The game BioShock Infinite is set in 1912 in the fictional floating city Columbia. It was founded by self proclaimed prophet Zachary Hale Comstock who led the seemingly utopian city. It becomes obvious throughout the game that Columbia is not a utopian city at all, but instead a theocratic militant dystopian city that emphasizes racial purity and is on the verge of a civil war between the white upper classes and the racial minorities consisting of slaves and indentured servants. BioShock Infinite openly and directly explores social issues such as race and class distinctions, but its portrayals of women explore gender issues, although not as directly. The game utilizes characteristics of science fiction to twist these tropes, creating a new world where these tropes are rejected, offering numerous empowered women including Elizabeth, Daisy Fitzroy, and Rosalind Lutece.
The game is played from the first person perspective of the protagonist Booker DeWitt and the plot revolves around rescuing a girl named Elizabeth, locked in a tower. Right away the game is presenting the “Damsel in Distress” trope where “A character, usually female and nubile, is made helpless and put into immediate danger in order to put the cast in motion” and it’s up to the male protagonist to “Save the Princess,” a female character who “has been kidnapped and put in a tower, and you (and you alone, unless it’s a 2-player game) must fight your way through a veritable army of evil minions, dodge horrific death traps, etc. to save her” and your reward will usually be the love or kiss from “the Princess” (Damsel in Distress, Save the Princess). But although BioShock Infinite presents these tropes at the start of the game, the game uses these tropes in a unique way that ultimately reveals Elizabeth to be a strong, empowered female character, and there is definitely no romance between Booker and Elizabeth; in fact, it is later revealed that Booker is Elizabeth’s father, unbeknownst to either of them.
Elizabeth is introduced into the story because the main protagonist is sent to get her in order to pay off a debt. While she develops her own narrative throughout gameplay, her narrative is used to support Booker DeWitt. He is sent to rescue her, and although she possess her own unique ability, it is Booker who saves her and it’s through Booker that we discover who Elizabeth is. We find out that Booker DeWitt had sold his daughter Anna who turns out to be Elizabeth. Although he regretted selling his daughter, Booker DeWitt uses his daughter for his own benefit. But not only is she sold by her father Booker DeWitt, she is then raised by her father Zachary Hale Comstock (who is actually Booker DeWitt in another reality) to be his successor (He chose Anna specifically knowing that Booker was another version of himself and that would mean Anna, whom he raised as Elizabeth, would be a blood heir). Elizabeth is used by father multiple times. Even though Booker is unaware of the fact that Elizabeth his daughter, he rescues her in order to get rid of his debt. The offer was presented to him as: “Bring us the Girl and Wipe Away the Debt.” Booker is not rescuing Elizabeth out of anything more than self preservation. To him, Elizabeth is a solution to his problem, like she had been previously when he sold her as a baby.
I would still argue, however, that Elizabeth is an empowered woman. While her narrative is based solely on supporting Booker DeWitt’s narrative, she is often portrayed as a strong and independent young woman and her narrative is compelling and unique even though it relies on Booker’s. Unlike other characters, Elizabeth possesses a unique ability; she is able to open “tears” that lead to parallel worlds. It is because of these tears that the story is able to progress: Elizabeth’s ability to open them saves Booker in a few instances and allows the story to progress. Without her ability, Booker would have been killed. But it’s not just her unique ability to open tears that make Elizabeth so strong. Her situation and life was complicated by her powers and by the world she lives in and she faced challenges that Booker often struggled to understand.
Elizabeth lives in a world where racism and slavery is prevalent, her city is floating in the sky, her father is a prophet, and where she is able to view parallel realities. She is presented with unique challenges, but she overcomes them. She is also constrained by the the year the events take place: In 1912 women still had very few rights. This combined with the fact that the city of Columbia is almost completely cut off of from the rest of the world (as it is a floating city that broke away from the United States) means their social progression is much different from the rest of the world at the time, specifically the US. The city is ruled by a self proclaimed prophet, who runs the city as a theocratic, militant state, leaving very little room for social equality. The game shows many examples of the racism and exploitation that takes in place in the city with propaganda posters praising racial purity. While Elizabeth lives a more privileged life as the white daughter of the Prophet than the slaves and indentured servants, she is still locked in a tower because of her powers. And although she lives a lavish life (her tower is filled with anything she could desire from books to dresses), she is deprived of human attention. Most of her contact with other people is limited to the time she is studied by scientist and doctors. Despite being the “princess in the tower” (quite literally, as she is the daughter of the prophet who will inherit the city from her father) Elizabeth is still a capable, strong young woman who, although she was rescued from the tower, becomes the hero in the end by using her power to go back and drown Booker DeWitt, preventing him from ever becoming Zachary Comstock, the militant Prophet.
Besides Elizabeth, there are two other named women in the game who are important to the story and gameplay. Daisy Fitzroy is a black prisoner forced into slavery in Columbia where she was a housekeeper for Lady Comstock. After being framed for Lady Comstock’s murder, Daisy flees the Comstock house and forms the Vox Populi, a resistance group of oppressed groups in the city of Columbia. Through the game it is revealed that Daisy is not only a genius (which is determined through an intelligence test she is forced to take), but she is also a charismatic leader and an excellent fighter who seeks to empower oppressed groups. Daisy had a dark side, however; she is will do anything it takes to kill those in power, even if it means killing innocent citizens. Daisy’s biggest flaw is her lust for what she considers justice.
Rosalind Lutece is another intelligent women who pushes the plot along and is essential to the game. Rosalind is a quantum physicist responsible for “quantum levitation,” the process used to keep the city of Columbia afloat. Rosalind also studies the tears and was able to talk to an alternate reality version of herself, a man named Robert. The fact the it was Rosalind and not Robert who opened the tear and brought him into her reality is interesting. It appears that while both Rosalind and Robert are brilliant scientists; Rosalind is the one who is able to bring the other through the tear and it often seems as if she is the smarter of the two. Her identity as a woman seems to be partly responsible to her intellect and devotion. Rosalind and Robert helped Comstock find Booker in an alternate reality and bought his daughter so that Comstock would have a blood related heir. Rosalind is brilliant scientist who is responsible for many of the events leading up to the start of the game. She is also seen and talks to Booker throughout the game and often helps Booker understand what is happening.
Daisy and Rosalind are strong and powerful characters but I wonder whether or not they are empowered? Daisy and Rosalind use their intelligence in ways that may be abusive. Sarah Lefanu examines this in matriarchal utopias, specifically Jayge Carr’s Leviathan’s Deep where:
The female characters are women, but women with attributes of men, that is, women with power and the capacity to abuse it. They must, finally, be shown to be at fault. Yet the fault seems as much to lie in their womanness (otherwise why invent them as women?) as in their position of power. Powerful women are seen as biological monsters. Biology is muddled up with social structures. (48)
Daisy specifically seems to abuse her powers and kills innocent people, a flaw that cannot be redeemed. She is a position of power a the leader of the oppressed wanting to start a revolution, and ultimately she abuses this power, causing the player to see her as a villain as much as Zachary Comstock. Rosalind is also hugely at fault; it was her who retrieved Elizabeth from the alternate reality. But Rosalind does get Booker to rescue Elizabeth again, which leads to the destruction (or lack of creation) of Comstock in the end.
While BioShock Infinite does not pass the Bechdel test because the women in the game do not talk to each other, it is revealed that Rosalind and Elizabeth did interact previously, and in fact knew each other. Although this relationship does not take place in game, there is acknowledgement of the existence of two women who talk about and Elizabeth’s powers rather than men. I struggle with whether or not the game passes the Mako Mori test. All the women’s narratives are dependent on the men’s narratives but do not necessarily support them. In fact, I think Booker’s narrative supports Elizabeth’s narrative. He is sent to rescue her in order to erase a debt, but once he rescues her, the story is no longer about his debt. Instead we want to know Elizabeth’s story and understand the circumstances that led to her imprisonment in the tower. At the same time we are learning more about both Daisy and Rosalind and their influences in the city and the story of the game. The characters, especially Elizabeth and Booker, are so entwined that it’s hard to pick out whose narrative is supporting whose.
The game would easily pass Elsa Bartley’s criteria for video games which states: “There must be a female character with whom you can interact, who doesn’t need rescuing, and isn’t a prostitute.” While Elizabeth wouldn’t fit this criteria because she needs rescuing, Daisy and Rosalind would. The player interacts with both characters, multiple times throughout the game. And we know that neither of them are prostitutes: Daisy was a former housekeeper who now leads a revolution while Rosalind is a scientist. And neither of them need saving. In fact, Daisy is attempting to save others and is fighting back against oppression.
Bioshock Infinite presents a unique setting where there is little, if any, social progression. The three main women in the game reject the societal norms and ideals and each of the women do this in different ways. While the portrayal of women in this game may have some flaws, like the fact that Elizabeth must be rescued, the three of them are still strong and empowered women.