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Matt Barton's picture

A Feminist Reading of Halo 4

I finally got around to finishing Halo 4 last night and the ending troubled me. Not because I thought it was incoherent or unsatisfying, but rather I didn't know what to make of its attitude towards women--or, rather, what assumptions it seems to make about the player's attitude towards them. One thing really stood out to me: clothing and the lack thereof. I looked around the net to see what others had written about Cortana, and quickly discovered I'm far from the only one who has some issues with it. As Jon W of Gamasutra puts it: "It doesn't seem particularly fair to permaban pumped-up teenage boys from acting like immature sexists when that is exactly what the game has trained them to be." Warning: there are some spoilers here.

Master Chief: The armor and mask protect ego as well as body.Master Chief: The armor and mask protect ego as well as body.Let's start with Master Chief. Like many super heroes, you never see this guy's face (or any of the rest of his body). He's well protected by the equivalent of a wearable tank. Arguably, not showing the hero's face is an important part of the identification process; since we can't see him, it's easier to imagine ourselves in that suit. I do think this is part of his appeal, but I think it also taps into something more profound than that. Perhaps it's getting at a deep-seated anxiety about having our emotions exposed; characters like Master Chief strike us (and the other characters in the game, actually) as emotionally withdrawn and guarded. Like Batman and countless similar types, the Chief is strictly focused on what he perceives as his duty as a man. While the mask is ostensibly there to protect his identity, it also, and perhaps more importantly, protects his male ego. In much the same way that a prison guard gains some emotional distance by donning a pair of dark sunglasses--so the convicts cannot see his eyes--characters like Batman and Master Chief's identity-masking erases those elements unique to an individual. After all, a "real man" shuns special treatment and consideration; the macho ethos is always about "doing what any man would have done," not what only someone with a deep emotional attachment would do. If we want to indulge in stereotypes for a moment, it's easy enough to see how Master Chief represents a very common fantasy for boys, particularly those who don't have much confidence. Being in a suit like Master Chief's makes you incredibly strong, tough, and, most importantly, concealed, so that you are protected physically as well as from those discouraging stares or dismissive glances (whether real or imagined).

Cortana: By contrast, Cortana is exposed and dependent.Cortana: By contrast, Cortana is exposed and dependent.Fine. But what's perhaps more disturbing is the game's treatment of Cortana. Here we have the game's only real female character, and she's almost the total opposite of the male image of Master Chief. Instead of being almost totally concealed behind heavy armor and an opaque visor, she's practically naked, and when she's on screen, the camera pays close attention to her rich facial expressions and exaggerated curves. Whereas the Chief is a highly physical being of great strength, one who really makes an impact wherever he goes--Cortana is not even granted a body, but exists only as a hologram. She is completely and utterly dependent on the Chief for protection as well as mobility--he literally picks her up and plugs her into his suit. In perhaps the final insult to females in this game, it's emphasized that even her individuality is an illusion; she can be copied again and again when the need arises. Finally, she is even denied rationality, and becomes increasingly less coherent and more dependent on Master Chief until the closing credits (and a poignant moment I won't spoil here).

Cortana's lack of a physical body also protects Master Chief from the need to be physically intimate with her; by her very nature, her being and his affection for her can only be conceptualized, not consummated. In a way this seems a return to chivalric traditions of the aloof, "untainted" romance, where sexuality is expressed in poetry rather than prurience. While the Chief never waxes poetically, the music in the game certainly suggests such themes, and it's easy enough to read whatever longing we experience ourselves under his visor. While chivalric traditions might seem to celebrate and protect women by placing them on a pedestal, it also denies them the right to their body and sexuality. It's as though their corporeal existence beneath all the claptrap is simply so reviling that it's better to deny oneself the pleasures of sex than to destroy the illusion.

Is the game sexist? I wouldn't talk about it in those terms. I think it's simply more symptomatic of the latent sexual anxieties experienced by the young men who tend to buy these games more than any conspiracy or sexist attitudes on the part of the studio. I do wonder, though, if games that indulge and immerse us so deeply in these pubescent fantasies might in some way retard our emotional and sexual development. Halo 4 presents the ideal woman as, literally just an idea, whose very identity, individuality, and physicality, are all either denied or rendered suspect--all the while protecting the male ego behind a near-indestructible and opaque set of body armor--well, it can't be good, now, can it? There's a telling (if not touching) moment at the end of the game where the Chief is talking to a much less intimidating man, one who's face is not obscured behind a helmet but is in fact quite animated. It becomes obvious from the man's questions, attitude, and height compared to the Chief makes it clear he's not nearly as rugged and self-contained as the hero. His remark that soldiers makes him seem weak and barely worthy to be in the same room. The Chief is taciturn, as a man ought to be; this guy talks too much about his feelings. Indeed, the Chief's last words before the credits point out that Cortana, the Female, had said the same thing.

It seems that this type of hero doesn't seem to thrive well in other media, such as comics. Iron Man might seem to have a lot in common with the Chief--after all, they wear similar suits. But Iron Man has an alter ego, like Batman and countless other characters. We thus get to see their weaker, more emotional side. Games like Halo 4 seem better able to get away with this lack of emotional development, perhaps substituting the thrill of controlling the character to that of identifying with a character. While many of us have often fantasized about wearing Iron Man's suit, I imagine relatively fewer of us have fantasized about being Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne. While some of us as boys might have resisted either of these characters--"Just get back to crime fighting, Batman!" or whatever, they did provide some wholesome balance. What a game like Halo 4 might be imparting to the boys and young men, though, I shudder to think.

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