Please note, full spoilers for Grand Theft Auto 5 follow.
Grand Theft Auto’s cultural influence is so pervasive that the crime for which it is named comes to mind only after gleeful recollections of monkeying around in its violent sandbox.
In fact, the act of Grand Theft Auto, that is, the theft or attempted theft of a motor vehicle might only be the third thing that comes to mind when those three words are uttered in sequence – the controversy that follows each iteration of Rockstar’s flagship franchise is such that it has often threatened to eclipse the title itself.
Hot Coffee. The effects of the violent acts it depicts on children. And now, accusations of misogyny and sexism.
Whilst there is a necessary conversation being held regarding the depiction of women in videogames, much of the vitriol aimed at Grand Theft Auto 5 on the subject of sexism hinges on two key components of the title.
First, the lack of a female protagonist amongst the three playable characters.
Second, the depictions of women and femininity in Grand Theft Auto titles and the lack of female characters in its cast. I will look to discuss the first of those points here, with the second to be discussed in a future article.
The more pointed arguments have revolved around the fact that the majority of GTA’s female characters are little more than plot devices and portray women unfavorably,
That said, the aforementioned lack of a female protagonist has in itself been enough for certain critics to paint Grand Theft Auto 5 as a title that excludes and alienates women.
True, that when first hearing about Rockstar’s plans to include three playable characters I was surprised to find that there was not a woman amongst them. Instead, Grand Theft Auto 5 would let you play as two white guys with personality disorders and a relatively mentally balanced black guy.
From the title’s first trailers that promised a next generation-esque jump in quality, Rockstar’s choice of playable characters appeared somewhat backwards – you now had the ability to play as vague facsimiles of the protagonists of the last three GTA games only now, you could play them all at the same time.
That said, there is no gameplay reason for Grand Theft Auto 5 to exclude a female protagonist, and certainly, the inclusion of female character models in GTA Online reflects this. Though in terms of narrative, Rockstar’s latest works precisely for the fact that all its protagonists are male. To ask why Grand Theft Auto 5 does not have a female character amongst its three playable protagonists is to only to consider half the argument.
A better question would be, why would Rockstar choose to have an all male main cast in the latest Grand Theft Auto?
That Grand Theft Auto 5’s story is about men does not make it misogynistic. Stories that are predominantly about men are not exclusive to men nor are stories about women exclusive to women. The idea that men or women need a protagonist of their own gender to feel included is frankly insulting to the intelligence of individuals of either gender.
Just as men have much to learn from stories about women, so too do women have much to learn from stories about men. Is a female protagonist a prerequisite for the enjoyment of a given text by a female audience? Should a writer attempting to tell a story which explores specific themes feel bullied into including and introducing major characters they might not have otherwise so as to be wholly and totally inclusive?
The point that several critics make regarding the lack of female characters is justified in that it raises awareness of the problem that strong female characters are underrepresented in videogames but to consider GTA 5 as misogynistic because it focuses on male characters is to attack the necessity of stories that are predominantly about characters of either gender.
Whether a story is about men or women, or about men and women, every story is ultimately about people, and regardless of your gender, race, sexuality or any other sub-divider of the human race, there is something to be taken from stories about people who are inherently different from yourself.
The key here is considering the kind of story that Rockstar are trying to tell and why there is a distinct need for a predominantly male cast to discuss masculinity in the way that the game does.
To even consider forcing a team of artists or writers to change their work and their vision so as to fulfill the wants and desires of everyone in a racially, sexually and gender diverse audience is to compromise the integrity of their work.
In short, whilst we must continue to strive for better representation of women in videogames, we must not confuse an artistic decision to focus on male characters as a decision to misogynistically marginalize women.
Whilst there is a noted problem of sexism in the games industry, it does not mean that every videogame designer must respond by including feminist discourse in their videogames – to ask that of the industry is to compromise a freedom of expression that has allowed the form to become the dynamic force that it is to today.
In Grand Theft Auto 5’s case, the lack of a female protagonist is attributable to Rockstar’s decision to tell a story with men at its heart.
On a simplistic level, GTA 5 is about crime, notions of manhood and the responsibilities that come with families, whether those families be made from bonds of blood or career.
It is also about growing old, letting go and moving on – an interesting theme for the fifth game in a series that has been labelled as repugnant adolescent entertainment as often as it has been lauded as one of Britain’s finest exports.
For all the pomp and vigour of its sandbox, there is a traditional, relatively linear narrative at work in GTA 5. That both decade old gameplay elements and character switching elements new to the series both inform and supplement this narrative is testament to Rockstar’s ability to tell a story with additional layers of subtext that are very much of the players own making.
The game’s three protagonists are somewhat archetypal by design – Michael, Franklin and Trevor are each a cipher for differing components of the overall notion of masculinity in GTA 5. However, there is as much of an emphasis on the gameplay opportunities that these archetypes offer as much as they ways in which they might affect the story. The personality differences present in each character do not just play out in scripted cut scenes but also in gameplay terms – Rockstar carefully guides the player into playing as each character differently.
Switching to Trevor to find him drunk, half naked, in possession of a firearm and in need of a car leads the player into committing a crime that is befitting of Trevor’s character.
Switching to Michael to find him casually seated and enjoying an old movie before finding your own parked car as you journey off to begin a mission means that the player is not as naturally inclined to commit a rampage.
The indication is clear – Michael is the professional businessman and Trevor is the psycho.
Grand Theft Auto isn’t always as subtle as this. Giving Franklin missions which focus on committing petty crime with friends whilst tasking Trevor with murdering countless bikers or delivering arms shipments deliberately places your time with each character in a different context.
The point here is that each character represents a different aspect of Grand Theft Auto’s overarching themes in both gameplay and narrative terms and as such, Rockstar marries gameplay and story in a way that feels organic and is pervasive – I often refrained from stealing vehicles whilst playing as Michael whilst I gleefully mowed down innocents as Trevor.
Going back to the central themes of Grand Theft Auto 5, each pertain to aspects of manhood, at least as far as the characters perceive it.
Micheal is emasculated by the boring retirement and floundering marriage that has replaced his criminal activities. Michael talks about being a provider and a father – when your occupation is that of a career criminal, the choices you make in that life are often incompatible with those you have to make as a father.
Michael’s story is that of a man who gave up his old life for the sake of his family and the compromises he makes to allow each of those separate lives to exist. Whilst he is compelled by his family to cease his criminal activities, as Michael says later in the game, criminality makes him feel alive.
Exemplified by his insistence on completing The Big Score, Michael is torn between his family responsibilities and his desire to continue being what he perceives as a man.
Micheal frequently comments that as a man, and as a father, he is the provider. The methods with which he provides are his criminal activities and as such, it can be understood that Michael equates being a successful criminal with being a provider, a father and most importantly, a man. This is of course, something of a contradiction and certainly, contradictions are central to Michael’s role in Grand Theft Auto 5.
If Michael is our (im)moral centre then Franklin and Trevor each represent the differing aspects and possibilities of his past and future.
The game begins in earnest with Franklin and by all intents and purposes, the main narrative ends with him. In many ways, Franklin’s ark and experiences through GTA 5 mirrors that of the player – he is a wannabe career criminal learning the ropes and making his first steps on the ladder.
As Micheal’s protégé, Franklin is very much a reminder to Michael of his younger self and is something of a replacement for Michael’s real son Jimmy. That said, as much as Franklin looks up to Michael and the opportunities there working together brings, Franklin becomes damaged by his experiences throughout the game – finally graduating to the level of career criminal, Franklin’s success only brings him the scorn of those he grew up with and the loneliness that comes from accumulating a sizable amount of month but having no one to share it with.
If Franklin is the man that Micheal was then Trevor is the man Michael could have, and still may become.
Trevor’s mental state and his overly violent behavior is a parable for the dangers of being a career criminal beyond the obvious. In many ways, Trevor is an exaggerated parody of what players expect from Grand Theft Auto. This is most evident in the suspension of disbelief breaking rampage missions that serve as a reminder of a days when GTA was less nuanced – that players greatly enjoy Trevor’s character and his specific missions raises interesting questions regarding player involvement in GTA’s overarching themes of crime and violence.
Specifically, Trevor is the embodiment of Grand Theft Auto 5’s notion of criminality as manhood and the players gross enjoyment of committing heinous acts whilst playing as Trevor seeks to highlight the argument and ask us, rather frankly, why do we enjoy Grand Theft Auto beyond its distinctly Hollywood inspired narrative?
Consider Trevor’s propensity to discuss sexual acts in tandem with criminal activity – the indication is that sexual potency, that is, Trevor’s notion of what it means to be a man is inexorably linked to being a criminal. Trevor is the extreme version of Michael’s view that criminality = manhood.
Players are at their most empowered when playing as Trevor, both because of Trevor’s distinctly combat orientated, damage nullifying special ability and the absurdly grandiose nature of his most bombastic missions. That we take such pleasure whilst playing as an inherently damaged and psychotic individual is Rockstar’s own way of poking fun at the whole violence in videogames argument.
Grand Theft Auto 5 uses each of the characters differing positions in the criminal underworld, their differing representations of manhood through that lens and the differing ways in which players feel compelled to play when playing as those characters to tell its story.
The interplay between Franklin, Trevor and Michael forms the crux of the games plot, colours the differing flavors of gameplay and forms the meat on the bones of any metatextual reading of Grand Theft Auto 5.
To tell the story of Grand Theft Auto 5 fully then, required a cast of playable characters who would contribute to the story telling ambitions and intentions of the writers.
In this regard, the inclusion of a female protagonist may have ran counter intuitively to the story Rockstar hoped to tell with Grand Theft Auto 5.
Grand Theft Auto 5’s decision to tell a story about three men, their struggles with criminality, masculinity and their inabilities to move on from the past or constructively make a future for themselves would have been inexorably changed by the inclusion of a female protagonist.
Franklin, Michael and Trevor are each explorations of the notion of manhood that add context to one another – removing one of them from the story or introducing another character would have destabilized and diluted the meaning of GTA 5’s story and taken something integral away the trinity that forms the richly nuanced core of the game.
Does that mean that Grand Theft Auto 5 excludes women?
By being about men and manhood, there is a large part of the game that is also about women, or rather, the inability of our male protagonists to really connect with the women in their lives. Michael’s wife Amanda is equally dissatisfied with their marriage and engages in multiple affairs – their mutual unhappiness is largely due to Michael’s descent back into crime and the danger he places himself and his family in.
Franklin’s preoccupation with pursuing an unsavoury career means he is distanced from the women in his life and when switching to him, we often find Franklin in a somber mood after leaving the strip club. Later in the game, Franklin moves into a large house and is living the dream though he is terribly lonely, his childhood sweetheart getting married to someone else.
Trevor on the other hand is so damaged that the only thing coming close to a normal relationship with a woman comes in the form of a Stockholm syndrome fling with the kidnapped wife of crime boss.
I would have loved to see more interactions between each of these men and the women in their lives to really hammer home the consequences of their chosen career paths and to broaden out the supporting cast. Whilst a love interest for Franklin is telling in its absence, there were storytelling beats that Rockstar could have followed that may have added something to GTA 5’s narrative. That said, like a movie with a running time in need of a trim, Rockstar may have felt pressured to exclude segments that did not contribute significantly to the overarching themes of the game.
Ultimately, the complexity and multi-layer readings afforded by switching between multiple protagonists is one of Grand Theft Auto 5’s greatest achievements.
The possibilities that an evolution of this narrative/gameplay device could bring to Grand Theft Auto 6, Red Dead Redemption 2 or another Rockstar title are hugely exciting and to truly go beyond the benchmark GTA 5 has set, Rockstar has to include a female protagonist, so long as that is endemic to the story they wish to tell.
Consider the possibilities of a Grand Theft Auto retelling of Natural Born Killers where a man and woman simultaneously bring out the best and worst in each other. Or of a Leon-esque surrogate father and daughter story where a little girl is honed into a killer. A pastiche of Thelma and Louise where Rockstar subvert audience expectations of a GTA game and show the descent of two brutalised women into increasingly violent acts of crime.
GTA 5 has shown that Rockstar are adept at telling a complex story that is engaging on both gameplay and narrative levels via the use of devices that are unique to videogames.
Whilst I will defend their decision to make a game whose story revolves around men and manhood, I would love to see a similarly nuanced discussion of how the relationships between men and women can be tested by the difficulties of organised crime or how women respond to a need to engage in criminal activity in contrast to their responsibilities as a mother.
I loved Grand Theft Auto 5’s story because it examined aspects of masculinity, fatherhood and friendship. I would love a Grand Theft Auto game that shone a similar spotlight on the intricacies of relationships between strong men and women for whom crime is a career.
Whatever Rockstar do next, I hope a more nuanced reading of their work is in evidence than the knee jerk reactions of critics that equate a cast of three male protagonists alone as being evidence of sexism