A Brief Summary of Sexism in GTA IV

(… with informative links! Last updated: 6/1)

[Edit 16 Oct 2009: It has come to my attention that this post contains a factual error, which has now been corrected, and more content has been added. All changes are in italics, with the date.]

As someone who is completely in favor of games as a recognized art form, and who will be attempting to critique games with that mindset in the near future (I swear), I feel compelled to call out sexism in video games when I see it. And nowhere in video games is it more blatant than in GTA IV.

First, some facts:
— I am not in favor of having the game banned or otherwise censored. Free speech and all that.
— No, I haven’t played the game. But the things I bring up here have been confirmed by people who have played the game, or by gameplay footage. Along with that, I can only actually point out things that I HAVE confirmed happening, so there very well may be more.
— I am well aware of the style and history of the GTA series.
— I do not think GTA IV will cause healthy, balanced adults or teens to go out and rape women/shoot cops/whatever.
— I do not think the game is completely void of redeeming qualities. For example, the graphics are very nice.

The game world of Grand Theft Auto IV is an environment of misogyny. The most grievous evidence of this is the sexualized violence against women, though other details contribute. Together, the evidence suggests a deliberate attempt to create a world that devalues women and reinforces misogynistic attitudes.

Sexualized Violence Against Women
In GTA IV, the player character can pick up prostitutes, have sex with them, and then kill them. Even if the sex isn’t rape, which hasn’t yet been confirmed as something that can occur in the game, murder just after sex is still sexualized violence. In GTA IV, the player can only do this to women. There are no male prostitutes and the player cannot have a boyfriend. The only characters the player can commit sexualized violence against are female ones [Edit: This is incorrect, though the point stands: there is one exception. See below.]. That is a misogynistic environment.

(Added 10/16/09:) One oversight from when I originally wrote this post was leaving out the case of one mission where you take a gay man out on a date in order to assassinate him, which is the one exception to my previous statement that only women are victims of sexualized violence in the game. (Chalk it up to straight privilege.) Since homophobia and misogyny are so deeply connected, it’s not surprising that the one man the player can commit sexualized violence against is gay. Source. Thanks to Kateri for pointing this out to me, and for the link.

Further, the game presents the mature subject matter in a very immature way. Suggested further reading on this point: “Mature vs Mature” — Man Bytes Blog.

Lack of Female Characters with Depth
The only major characters in GTA IV are male. The only female characters in the game are nameless Liberty City inhabitants, prostitutes, and random enemies [Edit 10/16/09: This is incorrect, though there still aren’t any female characters of importance and/or depth. See below for more thoughts on the female characters in GTA IV.]. This is a serious flaw in a work of fiction. There is no reason to have no major female characters with as much depth as many of the male characters apparently have.

Edit 10/16/09: Two people who have played GTA IV had this to say on Twitter about the female characters in the game. I am quoting them and linking to their tweets with permission.
From @fyreball13:

The statement that women are faceless and nameless is a gray area. There are two women you interact with often, one being Roman’s cousin* [see correction below], another being a girl that is working for the police and the third being a woman who deals drugs.
*One is Niko’s cousin Roman’s girlfriend/wife. She does help a fair bit, but neither are MAJOR players.
However, the MAIN characters that Niko hangs out with etc. are all male and the female charcters seemingly disappear after they have moved the story along, usually introducing you to a man who can give you newer missions.

From @stillgray:

Most, if not all of the male characters (even the “likable” ones) are misogynists in GTA IV.
The moment you step off the boat in GTA IV, your cousin Roman goes on about easy American women and denigrates those from home.
The whole intro sets the tone for the rest of the game. We know where the developers stand on views of gender.

Other Details
There exists an internet cafe called Tw@, pronounced “twat.” Twat is “vulgar synonym for the human vulva, vagina, or clitoris, and is used as a derogatory epithet” (Wikipedia). It’s not clever or satirical to name a place after a derogatory term for female genitalia. It’s immature and contributes to the atmosphere of misogyny.

Also, a female fast food worker asks the player character if he wants a handjob with his burger. Because clearly a female character cannot exist unless there is the possibility of some sexual interaction. The immaturity paints games as something for young teens.

Update: Via Feminist Gamers, an interesting comment by Cola on Feministing about a certain mission in GTA IV, quoted in part (full comment here):

“Just as I was starting to think Niko was really great, I realised he was a moralising hypocrite. Oh, and then he hit a woman he was kidnapping for trying to get away and referred to her as ‘the bitch.’ Then he hit her again to get her to look at him so he could take a picture of her gagged face to send to her father.

It was really hard to keep playing after that. This woman was portrayed, in contrast to the protagonist, as selfish, shallow, and bitchy. I had nothing but sympathy for her, because she was justifiably scared and angry, but she was being cast as this shrieking whore (she hit on Niko before he kidnapped her).”

Clearly the portrayal and treatment of women in this game leaves a lot to be desired.

The fact that this game is receiving nothing but the highest marks from game reviewers and is being hailed as the greatest game ever made upsets me. Is this really something we want to hold up as gaming’s finest? (I can’t help thinking back to the analysis of No More Heroes I linked to last post, and how NMH is a direct satire of Western GTA fans.) I realize the game does technically impressive things, but what is it saying with that technology? Isn’t that just as important?

General Reading, or People Who Put it Better Than I Do
“GTA discussion… over there” — Feminist Gamers (with a link to Feministing)
“Some GTA IV Questions” — Man Bytes Blog
“I’ve Decided That It’s Simple After All” — The True Confessions of an Hourly Bookseller
“How Can Grand Theft Auto Transition from Base Entertainment to Art?” — Latoya Peterson, Cerise Magazine (May 2008). Fantastic article, highly recommended.
“Grand Theft Auto IV” — Scholarly Gamer. A general (but interesting and thorough) critique of the game, but contains some concise examinations of the misogyny and homophobia in the game.
“Oh, right… Grand Theft Auto is coming out…” — No Cookies for Me. (How did I miss this the first time around?)
Edit 10/16/09: Added this post by Thomas Cross:
Blog Banter: Quitter! — Shouldn’t Be Gaming (Tom describes why he stopped playing the game.)

Common Defenses
It’s just a game!”
No. Games are creative expressions just like books, movies, and television, and are thus open to critique.
Suggested reading:
“The Problem with That Line ‘It’s Just a Game’ — Are Our Games Our Fantasies?” — MTV Multiplayer
“It’s Just a Game” — Feminist Gamers

But you kill men, too.” Or, “Why is killing a prostitute worse than killing a pedestrian?
The problem is not just the killing. I do not think you shouldn’t be able to kill female characters in a video game. The problem is the sexualized violence that is directed only at women, as well as the greater misogynistic atmosphere the game reinforces through other details and the lack of any female characters with depth. The rampant violence is NOT equal-opportunity.

But sexism is a problem in this game/movie/any and all other media.”
Yeah, it is. But right now I’m talking about GTA IV.

There are no incentives to killing prostitutes.
Yes, there are. You gain health back by hiring them and you get back the money you spent after killing them. That’s more incentive than mowing down pedestrians.

It’s not part of the story. Rockstar isn’t promoting doing this sort of thing.
Except that they are promoting it by allowing it to happen. Liberty City is not a real world, it is a deliberately crafted piece of fiction; things just don’t happen. Everything in the world and everything that happens has to be deliberately allowed by the creators. Isn’t it unrealistic how there are no children at all in Liberty City? That’s because the game would definitely get an AO rating if the player were allowed to kill children. Developer choice.

On this point, see also: “On IGN’s Grand Theft Auto IV Video” — Cruise Elroy

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12 thoughts on “A Brief Summary of Sexism in GTA IV

  1. Hey Alex. I just found your blog from my referral logs. Thanks for the link!Regarding GTA IV’s critical acclaim: Don’t underestimate the power of prerelease hype! I’d recommend checking out this post from Insult Swordfighting. Author Mitch Krpata is a game reviewer, but since he writes for the Boston Phoenix and not a game-specific publication like IGN he has a bit more perspective.

  2. Hey Dan, no problem! That’s an interesting article. I don’t think I was really on the gaming websites much when San Andreas came out so the huge amount of hype really surprised me.

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  6. Not to discount your concern, which is a valid and important one, but it worries me that you haven’t actually played through the game. I think, ethically, that you have a responsibility as a writer and critic to play through the game before you write about it. You write that your points have been “confirmed by people who have played the game, or by game play footage.” That’s not good enough. And it’s patently unfair to the developers and, ultimately, to any readers.

    We are essentially talking about an interactive medium. How can we validly talk about the experience if we neglect to choose to bypass that interactivity? You have to engage the designed system. If you want to win the lottery, you have to buy a ticket.

    I’ve enjoyed your writing, and strongly believe that you’re a good counterweight to the sausage fest that is the gaming blogosphere (present company included), but I wanted to mention this because I think you’re better than this.

    • “I think, ethically, that you have a responsibility as a writer and critic to play through the game before you write about it.”

      I completely disagree. One of the points of this post was to describe why I and others refuse to play the game. Secondly, this was meant to be an overview, not an in-depth analysis, as well as a compilation of critiques of sexism in GTA IV. I would certainly play the game before doing my own analysis.

      If people tell me about game content that is misogynist, I don’t have an ethical responsibility (or any responsibility) to see for myself, especially when that would cost me money and cause stress and frustration. I don’t need to experience it for myself to know that fucking a prostitute and then killing her is sexualized violence against a woman. (For another example, see my brief Golden Axe: Beast Rider post.) But if I’ve made any factual errors here, please let me know.

      That said, this post is from a year and a half ago, and now that my work is getting more attention I’m being more diligent about experiencing games first-hand as much as possible, and I only write in-depth critiques of those that I have completed.

  7. I think if you had played it through this would be all the better for it, but the GTA games are entirely too long to play through just for the basis of coming to a more complete conclusion about its content. I’ve played through GTA III, Vice City and most of San Andreas. All of them suffer from the same issues that Halo suffers from. The writers for GTA games apparently just watch Boys in the Hood, Scarface or The Godfather, take some of the scenes out of context and form gameplay around them. (Halo does this with Full Metal Jacket, apparently)

    The only legitimate defense of the majority of the characters treating women like objects and rape as just another way to have sex is that these are common attitudes of career criminals. Of course the problem is that these same traits are found even in characters who are reluctant criminals or even good guys.

    I think, on the whole, GTA III served to create the “Open World” game mechanic and the series’ sales have helped create later games such as AC, Prototype and the like so it has contributed beneficially to gaming but personally I’ve lost my taste for this series which has chosen to muck around in the ghettos year after year.

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  9. Lack of female characters with depth may not be the best phrasing, if only because none of the male characters are particularly complex or layered. Relative to the standard of the game, there are some reasonably deep female characters, and a couple of women — Mallorie, Michelle, Kate, and maybe Elizabeta — play significant roles in the plot. The difference is in screen time — you will be seeing a lot more of the men in the cutscenes — and in that a much higher percentage of the female characters are *optional*, taking the form of random encounters or dates. There is definitely a profound imbalance between the number of female and male mission-givers.

    In addition to the overtly offensive things that have been mentioned, I thought there was another, more subtly troubling issue. Relative to the males, female characters are lacking in agency. This is a tricky thing to assess in a game like this, where, after all, every character has serious agency issues (that’s why they need Niko in the first place). Still, it feels like the female characters have less going on, and are less capable of acting on their own than the male characters. Compared to mission-givers of similar level, female characters tend to be more passive and dependent on Niko. Random encounters Ilyena and Marnie, for instance, seem to be totally helpless when compared to encounters like Jeff. All of these characters need Niko’s help, but the women give the impression that they can’t do anything without Niko, while the men are active and turn to Niko as a last resort. Consider, for instance, that Marnie needs Niko to drive her to the train so she can escape town and her drug addiction, while Brian and Mel begin twelve-step programs on their own initiative.

    Similarly, Elizabeta Torres gives the impression of needing Niko more than the men. Compare her missions to those of Jimmy or Ray, who have elaborate schemes already in progress that they plug Niko into at the last moment, and you get the impression that her operation is (more) slipshod and incompetent. Her reaction to her impending imprisonment is to sit in her apartment and collapse, and once she goes inside the joint that’s the end for her. Contrast this with Gerry McReary, who responds to surveillance with nothing more than a little increase of caution, and continues to orchestrate elaborate criminal schemes from prison. Or Jimmy Pegorino, who takes measures to eliminate people he thinks may be snitches.

    Even when you *do* get a sense of depth in the female characters, you don’t get a sense of power or ability. Niko never finds himself on the weak side of a power relationship with a woman, though he often finds himself in this position with men like Dmitri, Ray, and Mr. U.L. Paper. GTA IV presents women as weak, passive and reactive, while the men are comparatively more able and proactive.

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