Monday, June 21, 2010

Examination of Female Characters - Part 5 (Halo)

(Crossposted from Halopedia)
So, here I am with my fifth article examining Halo’s treatment of female characters (see also parts one, two, three, and four). This time, I’m looking at the first Halo novel: Halo: The Fall of Reach, by Eric Nylund. This is actually one of my least favorite of the novels. I know a lot of people think Halo: The Flood is unquestionably the worst, but aside from the slight boringness of parts that go over Master Chief shooting his way through rooms, I think it’s enjoyable military science-fiction. In Fall of Reach, I think the characterization is weak all around and has protagonists of such dubious morality I find myself rooting for the Insurrection. Nevertheless, it has several female characters. These include Dr. Catherine Halsey, Déjà, Kelly-087, Linda-058, Hall, Hikowa, an unknown UNSC leader, and Cortana.
Dr. Halsey is a cold scientist committing great crimes because she believes it’s worth it to keep the UNSC from falling to the Insurrectionists. I’ve written about her overall character development elsewhere, but in Fall of Reach, she’s pretty much just cold. When examining the young John as a potential candidate for the Spartan program, she completely dehumanizes him. It’s revealed later that she does care, but suppresses her emotions to achieve the utilitarian goal of protecting the UNSC through destroying the humanity1 of 75 children. The fact that she comes to find John sexually attractive 35 or so years in the future does make her seem a bit creepy, though. She’s also brilliant. Eric Nylund later said that she is the smartest human in the world, but I’m not sure this was established at the time of Fall of Reach, so let’s just say she’s really smart.
1I don’t believe the Spartans are exactly inhuman, but that’s one of the themes of the book and the later series.
Although not of a military background, Halsey is able to understand naval strategy better than Captain Wallace. When his ship Commonwealth engages a Covenant craft, she figures out the best strategy before him and instructs him how to move his ship. Wallace reacts completely disrespectfully and threatens to have her gagged, and then she turns out to be right. It is explicitly stated that this disrespect comes from Dr. Halsey being a civilian, and the fact that she is a woman doesn’t seem to enter the picture.
Déjà is a dumb AI who functions as the Spartans’ teacher. There’s not a whole lot to her character. She’s kind, but authoritative, kind of like a kindergarten teacher. Unlike Dr. Halsey, she is completely devoted to the UNSC, the utilitarian function of the Spartan program, and has no conflicting feelings regarding the way the Spartans are used and dehumanized. I kind of get the impression Nylund introduced her mainly to show what computer technology has progressed to by 2517.
Kelly is introduced as part of the initial Spartan trio, the other members of which are John and Sam-034. All of the Spartans are abnormally fast—John is implied to have caught a flipped coin after choosing which side it should land on—but Kelly is especially fast. When she takes off running, no one can catch her. Once she gets her augmentations and MJOLNIR armor, she is truly the fastest thing alive. She has a somewhat more creative personality, expressing herself by coloring her hair blue.
She seems more adventurous than John, but she also seems more likely to let her empathy override her reason. When John gives the order to have the wounded Sam stay behind on the Covenant ship to sacrifice him for the benefit of the others, Sam accepts it immediately, but Kelly questions orders and needs to be convinced. When the two Spartans then jump out of the ship, it’s explicitly noted that she clings to John. I’m not saying soldiers can’t express emotion, but it seems sexist to have Kelly be the one to be so overt in her empathy that she causes a fuss, potentially endangering the mission unnecessarily, while John is emotional but retains a stoic demeanor.
Kelly also has a somewhat stereotypical moment with fellow female Spartan Linda, when the Spartans prepare to infiltrate the rebel base. Kelly holds up her outfit of grease-stained overalls, which ONI supplied to match the outfits of the rebel crew, and says “They don’t give a girl much to work with.” Linda then offers her a black body suit, telling her to try it on for size. The moment invokes the stereotyped idea of women always caring what they wear, what they look like, fashion, etc. It is somewhat subverted by the fact that they’re discussing military equipment, but the stereotype is still invoked.
Like Kelly, Linda is a very capable Spartan, noted to be excellent with a sniper rifle. In Halo: First Strike, John notes that she’s a stronger Spartan than him for her sniping skills, but at the time of Fall of Reach she’s just another Spartan with the implied battle prowess of any of them. She performs well in combat, but she is mortal and doesn’t have John’s luck. She helps John and James on a mission at the end of the book, but sustains injuries and dies on the trip back. At the time, John was the last of the Spartans and Nylund was constrained by canon, which means Linda couldn’t survive the Battle of Reach. In Halo: First Strike, however, Nylund revives her and through the powers of time travel saves Kelly as well.
Anyway, back to Fall of Reach. Lieutenants Hall and Hikowa are members of Captain Keyes’ bridge crew, and their purposes are pretty much identical in that they are both good at their jobs. This is in contrast to Lieutenant Jaggers, who frequently complains and challenges Keyes’ orders. Hall and Hikowa may get worried, but they always obey Keyes and help save the day as a result. Nylund has Keyes narrate about their individual personalities, like that Hall is an overachiever who unfortunately likes to show up other crewmates, and that Hikowa looks delicate but has nerves of steel, but the characters don’t really illustrate their characteristics and are so minor that Keyes has to tell us.
Following the Battle of Sigma Octanus IV, John makes a report to several UNSC leaders masked in darkness regarding Covenant Intel. The identities of these people are not revealed, at least in this book. One of these unknown leaders is a woman who interrogates John about what he observed in Côte D’Azur’s museum. She seems very knowledgeable about geological composition and the significance of the unusual artifacts, and she discusses with other leaders about the Forerunner glyphs recovered from a Covenant transmission. She is possibly the basis for Margaret O. Parangosky, the ONI director, but this is a character introduced in Halo: Ghosts of Onyx and I cannot assume that anything in that book was known at the time of Fall of Reach. It is enough to surmise that Nylund created a capable female leader.
And, of course, there’s Cortana. Cortana is an amazingly powerful smart AI made by Dr. Halsey for the purposes of sending an alien expert along with the Spartans on their mission to capture a Prophet. Cortana can be considered a posthuman Dr. Halsey because Cortana was created from a cloned version of Halsey’s brain and Cortana subconsciously possesses all of Halsey’s memories up to the point of cloning, though the full implications of that won’t be gone into until Halo 3. Cortana has a personality similar to Halsey’s as a rebellious teenager, and because she’s more powerful as an AI she engages in self-serving behavior for which Halsey would probably show restraint, such as hacking her way into ONI files and reassigning Ackerson to the frontlines as payback for almost killing her.
Like her brain donor, Cortana surmises that John makes the best choice for a Spartan partner because of his bravery and apparent luck, also noting that they both find him sexually attractive, which sets the stage for our Cortana/John romance. Cortana fits into John’s life as his intellectual counterpart, almost a literal homunculus, who directs his actions. Without her visual depiction, there is also none of the sexualization found in some of the games. Fall of Reach’s Cortana is not victimized and is free to be the bold strong female character we love. What can I say, she’s Cortana. We love her.
Although this series of articles is about gender, I feel compelled to address race as well. There are very few characters that are persons of color in this book, and the ones that are in it are pretty minor. Our only dark-skinned Spartan is Fhajad-084, who is soon out of the game when his augmentations go south. He makes a minor reappearance as the author of a paper on Slipspace, which gives Keyes insight on Covenant movements, but the character himself is never seen again. There’s also Hikowa, who seems to be a stereotypical Japanese woman as she is described as like a delicate doll; though perhaps the stereotype is somewhat subverted with her strong and aggressive demeanor befitting a UNSC officer. Sergeant Avery Johnson makes a brief appearance at the end of the book, but while he becomes a major character later on, here he’s just a Marine. John runs into him, gets him to fly a Pelican out of a combat zone, and that’s it. At this point of the Halo series, the UNSC is portrayed as primarily America in space, so rather than being truly culturally diverse, the UNSC has similar cultural paradigms as in the U.S. with its white dominant group and other minority groups treated ostensibly equally but not given the same focus.
Back to gender: one thing I recently found out about is the Bechdel test, which comes from a 1985 comic made by Alison Bechdel. It’s a litmus test for movies to see if the female presence is adequate. Though I believe Bechdel is a feminist, the test is not to determine if the movie content is feminist or even if it’s sexist or not, just if its female presence extends beyond a token girl whose function is to support male characters. As most movies are fundamentally for a male audience, most movies pass the reverse Bechdel test quite frequently. The test has three requirements:
  1. At least two (named) women
  2. who have at least one conversation (alone)
  3. about something other than a man (or men)
An example given of a movie that passes is Alien, in which two female characters discuss the monster. Although given that the thing is a manifestation of rape, it might be in essence a man. Is it sexist for me to say that? It does have an awfully phallic head… Anyway, the Bechdel test isn’t a perfect system, but it does work to help critically examine media.
So, here’s a Bechdel test for Halo:
  • Halo: Combat Evolved – Doesn’t pass. The only female characters are Cortana, Foehammer, and the Bumblebee pilot who might as well be wearing a red shirt because she lasts about 20 seconds. Cortana talks to Foehammer a bit to get her to deliver stuff or to pick up her and the Chief, but that’s it.
  • Halo 2 – Doesn’t pass. Cortana gives intel to Keyes and says “Yes, ma’am”, and that’s it.
  • Halo 3 – Doesn’t pass. Keyes dies before Cortana gets rescued. They never interact.
  • i love bees – Passes. Jan and Gladys talk about Jan being a Spartan 1.1, Sarah-John and Rani discuss Rani’s detective skills, and Rani and Durga discuss the UNSC sacrificing the planet Harmony to keep the Covenant from realizing their code had been broken, as well as a few other conversations. I love i love bees.
  • Dead or Alive 4 – Passes. Okay, it’s only partially Halo, but it’s connected with the series due to the inclusion of Nicole-458. Female ninjas talk to each other about the evil company in the plot and stuff like that. This is a good example of something that passes the Bechdel test and is still completely sexist. They have a lot of female characters to function as sexual fanservice to the male market.
  • Halo Graphic Novel – Doesn’t pass. Maria-062 is effectively the only female character.
  • Halo Wars – Doesn’t pass. Serina and Anders never have a conversation together in which Cutter isn’t leading.
  • Halo 3: ODST – Barely passes. Sadie and the Crone have an altercation over a cash machine. I say barely because “Crone” is given as an official designation, but it’s not an actual name per se.
  • Halo: Evolutions – Barely passes.
    • Pariah – Doesn’t pass. Dr. Halsey has conversations with Déjà, but they’re about Soren.
    • Stomping on the Heels of a Fuss – Doesn’t pass. Effectively only one female character.
    • Midnight in the Heart of Midlothian – Doesn’t pass. Only one female character.
    • Dirt – Doesn’t pass. Felicia and Allison never have a conversation together.
    • Headhunters – Doesn’t pass. No female characters.
    • Blunt Instruments – Doesn’t pass. One and Two never speak alone, except for Two telling her about the male Yanme’e setting them up.
    • The Mona Lisa – Passes. Lopez, Benti, and Burgundy briefly discuss the Mona Lisa’s damage.
    • Palace Hotel – Doesn’t pass. Cortana and Palmer could have had a conversation about how it’s better to leave the corpses and save the living, but Cortana just spoke to her and Palmer spoke to the Master Chief and called Cortana a “bitch”. Not that I’m bitter, no siree.
    • Human Weakness – Doesn’t pass. Though a great story about Cortana, it’s really only about her. It’s just her and two male characters. The content is very pro-Cortana, our powerful female character, and I can imagine feminists would enjoy Human Weakness more than half the Halo stuff that does pass the Bechdel test, making this an example of the opposite side of the ineffectiveness of the test at determining feminist or sexist content.
    • The Impossible Life and Possible Death of Preston J. Cole – Doesn’t pass. Being a biography about a man, it’s the wrong setting for any female conversation to take place.
    • The Return – Doesn’t pass. Doesn’t satisfy condition number one.
  • Halo: The Fall of Reach – Passes. Dr. Halsey and Déjà, and Dr. Halsey and Cortana, discuss various things besides men.
I’ll cover more as I come to them.
So, to conclude, the original Halo novel The Fall of Reach includes a variety of female characters that are treated pretty well if not devoid of sexist clichés. I imagine Nylund included these female characters as a way of showing how the UNSC is better than the U.S. military in terms of gender equality. In Fall of Reach, women can be as capable warriors as men, even within the elite Spartan program. Fall of Reach is really just a start to the expanded universe of the Halo series, defining the basic structure and boundaries of the fictional world, but having limited characterization overall. Having read through the book again, I want to say that Halsey was the best thought out character or Keyes or Cortana, but the truth is that they’re all pretty bland. It took later entries in the series to really make Halsey and Cortana the fleshed out female characters I appreciate. What Fall of Reach really gave us was a world, and introductions to characters within it. As a result, analysis of female characters in Fall of Reach can never be that deep as with other items in the series.

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