Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Examination of Female Characters - Part 3 (Halo)

(Crossposted from Halopedia)
Continuing my examination of the female Halo characters (parts one and two can be found here and here), I will now focus on the short stories featured in Halo: Evolutions - Essential Tales of the Halo Universe. I had intended for part three to focus on the original Halo novel, Halo: The Fall of Reach, but I just (finally) picked up Evolutions to read on my spring break vacation to Mexico. With the stories fresh in my brain, this seems the best piece of literature to use. Part three will cover stories from Pariah to The Mona Lisa. To reiterate, this article series is to answer whether or not Halo is sexist, and comments like “I think the female characters are hot!” are inappropriate.

The first story is Pariah, by B. K. Evenson. Focusing on the Spartan-II Soren-066, there aren’t that many female characters. The notable ones are Dr. Catherine Halsey and the dumb AI Deja. Dr. Halsey, who I’ve previously written about here, is shown in the middle of her moral crisis regarding the Spartan Program. She ardently believes that what she does is ultimately for the best because it is for the greater good, even if it is wrong on the individual level. In order to lessen her personal guilt, she breaks protocol to offer Soren the choice to enter the Spartan Program as well as to undergo the augmentation procedures. When the procedures go south, she feels guilty and ultimately allows him to escape into the forest despite his potential risk as a rebel-sympathizer. Deja serves as a sort of psychologist to point out Dr. Halsey’s real motivation behind offering the choices. Deja isn’t exactly necessary, functioning as a reflection of Dr. Halsey in order to give the reader insight into Dr. Halsey’s character. There’s also Soren’s mother, but she died before the story’s events, her death used as a plot device for Soren’s motivations. The primary female character is Dr. Halsey, but she has a secondary role because the story is about Soren.
He wondered if any among [the Brutes] were female. It was impossible to tell. In all of his research, he’d never positively identified one.”
—Brien’s narration, Stomping on the Heels of a Fuss
The second story is Stomping on the Heels of a Fuss, by Eric Raab. This one has very few female characters, and the ones that it does have are not very prominent. The characters are Nixaliz, an aristocratic human prisoner, and the nameless mother of protagonist Brien. Nixaliz, unlike many of the male aristocrats, is not described according to why she has such wealth but rather a physical description that indicates her starvation and that “[s]he would’ve been pretty under better circumstances”. She asks if Brien came to rescue them, which breaks his heart. When Brien puts his plan into motion, Nixaliz shoots a Brute with a spiker, but is killed shortly after by the same Brute she fails to kill. Brien’s mother is only mentioned in passing as the source of a song about stomping on the heels of a fuss that gives Brien his idea. It’s clear that author Eric Raab didn’t care about writing female characters, as they both are more afterthoughts than anything.
The third story is Midnight in the Heart of Midlothian, by Frank O'Connor. This one has only two main characters, the male protagonist Mike Baird and the female AI Mo Ye. Mo Ye takes the form of an angry old Chinese woman, and has a sense of humor described as “viciously old and crotchety”. Maybe it’s just because I know Frankie wrote this monstrosity about elderly Shaw and Fujikawa, but it came across to me as a somewhat insensitive stereotype. I don’t know. Mo Ye is Rampant, but is loyal to the UNSC. She fits a role analogous to Cortana as she helps Baird navigate the ship and fight off Covenant. Baird compares her to his mother. As Baird takes damage and his doom becomes certain, she loses her animosity and seems so deeply sympathetic that Baird now compares her to a lover. When Baird tricks some Spec Ops Elites into bringing her to full power, she ultimately sacrifices herself by detonating the Heart of Midlothian’s nukes to fulfill the Cole Protocol. While Mo Ye has some amusing lines and seems like she could be an interesting character, there is unfortunately not enough there to make her much more than Baird’s second fiddle.
The fourth story is Dirt, by Tobias S. Buckell. This one I love because it has actual gay characters! You may remember me ranting pretty heavily in He Was My Lover about Halo having homophobic remarks and not having gay characters in canon (as opposed to I Would Have Been Your Daddy lines), which made Halo itself seem homophobic. Well, that rant is now obsolete. Dirt has gay characters that are not only human, but are UNSC soldiers, completely out, and are not subjected to any kind of prejudice. Awesome.
Anyway, Dirt has the female characters Felicia Sanderson and Allison Stark. Felicia fits into the male protagonist Gage’s group of friends, which also includes the male Eric, fitting the common pattern of a trio of friends consisting of two males and one female. Felicia is a lesbian, and often tells some story about being forced to enlist after meeting a girl in a bar and “how was I supposed to know she was the governor’s daughter?” Felicia comes from the Outer Colony world of Harvest and strongly believes in independence from the United Earth Government, though she is loyal to the CMA/UNSC in the fight against the Insurrectionists. After surviving an Innie suicide bombing that kills Allison and sends Eric into a coma, Felicia and Gage together join the ODSTs. They make it through training, but when word comes about Harvest’s destruction Felicia throws mud at Gage because he earlier said the planet was “just dirt”, and the two are separated by their superiors. Felicia, Gage, and Eric are reunited 22 years later. Felicia has a plan to go AWOL that involves stealing precious metals that would otherwise be glassed, and the others go along with it. The plan goes south when it’s discovered that civilians have holed up in the vault, and Gage wants to sacrifice the gold to save them. Felicia loses control of her conspirators, who draw their weapons. She takes a shot to the throat and dies shortly after.
Allison is a CMA pilot who gets a NCO guy interested in her to turn a blind eye to her taking a Hornet to a flip music dance club. She is also gay, but keeps that a secret from the NCO guy. Felicia brings her into her group of friends to take advantage of her ability to go to the dance club, but shares with Gage that she has no interest in Allison because of the pilot/non-pilot conflict. Allison is killed by an Innie suicide bomber shortly after her introduction, making her fit the dead lesbian cliché. While Felicia has a more developed character, she is also killed as part of the story ending with everyone dying around Gage.
Overall, Felicia is a good strong character. I like that she is able to have such a bond with Gage, and because she is a lesbian you know that their friendship doesn’t come from sexual attraction – it’s similar to John and Kelly with their asexuality. Felicia has flaws, but in a realistic manner suiting a rebellious soldier character. I was afraid she would turn out to be an Innie and fulfill the evil lesbian cliché (see previous link), but no, she turns out to have a good heart. Yes, she does die, but she gets pretty far into the story before getting killed off. Maybe I’m still excited about the fact that there are actual lesbian characters in this story, but I think Felicia is a pretty good character.
The fifth story is Headhunters, by Jonathan Goff. It doesn’t have any female characters. There is, however, an insult made by Spartan-III Jonah to a Covenant Elite: “So let’s start this party, I’m late for a hot date, and I don’t wanna keep yer sister waiting.” It comes from the conception of sex as a form of conquest, in that Jonah having sex with the ‘sister’ would benefit him while pushing her to a state of degradation as she is assumed to take no satisfaction herself. This is an insult to the Elite, the other male, because Jonah would be accomplishing a masculine goal – as if rivalry – and hurting the Elite’s family member. It’s a sexist remark, but I can’t judge the author for it given that it is uttered by a character whose best friend refers to as a “government-sanctioned sociopath”. I don’t think he’s really a sociopath as his motivation is revenge and not killing for its own sake, but he’s supposed to be less than perfectly moral, so there we are.
The sixth story is Blunt Instruments, by Fred Van Lente. This story focuses on Spartan Team Black, made up of four members, each referred to by their numerical position in the group. Spartans One and Two are female, while Three and Four are male. Black-One is the leader of the group, and Black-Two is the intelligence officer. Two falls for the trick of a psychopathic Yanme'e (Drone) by wanting to believe the Yanme’e are potential allies against her better judgment. The team is able to recover because they are creative and work together in ways that psychopathic Yanme’e are unable. The female characters are as strong and capable as any Spartan. While each Spartan has their own voice, they are fairly interchangeable as characters and could each work as either male or female.
The seventh story is The Mona Lisa, by Jeff Vandermeer and Tessa Kum. By far the best story in the book, this space thriller has a few prominent female characters: Sergeant Zhao Heng Lopez, Hospital Corpsman Ngoc Benti, the pilot Burgundy, and the smart AI Rebecca. Lopez is a badass Marine who looks after her subordinates in a way compared with a mother looking after her children, and Lopez is often referred to as Mama Lopez. This makes for something of a combination of female and male gender roles put together into one character. The story, featuring the Flood, is very similar to movies Alien and Aliens, and Lopez makes for something of a Ripley character.
Benti is a medic as well as a soldier, and she holds her own pretty well. She survives most of the way through this story, which is quite a feat. She is able to not let her prejudices keep her from making friends with the Elites of the Mona Lisa. Ultimately, she is severely wounded by the Flood. Soon after, she realizes her partner Clarence is an ONI spook here to clean up. Despite this, she gives him a hug with the last of her strength before she is consumed by the Flood. While her last moments have her being comforted by masculine characters, this makes the character of Benti more realistic and does not detract from her coolness.
Burgundy is a capable soldier, but winds up into trouble when first introduced to the Flood. Points to her as she is able to overcome her shock and fight back, even though she is ultimately overwhelmed like so many others. She is captured alive and taken to the Flood hive while releasing agonized and horrified screams. On the face of it she may seem to be fulfilling the cliché of the victimized female character, but she is actually following in the footsteps of many previous male characters including notably Captain Keyes.
Rebecca is an interesting antagonist. Commander Tobias Foucault implies she may be Rampant, which she may well be, but honestly she doesn’t need to be. She is loyal to ONI and that is enough because ONI is scary and she inherits its creepiness. Similar to Mother of Alien, Rebecca is willing to knowingly send her ship’s people to certain death for the purposes of recovering a deadly parasite without telling them the whole truth of what they’re up against.
Aside from her villainy, it is notable how Rebecca’s avatar varies in its appearance. Her normal look is a vaguely Italian-looking Mediterranean fat middle-aged woman in a flower dress. Lopez compares it to the way she would dress in something feminine while off-duty to make people feel comfortable around her. Commander Foucault feels offended by it, thinking that it’s ugly and shouldn’t be worn on the bridge. Rebecca’s warrior avatar is an amalgam of Athena and Ares, in a feathered Greek headdress and ancient armor. Benti finds it incredibly good-looking.
I think it’s interesting and a bit problematic the way this avatar situation is treated. As an AI, Rebecca can assume the looks of various humans or vague approximations of how a human might look the way a human can put on and discard various garments, so Foucault’s dismissing of the usual avatar is something like saying that she’s not in uniform or needs to put on something less distracting. On the other hand, these avatars are the shapes of people. Foucault’s dismissing the looks of a person’s face. This person may not exist, but it’s a step away from saying ‘Lopez, you’re ugly. Get the hell out and send in Benti’, you know? It may not be sexism (though I suspect that plays a part), but it’s definitely lookism and should be critically examined.
In addition to the avatar thing, Lopez makes a sexist comment while narrating: “What outfit did MacCraw think he’d joined? The Lady’s Auxiliary Gardening Society?” She thinks this remark in response to one of her men objecting to her brutalizing an apparent civilian suspected of withholding information about the parasitic alien menace. It turns out she’s right and the guy’s ONI, but A) the objection is understandable, and B) it’s sexist to suggest a man has feminine qualities when he acts in an empathetic manner, as well as to imply that this is a bad thing. It’s part of the idea that femininity is inherently inferior to masculinity, which makes men acting feminine degrading while making women acting masculine a part of female empowerment.
In general, The Mona Lisa is very good on the subject of gender equality. I suspect this has to do with it having been co-written by a female author. There are some flaws, though, as I’ve described above.
Well, that’s enough for one article. I’ll post the next part, which should be everything from Palace Hotel to Impossible Life/Possible Death, in a few days or so. Expect descriptions of tentacle rape.

(Part 4 can be found here)


Tobias Buckell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tobias Buckell said...

Hmm, Google is messing with my log in, let me try that again with a slight edit:

Yeah, I was really of two minds about whether to include lesbians because I didn't want to trip on the dead lesbians cliche. The novella was a set up as a classical tragedy (everyone who's a major character dies except for the guy who frames the story, who is the recruit from ODST, I was trying to write this to flesh him out a bit for fans). On the other hand there are so few gay characters in military SF genre pieces who aren't fetishized, so I went ahead anyway b/c I figured it was worth it despite that, as I liked the characters as I wrote them, they're wise-cracking fun.

Great analysis!

All the best,


Tobias Buckell said...

That's not excusing the dead lesbians cliche, I own that LOL, but the only way to not kill a lesbian was to add in even more to that story, which would have distracted from the atmosphere I wanted of them being part of this core story about the impact war has on these close-knit friends, that leaves with all of them dying before handing off the baton to the Rookie.

Hopefully next time I do this I won't write myself into a corner where I end up pushing a cliche forward!

Miracall said...

I understand the structure of the tragedy story. Given that neither of the narrators, especially the outer most one (the Rookie), are lesbians, it makes sense that the lesbian characters would die as a natural progression of the story. The cliché still exists and should be noted. That said, I loved simply having the inclusion of gay characters, treated reasonably well. It’s a good story.

Zyrin Kain said...

With Lopez in The Mona Lisa, remember, she's a kick-ass Marine. A lot of Marines will insult soldiers who are male by calling them ladies. It's just how the Marines work. Especially Sergeants and Drill Sergeants.

Miracall said...

Zyrin: But that's coming from the idea that women are inferior. Being a woman's an insult because being a man's more favorable. Regardless of whether it not it's common, it's misogynistic. Halo constantly flipflops from being an accurate representation of our world and being an idealized form of the future, so I find it worth criticism as an aspect of the imagined future world.

Goosechecka said...

Not sure if I missed it, but I didn't see anything about Kat. I loved in her Reach, but her death really pissed me off. Finally, a strong female character that has a personality, is smart and funny, and she just randomly drops dead. All the other Spartans receive heroic deaths, but not Kat.

Love reading these articles!

dfuchs said...

Just a point: Benti wasn't hugging the ONI officer for comfort--to me it read as an active way of preventing the bastard from escaping the Flood's clutches too.

Miracall said...

Goosechecka: I haven't covered Halo: Reach yet. I started analyzing Halo Legends but that got stalled because I had trouble reading the subtitles and schoolwork got in the way of my free time, so the series of articles has been on hiatus for a while. I'll try to get back to it.

dfuchs: Thanks. I'll have to reread Evolutions and check on that. Right now most of my books are packed up so the shelves could be painted.

Unknown said...

This is such a fun series of articles to read, I've always been fascinated with the treatment of women in the Halo series and the gender/sex politics and issues that arise. Mind you, my main beef is that game canon only seems to have one type of prominent female - the Smart/Savvy female (often in need of some rescuing...) which sounds like a silly complaint since intelligence is considered a positive trait, but there's no tough hardy female like Master Chief without the extreme intelligence. That and the issue that each main female disappears for half of the game, usually captured/lost/left behind. Anyway I digress; I still do think Halo does a better job balancing gender then a lot of shooting games out there, and the great thing about Master Chief is that he's a masculine figure without the bashing or mocking of femininity that the later protagonists seem to gain; it almost seems unnecessary to apply the masculine tag to him because it doesn't largely factor into his character because he is so asexual. Unfortunately I think later Halo characters fail at that. It'll be interesting what you think of Linda and Kelly when it comes to those novels, I remember enjoying their representation as a teenager, I do hope they hold up still.

Also a woo on there being gay characters in the Halo Expanded Universe!! I've been waiting for that void to fill; can't wait for a male gay character to appear one day.

Miracall said...

Andrew: Thanks for your input. It's an interesting point about the female character disappearing for part of the game. If Halo 2 had been made as originally planned, they would have had a whole level of the Chief fighting on the Keyship without Cortana.

I tend to think that giving female characters high intelligence is a way of compensating for lack of the physical strength possessed by male characters. Although with a Spartan, it shouldn't matter because of artificial enhancements. It is a shame that Nicole only exists in DoA4 and has no comparable female character in Halo games.

I'll get to Reach and other Halo books and things when I can, but I have posted Part 4 (completing Evolutions) and Part 5 (Fall of Reach). HBO didn't catch that I have two more articles up for some reason. I've put up a link on the page to help with the confusion and make things easier.

With regard to gay characters: yeah, I'm waiting for a male marine to talk about his boyfriend left on Reach or something like that.