Down to Size: Borderlands 2’s Ellie and Body Image 3

The erst­while deba­cle con­cern­ing Borderlands 2 design­er John Hemingway’s ill-considered use of the phrase “girl­friend mode” to describe an expan­sion set skill tree des­ig­nat­ed for the non-FPS crowd left some gamers cau­tious about hop­ping the fastest ride to Pandora.  Though the com­ment was fair­ly innocu­ous in ret­ro­spect, more a gaffe than any kind of inten­tion­al insult, it was enough to make us socially-conscious gamers worry a bit about how Borderlands (a series known for its over-the-top gra­tu­ity in every way imag­in­able) would man­age to keep to its irrev­er­ent, often self-deprecating and satir­i­cal indul­gence with­out Crossing Lines.

So, when it came to light that one of the new mission-granting NPCs would be an over­weight woman, it was easy to cringe pre­emp­tive­ly.  As soon as I was warned by anoth­er char­ac­ter not to make fun of her weight, and first saw her car­toon­ish­ly large frame start bounc­ing around the screen, I couldn’t help but won­der “how badly are they going to man­age to screw this up?”

We’re wit­ness to, and part of, a pop­u­lar cul­ture in which char­ac­ters (from Winnie-the-Pooh to Hugo Reyes) who are even mod­er­ate­ly chunky are con­sis­tent­ly por­trayed as eat­ing con­stant­ly, being sloven­ly, eat­ing too much, being eccen­tric (because fat peo­ple are weird), eat­ing, get­ting stuck in things, being fat while eat­ing, and just gen­er­al­ly being clum­sy adi­pose buf­foons.

Before we take a glance at how Borderlands actu­al­ly man­ages a respect­ful, fair­ly nuanced por­tray­al of the heavy­set Ellie (no, not that one), though, let’s take a short refresh­er course on the back­drop of the minority’s strug­gle.

If, at this point, you’re think­ing I take videogames way too seri­ous­ly, and you read Ontological Geek, you’re clear­ly a glut­ton for pun­ish­ment.

There are some who say, not at all inac­cu­rate­ly, that heavy-set folks are one of the last unpro­tect­ed social groups, at least in America.  The much-needed infu­sion of anti-bullying rhetoric pop­u­lar in the New Tens tends to focus, quite right­ly, on the sys­temic vic­tim­iza­tion of LGBTQQIAA* youth, and to a less­er extent “geeks” and “nerds,” while the heav­ier vic­tims get shamed for poor food choic­es, or, occa­sion­al­ly, treat­ed as the unfor­tu­nate side effects of improp­er or under­priv­i­leged par­ent­ing and education-related state pro­vi­sion.  Simply, fat peo­ple are more like­ly to be passed over for jobs or pro­mo­tions com­pared to their slen­der­er, equally-qualified coun­ter­parts, and are made fre­quent tar­gets of nasty ver­bal assaults, not just on the play­ground in youth, but in adver­tis­ing (duh!) and on (gasp!) the Internet as well.

For every per­ceived mod­ern inequity, there exists a social move­ment in oppo­si­tion to it, and weight is no dif­fer­ent.  The cul­ture of “fat pos­i­tiv­i­ty,” or “fat pride,” has been gain­ing some steam in recent years, and involves embrac­ing heavy body types as either intentionally-chosen or biologically-destined pos­i­tive aspects of nat­ur­al human beau­ty, rather than prob­lema­tiz­ing them as symp­toms of neglect or ill­ness. Many terms once asso­ci­at­ed with heav­ier bod­ies’ neg­a­tive and pre­sump­tive con­no­ta­tions have become sym­bols of empow­er­ment in cer­tain fem­i­nist (or oth­er­wise!) cir­cuits which incor­po­rate fat pos­i­tiv­i­ty into their world­view, eschew­ing the com­mon con­ceit that a woman needs out­side (usu­al­ly male, patri­ar­chal) affir­ma­tion to self-actualize in a pos­i­tive way.

Now, how does Borderlands 2 affirm this approach to body image-related think­ing?

The lady of the hour, Ellie, is a bit of a fam­i­ly black sheep.  A for­mer mem­ber of the Hodunk clan (a beer-swilling, big-car-loving, racetrack-owning crew of exag­ger­at­ed Southern stereo­types – because it’s okay to make fun of red­necks), she was raised along­side Scooter in a whol­ly unciv­i­lized (even for Borderlands!) region of Pandora called The Dust.  After their moth­er broke off from the clan, appar­ent­ly because she would rather not raise chil­dren around a bunch of volatile lunatics, Scooter head­ed off for rel­a­tive­ly safer and the more indus­tri­al­ized parts of the world, even­tu­al­ly becom­ing famous for his CATCH-A-RIDE!! series of com­bat util­i­ty vehi­cles.  Ellie, no less gift­ed a mechan­ic, decid­ed to remain in The Dust, oper­at­ing a garage and sal­vage yard, eschew­ing safe­ty in favor of ply­ing her trade where it seems to be most need­ed.

Borderlands 2 man­ages to give us a quite obese char­ac­ter whose story is, by and large, not about weight.  Instead, the plot threads and dia­logue sur­round­ing Ellie deal pri­mar­i­ly with her savant-like tech­ni­cal abil­i­ties, her pref­er­ence to con­duct busi­ness among crim­i­nal sav­ages, and her down-home blue-collar atti­tude.  This approach is espe­cial­ly effec­tive because it allows Ellie, not other char­ac­ters or the player’s poten­tial bias­es, to speak to the issue of her weight.

From Ellie, we learn that, though her moth­er has many times tried to pres­sure her into chang­ing her body for the pur­pose of attract­ing men, she gets by just fine on her own, thank you very much.  The rest of her actions through­out the game; from mur­der to insti­gat­ing a clan war to set­tle a per­son­al score, from stand­ing up to her broth­er to reclaim­ing a pos­i­tive own­er­ship of her body type (we’re get­ting to this, Tumblr crowd), speak to her traits of courage and inde­pen­dence set out for us in the nar­ra­tive.  She is, truly, a strong woman.

Maybe the best exam­ple of what I’m talk­ing about comes to us by way of an Ellie-specific sid­e­quest called “Positive Body Image.”  In that quest, Ellie tasks you with recov­er­ing hood orna­ments made in her image by her for­mer clan (and of course, you accom­plish that task by blow­ing the ever-loving bejeezus out of their piece­meal vehi­cles).  The dec­o­ra­tions are intend­ed to mock her and make fun of her weight, to serve as a con­stant, antag­o­nis­tic reminder of her inad­e­qua­cy and rejec­tion by her for­mer fam­i­ly.  Get this; she’s not hav­ing you destroy these jeer­ing effi­gies.

As it turns out, she likes them.  And, when you suc­ceed in your quest and bring every one back to her, she sets them up as per­ma­nent fix­tures in her garage.

To me, this says a cou­ple of things:  for one, we’re under­stand­ing the nature and neces­si­ty of recla­ma­tion as a func­tion of an inde­pen­dent life.  Crucially, though, this isn’t a pre­req­ui­site to such an exis­tence.  The game lets us make the infer­ence, jus­ti­fied by dia­logue and expo­si­tion, that Ellie’s achieved inner strength already.  She doesn’t need the play­er to affirm her worth.  The player’s not the point, not the cen­ter of the action in this case.   This recla­ma­tion isn’t a last stand, isn’t grasp­ing at a ver­bal straw from the hand of power.  Instead, it’s a sym­bol of what’s already been achieved.  Ellie’s actions say it all.  She kills those who per­se­cute her, she achieves finan­cial suf­fi­cien­cy, she finds suc­cess where her tal­ents and love both lie (a feat many of my peers are find­ing tricky, these days).

Appropriating sym­bols once used by bul­lies and ene­mies is at once, on con­ven­tion­al, Christian-centric wis­dom, a lofty eth­i­cal choice.  “Turn(ing) the other cheek” can’t but result in anoth­er, sim­i­lar scar, only this one cho­sen, as opposed to being taken with­out con­sent.  This strength in humil­i­ty is also the heart of recla­ma­tion: hurt­ful racially- and sexually-charged slurs are adopt­ed by the com­mu­ni­ties once oppressed by them, and used as a sym­bol of togeth­er­ness and belong­ing, a power in num­bers, a gath­er­ing place of safe­ty.  One of the might­i­est exam­ples is the word “queer,” which has under­gone an almost total trans­for­ma­tion from rue­ful instru­ment of vio­lence into a single-syllable affir­ma­tion of an open, affir­ma­tive par­a­digm.

This isn’t to say that Borderlands 2 is some great new bas­tion of sen­si­tiv­i­ty and social con­scious­ness.  It’s not meant to be.  The Borderlands fran­chise, from the start, has been about hav­ing a rol­lick­ing good time: killing badguys, doing quests, col­lect­ing shit, and mock­ing how ridicu­lous gaming’s pat­terns and tropes are.

Thing is, many works which delight in cyn­i­cism (or revel and bathe in it like Borderlands), like the com­e­dy of Daniel Tosh and Bo Burnham or that of geek cir­cuit over­lords Penny Arcade and Egoraptor, some­times make a real over­sight in mis­tak­ing play­ful com­men­tary for an obtuse sort of antag­o­nism.  To say, “hey, this thing we all do, this is ridicu­lous,” is fun.  But it’s easy, too easy, to cross over from that play­ful com­men­tary into being nasty toward peo­ple who are dif­fer­ent from us.

Quite sim­ply, there’s the error.

Borderlands 2’s design is suf­fi­cient­ly inten­tion­al to know when enough is enough.  To know when it’s time to let char­ac­ters, oppressed minori­ties, and untold sto­ries speak for them­selves, even in the midst of silli­ness.  It’s a tough bal­ance to strike, but a very, very impor­tant one.

And maybe I’m wrong, but I think they did okay.

Aaron Gotzon

About Aaron Gotzon

Aaron Gotzon was a contributor to the Ontological Geek from 2010-2013, and had more fun with it than Super Smash Bros. (most of the time) and the entire Halo series (all of the time). He can be still be found occasionally sharing Dungeons and Dragons memes on Twitter @AP_Gotzon.

3 thoughts on “Down to Size: Borderlands 2’s Ellie and Body Image

  • Josh Trevett

    Borderlands 2 man­ages to give us a quite obese char­ac­ter whose story is, by and large, not about weight.” I don’t agree! As you say, many of her quests ARE about her weight, even if they’re attempt­ing to be pos­i­tive. What’s more, even on the quests which aren’t express­ly about her weight, she’ll pro­vide chat­ter which is, eg. “They like skin­ny bitch­es because they’re pussies.” I per­son­al­ly find that the game is con­stant­ly remind­ing me about her weight, large­ly for comedic effect, and I can tell that they TRIED to do some­thing pro­gres­sive, but I found it a pret­ty lazy and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive effort. Not dis­sim­i­lar to BBC Sherlock’s cute­ly teas­ing the idea of a homo­sex­u­al romance between the main char­ac­ters — the idea is treat­ed as charm­ing, but ulti­mate­ly funny.

Comments are closed.