Sunday, June 9, 2013

Borderlands 2 and the Damsel in Distress

The painting, Chivalry, by
Frank Dicksee, 1885
By Aaron Sherman

The "Tropes vs Women in Video Games project" has a new video up about the damsel in distress concept in video games. While I agree with some of what the video has to say, there's an awful lot of cherry-picking going on, here. The video specifically calls out one game that I've played through and it strikes me as odd that the one example that I have plenty of context for seems to fall apart when viewed in the larger context.

Before I get into that, though, let me cover the disclaimer in the video. The narrator explains that it's not sufficient for violence against a woman to have context in the storyline of a video game. That does not excuse the act. I'm inclined to generally agree. Instead, violence against any character in a video game stands on its own as a positive or negative (or, importantly, neutral) beat in the overall story, and that's how I want to look at Borderlands 2.

Borderlands 2 is introduced because of the character "Angel." Now, to be fair, there are spoilers ahead. Angel is introduced in the beginning of the story as a helpful AI who will guide the player to their destiny. I'm going to talk about what Angel actually is, so if you plan on playing the game, you might want to stop, here.

Angel's reveal as a human, moments before her death.
Okay, so Angel is a "siren," which, in the Borderlands 2 world, means that she (a human, not an AI) has some mental abilities that are made radically more powerful in the presence of a rare material found on Pandora, the world where Borderlands 1 and 2 take place. Angel's father, Handsome Jack, has been torturing her and forcing her to perform unpleasant tasks like leading adventurers such as the main character to their doom for many years. To resolve this problem Angel has developed a plan: lead an adventurer to her and have them shut down the machines that have been simultaneously torturing her physically, amplifying her power and keeping her alive. This will result in her death, but it will also result in her release.

This, the main character then does (it should be noted that 1 out of 4 of the main character options is female), with the aid of the local resistance leader and his ex-girlfriend Lilith, a powerful siren in her own right.

Lilith's "splash screen" intro when she
saves and aids the main character.
Interestingly, the video got things backwards. Angel isn't the main character's damsel (the main character doesn't even find out that she's a human being until moments before the final encounter with her)... but she is Handsome Jack's girl in the refrigerator (see the video for context, but the term refers to a murdered woman who the protagonist (antagonist in this case) is motivated to avenge). Handsome Jack spends the rest of the game seeking vengeance for the murder of his daughter. Meanwhile the main character does fall into a trope of female disempowerment to some extent, but it's so murky that I can't really get behind labeling it as such: the siren that helped him destroy the machines keeping Angel alive is then kidnapped by Jack and forced to fill Angel's role through the use of the control collar that Angel once wore.

Roland is shot by Handsome Jack (via YouTube)
Why is this blatant damsel in distress trope "murky"? Well, we should start with the fact that it's paired with a man in the refrigerator: the leader of the resistance is shot through the heart by Jack just before the siren is captured, motivating the main character to seek revenge. Also, the siren immediately saves the main character's life after being collared and spends the rest of the game resisting the control collar enough to aid and guide the main character to victory against Jack and saving the world from a powerful alien killing machine (saving her incidentally). She's also never the object of the main character's romantic interest. Meanwhile, Jack's quest for vengeance clearly marks him as the villain of the story regardless of his constant monologuing about "a father's wrath."

The game is also littered with trope-challenging characters and situations. The butch car mechanic woman would have been a lesbian in many games that I've played, but the game decides to play her as straight. Speaking of whom, she's also quite heavy, but makes a point of displaying her positive body image literally as well as figuratively (pun intended).

The other interesting female characters in this game include a bar owner who seems to be the ex-wife of every male character you run into (and yet somehow on excellent terms with most of them); a child who leads the main character through the resolution of her own quest for vengeance for the death of her parents and a hippy-like miner who helps the main character save her whole town from the oppressive Hyperion Corporation.

There's also the gay take on the British big-game hunter, a cheerfully depressed robot and a vaguely latino, alcoholic, sharpshooter, environmentalist.

There's just nothing stereotypical about this game except for the fact that the main character shoots a bunch of psychopathic, Mad Max-esque bad guys throughout the game.

Okay, so I think her choice of Borderlands 2 was poor and even if she wanted to harp on B2, she should have focused on the actual damsel (not that she was very damselesque): the Siren Lilith. But there are a couple other points I feel I should mention about her video:
  1. I don't think the damsel or the girl in the refrigerator are always bad tropes. The problem with violence against women (or men) in video games isn't that it exists or that it makes the women (or men) powerless, it's the callous way in which it is presented to the player. In some games the damsel is presented as nothing more than property of the main character and her "theft" and any "damage" to her are affronts which must be responded to, lest the main character's masculinity be called into question. That is the trope that harkens back far too much to the barbaric ways that men have treated women. In some societies, these behaviors are still acceptable (the concept of a honor killing comes to mind), which is just crazy.
  2. Sometimes women are taken away by evil doers and rescued by good men. In one recent case, three girls were held captive and one of them even birthed their captor's baby... they were rescued by a neighbor who I think rightly deserves to be called a hero. This is not an effort to glorify the violence they underwent, but rather to revile the man who could perform such cruel and sadistic acts upon children (be they male or female).
  3. The "kill me, please" trope that specifically involves the corruption of a character by a monstrous villain and the subsequent mercy killing was popularized by Alien (interestingly enough, in a scene that was not part of the original theatrical version, but has subsequently been restored). The "kill me" scene was then repeated in the sequel, Aliens, with a female character and has been a trope of video games and movies ever since. What's interesting about this is that the original version in Alien was a woman killing a man who she had been close to, not the other way around. As such, it was just as powerful and moving, and the powerlessness of the character begging to die was just as poignant as it might have been had their roles been reversed.