Borderlands 3: Regarding Female Psychos

In a daring change of pace, I’m playing Borderlands 3 again. I have a Steam copy now, which means we can finally have some pictures from the actual game. That makes it a great time to talk about one of the really minor little details of how the game presents its characters. One of the most iconic figures from the Borderlands games is the Psycho – a shirtless bandit with a mask. He’s featured as the cover art on all three of the game’s major titles. He’s just a stock enemy – it’s not one distinct character, you’ll fight dozens with the same basic character skin over the course of the game. You blow them up, shoot them in the head, whatever. And in Borderlands 3, they decided to broaden the depiction of Psychos to include women. Score one for gender equality?

So – this is a bit of a weird one, right. About half of the game’s bandit enemies are women now, including Psychos, Sluggers, Martyrs, and Fanatics, but notably not including the larger enemies such as Bruisers or Goliaths, or the smaller Tinks. And in one sense it’s not that remarkable. It’s the sort of change that doesn’t warrant too much reflection – or rather if you do reflect on it too much, it’s easy to start overthinking it and making it weird. Is it feminism to be able to commit violence against a range of gender-diverse enemies? Is that really achieving any meaningful political step towards equal representation? Is it good that Borderlands 3 allows you to commit more violence towards women?

Obviously the conversation is complicated by the fact that, you know, some of the people in this conversation are reactionaries who hate women in games. They hate the addition of female Psychos because they feel like any sort of foregrounding women is just fake pandering to liberals – like it’s something people only do for clout. They’re the sort of people who were mad about Rey and Finn in Star Wars. And that’s obviously not the sort of conversation that I’m trying to have. I’ve said before that Borderlands is remarkably good on questions of gender and sexuality. They have a surprisingly deft touch for a game about screaming crazy people. And that’s still the case in Borderlands 3. Most of the central characters are women – Lilith, Maya, Ava, Tannis, the central villain Tyreen – there are queer characters (Hammerlock), non-binary characters (FL4K), the first South Asian playable character (Amara) – it’s a really broad world, and it hosts a whole range of different sorts of characters. Expanding the range of enemies, in that context, feels appropriate. There’s no reason for the bandits to all be men. And yet – yeah, I don’t know, I have some reservations.

Maybe one thing that’s worth looking at is the way these female Psychos are used – how their insanity is actually depicted in practice. We’ve talked previously about the role of insanity in Borderlands – how it cocoons the mind against the horrors of the world, retreating into fictions in order to survive. That approach to insanity is definitely something that should be handled carefully in the context of female characters. There’s a whole long history of women being depicted as crazy, with this suggestion that it’s caused by their emotional and sort of volatile, unstable femininity. Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic is probably your key starting point, if you’re interested in learning more about that perspective – the title refers to Jane Eyre, where Jane’s love interest Rochester has his insane wife locked up in the roof (she later conveniently dies so that Jane and Rochester can get married). The heritage of women’s madness is much different to that of men, and the implications for the story are maybe more potent than one might expect.

So let’s just take one mission from the game – one mission that really clearly builds around a female Psycho. In Lectra City on Promethea, you can discover a prisoner exchange quest, ‘Proof of Wife’, where the Psycho Tumorhead will trade you a captured Atlas soldier if you break her girlfriend Bloodshine out of jail. When you free Bloodshine, she picks a fight with you, and you kill her. You then trick Tumorhead into thinking she’s alive by placing her mask on a corpse. Tumorhead opens up her doors, and – surprise! – it’s a proposal! The climax of the mission sees you fighting off all the guests Tumorhead invited to this shotgun wedding, including Bloodshine’s mother, brother, sister, friends, best man, cousins, and Tumorhead herself.

And it is a pretty funny sequence – you thought you were just doing a prisoner exchange, you accidentally crash a wedding – sure, that’s funny. Plus it’s another great example of a queer relationship where nobody makes a big deal about the fact that they’re queer. But the quest is also built around this kinda perverse depiction of women in love. At the beginning of the quest, Tumorhead shouts: “And don’t screw with me! You screw with me and I kill the hostage and myself and a bunch of other people! ‘Cause I’m in LOVE! And INSANE!” It’s a heavily lampshaded parody of crazy-in-love women, of the overly attached girlfriend or whatever – one of those ‘parodies’ where the writers recreate the trope in its entirety and then acknowledge what they’re doing, mistaking self-awareness for commentary. I’ve talked about this before, with Shadow of the Tomb Raider – a game which acknowledged its colonialist worldview but then changed absolutely nothing about its structure in response. It’s not meaningful to reproduce harmful tropes and then highlight that they’re harmful. That’s a fig leaf offered by an industry that doesn’t want to change.

It’s not that Borderlands 3 deserves any huge amount of hostility around this whole quest. It is, as I said, one quest among many – and one character among many. I don’t want to take this sequence out of context and use it to mischaracterise the whole game. However, I think there are some more subtle criticisms to be made. Tumorhead has a place amongst a long line of women depicted as insane and emotional – too in love, as the parodic dialogue has it. Even if the game is attempting parody with this character, the practice of pointing out a problem and then failing to say anything meaningful about it beyond recognising that it exists is really just reinforcing that trope with extra steps. And on the question of female Psychos more broadly – whether that’s a good idea at all – I don’t really know. It feels like an attempt to be ‘gender-blind’, if I can use that term. But the standing critique of any sort of colour-blindness or gender-blindness is that we still exist in a gendered, racialized world. Attempts to move past or ignore the question of gender risk overlooking the institutional and structural barriers that women continue to face. Including them in Borderlands 3 as part of the pantheon of Psychos almost feels like arguing for more women in the military – superficially progressive, but, on reflection, possibly missing the forest for the trees. Of course it’s not the key point of interest in how Borderlands 3 approaches gender – it’s not the central strut in any sort of thesis statement. It’s just one weird little side element that gives shape to the complexities of the game’s broader direction.

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