Posted on October 3, 2013, Ross Lincoln 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.
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.