Borderlands 2 and the Surprising Feminism of the Siren Class.Posted: October 1, 2012
Before Borderlands 2 even hit the shelves this one-man-shooter-skag-killing-machismo-smelling-96.5%-more-wub-wub game was being lambasted for the seemingly poor naming of its aim assist skill tree, “Best Friends Forever” or the colloquial “Girlfriend mode.” This isn’t new, and in fact, I’m pretty late to the game on this discussion, but I wanted to test out B2 for myself before making any comments on it.
Here’s the thing, though: Borderlands has been a joke — and I don’t mean it’s poorly made and an offense to the gaming world, because it’s incredibly well-designed and is one of my favourite games of all time and is beloved by so many. What I mean is that Borderlands doesn’t take itself, or the one-person-shooter genre, seriously. Ever. It’s tongue-in-cheek the whole goddamn time, and this is what makes it so great and fun to play.
So, it’s a first-person-shooter that’s about first-person-shooters. It’s self-referential and is a postemordernist scholar’s wet dream. At the beginning of the first Borderlands, Claptrap explains how you can continually die and be reborn again — in an entirely true and completely scientifically plausible way:
“Excellent! Now that your DNA is registered, you have the best in horrific death and dismemberment insurance! Should an unfortunate fatal incident occur, your ‘new you’ will appear at the nearest station. Now we can head to the peaceful town of Fyrestone! Alright, let’s go!”
It’s a trope that is entirely taken for granted in video games (out of necessity), but Borderlands doesn’t miss the opportunity to cash in on a joke about it. And that’s why we all love Borderlands. And the whole “Best Friends Forever” skill tree was a misguided comment that belies another irony and in-joke about Borderlands. John Hemingway said:
“I want to make, for the lack of a better term, the girlfriend skill tree. This is, I love Borderlands and I want to share it with someone, but they suck at first-person shooters. Can we make a skill tree that actually allows them to understand the game and to play the game? That’s what our attempt with the Best Friends Forever skill tree is.”
What’s implied here is that girlfriends (read: women, obviously) are terrible at first-person-shooters, and he just wants to make Borderlands 2 inclusive! But for me, this is part of the joke of Borderlands. Hemingway makes the wrong conclusion that mostly guys play Borderlands, and therefore want to share it with their female counterparts who will inevitably suck at it.
This is another stereotype about the genre that Borderlands is teasing. The butt of the joke, for me, are the guys who do think that girls suck at video games. And Borderlands isn’t for them, not really. (In fact, the majority of peeps that I know who love Borderlands are awesome gals). The whole schtick of Borderlands is that it’s a typical video game, but it’s over-the-top about it and that in and of itself is part of the joke and glory of Borderlands. Think of the intro for both games and their magnificient choice of music: Cage the Elephant’s “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked” and The Heavy’s “Short Change Hero.” It’s teasing the idea of being the “hero.” As Handsome Jack says in B2, you’re not. So Borderlands immediately undercuts the narrative typically associated with video games.
Hemingway may not have meant it this way, but that’s the way it plays out in B2. The characters represent this: they’re all carciatures and so over-the-top, which is what makes them so great. And I mean, the women of Borderlands are unfuckingbelievably badass and the men are over-testosteroned walking balls of machismo. And we wouldn’t want them any other way.
While I’ve been avoiding spoilers for Borderlands 2 (I try sometimes!), I have to talk about Maya now. I never used Lilith in the first one, because if you gave me the choice of Phasewalking or throwing a turret or going berserker on a pyscho, I always chose one of the latter options. But Maya’s Phaselock is one of the most useful and powerful action skills around. Try Phaselocking a Badass Nomad then using an incendiary sniper, and you’ll know what I mean. Maya is a female character who is not confined to being just the token female. She’s seductive and sexy, but that’s just the female counterpart to the overly muscular Roland, Axton and Salvadore. As I said, they’re all carciatures, and yet intensely powerful at the same time.
Even the choice of naming Lilith and Maya as Sirens strikes me as feminist. Sirens in Greek mythology lure wayward sailors to them with their beauty and their voice (not unlike Arial in The Little Mermaid). Sirens are beautiful and dangerous, but their danger relies on using an aesthetic quality to disorient and confuse men. Maya, not so much. Maya is beautiful and dangerous, yes, but she’s not sitting on a rock and cooing to males who pass her way.
The Siren class is a subversion of a stereotypical female trope that points fun at the token female in many video games. Maya is not stereotypical as the Siren comparison initially implies. It’s part of the Borderlands joke: the game is seemingly steeped in machismo in order to poke fun at the machismo of video games. It’s aware at every turn of its own ridiculousness, and this is what makes the Borderlands franchise so great.
I’m not excusing Hemingway’s flippant statement based off his own assumptions. If you were offended by it, it highlights that this is still an area that requires careful thought and consideration. Rather, I am defending Borderlands as a tongue-in-cheek commentary on video games and the culture. So where “Girlfriend mode” may fail for some, Maya and the Sirens win as feminist for all.