2K held its Borderlands 3 reveal event in Los Angeles on Tuesday, giving press and influencers a first look at the long-awaited sequel. However, the event was brought down a bit for some by the presence of women handing out alcohol dressed as Mad Moxxi, the scantily-clad character from Borderlands 2.
There's something off about the choice to have sexualized bartenders in 2019. People I spoke to who were at the event (I wasn't able to attend, full disclosure) felt uncomfortable with the idea, especially when there was a male bartender in seemingly-generic steampunk attire and fully-clothed.
It's a move reminiscent of "booth babes," a concept that felt like we were past, and a sign that maybe the franchise hasn't moved forward all that much since Borderlands 2 was released in 2012.
2K didn't respond to requests for comment by press time.
If you're not familiar with the term, "booth babes" refer to paid models at trade shows that represent a company or a product and who are typically sexualized. Spokesmodels and brand ambassadors are a common sight at conventions, conferences, and parties, and often are just there to be a friendly face for advertising. These spokesmodels' responsibilities run the gamut from discussing products to posing for photos with customers. In tech and other geek spaces, they often dress up in cosplay to represent the brand that hired them, which can be fun for fans, and for the models themselves, who might like indulging in a hobby and getting paid for it.
There's nothing easy about being a spokesperson, especially at a harried event like a trade show. I've spoken with many people who do this for a living and they all say that while it can be rewarding, especially when you get to learn about a new product, it's also challenging. You have to constantly be alert and attentive. You also have to stand on your feet for 12 hours a day.
The same goes for people who take on jobs serving food at functions or bartending. It's hard! Life's hard! Make money where you can.
However, "booth babes" are a little different than your run-of-the-mill spokesmodels or brand ambassadors. They refer to the blatant efforts by companies to appeal to male customers with half-naked women and skimpy clothing, and it's been a problem for a long time. CES became the center of a booth babe controversy in 2013, for example, when accessories company Hyper hired women to walk around topless, covered in body paint. Other big events have enacted guidelines in regards to how models can dress. PAX, for example, has a "strict 'no booth babe' policy" that bans "partial nudity" and "the aggressive display of cleavage" (whatever that means). E3 put guidelines in place in 2006 basically banning the practice altogether, although its let up on some of those strict rules since then.
Regardless of the rules put into place to curb all of it, it's still a rampant practice — just in a more subdued form, whether it's in the form of VR babes, robots, or women in more athletic wear. It's also become a more gender-equal practice, with "booth bros" becoming common at trade shows. Many women in tech have commented on how the whole practice is exclusionary, making it so they don't feel welcome.
"What message is that telling me and other women in the industry, hiring models to play that role?" Kent Bye, host of the Voice of VR podcast told Buzzfeed. "For CES, women are welcome but only when performing a sex act on a screen or standing enticingly next to a booth," wrote Liz Klinger, the CEO of Lioness, a sex tech company. According to a report in USA Today, women who attended CES said: "the spectacle of women dancing and posing on the show floor made them feel they were not in a professional place where they would be taken seriously."
I can see where the idea of using Moxxi cosplayers to serve alcohol at an event might've come from. She runs numerous bars across Pandora (depending on the DLC). However, she's a character with a lot of baggage for some fans (myself included).
There's a lot to like about Moxxi. She's self-assured, a small business owner, and assertive. She doesn't take crap from anybody. She raised two children and made the decision to leave a dangerous clan to protect her daughter. She's a femme fatale who at one point runs a Thunderdome! You can't say that about a lot of characters.
Like many of the characters in the Borderlands universe, however, there's always a "but." She's clearly sexualized, an object for many of the characters around Pandora, and she's propped up to be one for the player. She's not a person who just happens to like wearing skimpy outfits; she was created to wear skimpy outfits. She's just "sex." She speaks almost completely in innuendo and participates in activities mostly to find another husband. To dress up bartenders at an event as Moxxi might be a fun callback to a popular character, but it's also a reference to one that is objectified.
Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford confirmed that Mad Moxxi is set to return in Borderlands 3, so we'll see if her character got a 2019-esque makeover (although according to the Borderlands 3 stream Wednesday, not really).