Grand Theft Gender
Michelle is a fabulously rich retired bank robber living in a giant mansion with her chronically unfaithful husband several years after faking her own death. She regularly visits a psychiatrist in the hopes of filling the emptiness of her life with anything more productive than the crime she left behind, and she is just as regularly disappointed.
Francine grew up into violent gang culture and steals cars under the guise of doing repossession work for a corrupt businessperson. Tenacious and streetwise, her talents far outstretch the capabilities of her childhood friends, making her frustrated at the lack of professionalism surrounding her, and the way it seems to shackle her to a life of relative poverty.
Trina wakes up on beaches, drunk, in nothing but her underwear, a pair of boots, and someone else’s blood; surrounded by dead people. She runs a meth empire from her caravan in the desert, and she’s terrifying.
When these three women eventually come together, working the US government up into a frenzy against a private military company and several rival gangs, while successfully orchestrating the biggest bank robbery in history, their story outsells every other piece of mainstream entertainment in history.
I am of course describing an alternative version of Rockstar’s opus Grand Theft Auto 5, an undeniably excellent game as it exists in reality, but one set in a digital world tragically devoid of interesting women. Now, Grand Theft Auto is a series known for many things, among them being the least subtle social satire in gaming - it’s a series that flat out refuses to pull any punches in its scathing criticism of practically anything it can get its hands on. It seems logical then that the patriarchy, our institutionally male-dominated society, should be the subject of some attention within the game, and indeed, in the form of the stellar talk radio fixture The Fernando Show, it is. This piece of sub-satire within the game treats deeply ingrained sexism and modern radical feminism in much the same way as it deals with all other aspects of society: with an equally huge portion of absurd overwrought parody dished up on both sides. This is healthy social commentary, as Rockstar clearly makes a point of mocking every side of every debate equally extremely; it isn’t making a point of singling out anything in particular, because it’s too busy criticising everything else in society as well.
However, the choice to have all three of the exceptionally well written playable protagonists, as well as the majority of the supporting cast, be male is not part of the same deferential satire: it’s counterintuitively too subtle. The Fernando Show is Rockstar’s tool for drawing attention to sexism, it’s extreme, it’s obvious, and it’s hilarious; the gender inequality in the cast however, isn’t. Most games feature exclusively male characters, this much is true especially where protagonists are concerned, so gamers are used to seeing “men doing cool stuff” in digital worlds with terribly unequal gender representation. Continuing this trend in the game which has reached the largest audience of all time isn’t Rockstar saying: “Hey, ever noticed how women hardly ever get to do all this stuff? Isn’t that dumb?”, it’s just reinforcing the stereotype and showing their customers more of what they’re used to. This isn’t Saint’s Row 2 where you fully customise your own character, with the gender options being literally and brilliantly on a sliding scale, this is Rockstar actively choosing the characters’ genders for you, and those choices have to have been made for a reason. The question we have to ask therefore is “why?”.
And this is important, because if the piece of entertainment with the largest reach ever isn’t demonstrating equal gender representation, what kind of message is that sending? There’s a huge number of people striving for the creation of more “strong” female characters in things, people looking for more good, worthy, morally righteous, fictional role models for women, and that’s certainly something worth striving for, but what about all the other kinds of women there are? What about all the other types of people there are? We need female characters who are good, who are evil, and who are morally ambiguous; women who do unexpected independent things for their own reasons, be they virtuous or malicious; we need more female video game characters to be given the roles that are traditionally and arbitrarily assigned to male characters across the board. Above all, they just need to be well written.
Having more women in Grand Theft Auto 5 wouldn’t just be more egalitarian either, it would be more interesting, and just plain better. Trevor is clearly designed to be a shocking character, a sort of walking talking personification of the type of horror Infinity Ward strived for when it told its players to gun down an airport full of innocent people in Modern Warfare 2, and to some extent this shock is achieved. The trouble is, as condemnable as all of Trevor’s actions are, they are things we have seen men do in fiction before, from Halo to The Last of Us we have become desensitised to male violence and crime - it is just accepted. The protagonists of Grand Theft Auto 5 were created bowing down to the audience’s blind expectation that they would statistically be white men with short brown hair, square jaws, and a propensity towards murder, and that’s lazy. What we as a society are not used to seeing though, is women doing the same simulated crimes in games: the perceived gender roles of our real life society are so ingrained that we find it difficult to stomach the idea of playing as a women who is anything other than completely reactionary.
Take any male villain from any game, film, or TV series you have seen, and in your mind, turn them into a woman. Make them completely the same, clothes, script, hairstyle, sexuality, everything, and think about how that character then makes you feel. Imagine if Vaas from Far Cry 3 was a woman, imagine if Handsome Jack from Borderlands 2 was female, imagine if freaking Ganondorf was. Gender swapping traditionally male characters in games, particularly villains, immediately takes the audience out of its comfort zone, purely because they’re not going to be used to seeing women in a game do these things.
If Rockstar really wanted to make a point about how messed up Trevor is, they could have changed his character model, hired a different voice actor, and changed a few pronouns, and instead of having to have all the other characters rant about how evil Trevor is, they’d have an utterly terrifying female protagonist.
One day the idea of playing as a female character who is as morally questionable as her male counterparts will be a boring lazy trope. I await that day.