Sunday, April 25, 2010

Examination of Female Characters - Part 4 (Halo)

(Crossposted from Halopedia)
And I’m back with part four in my series to judge whether or not Halo is sexist with its female characters, as well as to analyze gender roles in general. See also parts one, two, and three. Continuing the look at Halo: Evolutions - Essential Tales of the Halo Universe started in part three, I will now cover everything from Palace Hotel to The Impossible Life and the Possible Death of Preston J. Cole. (Warning that discussion of Human Weakness describes themes of rape.)
Palace Hotel, by Robt McLees, is the ninth story in the compilation. Taking place during the Halo 2 campaign, this story’s prominent female characters include Cortana, Corporal Palmer, and Parisa. Cortana is same-old same-old, acting as Master Chief’s smart and snarky advisor as he wanders the Mombasa metropolis. Corporal Palmer, leader of a small unit of Marines, takes exception to her reasoning that it would be best to abandon the bodies to save the living.
Palmer feels it would be degrading to the dead soldiers to leave their bodies behind in the sewer, even though they’re dead and it serves no useful purpose other than perhaps morale to take the time and energy to carry the corpses out to a UNSC base through a combat zone. Despite Cortana’s intelligent rationale, she refers to Cortana as “a real fucking bitch.” It’s common for female leaders to be deemed bitches when they display the kind of authoritative attitude expected by and praised of male leaders. Palmer does not take Cortana seriously, and it’s up to the Chief to convince her.
Later, when faced with a tough situation, the Chief in a classic Spartan way decides on the gutsiest plan possible. He gives orders to Palmer and another Marine that Palmer considers suicide. In response, she makes the amusing line, “Chief, I believe that I can honestly say that even though you are an honest-to-Buddha one-man death squad, and that if you were to ask nicely I’d give up my lucrative career in the Corps and start pumping out your babies just as fast as you could put them in me, there is no way I am gonna run across fifty goddamn meters of open terrain covered by three Jackal snipers that I can see just to jump into an open vehicle. Throwing myself on a goddamn grenade makes more sense than that. Out.” Like many of Johnson’s lines, it’s deliberately exaggerated in a humorous way. In essence, though, she says that she respects John for his fighting capability and that she finds him sexually attractive (any person attracted to males would). In the manner of saying a man would make her swoon, she discusses giving up the masculine role of a Marine to assume the feminine role of a housewife producing offspring. Yes, it’s a sarcastic line, but the meat of what she’s saying is a bit sexist.
Parisa is a lieutenant who used to be John’s childhood crush, and he hers, at age 6. As a boy, he saved her life shortly after promising to marry her and keep her safe. The Chief reunites with her at the Palace Hotel all grown up. Even now she carries a photo of her and the boy she believes died ages ago, believing that he’s a guardian angel watching over her. It follows in with the traditional ideas of gender with John as a protective fighter and Parisa as a passive figure to be protected.
The story of Palace Hotel is partially about the Master Chief facing an identity crisis. He doesn’t know whether to think of himself as human or as a posthuman Spartan. In the situation with Cortana insisting that the bodies be left behind, she represents the coldness of the UNSC in contrast to the empathy of humanity as represented by Palmer. He agrees with Cortana, and the Marines view him as inhuman.
The same scenario comes up again when Parisa reveals the photograph. Parisa represents the humanity in him, the life he had before Dr. Halsey took him away. A part of him wants to tell the truth and be with his old love, but he ultimately rejects it under the rationale that she is currently happy, that telling the truth would rob her of her memories, and because the Spartans need to stay inhuman for the good of the UNSC. He rejects her femininity, her promise of humanity, and asserts cold masculinity as he tells her off for bringing personal items. She drops the subject and returns to battle talk, what has been established as the masculine role. This thematic gendering of the symbolic humanity and inhumanity is present in the second conflict, but is unnecessary to the story as it is absent from the first.
The tenth story is Human Weakness, by Karen Traviss. While I do think The Mona Lisa is the best short story in the compilation, Human Weakness is a close contender. The story covers Cortana’s struggle with the Gravemind from the end of Halo 2 to the middle of Halo 3. First of all, I’ll just say that it is awesome. You learn so much about the Gravemind, for one, but Cortana, who’s one of my favorite characters, really gets her moment here.
Anyway, I’ve always considered the Gravemind a rape monster. That is, a monster that is an embodiment of rape, the way the creature in Alien is so. The Alien Xenomorph literally rapes through its natural form of procreation in the Facehugger stage, and then its later Drone phase metaphorically stands for rape with its violent, violating demeanor and body that resembles sexual organs. That’s not just my interpretation, either, that’s how the thing was designed. H. R. Giger designed the Xenomorph as sexual as he could make it for an R-rating. While Halo is technically rated M, it’s aimed at a younger audience and arguably video games face tougher restrictions than movies, which pushes sexuality down to implication. Human Weakness does describe the Gravemind as “all tendrils and dark cavities”, which has a certain sexual sound to it. We know the Flood is based on the Xenomorph in its basic parasitic biology, so it follows that the Gravemind might also be an embodiment of rape.
While the Gravemind has generally been considered an ‘it’ in terms of pronouns, in Human Weakness Cortana corrects that initial assumption and asserts the masculine ‘he’. Despite being a hive mind, the Gravemind has a masculine identity. So, the Gravemind is a masculine entity composed of phallic tentacles violating the being of a feminine entity. You see what I’m getting at, here?
Additionally, Cortana makes repeated references to rejecting the Gravemind’s devil-like temptation as if rejecting a man trying to date her. While first observing his ugliness, she narrates, “This blob wasn’t going to get a date anytime soon.” When the Gravemind matches one of her quips with a reference to his vast knowledge, she snarks, “Wit as well as looks. How can a girl resist?” When he describes her unflatteringly, she urges him to “be a gentleman”. When he tempts her, she jokes that she goes “for the athletic type” and “nothing personal”. When he describes consuming other AIs, she says she’s “not like the other girls”. Finally, when he says his line about them being “two corpses in one grave”, she tries and fails to say that she’s not the type of girl to share a grave with just anybody. It is clear that his aggression is associated with sexual advances.
The Gravemind also engages in misogynistic behavior. While sticking his tentacles in her data, he inflicts pain to her in ways associated with violence against women, slapping her face and pulling her hair. When she reneges on her agreement to answer his questions, he angrily compares her to flirting with him like an “organic female”. This evokes the image of a rapist angry with his victim for supposedly teasing him. The Gravemind thus functions as a quintessential figure of masculine evil.
This is in contrast to the figure of John, who acts as Cortana’s knight in shining armor. Even though John has no sexual drive and Cortana has no corporeal form, they have a close relationship that can be considered a romance. While sharing minds with the Gravemind, she compares it to sharing space in John’s brain, except with a feeling of violation. It can be inferred that this intimate experience is analogous with sex, and while the Gravemind is a rapist, the relationship between her and John is one of consensual love. As the Gravemind tortures her, she becomes more and more reliant on John saving her and she becomes more aware of her feelings for him. When he arrives to rescue her, it is an emotional reunion.
While I love the original dialogue of Halo 3 in which John says “Lucky me”, which makes me laugh, I also really like this retcon:
Cortana: “I’ve looked into it. The abyss. My abyss.”
John: “Okay. Take a good long look. But you won’t fall in. I’m here now.”
Cortana: “I’m lucky to have you.”
John: “No. Remember—I’m the lucky one.”
Cortana: “So you are.”
Following Human Weakness is a poem: Connectivity, by Jonathan Goff. It describes John and Cortana and their relationship, specifically how John is the physical half and Cortana is the intellectual half. Cortana is described as the “goddess”, as well as the “princess”. I imagine these terms were chosen because they are popularly considered complementary descriptions of women. I do think it’s a little amusing that Cortana’s a “princess”, considering that she’s voiced by Jen Taylor, who plays Princess Peach in Mario games. While “princess” is a little condescending given the why it’s been used with young girls, I don’t think the author meant anything by it. The poem has a nice epic feeling and I find it very complementary to the character of Cortana.
Next, the eleventh story and last one to feature female characters: The Impossible Life and the Possible Death of Preston J. Cole, by Eric Nylund. This is an interesting story, narrated by a historian using various files in a manner similar to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The prominent female characters here are Preston Cole’s two wives: Inna Volkov and Lyrenne Castilla.
Inna Volkov married him after some kind of political scandal. It looks like she had an illegal affair with one of Preston’s fellow soldiers, who got her pregnant, and Preston married her to protect her honor. I can’t say this for sure, though, as the details are kept deliberately vague. The marriage does seem rushed for political reasons, and as Inna is the daughter of an admiral it would reflect badly on him were she to have a child out of wedlock. In the initial description, Inna herself is not named, instead only referred to as “Admiral Konrad Volkov’s daughter”. Inna is treated as a passive figure, the focus on Preston and the trouble he’s in for messing with as powerful a person as the Admiral. Although Preston says he loves her, it’s never really clear if Inna loves him. They stay together for years and have several children, but Inna ultimately divorces him because he spends too much time off at war. She must be very angry with him, as she keeps him from contacting his kids.
Preston eventually finds love with Lyra Castilla, ostensibly a nuclear engineer who moved out to one of the Outer Colonies to open a bar. This comes soon after he ends a hunt for the Insurrectionist-held ship Bellicose, which he earlier fought from the UNSC Gorgon and reached a stalemate. Before parting, the unknown captain of the Bellicose engaged him in conversation via ship-to-ship text messaging:
Bellicose: Well played, Preston. We’re a good match. If you ever retire from the UNSC, you might consider working for the good guys.
Gorgon: Perhaps you’d like to come over here and persuade me?
Bellicose: Tempting. But another time, I think.
Gorgon: I look forward to it.
Not wanting to become obsessed with tracking down the Bellicose, he goes to the Outer Colony where he meets Lyra. They get along great, and she uses her knowledge to come up with a way to improve his ship’s technology. A few months later, they marry and she gets pregnant. However, ONI reports some months later that Lyra is actually Lyrenne and a high-ranking Innie. Preston returns home to find all her things gone and that she left behind a transcript of the Bellicose/Gorgon conversation, showing that she was the captain of the Bellicose. Preston becomes committed to tracking her down to find out if she was just playing him or if she ever really loved him back, but soon it’s reported that the Bellicose fell into a star and was destroyed along with everyone on board.
Ages later, Preston becomes a hero of the UNSC against the Covenant, besting them in great battles, and instating the Cole Protocol. Finally, he has a Cadmean victory against the Covenant fleet at Psi Serperentis that elevates him to the status of heroic martyr… as far as ONI would have everyone believe. During that fight, a fleet of Insurrectionist ships arrive to help out the UNSC, led by a ship identified (incorrectly or otherwise) as the Bellicose. Plus, Preston fires nukes for some reason even when it seems they would have no tactical advantage – unless it was really two unaccounted for ships breaching Slipspace.
I’m a sucker for a good romance. I love the idea that despite being on separate sides that they could still be in love after so many years, and then run away together. Mmm…
Anyway, the Inna Volkov character is fairly poor for reasons described above. Lyrenne Castilla, on the other hand, is a capable, intelligent commander. She’s the great rival Preston Cole couldn’t defeat, and she never lost her power when engaged in romance with him. As with Halo: Evolutions in general, Impossible Life/Possible Death has its highs and lows.
This concludes part four. I’m not sure what I’ll analyze next time. Maybe the original novel Halo: The Fall of Reach? *shrugs*

(Part 5 can be found here)

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