Pathetic Female Characters
I play Borderlands.
So do a lot of other women. The game is notable, in fact, for its large and vocal community of female fans. No matter what the dudebros down at Gamestop tell you, women play all sorts of games, even very violent shooters like Gears of War and Call of Duty. The fandom of Borderlands, however, is much more visibly gender mixed than many other mainstream games.
There are two main components to Borderlands’ success with female characters: variety and flaws.
Borderlands 2, like Borderlands 1, only has a single female character who is playable out of the box, despite having four playable characters included with the game. (There is a 3rd female character named Gaige who can be bought as a DLC.) Taken by itself, this could be a troubling sign of tokenism, and in truth I do grumble about it endlessly to my friends. And sadly, despite being a playable character, Maya is perhaps the least developed of the women I’ll profile here. She is competent, friendly with the other Vault Hunters, and isn’t any more or less psychopathic than anyone else in the game. (Oh, by the way, everyone in Borderlands is an unrepentant murderer. I can’t think of a single character who hasn’t at least asked someone else to kill someone for them.) She’s not actually that interesting. Her back story is pretty simple: she was raised by a religious order to be their tool of domination over the population of her home planet, but rebelled and then came to Pandora, the planet where the games take place, in order to learn more about what it means to be a Siren, one of the six women in the universe who have super powers.
And that’s it. If that’s all Borderlands had to offer, I’d be very disappointed. Luckily, my disappointment with Maya is contained by the otherwise excellent cast of women in both games. It turns out, and this is really shocking so hold on, it turns out that if you have lots and lots of women in your story, it doesn’t matter so much when one of them is boring. Imagine that!
Lilith is a psychopath. (Just like everyone else on Pandora.) While playing her in the first game, the player is treated to a vicarious experience of gleeful power. Lilith has fucking super powers and she knows just how awesome that is. Mocking laughter and taunts burst forth from her when she’s in a firefight against the poor, unfortunate, and dreadfully outclassed bandits who are foolish enough to fight her. She is strong, deadly, competent, and unwaveringly dedicated to being as awesome as she can possibly be. She’s also kind of pathetic, and this is why I love her.
In the second game we see new sides of her through private audio recordings. Among the things we learn is that she is a nervous wreck when it comes to talking to men she likes, is kinda-sorta addicted to a substance which makes her powers stronger, and is a bit too ready to be flattered by a homicidal cult that started burning people alive in her name. And none of this is used to undercut how much of a badass she is. She’s a take-no-prisoners power fantasy for women–something that is in chronically short supply–and also a rounded person with fears and failings and weaknesses. Both, at once.
Let’s take a brief diversion: power fantasies? What’s up with that? Power fantasies are an important part of our culture, and there is no point in denying that. Just look at, oh, I don’t know, any random movie about how One Man Stands In Their Way that’s been released this week. Clearly there is something there that we as a culture value. Should we? I dunno, that’s beyond the scope of this article. I would suggest two points however.
First, historically disenfranchised groups such as women or ethnic minorities (or, gasp, women who are part of an ethnic minority!) are very frequently starved of images of people like them being powerful and important. Straight white guys get constantly flattered with images of people just like them saving the world and generally embodying all that is good and just, but other groups don’t get that same treatment. This has a real impact on our self-assessment and judgement of our worth and capabilities, and with good reason. It’s a pretty strong signal that you don’t matter to the culture at large when simply wanting a book or a movie or a video game that stars someone who looks like you is somehow a specialty interest, when the same story staring a white dude is “more mainstream.”
Second, denying women or other groups power fantasies of their own denies them full participation in our culture. Everything from Die Hard to Superman is about straight white men being The Most Important People Ever, and our culture celebrates and reflects that endlessly. But if you just once try to make a black woman the center of a power fantasy, people lose their fucking minds. And what that says is that people who aren’t straight white guys should not be allowed to participate in our culture to the same extent, since they must necessarily do so by vicariously living through someone else’s fantasy, rather than a fantasy that stars someone they really identify with.
And the real stubborn part about this problem is that efforts to address the issue can actually make it worse. Unless you really think about how patterns of disenfranchisement work, it’s very easy to perpetuate some harmful memes.
I can’t stress how important this is enough. Over and over we see Strong Female Characters who are perfect, hyper-competent badasses, but who lack any kind of human depth. Women whose competence is essentially just another feature to make them more desirable to the (always, always, male) protagonist. When Megan Fox’s character in the Transformers movies is shown to be a mechanic, that’s not because she’s a well-rounded character with motivations and interests of her own; it’s so that Shia LaBeouf’s character can have a girlfriend who is so awesome she knows how to fix his car. (And also so she can pose like this.) It’s even worse when, despite being played up as some kind of strong, independent woman ™ she ends up captured or otherwise imperiled and needs to be saved by the slovenly slacker she will inexplicably fall in love with just before the credits roll. The modern Strong Female Character is just a warmed over version of that Victorian trap of worshiping an ideal of womanhood that doesn’t exist.
A real woman is never cross, never flustered, always primped, always presentable, always protects her virtue goes the lie. This transmutes to, a real woman is always strong, always competent, always beautiful, always available, but never a slut; you know, Girl Power!
It’s Victorian bullshit in a sports bra: pretending to flatter women by raising the standards of femininity so high that they can’t be reached. And when you fail that standard–and you will–that failure will be used to police you, to restrict you, to dismiss you, to silence you, to punish you, to ignore you. Real Women ™ are whatever patriarchy needs them to be right this moment, but don’t forget to be ready to radically change everything about yourself to conform to the new, completely contradictory standard that is going to be rolled out tomorrow. Right now, patriarchy is on the defensive, and so it needs men to flatter themselves that they aren’t sexist so that they can continue to ignore the problem. Thus, Strong Female Characters.
So how do you create a power fantasy for women without falling into that same trap? You make the power sit comfortably alongside vulnerabilities and relatable flaws. Lilith is vain, and that vanity that is born of her insecurities, a problem a lot of us (ahem) can identify with. Lilith is a powerful person in her world, but she’s a person first and foremost. She has wants and needs and fears and failings. In having flaws, she is granted dignity. We see her as a worthwhile person beyond and in spite of her flaws; they are never used to undercut her value to her friends or her strength in the world. They’re just parts of who she is, a big glorious mixed-up fuckup who also kicks ass and takes names as necessary.
There is dignity in failure. There is dignity in being recognized as having worth and value even in your moments of weakness. Male characters are granted this allowance pretty much all the time. Bruce Wayne is a neurotic mess. Tony Stark is a substance abuser. John McClaine is a terrible husband and father (No seriously, what the fuck, John?). But can you think of any female characters who have that level of flaw or weakness in their characterization, and yet are still treated as being worthy of being a hero? Or hell, let’s make it easier, who even get to be protagonists? It’s a lot harder, and if you add the further caveat that they should have the same level of exposure as the three male characters I mentioned, it becomes basically impossible.
Now, I don’t know, but I suspect that some well-meaning creative types out there fall for this trap again and again because they’re scared that if they make the main female character in their work flawed in one of these ways, that this will be taken as a condemnation of all women everywhere. We can’t have the main woman in the story be self-conscious and insecure, because then people will say we think women are obsessed with what others think of them! Oh noes!
That’s where the second half of the solution comes in: you want to include not just strongly written female characters, but MORE female characters. A lot more. If there is a particular narrative reason that you can’t have a lot of women in your story, then that is okay as long as the reason isn’t just a bullshit excuse. If you’re writing a war drama set in the trenches of WW1, then yeah, maybe you won’t have many women in the cast. If the story is set in a modern hospital, however, you’ll need a much better excuse to get away with throwing a sausage party.
Having a lot of women in your story allows you to have diverse female characters, each with their own issues and strengths and weaknesses. And now, through the magic of admitting that half the fucking species are women, you have freed yourself from the shackles of needing to treat your female characters as if each one of them was meant to represent what you think the strengths and failings are of all women everywhere. I know, it’s fucking amazing, right? Get this, by displaying a wide variety of women doing a lot of different things, you can even have women enjoying activities that are traditionally coded feminine without worrying that people will presume that means you think all women should inhabit one specific social role!
And it’s one that Borderlands gets so, so very right. You see, as much as it is disappointing that only 25% of the initially-available player characters are women, the supporting cast of NPCs is much, much better about being balanced between men and women. And since the point of these games is that Pandora is a dangerous place whose population spans the gambit from the very eccentric to the recreationally homicidal, more or less all the women in the cast get to be as delightfully damaged and bizarre as the men. None of the women is saddled with being the burden of representing all women, so they get to be personalized and inscribed with their own hangups, motivations, wants, and fears. They get to be individuals. They get to be human.
When we meet Moxxi she is presiding over a murderous pit fighting ring which she flatly admits she maintains to be able to indulge in her fondness for cruelty and brutality. She is an irrepressible sex pot whose cleavage is so famous on Pandora that it her wanted poster is a sketch of her chest. She is also the mother of two of the other major NPCs. A femme fatale who is gleefully murderous…and is a mother. When was the last time you saw a mother depicted in any part of pop culture that didn’t depict moms as extensions of their children or husbands? When you become a mother you are a sexless appendage to the greater glory of your husband’s sperm, or so pop culture goes. Mothers are the worriers, the nags, the wet blankets. They never get to be the ones screaming “HIT HIM AGAIN! THAT WAS FUCKING AWESOME!” But in Borderlands, they do.
Ellie is a mechanic who lives in the middle of fucking nowhere, beset on all sides by bloodthirsty maniacs, and that’s just the way she likes it. Interestingly, one of the reasons she moved out into the badlands is because she was tired of her mother (Moxxi) telling her to slim down. Yes, folks, this game has a fat chick who gets fed up with body policing and does something about it. The jokes about her aren’t really that she’s fat; they’re more that she’s crass, impulsive, violent, and kind of a redneck. (Much like her brother Scooter, in fact.) There actually aren’t a whole lot of jokes centered around Ellie, in fact. She’s sort of the only sane woman on Pandora, and her pathos mainly comes from the loneliness she experiences as a result of having fled the stifling expectations of her mother. She’s still a hoot to hang out with, though.
If Ellie is the only sane woman in Borderlands 2, then Helena Pierce is fulfills that role in Borderlands 1. (Yes, I know I’m posting these way out of the order they appear in.) I’m fond of her, but she doesn’t really have any glaring flaws or weaknesses that are immediately apparent. Of all the women on Pandora, she comes the closest to falling into the Strong Female Character trap, but avoids it on the basis of two excellent choices in characterization. First, she has a disability (and she’s not the only character in the game to have one, as well). The way her disability is treated is very matter of fact, and allows the player to contextualize her no-nonsense attitude towards protecting the people under her care. Helena is a badass because she took her knocks and earned her scars and she knows that somebody has to be the one to make sure shit gets done.
Second, her badassery is mainly limited to being an extremely competent administrator (it’s cooler than it sounds); this enmeshes her in a social fabric, and gives her a plausible reason not to be out there shooting up the bandits in person. She knows where her strengths lay, and has no objections to letting those more capable at violence handle the firefights. That kind of self-knowledge is real power, people. But more importantly, her responsibilities to the people of New Haven pretty much rule her out as a love interest; even if this game had romance subplots, she probably wouldn’t have the time or desire to get into a relationship.
You’ve noticed that Strong Female Characters almost never have anything tying them down that would make them turn down a male hero’s advances, right? Helena is a widow who, I suspect, is still in mourning. She’s implied to be a workaholic, and we learn in the second game that her husband died horribly when a local carnivore attacked them after he unknowingly gave her a ring that put out mating pheromones. Helena’s conspicuous displays of strength and competence are, I believe, the result of her burying her grief. She never really comes to terms with his loss, and so while she’s the one character in the game who appears, at least on the surface, to be an uncomplicated hyper-competent badass, she’s about as far from a romantic reward for a male character as you could imagine. The flaw that makes her human is one that strikes directly at the heart of what I hate in so many depictions of women in pop culture, that we are essentially accessories to a man’s story, and that is why I love her.
Oh, also? I think her scars are kinda hot, but that’s just me.
I love, love, love Dr. Tannis. She’s the brilliant scientist with a PhD in exposition that any sci-fi setting needs, and she is also completely out to lunch. A series of horrifying and tragic log recordings in the first game chronicle her spiral down into (exaggerated, cartoony, and utterly unrealistic) mental illness. But even as she enjoys the company of her best friend, a chair, she’s never made to be incompetent. What I love about Dr. Tannis so much is that we never laugh at her for being crazy as if it was somehow a failing of hers, or something that undercut her value as a person. The horror of what has happened to her is very much present in every interaction, and that horror is enhanced by how we are coached to empathize with her. In many depictions of mental illness, the illness is used as a way to distance and dehumanize the character, but Tannis is brought in closer, and made more human the longer you speak to her. She’s a tragicomic foil to the entire setting of Pandora, and that doesn’t work unless you care about her as a person. The things she says are funny, sure, but the game never lets you forget that she’s this way because of the things that were done to her, and never makes her the butt of the joke. Patricia Tannis helps us laugh in the face of horror, while we empathize with the pain she is fighting through just to be lucid.
I’ll be a bit personal here: I have had, and continue to have, mental health issues. Not at this (exaggerated, cartoony, and utterly unrealistic) level, no, but I have had nervous breakdowns and I have been suicidal and I have sometimes found myself riding the bus to a destination I don’t remember quietly muttering “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” over and over and over again. There are careers I really wanted to have that I am permanently locked out of because of my health. So Patricia speaks to me, in a way. She’s a way of laughing at my own darkest moments, and how they must have looked like on the outside. And the fact that she’s still doing what she loves, even through the illness, that makes my throat go tight when I think about it. Maybe that’s not enough of a basis to build a feminist critique off of. I don’t care. Dr. Tannis makes the fucking game, as far as I’m concerned.
And these are just the women who I have something I want to say about. This post is getting pretty long, and I haven’t even encountered the full cast of both games, so an exhaustive listing won’t be covered here. I never did finish Borderlands 1 (it got too grindy for me) and I have yet to complete Borderlands 2 (although that should be happening soon). Looking at the NPC list on the wiki indicates that there are plenty more women in the casts of both games that I have yet to encounter. Why can’t every ensemble cast be this gender balanced? Why does it have to be so unusual? It shouldn’t be that hard, right? The two golden ingredients–flawed women, and lots of them–have combined in this series to create a wonderful, rich cast with plenty of colorful women who are given the same respect as the men, in most important regards. (I would have liked to see some female bandits out in the wasteland, similar to how Mass Effect has female mercs and goons all over the place.) They get to be flawed–sometimes egregiously so–and they get to have fears and failures and problems. But they also get to be competent, and powerful, and strong, and important in their world. Both, at the same time. Borderlands isn’t a series that is flawless. I’ve got some problems with how they handle short people. Tiny Tina…uh, Tiny Tina needs her own blog post. But even with those flaws, it manages something that is all too rare these days: it treats women with respect, by allowing them to exist in large numbers and also be just as fucked up and weird as the men around them.
When the people try to dehumanize you by holding you to a standard of perfection, there is dignity in being pathetic. On Pandora, everyone is pathetic in one way or another.
[Note: Friends inform me that events in the later part of Borderlands 2 may make it necessary for me to write a follow on post to this one, so be on the lookout for that, maybe, if I get around to it.]