Games

“Her Name Is Caroline”: Identifying the Misbehaving Woman in 'Portal 2'

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.

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.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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