Invisible, Cliched Nags: The Trouble With Women in GTA 5

Surprising no one, the launch of Grand Theft Auto V has been accompanied by considerable controversy over the game’s depiction of women. Even before it launched, dialogue, characters, acts of violence and a very specific mini game have all been called out to varying degrees for passive and active forms of misogyny.


Related: GTA 5 Review: Damn it Feels Good (& Bad) to Be a Gangsta


I’ve never fully agreed with complaints that the Grand Theft Auto series is specifically hateful to women. These games take place in a parody dystopia populated exclusively, with few exceptions, by scum. Corrupt lawyers, sociopathic and/or cannibalistic politicians, moral hypocrites, violent criminal organizations, professional hitmen, even (implied) rapists. In fact, the closest the series has ever come to a fundamentally decent character is an unrepentant killer who happens to want to stop crack from destroying his neighborhood. The hate has, in my opinion, largely been misanthropic, not misogynistic.

But it is inarguable that the series is also a total boys club that has, for the most part, only occasionally involved female characters in any substantial way. That is of course an industry-wide problem going back decades, not the sole fault of Rockstar Games. But the emergence of the issue of sexism in the gaming industry as a serious controversy during the last few years has finally made clear just how bad the problem is. It puts Grand Theft Auto V in an entirely different context than previous games, making the game’s shortcomings in that regard far harder to ignore.

To put this in perspective, Quentin Tarantino has taken a lot of flack over the years for his copious use of the n-word in almost all of his films. But it’s difficult to argue seriously that he is a racist. He pushes buttons like crazy, but ultimately he writes honest dialogue for the kinds of characters he creates; he certainly doesn’t just throw the term around like a 5 year old who just learned how to pronounce the word “penis”. Put more simply, that word’s usage is about the characters, not the writer.

But there’s a razor thin line between pushing buttons because you have a point to make, and pushing buttons for the sake of pushing buttons, without any thought at all. Tarantino falls on the former side of that line. And Grand Theft Auto V, at least when it comes to the portrayal of women, falls on the latter.

To be clear before we go forward, I don’t have a problem with the fact there isn’t a playable female protagonist. Rockstar is entitled to tell the story it wants to tell, and if that story is about three guys, that’s the story it should be telling. But after spending the required 40+ hours to complete the game, one is faced with the fact that every female character in the game is either a living macguffin, a reflection of one of the protagonists, or set dressing. And of those few who actually provide missions, only one of them is given anything close to the textured awfulness of the male characters in the game.

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18 Comments on Invisible, Cliched Nags: The Trouble With Women in GTA 5

Yawn

On October 3, 2013 at 2:55 pm

Facile, PC bull.

Phil Hornshaw

On October 3, 2013 at 3:47 pm

@Yawn

What does that even mean?

Ebalosus

On October 3, 2013 at 4:35 pm

Going by how you’ve written it, GTA V seems less anti-women, and more one-or-more-devs-had-a-nasty-breakup-while-the-game-was-in-production.

Lost having all the character’s fathers being jerks is not a case of Lost being anti-father, but a case of one or more of the writers having daddy issues…or more likely, just plain and simple lazy writing. The same could be said of GTA V, in that I don’t think that there is any intended malice towards women from the writing staff, but it comes through due to the female characters being underdeveloped.

In closing, I’m in tepid agreement with the article, insofar as it is a reflection of weaker writing than actual misogyny.

Tiagonal

On October 4, 2013 at 6:33 am

Well, there was this chick I helped in random event that later became a driver to heists, she did it for the thrill so she was both skillfull and inexpensive, and showed up with an ambulance to escape within sirens in Plan B when the chopper crashed into the FIB. There was also the first skillfull hacker you can hire. So they ended up useful…. , that’s so miso.

Damn, we’re pressing the issue.

Dirk

On October 4, 2013 at 9:18 pm

Too bad.

Dross

On October 7, 2013 at 6:40 am

I refuse to take anything you say on gender issues seriously as long as you continue to act as if female-to-male sexism doesn’t exist, and as long as you keep promoting ageist views under the guise of being liberal. I don’t see the difference between your prejudice and other peoples’ prejudice.

Stan the Man

On October 7, 2013 at 2:09 pm

@ Phil Hornshaw

Limp, politically correct bull

Gremly

On October 7, 2013 at 2:32 pm

@Stan the Man – if you think Phil’s bad, you want to steer clear of Ian. His patronising views on women make Phil and Ross look like balanced voices in comparison. Still, it gives them a reason to feel important I guess.

Phil Hornshaw

On October 11, 2013 at 12:43 pm

You guys make me sad.

The female characters in GTA V are bad. That’s bad writing, that’s bad for video games, and that’s bad for, you know, women in general.

Don’t understand how or why you would dismiss that reality as “PC bull” or why you don’t care. Why aren’t we asking for video games to try harder and be better and create more human characters? Why are you cool with them being half-assed, and why are you then dismissive when they’re called out as such? Why is it somehow not okay to look at how video games treat all kinds of groups of people and expect them to suck less?

Why, guys? Why?

Load

On October 11, 2013 at 1:10 pm

Because, Phil, you’re deliberately trying to turn this into another debate on gender issues. Look on any single one of the poorly-conceived articles on ‘sexism in gaming’ and you’ll see there are plenty of comments that readily admit that there is a massive issue with how women are often represented. But, crucially, you continue to ignore the fact that the MALE characters are equally badly written.

Answer this for me – exactly how are the male characters in GTA V any better? Because they’re present? Please. The main protagonists in GTA V are a double-crossing hypochondriac, a dope-pedalling carjacker in a street game, and a deranged psychopath. All of them are clichéd and none of them are in any way sympathetic. You might even consider it insulting that you would want to play as any of them, even in a GTA game. Yet I haven’t seen any outrage over how this degrades men or assumes male gamers want to be in the shoes of lunatics, or even complaints as to the writing. No, all I’ve seen is a bunch of known feminists yet again looking for an excuse to preach in an effort to feel superior to the great unwashed. The worst part is that on the few occasions misogyny actually occurs, fewer and fewer people are going to take it seriously because of the constant white noise we’ve been subjected to over the years. Jim Sterling and Ian Miles Chong, in particular, are complete liabilities to the discussion.

The problem is, and always has been, a lack of creative and pragmatic voices in the games industry, which is to be expected – it’s only been in the last two decades that advanced stories have become commonplace in games. The evolution is going to take time, and if allowed to occur organically it will eventually put videogames on a par with films and TV if not literature. But constantly trying to devolve everything into a self-loathing diatribe about how games culture is a Caucasian sausage fest is not helping matters. It not only distracts from the actual issue, but it pretty much guarantees that lazy developers are going to use female protagonists as a crutch to disguise their lacklustre writing talent in the same way as C&C is already being misused. And yet, ironically, even these will end up being criticised for not being feminist enough or for *gasp!* making their heroes actually show vulnerability and humanity instead of being indestructible, one-dimensional killing machines. You know, the very same ‘characters’ we’re already saddled with now, but with penises so apparently it’s ok.

What you’re really sad about is that not everyone is subscribing to your liberalism. Some of the more moderate/sensible people on here don’t in fact blame white men for all evils in the world. Perhaps it’s time you stop talking down to these people and try and look past your insular, outdated and failed beliefs. We’ll be here waiting.

Ross Lincoln

On October 11, 2013 at 1:16 pm

The debate on Gender issues is already happening. That ship has long since sailed and wishing the genie back into the bottle won’t work. And as for “turning” this game into that, GTA V was, immediately, at the center of some minor controversies. With those controversies in mind, I took a closer look at how women are in this game and think it comes up short.

You don’t have to agree with me about this game – feel free to rebut the points actually made in this article. But the issue is real and it’s not going away.

“And yet, ironically, even these will end up being criticised for not being feminist enough or for *gasp!* making their heroes actually show vulnerability and humanity instead of being indestructible, one-dimensional killing machines. You know, the very same ‘characters’ we’re already saddled with now, but with penises so apparently it’s ok.”

Incidentally, this doesn’t actually respond to anything I said here.

thedog

On October 11, 2013 at 1:36 pm

Phil, Ross. What you both aren’t taking into consideration is the sorry truth that a lot of these guys don’t really care in real life either. No matter what some people say, real life traits carry into games. It would be interesting to talk to some girlfriends or wives of some of these people.

Load

On October 11, 2013 at 1:59 pm

thedog’s hit the nail on the head. There are ZERO female voices for this site, yet there’s a completely disproportionate amount of coverage on tenuous gender stories that are often at best selective and at worst flat-out contextually dishonest. It’s a group of like-minded, leftist men who are pushing the girl power agenda and yet there has been no attempt at garnering any sort of consensus among the female contingent that you claim is almost half the entire audience. When there’s no cross-examination of ideas, all you get is an aimless, trite output that comes across as populist, biased nonsense.

Again, when you have a reputation for this sort of thing, as Ross does, it’s very difficult to separate signal from noise. It’s essentially the boy – sorry, girl – who cried wolf. Eventually, people see past the paradigm and on the very few occasions that there’s any substance to the claims, they’re ignored because people have heard it all too many times. Had this article been written by someone with a more impartial rep, instead of someone who seems determined at every opportunity to draw attention to their liberal leaning – not to mention someone who has previously called anyone who dares to disagree with him “anonymous trolls” – it might have been easier to read with some level of distance and actually take something from this. Instead, it comes across as just another in a long line of cynical attempts to exploit an exaggerated issue to make the author look progressive and learned.

People don’t care because we’ve been conditioned not to care by the very people telling us we SHOULD care, because of the condescending way in which they attempt to force their views on others and completely refused to even entertain the other side.

I notice as well that Ross didn’t bother to answer my question as to why it was terrible for female characters to be underwritten, but not for male characters. I guess that was too challenging for him.

Ross Lincoln

On October 11, 2013 at 2:09 pm

“I notice as well that Ross didn’t bother to answer my question as to why it was terrible for female characters to be underwritten, but not for male characters. I guess that was too challenging for him.”

And I notice that A) this doesn’t actually have anything to do with my article and B) that I spent a good amount of time talking about how excellently the men in this game * are * written.

Phil Hornshaw

On October 11, 2013 at 3:19 pm

@Load

Dude, I want to keep this polite, but I’m having serious trouble following you here.

So first, to address something: you mention that the male characters are awful people, but that’s beside the point. We’re not talking about a subjective delineation of “good” or “bad.” What Ross is saying here is that the men in GTA are f–king terrible people, but they’re still three-dimensional, human-like characters. The women just aren’t. “Sympathetic” is not the same as three-dimensional — it’s a basic breakdown of how “human” one group of people is treated as compared to another in storytelling. The men have agency, make changes in their lives, have stories told about them. The women are goals or anchors, obstacles or trophies, but almost universally flat. What’s at issue is not who the good guys and the bad guys are, but how human the characters are. That’s what Ross is getting at throughout this whole piece.

On to discussing how this “degrades” men. Well, it doesn’t. It’s very easy to objectively look at GTA V and say, “This is a story about THREE MEN, not ABOUT MEN.” But that’s because there are differing examples throughout, and because these three men are rounded enough, distinct enough, human enough to stand on their own merits. Stereotypes or not, they move BEYOND those stereotypes to be full-fledged characters. That’s what characters are. And I feel like you’re conflating arguments quite a bit here by transposing some imaginary political agenda (I think it’s “destroy all stereotypes,” or “make certain things like stereotypes off-limits” or maybe “men are bad” or something) with the facts that the men characters are more than the sum of their parts (e.g. human) and the women characters are not (e.g. stereotypes and plot devices). Stereotypes can be useful in storytelling and what’s more, they can make up characters — so long as a character is MORE than JUST a stereotype. Because that’s not writing a three-dimensional character, it’s just laziness.

Your next point: “The evolution is going to take time, and if allowed to occur organically it will eventually put videogames on a par with films and TV if not literature. But constantly trying to devolve everything into a self-loathing diatribe about how games culture is a Caucasian sausage fest is not helping matters. It not only distracts from the actual issue, but it pretty much guarantees that lazy developers are going to use female protagonists as a crutch to disguise their lacklustre writing talent in the same way as C&C is already being misused.”

Let me try to stick with you here — are you saying basically to ignore the problem of bad storytelling and badly written characters and eventually it will sort itself out? Because that’s objectively not true. TV’s been around for 70 years: same problems. What we know as the novel has been around for 260 years: same problems. The issues are not the medium’s youth, but the people who make things and take shortcuts and are ALLOWED TO DO SO by us, the audience, because no one says anything. You’re just flat-out wrong here. Calling out the problem is how you fix it, not the other way around.

What is the “actual issue” from which talking about badly written characters that misconstrue whole groups of real people to a harmful degree is supposedly distracting? And how does “it pretty much guarantees that lazy developers are going to use female protagonists as a crutch to disguise their lacklustre writing talent?” That makes absolutely no sense. Since when does pointing out something critically cause it to happen more?

“Some of the more moderate/sensible people on here don’t in fact blame white men for all evils in the world.”

So we’re back to the political agenda (you accuse us of pushing one, but this reads a lot more like you’re the one with an agenda to push). But I don’t see “stop writing female characters badly” as a political agenda any more than I see “stop using quick time events badly” as a political agenda. Women are people and if you’re going to write them in stories, at least have the talent and decency to create women characters who also seem like humans. It’s not that difficult. It’s not that revolutionary. It’s just good storytelling and better writing. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that constantly defaulting to lazy stereotypes actually has a negative effect on real people in the real world — we don’t even have to argue that part. I don’t see “don’t be a d-ck to people” as a political agenda (or a liberal agenda) either. I’m not blaming “white men” for anything.

It makes no sense to get defensive — no one’s attacking YOU for being a part of the majority, just because you perceive that you happen to be like the people who made GTA V and that those people objectively kinda screwed up when it comes to dealing with characters who are not like them. Just help fix it. Point it out when it’s bad and ask for better games. That’s not about politics, it’s just about making the medium better, and games with better characters that are more fun to play, and storytelling that’s deeper and more interesting. And it also happens to benefit people who happen to not be exactly like you, but who also like games and are more than stereotypes.

So no, not going to stop pointing this stuff out in hopes it goes away. I want games to be better, to reach the heights you mentioned, and that means calling them out when they’re failing.

BTW, I’m largely ignoring your second comment, which is all ad hominem attacks and strawman arguments. What’s this cross-examination of ideas you’re referring to — because all you’re offering here is “well, men are psychos in that game, so how come no one’s coming to the defense of men!” which has nothing to do with what we’re talking about here. The fact that this wasn’t written by a woman doesn’t preclude the author from being able to relate to women or issues that have to do with women. You also wield the word “leftist” again as a means of defusing any argument you can’t actually answer — which, of course, is a logical fallacy, dismissing the argument because of how you perceive the person making it.

(You might also recall that I wrote a column earlier this year about the kind of massive d–k Kratos is in God of War III. I’ll hold that up as an example of us writing about how men are treated [and how male audiences are treated] by games and game devs. So this “girl power” agenda you’re talking about — I just don’t see it. I’ll cop to an agenda that empowers consumers and players of all stripes and forms, though, and to one that demands better games.)

Ollie

On October 11, 2013 at 6:18 pm

I’m in total agreement with the critics on this one. This screams of “look at how offended I am”. I don’t see how the women in GTA are done any worse than the men.You’ve got a hispanic drug lord, a nerdy guy with glasses, a corrupt cop, a freeloading son, a dumb hick etc. Everyone’s a stereotype so this seems like you want special treatment for the female characters. If you really just want equal rights and representation for both genders then I totally support that, but this is not an example that backs you up at all. Neither is Saints Row. You need to find an IP where men are represented well and women aren’t, and generally the writers who are talented enough to write good male characters also write good female characters (eg Uncharted).

That’s not to say I didn’t like the article, I actually respect the fact you stood up for Rockstar’s artistic right not to have a female protagonist as there’s god knows how many commentators criticising them for this. But still, I don’t see the separation here. There isn’t a single character that I can see that has had been given preference over another in terms of backstory and development. In fact, Debra is shown as quite clearly being more assertive than her boyfriend Floyd before she presumably gets a bullet through the temple from Trevor.

If the article was about the problem with PEOPLE in GTA V then I’d have no problem whatsoever. It’s the fact you’ve focused entirely on women when it’s pretty obvious that most of the men are also either non-entities or cardboard cutouts that I find difficult to empathise with.

I also agree with previous comments that as long as it’s just a bunch of guys telling us how we should be offended for women instead of women actually giving us first-hand experiences and perspectives, this comes across as no more than ideological conjecture.

Heru

On October 11, 2013 at 7:17 pm

Seriously? Who cares? I can turn on the tv at any time, open a book, go to the movies and find depictions of women far worse then this game. You want strong, fleshed out, fully realized female characters? Play Uncharted, Tomb Raider, Mass Effect, or a multitude of other games. Just don’t expect every game to be like those.

lee

On October 11, 2013 at 9:25 pm

Just a quick question. Why when it comes to talking about negative stereotypes in video games why only about females? Maybe I’m missing something here? Now granted I have not read the article yet but just the title sounds like I am going to read pretty much the same article as all the other offensive to woman articles.