(Cross-posted from Feminist Borgia)
Note: In this review I am predominantly going to be looking at depictions and treatment of women in the newest GTA game. Please do not bother to comment on how men are treated or on other problems within the game. These are well enough documented.
Also, there are major spoilers in this review. If you haven’t played the game but plan to, maybe skip this till afterwards.
Thirdly, this is not a game play review. Do not bother to comment that ‘it’s a really fun game’. That’s not what is being looked at here.
Having said all of that, it is worth me saying a couple of things right at the start. Firstly, yes I have finished the game-I have completed the main story mission and the majority of the side quests. And you know what? It is a fun game. As a game, considered solely on those merits, it succeeds. It looks great (if somewhat dated due to hardware constraints-it is at the tail end of current gen after all), the gameplay is fun, and the characters are engaging. I was genuinely interested in where the story was going. The writing was a little shonky, but it’s a videogame, not Umberto Eco. However, there are major issues with the games (and hence its developers’) treatment of women.
I am aware this is a bit of a mammoth post. So I have broken it into a few different sections.
There are three playable characters in the game. You can skip between them at will, or sometimes are required to play as a specific character for a mission. They are:
Michael De Santa-
Michael is a middle aged, semi retired gangster (according to his backstory, a petty thief, sometime pimp and eventually moved on to bigger heists/bank jobs) with a wife (a former prostitute and stripper) and two children. He was given a new identity, along with a nice house and a generous stipend in a deal with a dodgy FIB (the in game equivalent of the FBI) 10 years prior (which necessitated him betraying his friends and faking his own death), but is railing against the enforced idleness. He has anger ‘issues’, and is prone to violent outbursts and is currently in therapy. He loves his family, but doesn’t understand his children, and has trouble relating to his wife. He struggles with the decision he made, but he made it for the good of his family. The deal he made meant that he theoretically never needs to work again. But he can’t help getting back on the horse. When you jump to him, he can often be found moodily staring into a body of water.
Franklin is a young ‘up and coming’ gangster. He is intelligent and reasonably thoughtful, tho has no problems with violence. Originally a low level local gangster (with a semi legitimate sideline as a repoman), he sees what Michael has, both materially and in his ‘career’ and he wants that. His friends from ‘the old days’ mistrust his new lifestyle and choices, and accuse him of being a fake and forgetting where he came from. When you jump to him, he can often be found sitting in the sun on the porch of his new house, or coming out of a strip club.
Trevor is…insane. Michael’s best friend ‘back in the day’, he believed him dead, but was alerted to his continued existence by witness testimony of a jewelery store heist Michael pulled. He originally trained as a pilot in the airforce, but was discharged after a pysch evaluation. He is deeply emotionally disturbed, a meth user and prone to violent rampages (indeed his personal ‘side missions’ are literal rampages-you take offence at something someone says and go on a killing spree). It is also heavily implied that he is a cannibal. ‘Deals gone wrong’ usually result in him being personally at war with various other gangs. When you jump to him, he can often be found picking a fight with a random passer by. Or rolling down the hills drunk in women’s underwear. Or vomiting into a fountain. Or masturbating into a toilet (no really). Or staggering round a strip club shouting ‘boobs’. Or semi naked in a dumpster. Or….well, you get the idea.
As well as these three, there are a lot of supporting characters, who can help you on heists, push the plot in various ways (this is not a particularly onerous task), or give you side missions. Here is a small selection:
Amanda De Santa-
Amanda is Michael’s wife, and a former stripper and prostitute. They once had a close relationship but it is now strained. After Michael begins ‘work’ again, she takes the children and leaves ‘for their safety’ (although it is triggered by their son spiking Michael’s drink and telling her he was doing drugs and driving). She appears to be in a relationship with her yoga teacher but after Michael confronts them together in a cafe, it becomes apparent that she really craves Michael’s ‘traditional masculinity’, saying to Michael, oh will you just punch him (or words to that effect). After they are reunited in an odd therapy scene (the scene objectively makes little sense. It is meant to be them getting back together, but appears to be them just screaming at each other with no resolution), it is revealed (heavily implied may be more accurate) that she has had affairs with her tennis instructor, yoga teacher, ‘the juice guy…the dog walker…Jimmy’s third grade teacher…the trash guy…Dad’s proctologist…the guy who thinks he’s Jesus…the hippy bum’.
It is theoretically possible to justify this as the actions of a woman who has lost her place in the world (as she had to leave everything behind when they went into witness protection) and is slowly begining to resent the man she left everything behind for. However the overwhelming feeling I get from it is, HAHAHA, women are such whores…
Jimmy De Santa-
Jimmy is Michael’s son. He is whiny, entitled, fancies himself as a gangster (at one point hiding a large amount of weed in the fridge, presumably for selling) but in reality spends most of his time online playing ‘Righteous Slaughter’ (the ingame parody of games like Call of Duty) shouting abuse down his headset at other players, and trolling celebrities on ‘Bleeter’ (the ingame pastiche of Twitter). He can be proactive in his attempts to get what he wants, spiking his Dad’s drink to make his mother leave, and stealing his Dad’s car. He is in essence the ‘manchild gamer’.
Tracey De Santa-
Michael’s daughter. She appears desparate for fame, attempting to audition for the ‘Fame or Shame’ show iby stripping, removing her knickers and bending over in front of the camera. She works as a ‘sex cam’ operator (using the name Tracey Suxx), can often be heard having sex (it is implied on camera, and certainly inferred by players of the game that it is with random viewers of her sexcam) in her room, and is at one point ‘hanging out’ with porn producers. She seems willing when she is told she can get on a tv show if she has sex with the presenter. She may be seen as Rockstar’s critique on/satire of the ‘new generation’ who are obssessed with fame for fame’s sake. Or, when viewed along with her mother…HAHAHA yeah Rockstar…women….whores….we get it.
A ‘strangers and freaks’ side mission character and as such, mostly two dimensional. She appears to be a straight pastiche of ‘career women’. She is a fanatical exerciser, completing triathlons regularly, incredibly competetive and angry all the time. She is very dismissive of men, often screaming at them with little to no provocation. She doesn’t want to get pregnant out of fear of getting fat, tho plans children via a surrogate. She is emotionally needy, at one point you interrupt an argument with a man she claims she wanted to have children with who she ‘only met last week’.
On the one hand, well we found one woman who they don’t categorise as a whore. On the other hand it does seem awfully close to a tired cliche of career woman being emotionally stunted and ‘too masculine’.
Franklin’s aunt with whom he shares a house (at least for the first part of the game). She is referred to as being a ‘sex addict’ by another character, and complains on her Lifeinvader (GTAVs version of Facebook) that she can’t get a man because Franklin keeps walking in whenever she invites one home. She is constantly nagging at Franklin, referring to him as her ‘sister’s only mistake’, complaining about his lack of ambition, but deriding his desire to ‘better’ himself as being fake and betraying his roots. She identifies as a feminist, and is seen going for ‘spirit runs’ which involve jogging round the neighbourhood chanting feminist slogans (although she never seems to jog too far). However she is generally treated as a figure of derision.
The cousin of one of Trevor’s ‘crew’, he shares a flat with his girlfriend Debra and works at the docks. Trevor invades the flat whilst Debra is off on a business trip and uses it as a safe house. He also bullies Floyd into helping him with a heist at the docks, and possibly (it is implied) sexually abuses him, as well as completely trashing the flat. Floyd is portrayed as weak willed, nervy (although with Trevor rampaging around his house, it’s hardly a surprise), and somewhat ‘under the thumb’ of Debra.
Floyd’s girlfriend. We only see her for a very short space of time in the game, tho we do hear about her for a good while before she appears. A lawyer who works away a lot, she is portrayed as controlling and emotionally abusive, belittling Floyd, telling him he’s not a ‘real man’, as well as faintly arrogant (there is a large portrait of her above the mantle). And, in the end, it is implied that she has been having an affair with a colleague. So a ball breaking career woman who is also a whore. This is starting to sound familiar…
The developers have said that the main story in GTAV is about ‘masculinity’. With all three playable characters being men, this means that a lot of the main missions don’t feature women at all. Here are a couple of examples of those that do:
Daddy’s Little Girl/Fame or Shame
These two missions both feature Michael’s daughter Tracey in her desire for fame. In the first you have to rescue her from a party on a boat with some porn producers, where she is dancing for them. In the second Michael and Trevor rush to save her from making a fool of herself on the Fame or Shame auditions. When they arrive she is removing her pants and bending over for the camera. Michael becomes enraged and intervenes when the presenter Lazlo begins to simulate sex with her. In both situations she is deeply resentful of her father showing up, complaining that he is ruining her life. Somewhat surprisingly (since he is so clearly morally reprehensible) Trevor makes no sexually derogatory comments about the situation, but seems genuinely concerned about her being humiliated.
This group of side missions are definitely amongst the most problematic in the game. Franklin is enlisted to help a paparazzi photographer in getting the shots he needs. Prior to almost every one of these missions Franklin comments that the photographer is reprehensible, an appalling human being, but yet still accedes to his requests (usually whilst commenting, why am I doing this). The first mission requires you to follow a limosine and take pictures through the window to catch the female celebrity (it is almost always the same celebrity, named Poppy Mitchell) taking drugs. The next involves creeping into the bushes behind her house to take video of her having sex. The dialogue with the photographer (which is without a doubt vicisously misogynistic. For example ‘one shot of that dirty little slut monkey and we are in the money’) suggests that it may be anal sex (though quite why this distinction is needed I do not know, except as perhaps an indication of the current apparent porn inspired obssession with anal sex). Following the successful completion of this mission (which does include a totally unsexy sex scene), you get additional quests. One to take pictures of a British Princess buying drugs, and another following Poppy Mitchell as she is chased through the streets by the police and is subsequently arrested (the release of the previous pictures you took having devasted her into a breakdown). As a final haha at the ‘fallen star’ you hear her offering sexual favours to the arresting officer when he recognises her in the hopes of avoiding arrest.
The final mission involves you attempting to be paid by the (now famous) photographer, who refuses, at which point you can kill him, or at least beat him up a bit. Not because he is a nasty, misogynistic amoral scumbag who appears to solely prey on famous women and revel in destroying them. Because he owes you money. And he owes you money because you helped him do that.
Michael is attending a movie premier when he is informed that one of his enemies has sent a team of mercenaries to his house to ‘deal with’ his family. Michael rushes home to find his wife being attacked on the stairs by one assailant. Once he has been ‘dealt with’ he rushes upstairs to rescue his daughter. The lights in the house go out, and in the Michael himself is rescued by his son (who has acquired some night vision goggles) knocking the assailant out.
Talk Radio/Generated world
As well as the missions in the game and the main characters themselves, the game is set in a completely realised world. There are several different radio stations playing different genres of music, as well as a couple of talk radio stations. The talk radio stations provide some interesting, and downright disturbing content.
A talk show with Lazlow and his cohost Michelle. Lazlow is a fixture in the later GTA games, and as well as appearing in the radio in this one, he is also the host of Fame or Shame. In this show, part of the joke is that Lazlow’s broadly sexist schtick is deemed out of date and not appealing to listeners, so they have paired him with a woman until his contract is finished. Unsurprisingly Lazlow spouts a lot of ‘hilarious’ sexist drivel, including ‘the reason men talk over women is because you yammer on’, ‘I’d much rather be…mistreating women’, as well as commenting at length on his cohost’s breasts and recommending ‘celeb’ underground clubs where they can ‘finger groupies’ (ugh). His cohost does serve as somewhat of a foil, commenting that his comments are disgusting and that he hates women, (whilst fawning over the celebrity callers), but her comments are also seen as somewhat laughable, especially when she says things like ‘don’t you know we live in a new liberal age where we never say anything mean or crude?’. It is clear that Lazlow is meant to be a slightly laughable washed up celebrity, desperate to hold onto what he had. So I guess we are meant to be laughing at him when he says things like the only only score he is interested in is ‘how many hos’ he has had, but, again it feels a little cake/eaty. It’s also worth bearing in mind that Lazlo is one of the most popular recurring characters. Perhaps the developers want us to be laughing at him. But I’m not sure the message got through to the fans.
Presented by Dr Ray, this initially comes across as stream of consciousness of trite ‘new age’ esque nonsense (with a slightly sexualised bent at times). But then it degenerates into a disturbing description of ‘self pleasuring choking games’ which, we are assured (in part by the female cohost), most women like. I am not going to recount every grim detail here, but it comes across like breathy masturbatory fantasies of choking women half to death. And I really don’t know what the point of it is. I can’t tell if we are meant to be laughing at him, and if we are, why it’s funny.
Hosted by Dwayne Earl. He is a pastiche of your ‘usual redneck’. He is sexist and homophobic as you would expect. But in amongst all the usual talk of ‘steak and grits’ and advice that it’s ‘never about the woman’s pleasure’ that we can all have a good laugh at(?) there are some stunningly disturbing moments. Dwayne Earl advises one caller to get rid of his wife when they don’t agree: ‘I recommend drowning…show your boy what it means to be a man!’, and then waxes lyrical about the joys of ‘deer sushi…all served up on my stepdaughter, just like they do in Asia’. Ah, racism and the acceptable face of incest fantasies. Winner!
Strip club minigame
There are strip clubs in the game universe. At one point Trevor ‘takes over’ running one (he kills the former owner and hides his body in a cupboard) and it becomes a safe house. If you go into the strip club you can play the superfun(!) stripper minigame! The aim of the game is to get the stripper’s ‘Like’ meter to maximum. You can do this in two ways: by continually throwing money at her when she is dancing, or by getting a private dance and sneakily touching her when the bouncer isn’t looking. If the bouncer catches you, he will throw you out, but if you do it when he isn’t looking, it makes the stripper like you more. Yes, that’s right, what a stripper really wants is for men to paw at them. It makes them happy! In the game it makes them so happy that once their ‘like’ meter is full, they ask you to meet them outside, from where you can take them home and have sex with them.
As well as this, you can also pick up prostitutes in game and have sex with them and, as in previous games, you can kill them and get your money back. I don’t know if that’s what the developers actually intended you to do (to be entirely fair, you can randomly kill almost anyone in game and take their money), but some of their fans certainly like to do it.
In game billboards
As you drive around the city, you can see a number of different billboard ads for in game products. Some examples:
Nice, subtle, cos y’see Sprunk sounds a bit like…..oh, you got it, that’s fine.
In case that’s not immediately clear, the ads ‘hook’ is ‘Smell like a bitch’…which is funny because it’s called Le Chien, which is french for dog. Clever, see!
It is difficult to shake off accusations of sexism (if not outright misogyny) when your chosen ad strategy seems to back this up. Take the posters advertising the game.
Then there’s this one. Now I think it’s possible that this is meant to be Michael’s daughter Tracey. But she’s not a playable character, nor even a major supporting one. Nope, here she’s just eye candy.
Similarly this isn’t a scene that appears in the game. Again it may be Tracey, but given how little we see of her in game it is hard to be sure. What it isn’t hard to be sure about is that this is a suggestive image (albeit a more clothed one than the last).
These are not the only posters used to advertise the game. They do have posters which contain the main characters. However, given the main bent of this review is to look at how women are treated in the GTAV universe, these seemed the most pertinent.
So what do we have here? Well, one of the first criticisms that we can level is the total lack of a playable female character. Given that you have three to play with, it seems a little remiss that not a single one is female. But the developers said that they wanted to tell a story about masculinity. It isn’t necessarily sexist to want to do that with male characters. It is certainly the case that in the majority of video games the ‘default’ character setting is male (obviously this does not include games where you create your own character), and this, to me, reflects more of a problem with the industry as a whole rather than just the Grand Theft Auto franchise, or Rockstar as a company.
There certainly are female characters within the world, although not that many of them. The problem there lies with the type of female characters they are. I am not saying that all female characters in games need to be ‘good’, there is nothing inherently wrong with a female character that is bad, or flawed. It is even possible to have a well crafted female character that embodies some sexist stereotypes without it necessarily being problematic. The trouble is, all of the female characters in this game are little more than sexist stereotypes of womanhood, or just figures of derision. We have the career obsessed, emotionally stunted woman, we have the harridan oppressing her poor hen pecked boyfriend, and we have the whores. And boy do we have a lot of whores in this game. Taken on their individual merits, again they aren’t necessarily a problem. Quite a lot of the characters have justifications for the way they behave that could, in theory, move them away from just being stereotypes. Amanda de Santa left everything to follow her husband into witness protection, but feels alienated from him and alone, so she seeks comfort. Her daughter Tracey, like so many teenagers, is susceptible to the media which glorifies fame for fames sake alone, and shows her that sex is the way to do it (just look at the paparazzi).However, even with these theoretical justifications, Amanda barely exists as a character, and Tracey is really just a ‘damsesl in distress’ trope with some sex added into it. And in the one quest where Michael’s whole family are at risk, in the end it is only Tracey and Amanda that need to be rescued, and the ‘manchild gamer’ who rides in for the rescue.
When you have so many characters that are barely clothed walking stereotypes, and couple them with the characters who have no story or character reason really for being what they are, you start to think that the writers started with ideas of women, and worked backwards from there.
Then you add in the world that they created. It is huge and impressive and wonderful. And contains so many awfully sexist, and sometimes outright misogynist things. As with the female characters, looked at individually you can argue reasons for some of them. Some you can theoretically argue are played for ‘satire’.
For example, the ‘Beyond Insemination’ radio station, we are meant to be laughing at the presenter. He is a pastice of the ‘traditional redneck’, racist, sexist and homophobic. The joke is on him. So you can chose to view the horrible things he says in that context. Personally I am not comfortable laughing at a character advising someone to drown his wife when an average of two women a week are murdered by a current or former partner. And the line about eating sushi off of his stepdaughter cut a little too close to child abuse for me (tho they make no mention of her age).
As I mentioned previously, Lazlow is meant to be a pitiable, pathetic character. But even saying that, the players love him. That’s why they keep bringing him back (this is the fourth full length GTA game that Lazlow has featured in). Maybe the developers intend us to be laughing at him rather than cheering him on, but how much weight can we really place on their intent when the reality is something different.
The ingame billboard adverts are clearly swipes at ‘real world’ advertising. Real world advertisers know that sex sells, and there are certainly no shortage of horrifically sexist advertising campaigns. So again we can chose to view these as satire. At the very least there is a defined target, even if women are caught in the crossfire.
When it comes to the Paparazzi missios, you can in theory argue that what Franklin says to the paparazzi is the developers comment on this ‘profession’. And he is clearly not meant to be a likeable character, so we coud possibly view his appalling dialogue in those terms, as something that we are meant to see as awful. But it does feel an awful lot like having your cake and eating it. Oh we bemoan his terrible behaviour, but we then go and help him do it. And of all the missions that I completed in the game, these made me feel the most…unclean.Although you can choose not to pick up the missions, there is no option when he asks you for help to say, ‘no’. You can walk away, but then the mission comes up as ‘failed’. The developers intend you to complete them.
But there are things in the game world for which I can see no satirical target. Where is the satire in picking up prostitutes? Where is the satire in going to stripclub full of dancers who really want you to touch them? What is satirical about a man describing how he likes to crush a woman’s sternum?
I guess the other defense that can be offered is what you might chose to term the ‘comedy defense’. Almost all of these things are framed as a joke. The awful female characters, the disturbing radio shows are all in the service of ‘the joke’. The writers, the developers think that these things are funny. But, to me, that is no defense. It almost makes it worse.
Almost any one of these problems on their own can be explained away. Even a few together. But taken together they are almost overwhelming. That is why a reviewer described the game as having an ‘undercurrent of misogyny’. It seems to underpin the whole game. You can chose to not notice it (for the most part). You can not listen to the talk radio shows. You don’t have to pick up the prostitutes (indeed, prior to writing this I have never picked up a prostitue in game. Why would I?). You can avoid having a lap dance. But that doesn’t mean that these things aren’t there. And it doesn’t make the game not incredibly sexist.
I think the final point that I can make here is the games final joke. After the credits are done, you find yourself back with Trevor for one last mission. His mum has turned up and, within seconds, reduced him to a quivering, sobbing wreck. The last word the game has to say about Trevor, the lovable (to a point) psychopath, is that, really, it was all his mother’s fault. The only damaging female stereotype that they missed in the whole of the game, the iconic ‘Mrs Bates’, the smothering abusive mother, the put in as the games final laugh.
Yes, Grand Theft Auto V is a good game. But it is impossible to deny it also appears to be a game that hates women. It shows it in it’s characters, in it’s missions, in the game universe these all occur in, and in its advertising.
Feminist Borgia : I blog occasionally about feminism, rape culture and games [@feministborgia]