Tuesday should be a fairly happy day for me as a gamer because it marks the release of the hotly anticipated Borderlands 2. As a game that has been well received by critics, I should be giddy with joy that I may soon get to play it. However, the game is developed by Gearbox Software, makers of Duke Nukem Forever and, as a protest to what I perceive to be a misogynistic company making misogynistic products, I have boycotted all Gearbox Software games.
Both opponents and proponents of misogyny in art often do not understand what actually constitutes an insulting, debasing, or hateful portrayal of women. Therefore, it is necessary for us to understand that it is not what someone shows that causes a hateful portrayal but what someone chooses to leave out. Duke Nukem Forever, a first-person shooter that was literally in development for more than a decade, sees players assuming the role of an action hero as he attempts to save the women of the world from alien kidnappers.
At the start, one will notice all the norms from popular video games and movie franchises such as American Pie or National Lampoon, including skimpy clothing, crass humor, and an overall objectification of women. Keep in mind that the objectification does not refer to the clothes that the women wear, for that is a personal choice that any woman must make by herself. Rather, it is caused by a company choice to deny female characters any sort of intelligence, inhibitions, or discrimination; something that all women employ with varying degrees and standards. However, up until this point, Duke Nukem Forever is nothing out of the ordinary in terms of crass gamer comedy.
The notable misogyny comes midway through the game in a level titled “The Hive,” when the protagonist is tasked with infiltrating an alien lair to free the kidnapped women. The women, however, have been merged with alien species and are now attached from the waist down to gigantic bodies of phallic flesh in the center of each room. The protagonist is then required to either shoot the topless women or beat them to death with the end of his rifle. At other points in the level, the player comes across doors shaped like labia and is required to perform certain acts in order to open the door, complete with an obscene comment made each time. The most disturbing part, however, is the fact that decapitated female organs are attached to the walls in the level and the protagonist can actually slap said organs to achieve a permanent health boost, titled “ego.” The loading screens leading up to the level, often bearing an instructional caption from the developers, insist that the player is allowed to slap these organs, “because real girls don’t like it when you slap theirs.” The level ends with a boss fight against a gigantic, nude female boss named the “Queen B****,” and the way to defeat her is to target the same organ that was attached to the walls of the lair.
All throughout this entire sequence, I was looking for some way to justify this horrid portrayal. Had Gearbox given me any indication that this was simply a reflection of Duke’s misogynistic personality and not their own, and that this was all part of some misplaced and demented joke, I might have been able to overlook it. However, there was nothing like that, possibly because the developers were too busy explicitly condoning the activity. They literally wrote it out as an instruction and even allowed a permanent boost to one’s "ego" if they commit such acts, insulting the standards by which real women operate. Understandably, I threw out my disc after breaking it in three pieces so that no one else could play the game because of me; I still regret purchasing it because it meant that a microscopic portion went to Gearbox.
And what is most depressing is that many will defend the game using other portrayals of attractive women in the media and video games but that is completely unfair. Yes, most video games have “fan service,” but remember that misogyny arises not out of what developers show but often what they leave out. Take, for example, Lara Croft. As the protagonist of the Tomb Raider series, the iconic character is always shown to be wearing revealing clothing. However, even though she is shown as an attractive woman, the developers always dress her with more class and contextual propriety than any of the women in Duke Nukem’s world and she has nothing left out to keep her from being a complete character; she has a personality, a goal, the ability to act, and intelligence. In Duke Nukem Forever, none of those traits are ever given to the women.
Another fantastic example is the Shenmue series. All of the adult female characters in the game wear revealing clothing (a miniskirt, a small top, or a traditional dress that does not cover the legs) but at no point is it shown that it is okay to insult, belittle, or inappropriately touch or refer to any of them. These women have deep back-stories, fantastic dialogue, complicated personalities, a life outside of the male character, and a sense of self-worth. Be it the lovable but temperamental Joy or the stern but wise Master Tao, these are not women that would give someone like Duke Nukem an ego boost, and the developers at Gearbox would never be able to create women like them because they would not have any inappropriate instructions to give, no gender to mock and no one to belittle by referring to her as a b****, or slapping her body.
Another example to consider is Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. In this psychological thriller, the player is asked to fill out a questionnaire at the beginning of the game and the subsequent levels will change based on the answers. If the player chooses to answer in the affirmative to the question of whether they enjoy erotic devices, the game is going to display subtly erotic imagery throughout, such as the plants vaguely resembling labia and the women dressing more suggestively. However, this is still different from Duke Nukem’s approach because it is far more maturely handled, done with considerable subtlety, and it is actually useful in establishing the game’s central theme of Freudian philosophy. As for Duke Nukem Forever, the purpose seems to be to cram as many crass jokes, objectification and obscene remarks about womankind within their game as are humanly possible.
Do not believe for one second that the feminist movement succeeded in ending misogyny. There are still men that cannot refer to a woman without a vulgar remark. If you know any of these men, and if they happen to be your friends, understand that you are not immune. If you are a female, they think that way about you and if you are a male, they think in those terms about your sister, your daughter, your wife, your girlfriend or your mother. And even if they do nothing of the sort to your or your loved ones, harboring such thoughts for even one woman is enough. Duke Nukem was always a misogynist; Gearbox did not create that character. However, Gearbox could have established that they are not just like him, but they were too busy rewarding such actions within the game and mocking women for not imitating the behavior that such men find desirable. Even the studio’s Collector’s Edition art book reveals some inappropriate pictures of female models with a caption about how this was the team’s “extensive research” on the subject.
For this purpose, I will not be buying Borderlands 2. Some may argue that I should discuss other Gearbox games as well, but one instance of hate is enough for me. If I have succeeded in convincing you that Gearbox is not a company that has a place in a world where men and women are equal, then I have done my job. If I have failed, however, it means that my rhetoric is simply too weak to express my disgust.