GTA 5: misogyny, teeth-pulling and subjectivity

Friday, 20 September 2013 15:21 GMT By Dave Cook

Grand Theft Auto 5 has come under fire this week from critics and gamers alike for its portrayal of women and one particularly ‘taboo’ scene. VG247’s Dave Cook discusses the week that was. WARNING: SPOILERS.

No really, this is your second and last SPOILER WARNING.

As expected, Rockstar North’s fifth core GTA game launched to near-perfect scores across the board this week. At the time of writing Metacritic tracks the Xbox 360 version at 98/100, while the PS3 build rests at 97/100. Yet as the days rolled on and the world had a chance to sleep on the matter, several questions have been raised about the game’s misogynistic tone and one playable scene involving a man being graphically tortured.

It’s a playable scene that rewards a completion score depending on how many implements you use to hurt a man – an innocent man I might add – strapped shirtless to a chair. You can water-board him, break a knee-cap with a wrench, electrocute him with a car battery and if you’re feeling particularly savage, extract a tooth with a pair of pliers. The scene can’t be skipped, and you lose a fraction of your final mission percentage if you exert mercy and skim over any of the tools.

This has got a lot of people upset, and many gamers are now asking why critics failed to either highlight the scene in their reviews, or dock the game points for its gratuitous nature. I’m no prude, and I enjoy wanton violence in movies and games – hell, I even watched the fourth Rambo film last night with a friend and that is absolutely horrific – but I too felt uneasy when I guided Trevor’s hand.

I also have to point out that when writing my own appraisal of GTA 5, I hadn’t witnessed that scene. If memory serves it’s about 22-25% into the core plot-line. I played for nine hours and didn’t even get that far due to side-quests and such, but why did it make my skin crawl? After all, GTA games have always done this sort of thing, and always with an erect tongue bursting through its own cheek. So there’s no need to get upset about it, right?

Well no, that sort of thinking can’t be used as a blanket ‘get out of jail free card’ any more. In fact, it could never apply to the GTA series because as I’m sure you’re all well aware, it has long-existed as a parody of American life, criminality and the falsehoods of everyday life. Jokes are subjective to begin with, and while one person may find a particular joke hilarious, another might find it offensive. Where do you draw the line between observational humour about a particular class of person before it becomes prejudice? Do you laugh at racist jokes? Is the death of a celebrity cause for humour or shock?

Personally, no, these things absolutely are not funny, but like it or not, agree or not, each person will answer these questions differently. That’s the nature of the world we live in, and that too is the nature of parody. Some of us will view the torture scene as some sort of statement on how readily American security firms such the FBI and the CIA persecute those of Middle Eastern descent as potential terrorists without proper grounds to do so. We saw it happen on the news after 9/11, with stations like FOX regularly slapping images of men from different ethnic backgrounds on the screen and calling them villains.

”I found it to be vulgar, and it really didn’t have to be a playable scene, but does this mean I’m shitting on the game or saying it’s crap? Not at all, and I think some gamers are too quick to savage critics for saying anything negative about the game. I think some of the flack aimed at reviewers on this issue is appalling in many cases, and completely unwarranted.”

I – personally – feel that the scene wasn’t a statement about anything to do with press scape-goating or profiling. To me it was mean-spirited and another in a long-line of Rockstar ‘shock-tactics’ (most of which I’ve enjoyed over the years as black humour, so this is not a dig at the studio at all). Is this literally the case? I have no idea. I’d have to ask the Housers, but they’re impossible to get on the phone. In the end, this is what I personally read into the scene. It’s this subjectivity, the ways in which our past, upbringing and varying levels of intelligence allow us to perceive the meaning of parody, jokes and themes.

GTA 5 is not light on varying observational themes, and much like the player’s personal emergent stories throughout the plot, it speaks to each person on different levels. If you feel it was just harmless banter then who am I to argue with you? I can raise my concerns, but I also understand that they probably won’t change your views the matter. We are all different at the end of the day.

This also applies to GTA 5 reviewers. I don’t believe that any game is beyond criticism, but I suspect that many critics out there were either cramming the game too fast to give the scene a second thought, or simply didn’t find it offensive at the time. Some reviews mentioned the scene and other nagging concerns, but still dished out high scores. That’s because these elements are subjective and may not apply to all who play the game. This isn’t an easy thing for critics to gauge, as docking games for these ‘taboo’ occurrences is to veer away from objectivity and closer to editorialising.

Again, I found it to be vulgar, and it really didn’t have to be a playable scene, but does this mean I’m shitting on the game or saying it’s crap? Not at all, and I think some gamers are too quick to savage critics for saying anything negative about the game. I think some of the flack aimed at reviewers on this issue is appalling in many cases, and completely unwarranted. I get it, you love GTA, but that doesn’t make it impervious to criticism. No game is perfect. That’s just a fact.

However, where I do feel the game stumbles – and if I’d known its true extent I would have mentioned it in this blog – is in its portrayal of women. There either there to be rescued, shouted at, fucked, to be seen fucking, put up with, killed, heard prattling away like dullards on their mobile phones or shopping. Is this also a statement about the portrayal of women in American media and/or action movies? Possibly, but again for me, personally, it didn’t take.

I put up with it at first expecting there to be some more central, female character who was capable of fending for herself. I’m now over 13 hours in and aside from the female hacker I hired on the game’s initial heist, I’m yet to encounter a woman who fits this description. I truly believe that there should be such a character in there – not through obligation alone – but because this would have been a refreshing spin on the format we’ve been used to. Imagine if the game’s villain was a ruthless, smart and deadly female like GTA 3’s Catalina? It would at least serve as a counter to the dumb, blonde stereotypes I’ve seen so far.

I’ve not finished the game so who knows; maybe there are stronger female characters in the game that I’m yet to meet, but so far, they’re all unlike any woman I’ve ever met. I’m aware that GTA 4’s informant Michelle was something of a manipulative dark horse and Kate was actually quite grounded, but something about GTA 5’s female quotient is – so far – simply not doing it for me. Does it ruin the experience? Nope, and that’s because it’s subjective, and maybe I am missing a joke here, but like many thigh-slappers heard around the water-cooler I simply amn’t finding it funny.

There’s a strong chance I’ll be hauled over coals for this blog – like my infamous Wonderful 101 review that many people mis-read as me saying I wanted the game to fail when actually, I said repeatedly that I liked it – but I want to make clear one last time and in bold words: I don’t think these points raised dilute the overall quality of GTA 5, I just personally found them to be in poor taste, just like I might find a graphic scene in a film a bit stomach-turning. I braved it, soldiered on and enjoyed myself at large.

If you liked those scenes then that’s fine, I have absolutely no problem with you liking that, because again, GTA 5 is a subjective piece of entertainment, but I think there needs to be some consideration for the objective review process. It’s a delicate line to walk, and I feel that many of us need to take a step back and see that raising these issues may not a sleight against the game as a whole, and that no title, regardless of its standing, is beyond criticism.

All this said, what is your view on these two issues and the week’s events?

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