I thought about quitting the Internet in the days immediately following the release of the latest installment in Rockstar’s flagship franchise, Grand Theft Auto V. I suppose, in some ways, the incredible amount of literature being written and discussion being had about the game is a testament to how the series has become a cultural juggernaut. There has been, however, a great deal of behavior that I find embarrassing, cruel, and overtly misogynist. Gamespot’s Carolyn Petit gave the game a 9 out of 10; she also chose to devote a portion of the review to discussion of the game’s treatment of women. These are comments I pulled that were posted on the review’s YouTube video while I was writing this column:
[commenter name redacted] “all women are prostitue whores but men always have and always will be the domanant species women are on this earth to fuck and make babys then look after the kids nothing more”[commenter name redacted] “gamespot wtf were you thinking getting some uckin transgender man pretending hes a women thats just wrong how many children watch your videos its just wrong getting a man dressed in drag kill it with fire”
Comments like these are why I thought about quitting the Internet for a while, and that’s not even taking into consideration that this person cares neither for spelling, nor does this person know the difference between species and gender. The response to Petit’s review was nothing short of hostile. In the days following the review, editorials and columns started to appear that attempted to analyze or offer commentary on Grand Theft Auto V’s treatment and portrayal of women. There, too, the comment sections exploded in a cavalcade of hate and vitriol. It has made it nearly impossible to write or say something about the issue without mean-spirited comments being directed your way. This phenomenon is important for several reasons, the least of which speaks to how necessary it is that we continue to have a conversation about GTA V’s treatment and portrayal of women, lest ignorance and hate win the day.[pullquote]”all women are prostitue whores”[/pullquote] Among the game’s defenders can be found people whose behavior speaks for itself. Those spouting hateful rhetoric like the person above reveal themselves as perpetuators of the misogyny that is to be found in the game. Then there are those who concede the fact that the game contains misogynistic elements but counter with arguments that speak only to their inability to be perceptive in thinking about the role that perspective plays in the conversation; these are the people who say, “Yeah, but misogyny exists in the real world! How could you expect anything other than that? It’s satire!” or “Everyone in the game is an imperfect being. They’re unlikeable characters.” As if a relativist argument is any reason to allow the game’s treatment of women to go unexamined.
Yet still there are those who suggest that the way to fix the problem is to simply make one of the protagonists a female. Having the choice of playing as a female character and experiencing the perspective of a female character and two entirely different things, and I’m not so sure I want men to be the ones crafting a female perspective within the context of a video game. These examples are each problematic in their own way, but they speak to why it is necessary to have conversations about the treatment and portrayal of women in GTA V; why it is important to continue to seek new perspectives on the issue, in the hopes of gaining insight or being exposed to an opinion we may not have had the opportunity to otherwise be exposed to. It is important that we talk about misogyny in Grand Theft Auto V.
Representation, Power, and Agency
It is helpful, when considering how misogyny appears in Grand Theft Auto V, to establish a framework with which to examine specific instances in which it appears. How women are represented in the game is part of such a framework. The question of representation is an important one because it is the foundation on which power and agency are built. Examining the role that power plays in the relationship between men and women—and even men and men—is also useful in examining the game’s misogynistic elements. Who exercises power? How is power exercised and over whom is it exercised? Furthermore, is it power over or power through individuals? Lastly, agency, or “capability”, can help us gain a deeper understanding of how women are treated in the game. In the game world, do women have the same capacity to make decisions that men make? Are they making the same decisions or different decisions? How are the choices presented to each similar or dissimilar and what does this say about misogyny in the game? All three—representation, power, and agency—are important tools we can use to examine how women are treated and portrayed in the game.
Again, the question of representation is important because it informs how the power and capability structures that are in place unfold and interact with one another. To further examine the question of representation I’ll look at specific characters and investigate how those characters contribute to a composite sketch of the portrayal of women in the game. Take Michael De Santa’s wife Amanda, for instance. When the player interacts with her it is usually just after they have found her having an affair, she’s screaming and cussing Michael out, or whenever she needs something. Almost the reverse is the instance with Michael’s daughter Tracey. Here the player is “rescuing” her from what Michael perceives are poor decisions; poor decisions in relation to sex, and how she should conduct her social life. For example, in scenes at home where Michael and Tracey interact, Michael is often lamenting her choice of clothes, or interrogating her about who she is spending time with. Understandable within a parental context, but the eagerness and aggressiveness with which Michael interacts with Tracey around these issues makes it a relationship of disempowerment. Perhaps more than any of the other women in the game (if you exclude the crude representation of female exotic dancers), Amanda and Tracey are objectified and represented as powerless, naïve, spiteful, and untrustworthy women. Not people, but women.
In the case of Amanda and Tracey power is exercised by all parties involved. Michael exercises power over Amanda and Tracey, and Amanda and Tracey exercise a curtailed version of power through; that is, they seek other, more indirect, ways to exercise power, whether it be through acting out in anger and frustration, or doing things to deliberately anger Michael. Both Amanda and Tracey attempt to exercise power by exploiting their relationship with Michael. One could argue that they do things to spite Michael. This may be true to some extent, but it represents a failure to consider a different perspective and inability to ask the question of why. Why does Amanda continually cheat on Michael? Why does Tracey continue to make decisions and hang out with people that her father clearly doesn’t want her to be around? The perspective of Amanda’s and Tracey’s experience in relation to Michael and the decisions he makes is entirely unrepresented and unexamined. We are given no reason or insight into why Amanda and Tracey make the decisions that they do, meaning their agency is nigh nonexistent.
The characters of Denise, the aunt of one of the playable characters, Franklin, and Mary Ann, a jogger in the Del Perro district of the city that Michael runs into, stand out as sardonic, contemptuous representations of feminists and feminism. When the player first meets Aunt Denise she is lounging in the living room of her and Franklin’s house. She immediately demands to know what he is doing home. That and her continued use of the phrase “make yourself scarce” toward Franklin suggest that she prefers to spend as little time as possible around her nephew. Usually, when Franklin happens upon her she is spending time with her friends, speed walking or doing various other activities to cultivate the, in her words, “power of a woman.” Aunt Denise makes no bones about the fact that she prefers it to be her way or the highway; however, there is evidence to suggest that she, in some ways, still feels trapped in a man’s world. Her continued combative relationship with Franklin, almost religious devotion to her female friends and their group activities designed to bring out their inner-woman suggest an insecure femininity that results from the patriarchal nature of her relationship to the world. The same is true for Mary Ann. When the player first meets her Michael meanders over. Almost immediately Mary Ann tells him to “fuck off.” She’s aggressive, even hostile, and isn’t thrilled with the fact that Michael has come over to ogle at her. The scene is written such that we are to believe that the anger is unsolicited, an inappropriate response to an innocent intention. Michael gets her number after winning a foot race against her; I’d say his intentions were anything but innocent.
Both of these women exercise, or in some cases attempt to exercise, power over the male figures in their life. Aunt Denise regularly tells Franklin what to do, and most every time he willfully obeys. Although, it may be interesting to note that he doesn’t obey out of a sense of respect, or even fear. No, I would argue he obeys out of annoyance. He doesn’t want to hear his aunt nagging him one more time, and so he makes his escape. Mary Ann herself attempts to exercise power over Michael, but it ends up with her giving him her phone number. Aunt Denise and Mary Ann are clearly capable of making their own decisions, and even forcing those decisions onto the game’s male protagonists. So, they clearly have agency. Yet, despite their exercise of power over the males in their lives and their relative agency, Aunt Denise and Mary Ann come off as mean-spirited caricatures of feminists and feminism. Here again the players’ given perspective when interacting with Aunt Denise and Mary Ann is male-centric.
Aside from Amanda, Tracey, Aunt Denis and Mary Ann, the game has only several other female characters that get some screen time. There is Maude, a near-mute friend of Trevor’s; Ashley Butler, a serial drug-abuser that runs in the same circles as Trevor; and Tonya, the girlfriend to Franklin’s cousin who regularly offers him sex and hustles drugs. Ashley and Tonya in particular are objectified, regularly reacting to and suffering from the decisions that the game’s three main protagonists make. Their objectification almost fetishizes women, particularly so when you consider the male-centric perspective that the game presents. Therein lay a point of some importance. In Grand Theft Auto V it is all about perspective, or, as the case may be, the lack thereof.
Give Me Some of that Good Old-Fashioned Perspective
It should come as no surprise that misogynist people will do misogynist things, especially in a game where the emergent aspect of a story is part of the design philosophy. However, that doesn’t mean these people or the misogynist elements of the game should go unexamined or unchallenged. It is important to realize the role perspective plays in our discourse about this particular topic. It was written by males. Its three main protagonists are males. The overwhelming majority of people who buy the game (and defend the misogyny in the game) are males. This is not an indictment on every male that buys and plays the game; of course, not all of the game’s male players are misogynists. Yet, who are the male players we hear from? For me, the misogyny in Grand Theft Auto V is problematic not because it is in the game, but because the lens through which we view and experience it is one planted firmly within the confines of a male-dominated game world and experience.
It is also problematic because so much of the public discourse is being dominated by male players whose views and experiences are being catered to in the game. This emboldens their defense of the game’s misogynist elements while simultaneously reinforcing the notion that there’s nothing wrong with how women are treated and portrayed in the game. It displays a stunning lack of perspective and an inability to consider, or even be open to consider, other perspectives.
It isn’t just a matter of being open to hearing and considering other perspectives. You have to be able to recognize and comprehend other perspectives; to understand why some people may say that the treatment and portrayal of women in Grand Theft Auto V is problematic. That isn’t to say that games like Grand Theft Auto V shouldn’t be made. I’m not about to make such a statement about something that is artistic and creative in nature. That isn’t to say that representations and themes of misogyny need to disappear from video games. What it does say is that we need to work very hard to get ourselves to a point where we have the ability to foster and maintain recognition and validation of other peoples’ perspectives.
Thus far, that is entirely lacking, and the discourse is suffering from a zero-sum approach to a topic that is dominated by people who would rather wish cancer on you and your children than engage in a meaningful and intelligent discussion about what is, for some people, a very real issue. It’s for these reasons that I’ve decided I’m not leaving the Internet anytime soon.