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.