Why is Grand Theft Auto’s misogyny still getting a pass?

On the first day of my Gender Communication class in college, my professor split up the men and women and asked us to list every slang term we have heard used to describe the opposite sex. The young men in my group were timidly writing words like "babe," "arm candy" and "honey" until my professor came over and chided us for holding back. We then proceeded to list an immense vocabulary of misogyny. My professor then had us do something I am still ashamed of to this day. He had us transfer our lists to the chalkboard for the whole class to see.

I knew the Bible declared both male and female as made in the image of God and I knew that women are "heirs with [men] of the grace of life," yet I had been clueless about the sexism that surrounded me. In that moment, with all those abhorrent words starring back at me from the board, I realized that I was complicit in this widespread misogyny.

Grand Theft Auto V, the latest entry in the hugely popular, open-world crime series, has been widely criticized for being deeply misogynistic. Those concerns, however, don't seem to have significantly affected the game's critical or commercial reception. The game is currently sitting at 97 on Metacritic and had sales of over 800 million in its first day. This disconnect is holding video games back as a medium.

Los Santos, the setting of Grand Theft Auto V, is tremendously well realized. The city is incredibly detailed, with vast neighborhoods of differing character. Driving up and down the coast and through the mountains very much looks and feels like Southern California. You can also watch television, race jet skis and help the paparazzi take pictures of celebrities. The game places players in control of three very different protagonists, each of whom players can switch to at any time. Switching to Michael in between missions, for instance, finds him accusing his son of playing too many video games. Such moments bring GTA V's world and characters to life.

There is however, something notably missing among these details. Chris Plante, reviewing the game for Polygon, said, "There are more interesting female characters on Grand Theft Auto V's disc art than there are in Grand Theft Auto V."

It is a game about men for men. What is unfortunate, however, is how the game portrays women to its target audience. The few female characters of GTA V spend most of the game complaining, nagging or servicing the main characters. Consequently, Carolyn Petit has declared the game "profoundly misogynistic."

The common response to such criticism is that the GTA games are a satire of American life. Satire, however, can do more harm than good when it is unclear. If GTA V satirizes sexist American culture, that message is lost on much of the game's male audience. Consider that Petit's review was met with over 20,000 comments, many of which wished her physical harm and dismissed her criticisms based on her gender. 

Petit and Plante’s reviews appeared at two of the biggest video game websites, yet their criticisms are seemingly absent from the game's final review score. Polygon gave the game a 9.5 out of 10 and Gamespot gave it 9 out of 10. According to Polygon’s website, an editorial team scores all the games reviewed based on the content of the review. Apparently Polygon's editorial team felt that the five paragraphs Plante devoted to explaining why GTA V's misogyny caused him to feel "nauseated" only warranted subtracting five tenths of a point from its final score.

When we recognize but refuse to significantly hold games to account for objectifying one half of the human population, we cannot claim ignorance. When we do this, we must realize, as I did in that Gender Communication class, that we are part of what is wrong with the world. We don't need video games to remind us that the world is broken, but if we hope to do anything about the brokenness of the world, we must acknowledge when its cultural products devalue people made in God's image.

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Satire can only really be a satire if it’s understood to be a satire… by the audience.  But let’s face it, there are always going to be people that fail to see or understand the satire in any given work.  This is how works like TheOnion.com and LarkNews.com occasionally get taken seriously. 

It’s tough to see where the responsibility lies with works like this. Is it the creator’s fault or the people who interpret the game incorrectly?  On one hand, I can see how the creator has responsibility here, on the other hand, given how all forms of satire can be misinterpreted by their audiences, perhaps the responsibility lies in the people doing the consuming.

Given the current state of misogyny in videogames, I think the creators certainly bear a lot of responsibility. In other words Rockstar isn’t clueless about the fact that their target audience is 18-30 something men—the last people in the world who need to play a game that satirizes sexism in America.

When someone speaks up about the sad state of female characters in videogames and is met with death threats, we know this is a far reaching problem (http://www.ign.com/articles/2013/05/31/tropes-vs-women-in-video-games-why-it-matters). I say this as a game critic who very much appreciates and sees a lot of potential in the medium: videogames seem to be married to misogyny more deeply than any other medium (save for comics maybe).

All that to say, this is not a healthy or wise context for satire that seeks to expose how sexist our culture is. That is why I pointed out that satire can be dangerous. Additionally, I would say that if GTA5 was meant to be satire, it is really lazy satire.

We certainly bear responsibility as consumers and critics as well. People are always going to misunderstand satire, but in general satire shouldn’t be aimed directly at the audience who is most likely to miss the point. That seems unwise at best and irresponsible at worst.

GTA is a game about drugs, murder, robbery, murdering police officers, and all sorts of felonious behavior. In light of all that, you chose to highlight misogyny? Come on, man.

And what exactly do you mean by “getting a pass?” A pass from whom? What would you like to see happen, the game be banned? I don’t play GTA. I wouldn’t let my kids play GTA. But if people want to play it, that’s their business. If I don’t want to play a game, I don’t have to. If I don’t want to smoke, I won’t (and I don’t). If I don’t want to watch a show, guess what? I change the channel. What I don’t do is try to stop other people from doing those things, because they’re adults.

Hey Kevin,

Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment.

Yes, I chose to highlight misogyny—I am pretty sure that all those things you mention are things that people knew were problems with the GTA series, “theft,” after all is in the title.

What I mean by getting a pass, and I think you probably can see this in the article itself so I won’t elaborate too much, is that many important critics identified misogyny as a big problem in the game but that criticism was not reflected in the game’s overall score.

I don’t try to stop other people from playing games or any other activity. What I do think is important is for critics to be critical, particularly with regard to issues like misogyny which we so easily overlook.

Thanks, Drew, for a really helpful take on this series.

I have to disagree, Kevin. Part of our calling in the world is to speak out against injustice and systems that perpetuate violence. Yes, there are many other aspects of the game that are troubling beyond the misogyny. Yet, I think that what Drew highlights is the way that our culture turns a blind eye to the perpetuation of such misogynistic attitudes. We should do everything we can to warn others not only of the violent and immoral acts contained in a game such as GTA but we should also use our voices to speak out against attitudes that intentionally dehumanize our sisters, wives, mothers, and daughters.

Ahh, but it’s only a video game, right? Unfortunately, the digital dehumanization of women has profound ramifications for the real world. If we need a reminder, just turn on the news.

Thanks Kory, I am glad you found it helpful.

I think the fact that reviewers are bringing up the subject of Misogyny is not giving it a free pass.  But the sum of a game is more then just that.  You have to admit if you love gaming and have a passion for it, we may disagree with subject matter, but as a whole GTA is an amazing game that has more going for it then just the storyline.  The amount of things you can do in that game is staggering and how they were put together is of high calibur.  Even the writing and storyline fits in line with what they were trying to achieve.  So even if you criticize that one aspect of the game as a whole I don’t see it diminishing from the game’s score because a game is usually more then just writing.  There are many games that have good subjects, good writing with poor gameplay and are rated as such.

To further add to this, there is also another element at play.  Jeff Gerstmann was fired at Gamespot for giving a game a low score the site was advertising.  It was an unspoken truth that review sites will not be overly critical with game scores for various reasons.  This incident just made that truth become a very well known one - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeff_Gerstmann#Reason_for_GameSpot_termination_revealed

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