Grand Theft Auto 5's Gender Problem

Tuesday, September 17, 2013 - 03:55 PM

(Rockstar Games)

Grand Theft Auto Five is out today. It'll most certainly be another huge hit for Rockstar Games. And it's already the highest-rated game ever reviewed on Metacritic. It also, unfortunately, has the crappy gender politics of every blockbuster video game release since the beginning of time. 


Here's the New York Times, who interviewed Sam Houser (one of Rockstar's co-founders)

For all that the game does right, it has a genuinely problematic aspect that is not its enthusiasm for violence or sex but its lack of interest in women as something other than lustful airheads (notwithstanding a late-game cameo by Houser's mother, Geraldine Moffat, a British actress of the 1960s and ’70s). One of the only young women in the game not oversexed and under-read is sucked into a jet turbine.

When I asked Mr. Houser if he had thought about the portrayal of women in Rockstar’s games, he said, “Seemingly not as much as I should have.” He added: “These three guys fit with the story we wanted to tell. It would be hard to take one of them and replace him — I mean, I suppose we could have done it, early enough on — with a female character."

Meanwhile, in the video game press, Gamespot had this aside in their review:

GTA V is an imperfect yet astounding game that has great characters and an innovative and exciting narrative structure, even if the story it uses that structure to tell is hobbled at times by inconsistent character behavior, muddled political messages and rampant misogyny. 

They rated the game a 9.00/10, which suggests that rampant misogyny will dock you about .33 points, give or take.

I'm worried that on this blog in general, I'm writing too much as a scold. So rather than yelling at the commercial video game industry for its refusal to depict women as anything other than comically absurd sex objects, I guess I'll say I'm genuinely curious why that is.

If you look at other entertainment industries, like film or television, you can see plenty of entertainment that shares cultural values with the big blockbuster game franchises. Hell, cable TV, everyone's favorite cultural star pupil, leans hard on male protagonists in their mid-40s. But in most forms that aren't video games, you see a diversity of perspectives and representation, even in the blockbuster realm. Why can't video games have an Orange is the New Black?


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Comments [7]

Warren from Brooklyn, N.Y.

"Why can't video games have an Orange is the New Black?"

_Portal_ and _Portal 2_ (one of the highest-rated games of all time), both told entirely from a female character's point of view, don't count? Or can female characters only be legitimate if they're as cynically portrayed as men are in other games?

Nov. 24 2013 08:05 PM
fred from usa

The game is a reflection of reality.

The prisons are filled with which gender? Last I checked it was at 90%+ male and its not going to change anytime soon.

The violent crime narrative is a male one, and asking "questions" about portrayals in such story telling is a bit ridiculous. Its like asking why bella swan in twilight wasn't a guy, and are women sexist for not wanting it to be that way.

Sep. 21 2013 03:42 AM
Mark Richard from WOSU

Geez, if you don't like the game, don't play it.

Sep. 18 2013 01:12 PM
JC Harris

Unfortunately, change like this has to come from the top down. You can raise consciousness later, but in the beginning, unless a big player like EA or Microsoft puts their foot down, things will never change. Most people are highly compartmentalised---they think they're totally PC in 'real' life, but then don't see any problem with misogyny or ultra-violence in virtual life.

Sep. 18 2013 01:26 AM

I think the main reason is because the target audience is young males. So they have the main protagonist as a young male

Sep. 17 2013 06:51 PM
William Calloway

I think video games are beginning to see significant entries that begin to address the aforementioned problematic balance and diversity in perspective. The recent independent entry Gone Home seems a sterling example of such a sapling trend. More and more small, intimately produced projects are seem to be following a similar course, though only time will tell.

The problem though, and this is the root behind so many troubling and stubborn issues in video games today, is that the investment of time, money, and manpower to produce the sort of games with mass-market scope and appeal that something like GTAV boasts is astronomical and only growing steadily by the year. Imagine if every television show that ever garnered any broad public exposure required the budget and polish of Game of Thrones.

The number of studios that can boast such budgets ever is small and shrinking. Remove from that small pool all the studios who produce games with no real narrative space to begin with (though the gender politics of Madden or could stand some exploration, now that I think of it.) Let's also discount some of the more mercenary mega-studios and their gentry who are rather tethered to pushing out safe iterations on established franchises and formulas (read: violent, white, male, 20s-30s, bestubbled) to recoup their enormous costs.

The pool is now a puddle, with less than a handful of established studios with the reliable draw and creative drive to attempt narrative exploration on a blockbuster scale. Rockstar is one of those few though, and with GTAV come and gone, that opportunity for "Orange is the New Black: Xbox Edition" may be farther off than ever.

Sep. 17 2013 05:13 PM
Ian R from Minneapolis, MN

It has been interesting to see a shift in how gender issues are critiqued in games from one that deals with the content of the game, to one that primarily focuses on the creator's assumptions of their audience. Gender issues in video games used to focus on violence against women, sexualized depictions of women, and the ways it portrayed females to male gamers. Tomb Raider had the most notable female protagonist, but was to most minds not progressive because Lara Croft was culturally perceived as a teenage crush by male Playstation owners (let's leave Metroid out of this).

The Saint's Row series has no shortage of prostitutes, scantily-clad and sexualized female characters but has been applauded, perhaps in a tongue-in-cheek manner, for requiring the player to establish the gender and body type of the protagonist. GTA V seems to assume that the player is a man looking to fulfill masculine fantasies. Saint's Row allows that perhaps a woman would like to take a flame thrower to the city park too.

Is our new litmus test whether a woman can pick up the controller and play without being forced to assume a male identity, rather than the old model of whether the content included stereotypes and sex workers?

Sep. 17 2013 04:50 PM

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TLDR is a short podcast and blog about the internet by Meredith Haggerty. You can subscribe to the TLDR podcast here. You can follow our blog here. I tweet @manymanywords and @tldr.

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