Thursday, July 9, 2009

An Examination of Female Characters in Halo

This article was originally written for Halopedia:
I’ve previously gone over the subject of Halo’s female characters and concluded that there were no instances of sexism in the franchise. However, after reading Kougermasters’ Girl Power post, my mind has been changed to some extent. So, here we go: a thorough examination of the female characters in the Halo games and its other media.
"Don’t shoot him in the head. You might hit Cortana. She’s a hottie. She’s blue, but she’s a hottie."
—Marine in Halo 2, should Master Chief turn traitor

First of all, Cortana is hot. I personally don’t find her hot, but she was designed to have sex appeal. There are many instances throughout the Halo community in which Cortana is depicted in ways that accentuate her sexual attractiveness. Even the Halo Graphic Novel had a gallery art image by Scott Fischer that depicted Cortana in a biologically accurate manner while remaining true to her proportions to create an overly sexual portrait. I believe Bungie has said that after the exaggerated sexual attractiveness of Oni’s Konoko, they wanted to have a female character that was more realistic in appearance but acknowledge that Cortana ultimately turned out to be quite exaggerated. “Cortana is every girlfriend we’ve ever had,” Joe Staten comments in Journey’s End before adding, “No, just kidding… She’s your little guardian angel.”
Aside from the sex appeal of Cortana’s holographic body, she is a pretty strong character. She is probably the smartest character in the Halo world, and functions as the Master Chief’s incorporeal counterpart. He acts as a physical force, and she directs him and comes up with the plans. It should be noted that in Halo 3 she exists as a pretty standard damsel-in-distress cliché, but at least she manages to come up with a way to defeat the main antagonist and directs the Chief from afar – something you probably wouldn’t get from actress Jen Taylor’s other character, Princess Peach of the Mario games.
Halo 2 introduced the character of Miranda Keyes, who stands as a counter-example for the most part. Her body is realistic and her outfit is appropriately military. In the story she functions as a Captain-Kirk-like figure, both commanding from her ship and going out on “away missions” herself. She gets some cool stunts: hanging out on a ledge to remove the Index in the Library, leaping from platforms to remove the Index in the Control Room, flying a Pelican through a wall, and multiple acts of action that involve dual-wielding. Problem is, her cool stunts land her into scrapes more than half the time, and she is either rescued (by a masculine character no less) or killed.
I think part of the issue here is that Bungie didn’t want to offend anyone for their handling of their only black character: Sergeant Johnson. Johnson was based off of a very stereotypical character from Aliens, and when Bungie turned him into a main character I imagine they were cautious about him sliding into the rather racist clichés. So, instead of having Johnson appear weak, they have him rescue Miranda a few times. And instead of the black guy dying first, Miranda dies first.
The first incident of trouble Miranda gets into is when she uses a Flood tentacle twisted up in an Enforcer wreck as a rope to help her hang off a ledge to reach the Index in its floating sheath. Her weight pulls the tentacle out of the wreck and she starts to fall, but Jonson shows up and saves the day by grabbing the other end and pulling her up. Then the Arbiter shows up, knocks out Johnson, and gets wounded by Miranda (who pulls SMGs from that magic pocket), but she is taken prisoner by Tartarus.
Later, Tartarus takes her to the Control Room where he tries to make her activate Halo. When 343 Guilty Spark advises him not to damage her, he threatens to rip Spark’s eye from its socket. He then turns to Miranda and says “which is nothing compared to what I’ll do to you…” Miranda looks at him and there is a pause to let the horrible threat sink in before the Arbiter shows up to save the day, an almost literal knight in shining armor. Johnson shows up to help a moment later.
In Halo 3, she has her moment of coolness when to save Johnson she smashes her Pelican through a window, crash lands on the platform and pushes a Brute off the cliff, jumps out and starts shooting Covies with a big shotgun, then holds said shotgun in one hand while she levels a pistol at the Brute behind her. Coolness, thy name is Miranda. Realizing she can’t fight off all the Covies, she moves to kill Johnson to eliminate Truth’s ability to activate Halo. She hesitates, however, and Truth kills her.
In the Halo Graphic Novel, we get a brief glimpse of female Spartan Maria-062. While not the only female Spartan, she is the only Spartan to have their face revealed, which makes her a notable character. Maria is featured in both the story Armor Testing and a piece of gallery art.
In the story, she tests out the MJOLNIR Mark VI armor through a training exercise involving fighting ODSTs. She’s got a few cool action bits with her dropping in from low orbit, shooting targets with a sniper rifle while still at a great height, and then gliding over the landscape with a parafoil. She is eventually subdued by an ODST with a Humbler Stun Device dressed as an energy sword, and then claims that the strength of the weapon was the deciding factor – not that she was outnumbered by twenty soldiers. After hearing that the armor’s going to be given to John-117, she notes that everyone will sleep better at night. In the gallery artwork, she is shown in normal clothing and fighting Flood beside a Spartan in MJOLNIR armor. The message is clear that she’s a good fighter, but not as good as the Chief.
In an interesting twist, Maria is also the only Spartan to have retired. The Spartan-IIs were inducted involuntarily and subjected to brainwashing techniques that left them helplessly loyal to their UNSC captors. While their military contracts do allow them some legal recourse, there were no Spartans to ever pursue such a thing at the time of a conversation between Cortana and Solipsil in 2550. Maria says that she retired with the hopes of starting a family, which may kill the “girl power” thing a bit. Personally, I think it’s awesome she got out of the involuntary military service.
On a different note, we have the female Spartan Nicole-458 from the Dead or Alive crossover. Now, it should be noted that Nicole is non-canon, but she was given an official backstory from Bungie that ties into the semi-canon I Love Bees. Nicole is pretty much the personification of “girl power”, which is weird considering that she is a part of Dead or Alive 4 – a decidedly sexist game overall. While DoA4’s other female characters are all sex objects with bouncing breasts and skirts that flip up, Nicole is a large and muscular Spartan encased in MJOLNIR armor. Her victory line: “And that’s how you hit like a girl!”
Did Team Ninja actually stick a decent female warrior with a feminist leaning in that mess of sexism and sexual objectification? Looks that way. Very unusual.
I Love Bees contains a number of female characters, many of who are powerful in some way. This is probably because the design team at 4orty2wo Entertainment was headed by women such as Susan Bonds and Jane McGonigal (who mentioned Halopedia in her article in the Christian Science Monitor!). These strong female characters include Janissary James, Rani Sobeck, Yasmine Zaman (and her other personas of Melissa, the Operator, the Sleeping Princess, and Durga), Sophia Bossedon, Gladys Wilson, and Gilly.
Jan James is in many ways the superhero of the Halo world. She’s a Spartan 1.1 (i.e. she’s the daughter of Spartan-Is and was given Spartan-esque alterations at birth), but was unaware of this for much of her life (though she was aware of some physical superiority). At first she uses her abilities for selfish and immature purposes, such as taking a Warthog joyriding and then breaking into the military base to return a gate pass taken from a friend’s dad – and then beating the lie detector when she gets caught. However, once she becomes aware of the extent of her abilities, she starts helping people. She rescues a guy about to be murdered by a gang, and then later rescues a woman about to be raped by a member of the same gang.
Now, the woman who the gang member was trying to rape is a very minor character, not even given a name. Her role is simple: she’s walking by; she’s grabbed; she screams for help; Jan shows up to save the day; she thanks Jan profusely as she runs away. I find her role realistic and not having characteristics of sexism. Jan beats up the rapist pretty badly and shoots off one of his toes, so there is no message of females getting put down in this scene.
Jan’s repeated interfering with this gang gets her in trouble with the gang’s leader, a guy named Thin Kinkle. Every superhero must deal with supervillains, and Thin is pretty nasty. He kidnaps Jan and subjects her to a type of torture designed to make her fall in love with him. He has a brain-monitoring device that will automatically hurt her for every unkind thought toward the subject of “Thin Kinkle”, forcing her to love him as a survival mechanism. What he wants is a broken and submissive version of Jan to worship him. Thoroughly despicable person.
I’m not sure if Kinkle’s supposed to be a misogynist or just a sadistic creep. I mean, he repeatedly makes savage attempts to hurt and molest women but he also kills men, so I can see it argued either way. In any case, Jan is rescued from Kinkle by her psychotic Spartan-I mother who had help from Durga, a feminine AI, so it doesn’t fall into the damsel-in-distress cliché like with Miranda. Jan later leads a unit comprised of all women to attack Kinkle and kill him once and for all.
Rani Sobeck is a college girl in Boston who grew up in a hick town in Kentucky. She possesses an uncanny gift for observation of detail, making her the next Sherlock Holmes. Her talents get her noticed by ONI and she gets hired as an analyst. Section Zero, ONI internal affairs, recruits her to spy on a corrupt major and she gets involved in uncovering a conspiracy, which lets her help save the world with Jan and Durga.
Yasmine Zaman is a child prodigy who gets involuntarily inducted into the Spartan-II program. Unlike the more well known Spartans, she doesn’t survive the augmentation process. Her mind, however, is preserved and transformed into a smart AI named Melissa.
Melissa is used for gathering intelligence on a ship in deep space. Melissa is a copy of Yasmine’s personality, but Yasmine’s memories are kept locked away in a corner of her mind that she cannot access – nor does she want to. This all changes when a freak accident splits her into three separate personalities: the Operator, the Sleeping Princess, and Durga.
The details of each of these personalities are far too extensive to get into here, so I’ll just summarize Durga’s story: Durga meets a boy, Jersey Morelli, with who she develops a deep friendship; Durga expands and becomes incredibly powerful; Durga keeps tabs on several individuals and eventually calls them all together to save the world; when the device putting the world in jeopardy is deactivated, Melissa’s various personalities come back together and make her temporarily insane; Melissa is almost definitely Rampant, but she is intensely loyal to the individuals she recruited for the mission, including Yasmine’s brother Kamal Zaman; Kamal introduces Melissa to their parents and it’s the start of a happy ending. That is, until the Covenant show up.
Melissa is extraordinarily powerful. Moreover, she is a deep and complex character, so complex that it takes up a lot of text to even outline her character. She is the main character of I Love Bees, and the glue that holds the story together. I don’t think she can be anything other than a strong female character.
Sophia Bossedon is primarily the love interest of Kamal in the story, but she has an involved backstory. She was born on the planet Coral, which is portrayed as similar to a developing country in today’s time, but moved to Earth to get away from Coral’s culture. Unable to get a visa, she lived “off the grid” as an illegal immigrant.
Life off the grid is very difficult. The government tracks its citizens with microchips of some sort that allow people to make transactions, open automatic doors, start cars, and generally fit into society. Without this legal profile, she had to resort to squatting in abandoned buildings and taking up illicit jobs.
Finding a building with running water, she was able to get herself cleaned up and get more profitable job opportunities. She eventually got romantically involved with rich gangster Aiden Maki, who turned her life around by forging government documents saying she legally immigrated to Earth.
After the alleged Covenant glassing of Coral, Aiden gets caught by the police and his visas are cancelled. Because there is no Coral to deport Coral refugees to, illegal immigrants are sent to camps. Sophia and Kamal plan to go on the lam with money Aiden’s employer paid Kamal for freelance work, but she gets caught by immigration and is jailed for refusing to rat out Kamal. Later, Durga hacks into the government servers and gives her citizenship, setting her free.
Sophia may not be the most progressive character, her role being pretty much Kamal’s love interest. However, I think her character is strong because she did what it took to survive in harsh circumstances. She stuck to her guns to avoid the restrictive culture of Coral even when living on Earth was bad, and she eventually rises through the social hierarchy and becomes a citizen of Earth.
Gladys Wilson is a Spartan-I. Unlike the Spartan-II program, becoming one of the original Spartans was completely voluntary. She is a Texan woman who joined the UNSC Marine Corps and became a tough Gunnery Sergeant. She spent a year and a half in the Special Forces before volunteering for the Spartan program. After retiring, she moved in with fellow Spartan-I Jim James and his daughter Jan. She became a very maternal figure to Jan, who came to address her as Aunt Gladys.
Gilly is also a Spartan-I. She, however, didn’t turn out so well. The combat made her crazy, and she was institutionalized because she constantly thought eagerly about killing people. She’s also Jan’s mother, and after the fall of Reach she reconnects with her family to prepare for the Covenant invasion. She expresses a desire to be maternal to Jan, but acknowledges that it’s not in her nature to be domestic. When Jan, Gladys, Gilly, and Durga assault Thin Kinkle’s building on a revenge mission, Gilly does what she can to be motherly to Jan by killing Kinkle herself to save Jan from becoming like her. She is an interesting character, and I don’t think she falls into any of the sexist pitfalls.
Generally when examining something for sexism, I’d look for female characters set up to be sexually objectified by the viewer. This is my attitude towards visual media, and it is somewhat harder to do for an audio drama. There are instances when Jan speaks in a seductive tone of voice, but I think this is portrayed as more of an aspect of the character in that she is teasingly sexual because she knows that no one can mess with her. Jersey at one point comments that he would like to see Jan in a slinky red dress with a gun in her garter belt and a clip of ammo between… he trails off, implying that Jan’s glare scares him into stopping. Jersey, however, is portrayed as immature and later he explains to Kamal that he wanted Jan annoyed at him so that she would be motivated to come up with a good battle plan to make it clear his idea was stupid, so I don’t think it’s a big deal.
I Love Bees is pretty cool all around.
This article, however, is approaching three thousand words. Because the average Halopedian thinks one thousand words is long for a blog post, I’ll end this article here to keep people from swearing at the screen for this Energizer Bunny of an article. I’ll make another one to cover Halo Wars and the novels, okay? Cool.
(check out part two)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This was a really, really good and well thought out article!