Oh boy, this is a topic that’s bound to ruffle a few feathers… but I’m going to address it anyway because it’s actually quite important to me – as a writer, as a believer in equality, and as a fan of this franchise. Halo 4’s portrayal of Cortana seems to be the subject of a fair bit of controversy in the minds of people who, I think, simply haven’t really paid much attention. I want to alleviate some of the concerns about this subject and provide a substantial argument as to why Cortana’s portrayal in Halo 4 goes far beyond the skin-deep perception some people have been saying it has.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. According to some, it’s ‘sexist’ and ‘objectifying’ to have a female character in a game be attractive which is all Cortana apparently is – sex appeal for the sake of marketing. I do not think that this is the case, not one bit, so I’m going to deconstruct this issue in five detailed points.
1) Just because a character looks attractive, in absolutely no way is this ‘objectifying’ them. Consider for a moment the fact that Cortana’s ‘sex appeal’ has never had any effect on the plot, or is in any way a definitive aspect of her character – as a matter of fact, it has never, ever been brought up in the narrative context of the game and I highly doubt that it ever will.
When you ask somebody to describe Cortana’s character in 3 words, you’ll hear something along the lines of: Intelligent, witty, resourceful. She guides you through the game, she’s the one who figures out where you have to go and provides the directive. Yet, at no point can it be said that her role is ‘passive’. Case in point: 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 this bit – Cortana manages to physically overpower an 11.4 foot tall Promethean by using her intellect, while John, the one seen as the typical male ‘action hero’ is rendered totally powerless.
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, there is no point in Halo 4 where anything to do with it comes up.
“I can give you over 40,000 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.”
2) This 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 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.
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, the creative director, had with seeing his mother slowly suffer from dementia over the course of Halo 4’s development. According to Christopher Schlerf, the lead writer, 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 keep it in because he was inspired by his own experiences with seeing how that sort of thing affects a living person. Rampancy is, after all, very much akin to a mixture of dementia and cancer which is an incredibly personal, even dark, thing to explore both as a person and in a narrative.
3) Look at any time Cortana speaks in Halo 4, look at how she is framed – especially in the scenes where she delivers her soliloquies. They are shot so her face is emphasised, this is 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 (shoutout to Mackenzie Mason for a truly amazing job in the acting department here). In a game whose fanbase is mostly made up of teenage/adult males, think about the message that this is sending – “look at her face, listen to her voice: this is what’s important“. Once again, her bodily image is in no way glorified or emphasised to the player at any point in the game.
The depth of a character, male or female, is not defined by how conservatively they’re dressed. I’ve used the example of characters like Chloe Frazer from Uncharted in the past to draw a comparison between the two. Chloe is a character who knows she’s sexy (“But admit it, you’re gonna miss this ass”), but Naughty Dog doesn’t make it her sole characteristic. She’s got her own agenda, she’s constantly looking for a simple solution due to her strong sense of self-preservation, and, get this, she wears revealing clothes. Chloe’s seen as an attractive character, but at no point is she objectified by it. (For more on this subject, take a look at The Women of Uncharted 2: What Naughty Dog Did Right.)
4) I mentioned earlier about people saying that Cortana’s appearance in Halo 4 was some kind of marketing ploy to attract the male audience, but I also mentioned that this simply wasn’t the case. Cortana’s appearance had absolutely nothing to do with marketing the game, if it did then why does Cortana not physically appear to be in any of Halo 4’s advertisements or posters? She’s in the Scanned trailer briefly (a grand total of about 2 seconds) as the camera flickers between her and John’s mother, but in nothing else. She doesn’t even appear on the box of the game, Halo 4 is marketed as the return of the Master Chief and a whole new era of fiction to delve into. So the idea of her appearance being a ‘marketing strategy’, given that she doesn’t appear in any marketing material outside of Scanned, is obviously wrong.Two of the high-ups at 343 Industries, Bonnie Ross (general manager) and Kiki Wolfkill (executive producer), are well known in the gaming industry as feminists – outright saying that sexism needs to be eliminated from the gaming industry on all fronts. But anyway, back to the topic at-hand, one of the responsibilities of the executive producer is ‘overseeing creative art and design’ of the game, so surely Wolfkill would not stand for Cortana being trivialised in such a way that she would be a cheap marketing trick.
5) Cortana is the anchor for John’s humanity – his “light and reason”, as the poem Connectivity (from Halo: Evolutions) puts it. She was created to maintain his efficiency at doing his job, as Halsey says, but when she transcends the role she was created for both John and Cortana begin to develop as more human characters. 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. Her story is one doomed to end in inevitable loss, yet her departure from the narrative is triumphant. She wins. She beats back rampancy and saves John because of the innate trust and loyalty these two characters have for each other, it’s not “oh she’s a character who needs a man”, especially when John is about as emasculated as the action hero male goes. 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 with him, he relies on her just as much as she relies on him (if not more). Oh, and it should probably be noticed that reliance on another person is in no way ‘anti-feminist’ or representative of some submissive quality in a character unless it’s actively portrayed as such, which isn’t the case in Halo 4.John and Cortana made each other stronger individuals right up to the end of their journey, their relationship shows us what such an intimate union between people should be like – the development of mutual respect and trust which leads to loyalty and dedication. Sexual attraction and desire doesn’t even come into it, not that there’s anything physical to achieve from Cortana in the first place anyway since her ‘physical’ appearance is a projected holographic avatar. Just about everything in Halo 4’s narrative serves to reinforce the importance of having such a substantial relationship with somebody. Through this, John, who was nurtured to be an emotionally detached (even repressed) being comes out of his shell because he has to adapt to a situation he’s never faced before – he has to support her while she gradually dies and has to come to terms with her mortality.
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
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 empathize with.”
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. 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 and come to accept death – departing from the narrative on her own terms rather than as a rampant husk of her former self. She doesn’t just “kick ass and win”, nothing about Cortana’s character and story can be simplified to any Hollywood trope, which is really something to admire considering how Halo is a sci-fi blockbuster Triple-A franchise comparable to the likes of Star Wars.The thought process behind calling Cortana’s visual design “sexualised” bothers me. Cortana is ‘naked’, an AI who projects the simple figure of a human female with no genitals or nipples. We see no sexualised camera angles or poses throughout the game whatsoever (as mentioned before, her face is the constant subject of the way shots are composed), yet the sole fact that she is naked suddenly means that she is anti-feminist. Never mind her character’s depth, we’ll just toss all of that other stuff out the window, we’re going to say that she’s anti-feminist based on her appearance. She’s treated no differently than if she were ‘fully clothed’, what’s wrong here is the fact that your mind immediately just jumps to sex the second an unclothed woman is shown to you. This ends up saying a lot more about you than it does about the game. She is not treated any differently to any other character, be it by characters in the game or the developers themselves, or even the camera angles.
You can have a sexy character who is not objectified. You can have a sexy character who makes their own decisions. Cortana is a genius, even by smart AI standards. She’s a fighter who has saved the Master Chief more times than any of us can count. She fought back against torture from a primordial god, the same torture which had broken many AIs before her, and survived it. She resisted rampancy for four years in the depths of space, alone, through sheer force of will. On the verge of losing herself to insanity she managed to turn her weakness into strength, help the Master Chief finish the fight by physically overcoming the Ur-Didact, and then saved John once again from a nuclear detonation while saying a final goodbye to him and bowing out of the narrative on her own terms. Cortana is a woman to be ADMIRED for her loyalty, her courage, her will, her resourcefulness and her vulnerability, she is somebody who should be seen as a role model. What on earth does her ‘naked’ appearance do to lessen these aspects of her character? She is infinitely more than her appearance, as are we all.
And people say there’s “no point” to her appearance as well, to which I say: Why are you not paying any attention? The driving theme of Halo 4 is the contrast between man and machine, humanity and inhumanity. The Master Chief is a seven foot tall supersoldier in a hulking suit of armour who is emotionally closed in, while Cortana is his humanity literally laid bare – as Kenneth Scott of 343 has said himself.
“Chief and Cortana aren’t the same person, but she has always been the reflection of his humanity.” ~ Kenneth Scott, Making Halo 4: A Hero Awakens
There’s plenty more that could be said here, but I’m pretty sure I’ve managed to cover the bases of the issue. For those of you reading this who took issue with Cortana in Halo 4, I hope that I’ve alleviated at least some of those concerns. For those of you reading this who didn’t take issue with Cortana in Halo 4, I hope that I’ve further substantiated your love for the character. As ever, thanks for reading.