“The concept of being masculine was so key to this story…” – Dan Houser, Co-Founder & Vice President of Creativity for Rockstar Games
When the makers of Grand Theft Auto V (GTA V) announced that their game would utilize an innovative style of narration that allowed players to switch between three main characters at any time, gamers were intrigued. When we learned that all three of those characters were going to be male, and there would be no playable female characters, many gamers were upset. How could a AAA title (game industry speak for big game with a big budget… think Hollywood summer blockbuster) of this scale not include playable female characters? Didn’t Rockstar, the makers of GTA V, care about the female half of gamers out there? Then, just before his game was unleashed upon the world the man who wrote GTA V‘s story, Dan Houser, responded with his now infamous quote; “The concept of being masculine was so key to this story…”
The lack of playable female characters is worrisome enough on its own, but couple that with Rockstar’s rocky history with female characters and the problem becomes much bigger. For those not in the know, woman have generally been limited to a variety of misogynist archetypes in the GTA series of games. The most common roles for women (besides pedestrians and other extras) in GTA have been prostitutes and strippers. Focusing only on GTA V for example, there are plenty of prostitutes wandering around the game world (who you can pay to have sex with) and strippers you can pay for lap dances and even “make it rain” while they’re on the pole. Beyond those two roles, in GTA V you’ll also find these notable female characters; Amanda De Santa, the wife main character Michael De Santa. She’s portrayed as a stereotypical nag who –Spoiler Alert! (in case you want to play the game and haven’t yet)– is sleeping with both the tennis instructor and the gardener. You’ll also find Tracey De Santa, the daughter of Amanda and Michael. Her role is over-sexualized air-head who’ll do just about anything to be famous. Finally, there’s Franklin Clinton’s aunt Denise, who is only seen briefly. She’s a bad aunt who doesn’t do much beyond yelling at and nag her nephew.
GTA V has been out for about a month now and it’s already earned a shit ton of money. In that month I’ve had a chance to play the game and figure out for myself just what Mr. Houser might have meant. Clearly he has some things to say about masculinity and what it means to be a manly-man. Here are some of the things I’ve learned about his concept of being masculine;
First off, it should be said that the male protagonists in GTA V, Franklin Clinton, Michael De Santa, and Trevor Philips, aren’t much more than limited archetypes themselves. Still, we’re told the story through their eyes, and unlike the women in the game, they have some agency (or at least the appearance of it). All three characters are of course criminals (remember, the name of the game is Grand Theft Auto), so they all engage in some level of criminal activity throughout the story. Franklin is a young black man, and a gang member (of course) who lives in the “hood” with his selfish aunt. He also sounds a lot like Ice Cube. Michael is a bank robber who got rich and retired. He’s trapped in a loveless marriage, has two teenage kids and is a bit of an absentee father and husband. Finally there’s Trevor, who’s a violently insane meth dealing hillbilly and former friend of Michael’s. Check, check and check… stereotyping complete.
Now that we know who the male leads are, lets look at some of the key tenants of masculinity found in GTA V :
1. Masculine men are shitty fathers and husbands
Michael is is the only character with kids and as I mentioned earlier, he’s an absentee father and husband (despite the fact that he’s rich and doesn’t seem to have a job). Here’s an example of his poor parenting: –Spoiler Alert! (The rest of this paragraph reveals major plot points)– when playing as Michael, there’s a moment when players are tasked with trying to bond with Michael’s son, Jimmy. This bonding moment starts off with Michael yelling at Jimmy, calling him lazy and so on, then smashing the kid’s huge TV with a chair. After his violent outburst, Michael forces Jimmy to “spend quality time with him.” Michael’s relationship with his wife and daughter aren’t much better either. Pretty much all we see him doing is yelling and arguing with his wife and his two kids.
warning: lots of salty language and destroyed virtual electronics in the following clip… also spoilers:
2. All problems are solved with violence
This of course happens throughout the game. Violence is always the answer in GTA V and by violence we’re generally talking shootouts and high-speed car chases. Here’s an example from early in the game that once again involves Michael and his family; –Spoiler Alert!– Michael learns that his daughter, Tracey is hanging out with porn stars and producers on a yacht. This of course sends Michael into fit of rage and players are tasked with swimming out to the boat, getting on board and “rescuing” Tracey. How do you rescue Tracey? By forcefully grabbing her, engaging in a shootout with the pornographers (killing a bunch of them of course) and making a getaway on a jet ski (as Tracey yells and cries about what a shitty father Michael is). This moment is but one of many where the answer to a problem is kill or beat up other characters.
warning: lots of salty language and digital violence in the following clip… also spoilers:
3. Visiting prostitutes and strip clubs are just things men do
It’s not part of any story-critical mission to visit a prostitute (you may have to go to a strip club for a mission… I can’t remember). These are totally optional things that players can do while wandering around the fictional city of Los Santos. Okay, fine. It’s a game about criminal activity… you can also rob convenience stores, carjack anyone, kill cops, steal planes, get drunk, smoke weed, etc, etc, etc… however, all of those illegal activities have in game consequences. rob, steal, carjack, fight, etc and the Los Santos police come after you (very aggressively). Try and walk or drive drunk/high and you have to fight against a blurry screen and the inability to properly control your character. But visit a prostitute? Nothing. The game don’t care. Police don’t come after you, there are no undercover cops ready to bust you… nothing. Better yet, visit a prostitute as the married Michael, you know the guy who kills people for sexualizing his daughter, and same thing… nothing. There’s no in-game mechanic that tries to stop you. He expresses no guilt. His wife never catches him… nothing. Sends a message about what’s acceptable behavior for men doesn’t it?
warning: simulated virtual sex in the following clip:
Of course, going to strip clubs isn’t illegal, but something similarly wrong happens once you’re there. If you pay for a lap dance, the game actually encourages you to touch the virtual strippers (instructions for how to do it pop up on screen). Putting aside personal feelings on strip clubs, I do know that touching strippers is not allowed and will get you kicked out (or worse). It’s also important to remember that, in a strip club, on the street, in a bedroom… anywhere, it’s a violation of a person’s body to touch them when explicitly told not to! In fact, it’s a violation unless you’re explicitly told that it’s okay to touch someone. Can you say sexual assault? But of course in GTA V, it’s just a fun thing men get to do.
4. Sexual degradation is how men assert their power and dominance
Trevor demonstrates this side of the “concept of masculinity,” multiple times throughout the game. -Spoiler Alert- When we first meet Trevor he’s having sex with the meth addicted girlfriend of a character named Johnny Klebitz. Johnny comes looking for his girlfriend and confronts Trevor. Remember, Trevor is violently insane. He’s also quite manipulative as we quickly learn. Trevor messes with Johnny’s mind and tries to force him to take his pants off until Johnny starts crying and apologizing (you know for getting angry at Trevor for fucking his girlfriend). Then, just as Johnny gets into how much he loves his girlfriend, Ashley, Trevor switches into violent mode. He savagely beats Johnny right in front of Ashley, stomping Johnny’s head (thus killing him) before heading off to kill Johnny’s biker gang buddies. He does stuff like this later in the game as well, but this is the most graphic example.
warning: lots of salty language and extreme violence in the following clip… also spoilers:
5. Black men call each other nigga all the time
warning: do I really need to tell you what you’re about to hear repeatedly in this clip?
That’s just how we talk to one another I guess. Also, guess where are your hyper-sexual attitudes and approaches towards women come from (outside of what we just discussed from Trevor)? Your black characters. Not so much Franklin (who’s the closest thing to the criminal with a heart of gold in this game), but the guys he hangs around with. Here’s an example; The online portion of the game, which didn’t become available until a a couple of weeks after the game was released, is the only place where you can play as a female character (because you get to create and customize your playable avatar). Once you create your character and are introduced to the GTA V Online world, your first encounter is with one of the game’s side characters, Lamar, a friend of Franklin’s (and fellow gang member). If you chose to create a female character, then one of the first things Lamar does is make a pass at her. Firsts he suggests they have sex, then after getting (silently) rejected he asks for a quick hand-job while driving.
6. The game is somewhat schizophrenic when it come to the “concept of masculinity”
One of the appealing aspects of the GTA series of games is the way they skewer many aspects of American society. It seems no one is safe from ridicule; politicians, advertising, television shows, movies and the American obsession with guns are all lampooned. Interestingly enough, while seemingly celebrating some types of negative, harmful masculinity the game also takes the time to mock other aspects. For example, as you drive around Los Santos, you can listen to a variety of (pretty good) radio stations. Listen enough to the talk radio channel and you’ll hear a show co-hosted by a man and a woman. Throughout the show the male DJ interrupts and talks over his female counterpart (a la Joe Scarborough’s treatment of his female co-host Mika Brzezinski on MSNBC’s Morning Joe) until she finally calls him on it, leading to a lengthy back and forth about the ways men dominate conversations and discredit their female counter parts. At one point the male DJ even calls his female co-host a bitch, which she also calls him on.
In a similar vein, if you sit and watch some of the in-game TV shows you’ll run across a show about a rich, while male, liberal, environmentalist superhero named Impotent Rage. Impotent Rage freaks out about recycling and other environmental issues while at the same time flying in a private jet and completely sexualizing, demeaning and ignoring his female secretary.
It’s clear from these two examples that the folks at Rockstar are not totally ignorant about misogyny and other gender issues. But for some reason they choose to present only one very limited portrayal of men and masculinity.
The sales numbers tell us that GTA V isn’t just a game, it’s a downright cultural phenomenon. As such, we need to examine and critique this phenomenon and the messages contained within. That’s my goal here. While I appreciate Dan Houser’s exploration of masculinity through video games, I really wish he had chosen to move beyond tired old masculine archetypes and give us something new. He has the platform and the following to really challenge us to think differently. Being masculine doesn’t have to equal violence, hyper-sexuality and generally shitty behavior. It’s quite possible for video games to conceive of, and explore, different types of masculinity. In fact, I hope to illustrate this point next week, in part two of this post.
Come back next week, when I’ll shine my spotlight on a wonderful little game that received almost no hype yet gives us an alternate and very interesting take on video game masculinity. The game, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, came out around the same time as GTA V, scored nearly as well in reviews and in many ways represents a polar opposite to GTA V. Until then, please let me know what you think of GTA V and it’s take on masculinity in the comments section below.