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A damsel in progress: analyzing BioShock Infinite’s Elizabeth

From Peach to Zelda, the damsel in distress is a classic video game figure. Countless games have featured the helpless princess in need of rescuing, and despite its blatant sexism, the trope is still widely used.

When Irrational Games’ BioShock: Infinite was released March 26th, female character Elizabeth seemed to be just another damsel in distress. She has the wide-eyed princess look, she’s innocent and pure, and she’s locked in a tower waiting to be saved.

But after I played the game, it became clear that Elizabeth is far from a helpless damsel—in fact, she represents a major step forward for female game characters.

The interaction between the player (a male character) and Elizabeth represents an “escort mission” structure (the player must lead an NPC, or non-player character, to safety or to a goal of some sort). Damsels in distress are extremely common in escort missions, and game developers often characterize the damsel as stupid, annoying, and useless (largely because until recently the technology wasn’t advanced enough to create an NPC that wouldn’t get in the way).

BioShock: Infinite’s escort structure is different. Elizabeth is far from baggage; she’s essential to the player’s success in the game. She picks locks, collects supplies, and aids the player in combat.

Instead of following the player around everywhere, she runs ahead, often indicating which way to go. Elizabeth can also handle herself in combat, unlike many NPCs that need to be protected.

It’s true that Elizabeth’s appearance is reminiscent of the damsel. Like most female game characters, her looks are exaggerated, and her cleavage is prominently displayed.

Halfway through the game, Elizabeth changes from her modest dress to an extremely tight corset. It’s certainly not the worst female game costume, but it is pretty uncomfortable looking.

There has been a fair amount of criticism regarding Elizabeth’s appearance (one blogger called her “fetishized”), and some players were disturbed by Elizabeth’s cleavage because of her youthful look. (Really, when have male gamers ever complained about too much cleavage?)

Yet other than the corset, Elizabeth’s character is not overtly sexual. Yes, she’s beautiful, but her proportions and features are fairly realistic. Visible cleavage doesn’t necessarily equal objectification.

Elizabeth is never presented as sexually available and there are no sexual undertones in her relationship with the player. In fact, creative director Ken Levine said it wasn’t his intent to sexualize Elizabeth, and he was “disappointed” that players focused on this.

The most important way in which Elizabeth differs from the classic damsel is the fact that her character is well rounded. She has a lengthy backstory and complex emotions and flaws like a real person. As the story progresses, it becomes more and more clear that the main character is Elizabeth, not the player.

Though the player must save her from danger, she’s not just an object used to further the male character’s storyline—she is the storyline. This differs from many female game characters that are flat, uninteresting, and simply tools or goals for the player.

Bioshock: Infinite’s Elizabeth doesn’t completely escape the damsel in distress trope, but she does push its boundaries to a more equal, empowered place. The next step is for her to become a playable character and get her own game.

Sarah Hansel is a 23-year-old human female. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English with a minor in Women and Gender Studies from UC Davis. In her free time she likes to read, play video games, draw, and garden.

12 thoughts on “A damsel in progress: analyzing BioShock Infinite’s Elizabeth

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  1. Very thoughtful and insightful post. I agree with the points you have made and applaud you for making them with such balance and restraint. Since this game is played by males, what do you think drove the creator’s decision to make Elizabeth a fuller character? Is it possible that some young men out there are actually looking for a woman with strength and personality?

  2. He does sexualize her by having half her breast exposed. No women would dress this way to go on an adventure. This is for the male gaze.

  3. Hey, clearly you have not played resident evil, tomb raider, or black ops 2. Women kick butt there. And Zelda takes a flipping bow out and shoots Gannon so without her you couldn’t beat the game, smart. One.

  4. Hi Claudia!

    Interesting thought. I do think that males respond just as well as females to a well developed female character. However, I have to disagree with your statement that this game is played by males. About 47% of gamers are female now! There are plenty of female gamers looking for characters they can relate with 🙂 Thanks for your comment!

  5. Hi Lisa!

    I totally agree that her outfit is a bit ridiculous and looks super uncomfortable. It’s very odd that Levine wouldn’t have seen how sexualized it is. But it’s possible that it was a stylistic decision made by other developers to appease a certain “Frat Boy” demographic…you win some, you lose some.

  6. Hi Tanner!

    I have not played Resident Evil or Black Ops 2, but I have played Tomb Raider and in fact wrote a blog about how badass Lara Croft is: http://www.

    I am in no way saying that every female game character is a weak damsel…in fact I make the opposite point about Elizabeth! But it is still undeniably a very widely used trope. Zelda is largely captive and unable to save herself in the games, though she does help Link along the way.

    I will also say that just because a woman “kicks butt” in a game doesn’t mean she is empowered. I talk about that in the Lara Croft blog.

    Thanks for your comment!

  7. Create a female pc instead of focussing on npcs. Problem solved, the female pc character can be just exactly as badass or not, as you’d like. I suggest a sith sorcerer in swtor, or a night elf death knight in wow. Or, if you want a more decision-making rpg, play Dragon Age Origins and be a human noble. Problem solved. Or, shall I say “made-up problem, solved”. 😉

  8. Hey Ells-

    I love creating female characters! Dragon Age is one of my favorites. But I’m not giving up hope that the majority of games will one day feature this option.

  9. That zora princess set women back nearly 50 years with her bimbo antics…I’m glad you called her out on her bullshit :p

  10. The game is certainly a step forward in promoting healthy human relationships. However, as one reviewer suggests, Elizabeth is very much a superwoman, and lacks the vulnerabilities typical of ordinary human beings of all genders

    As a male, I would tend to be distracted by Elizabeth’s cleavage. (Perhaps I was breastmilk-deprived?) Amongst other future developments, the player could be allowed to make some personal requests of Elizabeth, such as “cover your boobs, I can’t concentrate!” (to which she might respond with random banter). I’m implying that the game might have accidental sexual overtones, which should be addressed, preferably with humour.

    Nice to think that almost exactly half of the players are female and half are male. And that you, Sarah, should have a long career ahead. I think there’s hope for the future after all!
    — Tony

  11. haha thanks john. 😛 she really was the worst. and if you ever accidentally put her down (because apparently she couldn’t WALK) she would get lost in jabu jabu’s belly again. such a pain.

  12. Tony–

    Thanks for your comment! I like that you pointed out the fact that this game is a step forward for “healthy human relationships”. I totally agree.

    I laughed at your suggestion that the player should be able to call Elizabeth out on her excessive cleavage. It definitely was distracting, even for me as a female, and certainly caused some degree of sexualization. I can’t believe Ken Levine wouldn’t have realized this.

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