Borderlands 2 Is Not As Progressive As It Thinks It Is

The original Borderlands game was released in 2009 and seemed to be totally unconcerned with the culture war. Even in DLCs that emphasized the comedic tone, like General Knoxx and Claptrap’s Robolution, they didn’t really make anything of Athena’s defection against the Crimson Lance being some kind of “woman smashing patriarchy” thing, and the Anglosphere’s socialist moment was far enough away that the Robolution was all dunking on straw communists, and even that is perhaps giving it too much credit, since it doesn’t treat communism or socialism as actual targets. It waffles between treating them as obviously ridiculous without engaging with the arguments to portraying Claptrap as too comically inept to pull off the adoption of historical communist slogans from Marx, Lenin, and Guevara that he’s attempting. Despite being nominally about a political revolution/class war, the Robolution doesn’t say anything and doesn’t seem like it ever wanted people to believe it was going to say something.

This is not how Borderlands 2 and the Pre-Sequel were written. Released in 2012 and 2014, when the culture war was brewing but had not yet exploded into Gamergate (or, in the latter case, a few months after it had begun, making it unclear how much of it was written with that specific movement in mind). Borderlands 2 and the Pre-Sequel make a point of being progressive. Sir Hammerlock of Borderlands 2 has an ex-boyfriend casually mentioned in a side quest, and while the ex-boyfriend himself is – being a Borderlands character – a comical caricature, he’s a caricature of an obsessive hunter, not of a gay man. Borderlands 2’s Ellie is an extremely overweight woman with a side quest about body positivity. The Borderlands Pre-Sequel’s Janey Springs is a lesbian, and her last relationship and efforts to start a new one are the subject of two different side quests, plus she hooks up with playable character Athena in a DLC.

And yet Borderlands 2 still has “psycho midgets” as an enemy type, kills one of the two major female characters to raise the stakes going into the third act while damseling the other, and the Pre-Sequel portrays the last surviving female member of the principal cast as being driven to hysterical violence by the death of her boyfriend (although in the main game it’s not at all clear why Lilith has suddenly gone full homicidal tyrant, and the explanation that her boyfriend’s death sent her kill-crazy given in the DLC seems more like an effort to salvage a blatantly out of character portrayal rather than actually thinking Lilith going kill-crazy from her boyfriend’s death was good character development).

I found the presence of “psycho midgets” in a game that goes out of its way to have a body positivity side quest for an extremely plus-sized woman to be the kind of thing that’d be worth a quick tweet if I tweeted, but the break into act three in Borderlands 2 is bizarrely egregious for a story with pretenses to being progressive. This is where we learn that Angel, the allegedly AI companion who pretended to help us in the first half of the game, betrayed the vault hunters to the villains, then immediately heel/face’d back to helping us defeat Handsome Jack but for real this time, is actually Handsome Jack’s abused daughter.

Angel was also a character in the first Borderlands, although her guidance was so vague and useless that she accomplishes basically nothing despite being one of, if not the, most prominent NPCs by number of voice lines. Her only role in Borderlands 1 was to dispense motherly cooing of encouragement before going into a boss fight and praise after completing one, in such a way that implies that some kind of greater strategy for killing all these bandits was supposed to be written into her dialogue at some point but they never got around to it.

In Borderlands 2, the motherly cooing remains, but they actually did write the dialogue where she expresses some kind of actual strategy for accomplishing the player’s goal, which in this case is to defeat Handsome Jack. She betrays you halfway through…and then immediately after her betrayal, for no apparent reason, says she’s on your side to defeat Jack for realsies now. She does this by helping you, uh…kill her. Angel helps you kill Angel. This leg of the plot reframes Angel from being Jack’s mysterious AI minion to being Jack’s organic psychic daughter.

There’s nothing inexplicable about Angel secretly being organic, and there’s some reason for Angel to present herself as an AI, since it explains why she can access Hyperion systems (Hyperion being the space megacorporation that Handsome Jack owns) to help you progress without admitting that she was given admin access by Jack. It’s totally unexplained why Angel hops from helping Jack to helping you, though. It seems like Angel betrays you for no other reason except to then facilitate her having a redemption arc, because someone at Gearbox is horny for women who feel ashamed of past actions and are on some kind of redemption quest to atone for their crimes – especially since Angel switches from that at the exact moment her cooing motherliness gets choked off.

This is especially true because there’s another explanation for why you’d set out to kill Angel at exactly this point in the plot that doesn’t require giving her a redemption arc that ends with her asking you to give her euthanasia bullets: Angel has betrayed you. She is on Jack’s side. You could set out to kill her just because, y’know, she’s your enemy. Turning the quest to kill her into a redemption arc for her is so comically fitting into the trend of “hot women always get redemption arcs” that I’d guess that this was an intentional joke if Borderlands were ever that subtle about its comedy. Especially since the “Angel redeems herself by helping you to kill her” also plays the way in which men writing redemption arcs for female characters often lose interest in the character after they’re redeemed to a comical degree (although if you really wanted to play it for laughs, you’d have her die by total coincidence immediately after completing her redemption arc, and have her coincidental death incite a violent rampage by her sister or daughter or something, which would then transition immediately into her redemption arc).

And then Jack is so enraged by Angel’s death that he teleports in to murder Roland, slap some kind of mind control collar on Lilith, and monologue at the player (and this isn’t related to the point the rest of this post is making, but as an aside: The player who is holding a rocket launcher) about how now he’s really angry and teleports out. I really can’t tell if the game expects me to take Jack’s anger as a serious threat because we run on anime rules where being angry makes you stronger as a direct effect, or if the game recognizes that Jack’s anger is totally impotent because he was already a casually cruel tyrant with no regard for collateral damage and who promised slow and torturous death to all who opposed him, so there’s no gloves to take off and never have been. Either way, Lilith spends the final stretch of the game being held captive and tortured while you do a side quest where you race around Lethal Lava Land gathering up refunds that arms dealer Marcus Kincaid mailed out while drunk and is now paying you to reclaim before anyone actually collects them. Lilith has an actual line “better dead than a damsel” and I can’t tell if this is Gearbox failing to notice that it’s too late and she is already a damsel or if Lilith is supposed to be saying that she would rather die than continue to be damseled, but either way they wrote this line instead of a plot where Lilith doesn’t get damseled.

Angel and Lilith are our only two principal female characters (Maya and Gaige don’t count, because playable characters are a cypher in Borderlands 1 and 2 (though not in the Pre-Sequel, which gives them a lot more dialogue)), and one seems to exist purely to careen from one erotica fetish plotline to another while the other gets damseled in an especially fetishistic way. None of it is so blatant that I would normally bother writing a blog post about it, except that so many of the side quests go out of their way to try and show off progressive credentials (bear in mind these games released in 2012 and 2014, before the US Obergefell case legalized gay marriage in all 50 states) which makes the portrayal of women in the main plot much more noticeable. As is often the case with these things, drawing my attention to these issues has taken what would’ve been a flippant remark in a Discord chat and turned them into a full blog post about how weird it is that Borderlands 2 had an entire major plot arc about how the only way to save a woman from her abusive father is to murder her.

I’ll add for the record that the supporting female cast don’t get hit by this as hard. Moxxi is obviously sexed up, but that’s her character, it’s the selling point of her business in-universe, the narrative isn’t contriving to put this character in fetishistic or fetish-adjacent situations, the character presents herself that way. Nisha is the villainous sheriff of Lynchwood who can’t wait to have a gunfight with a worthy opponent (although the Pre-Sequel does give her some “kink = sociopath” coding). Patricia Tannis is “crazy” and therefore gets lots of “wacky” dialogue that is mostly just filler but does get one or two good jokes in (one of the good lines is even about sex, although since it’s actually funny, I’m less inclined to think that it was written purely from a place of fetishization). Ellie is an overweight mechanic whose side quests revolve around either starting a gang war to profit from the conflict Yojimbo-style and collecting the figureheads of a bunch of bandit murdercars styled to look like her, which she suspects were supposed to mock her but which she thinks look cool so she wants to put them up around her house. That’s very obviously trying to make a point about fat shaming and stuff, but it’s not wrenching the universe into pretzels to do it and it certainly doesn’t come across as fetishistic.

All of these could definitely be somebody’s fetish, but none of them are bizarrely mismatched to their role in the plot like Angel having a redemption arc in the part of the game where you kill her instead of just being an antagonist who you kill because that is what you do with antagonists in FPS games.

Borderlands 3 also features Lilith being attacked by a bad guy who drains her psychic powers out at the end of the very first arc. It’s not super egregious – the depowering is signalled by her losing her special psychic tattoos rather than having a ball gag shoved in her mouth or something – but goddamn, Lilith just cannot catch a break in this series. She makes out alright in Borderlands 1 when she’s playable, but in Borderlands 2 she gets knocked down to being a princess to rescue in the climax, in the Pre-Sequel she’s depicted as an unreasonable tyrant, and in Borderlands 3 she’s barely even in the plot before she gets her character class sucked out by space magic. She does, at least, transition into a mission command kind of role for the rest of the game, which is a pretty respectable place for a retired playable character to end up, but Jesus, the narrative doesn’t feel the need to have, like, Brick or Zer0 or whoever slapped around this much.

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