Grand Theft Auto V’s grand gender problem

Grand Theft Auto hasn’t always had a gender problem. The first game even had a number of female protagonists, none of which were any different to the male characters. But as its target audience became predictable, and the gameplay more defined, the franchise quickly laid the roots for its currently inescapable misogynistic undertones – from the simple exclusion of women in the otherwise neutrally gendered Grand Theft Auto London to the pure misogyny of Grand Theft Auto V.

The sexism of the latest game is unprecedented for the series, caused by a combination of Rockstar’s trademark social parody and what co-founder Dan Houser called a ‘concept of being masculine’, an idea which is vital to interpreting the game. While earlier Grand Theft Auto games featured exclusively male protagonists, with women as possible targets for their violence, most of this content was optional and easy to avoid.

But this focus on the gender of the protagonists is also a new development. They couldn’t even speak until 2002’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, emphasizing their status as placeholders more than people. The main draw of the GTA franchise has always been less about the characters, and more about the violence and the chaos, giving players a detailed urban sandbox they can interact with in whichever way they choose. This sandbox offers players unfamiliar power in a world designed to strongly resemble the world in which they live. As Professor G. Christopher Williams argues in an article for Pop Matters, this world represents a populist revenge fantasy aimed at contemporary capitalism, staring protagonists who are ‘quite unwilling to accept the idea of existing at the whim of someone who is simply “bigger and badder” than they are economically.’ They express this sentiment through crime and violence, removed from its real-life consequences, in a world where they have unlimited power. Setting aside the masculine perspective of the latest game, as Helen Lewis does in a review for The Guardian, there is nothing gendered in this fantasy. But Rockstar say they’ve struggled with coming up with a concept for a new game that doesn’t unfold from a masculine perspective. But a feminine model for similar violence does exist in 2001 film Baise-Moi. So how do GTA and Baise-Moi differ? Is a female-fronted Grand Theft Auto possible?

As many critics have explained, GTA V’s version of San Andreas is entirely populated by clichés and social stereotypes. The politics are intentionally ambiguous: turn on the radio in the city, and you find a station making fun of inner-city liberals, turn on the radio in the country, and you find a station making fun of regional conservatives. Both governments and businesses are depicted as corrupt: one protagonist’s missions deal with assassinating white collar criminals to manipulate the stock market, and all of the protagonists are drawn into crimes committed for the benefit of government officials. From this perspective, the sexism in the game is almost incidental. You see no strong female characters because almost every character is a source of social parody. Even the player characters begin as simple stereotypes, though they are allowed to build more nuanced personalities as the story goes along.

What’s missing from the game is a female point of view. Because the player’s protagonist character is male, players interact with the simulated world as a man. Women in the game insult the protagonist’s appearance, and men either threaten to attack him, or make sexist jokes and comments expecting his support.  This is where the problems of the game begin, but it’s also the start of their solution.

GTA VI needs a female protagonist. But what sort of character could she be?

You might have heard of Baise-Moi, a rape-revenge movie from 2001, currently banned in Australia. Originally a book by French novelist, filmmaker, and rock critic Virginie Despentes, Baise Moi tells the story of Nadine and Manu, two women involved in the sex industry, who are abducted and raped by a group of men. They later join together in a sexually-charged theft and murder spree aimed at predominantly patriarchal figures: cat-callers, racists, and, on one notable occasion, a well-off liberal white man with a fascination for the work of controversial eighteenth-century French writer Marquis de Sade, an author who himself displayed a complicated mix of progressive and regressive politics in his degradation-focused pornographic writings, which made surprising space for female characters.

Baise-Moi isn’t comfortable or entirely unproblematic viewing, walking a narrow line between pornographic exploitation film and feminist revenge fantasy, but what it does offer is a relatively rare example of hardcore, escapist violence written from a female point of view. As GTA V relies on masculinity of its protagonists to contextualise the violence, Baise-Moi shows similar scenes of violence written from a female perspective. Manu shoots her brother who accuses her of enjoying being raped. In a later scene, the pair decides to visit a swingers’ bar. Manu is subjected to a racist comment after rejecting a man’s advances at the club. She slams his head into a table to the sound of French punk rock, the two take out their guns, and the scene becomes a massacre: an event which wouldn’t be out of place in the latest Grand Theft Auto, or any number of other mainstream, masculinised computer games.

The difference is entirely in context. While GTA V has male protagonists and contextualises the violence accordingly, Baise-Moi has female protagonists, and is written from a different social positioning. As Gender Forum writer Amy Forrest notes, ‘Nadine and Manu’s actions are a violent and personal protest against society’s inability to protect them . . . their violence is not meaningless, but is instead a message about the social and cultural context of their behaviour.’ Judith Franco of Scumgrrrls agrees:

Baise-Moi takes the oppression of women as a premise and transforms it into ‘a place of rage’ thus subverting an important ideological strand in the cultural consideration of women and violence which insists upon female moral obligation in matters of life and death.

There’s nothing essentially gendered in escapist violence, and it’s not the violence which makes GTA V exclusionary to women. It’s the way the violence is contextualized by the gender of its three protagonists. This can be changed, leading to a radical and more inclusive fantasy than the games have seen before.

Both Baise-Moi and Grand Theft Auto are escapist texts, power fantasies where relatively unstoppable protagonists dish out cartoonish revenge against their oppressors: the patriarchy, in Baise-Moi, or capitalism in GTA V. GTA, like all power fantasies, offers viewers a release from everyday oppression. All genders are oppressed by capitalism, so all genders have a need for the fantasy that the games represent. They should not be limited to the male perspective when that fantasy is universal. While a switch to a female point of view may alienate some of the more easily aggrieved male gamers, their loss should be outnumbered by the mass of new attention that a female-focused Grand Theft Auto in an overwhelmingly masculine franchise would provide. Baise-Moi provides a model for that game. But will Rockstar be brave enough to make it?


Image: Ferino Design / flickr

Maddison Stoff

Maddison Stoff is a writer, critic and independent musician from Melbourne, Australia. Follow her on Twitter: @thedescenters.

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