Calling out Grand Theft Auto V for its portrayal of women is perhaps shooting at low hanging fruit. After all, the series is sort of infamous for allowing you to have sex with a prostitute and then kill her to collect the money, so it’s not like GTA has a history of being politically correct.
It’s hard to talk about Grand Theft Auto V and misogyny without, y’know, having a Change.org petition created to encourage your company to fire you. Carolyn Petit, whose review by the way still called GTA V superb and gave the game 9 out of 10, called out Rockstars’ flagship series for being “politically muddled and profoundly misogynistic.” This was apparently a “extreme feminist view.”
First of all, a solid definition of misogyny. I bring this up not because of pretension or knocks at your own intelligence, but rather so we’re all on the same page. What is misogyny? Wikipedia defines misogyny as:
The hatred and dislike of women or girls. Misogyny can be manifested in numerous ways, including sexual discrimination, denigration of women, violence against women, and sexual objectification of women.
So, is GTA V misogynistic?
For starters, this is the first Grand Theft Auto game to feature three protagonists. Yet, despite having THREE main characters, there evidently wasn’t room for Rockstar to even attempt a female lead. Forbes writer Paul Tassi made a solid point about the problems with this;
All the side characters of both genders are crazy and one-dimensional in GTA V. The fact that there isn’t a female lead means that there’s really no chance for a female character to be both a ruthless killer and criminal like the guys, and likeable as we learn more about her and find her redeeming qualities.
I would disagree to an extent with the point that Tassi is making. For one, while all of the side characters lack dimension, it is the women that we find the most egregious stereotypes and lack of agency. Who are the women you encounter in Los Santos?
Well, without getting into too many spoilers, there’s a few stand outs early on. The meth-head Trevor has sex with in one of his opening scenes, the crack addict Tonya, who offers Franklin sex to help her, or MIchael’s nagging, cheating wife? Sure, Michael’s son is a waste of space and Franklin’s friend Lamar isn’t a genius, but I hated every female character in the game. And I would argue that you’re meant to. You feel bad for Michael’s son, but I wanted to choke his screaming, blonde, bubblegum daughter. You’re not allowed to feel for the female characters in GTA V, you’re not allowed to connect with them, because they’re paper cutouts of real people.
Tracey, Michael’s aforementioned daughter, is probably one of the least likeable characters in the game, and your interactions with her are some of the worst. Tracey is treated as having about the same agency and intelligence as a toy poodle, and must always be “saved” from her poor decisions, specifically involving hanging out with porn directors. You, the man (her father), must save her from her perceived lack of purity. Jon Hamlin, of Culture Mass wrote; “Amanda [Michaels’ wife] and Tracey are objectified and represented as powerless, naive, spiteful and untrustworthy women. Not people. But women.”
Tracey and Amanda are probably two of the characters that pop up the most of their gender, and they’re little more than belittled stereotypes. They are characters that operate solely out of spite and vengeance, whose sexuality is a weapon to be wielded against Michael. It’s disheartening that they are the portrayal of women we get from Rockstar.
In her Gamespot review, Petit wrote;
GTA V has little room for women except to portray them as strippers, prostitutes, long-suffering wives, humorless girlfriends and goofy, new-age feminists we’re meant to laugh at.
Take a side quest from GTA V, where you are supposed to race against a woman named Mary-Ann. You race against her as all three characters, but the one that really stands out to me is when you race her as Michael.
Michael is, at this point, characterized as way past his prime, old and beat up and incredibly out of shape. Mary-Ann, in contrast, is shown as being pretty in shape, a fitness nut. Oh, and she’s psychotic. But not just psychotic, she is one-dimensional, childless and 39, man-less and proud (but really not) of it. Here’s the thing. You shouldn’t be able to beat her. But you must. And I know it’s a game, I know that in games you win. But maybe it’s because of Michael’s jeering throughout the race, maybe it’s the fact that when you beat her you give her your phone number, but it feels like you have to win because you’re a man.
It’s jarring to play as a woman because the game is actually quite fun. There was an absolute picturesque moment where I was driving down the highway with the sun setting and a beautiful car, with old school country music a steady thrum to the background noise of the world. It was picturesque. But then, “a voice comes on the radio that talks about using a woman as a urinal,” and the moment feels lost and empty.
A Kotaku piece by Stephen Totilo makes a good point about GTA V. In game, you can meet a getaway driver, through chance, named Taliana Martinez. She is one of the few truly strong female characters in the game, a “low-level, rough edged crook… like the Franklin I had started to playing 40 hours earlier,” and her appearance shows the potential for a more even-keeled GTA V experience. But your interaction with her is fleeting and quickly over.
Is GTA V having trouble with women? Yes. Despite its incredible scope and scale, I’m not sure it ever manages to pass the Bechdel Test.
Grand Theft Auto V is probably the best produced game of its generation. For production value alone, it stands apart. There are buttons and modes for every player. You can get a coke from a machine, you can take Lamar out to a club and get drunk, you can feel up strippers at the bar.
But it’s like the game forgot about half of the population, except through the lens of a middle school boy. So, is GTA V misogynistic?
Rockstar can continue to hide behind the veil of satire, to pretend that the women and men in its games are presented in an even light, but when it comes down to it, that’s not the case.