WARNING: This post contains spoilers for Bioshock Infinite. Read at your own risk.
Bioshock Infinite features something that we don’t usually see unless it’s a major focus of the story: a sexism-free fantasy world.
Or at least a world that seems to be free of sexism. It’s difficult to notice the lack of something, especially when subtle sexism is so pervasive in our society that we make out own sexist assumptions while playing games. But in Columbia, where bigotry is proudly held up as a religious and moral imperative, the lack of explicit sexism is noticeable.
It’s an interesting world building technique, because many fantasy worlds hold onto some form of racism and sexism in an effort to ground the world in “reality” and make it more believable to the audience. (I’m not going to get into the merits of this technique right now, because that’s a whole other thorny issue.)
When the racism isn’t explicitly about skin color as it is in Bioshock Infinite, it might be about aliens or intelligent AI or what have you. There’s an extensive list on TV Tropes if you would like to check it out. And as many fans of historically inspired fantasy (like Bioshock) can say, there’s a long-standing discussion of the prevalence of sexism in these imagined worlds.
So it stood out to me when I first realized that Columbia was a remarkably egalitarian society when it came to gender. The only sexist comment I can recall hearing was the loudspeaker’s call to “protect the women and children” from Booker’s rampage. You also primarily fight men during said rampage, although there are occasionally women thrown into the mix. There are female police officers, which is a large departure from the real life 1912, when women would absolutely not be part of the police force in the United States. At the very least, the inclusion of female enemies shows that the developers likely intended Columbia to be gender egalitarian, even if it doesn’t play out in actual gameplay as well as it should have.
I also don’t want to overstate the “everything is great for women!” angle, since Columbia is clearly still virulently racist and classist. Only white and/or wealthy women would benefit from any sort of gender equality present in Columbian society.
I could write more extensively about this — what I’ve already said is barely an overview — but I want to talk more specifically about Bioshock Infinite than any wider trends (while keeping in mind that Bioshock Infinite inevitably takes part in the context of those trends).
The way I see it, there’s a narrative reason and a practical storytelling reason for the seeming lack of sexism in Columbia, and they both stem from the same reasoning: in order for women to be in important positions, there simply can’t be a load of sexism holding them back.
Bioshock Infinite has a fair share of narratively important female characters. There’s Rosalind Lutece, Daisy Fitzroy, Lady Comstock, and, of course, Elizabeth. All of these women have differing concerns, motivations, and reactions to their respective situations, and they are all important to the current events of Columbia and to the mythology keeping the whole society together.
I’ll tackle the “practical storytelling reason” first: could any of these characters easily exist in a historically accurate, sexist 1912? Not really. Columbia would not even be able to exist without Lutece’s scientific advance (although her brother is her literal counterpart in some realities, she is the one the developers chose to emphasize in the game), but her achievements would have been hard-fought for and most likely downplayed or outright stolen if she’d existed in a sexist world. I would say there’s a reason that she shares a first name with Rosalind Franklin, whose work helped lead to the discovery of the DNA double helix but is never mentioned in the same breath as Crick and Watson.
American history is full of outspoken and brave women like Daisy Fitzroy, but they did not have the social capital or power to successfully lead mass movements. Racism and sexism combined to make such a possibility functionally impossible. But not so in the world of Bioshock Infinite. Without sexism within the movement, Fitzroy was able to be the leader of the Vox Populi.
It’s not that these women couldn’t exist. They could and did exist in our real history. But their stories are usually sadly inseparable from the sexist hurdles they had to jump.
From a writing standpoint, it’s easier to omit sexism from this particular plot and world. The writers clearly wanted to include women in their story, but it’s difficult to justify many women in positions of power — and the story mainly deals with the most powerful people in the city rather than the day-to-day concerns of the citizens — when that world is sexist. Unless the writers plan to spend game and story time dealing with sexism and the women’s struggle and rise to power, it makes sense to get rid of the problems of sexism altogether.
And the writers did a fairly good job of making the lack of sexism make sense too. Lady Comstock has been purposefully transformed into a religious figure by Comstock, and Elizabeth is hailed as his successor. If he wants people to buy into his ethos and accept Elizabeth’s eventual rule, then he can’t preach that women are inferior. Rosalind Lutece has also created the very technology keeping the city in the air and the beaches nice and beachy. It wouldn’t benefit Comstock, who is working closely with her, to denigrate her in any way. Women have visibly contributed to Columbia’s existence and hoped for future, and they’re valued for it.
The unique constraints and needs of a flying city also make sexism potentially less likely. There is a finite amount of resources up in the air, and that includes human labor. The need for labor is one of the main justifications for bringing so many non-white people into such a racist society. (I would argue another reason is because Comstock can hold onto his power more securely if he provides his followers with someone present to hate rather than just the abstract threat of the “sodom below.”) But the Columbians need people to do more than physical labor.
This brings me back around to the police officers. There are already unrealistically large numbers of police officers in Columbia. Judging by the number of people that Booker mows down, every single person in Columbia is either a member of the police or has a costume stacked away just in case. I can accept the numbers of soldiers a bit more, because Columbia is nothing if not paranoid about outsiders.
That said, I can imagine the police have constant campaigns for new recruits, since the population of the city is already low. Why limit your candidate pool to only men — especially if women are believed to be just as capable.
I don’t have a significant concluding point for this post. This isn’t one of those examples that I point to and shout, “Look at Bioshock Infinite is doing everyone! We need more of this in our games!” There are definitely a nice variety of interesting female characters — and we can use more of that for sure — and the lack of sexism in Columbia is intriguing, but it doesn’t show up in gameplay often.
Booker is still technically saving Elizabeth in every gameplay section. She gains power, sure, but it’s only exercised during cutscenes or to make useful things appear during combat. I could’ve used a giant tornado instead of a chintzy barrier when facing those endless waves of police officers.
I’ve also witnessed other media doing the lack of sexism thing better. My favorite example is Battlestar Galactica. This is a world where gender is virtually uncommented on and where women hold important offices and ranks in the military. Where men and women share the same bathroom and no one notices. It’s a truly post-sexism world, and the difference to our own is startling. The lack of sexism in Battlestar Galactica becomes an indictment of our current society, because it shows where we are sexist. I would argue that this is not true of Bioshock Infinite.
I think that’s my main beef with the game. There are some unusual-for-games ideas about social realities running under the surface of the narrative (and they don’t need to be overt points to be effective), but it doesn’t show up in actual player interactions with the world.
I believe it’s a symptom of narrative and world-building threads that were raised at the beginning of the game and then dropped and changed partway through development. It’s particularly obvious in the way the game treats race, a topic I’ll be taking up in more depth next week. Until then, happy game playing!
(And, to answer the question: Columbia is definitely not what I’d call a utopia.)