Is BioShock Feminist? A response in defense of Tenenbaum

So via Critical Distance I found this feminist critique of BioShock, written by Richard Terrell (who, you may have noticed, is a man). But it is really not sitting right with me. His thesis is that BioShock depicts women as weak and men as strong. So I thought the rest of the article would try to show how BioShock upholds patriarchal values.

And it does, at first, but I don't really agree with the analysis. He starts off talking about the Little Sisters. Obviously, everyone else has pointed out the sexist dichotomy of the Big Daddies and Little Sisters. But he states that when you play either good or evil, Little Sisters are commodified. I disagree with that, based on my friend's analysis that I wrote about over here: the entire point of the good path is to show that the Little Sisters are PEOPLE, not commodities; as Mighty Ponygirl states, you have to reject Randian philosophy and accept that they aren't resources for the taking in order to save them. And if you don't, and you harvest them, you get the bad ending—you're evil.

I'm also not totally sure I buy the argument about taking away the girls' agency when you save them, since you are ignoring their resistance. These are very young girls we are talking about, not adult women, though I suppose your mileage may vary on this point.

The criticism of Tenenbaum is where the feminist analysis is really weak. Terrell describes how Tenenbaum is initially shown as logical, protective, and strong, saying that she is "a woman whose life style flies in the face of the patriarchal woman," but then she "begins to artificially morph falling into the patriarchal gender role of women." While I agree that Tenenbaum not shooting the player when zie harvests the first Little Sister (if that path is chosen, mind) when she had just shot a splicer for even trying to do the same is a bit of a plot-hole (though she could have known that the player was much more powerful than any splicer and could have feared getting killed, leaving the Little Sisters with no protection whatsoever), I don't think that Tenenbaum morphs into a patriarchal woman. She doesn't change, we just find out more about her, and as it turns out, she is rather complex (the post doesn't touch on her background in a German World War II concentration camp). Just because we find out that she cares about the little girls doesn't make her NOT a brilliant geneticist, and a Holocaust survivor, and everything else she is.

Terrell's analysis is based on the idea that "logical = male = good / emotional = female = bad," an association that is used and repeated by the author with no critical examination when he says that Tenenbaum defies patriarchy at first by being logical but succumbs to it by being emotional. I mean, should Tenenbaum have not been emotionally invested in the Little Sisters? I think that would have been entirely unrealistic, and even bizarre since in order to follow the good path, you must care (to some degree) about them yourself. In addition, an important concept of feminism is that logic and emotion are not exact opposites (example: it is logical for one to feel sad after one's dog dies), the two qualities aren't inherent to one gender or another, and they are both essential for all human beings. A feminist critique should take into account the fact that it is natural and human to be able to both reason and feel emotion, often at once.

Further, the author notes that Fontaine puts down Tenenbaum by calling her a "Mother Goose." The author seems to forget that Fontaine is the villain of the game, so the player isn't necessarily supposed to agree with him. I didn't quite get his point here, but the Critical Distance post sums it up as "Dr. Tenenbaum's redemption comes through an acquiescence to patriarchal ideas of motherhood." But I don't see what is specifically patriarchal about Tenenbaum's maternal instincts. She has them, and that is enough to make her a tool of the patriarchy? (Should Tenenbaum, and women in general, not have maternal instincts in order to be feminist?) I would contend that Tenenbaum is actually a feminist mother in that she is a genius with a career and a single mother figure! She is the head of her little non-traditional family, after all.

Tenenbaum is not an unproblematic character from a feminist perspective, but she is a lot more complex than the author of this post gives her credit for. The post also doesn't mention the botanist, who is a woman and another genius; this gives the game at least two female geniuses, when most forms of entertainment rarely give us any.

I also take issue with this statement: "Throughout the rest of the game Tenenbaum guides the player through various tasks and objectives. She tells the player what to do, and the player does it. Simply by playing through the game, the player fulfils [sic] the typical patriarchal male role of a strong, proactive, decisive force." How is the player proactive and decisive? I believe the player is actually reactive and obedient. The fiction supports me on this one: the entire point of the twist with Atlas, the line "A man chooses, a slave obeys," is that the player has been doing what zie is told the entire time, without any true free will; zie is not a Randian genius but a cog in the machine. This is pretty much the entire point of the game and is, as others have written, a critique on the limitations of video games.

Is BioShock Feminist? A response in defense of Tenenbaum

As my friend pointed out to me, the game takes this critique even further by showing how the Little Sisters are conditioned to feel safe around and attached to the Big Daddies and negative toward women (Tenenbaum in particular). This social conditioning is something everyone goes through, and it affects (and to an extent controls) peoples' thoughts an actions in a deep and subtle way. In feminist theory, patriarchy is a form of social conditioning that teaches people that there are certain traits that are inherent to men and women, that men are strong and logical and intelligent and women are weak and emotional, and so on and so on. In this sense, the game is actually agreeing with and explaining feminist theory.

The post goes on to describe the misogyny present in the game: the cartoons that cheerfully show violence against women, Dr Steinem and certain characters' obsession with beauty. After several paragraphs describing these things in a negative tone, the post ends with: "[Rapture is] a place where women are forced to play in a man's world according to his rules, and there's nothing the player can do about it. And what's worst of all, Rapture is a place that is like our own in many ways."

… Right. At first I thought the author was criticizing the inclusion of the cartoons, the character of Diane McClintock, etc., but at the end he seems to understand that these things were included as criticism of the time period the game takes place in as well as the modern world. But doesn't that undermine his thesis that the game isn't feminist?

Even though the game may seem very problematic on the surface, overall I found it to have some deep feminist thought and themes behind it. It seems like Terrell couldn't decide either way.

I would really like to hear from you guys about this one. Am I missing anything? I think part of the problem here is that Terrell looks at the game purely through a cursory understanding of feminist theory and I am coming at it as a practical feminist. (Another problem is that I use way too many parentheticals.) But a lot of you are probably more well-read about BioShock than I am, and I would like to hear more from that perspective.

Read more on the While !Finished blog.

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Justin KeverneAlex HNocDemiathAlex R Recent comment authors
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Justin Keverne

I’ve only recently started to develop my interest in, and knowledge of, feminist theory however I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and discussing BioShock. I found it noteworthy that of the many genius’ the player meets throughout the game the only two who retain some degree of sanity are both female and both contextualised as mother figures; Tenenbaum with the Little Sisters, Langford with her plants. The mother as a cultural archetype is traditionally identified as feminine so in some ways it’s a little obvious and clichéd that the two mothers in BioShock are actually female. However their… Read more »

Alex H
Alex H

Noc, I don’t think that the author is missing these points. Yes Terrell points out these patterns, but he seems to be highlighting them as if they are just another example of misogyny or anti-feminism insinuating itself into mainstream media. I’m sorry, but I refuse to believe that Bioshock is on the same level phenomenologically as a Brut commercial. Someone *chose* to make them Little Sisters instead of Little Brothers. There was a deliberate intentionality about having Tenebaum be referred to as “Mother Goose” and to be put into the role of taking care of the Little Sisters, as well… Read more »


[quote=Anonymous]The plot hole regarding her not shooting at the player; she knows who and what the player is and even had a hand in his creation. It wouldn’t make sense for her to kill the player even if he does start harvesting little sisters; she would know precisely what was at stake. Also, I got the impression she was actually one of the medical experimenters at the concentration camp rather than an inmate.[/quote] She was an inmate AND an experimenter; she begins with blurred lines from the start. Regarding her not shooting the player: if she recognises him she also… Read more »


I can’t read the original piece (the site seems to be down; I found my way here through RockPaperShotgun), so I can’t comment on the original piece. But some of the counterpoints you brought up bug me such that I think I can guess at the original point – and maybe try and explain it better. Commentors above me have addressed most of the specific points pretty well, so I’ll take a shot at the general gist; the bit at the end, where you ask if you’re missing something. I think I know what it is. You assert that you’re… Read more »


The plot hole regarding her not shooting at the player; she knows who and what the player is and even had a hand in his creation. It wouldn’t make sense for her to kill the player even if he does start harvesting little sisters; she would know precisely what was at stake.

Also, I got the impression she was actually one of the medical experimenters at the concentration camp rather than an inmate.


This post usefully problematizes the interesting but somewhat one-dimensional discussion found in Terrell’s article, but I think his take on the Mother Goose theme was more or less right. As with so many phenomena discussed by feminist theory, there’s nothing wrong with maternal feelings as such (and they clearly serve an important role in the story’s moral rejection of Rapture’s pseudo-Randian utilitarianism), but when used (as I think it partly is used in BioShock) as a way to “humanize” (=feminize) the coldly rational Tenenbaum it serves an all-too familiar purpose. To take a more trivial example, it’s not intrinsically bad… Read more »

Alex R

Sparky, you hit on a lot of the things I’ve been thinking about since writing this piece. In particular, the subject of the Little Sisters is one I’ve rethought again and again–there are so many ways of looking at it and I can’t pick one that satisfies me. In some ways they represent how people are indoctrinated into patriarchy, and at the same time they are commodified, as you say. Ultimately, it seems like BioShock has progressive aims, but sacrifices clarity of message for gameplay (not that that’s a bad thing). The author of the initial criticism actually commented on… Read more »

Sparky Clarkson

I think you dismiss the “girls as commodities” argument too easily. This is tied in with the larger critique of the moral choice in BioShock, because saving the girls also results in material reward — not just ADAM, but also ammo, tonics, and unique plasmids. The first-time player who has never used a walkthrough may save the first few girls as a purely unselfish choice, but after he receives his first teddy bear it is equally possible to view saving the girls as an acquisition of ADAM. In this light the girls lives are much like commodities on a market:… Read more »