Since September 17th, the day that Rockstar Games and Take Two Interactive unleashed “Grand Theft Auto V” (GTA V) for video game consoles, gamers around the world have been immersed in the sordid tale of criminal enterprise set against the beautiful vistas of Los Santos, the fictional version of Los Angeles. GTA V grossed over $800 million in 24 hours and broke the $1 billion mark in only three days, surpassing revenue totals for every feature film released in 2013 except “Iron Man 3.”
Those numbers are certainly impressive, but they also speak to the encroachment of video games into the same segment of the social literary sphere that used to be occupied only by feature films. From a pragmatic standpoint, it’s no wonder the average 20-something adult male would jump at the chance to participate in an entertainment experience like GTA V, because $60 for about 100 hours of immersive entertainment is a bargain compared to $12-15 for a two-hour feature film. Especially because games like GTA take the fantasy of wish-fulfillment, which has been embedded in the film industry for decades, and takes it to – pardon the pun – the next level.
GTA V follows the gripping tales of Franklin Clinton, Michael De Santa, and Trevor Phillips, the three criminal protagonists whose lives are interwoven in dramatic, funny and occasionally heartrending ways. But the gameplay mechanic, which involves traveling to various locales in the city and then carrying out the various missions that help to advance the story, requires copious amounts of driving and shooting. In order to make it easier to get around, the game makes it simple to acquire a car. You either steal one that’s unoccupied, or with a brief threat and an unceremonious shove, you jack one from an unsuspecting motorist – hence the name.
To be fair, over the years the GTA franchise has become more complex and interesting than just a bunch of guys who steal cars. In GTA, car theft is just a means to more lucrative ends — bank robberies and drug battles mostly, with legitimate business objective sprinkled throughout. With family connections, bitter betrayals, and a sense of burning resentment, GTA V has just as many thematic similarities with “The Sopranos” as it does “The Fast and the Furious.” I almost wonder if it needs a new title – after all, Aaron Sorkin’s drama about presidential politics wasn’t called “Walk and Talk,” even though that’s all that happened on that show.
But I digress.
My point is that at almost any given moment in GTA V, you’re engaged in either an epic shootout, or you’re driving around beautiful vistas with a brand new, shiny vehicle. And since cars and guns are two of the top three ingredients for the standard wish-fulfillment fantasy of the classic American male, the only thing left is sex.
Which brings me to one of the biggest problems of the game.
To say that GTA V is misogynist is to criminally understate the obvious. Yes, there are strip clubs and prostitutes, the inclusion of which tends to dominate most of the self-righteous, what-about-the-children haranguing that tends to follow any GTA release. It should go without saying that all of the GTA titles are rated “M-for-mature,” and probably would’ve been rated “AO (Adults Only),” except for the political nightmare that would be for big-box retailers. It’s usually the most careless, ill-informed, lazy parents of entitled children that purchase games like GTA for their grade-school-age kids – especially when the sales clerk tries to talk them out of it.
But strippers and prostitutes are only a tiny part of this very, very large game, just as vice crime is only part of the larger criminal underworlds that tend to inhabit cities like Los Angeles. What makes GTA V so misogynist is the lack of inclusion of any meaningful female characters at all. In GTA V, the women of Los Santos, when they’re not sex workers, are marginalized to the point of near invisibility. The three love interests opposite Franklin, Michael and Trevor are one-dimensional caricatures that come off pretty jarringly, especially in contrast to the way each of the men are treated as complex people, with a variety of needs, motives and personalities. And the rest are one-note bystanders or bit players.
One of the things I really liked about GTA V was the way that it gradually introduced the player to the various colorful characters, main and supporting, that appear in both the cover art and the slide show during game installation. Each of the men is rendered in vivid detail, an introductory snapshot that foreshadows their part of the story. But there were also three ladies, including one female cop arresting an escort. Where were they? Who were they? I played through the main storyline, and never found out. Apparently to Dan Houser and the rest of the creative staff at Rockstar, they were little more than window dressing.
And that really gets to the heart of what’s wrong with GTA as a whole.