Elizabeth: Bioshock Infinite’s Subversive Damsel
WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR BIOSHOCK INFINITE. PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK.
Recently, I completed Irrational Games’ Bioshock Infinite. It was a thrilling, sometimes disturbing epic that not only took a hard look at America’s prejudiced past, but delved into the weird world of quantum physics and turned it all into a mind blowing story. The aspect of it that I was most impressed by was how the game managed to take the tired, broken down Damsel in Distress trope and turn it on its head. When you start the game as hard-boiled ex-Pinkerton agent Booker DeWitt, you’ve been hired to fetch a young woman from the flying city of Columbia. But what transpires with the girl, Elizabeth, turns out to be much different and much more satisfying.
Elizabeth is a young woman who has been locked in a tower by her zealot father Zachary Comstock for her entire life, in order to prepare her to become his successor. It’s the classic Damsel in Distress scenario, but when Booker gets there, he finds that she’s not nearly as helpless as he thinks.
When Booker first meets her, she seems fair and gentle, with a Disney princess vibe and a burning desire to go to Paris. She’s innocent, eager and curious and trusts you almost immediately. However, it becomes immediately apparent once he gets to know her that despite her naivety, Liz has a strong spirit, incredible smarts and the unbelievable ability to rip tears in the universe to do her bidding. She’s resourceful and quick-witted, with the ability to break codes and pick locks like they’re nothing (being locked in a tower with nothing but books means she’s got a lot of hobbies). She’s attempted escapes from her tower multiple times, with her monstrous guardian Songbird being the only things that stands in her way, and it’s clear that though Booker does in fact help her escape from her prison, she’s not interested in playing the role of helpless girl.
In fact, the relationship between Booker and Liz is largely that of a team effort. Liz has no fighting or shooting experience, but she doesn’t just stand around while Booker does all the work. She’s constantly scrounging, looking for things like ammo, health kits and salts to throw his way when he’s in a tight spot. Liz also pulls handy items like rocket launchers and turrets out of tears in the universe that can help Booker do his thing, making her an incredibly important part of the battles. It may seem like a disappointment that she’s not doing more action-oriented things, but her participation in the battle in a supporting capacity is a godsend and the moments where she’s not with Booker feel terribly precarious.
The best thing about Elizabeth is that she feels like a well-rounded character. She’s wary, but compassionate. She bears pain and suffering with a grim determination. Her highly negative reactions toward the rampant violence that Booker sows aren’t the reactions of a simpering damsel. They’re the reactions of a real person. She’s rightly terrified by what’s happening around her, but she does the best she can. And when Booker’s interests conflict with hers, she’s not afraid to beat him over the head with a wrench and make her own way. Liz doesn’t need Booker to save her, if that’s how it’s going to be. She’ll save herself.
But despite their rocky moments, she and Booker develop a bond throughout the game that feels genuine and organic. There’s some charming, platonic interaction between them that turns parental when it is revealed that Liz is Booker’s daughter (previously named Anna) from a series of universes (of which there are an infinite amount) whom he sold as a baby to his alternate, future self Zachary Comstock and has spent the next two decades regretting. Liz’ awesome powers stem from the portal to Comstock’s universe closing around her pinky finger and severing it, making it so that a part of her exists in both multiple universes. The familial bond he develops with Liz takes on an new significance with the revelation, and her selfless sacrifice (drowning Booker and in turn killing herself) seemingly erases the universes in which Comstock exists and allows Booker and Anna to have another chance to be together.
Bioshock Infinite isn’t truly about Booker DeWitt or Columbia. It’s about Elizabeth. She’s not a Damsel in Distress that needs to be protected. She takes care of herself, acts as a true partner to Booker and turns out to be the center of the events that take place in the game. She was a joy to be around and the journey that she took me on was one crazy ride. Kudos, Irrational Games. If other AAA companies can portray characters as dynamic and interesting as Liz, then the gaming industry may just have some women-friendly potential yet.
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