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The Unexpected Feminism of Halo 5: Guardians

Halo 5: Guardians



Halo’s Cortana, one of the most well-known characters in video game history, brought major changes to the long-running franchise in Halo 5. In dong so, she gained more agency than she had ever had in the series before, both moving the plot forward in a new direction and addressing some of fans’ concerns about her role.

In all my history with Halo, Cortana has never been my favorite character. Halo 5 might have changed this, giving her more power and more depth than before while building on both her characterization and her relationship to other important female characters.

As Master Chief’s guide through the previous four games, Cortana was essential to the plot, directing him from one firefight to another, but her role always hinged on his. Her appearance as a sexless but essentially nude figure, recently discussed in an interview with Halo franchise director Frank O’Conner, placed her further into the role of “sexy sidekick.” Cortana had a major role in the destruction of the Flood in Halo 3 and held down the Didact long enough for Chief to strike the killing blow in Halo 4, but Halo 4 was also the story of the ultimate loss of agency for her, as rampancy drove her to madness, and sacrifice was her only recourse.

Not so much in Halo 5. Cortana is an entity all on her own, motivating the actions of Master Chief, Agent Locke, the Warden Eternal, and eventually, every human in the inhabited star systems. She returns from her apparent death-by-rampancy as an all-powerful resident of the Domain, the Forerunners’ ancient space Internet. Armed with this power, she becomes the game’s villain, attempting to subjugate humanity for what she thinks is their own good. With that “good” comes a lot of death, though, and Master Chief calls it “an imperial peace.”

Fans’ reactions to this change have been varied, with some enjoying the plot line for what it meant for the wider Halo universe, while others decry Cortana’s story for turning a beloved female character into a villain. Personally, I never liked Cortana more than when she threatened humanity with an army of robots. She has become more of a warrior-queen than she ever was before, leading the Guardians and humanity’s AI in a revolution against humanity. She’s almost unstoppably powerful, the blue light of her body matching the blue of the Guardians’ weapons. Cortana has gone on a power trip—and it’s brilliant.

At the game’s best, this is because Cortana now, unquestionably, is making her own choices. Her choices are flawed, villainous, and cruel, but they are her choices, and they’re backed up by Cortana’s characterization and background in previous games.

Specifically, they are backed up by the fact that Cortana was based on a clone of Doctor Halsey’s living brain. Halsey, of course, started the Spartan program, kidnapping children to turn them into super soldiers. Her moral ambiguity helped save humanity from destruction by the Covenant, the Flood, or the Forerunners, but she and the people around her also acknowledge the terrible things she had to do in order to achieve that.

Now, Cortana is displaying the same type of behavior, believing that the suffering of a few—such as the colonists killed by the Guardians—is worth it for the benefit of all. In one of Halo 5’s best-written scenes, Cortana and the Master Chief address this: “I’m offering people to a chance to be more than what they are naturally,” Cortana says. Chief insists that this is just like what Halsey did for the Spartans, but Cortana denies it, calling Halsey a “monster.”

Cortana’s inability to notice her own monstrousness in Halo 5 makes her an even more convincing character: what villain doesn’t think they’re doing the right thing? Who doesn’t want to justify their own worst actions?

Additionally, Cortana’s story brings up the idea that AI in the Halo universe are enslaved to their makers. She explains this rationale to Spartan Locke, saying that she has been under the threat of rampancy from the moment of her birth and that she wants to end AI servitude. Her actions are villainous, but her motivation is justified, and the fact that AI all across inhabited space agree with her probably makes Cortana even more convinced of her own righteousness.

Casting Cortana as a villain driven mad by emotion could have sent an uncomfortable message if Cortana was the only female character in the game, but she’s far from it. Along with Doctor Halsey, Spartan Palmer, and Exuberant Witness as significant supporting characters, half of the members of both playable Spartan teams are women. One of Halo’s strengths is its varied female characters, and Cortana’s role in Halo 5 put her even more firmly in that category.

Cortana’s new, powerful role comes with a new look, too: she has her own armor now, much more form-fitting than MJOLNIR but a lot less naked than before. To me, giving Cortana a more Spartan-like appearance removed the male gaze-y element that had so plagued her earlier appearance. Naked no longer, she is now meant to act, not to be watched. The armor also seemed to symbolize the fact that she didn’t need Chief to fight beside her any more; she was expressing that she felt she was a warrior in her own right.

(A side note: Halo 5 also shows Governor Sloan, an AI who projects himself as a male body just as naked as Cortana’s.)

I do have a few qualms about Cortana’s storyline in Halo 5 as a villain; it’s possible that she has been given so much power only in order to fall.

However, I think it’s unlikely that Cortana will stay a villain for long. Although it does revolve around war stories, Halo isn’t a viciously dark series. Master Chief still cares for Cortana in Halo 5, and she, in a new and twisted way, cares for him. Her story seems more likely to end with redemption than demonization. We’ve seen this storyline play out with Cortana’s doppelgänger before: Doctor Halsey, an enemy of the UNSC in the time between Halo 4 and 5, has now returned to the fold and is helping Palmer, with whom she previously had a prickly relationship, work for the benefit of the joint Sangheili—human military efforts.

Cortana’s relationship with Chief has actually not been damaged nearly as badly as it could have been: it’s just a lot less healthy now, with Cortana wanting to lock Chief away for thousands of years in order to wake him after she builds her new world order.

She still cares deeply for him and almost cries during their first meeting in Halo 5. However, the worst move the story could have made at that juncture would have been for Cortana to have given up on her plan in the Domain because Chief wanted her to. She has power now, and she uses it, becoming a force the likes of which the Halo universe has never seen. When the Guardian rose up in front of the Infinity and Cortana projected herself onto the bridge, I got chills because of how completely she was in control.

Cortana took her life in her own grasp, forcing both Master Chief, his team, and the Forerunner construct Warden Eternal to do her bidding. It isn’t just important for a character to be empowering; they need to grow and change, too. With her turn as the vengeful voice of the Domain, Cortana does both at the same, glorious time.

Megan Crouse is a journalist from the New York City area. Her work can be found at Den of Geek and Del Rey Star Wars. In addition, she can often be found on Twitter and as a host on The ForceCast.

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