A topic that is greatly important to me – as a writer, as a believer in equality, and as a fan of this franchise – is how Halo 4 reads as a feminist text with regards to Cortana.
Cortana has long been the subject of a fair bit of controversy in this regard, and I want to address this subject to provide a substantial argument for why I feel that Halo 4 has the most feminist portrayal of Cortana in the series.It’s hardly a secret that Cortana’s design got a pretty big ‘upgrade’ for Halo 4…
With the advent of motion capture technology being used for every scene in the game, a new artistic direction, and the ability to push the Xbox 360 to its very limits in terms of graphical fidelity, it’s really no wonder that we’ve seen various aesthetic changes.
Cortana is, of course, still a ‘naked’ holographic woman.
She was designed in the late-’90s through the ’00s by teams consisted primarily of men (you can literally count the number of women in Halo 1’s credits on one hand), during a time in which gaming culture was highly toxic towards women (it still very much is).
These are undeniably contributing factors to why Cortana is the way she is, we need to acknowledge that. The attitude has been laid out quite clearly in on of the ViDocs for Halo 3.
Joseph Staten: “Who is Cortana?”
Damian Isla: “At least one of our writers refers to her as your girlfriend.”
Joseph Staten: “Cortana’s every girlfriend we’ve ever had… No, just kidding.”
CJ Cowan: “Cortana is a) naked, b) blue, and c) a hologram.” [Halo 3 ViDoc: Journey’s End (3:25)]
I’ve always hated this reductive description because when you ask somebody to describe Cortana’s character in 3 words, you’ll generally hear something along the lines of: intelligent, witty, resourceful.
She guides you through the story. She’s the one who figures out where you have to go and provides the directive.
And, in the climax of Halo 4’s story, she is the one who fights the Ur-Didact while John is helplessly clinging to a light bridge for dear life, and she successfully overcomes him.
Let me just emphasise that bit: Cortana physically overpowers an eleven-foot tall Forerunner, while John, the male ‘action hero’ is rendered totally powerless.A key difference in Halo 4 is that – for the first time – Cortana is actually modelled on a real human woman. While there were obviously artists and animators involved in the construction of this character for Halo 4, this is the first time that there’s actually substantial input into her character outside of her voice that hasn’t come from men.
It’s easy to forget the behind-the-scenes work that goes into some of these things, but for Halo 4 they had Mackenzie Mason very much at the forefront of interviews talking about the character she was portraying for the motion capture.
Cortana’s nudity is something that comes with inherent problematic context, but it’s since become a factor for the series to deal with (that’s not to say that she couldn’t be designed to have a skin-suit or uniform in the future), so there’s a degree to which we should engage with this on its own terms.
In this, let’s take Cortana’s nudity in the context of Halo 4 as a ‘challenge’ to the player by examining what the story is actually about.
Because it seems important to note that Cortana’s perceived ‘sex appeal’ never has any effect on the plot, nor is it in any way treated as a definitive aspect of her character. It has never been brought up in the narrative context of the game and I highly doubt that it ever will.
It is Cortana’s intellect and resourcefulness that empowers her, not her body. There is no point in Halo 4 where she uses her ‘sex appeal’ to further the plot.
“I can give you over forty-thousand reasons why I know that sun isn’t real. I know it because the emitter’s Rayleigh effect is disproportionate to its suggested size… I know it because its stellar cycle is more symmetrical than that of an actual star…
But for all that, I’ll never actually know if it looks real, if it feels real.
Before this is all over, promise me you’ll figure out which one of us is the machine.” [Halo 4, Shutdown]
This kind of dialogue is not the trademark sign of a character who is in any way ‘objectified’ into a sexualised husk, devoid of agency or independence.
This single soliloquy from Shutdown’s opening tells you everything you need to know about Cortana’s character and the emotional conflict she is experiencing by struggling with her descent into rampancy (an AI’s degrading state that is analogous to dementia) and how she’s having to come to terms with her own mortality.
This is a deeply emotional story about an artificial person coming to terms with her mortality and her humanity, not about teasing the male audience with an attractive female to gawk at.
Halo 4’s story is very much Cortana’s story, it’s seamlessly interwoven with the core of the narrative and provides a beautifully nuanced, poignant and passionate portrayal of the character who shows greater emotional variation and complexity than ever before.
“The irony here, right, is that we have a character who is not human at all and Cortana. She is the most human character that we have in the story. She’s struggling with her own mortality. That’s something everybody struggles with. That’s the most ‘human’ it gets.
Everyone has to figure out what it means to die.” [Brien Goodrich, Making Halo 4: A Hero Awakens (7:05)]
To go off on a slight tangent here, the story of how Cortana’s rampancy came to be written is actually quite a tragic affair.
This aspect of the story was largely inspired by the experience Josh Holmes (creative director) had throughout Halo 4’s development as his mother suffered from dementia.
It has been said that there were times when they were planning to scrap the Cortana rampancy sub-plot because they were having a very hard time with it, but Holmes fought to deliver it because he was driven by his own experiences and felt that this would give Halo 4 something substantial to say with its story rather than just being ‘a piece of entertainment.’
“Telling this story in a game like Halo was incredibly challenging because it’s a very action-oriented game, and when we started embarking down this path there was a lot of scepticism from members of the team whether this was something we should even take on.
I remember long talks with Chris Schlerf, who was the lead writer on Halo 4’s campaign – did a fantastic job, but early on, Chris was having a crisis of confidence. He was literally tearing his hair out because he didn’t know how to tell this story.
And there were times when he came to me and he said ‘Maybe we shouldn’t do it, maybe we should just focus on the A-story and put this story aside because I don’t see how we’re going to be able to tell it.’
[…] For me, it was really important that we tell this story because this was the human heart of Halo 4’s campaign.
At the beginning of Halo 4, my mother was diagnosed with dementia, and over the course of the production of the game I watched her… deteriorate as a human being and become someone that I couldn’t even recognise. And that was really hard, but it was also an inspiration to me to want to tell Cortana’s story.” [Josh Holmes, Halo 4 Postmortem – GDC 2013 (13:05)]
I can’t even imagine how it must’ve been to go to work every day carrying the weight of that burden on your shoulders, let alone how Holmes transformed that pain into passion – to tell this very personal and emotionally intimate story.
And, of course, there’s all the other people who put their all into bringing that story to life and giving it every bit of humanity as they could muster.
“I think story is one of the great ways that human beings learn and pass things on to one another […] It’s right at the fabric of our whole being.
I really believe that video games are that emerging medium that will have the level of impact that film has had on people in the past. […] And that we can speak to a new generation of youth and players and tell stories and create worlds that will stand the test of time.” [Josh Holmes, NUVO Magazine – The Halo Universe (19/11/2012)]
Look at any time Cortana speaks in Halo 4, specifically at how she is framed.
They are shot so her face is emphasised. This is obviously the prime tool for conveying emotion, as the motion capture technology used by 343 Industries allows us to see every subtle shift of expression in her face.
It is what truly enables the confluence of talent that is Mackenzie Mason’s mo-cap performance and Jen Taylor’s vocal performance to sing in this game.
In a game whose fanbase is loudly – in not largely – composed of teenage-to-adult males, think about the message that this is sending: “Look at her face, listen to her voice: this is what’s important!“
This is all a far cry from the previous statements from the Bungie ViDoc of her being your ‘naked blue girlfriend.’
Part of this quite undoubtedly comes down to the face that two of the most public faces of 343 Industries are Bonnie Ross (general manager) and Kiki Wolfkill (executive producer).
Both Ross and Wolfkill are veterans of the gaming industry, they have undoubtedly encountered more than their share of sexism in the decades they’ve worked in it, and they also openly identify as feminists – outright saying (and quite rightly so) that sexism needs to be eliminated from the gaming industry on all fronts.
One of the responsibilities of the executive producer is to oversee the creative art and design of the game, so surely Wolfkill would not stand for Cortana (who she has stated to be her favourite character) being so cheaply trivialised?
Especially when compared to her framing in Halo 3…Cortana is a textbook damsel in Halo 3, and her torture from the Gravemind is heavily coded as rape. She is waiting to be rescued while the Gravemind mind-rapes her, a word which here means (to quote the TV Tropes page):
A character is attacked by a villain in the most painful non-physical way possible: Their mind and soul are assaulted with painful, horrifying visions, sensations, and/or memories, and their will and sanity broken until afterward they’re powerless, hopeless and numb, but not dead, although they may wish they were. Minimal to no sexual contact actually occurs, but as the name indicates, everything else is there to resemble a rape – the ultimate violation of privacy and consent, extreme humiliation that annihilates all sense of self-esteem, near-absolute helplessness even against your very own mind and body, and the corrupt perversion of what could otherwise be a source of identity and joy. [TV Tropes, Mind Rape]
And yes, the way in which the Flood violates one’s mind has been explicitly likened to rape in the series.
But then, just as the ocean was about to consume him, Keyes became aware of the one thing the creature that raped his mind couldn’t consume: the CNI transponder’s carrier wave. [Halo: The Flood, p. 226-7]
The few times that we see Cortana (notably, in the final cutscene of Floodgate) have a weirdly uncomfortable angle of sexualisation with the way in which the camera focuses on poses and moans that are profoundly uncomfortable – it’s framed like torture porn.
A number of the ‘Cortana moments’ throughout the game demonstrate this as well, particularly in the penultimate mission where there’s a close-up shot of her bent-double, leaning forward, and crying in short, sharp beats.
Even the dialogue reflects this:
“I ran, tried to stay hidden, but there was no escape! He cornered me, wrapped me tight… and brought me close.” [Cortana, Halo 3 – Cortana (level)]
Bungie actually removed lines from the game where Cortana gets to feel some degree of catharsis as you injure the Gravemind by destroying High Charity’s reactor pylons. Originally, she said:
“Take it, you bastard! We’re just getting started.” [Halo 3 – Cut Mission Dialogue (2/2) (19:45)]
The line was changed to:
“You did it! You hurt it!”
It was decided that the nebulous intention of making the player feel ‘heroic’ by making Cortana’s dialogue passive was more important than providing any affirmation for Cortana’s revenge against her torturer.
She’s already spent the entirety of Halo 3 stripped of her agency and strength, and now she’s stripped from feeling any sort of catharsis upon being released from her prison.
The original plan for this mission was that you would plug Cortana into a Scarab:
Cortana and a Scarab. The level in which you rescued Cortana was going to be a “High Charity” level, not “Cortana” we ended up with. Here’s what was originally planned. You were supposed to, or rather the idea was that you were going to, fight the Gravemind, but not in a way you might think. You were going to retrieve Cortana, and a little after that you two were going to come across an abandoned Scarab with its hind legs ripped off. Seeing no other options, you were going to board the Scarab and insert Cortana so she could pilot it. After that, the Gravemind was going to appear, and Cortana was going to duke it out with him in the damaged Scarab while you were on board. You were going to help out by killing any Flood forms that made their way onto the Scarab, and shoot off any of Gravemind’s tentacles that tried to latch on. [Dan Miller, Developer Insight #17 (16/2/2013)]
Cortana was originally intended to take direct action in her revenge, but it didn’t make it into the game, and, instead, we got what is regarded by many as being tied for the worst level in the series. Floodgate had to be cut in half, as it originally consisted of the level layout and geometry that made the Cortana mission.
Of course this is more forgivable because of the reality of development where you have to juggle the ways in which you’re subject to resources, time, and technology constraints – but the removal of a single line of dialogue that had already been recorded is much less easy to hand wave away.
The trauma that she’s suffered doesn’t get mentioned again in the game, which further serves to illustrate how writers (not just Bungie’s writers, but in the wider cultural scope of literature) fail to actually do anything with the emotional journey of processing and dealing with that.And after we spent the entire game building up to rescuing Cortana, one mission later she’s left to rot into insanity in the back of the Forward Unto Dawn…
It’s all very well for John, he can just go into cryo sleep and gets to be serviced by the theme of having come full circle – he’s saved the day.
Cortana, on the other hand, has to spend an unknown period of time alone with nothing to do until rampancy claimed her.
One of the main characters of the Halo series gets this as her conclusion.
The outcome of Cortana’s arc in the original trilogy is that everyone else gets to have their emotional closure while she spends the game reduced to the damsel waiting to be rescued, and then is left to sit in the back of half a ship until she goes rampant.
I hate this.
Really, I do. This goes beyond just ‘bad writing,’ I find this to be genuinely awful.
For me, this alone was enough to necessitate and justify a Halo 4.And so it felt entirely cathartic and appropriate that when we finally did get Halo 4, it turned out to be her story. It was a story that dealt with her agency and complexity, that validated her struggles, and let her find peace with herself.
Where Cortana was created for the purpose of maintaining the Chief’s ‘efficiency’ at doing his job, as Halsey notes, she transcends the role she was created for both John and Cortana begin to develop as more human characters – just as he was meant to be a soldier who blindly follows orders, the perfect tool for the UNSC.
Cortana is not merely a voice in John’s head who provides him a directive, an objective to accomplish, she’s as real a person as any human.
In the end, her departure from the narrative is triumphant and grants her the fulfilment that she was denied in Halo 3.
Your mother made you separate. She placed a barrier between you and the beings that you would be encouraged to protect, a wall you could never breach. She even let you choose a human to centre your existence upon, a human to care about, yet never considered how you might feel at never being able to simply touch him. Or how he might feel about outliving you. What kind of mother is so cruelly casual about her child’s need to form bonds, to show affection?” [Halo: Evolutions – ‘Human Weakness’, page 393]
“Do you think they care if you sacrifice your existence to save them? They will simply make another, and use and discard her, too.” [Evolutions, page 401]
In the end, she wins.
She beats back rampancy and saves John because of the innate trust and loyalty these two characters have for each other; this is a complete reversal of Halo 3’s very straight-laced Damsel in Distress plot.
It’s clear from his reaction that John can’t even bear the though of actually living without her when she tells him that she’s not coming this time. He relies on her just as much as she relies on him (if not more), that symbiotic relationship between them – between human and AI – is something the universe treats as a ‘sacred’ development.
These are two friends, two equals, at the end of their great journey together, as she makes the choice to depart this narrative on her own terms.
And, in the end, it is death that allows her to be truly human.
It is death that rounds all of our existence, the knowledge that our lives are finite, and mortality that gives meaning to the precious things which fill human life.
They are precious precisely because they cannot endure.
But seven minutes, seven hours, seven years – whatever remained, Cortana would be more than satisfied with it. Eternity and all the data you could eat weren’t worth a damn if you didn’t have the right company. [Evolutions, page 409]
To see Cortana chalked down to her just being ‘a naked woman’ because of how she looks in Halo 4 feels like a rather ignorant dismissal of the actual text.
Aesthetics certainly are important, and Halo has failed in this regard before (Halo 3 being the operative example with Cortana), but Halo 4 is perhaps the biggest step forward the series has taken here. I very much agree that there’s still a long way to go, but this matters.
To conclude, I’d like to turn to a quote by Natalie Portman on the subject of feminist writing in regards to female characters.
“I want [female characters] to be allowed to be weak and strong and happy and sad – human, basically.
The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a ‘feminist’ story, the woman kicks ass and wins.
That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathise with.” [Digital Spy – ‘Natalie Portman on “kick-ass feminism”: “It’s a Hollywood fallacy”‘ (30/09/2013)]
This is exactly what Halo 4 provides.
Cortana has her moments of weakness and moments of strength, she is at a point in her life where her programming functions deteriorate and she descends into madness, the end result being death.
There are numerous points in Halo 4 where we see Cortana in a vulnerable and melancholic state of mind, but there are also just as many moments where she’s happy and strong and full of her usual barbed sarcasm and wit and wonder…The end of her arc is bittersweet, it’s both tragic and triumphant because she manages to beat back rampancy long enough to defeat the Ur-Didact, save John (even fulfil her desire to touch him), and accept her time to pass with peace and purpose.
Cortana departs this story on her own terms, not as a rampant husk of her former self.
She doesn’t just “kick ass and win.” She suffers, and it is a very relatable kind of human suffering, sensitively portrayed from a creative director who was himself suffering during the production of this game.
The telling of this story came from a real human cost, on top of all the other tribulations involved in making video games, and that feels like essential, inseparable context to have when playing Halo 4.
In this world of ancient aliens and galaxy-killing ringworlds, of seven-foot tall supersoldiers and all the other larger-than-life concepts, what lies in the centre of all this is a real human heart.
Theirs is a connection,
deeper than circuitry
Beyond that of man and machine
deeper still; the electric flash of synapse
It is bound in destiny; fortified in trust
deeper than blood
greater than love