Let’s talk about Elizabeth’s dress

16 Jun

Bioshock Infinite: Part Two, Part Three, Part Four

WARNING: This post contains spoilers for Bioshock Infinite. Read at your own risk. I mean it. I will talk about the end of the game. Don’t do this to yourself if you haven’t played the game. 

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When the first trailer for Bioshock Infinite was released, I wasn’t thrilled with Elizabeth’s character design. Especially once Irrational Games, the developers, started to tout Elizabeth’s importance as a dynamic character that players would care about. If she was meant to be such a well-fleshed out character, why exactly was Irrational deciding to sexualize her? Those types of cheap tricks are used constantly in low-brow games that rely on safe thrills — lots of explosions and boobs — to make sales. And, of course, games made with higher ambitions also fall prey to the one female character with enormous breasts or jeans so tight they double as a thong. Here, I thought with Bioshock Infinite, was another that would be just a little bit lesser in my eyes because of a silly outfit choice.

So I was surprised when I first met Elizabeth in-game and she was dressed conservatively. No cleavage or pinched waistline in sight. While creating a game, hours are spent over the smallest details, and that’s especially true in a game as detailed and finely crafted as Bioshock Infinite. I started to wonder if maybe Irrational had designed Elizabeth’s dress for more than fanservice. And the more I think about it, the more I believe they did.

Sexualization

Let’s get this out of the way, because I know a lot of people like to dispute this point: Elizabeth’s second outfit is absolutely sexualized.

The main feature of her outfit is a corset, which is literally worn to shape and accentuate breasts, waist, and hips so that they appear to be more hourglass-shaped. You know, so people can be more conventionally attractive. People wanted to be desirable when corsets were standard everyday wear just as much as people want to be desirable today.

The biggest difference here being that Elizabeth’s corset is completely exposed. This is absolutely not period correct, as I’ve seen some people bizarrely argue. The game is set in an alternate 1912, and women were definitely not running around town in their underwear. (You’re probably not going to find many women going out in public in only a bra today either.)

Women's fashion in the 1910s

Women’s fashion in the 1910s

Elizabeth’s dress also makes what I like to call a “boob window.” Her breasts are boxed in by the top line of her corset, a bolero coat, and a choker necklace. All of this serves to attract the eye toward what’s in the middle — her breasts. She also has long dark sleeves, which makes her pale skin pop out even more. And what’s the most exposed part of her? Oh yeah, her breasts.

The boob window in action.

The boob window in action.

There tend to be a lot of cries of, “But I thought feminists were against slut shaming!” or “She chose to wear that, so why are you bashing her!” when arguments like this are brought up. But there is one very important distinction between Elizabeth and a real woman. And it’s really the only distinction that matters.

Elizabeth is not real. She was made by a group of designers, writers, and programmers. She cannot make decisions on her own.

A real woman can choose to wear a low cut top for whatever reason she wants. It doesn’t matter. It’s her decision. But Elizabeth is an image carefully curated for your entertainment and each and every decision about her clothing, demeanor, and speech has been artificially created by someone other than herself.

When criticizing a female video game character’s attire, no real world woman is being targeted. No one is being slut shamed. No one is saying that these clothes are inappropriate in the real world.

This difference in agency is the very distinction between “sexy” and “sexualized.” A woman can wear something with the purpose of appearing sexy. Nothing wrong with that. A video game character, on the other hand, is usually not expressing a wish to be sexy. I would argue that it’s actually impossible. Even if a sexualized appearance “fits” the character, someone wrote the character that way. Often, a revealing outfit is included in a game to persuade straight men to buy a product.

It’s not always a bad thing to have a sexualized character. It can have a purpose — and I mean a purpose that’s a little more complex than titillation. A sexualized character design is wholly dependent on the framing of the character design and the message that the developer tells the player. The question for me: what was Irrational’s message how effective were they in communicating it through the medium of Elizabeth’s dress?

Her Mother’s Dress

The second, sexualized, dress that Elizabeth changes into is her mother’s old dress. The same one seen in the ubiquitous portraits of her throughout Columbia. From what I can remember, the game only mentions this fact when the gate to Comstock House misidentifies her as Lady Comstock.

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For what could have been a heavy-handed image, I’m impressed with the subtlety with which Irrational handled the dress. Being stuck in the past and unable to move on is one of the major themes of the game, seen most prominently in Booker’s transformation into Comstock.

Elizabeth is intimately tangled up in Booker’s story, and, as a consequence, is also tied to his past. Unlike Booker, it’s a past that she had no hand in creating herself. Lady Comstock was in a similar situation as Elizabeth: misused by Comstock and largely a victim of circumstance. She is not really Elizabeth’s mother, but they are allies in a suffering that was inflicted on them by the same man (or, in Elizabeth’s case, men).The costuming creates a strong visual alliance between Elizabeth and Lady Comstock that emphasizes their shared history.

The dress also symbolizes the disturbing impossibility of escaping from the past. Lady Comstock becomes a symbol, a religious image, for Columbia, stripping her of her personhood. And every portrait and statue, tools of her idolization, features her wearing The Dress. It’s ominous, to say the least, that Elizabeth, who is trying to escape a fate of idolization by the people of Columbia, winds up wearing that very same dress.

Keeping this in mind, the inevitable transformation of Elizabeth — dress and all — into a gaming icon takes on a darker tint. Even before the game came out, people were creating cosplay of Elizabeth in The Dress. Her character design is the most recognizable in the game, and I’m sure that people will continue to dress as her and create barrels of fanart. I’m obviously not condemning anyone for this. But the result of early marketing for the game, which heavily featured Elizabeth in Lady Comstock’s dress, has resulted in Elizabeth forever being associated with the symbol of an abusive and tragic past.

But The Dress, when worn by Elizabeth, also touched upon the game’s theme of defiance against an unwanted fate, even if defiance is ultimately futile. Elizabeth is not wearing the exact same thing as Lady Comstock. She eschews the bodice of the dress — which goes all the way up to Lady Comstock’s neck — in favor of wearing her corset exposed.

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I find the corset to be a contradictory symbol (and maybe someone else has a clearer idea than I do). Corsets are restrictive. They are made to shape posture, and they make movement more difficult. The scene where Booker laces up Elizabeth’s corset while she draws her breath in pain because of her bruised body strikes me as particularly poignant in this regard. Booker — as both Booker and Comstock — has hurt Elizabeth and literally restricted the choices in her own life. She has been locked in a tower and her future as the prophet’s successor decided. And her previous life as Anna has been stolen by Comstock and given away by Booker. The corset acts as a physical symbol of her restraints, made more obvious by the act of Booker lacing her into them.

But the corset is also a symbol of defiance. Elizabeth must have been uncomfortable with wearing what she believes to be her mother’s dress. Rather than wear the whole thing, she attempts to make her own identity by keeping the corset of her original outfit. It’s the first time she probably gets to choose what she wants to wear — a mark of her new “freedom.”

However, it’s still a restrictive and limited freedom. Despite her efforts, the gates of Comstock House recognize her as her supposed mother; she is still tied to the past. And although she wants to exercise choice in her newfound freedom, she does so through an article of clothing that is particularly confining.

Fear of Female Sexuality

When Booker first explores the tower where Elizabeth is being held, he finds the Siphon. This machine “siphons” Elizabeth’s powers, which weakens her and limits the circumstances when she can use her power.

There is a chart in the room detailing the development of Elizabeth’s powers throughout her life. At menarche — her first period — there is a huge spike in her power. This is when the Siphon was installed.

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Menarche marks the start of puberty and the beginning of adult sexuality. And for Elizabeth, it marked the moment when she should have gained her full powers. But, as many girls experience at the start of puberty, her new powers were a source of fear instead. They were taken from her and controlled by a literal patriarch: Comstock.

Fear of female sexuality is a subtle undercurrent of Elizabeth’s entire character arc. While she is locked in the tower, she is infantilized. The people of Columbia, who never see her, still think of her as some sort of holy infant. Elizabeth is locked away with the pretense of keeping her safe, although it’s clear that a significant reason is fear. She is given a “guardian” that is more jail keeper (what would happen if the Siphon broke? They need something to subdue her.) and is constantly observed by scientists intent on understanding her power with the intent of controlling it.

In her confinement, Elizabeth is given clothes which are probably more suited to a younger girl. Her sexual threat is neutralized or at least lessened. The moment of her outfit change — which is sudden and surprising despite the fact that we all knew it was coming — comes after she murders Daisy Fitzroy. She also cuts her hair, which often signals a transformative moment of growth for a character and a major turning point in the story. (There’s a whole TV Trope for it.)

For the first time, Elizabeth is truly dangerous. (And, as Adam Sessler points out, like menarche, it’s another moment of first bloodletting.) She exercises power through violence. Up until this point, she has relied on Booker to perpetrate violence for her, and, as a result, he has held the power in their journey.

Elizabeth changes into a much more sexualized outfit, an outward mark of an inner change, and is colder and more self-assured afterward. She becomes more ruthless and bent on revenge throughout the game — even ignoring the future version of Elizabeth that Booker meets. She kills the scientists that experiment on her and insists on killing Comstock. It turns out that the people of Columbia had good reason to fear her. (The great joke being that she wouldn’t be a threat to them if they hadn’t locked her up and tortured her.)

You can also find a sanitary pad from Elizabeth's first menstruation in the tower. Talk about disturbing.

You can also find a sanitary pad from Elizabeth’s first menstruation in the tower. Talk about disturbing.

At first, it seems that Booker, and not Elizabeth, is the one who kills Comstock. But, in the end, it is Elizabeth — all versions of Elizabeth — that destroys Booker and Comstock.

With the destruction of the Siphon, she regains her full power. Afterward, she has complete knowledge — perhaps more than any other character — and the ability to manipulate space around her. Within the context of the narrative, she is all-powerful.

But in order to retain her power, she needs to erase the person who stole it in the first place. In one last exercise of power and her own will, she kills Booker and Comstock. It is a murder of the patriarchy that has kept her power from her — the murder of the patriarch of Columbia and her literal patriarch, her father.

Brought to a more general and metaphorical level, we’re left with the idea that women need to destroy the patriarchal order that fears them and doesn’t allow them to exercise their full power. In fact, if women were able to claim their power, patriarchy would cease to exist. Happily, in real life patriarchy isn’t housed in any one person, so no literal murders are necessary. Sadly, life is not nearly so simple. The destruction of patriarchy is much more than men against women, and all oppression will not be lifted with an end to sexism.

Conclusion

I’m somewhat troubled by the connection between female sexuality and power. Women can most definitely exercise agency and have power in their lives that is completely divorced from their sexuality. I don’t believe Bioshock Infinite is consciously making a hard connection between sexuality and power, but the implication remains within the narrative, especially for the most important female character, Elizabeth.

I think the exploration of the theme itself is really interesting, and it’s great to see a video game tackle it. But I’m also not sure that Elizabeth needed to be wearing a sexualized outfit to make it work. Within the context of a media that is constantly sexualizing and objectifying women, it’s still frustrating to see a character like Elizabeth, who the developers so clearly care about and put effort into, in an outfit that emphasizes how sexually pleasing she is to straight men.

If Elizabeth had been less sexualized, I think the game’s connection between female sexuality and power could have been lessened. The theme could remain, but it would seem less like the game was endorsing the connection itself. After all, the idea is that the Columbians and Comstock were afraid of something they could not understand and control. The concurrence of the onset of Elizabeth’s power and the beginning of puberty is enough to make the point without also having her in underwear for half the game. And the connection to the past could have been kept intact by having Elizabeth wear all of Lady Comstock’s dress. As it is now, I’m not sure that Elizabeth’s dress is successfully justified by the needs to the narrative.

Sexuality is also nearly the opposite of sexualization. Sexuality is simply personal expression — there’s no value attached to it. Sexualization is imposed upon someone by outside forces. It is absolutely unthreatening to patriarchy — it has been a tool used by patriarchy to oppress women for ages. If the game wants to draw a connection between sexuality and power, then it is probably best not to sexualize the main female character, especially because sexualization curtails the expression of genuine sexuality. As I said before, I like the theme and it’s exploration within the game. But I don’t feel as if Irrational was entirely successful in making Elizabeth’s character design relevant or necessary to what I believe is their desired message.

I have a lot more to say about Bioshock Infinite, so be sure to check back for the next few weeks. Next week I’ll be discussing the sexism-free world of Columbia and the thinking that might have gone into this decision.

What do you think? Is Elizabeth’s dress actually an essential part of the game? Am I just not getting it? Let me know in the comments.

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5 Responses to “Let’s talk about Elizabeth’s dress”

  1. readthiswatchthisplaythis June 16, 2013 at 1:07 pm #

    Really interesting ideas! Definitely agree with you on a lot of points!

  2. Anonymous June 17, 2013 at 7:53 pm #

    When she comes out wearing the second dress she says, “It was all they had.” And you can see peeks of the corset as her first outfit steadily comes undone. In my opinion, all she did was change out of her blood covered clothes into something clean. After doing that, she realizes that she can’t wash away what she’s done, and so she cuts her hair in order to show a new life.

    • howmanyprincesses June 17, 2013 at 9:32 pm #

      I’m not sure I entirely understand the direction of your comment. I understand that she was changing into clean clothes within the narrative. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a more symbolic/meta meaning to the change.

  3. natalie September 29, 2013 at 8:14 pm #

    While not avoiding the obvious sexual overtones of the outfit it is simply more mature and, perhaps, somewhat more appropriate for the character at this point. It is also stunningly beautiful, certainly providing more drama than the “school girl” attire of the earlier phases.

  4. Myriel Linn August 29, 2016 at 9:10 pm #

    I have to prove your theory of Elizabeth stripping her mothers outfit of the bodice and instead just wearing the corset wrong*: In Burial at Sea Ep. 2, when 50s Elizabeth boards the first lady through a tear created by the Lutece device, she encounters Lady Comstock’s dress in the back, before 10s Elizabeth and Booker board the ship.
    And it looks exactly like the one she wears later, without the bodice and the corset out.

    *even though I really like that theory.

    It can be seen here:

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