Okay, internet. It’s time. After my talk at GaymerX2 on fat characters, and after hearing the folks at Gearbox give their own talk on inclusivity in design, I decided I really wanted to write something about one of the NPCs in Borderlands 2, a Gearbox title. Her name is Ellie, and she’s a big lady mechanic.
As I’ve written about before, the issue of fat characters in video games is pretty fraught. Most of the ones that exist are really just awful, pandering to the worst of stereotypes without a hint of consideration, awareness, or empathy. Before GaymerX, I didn’t really know much about Ellie other than her existence, and what the folks at Gearbox shared about her in their panel. But she intrigued me. I talked to Borderlands writer Anthony Burch about her, briefly, at the con because I wanted to include her in my talk, and what he told me about her sounded great. So when I got back home I bought Borderlands 2 (again; this was my second time but my 360 was in storage) to play through and see what Ellie was all about.
While the meat of this post goes into specifics after the cut, here’s the gist: there’s a lot about Ellie that I really like, but there’s a lot about her situating within the BL2 game and narrative that unintentionally plays into the most insidious problems that writing a good fat character can have.
So I’m not the first person to write about Ellie, or her representation as a fat character. Aaron Gotzon at Ontological Geek wrote a piece on why Ellie is a positive fat character back in 2013. For what it’s worth, I agree with a lot of what Gotzon has to say. Considered as a unit apart from the context of most of the game, Ellie is pretty fantastic. She’s brash, capable, self-sufficient, and confident. Ellie is clearly comfortable with herself and her body and does not put up with shit from anyone about it: when you first meet the character, she has a bandit in her junkyard’s car crusher (still in his car, trapped). As you approach, this happens:
BANDIT: “I shoulda killed your fat ass when I had the chance!”
ELLIE: “Sorry! You gotta speak up!”
She then crushes the car with the bandit still inside.
Look, people have been cracking public, loud insults to me about my weight as recently as last night and as far back as 1983. I’ve heard it at all. So please believe me when I tell you that while I am not exactly condoning violence, the idea of a fat woman who just literally kills someone who hurls a fat insult at her is pretty satisfying.
One of the quests Ellie gives you as an NPC — and probably one of her most well-known and defining moments — is called “Positive Self Image.” I’ll let the following video speak for me on this front:
Summary: Ellie lives in The Dust, a desert-y part of Pandora home to Mad Max-like vehicle-driving marauders. To mock Ellie, they’ve made hood ornaments for their vehicles that resemble her… but Ellie thinks they look amazing, and wants you to get some for her to put around her shop. So of course, you head out and blow up some vehicles and get her these hood ornaments, which you’re then tasked with literally placing around her home.
This quest is not without its problems; we’ll get into that later. But generally speaking, I really enjoyed it because as Gotzon says, this is an act of quite literal reclamation. In the ultimate fuck you to her detractors, Ellie has them killed, and then surrounds herself with these tokens of scorn which are 50% self-indulgent interior decorating and 50% visible warning.
My only complaint is that video leaves out Ellie’s radio quotes when you pick up the ornaments, but you can hear the audio only for that quest in a different video (skip to 8:40 if the auto-cue doesn’t work):
My favorite is the one about the majestic eagle.
Anyhow, there are other things about Ellie I like, too. For starters, she’s openly and unapologetically sexual, something that fat characters very rarely are and which I appreciate. She regularly hits on whichever Vault Hunter you’re playing (which opens up fun reads of her as bi or pan, since she’ll hit on Maya or Gaige too) and is brazenly flirtatious. She routinely refers to herself as “hot” in various contexts, and so she’s not just comfortable with her body, she’s confident that others will find her body attractive as well.
So to recap, I think Ellie herself is pretty great. I disagree somewhat with Gotzon that Ellie isn’t defined by her weight; to be honest, I think it’s her defining characteristic, and a non-trivial portion of your interactions with Ellie involve it in some way. Consider that her dialogue and actions are only part of the equation; this is a video game, and so her visual aspect is important. In that regard, any fat character in a game is always-already “defined by their weight” since it’s one of the rare characteristics that cannot be “hidden” in some way. More to the point, there is nobody else like Ellie in the game. Those characters who are of a similar size — like, say, Borderlands‘s Brick, another important NPC — are 1.) men and 2.) muscular, not fat. This juxtaposition and uniqueness are important because they do define her, by exclusion. So long as there are no other “Ellies” in the world, she’s defined by her weight. She just isn’t limited by her weight, which is — to me — a much more important and critical measure.
However, this is a good segue to discuss what I see Ellie’s problems as being, because what holds Ellie back from being a really great example of a positive fat character is how she fits into the Borderlands world and, perhaps equally importantly, how audiences receive her regardless of authorial intent. Ellie herself is amazing, but I don’t think she’s allowed to be as amazing as she could be, for a variety of reasons that subtly undermine and limit her ability to shine.
To put this in perspective, let’s look for a moment at a video of Ellie’s appearance in the “Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep” DLC, a cleverly constructed little chapter where the game’s playables, as well as notable NPCs, are… well, NPCs in Tiny Tina’s in-universe game of a D&D-alike. Observe:
Yeah. Now, this is pretty clearly, to me, a total riff on the nonsensical nature of “boob armor” in role-playing games, through the lens of Ellie, a character specifically designed to not be the conventionally-attractive hourglass shape that defines basically every video game woman ever. That’s reasonable; I even think Ellie is probably a great choice for that, in her own right.
But the reactions those players have — their captured audio — toward the end is really gross. I mean, I searched “borderlands ellie” the day before my GaymerX talk to get some concept, and I found this video, which is basically of the same scene:
That really upset me, because here’s what I realized: no matter how much we try, no matter how sensitive we are about it, that shit right there is gonna happen. You know? When you hand her the Slave Leia bikini (an obvious homage) and Ellie throws it on, I think her response is pretty cute, actually. She outright says that it’s shit for armor but she feels attractive in it, though she also wants a sweater. But that second video, right there… it’s impossible to take Ellie’s moment of good self-image seriously when there are the real life voices of two douchecanoe gamerbros cackling audible right next to it. You know?
You’ll notice there’s no YouTube videos I can find that are a bunch of dudebros snickering at giving her the alternative outfit in that quest:
As I said in my GX talk, part of the problem with fat characters who are given good self-esteem — Rufus from Street Fighter is another example of this — is that we’re encouraged to think of them as delusional, because society as it is today demands that fat people be filled with self-hate about not just their bodies, but all of their life choices, whether relevant to their weight or not. And sadly, Ellie is a victim of this as well. Her self-esteem is good. She does feel sexy. But who are the characters in the Borderlands world who agree with her? The only people we hear about who actually express any sort of physical or sexual attraction to Ellie are:
- Scooter, her biological brother, and thus his attraction to her is both taboo and unsettling, and
- Mr. Torgue, who is probably genuine in respecting her and/or finding her attractive, but who the game also paints as a totally unhinged, ridiculous caricature. (Torgue also, at one point, says “That Vault Hunter cut through that wave like a fat kid through a cookie store!” so, you know)
So I mean, think about that for a second: the people who find Ellie sexually attractive are herself, her brother, and someone whose opinions we are not exactly supposed to take entirely seriously/as “normal.” The last two, and the lack of any of the more “default” NPCs/characters who agree or express such a sentiment, really undermine the read of Ellie’s confidence.
There are other factors too, probably the biggest of which is Ellie’s biological mother, Mad Moxxi. Surprisingly, the two have more in common than you might think, and probably top of that list is being entirely comfortable with their own sexuality; the game baits players into slut-shaming Moxxi at points only to have her turn around and own it, shutting that down (sort of). But they have a pretty big difference, in that Moxxi is a short, curvy, entirely “traditionally” attractive sexbomb. There are multiple moments in the game where we find Moxxi frequently tries to convince Ellie to lose weight so she could attract men (a few of them are in the audio samples from “Positive Self-Image” linked above; others are also heard in audio logs found in The Dust). Wanting to get away from that is partly why Ellie lives out in the middle of nowhere by herself surrounded by constantly-attacking bandits instead of in Sanctuary.
Think about that for a moment. Ellie lives by herself in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by people who try to kill her on a regular basis, because she is tired of her mother haranguing her to lose weight. Considering that Moxxi killed a bunch of the Hodunk clan (where she and her children hail from) to save Ellie from basically being used as an incestuous broodmother (I am reading into what the term “clan-wife” means, but considering the Hodunks are redneck stereotypes and given Scooter’s characterization, I don’t think I’m far off), doesn’t it strike you as kind of odd that she would then give her kid shit about her weight?
And then there’s Motor Momma, a boss in the “Campaign of Carnage” DLC that is basically a recolor of Ellie’s character model. We find out that Moxxi used to date Motor Momma (!) before the latter ate one of Moxxi’s ex-es, because she is a cannibal. Let’s set aside for the moment the implications of making a very fat character a cannibal, since this is about Ellie. Doesn’t this seem hypocritical to you? Pansexual Mad Moxxi once dated a woman of size, but she’s constantly on her similarly-large daughter to slim down to get a man?
Now, it may be that this should be read as Moxxi’s insistence Ellie slim down is hypocritical garbage, which is valid enough, but the game doesn’t really go out of its way to support that interpretation. So instead we get Ellie and her self-confidence pitted against the game’s avatar of traditional feminine sex appeal. It’s not a huge problem, but it’s just one more thing holding back the read of Ellie’s confidence as justified.
A lot of this is exacerbated by Ellie being a woman, too. Men are certainly also victims of easy stereotypes when it comes to being portrayed as good, strong fat characters, but our cultural discourse about women and women’s bodies means that fat women characters end up taking things to a whole new level. Our expectations about women characters needing, or even wanting, to be sexually attractive (especially to men) is working on our ability to read Ellie and her place in the game world’s culture, for example.
I think the last thing I want to discuss here is also the most complex, and that’s the intersection of Ellie as a character with authorial and design intent, and genre convention. In a blog post about Gearbox’s attempts at inclusivity in Borderlands 2, Anthony Burch talks about their plans for Ellie, why they built her the way they did, and their vision for her. The idea, as previously discussed, was to create a character who is not the typical game lady unrealistic beauty, who felt good about herself and was confident. In Burch’s words, “she considers conventional definitions of beauty limiting, and ultimately pointless.”
Honestly, I wouldn’t argue with that. I think they succeeded at doing that, at least in my opinion. The problems are not necessarily with Ellie’s design itself (though a question about how she was animated in a PC Gamer article about Ellie resulted in some reeeeeeeeally gross responses). I think Ellie is great. It’s that she’s situated in a game world and narrative that undermines all of the great things baked into her character. And not necessarily intentionally; if anything, I think this was a good attempt. I’m writing this analysis not to excoriate Gearbox, but to hopefully make it clear how these unintentional context factors can take even the best, most well-executed intentions and hamper them.
Part of the problem, too, is that Borderlands — like another of my favorite series, Saints Row — is a series about over the top comedy. I’ve chosen to focus on Ellie, but really, nobody is safe on Pandora, and the game script is an equal-opportunity offender in terms of class (the Hodunks as “inbred rednecks”), ethnicity (the “drunken Irish” Zapfords), gender (Moxxi, among other characters), etc. The team at Gearbox has spoken at length about their process and their desires for future games, so I’ll leave it to them and to others to deconstruct these topics.
The important thing, though, is to think about how reclamation efforts like Ellie work inside a comedy context. As someone put it to me, “Ellie’s a joke because everything is a joke in Borderlands.” I think that’s pretty apt. So in some ways, Ellie is a victim of genre convention, too. In general, I think most of our laughs involving Ellie are with rather than at her… but then there’s that moment I had, watching that video of those assholes watching her put on the bikini armor and chortling like mad, and I am forced to admit, there are times when we’re laughing at her instead.
But I appreciate that they tried, and maybe more to the point, I appreciate that perhaps those creators will take this seriously and think about how Ellie, and future Ellie-alikes, fit into the landscape of the game. Despite the problems she has fitting into the game universe, I really do love Ellie. I love her unapologetic strength and confidence, I love her intelligence and humor, and I love her willingness to use excessive force to tell haters to fuck off. I think what’s critical now is to make sure that other people in the game vocally love her, too.