Grand Theft Auto: An ode to female leads

Over the past week or so there has been a surge in debate around the fact that highly anticipated September release Grand Theft Auto V features three playable leads – and none of them are women.

[Commence the eye-rolling of those already tired of this topic… Stop reading now then, if that applies to you.]

Anyway, given how female representation in games is such a hot topic at the moment, it’s worth considering why Rockstar didn’t seize this prime opportunity to introduce GTA’s first ever playable woman character. GTA V is the first entry in the free-roaming – and ever controversial – action franchise to feature more than one protagonist (Michael, Franklin and Trevor for the record). Surely giving one of the three criminal leads a vagina wouldn’t have been that tough?

And to clarify, it’s not like Rockstar has been skittish around issues of representation before. In GTA: San Andreas, you played the entire game as a black man, Carl Johnson, a blue-collar (or should that be white-vest?) gang member. One of the GTA IV expansions was called The Ballad of Gay Tony. And for the record, the antagonist mastermind behind all the bloody chaos in GTA III, was a woman – unhinged Catalina, a former bank robber and head of Liberty City’s Columbian cartel.

Needless to say it’s a tad disappointing then that when Rockstar had the chance to “ease” in a female lead (again, just one of three), they balked at the idea. Granted there’s still always expansion content, but still… Why not be more inclusive right out the starting gate?

I want to clarify right now that I’m not someone desperate for realistic characters to take over gaming. Certainly there’s a place for psychologically complex, empathetic leads of all genders, but they are not a necessity all the time. When it comes to gaming, a big part of the appeal is slipping out of your skin and becoming someone else capable of incredible feats and/or caught up in incredible circumstances. These someone-elses don’t have to be relatable. And it really doesn’t matter if they’re an unnuanced type. Sometimes you just want to be an uberbro like Marcus or Cole, kicking Locust ass and bumping chainsaws. Not that I wasn’t very pleased to see Anya and Sam armouring up with the guys in Gears of War 3.

My point is that not every game character has to be “deep”. The issue, especially in regards to female characters, is the need for greater diversity in representation, just as there is in real life. More options. That is the aspect of “reality” I would like to see more frequently reflected in gaming. And that is where Rockstar could have delivered with GTA. We’ve had our share of super sexy Bayonetta bad girls and latex nuns – actually that’s pretty much all we’ve had – but what about a “street” level, more credible female criminal to work alongside Trevor and co.?

To reiterate, GTA is not known for its well-rounded, morally complex male leads. They’re types, lifted from every stylish urban crime film from The Godfather to Taxi Driver; Drive to Pulp Fiction. No one should expect or demand a “strong, developed female character” to be plopped into the middle of the GTA universe – that would be going against the very essence of the franchise. This said, it would be pretty damn ground-breaking to be given the option to play a non-glamour girl in this mould.

You can’t even use the argument that players will be uncomfortable controlling a female character who runs around hijacking cars and beating people to death with a monstrous dildo. Saints Row: The Third already allowed you to do just that. Along with customising the size of your “assets” (whether you're playing female or male).

It’s not like a female lead wouldn’t fit into the sordid, cynical and utterly immoral world of GTA. Although the latter games have toned it down somewhat as your assigned character became more scripted (In GTA III the protagonist didn’t even have a voice), this is a setting where everyone is awful. Men. Women. Children. You only have to listen to the radio stations for a while to realise how deep-set the moral corruption is in GTA. This in turn helps to make your obligatory – and optional – brutalisation of the inhabitants a largely guilt-free affair.

So what female characters would work in the GTA setting? We’ve seen plenty of examples in the previous games: everything from fellow gangsters, assassins and hitwomen to porn stars, mob molls, DJs, businesswomen and the heads of criminal empires. Sisters, daughters, girlfriends, bosses… They’re all there.

Options that could easily work: a low-level gangbanger like the drive-by lovin’ Latino ladies in End of Watch; a Jackie Brown-style character in over her head; a corrupt cop; frikken Ma-Ma. Hell, even Pitch Perfect’s Cynthia Rose – a butch lesbian with a gambling problem – would work in this setting. None of these women are sex objects. None of them should be trifled with. They’re not weak, vulnerable or passive; they take action to achieve a goal.

The only female lead that would really be hard to pull off writing-wise, at least without luring the controversy harpies in flocks, would be a (potentially ex) stripper or escort. Sex and titillation for money retains overtones of degradation. To have a playable character performing lap dances and blow jobs, or at least be associated with that… well, I don’t think anyone would really be comfortable. Particularly if you remember the old player pastime – and I was guilty of it too – of picking up a hooker, having sex in an alley, and then killing her immediately afterwards to take your money back.

At the end of the day, having a female lead in a GTA game wouldn’t fundamentally change anything. Then again, it shouldn’t. I would never advocate shoehorning female characters into a game if it didn’t work, simply to make a gender statement. It’s just that examining the evidence, introducing a playable woman in GTA V would have been very, very doable.

We play different video games, jumping between genres and characters to satisfy our different, frequently changing needs and wants. A more diverse selection of characters in games benefits everyone – not just women. So for Rockstar to ignore this choice opportunity to diversify, well, it’s a tad disappointing.


Anonymous said…
Well said!

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