Eugénie DeWitt: Temperance, Incest and the Shock of the Biological

[CW: Sexual abuse, incest, domestic violence. Spoilers for Bioshock: Infinite]

In the 1956 film version of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel the violent drunk Billy Bigelow, dead from a botched robbery, is given a chance to make things right at last on Earth. The offer comes whilst he works in a temperate and industrious vision of purgatory and it is implied (in the original stage show it is explicit) that this will be his last chance to make it into heaven. On his return to the living he meets the daughter who wasn’t born until after he died and proceeds to berate her and, finally, strike her before reascending, the assumption being to heaven at last. It is a heady brew of symbolism, as redemption is shown to be a process of the rehabilitation of a man through his labour and industry, into a viable patriarch capable of disciplining and controlling the sexual lives of his wife and daughter. Even beyond the grave Billy’s emotional wellbeing is more important than either of the women’s, whose emotional labour and subservience is calcified in the following exchange.

Louise Bigelow: I didn’t make it up, Mother. Honest, there was a strange man here, and he hit me hard. I heard the sound of it, Mother, but it didn’t hurt. It didn’t hurt at all. It was just as if he kissed my hand.
Julie Jordan: Go into the house, Louise.
Louise Bigelow: What’s happened, Mother? Don’t you believe me?
Julie Jordan: I believe you.
Louise Bigelow: Then why don’t you tell me why you’re actin’ so funny?
Julie Jordan: It’s nothin’, darlin’.
Louise Bigelow: But is it possible, Mother, for someone to hit you hard like that — real loud and hard, and it not hurt you at all?
Julie Jordan: It is possible dear, for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and it not hurt at all.
[they embrace]

Their job is to accept Billy’s violence and to transform it into love, like a factory for feelings, a machine that inputs chaos and outputs patriarchal control. They are the final proof that patriarchy requires women to do the work of its upkeep and that it enslaves them by making this work all that they can do to survive. As someone who grew up surrounded by domestic violence the final sequence of Carousel felt more like a horror movie than anything else. Billy’s strike is the hand emerging from the grave at the end of Carrie, or Ellen Ripley starting to undress and relax and noticing the lithe, hateful form of the Alien sleeping in the escape pod. It is a male violence that is as yet undefeated.

To me, that this was the uplifting end made absolutely no sense whatsoever: the promise that you’ll never walk alone is transformed into a threat made by an abuser rather than a comfort for the bereaved. Unknown to me at the time I watched it, however, there is a history of American temperance literature that Carousel slots into nicely. Temperance literature, very briefly, aimed to convert the drunkard from his destructive ways and onto a path of righteousness and bourgeois productivity. In many cases this was through tales of the (female) children of these intemperate men taking the brunt of their violence and, through the power of their innocent acceptance in the face of this onslaught, their weathering of the storm, allowing these men the chance of redemption. It would seem that a broken and powerless man is in need of an unflinching and unarguing object for his patriarchal control in order to be rebuilt as a man of action. The drunk is drunk because he has been denied, or has forsaken, the mantle of authority that a man must wear: alcohol is a way to avoid responsibility and for the family patriarch the first responsibility is ownership of the women (and the as-yet ungendered boys) of his household.

Karen Sanchez-Eppler (Temperance in the Bed of a Child) takes this further, locating the controlling desire as an erotic one and viewing the moral work that is done by the female child as a replacement for that sexual labour that would have been the purview of the stories’ absent or sidelined wives. This has the joint result that the stories are made both more chaste and more charged at once.

‘The shock of these temperance plots lies in their conflation of such categories so that recognizably incestuous acts — however innocently portrayed — yield social order. In my readings of these stories I purposefully imitate temperance fiction’s own practice of fusing the real and the symbolic in order to uphold incest’s individual and cultural meanings simultaneously: to acknowledge the child’s vulnerability and incest’s trauma while recognizing the eroticized child as an effective disciplinary agent.’

When, in Bioshock: Infinite, then broken drunk Booker DeWitt batters down the doors of a castle that he himself built in another life to rescue his own daughter, trapped there in an asexual stasis it is not the chaos of imagery and symbolism that it at first seems, but instead a direct descendent of the form of rehabilitation pioneered by temperance literature. Infinite eroticises Elizabeth, her story is directly lifted from Rapunzel’s and hers is the sexual awakening of a sudden puberty, dammed by overweening authority and then released all at once. However, it views this awakening through the gaze of her father, who has been the only man in her life and who has destroyed it and will continue to destroy it. Elizabeth’s job is, far from becoming herself, to instead provide for her father, in the absence of her mother, his last hope at redemption. His chance to enter heaven. She does this by weathering and witnessing his violence and his rage and his lashing out and his lack of control and allowing this and accepting it. When he commands her and destroys the domesticity of her world she acquiesces, provides him with healing and, ultimately, wins her own life as a reward for completing his.

The Marquis de Sade wrote a lot about incest. Usually he was all for it, as the breaking down of societal sexual taboos was the key to a personal freedom that enabled people to be truly who they were. Libertinage is, for de Sade, an act of defiance against a sentimentality that stifles the growth and full expression of the individual. Sexual abuse, murder and so on are all actions that should be undertaken if and only if they are desired, but if they are desired then acting upon those urges is a strength that brings us closer to the truth of the world and of our natures. Given this, one of the most fascinating of de Sade writings is the short story Eugénie de Franval. The great crime is not that Eugénie fucks her father, but that she loves him, or rather that he, for the crime is his, so manipulates her that she loves him. De Sade is about as far as it is possible to get from a temperance writer so the starkness of the moral conflict is impressive. For the temperance writer it is the job of the daughter to love her father to such an extent that he is saved from vice, but for de Sade the love between the two will destroy them more completely than any mere carnality could do.

Playing Infinite was, for me, a strange and slightly queasy experience. I fancy Elizabeth, I think she is hot. Probably I fancy her more because she is presented as a normal woman, rather than as some ridiculous cheesecake fanservice (although on the other hand it isn’t like I fancy every female game character just because they are a woman), but also Elizabeth just happens to be my type. So, I’m playing a game that has a major plotline about the sexual awakening of a character who I am attracted to and yet I am constantly being told that I can’t fancy her because my avatar is her dad. Even if I didn’t fancy her there is still the fact that the story revolves around her becoming a sexual entity all the while as it screams at you that you can’t view her as a sexual entity. As Sanchez-Eppler explores, the tension eroticises the contact between Booker and Elizabeth further, heightening the sense that Booker’s coming redemption will be found in her arms and eliding the abuse that he has, as Comstock, almost certainly inflicted upon her. (Confusingly, both hero and antagonist are the same man, from different timelines. It makes some sense if you play it. Both Elizabeth’s mothers are dead.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly then the piece of Infinite fan media that most makes sense to me is Zone’s Biocock: Intimate, which collapses the erotic tension inherent in the game and as Maddy Myers says ‘comes … a lot closer to offering me the version of Elizabeth that I wanted to see than BioShock did,’ one who ‘speaks, moans and calls the sexual shots.’ Did I also mention that I fancy Elizabeth, but that’s by the by. In Zone’s game, the protagonist, this time a disembodied cock rather than a disembodied gun, as if there is a real difference, is still Booker, making explicit the incestuous undertones of the source game while neither remarking on them or judging them.

Ken Levine, Bioshock’s lead creator, keeps telling people to stop sexualising Elizabeth because he views her as a daughter. But I cannot for the life of me imagine why he thought a young woman would neither develop or be the subject of a sexual gaze, especially when, as I keep saying, the story that is told in Infinite is the story of her sexual awakening and her emergence from the cloying constraints of a father who wants to own her and use her as a replacement for his wife, with all of the sexual labour that that implies.

I can imagine Levine wearing one of these T Shirts. I can imagine Franval wearing one too.

As the current generation of lead designers ages, a generation that grew up playing videogames rather than creating them whole cloth as adults from a shifting media landscape, we are starting to see an ageing in their relationship to women. While women get to remain as objects, the idea that they might not be sexual objects is suddenly a possibility. Games are experiencing a dadification and it is getting really confusing as to who gaming’s female characters are and how they might even experience themselves. Alongside Myers again ‘I [want] them to escape their fathers as soon as possible.’

It is a fairly common mechanism of patriarchy that violence against women is framed as being bad, by and for the understanding of men, on the premise that ‘you wouldn’t want this to happen to your daughter,’ that a victim is ‘somebody’s daughter.’ Fundamentally what this says is that men can apparently only view women as an object in relation to a man, not as a person in their own right. The non-daughter is an acceptable site for your sexual fantasies because she is not owned and spoken for. Female sexual awakening is therefore posited as a process by which a man separates the bond between father and daughter, destroying the tower and building a new one to encase her and protect her from the sexual fantasies of other men.

And yet, the videogame is a site of erotic tension. Players are used to games of conquest that provide female bodies as a prize. Female bodies are regularly differentiated from a male default, from Ms Pac Man’s bow to Dead or Alive’s jiggle physics, highlighting that there is a (hetereosexual) tension between the two, a difference that must be resolved. The tendency toward the erotic and the heteronormative runs so deep that even a puzzle platformer like Braid acts to eroticise the building of the atom bomb. Videogames process their understanding of the world through an understanding of the erotic. The act of playing, of exploring a new game, is one of finding the caresses and rhythms that it responds to. To play a videogame is to explore with your fingers, working out what is needed to bring about a mutual connection and climax. The release of tension at the end of a long and difficult boss fight, one which requires a sustained effort of concentration, is that of orgasm; the loss of control as play segues into cut-scene a petit mort.

So where do we go? How do we reconcile the hidden abuses that video games make us complicit in. Do we, like Franval at the end of de Sade’s story, fall upon our own sword and accept responsibility for the way in which we have monstrously abused our creations? Do we, like Booker at the end of Levine’s game, drown ourselves in the hope that it will wash away our sins, leaving our creation with nothing but pain in place of the life she might have had? I suspect that, instead, as an industry and a society we will continue to seek our redemption in the arms of those we have wronged, whose job it is, like the little sisters of the original Bioshock, to be used to fuel our monstrous rages and to accept our caresses and desires when we break down and wish for forgiveness. We will continue to expect these women to save us with their love.

And good riddance.