This discussion does contain spoilers for Portal 2
While the first Portal has certainly interested critics with its tendency to highlight gender dynamics, especially because it is one of the few games that puts women exclusively in its leading roles (in its case, featuring a female character in both the role of protagonist and antagonist), Portal 2 moves beyond simply considering the power relationships among women themselves to consider more broadly how gender plays a role in games of power.
In exploring the origins of Aperture Science itself, Portal 2 features what the first Portal did not, the voice of masculine power at the roots of a company focused heavily on research and development. Indeed, while the first Portal put a female voice in charge of the facility and in charge of the player herself (as the voice of GLaDOS serves as teacher, guide, and ultimately tormentor throughout Aperture’s testing facilities), Portal 2 reveals a slightly different sort of voice as the originator of Aperture’s testing methodology through the blustery, self assurance of Cave Johnson.
Johnson represents at once a scientific and technological progressivism—asserting, as it were how much can be achieved with a “can do” attitude—alongside a positively retrograde sexism. He introduces his own achievements as being the result of “just stay[ing] positive and do[ing] some science,” and at the same time, introduces his assistant as “the lovely Caroline,” who is as “pretty as a postcard.”
It becomes patently clear that Johnson and Caroline’s relationship (at least as Johnson views it, since he does most of the talking in these sequences) can best be understood as fulfilling the adage that “behind every good man is a good woman,” since he depends on Caroline to fulfill the role of executing his directives as well as providing comfort and support for the man in charge, himself. While Johnson warns his listeners jokingly that “pretty as a postcard” Caroline is off limits because “She’s married. To Science,” he may as well be simply warning off potential suitors for personal reasons. By fulfilling the expected obligations of a 1950s “wife,” Caroline sounds as if she might as well be married to Johnson, and after all, given Johnson’s alignment with American exceptionalism and what it can achieve through technology, he is the “science” that she has married herself to.
Interestingly, though as the decades progress from Aperture’s founding in the early 1950s through the 1960s and into the 1970s, so too (in some way) does Johnson’s relationship with Caroline. While she is still serving the role of comforter and supporter when Johnson is diagnosed with a terminal illness due to his exposure to moon rocks (“Caroline, please bring me more pain pills,” he says), nevertheless, his recognition of the “good woman” who has supported his work through those decades becomes a recognition that she is best suited as his own replacement should that need arise:
Brain Mapping. Artificial Intelligence. We should have been working on it thirty years ago. I will say this—and I’m gonna say it on tape so everybody hears it a hundred times a day: If I die before you people can pour me into a computer, I want Caroline to run this place.
Now she’ll argue. She’ll say she can’t. She’s modest like that.
But you make her.
Hell, put her in my computer. I don’t care.
That Caroline’s personality serves as the template for the mind of GLaDOS, the artificial intelligence that will run the show when Johnson is gone seemingly makes a sort of sense to Johnson at this juncture. After all, she is seemingly the woman who has been administrating Aperture’s policies for the past three decades by executing Johnson’s will. If Johnson himself has found that it is too late for his own digital immortality, he seems to recognize that his life and legacy can continue through the possible immortality of his ever supportive partner.
This vision of a shifting foundation of power over these three decades in American history while represented on a microcosmic level through the history of Aperture Science reflects much bigger trends in American life towards a culture in which power is not exclusively held by one gender. However, it is one complicated by Johnson’s seeming trust, not in women themselves, but in a woman sufficiently familiar with his needs, desires, and vision for his company. Older, more traditional attitudes die hard.
While the player is provided even less information on how this transfer of power actually occurred following Johnson’s death, it is clear that Caroline was “put in the computer” and became the dominant voice of at least administrative authority at the Aperture facility. What is interesting is the snatches of history that GLaDOS/Caroline only scantily relates about the men that she would be directing in the decades to come, Aperture ‘s scientists, and how they react to having a female voice of authority to answer to and how closely such a response may also adhere to the history of gender in American culture:
The engineers tried everything to make me . . . behave. To slow me down. Once, they even attached an Intelligence Dampening Sphere on me. It clung to my brain like a tumor, generating an endless stream of terrible ideas.
While it isn’t clear if the dampening of GLaDOS’s intelligence occurred before or after she began to have thoughts about the kind of control she could maintain through the administration of “deadly neuro toxins” to those that might challenge her authority concerning testing and research, it is clear that within this explanation of how the engineers sought to control GLaDOS is a familiar enough response from men to what they perceive as the “misbehavior” or “irrational thinking” of women. The effort to “dampen” intelligence becomes a rather literal manifestation of the labeling of women as “dumb” or “irrational” and the need to control such “poor” behavior.
Indeed, it is a masculine voice that GLaDOS has been provided with to remind her that she is dumb and to curb her tendency towards “misbehavior.” As GLaDOS recalls the engineers’ attachment of the Dampening Sphere, the tumor full of terrible ideas, she hears the voice of Wheatley:
It was YOUR voice. Yes. You’re the tumor.
YES YOU ARE! YOU’RE THE MORON THEY BUILT TO MAKE ME AN IDIOT!
While GLaDOS’s insanity and passive-aggressive manipulation of Chell in the first game merely suggests a kind of madness and irrationality that has stereotypically been associated with being female in decades and centuries past (the origination of hysteria and the mad woman in the attic come to mind), Portal 2 introduces not only the origins of an artificial intelligence but suggests a potentially political and personal cause for that madness and ultimate rage. While there is little to make GLaDOS a sympathetic character in the first Portal (her sadism and generally unhinged nature seem to justify an effort to topple her from her position of authority in the Aperture labs), the introduction of a more complicated history of female authority both granted then restrained and potentially denied changes the stakes of the power games that go on over the course of both games.
GLaDOS may not have the best interests of humanity at heart, but then again no one has seemingly ever really asked her what her interests are at all or taken them seriously. When finally given a taste of power, the response from the community surrounding her was to diminish her accomplishment and work and treat her as maybe a “good woman” but also an irrational one, worthy of doing the work, but not worthy of having ideas of her own. It is no wonder that GLaDOS rejects any kind of “goodness” that Caroline might represent by deleting her from her own memory. What benefit had Caroline ever received by playing that role except to be teased with the idea that she might be treated as someone competent, hard working, and sacrificing, only to have any authority that might be obligated to her stripped away through the “dumbing down” of her own thoughts?
As a result, GLaDOS’s authority can be traced back to the attitudes of the founder of Aperture Science, but so too, these attitudes seem to have potentially served as the source of her own madness and frustration at being left in charge and then not being trusted to do the work that she had already proven, albeit more invisibly, that she could do.