The title Halo must refer to an Immaculate Emasculation
I’ve blabbered before about the Strong Female Character, but something less trope-anized is the woman in a position of authority. Along with the SFC, I’d say she’s also key to gender equality in media, not only for what she offers in herself, but for filling a glaring deficiency in our mediascape. So, let’s take a status report and see how far we have to go. (Spoiler alert: far!)
This post was originally meant to profile a series of such characters, but I can’t really think of any quite like Spartan Sarah Palmer, and surely none have her story. If you recall, and by no means should you, Sarah Palmer is a supporting character from the Halo series, who debuted in Halo 4.
Initially, I was going to give you the background myself, flippin’ the hot deets, and the prospect of doing so really stressed me out. Could I reasonably convince anyone, either a laygamer or a Halo fan, that Sarah Palmer was truly as hated as I perceived her to be? As such, I thank the Forerunners for the existence of the following video, provided by “HaloFollower.” Thanks, bro. Broski.
In short, Sarah Palmer is hated by the fan community because she’s a jerk. To the video, it’s honestly quaint there’s no disclaimer that it “isn’t sexism,” which of course, is the flag that instantly speaks to the reverse. In fact, HaloFollower begins the video by qualifying that Sarah Palmer is a BAMF, which he articulated as an acronym (Badass Motherfucker?).
Sarah Palmer is a Spartan, like Halo’s hero character Master Chief, and that obviously means she’s a genetically engineered supersoldier who fights dastardly aliens like the Covenant, the Flood, and the Prometheans. She’s in some kind of command position aboard the UNSC Infinity, and seems to be in charge of other Spartans. She qualifies as a Woman in Authority, which is great. So why is she so detested? (lol).
There’s only one specifically cited instance of Palmer’s jerkiness in that video, and the rest is a general citation, that every appearance of her character (and there are many, across multiple media) is exemplary of her badness. The moment referenced is Palmer’s introductory cutscene from Halo 4, in which the Chief and Cortana make contact with the stranded crew of the Infinity on mystery-planet Requiem (the mystery is why we should care! Zing!). Approaching the Chief, Palmer makes a motion-captured smirk and says, “I thought you’d be taller,” to which the Chief ‘reacts.’
I can also cite another thorn in the gamer’s side, which is when Palmer greets a team of Spartans in the co-op mode Spartan Ops, with “Ladies, and… other Spartans…” and lines like these come from an overall haughtiness that earns her labels like “real prick,” “snobby,” “self-righteous,” and “jerk,” all throughout the endearingly tone-deaf video.
I get it. The case of Sarah Palmer is not a complicated or mystifying one, because her character is not impressively original. She is the earnest try, by a largely male cadre of writers, to insert a woman into a man’s world.
She’s tough-talking and wise-cracking, and you can imagine she probably snaps towels at people’s butts in the locker rooms, before calling them ‘cunts,’ which nobody then knows how to react to. Something I sense with the reaction to this character, but haven’t seen voiced, is that she’s ‘trying too hard.’ She has that female brand of male camaraderie, and we’re made uncomfortable when the drill sergeant pointing at our wieners isn’t a dude. When it is a dude, it’s understood that terms like ‘lady’ and ‘girl’ are pejoratives, meant to snap you out of your green.
With Sarah Palmer, it’s directly emasculating. And this is when the element of the Chief’s ‘reaction’ comes back in. I don’t know if the philosophy behind the Master Chief’s character is as true as its original creators intended, and frankly, it’s a curse on the series’ reputation. Briefly, like Doomguy before him, the Master Chief’s design is meant to best facilitate player identification. That means he has no face, and doesn’t speak.
Of course, not only is he certainly a guy (non-canonical webvideo interpretations notwithstanding), which would seem to preclude universal identification, he’s a relative chatterbox in the video-game world. He’s not on the level of Nathan Drake, but he’s got a better sense of humor than fellow Xbox mascot Marcus Fenix, and he’s considerably more interesting than ‘competition’ Gordon Freeman.
So my theory about the Chief is that Bungie was so vocal about this philosophy of the character, that a contingent of players bought into it. Whether or not they all identify with the Chief for the intended reason isn’t something I can know, and I’ve never fully understood what identification with a fictional character even means. But the end result is the same anyway, so that when Palmer ribs the Chief with her infamous line, she’s addressing the player. No one knows how Palmer measured the player’s penis, but her snickers took him back through a time tunnel of high school and college memories, with all those stuckup bitches who didn’t want nothing no-how, mister! Maybe I just wanted to talk! Did you ever consider that? It’s not always about sex – oh, the boner. Yeah, that’s… well fuck you anyway.
There’s a theory in the video about what could possibly redeem her in Halo 6, which is that she may be given the honor of the noble sacrifice, much in the style of Sgt. Johnson, who’s “one of the best video-game characters ever,” and along with that, possibly the “size of an average human mother.” Aw, this video’s got all kinds of holes! Also… didn’t Johnson got shot in the back, and it was really dumb? Regardless, this sacrifice idea is followed up on by the video’s commenters, who behave predictably – positively rote – speculating on the gooey nature of her redemption in Halo 6. However, it’s this one comment that stands out to me, where a user claims she’s a lesser version of Kat from Halo: Reach. Oh, you’ve just gotten my goat, sir. Oh, ho, you have got it. Motor’s revved. Perhaps, we find, this is where the problem lies.
Halo: Reach is sometimes inexplicably held up as the greatest of all Halo games, when, along with Halo 4, it’s easily the worst. The gameplay is made dull by a dour color palette, the avatar character is even worse than the Rookie as this half-hearted in-between of silent and fully formed protagonist, and the story is MIA. It’s an okay premise, but the execution is minimal (critics and fans may praise it for restraint, and for offering a counterpoint to the trilogy’s confusing plot). Characters without names or personalities come in and give heroic sacrifices, to such a comical degree each time that you can’t be blamed for missing the star talent behind them: Jamie Hector plays one of the Noble Team Spartans – which one, I could not reveal.
The team behind Reach actually made a concerted effort to include women
Alona Tal plays Noble Team Kat, putting on a somewhat silly Russian accent to do so. She’s the token female teammate (unless you make Noble Six a woman), and is mercifully not the sniper. In fact, presaging even the mighty but ultimately basically the same Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road*, she’s got a prosthetic limb. The art designers explained that battle damage signifies a history of gritty survival, and man, if only that thoughtfulness of backstory had effectively gone into the frontstory, maybe we wouldn’t be at this impasse today.
Why does anybody like the story of Reach, or any of the characters, Kat included? I’m not sure, but comparing Kat favorably to Palmer speaks volumes, oh, the volumes and volumes which must’ve been stolen out of the Rookie’s mouth. Like the Rookie, Kat is barely a character, and so it seems that Sarah Palmer is too much of a character, with an actual impact on the experience – she butts in. Kat is entirely incidental, and completely forgettable. Palmer is much more realized, and thus, more open to criticism.
Oh, women. When your head gets blown up by a sticky grenade, I hope you understand why you deserved it. You’ll be in Hell, with that one line “I thought you’d be taller,” playing on loop, so you can be haunted by your sin forever. And then you’ll know the pain of men!
It’s not quite that ‘only men can rib each other like that,’ it’s more so our sensitivity to jerky women. As a man who isn’t so triggered by characters like this, I see Sarah Palmer as pretty tough-nosed and no-nonsense, but with a biting sense of humor that comes from an enjoyment of her physical superiority and high rank over so many. She’s truly not uncommon, but for her gender, and so the ascription of ‘bitch’ is swiftly in order. Which it often is; there’s a hair trigger behind that word.
Because you know what? Characters like this, like Sarah Palmer, are dicks. And we should call them out for being dicks. That’s kind of what authority grants characters, is dickishness, because who’s gonna call them on it? Granted, I’m never personally slighted by characters like these, so I don’t really give a shit either way, but the singular focus on Sarah Palmer has been profound – it’s gonna raise some eyebrows. And HAS.
With more and further characters like her, we will soon normalize the Woman in Authority in science-fiction and/or video-games. But the expected feces-flinging will be locked in step with it. In ten years’ time, we’ll look back on Halo 4, as packaged in the Halo VR Collection, and not blink when that hellacious “taller” line comes out, hashtag tallergate. Palmer may not be a perfect representation of what this speculative trope will be every time, but I think as a transgression, and transgression in the real sense is measured only by reaction, she’s a good first step.
“I thought you’d be taller!”
What do I think of Sarah Palmer? Oh, I’m glad you asked, but I’m afraid we’re all out of time. What’s this? It’s a blog, and blogs have no word limits? Otherwise they wouldn’t be so shitty? And people who write them would actually have to organize their thoughts? Huh?
Well, alright, goddamn it. This isn’t something I should weasel out of – lying by not telling the whole truth, and truthfully, the argument against sexism here is in some way, hopefully, bolstered by an admittance of my own sexism. To know a man’s argument, you need first know the man, however minimal that man actually is.
My take on Sarah Palmer? Well, I bought the game because of her. Or, maybe it was a Christmas present, but I had no intention of playing Halo 4. I was done with Halo by 2012, and I remember playing the opening level and having a visceral reaction to shooting Grunts. This was not long after the series of mass shootings from around that time. Which sounds like the real reason I was done, but mostly, I didn’t have a co-op partner anymore, and single player Halo is only okay. (I never bothered with multiplayer outside of the Reach beta).
I got one look at Sarah Palmer, and was sold on the whole damn thing. Fuck, they’re gonna have a character like that? The graphical fidelity of Halo 4 was pretty off the charts, where the cutscenes looked like Hollywood 3D CGI movies, and so Sarah Palmer was quite the looker, approximating very closely the model providing her likeness. At the end of it, it all comes down to this: she has a nice face, and the fact that she’s in this huge badass space armor is the last straw for unconditional boner-fuel. (Which would be… blood? Aw, I cut my finger, and it’s spewing boner-fuel all over the kitchen counter!)
Sarah Palmer absolutely embodies my visual paradigm for “ten outta ten.” I’m that special kinda pervert who looks twice at a woman in full SWAT tac gear, rather than at a woman sunbathing in a bikini. A terrible muskrat all the same, but a special one. Palmer’s character? I don’t know. It’s so inoffensive because Halo 4 is so underwritten. Except for at the end, when the Master Chief and Lasky are talking on the ship. There’s some good stuff there, but Chief torpedoes it by making subtext text. GDI guys – you almost had subtext! This was very nearly the golden age with Halo 2! (Except, not very nearly at all).
One thing I do have to be thankful for is that Halo fan sexism hasn’t crossed over to the more physical medium, of… reality. Open sexism still largely haunts fictional characters, but I grit my teeth whenever I hear the name ‘343’ invoked in these Halo videos. Which I watch by the barrel-full. Whenever it happens, it’s not in the fact of its invocation, it’s in the how.
343 might as well be a synonym for Bonnie Ross. I imagine Ross and Frank O’Connor have downed pharmacies-worth of Advil in the wake of each major release, because the dwindling of the Halo fanbase makes for a beautiful double-threat of declining sales, and leaving a low-tide of only the crazy ones left. Ross, and other high-ranking, high-profile women at 343, like Kiki Wolfkill, I also imagine have dealt with the typical deluge of sexist hatred. But mainstream sexism as I’ve witnessed it thus far, observing the situation like Jane Goodall, has yet to broach that final barrier.
Look, Halo 4 was bad. I’m sure Halo 5 is also ‘bad,’ in that way fun, expensive shooters can be ‘bad.’ But it takes a village, and the village is the company. Let’s keep our ire leveled at the company. The moment you target specifically Ross, you’re toast, and I’m gonna pull your card.
If this post were to be expanded, what other characters might we consider? I suppose Captain Janeway (from what was at the time the least-liked Star Trek series, apparently because of direction though, at least according to one Ronald D. Moore), and Princess/General Leia. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen Voyager, and in terms of Leia…? Not a fan.
That’s the thing. Tough cookies, SFCs, are almost not uncommon, like the Major, and other gloriously OP anime characters. But depictions of women in authorial power, like Prime Minister Kayabuki, or any female President in American media, are rare.
Just as a side note, along that line, real quick. Regarding the Presidential election, I have never heard or read an expression of the allegation that people who don’t vote for Hillary Clinton are sexist. Not once. Maybe you have, even in jest, which still counts. But I heard almost instantly, and for quite some time, people claiming that it was important people don’t just vote for Hillary Clinton because she’s a woman. You gotta think, women. Actually think.
Though it may seem benign, it constitutes a narrative. The automatic assumption that women need your fucking advice in the first place speaks to something greater. If there’s anything I’ve learned over the course of doing this podcast, it’s that all such narratives must be taken into consideration, because all narratives are at one point or another, received. So, whether it’s the tale of America, or the tale of the Master Chief and his misfire love story**, both are worth thinking about.
See you, space loser.
*Desexualizing a character doesn’t make her automatically strong. Furiosa is literally Ripley in Alien 3, aka Worst Ripley. She may have sported a cool look, but fuck. I mean, where sexiness and desexiness is concerned, I may not have the best leg for this argument, given my very personal opinion about Palmer, but come on. Furiosa drives a car and shoots a gun – the Fast and Furious movies were doing that shit every which way to Sunday. It’s just that we hate M-Rod because she went to jail and is a lesbian. Charlize? She may have turned in a grievously offensive performance as a mentally handicapped punchline in Arrested Development, but she’s golden. Bleh. Give me something real, or else forget about it. (Not really: even Furiosa is preferable to a hegemony of all male action heroes that was Hollywood for so long, and in large part, continues to be).
Strangely, Call of Duty has also been a head-turner
**You cannot blame 343 for the continued Chief X Cortana BS, because that was also the plot of Halo 3, which is probably pound-for-pound the height of the series (I prefer Halo 2’s story, and dual-wielding needlers, but Halo 3 probably had better levels. What it didn’t have was “Arbiter, the Hunters are on our side!” *Single tear*). Guys, that relationship was never the most compelling piece of the story. Coming upon it was probably a revelation for you, but you’re trying to de facto make the whole series about it, and it’s lame. And now, Cortana’s a god – what the fuck? Just make her a physical person and give her an assault rifle – then fans will turn on her. If they’re not already with me on this. I don’t care.
Seriously, though, why do we have to carve love stories out of every narrative? It can work if applied well, like how Mad Men is a love story, insofar as Don Draper exists in the absence of a love story, which hangs over the series like a specter. But it’s the same with Ghost in the Shell. Ask any voice actor, whether Tanaka, Otsuka, McGlynn, or Epcar – they’ll say the same thing. It’s a love story between the Major and Batou. It was only really that once, with Innocence. And maybe 2nd Gig. But, if I could speak out of turn, I think you guys are overestimating that part of it. Halo is pretty unconventional, and can probably do something novel if given the chance. I mean, we’re on part 6 of 6, so maybe not, but when the series is rebooted again, perhaps we can do without the man-machine interface. (Zing!)