later stages of psychosexual development. In the phallic stage, usually occurring from age 3-6, the Electra complex arises and the girl's libido is redirected from the mother to the father when she realizes she has no penis with which to possess the mother (penis envy). In Portal 2, this transfer is represented by the changing of the AI core from GLaDOS to Wheatley.

In the context of the possibility space of the game, libido manifests as the solving of puzzles. There's an attempt to divert the libido to the Weighted Companion Cube, but that's just an ironic joke compared to the passion testing ignites. The player, and Chell, experience gratification upon overcoming the game's challenges. Near the end, PotaDOS tells Chell about the overwhelming pleasure she derived from testing and describes how it's engineered into the system. The lust for testing is so strong that when Wheatley doesn't receive sufficient satisfaction from it, he becomes angry and frustrated to the point of making crucial mistakes, much as a king blinded by lust might foolishly lose his kingdom.

As the Electra complex resolves, the mother/daughter relationship becomes less antagonistic as the daughter learns to identify her gender with her mother's and realize that they aren't competitors. Upon installing Wheatley as the AI core, GLaDOS gets stuck on a potato battery, and eventually the potato ends up stuck onto the end of Chell's portal gun. This is analogous to the redirecting of the libido to the father and the acceptance and integration of the mother that occurs during the phallic stage of psychosexual development in Freud's Electra Complex.  

When Chell finally exits the Enrichment Center, GLaDOS serenades Chell with a heart-wrenching operatic farewell in which she laments that her little girl is all grown up. Then, in the closing moments, GLaDOS tosses the charred Weighted Companion Cube out the door, which serves as a final farewell and a symbolic freeing of Chell's libido (indicating her newfound maturity.) As an aside, this sendoff also implies that GLaDOS was not totally successful in deleting Caroline, that her ghost still lives on in the machine.

Gender and weight

Much of the early banter from the resurrected GLaDOS is aimed at Chell's weight, a common theme in antagonistic mother/daughter relationships (Celia and Isabelle in the TV program Weeds, for example). Weight and body image issues are closely tied to self-esteem in our image-conscious culture, with biases so entrenched that overweight women face discrimination in the workplace in the form of difficulty being hired, lower pay and fewer promotions. A recent study showed that women who weighed 25 pounds below the average made the most money, suggesting that even women of normal girth are at a disadvantage. The inverse was found to be true for males, with thinner men earning less than heavier ones.

Above: Vital statistics printed on easy-to-read labels

This holds true until a man's weight reaches obesity, at which point the negative effect kicks back in. These statistics clearly don't apply to Gabe Newell, co-founder of Valve. Mocking his weight is a favorite pastime for internet trolls, yet his company makes more money per employee than Apple or Google. It is perhaps for this reason Portal 2 incorporates the weight issue. In any case, women are under significant societal pressure to be thin and GLaDOS uses this to lash out at Chell.

Later in the game, Wheatley also tries to manipulate Chell as though she were a generic female stereotype. Wheatley, desperate to stop Chell from progressing, attempts to lure her into a pit by claiming a list of gender-coded rewards await her at the bottom. Designer clothes, a handbag, a boy band, possibly a boyfriend, and a pony farm are among the offerings.

If Chell did indeed spend most of her formative years in the Enrichment Center, how strongly has she been imprinted with our society's notions of gender identity? We, the players, bring our own experience and perspective to the game and thus have more reference points to understand Wheatley's and GLaDOS' attempts at gender-based manipulation. Of course, a massive part of Chell's appeal as a character is that she doesn't conform to bland gender stereotypes, which in turn adds comedic value to the conflict.

Portal 2 also pokes fun at male stereotypes to great effect. In the final boss fight, one of the corrupted cores rambles on with manly bravado and spouting unctuous gallantries, while early in the game Wheatley shows a fear of penetration when he encounters a phallic data console he has to mount himself on. He actually makes Chell turn and look the other way, joking that he can't do it if she's watching. And of course there's Cave Johnson, Aperture Science CEO, who has a slang term for the male organ as a last name. We'll deal with him in greater depth later on.




  • ernesto-romero - March 4, 2013 3:59 p.m.

  • TheRealJoeMcNeilly - June 1, 2011 12:21 a.m.

    @FinderKeeper LOL, you're absolutely right of course. This kind of writing exists in a weird space between pop culture and academia, I don't really know anyone else doing it. I made the conscious decision not to fill it with footnotes and citations (nice to be able to make my own rules)... except for the one, because I figured anyone who read that far and was still interested would be into that book. @nee50n Great comments, thanks for moving the conversation forward in a thoughtful and intelligent way. Can't wait to read some Zizek, sounds like just my kind of thing. Don't have time for a proper thoughtful reply right this moment, but i'll try to post again later tonight.
  • FinderKeeper - May 31, 2011 7:52 p.m.

    What, no footnotes? Only one outside piece of literature cited? Then it isn't really an academic view... C'mon Joe, we know the full version of this must be replete with the various accoutrements which no self-respecting academic would omit from his oeuvre; surely you must've used the words "unpacked" and "embedded" in your discourse? ;-) RECAPTCHA: maingibi pig-flesh o.O
  • nee50n - May 31, 2011 1:27 p.m.

    Hi nathstyles, From my point of view, my comment below attacking the idea of equally valid opinions was not aimed at your early comment; my exaggeration of the point was perhaps more for arguments sake (although that is not to say I don’t agree with the statement). In reality a lot of it is about getting the balance right – so you are correct. The notion of assimilating opposition is quite apt here. For example, Post-Modernist philosophy while initially radical (and even at its peak purported to be radical) was a perfect fit for post 1970s world. Not only did it dismiss grand narratives (and therefore curtail opposition to the system) but its belief in multiple perspectives (ie all opinions are equally valid) and individuals creating their own definitions of themselves (so where you shop is who you are) worked extremely well for Capitalism. The problem for those who argue there is more than subjective experience, they are accused of being elitist and that their universal demands will ultimately lead to death camps. I think this tradition of thought has engendered an anti-intellectual dismissal of theory. Interestingly have you come across Gramsci? (he was pretty big among cultural critics years ago - although they mostly took away his revolutionary essence). His notions of common sense (ie, standard ruling ideologies and reactionary unquestioned facts which people accept) and good sense (where you question these dominant ideologies and develop a critical approach to understanding your world), is quite a liberating approach.
  • nathstyles - May 31, 2011 9:08 a.m.

    Shiiit i keep using the wrong words in my comments - I meant 'didn't mean' not 'did' and as I see 'opinion' has reared it's ugly head in Joe's last comment, I'm regretting that one again. As my last involvement in this thread (God knows I've never even commented this much on anything) I would just like to try and explain what I originally meant. Analysing anything from a computer game to the end of western dominance relies heavily on the author's own ideas, knowledge and sometimes, as is prevalent in this thread, the theories of others. The application of these factors to the proven facts or clear evidence will vary from person to person and therefore different theories emerge. Scepticism towards any theory (when not blindly or subconsciously anti-intellectual) is healthy and often constructive. I think there can be validity to multiple theories and no that does not mean I think all theories stand equal. But the way in which the hierarchy of validity forms will be subjective, even to individuals that consider themselves totally objective. For example, my priority is the evidence within the game whereas for others it is the coincidence with theories they have read and agreed with. On a last note I have to take it back on subject and stand in awe that as Portal 2 tries to make us discuss our value in the information economy, even the theorists as well as the haters are all gladly submitting and commodifying (not a word)our views and personalities within it. Oh well, what can you do? (insert ironic sarcasm here) P.s. love the end of Tom Goulton's comment thanks for pointing me at it.
  • nee50n - May 29, 2011 5:54 p.m.

    "Techno-utopians believe that new technologies are empowering people, strengthening democracy and creating economic opportunity. " A good example would be the huge amount of time and effort given in the press to Twitter with regard to the Arab Spring uprisings - to the point that the people throwing off the shackles of oppression were kind of background event to the real story (a similar exaggeration can be found on the left with the role of the internet and the Zapatistas movement). One news report I watched during the Egyptian revolution - when all communication and mobile phone signals were cut - argued this would be a death blow to the uprising. In a way, is this the most exaggerated example of what you describe! The question I have regarding a critique/self critique of information capitalism in Portal 2 - is the extent to which it applies to capitalism per se, rather than capitalism specifically in the developed world? For example, I recall, when they released Half Life 2 many years back - the backdrop for the game was a kind of dystopian Eastern European country. In an interview, I remember either Gabe Newell or one of the designers discussing that after the fall of Stalinism, there was huge optimism and hope of a better future in Eastern bloc countries, but then the realities of capitalism set in and hope was destroyed. While Half Life 2’s setting is Eastern Europe – Portal 2 and Apperture Science is clearly set in the US. If the Eastern Europe hasn’t lived up to its potential, the US is under increased threat economically. Maybe it signals an anxiety in developed Capitalist countries regarding the dominance and reliance of financial services and information economy to their financial wellbeing (particularly regarding recent events). So rather than being about monopilisation of wealth and information which leads to our destruction (certainly I would argue that this is a trait of Capitalism), in this case, it’s about the opposite – the loss of power. I seemed to have missed some of the brief Black Mesa references during the game, but are they not regarded simply as a competitor – effectively in the same situation? Message: US capitalism is in trouble. While manufacturing still plays a huge part to the total output of the US, it has been (if somewhat exaggerated) publically considered to be struggling. By contrast, the big emerging markets (China, India and Brazil) are heavily reliant on old style Capitalism and the US debt crisis (in particularly what it owes to China) threatens to bring the house down. For example you say “Aperture's shift from industrial production (Aperture Fixtures) to research and development (Aperture Science) in 1947 reflects the cultural and economic transformations prevalent in our society after World War II.” The key words here are “our Society”. The reality is that industrial output is at is highest level ever – it’s just not (at least believed to be) in “our society”. This is a realtiy check. Since moving to Capitalist production, China has ironically become a workers state. Chinese workers are the working class of America! If Steam are selling little virtual hats –rather than inviting you to take part of in your own doom, are they not exposing the flaw in the prospect of information capitalism in the developed world. As you say it is meant as being ironic, but are they not saying, “this is the best we’ve got” (although clearly Valve do have better). The American Century is well and truly over could be an alternative message from the game.
  • TheRealJoeMcNeilly - May 29, 2011 6:18 a.m.

    I'd like to take a stab at explaining the end of the article, as I kinda rushed through the conclusion. Here goes... Techno-utopians believe that new technologies are empowering people, strengthening democracy and creating economic opportunity. That may well be true, but this isn't even remotely the viewpoint presented in Portal 2. Robots have taken over, and human life has been utterly commodified and devalued. That's not my opinion, that's simply a description of the scenario. Information capitalism is the engine driving us toward this dystopian end. Virtual goods are an ideal commodity for information capitalism, therefore further its goals (monopolization of wealth/information), therefore move us closer to the endgame in which we're all meat popsicles awaiting the test chamber. The robot store, then, is an ironic, self-aware acknowledgement that Valve is selling you a piece of your own doom. The system's greatest strength, as Tom Goulter pointed out in his comment, is its ability to commercialize and assimilate opposition. Let me reiterate that I'm not hating on Valve for including the aptly named Robot Enrichment. I'm trying to contextualize the hat store, as part of the Portal 2 experience and within the greater social and economic trends of our time. That the game harmonizes on so many levels is a testament to Valve's enduring genius. Finally, a quick word on overthinking. It's easy to look at Portal 2 and go, “Hey, cool, there's some Greek mythology references, aren't Valve clever?” and leave it at that. My article tries to go deeper and dig into the meaning behind those references, because therein lies the real value of the work. It's the difference between saying, “Hey, this car is blue and so is that one,” and saying, “I have a blue car because my father taught me how to drive in his blue car, and and I want to be reminded of him and the life lessons he taught me every time I see my car.” See the difference? OK, enough gams jarnlzim for tonight...
  • nathstyles - May 28, 2011 3:30 p.m.

    @nee50n In the context of all the analytical minds this article has brought out, perhaps 'opinion' was the wrong word to use - I did mean it to sound derogatory to the arguments made in the article, just a simpler way of saying 'theory'. And as for the objective truth in this art, maybe Valve are the only ones that can truly know the answer, but as you say it is fun to be along for the ride when the interpretation is as well evidenced as it is here.
  • silentflame666 - May 28, 2011 12:51 a.m.

    @nee50n Thanks mate, I haven't seen the film yet, but Zizek is surprisingly serious and cogent in this little clip, and it compels me to watch it. The graffiti shown between 1:49 - 2:05 has a similar flavor to those of Ratman's (to bring the topic back), which in turn shares some stylistic similarities to the works of Bansky. At the very least their graffiti functions very similarly in their worlds: as vehicles of criticism and resistance, and at times, despair and frustration.
  • nee50n - May 27, 2011 9:14 a.m.

    @silentflame666 Fantastic. Interestingly I always thought the film Children of Men felt like playing a video game. So this may be the closest we will get in terms of Zizek with this brief reivew of the film (sorry to take off topic).
  • Thequestion 121 - May 26, 2011 11:17 p.m.

    Holy crap, that was a good article. The amount of social commentary that Valve packed into Portal 2 is astounding.
  • silentflame666 - May 26, 2011 11:15 p.m.

    @nee50n: Hello there fellow Zizek fan! If Zizek played games he would certainly talk about Portal 2, but perhaps also games like CoD and Duke Nukem (wow, I'd pay to read that). These articles seem to fish out the theory crowd submerged on this website. "Does the drive to testing, a testing for testing's sake, as so meticulously constructed throughout the game, not immediately indicate that this little, friendly, moronic blue ball is a symptom of this world's ideology and is not to be trusted?" "The simple ideological construct behind the mechanisms of Demon's Souls is superficially Manichean, but Sisyphean in truth. White world tendency, black world tendency, white character tendency, black...whatever. You change the world configuration, but everything that moves is still an enemy (if not a potential one) and boss demons still gleefully kill you with one hit. Why? Because f**k you is why. That is Sisyphean."
  • inpathos - May 26, 2011 10:31 p.m.

    Would like to point out that Electra's complex is a Jung's theory, not Freud's. About the article, though, I didn't read it all - because I couldn't agree with ANYTHING (but the Prometheus thing and maybe some of the economy-related bits). Miming your style, I say: Don't get me wrong; the idea of making people think about videogames (or anything, actually) is great, and you guys deserve it for trying better than anyone else. However... I believe you're trying too hard to mix games and seemingly intelligent obscure theories, such as the ones presented in this article. We should remain critical and careful in face of such efforts. Maybe, a serious article about "What it felt like when playing Portal", theory-free, would be more successful and, even, more accessible.
  • SolarPoweredShitMachine - May 26, 2011 10:19 p.m.

    I think you're just looking at this waaaaay to deeply and overanalysing what is simply meant to be a comedic game.
  • nee50n - May 26, 2011 7:57 p.m.

    @onewingedantista well apologies for bad grammar and spelling (actually that's a lie, it's an internet forum and I was in a rush. I believe Freud would call your agitation with spelling and grammar, displacement!). However, generally glad you found the logic moronic. However, I disagree with the notion it is all just opinions as a kind of post-modernist justification for anti-intellectualism. “This is my opinion and is equally valid as your opinion”. It is simply not true that one opinion is as valid as another, whether that opinion is a minority of one or accepted the world over. The idea that we should celebrate pluralism in all its guises is mistaken. Contradiction and conflict are far more helpful in a discussion/debate – so glad you are blown away (albeit it utter disbelief at my logic – which I can only put down to my poor spelling and grammar). If all art criticism is complete and utter bullshit, then art itself has no function or meaning above say something colourful on the wall. Art is interactive and through this interaction we interpret, judge and criticise. It is fine to think that art criticism is bullshit, but it doesn't mean your opinions should be validated. In the same way it’s fine to think that the Mona Lisa is just oil spilt on canvas. There can be such a thing as objective truth, even in the arts. While most of us will never find it, it’s worth going along for the ride (even if it means relying on well researched articles to guide us).
  • lovinmyps3 - May 26, 2011 7 p.m.

    Well done. It felt like you were over thinking it a bit but that's what these kinds of essays are for.
  • Zeb364 - May 26, 2011 6:48 p.m.

    I loved reading this article and enjoyed all but the last paragraph. Not that I disagree with it per se (nor am I saying I agree for that matter) but it just seemed really out of place to me. It sort of "came out of left field", as it were.
  • Zanthis - May 26, 2011 4:18 p.m.

    This is one of the best articles I have read in a long time. Thank you for providing such a good analysis of Portal 2 and for fully explaining every point.
  • onewingedantista - May 26, 2011 4:07 p.m.

    @nee50n Wow, poorly spelled, bad grammar, AND moronic logic! My mind is blown! @nathstyles Yes, it is all opinion. That's why I consider art criticism (from everyone) complete and utter bullshit.
  • nee50n - May 26, 2011 12:41 p.m.

    "Will never understand the anti-Capitalism chants from people..." Unemployment and Inflation Are not caused by immigration Bullshit, come of it The enemey is profit

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