A Feminist Reading of Halo 4

Matt Barton's picture

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exposed; characters like Master Chief strike us (and the other characters in the game, actually) as emotionally withdrawn and guarded.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.

Comments

Joel McCoy (not verified)
A Good Read...

I often wax poetic with my friends about how we, the gaming generation, and the games themselves grew up "together". Halo Combat Evolved came out in 2001; as a guy in his twenties, this type of macho male fantasy was appealing. 11 (12?) years later, I'm married, have a career, and responsibilities. Gaming is sort of stuck right now in that age 30 demographic - too mature for the likes of Mario and Nintendo, yet too immature for truly artistic games (Shadow of the Colossus). Halo is like a relic of the past, that is carried now by its gameplay systems and not its aesthetic.

clok1966
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Joined: 01/21/2009
Now I wonder, comparing to

Now I wonder, comparing to Iron man or Batman, both have loves.. and cant act on them (for whatever reasons, fear of their death etc..).. master chief cant because its physical impossible.. its a moral choice for "superhero's" its forced choice for master ... depending on if he would like to act on it or not. You also mention her being Dependent on him for movement.. Which is the case in the game.. but one can argue he was dependent on her before the game (she is the AI of the ship after all) which in way makes her 100's more powerfull then master in almost every way. Now we get to looks.. well with a predominantly male buying public ( especially on FPS) curves and boobs are simply the way to go. BUT! even in highly intelligent SciFi writing the AI is made to look like a HUMAN to make us more comfortable.. and often made to look female.. and yes for sexiest reasons, they are seen as less threatening in almost every way (which I wonder is because most Sci Fi Geeks have never had a real woman in there life.. PURE EVIL when there mad I think :) far scarier then any male I have run into ). There are real "proven" reason to ahve a female represented AI.. once can even argue about lack of cloths.. exposed is way to basically say "nothing hidden" and ins some case "you are in control".. while horribly outdated and again coming from repressed and often sick and evil beginnings its been brought down through time.. Often times prisoners or slaves or captives where striped.. again to make it all but impossible to hide anything.. but as way to show total control for the "master" and total submit from the "slave" and in the end a computer is just a tool to serve its master and Cortina is just that. While i can say all that.. I'm about 90% sure she looks the way she does for pure sexual reasons. But i don't see any submissive fantasies in the game.. (again , even if i just spouted a whole bunch about them). I look at here more like old fantasy A sword that can speak (Elric) and is traveling companion in a sudo way.. Cortina is just a way to add a companion that doesn't shoot.. but can often fix plot holes.. Face it,, she is sorta a Plot fixer.. she can control something or do some strange thing in some spots of game..and to me its just to further the story without guns.. some of that "we cant just shoot guns to solve all the problems, lets do this"

was she developed to appeal to teen boys? You betcha.. is it sexiest? sure is..nothing new in video games.. and easily some of the least. You will see more on a 10 am soap opera, heck the Price is Right with women jumping up and down and jiggling has more . Violence.. now.. that might be over that top and excessive.. maybe even in a damaging way.. (sorry Im firmly in the "images, games, TV dont create violence" the people who say they saw it on TV have far bigger problems.. MENTAL problems, they cant separate rel from fake.. TV is not real, Video games are not real, etc..

Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
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Joined: 01/16/2006
I think games, just like all

I think games, just like all entertainment media, can either reflect ideology or try to change it somehow. The argument that says, well, most of the audience are horny boys, so we want to put tons of boobs and ass in there and make the women as unthreatening as possible--that's just pandering to the masses. If the only thing you're worried about is making as much money as possible, fine, but I don't believe most designers really feel that way. If they did, wouldn't they be working in banks or investment firms rather than games?

I notice plenty of games that DO try to make a difference. I thought King's Quest IV was a good example of that, offering a female protagonist despite an expected uproar from some fans. It took balls to do something like that. Of course, there's also the Metroid situation, though arguably there's nothing feminine about Samus anyway, so it's just a guy who happens to have female parts.

I think a truly progressive game would adopt Judith Butler's perspective on gender as a performance. Instead of making gender about having male or female parts, you act out masculine or feminine roles. Thus, a female character could be just as "manly" and a male just as "womanly" as the player chose. There's no need to have a rigid separation between the two just based on body parts.

n/a
Joel McCoy (not verified)
Modern Sexual Revolution

Your comment about Samus Aran is interesting, and true. There is a sexual revolution going on right now, and video games are not caught up to other media.

In the past, most forms of media (movies, books, television, and games) have applied male traits to female protagonists. That's what men thought equality was all about - in order to have a strong female, she must want to be a man right?

In the present, Twilight has sparked a downright movement. Women identify with Bella, and men don't understand it so they make fun of it mercilessly. Punch number 2 came from Hunger Games. It presented a female protagonist stuck in a very stereotypically male situation solving problems in a way females identify with. Punch number 3 is Fifty Shades of Grey, which like the other books mentioned here is a statement on modern female sexuality. It should be noted that all these books were written by women, not men.

Women never identified with Samus Aran, Laura Croft, or the "playmates" strutting around in Gears of War 3. Men identify with those characters. They're male fantasies that are acting like men want to act. It didn't take balls to make King's Quest 4 - it took a woman (Roberta Williams). I have a feeling you'll start seeing more of those types of games as soon as video games catch up to other media.

clok1966
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Joined: 01/21/2009
sometimes
Matt Barton wrote:

I think games, just like all entertainment media, can either reflect ideology or try to change it somehow. The argument that says, well, most of the audience are horny boys, so we want to put tons of boobs and ass in there and make the women as unthreatening as possible--that's just pandering to the masses. If the only thing you're worried about is making as much money as possible, fine, but I don't believe most designers really feel that way. If they did, wouldn't they be working in banks or investment firms rather than games?

I know what your saying.. but I still stand by my "most players are male boys" Not all for sure, and in fact more girls are playing then ever. But its already been shown the majority of the "new" girl players are playing MMORPG not console games (halo). Games and their success is already a small crapshoot, by catering to your market and not taking chances you hedge your bet. One can argue games can cater to more realistic females, and have very successfully but the reality is up till now, they failed more then they succeed ( look at your Nancy Drew games, critical and well done, but not enough want to get a kickstarter going). I don't think its just math.. but I'm willing to bet 75% of all games do talk numbers and demographics.. and that demographic is teen males. Go on live.. listen to the standard Halo player and tell me I'm wrong.. heck.. im not sure they are teens.. 7 year old is more like it.

I think we are mixing up common sense and what should be with money and what is..

talking about succesfull FEMALE drivin movies with normal female leads and there success... and the fun poked at them. I haven't seen a Twilight movie so I cant really speak anything about it.. but from my understanding the reality is more adult (as in not teens) females are buying this stuff then the teens girls.. its a FANTASY for them too.. young guys with shirts off.. so its ok for 40 year old women to droll over teen boys, but a 40 year old guy looks at teen girl and he's a pedo.. Twilight and shades of Gray are just for women the same way charlies angels and most any action movie is for men.. Men just like action and guns in unrealistic ways.. woman like relationships in unrealistic ways (vampires and werewolves?)

Whats changed? Men like soft porn disguised in there action movies.. woman like soft porn disguised in their love stories.. as far as I can see.. the only thing that has changed is woman are coming out and saying they like it..and not hiding it.. There where several female driven movies with far more real stories long ago that where succesfull (Erin Brockvich, Fried Green Tomatoes.. and if you want to go way back before any of us where born, All About EVE (yes that name seems to suggest otherwise), Three came Home, the Women .. but up till now "fantasy" has been pretty much dominated by guys.. and there fantasy figures.. Twilight, Shades of gray, and even True Blood has shown woman can do fantasy with the best of them hunks half naked and totally unrealistic situation they can prevail in..

Here is where I think i just "think" differently then most.. master Chief saving the damsel in distress who is rendered sexy.. I never once thought women need rescuing, that all women are sexy (wow did i just say that).. i thought.. Im the hero here..give me somebody to rescue.. save.. this is fantasy.. not reality.. at work i get to depend (and yes be rescued) on women every hour.. with some problems.. and vis versa.. this is fantasy.. half naked women just makes it more pleasing on the eyes.. it doesn't warp my perception of whats real and whats not.. AND I can honestly say, if I was playing Laura croft and she was hitting male strip clubs I would have no interest.. but I sure would not think it was demeaning to me if my GF played it.. its Fantasy.. and Im far from ideal.. overweight, not that pretty to start with.. I should be the first to scream about better looking guys in video games.. but again.. i know real and fantasy..

in a safe world, a PC world the game would have both male and female leads you could pick. there would be no unrealistic half naked people at all (male or female) and it would be intelligent and keep your interest. But then.. you would skip alot of "real still" sex is part of the real world, racism, hatred, evil, along with silly, off the wall, strange, unbelievable..kindness, etc.. yes our games are stuck in a stagnant male fantasy world..most are made by males to appeal to males.. its just a fact.. and Kickstarter a popularity vote has shown we like it that way.. the female lead games which are not over the top are not making it.

I'm agreeing with you 100% , but im saying its maybe not all bad.. its how it is. We ote with moeny.. and success shows we vote hard for the "sexist standards".. not right.. but that's what it is.

Joel McCoy (not verified)
The effect Twilight will have

The effect Twilight will have is a broader understanding of fantasizing on both sides of the "aisle". I've noticed it somewhat with the women I'm around - since their demographic is finally being tapped they appreciate the male fantasies for what they are. We need to mutually respect them; we need to respect Twilight, lust like we expect them to respect Halo.

Cortana appeals to men. I don't think there's any problem with that. Cortana doesn't lead women to want to explore the medium. That's OK too, the art is what it is and it appeals to who it's intended to appeal to. But, from a business perspective there's huge, untapped monetary potential for a Twilight equivalent event in gaming. Big companies like Microsoft, EA and Activision would be foolish to ignore whats going on right now just because they don't understand it. I think Blizzard (Activision still, I know) understands this. WoW isn't "Women's Lib: The Game" by any standard, but it's constructed in such a way that it appeals to both sexes - and Blizz profits from this greatly.

Joe R (not verified)
Interesting read, but...

Hey Matt,

Read your peice - it's interesting, and I think you have some good points. However I can't help but feel some of your arguments are a little ignorant of wider context from within Halo's lore and backstory. I've written my own thoughts about this, and on the Gamasutra article you reference, in a blog post: http://digitaleccentric.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/points-of-view-halo-4-s...

I'd love to know what you think.

Cheers,

J

Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Offline
Joined: 01/16/2006
"missing the mark"
Joe R wrote:

Hey Matt,

Read your peice - it's interesting, and I think you have some good points. However I can't help but feel some of your arguments are a little ignorant of wider context from within Halo's lore and backstory. I've written my own thoughts about this, and on the Gamasutra article you reference, in a blog post: http://digitaleccentric.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/points-of-view-halo-4-s...

I'd love to know what you think.

Cheers,

J

You mention "the point." That pretty much kills it for me. Obviously, there are a multitude of legitimate ways we could interpret what we have here, and assuming that there could be a "correct" version is galling.

n/a
Joe R (not verified)
Ok

Hey Matt,

Ok, I see what you're saying there - I'm not trying to say there is a "correct" way of interpreting the material. I'll edit those sections to try and convey my feelings better, and I'm sorry if I've offended you.

You're right, there are multiple view-points here - I guess I'm just trying to say I don't understand how, for certain sections, you guys interpreted it the way you did when there's clear grounding for it all within the lore.

Cheers

Joe R (not verified)
Edited

Edited :)

Sorry again for that - going back over it that was a poor choice of words. Hope it's less accusing now and more thoughtful.

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