Gender in Grand Theft Auto by Alex McGillivray

Grand Theft Auto IV is among the most successful video games of all time, having sold over 20 million units worldwide including a record-breaking $500 million in revenue in its first week.  What makes the world of GTA so fascinating is that it is an incredibly detailed, content-rich replication of American society and culture; a massive collection of intertextual zeitgeist parody of every cop show, action movie, and pop culture ephemera of the past 30 years.  From all the cultural awareness the GTA series displays, I think it’s very safe to assume the developers at Rockstar have a great deal of cultural savvy and have a very acute sense of what’s going on in contemporary western society.  Listen to any of the radio stations in Liberty City or observe the innumerable delicious clichés of Vice City to convince you if you don’t believe me.  These people know the world they live in, as well as the vast (pop) cultural traditions that their games so heavily draw from.  That’s why I’d like to examine female characters in Grand Theft Auto, which are lacking in general in the male-centric world of cops and robbers, and the ones that do get screen time are often lacking in the depth that their male counterparts display.  Look at the box art; the only woman depicted appears to be a prostitute.  Most of the women present in the game are not prostitutes, contrary to popular belief, but rather nameless extras walking the sidewalk, not scantily clad and oversexualized but dressed like you might see on the street in Portland.  These NPCs pretty much play no role in the game whatsoever, besides a line or two of dialogue.  The two females more prominently featured in the storyline, Michelle and Elizabeta, are respectively an FBI agent who feigns a love interest in the protagonist to infiltrate Elizabeta’s criminal organization and take her down, and a strong Puerto Rican drug queenpin trying to make it in a “man’s world.”  Both of them are seemingly undone by their own femininity in the end, wearing their emotions on their sleeves, and then they fade away never to be seen again, though it is noteworthy that at this point the storyline revolves around two female characters.  Even while Elizabeta is a strong female character, she is reliant on male assistance and has a nervous breakdown as her organization begins to crumble.  Most of the male bosses are dysfunctional trainwrecks too, but their stories involve some sort of character-driven climax, rather than a simple fade into obscurity.  Rockstar draws from the legacy of cultural depictions of the diaspora of America, deconstructing and reconstructing stereotypes and cultural clichés.  For the most part, Rockstar does a good job of parodying everyone, not just marginalized groups, and at the same time showing the humanity and complexity that belies these stereotypes.  The Grand Theft Auto series is equitable with its treatment of race, with its latest protagonists (African-American, Slavic, Jewish-American, Dominican) whom all exhibit much insight, depth, and personality.  However, it would probably be good for the 20 million+ people who bought and played this game to see women in equal depth, and hopefully Rockstar will use its clout to do something positive for gender portrayal in the next title.

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