Halo and Disabled Representation

Here’s something a bit different…

You may recall back in January that I mounted a feminist defence and analysis of Cortana (something which I ardently stand by), and the other day I was thinking about other societal issues and how they’re presented in Halo. Of course, one of the main ones that came to mind was disabled representation – something that has been a point of some contention in media.

So how exactly does Halo fare?easpart

First of all, let’s cover what some of the issues are with disabled representation. Often, disabled characters fall under a number of harmful stereotypes that includes portraying them as pitiable or pathetic, that they are simply objects of curiosity, that they can’t be sexual entities, that they’re sinister, a burden on the abled characters or on society, or (perhaps the worst of all) objects of cheap comedy. Another thing is how disability is treated as something has to be ‘cured’ so the disabled person can become a productive and contributing member of society.

A big part of the issue lies with how disability is used as a convenient plot device or character trait, rather than a means to provide accurate and sensitive representation. The effect of this laziness is the reinforcement of negative stereotypes and attitudes towards disabled people. It promotes ignorance, and ignorance is anything but a virtue.

With that said and done, let’s look at some of Halo’s disabled characters.

The Spartan-IIs who failed the augmentation procedure but didn’t die, for instance, were confined to wheelchairs and appeared to be deformed in many ways. But Mendez says that they’re still Spartans, and while they may not be fighting on the front lines they will certainly have high positions working desk jobs. Fhajad, for instance, suffered complications with the fifth stage of the augmentation procedure and developed Parkinson’s disease, rendering him incapable of walking as he suffered from fits of shaking. However, his mind was intact and he went on to become a data analyst for ONI.prologue9As a matter of fact, Captain Keyes would never have made it to Reach without Fhajad because in the year 2540 he published a paper on slipspace physics which Keyes utilised in the battle of Sigma Octanus IV to predict the movement of Covenant vessels through slipspace. As a result, the UNSC won a tactical victory against the Covenant in one of the final major battles of the war and bought the UNSC some time.

Likewise, there were washed-out Spartans who were placed into cryo to be awakened at a time when medical technology had improved to the point where they could be rehabilitated.

One need look no further than Serin Osman for positive representation of a disabled character. She washed out of the Spartan-II program, her body rejecting the augmentations, and she then went on to become protégé to the most powerful woman in ONI – Margaret Parangosky. As of 2553, she then succeeded Margaret as CINCONI and that makes her the most powerful human currently alive.spops15Thomas Lasky is disabled in some capacity as well. Because of his body’s extreme reaction to cytoprethaline (the agent that is meant to prevent damage to cells during cryo-sleep), he was deemed to be unfit for military service and was going to be medically discharged by Colonel Mehaffey before the Covenant attacked Circinius IV during the events of Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn. However, Lasky is a greatly respected member of the UNSC and becomes the captain of the UNSC Infinity – humanity’s largest and most powerful warship.

Most recently in the comic series Halo: Escalation, a Sangheili Ship Master known as Vata ‘Gajat has appeared – one of my favourite new characters.

‘Gajat appears to have been disabled in some form, as his armour requires a leg and back brace, and his right arm is at least partially cybernetic as well. However, far from reducing him in the eyes of his fellow mercenaries, he is the feared warlord of his own band of interspecies mercs. He commands a powerful fleet of 4 CAS-class and 2 CSS-class vessels, he openly mocks Jul ‘Mdama, and he knocks people on their asses with ease. ‘Gajat did end up being killed off, but he was a unique and interesting character throughout Escalation and had a significant impact on the universe – preventing the Jiralhanae-Sangheili peace talks from going forward. He’s become quite a fan-favourite in the Halo literature crowd, and that, I think, says a lot about how well the disabled characters are received.gajatHalsey is now physically impaired as well, since Jul had to remove her left arm after Palmer shot her. I don’t even need to go into the amazing character that is Catherine Halsey… Seriously, I could write volumes about how she’s one of the most brilliantly written and interesting fictional characters of all time.

The Spartan-III, Lucy-B091, is a favourite character of mine as well. She appears in Halo: Ghosts of Onyx and Glasslands, the former written by Eric Nylund and the latter by Karen Traviss. Following Operation: TORPEDO, the battle of Pegasi Delta, where all of Spartan-III Beta Company was wiped out (save for Tom and Lucy who were about 12 years old at the time), she suffers from post-traumatic vocal disarticulation. Because of her inability to speak, she came to be classified as “unfit for duty”, and was going to be reassigned by ONI, but Kurt-051 (the Spartan-II who trained all the Spartan-IIIs) prevented this. Kurt, Tom, Lucy, and Chief Mendez together trained a third generation of SPARTAN-IIIs – Gamma Company. Lucy was respected by her comrades, everybody simply accepted that she couldn’t talk and nobody doubts her capabilities as a Spartan.spart3However, this is also the one negative part I have to bring up… In Halo: Glasslands, Karen ended up ‘curing’ her post-traumatic vocal disarticulation because Halsey was getting pushy with the Engineers present inside the Dyson Sphere. That whole scene was written so poorly, in my opinion – particularly the part where Lucy punches Halsey in the face so hard that it’s specified she feels a shockwave fly up her arm and Halsey lands on the ground with a loud crack.

I honestly thought that they’d killed Halsey off at that point, an old lady taking a direct punch in the face from a Spartan-III would be lethal. The ceramic ossification and fibroid muscular protein drugs they are given as part of their augmentations make their bones and muscles almost as strong as a Spartan-II’s.

But Karen has said in interviews, something that really peeves me, that she doesn’t research the lore of the franchises she writes for. This not only resulted in a rather laughable breach in canon, but also a problematic portrayal of disability as well. She’s magically cured of her disability because Halsey was threatening an Engineer… This not only undermines a significant part of Lucy’s character, but also suggests that a disorder from such a deep and personal trauma (watching almost 300 twelve year old children she grew up with die) is something which can be overcome in an instant. Brilliant…

Lucy was a little shorter than Halsey but she knew she was a lot stronger. She grabbed her shoulder and yanked her back a few paces, her attention still on that sidearm. She could have done a lot worse. But Halsey just shrugged her off without even looking back at her and took another step forward.

“Prone, I think I know how to operate this, so if you don’t—”

And that was when Lucy snapped.

She grabbed Halsey by the shoulder again, spun her around and threw a punch that sent a shock wave right up her arm. Halsey hit the ground with a loud crack. Someone grabbed Lucy from behind, but the switch had been thrown and she didn’t know how to turn it off. The fury shut out all sound: her lungs froze and her skull was bursting. She fought to break free and get at Halsey, this focus of all that was threatening and bullying in her world, but she couldn’t.

If she didn’t let it all out right now, she’d collapse.

“No!” she screamed. “No! No! No!”

kat1Kat is a very well-known character from the game Halo: Reach, and while I do have many problems with the game, I cannot really find myself taking issue with how Kat was portrayed.

Kat lost her arm in the battle of Fumirole and had a prosthetic replacement supplied to her, but not once do we see her relegated to some lesser role or having her ability to fight questioned. She remains a cunning tactician, a tech-savvy hacker, and her ability to digest information has been described to be almost “supernatural”. Like Kat, Noble Six (Reach’s playable protagonist) can also have a prosthetic arm and nothing about the character is treated any differently. Because of Kat, the UNSC conducted a series of successful operations against the Covenant during the battle of Reach – reconnaissance against preliminary Covenant ground teams, a full-on assault against a large invasion force, the destruction of a cloaking spire which revealed the supercarrier Long Night of Solace, and the destruction of the supercarrier itself using a slipspace drive as an improvised bomb in-lieu of the UNSC’s lack of nuclear weapons.

Kat’s death in Reach was also quite easily the most emotional and humanised of the game. While the rest of Noble Team seem to be engaged in this ‘who can have the noblest death?’ competition, Kat’s serves as a stark reminder of the reality of war and how death can come from anywhere. It has the most lasting impact on all of the characters, I’d go as far as to say that she was the heart of Noble Team because after that everything just falls apart for them.ajCaptain Ponder is a character who appears in the novel Halo: Contact Harvest. In 2513, he was deployed to Eridanus II to take part in the questioning of a noted Insurrectionist who had married the daughter of a local official of Elysium City.

As the interrogation escalated, the Insurrectionist grabbed his own daughter and threatened to detonate a grenade. Ponder knew that he was bluffing, unwilling to kill his family, but an attached sniper drew an opposite conclusion and killed the man through the wall. Unfortunately, the pin of the grenade was pulled out of reflex and Ponder covered the explosive with his own body. He totally prevented any casualties, but lost an arm from the explosion.

Following this event, Ponder ardently resisted pressure to retire from the UNSC, and he was forced to accept a two-grade demotion to Captain. His arm was replaced with a prosthetic and, although he disliked it and refrained from wearing it when possible, it did not hamper his ability to utilise weapons effectively. This is positive because it shows us a character who is perfectly comfortable with his disability, he’s not wretched or depicted as being a lesser soldier for it. Ponder was a part of the Colonial Militia on Harvest during the Covenant’s first attack, he was injured by the Jiralhanae Chieftain Maccabeus and then volunteered for a suicide mission in order to divert attention away from the civilian population. he cleverly exploited the Covenant by claiming that he had an Oracle, and while he did come to be murdered by Tartarus he spent his final moments choosing not to regret anything he’d done in the past, but enjoying the warmth of the sunset over Harvest. As a result of Ponder’s actions, over 200 civilian vessels out of 360 were successfully evacuated.blur7And last, but certainly not least, Rtas ‘Vadum…

Rtas is recognised by the community at-large to be one of Halo’s coolest characters. During the battle of Installation 04, he sustained a serious facial injury in a climactic sword fight against his Flood-infected colleague and friend, Bero ‘Kusovai. Rtas lost his two left mandibles – as you can see, one is limp and one is a sort of prosthetic. Rtas goes on from being Spec-Ops Commander in Halo 2 to Ship Master of the Shadow of Intent and Fleet Master of the Fleet of Retribution in Halo 3. He holds the line at Installation 05 against the Flood, saves Earth from a Flood infestation, then pursues the Prophet of Truth to the Ark and declares that being outnumbered three-to-one against Jiralhanae ships is an “even fight”.

Rtas is a fierce and loyal battle commander, a skilled tactician and is strong in his convictions. On the whole, from my limited perspective, I think that Halo has a very positive representation of disabled people. None of them are viewed as lesser people because of their conditions, many occupy high positions in both the Covenant and the UNSC (some are leaders, some are captains, some are warlords), and most of the characters mentioned in this post are actually fan-favourites. It’s a good way to change attitudes through this kind of positive representation, and I hope the series will continue to make strides in this regard. The only hiccup really was the way Karen Traviss handled Lucy in Glasslands, but otherwise it’s safe to say that Halo has a pretty clean record.


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3 thoughts on “Halo and Disabled Representation

  1. There was also Soren-066 from Halo Evolutions (It’s canon until proven otherwise!)
    His story was especially cruel and badass in my opinion.
    Another brilliant article Chronarch!

  2. Don’t forget Gek, who’s left eye was blinded and has a large scar on his head, and Hood after the events of Oth Lodon.

  3. A LOT of Karen Traviss’ Halo work pisses me off, especially her treatment of Halsey (which deserves its own rantpost, at this rate). I will say, though – she does have a knack for writing espionage particularly well as a subject matter, even though her ability to flesh out spies is really quite crap. See: Mike Spenser.

    In addition, the sort of 180 degree shift from Ghosts of Onyx that happens with the S-IIIs and Halsey and all that inside the Dyson Sphere just…doesn’t work for me. Halsey being intrigued and fascinated by them? Completely natural and okay. Lucy being Lucy? Yeah, I get that.

    But Kurt and Mendez fighting with Halsey? And then Kelly and Fred looking askance at the S-IIIs as well? And even the S-IIIs being weird around Halsey? It’s not like they were influenced by Ackerson in any significant way, even if he was the originator of the S-III program. It was Kurt who led them, through and through. And then, most of all, Halsey being AFRAID when she hears Big Maggie’s voice? And Kilo-Five being given direct access to Halsey after they come out?

    None of that works for me AT ALL. It’s just…WAY too jarring for me.

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