Invisible, Cliched Nags: The Trouble With Women in GTA 5
The common thread here is that these women have fairly interchangeable traits, but even where they differ, they are defined solely by tropes specific to bitter cliches about what women are like. The male characters, meanwhile, do of course have very male traits that are played up for their awfulness. But they’re also extremely distinct from one another, and their villainies are more universally evil than gender-based.
There are two exceptions to this: Maude, a cold-blooded operator who provides Bail Bondsman missions to Trevor, and Marnie, a gullible cultist who gives Michael missions for the Epsilon ‘religion’. But like the other female characters, both of these characters are absolutely perfunctory to the core experience.
Even the two female characters who return from the GTA IV cycle – IAA agent Michelle/Karen, and Johnny K’s girlfriend Ashley – are disposed of, figuratively and literally, before you even have time to register who they are. What makes this stranger is the fact that Grand Theft Auto IV featured a larger cast of active female characters relative to previous games. The interesting thing is that GTA IV launched in 2008, years before the controversy about sexism in the gaming industry had become so ubiquitous. GTA V, however, launched after this conversation has been mainstream for nearly two years.
GTA V kind of acknowledges this controversy via occasional, limp jokes that fail to either mock or support any particular side, but for the most part it simply relegates the women to positions of subordination that emphasizes their similarity to one another, a fact made worse by how different the men are from each other. This is all the more troublesome because, when male characters spout sexist dialogue, you feel like the dialogue is true to who these characters are and where they’re from. Right up until the women in the game live up to sexist cliches, at which point things become deeply uncomfortable. As I said, it’s the difference between pushing buttons to make a point, and doing so just to get a rise out of people.
That, and the paucity of women in the game world make GTA V feels at times like it’s trying to pretend the last five years haven’t happened. I don’t expect Rockstar to take the whole burden of changing the culture of the gaming industry on its shoulders. But consider how much effort has been put into making this (successfully, I should make clear) one of the largest and most vibrant virtual worlds yet seen in a game. It has a textural verisimilitude so detailed it even includes the outline and heft of Trevor’s balls. It’s disappointing then that a company which spent around $250 million could create realistic stripper boobs, but couldn’t throw some of that money to a few realistic, or at least distinct, boobs-having characters to (ahem) flesh the world out a bit more.
Next time, do better guys. It won’t take much – just approach women the way you approach every single other aspect of the game and things should go smoothly.