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October 3
2013

Grand Theft Auto V: Misogyny & Transphobia

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BadTransJokesGTAV
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Scottish people love talking about Scotland. It’s kind of to be expected, since we’re a groovy bunch. We’ve got kilts – widely regarded as one of the sexiest pieces of gear ever – and we’ll fry and eat anything if it stands still long enough. To date, the only other people I’ve found who emphasize their nationalism in the same (non-creepy) way are Canadians; I can’t help but wonder if it’s something to do with being attached to a country that gets a bad rap internationally and wanting to distance yourself from them — in fact, the people of Scotland want to distance ourselves from England so much that we’re even voting on leaving the United Kingdom next year.

So, given this predisposition to singing the praises of all things Scottish, and given that Rockstar North, the team behind Grand Theft Auto V, are based in Scotland, I really, really want to talk about how brilliant Grand Theft Auto V is (and, by extension, how great Scotland is, because that’s totally how it works).

But I can’t, because it’s festooned with misogyny, transphobia, and creepy rape jokes that don’t really seem very funny.

TransSexWorkerGTAV

The BadTransJokes tumblr blog has collected screenshots and quotes from the game to highlight how trans*-people have been represented in GTA V – that is, badly. The only “significant” (i.e., visible) trans* characters are stereotyped sex workers that can be found in game, and can be heralded with disgustingly transphobic lines such as “Hello, sir. I mean, madam”.

Not only that, but at least two of the character-models also have visible crotch bulges, which is interesting considering how loathe developers seem to be in including bulges on male characters in games; this isn’t an accidental oversight, but a deliberate choice by game developers – and it often accompanies the other deliberate choice to over-emphasize female characters’ breasts. Obviously, in this case, the bulge on the character models have been added intentionally – to draw attention to the fact that these characters have penises.

PostOp

There are also adverts for an in-universe mail delivery service titled “Post Op – No Longer Just Mail“, a joke which only works if the existence of trans* people and gender-confirmation surgery are somehow inherently funny.

Add to this the plethora of voices of people on the internet discussing the lack of playable female characters (which Rocktar North’s Dan Houser defended because GTA V is meant to be a game that’s about masculinity – aren’t they all?); add what many interpreted as being a rape scene (which was soon clarified to be a mundane, everyday cannibalism scene – phew!); add a gratuitous player-controlled torture scene (that is even criticised by a character in-game before the game forces the player to do it anyway); and add a misogynist minigame that rewards players for managing to secretly grope lapdancers.

It’s worth bearing in mind that the transphobia of Grand Theft Auto V is not limited to merely in-game misrepresentation; Carolyn Petit, who reviewed Grand Theft Auto V for Gamespot, endured a torrent of transmisogynist abuse from commenters and players (including a petition to have her fired!) simply for pointing out that the game had a lot of off-putting (and unnecessary) sexist content and giving the game a score of 9/10 – a trend we’ve previously discussed here on GayGamer. In light of this transphobic abuse, it becomes very, very difficult to simply write off Grand Theft Auto’s problematic content as being insignificant, cursory, or harmless.

Unfortunately, that’s what many people want to do; vocal fans of the Grand Theft Auto franchise stress that each game in the series is satirical – we shouldn’t assume that anything in the game is what it appears to be. We’re to assume that everything we see is tongue-in-cheek, knowing, and subversive.

But satire is intended to cause conscientisation, a change in thinking or a shift in perspective that highlights and paves the way for dealing with an issue. Can we really say that Grand Theft Auto V’s portrayal of trans*-women and sex workers subverts cultural ideas about either of these groups or the intersection between them? Is the flippant use of rape jokes and threats actually criticizing rape culture and making the people who support it uncomfortable? Are the female characters in the game really helping to move dialogue on about the role of women characters in games?

If we’re really going to claim that everything in Grand Theft Auto V can be defended as being satirical, then we may have to accept that, as satire, it has failed. A case could be made for the game being parodical – a deliberate mimicry or mockery of a hypersexualized, mythologized American way of life – but that doesn’t make its content more palatable to the groups of people who already endure enough mockery as it is.

GTA5

Another thing Scottish folk are good at doing is self-deprecating humour. We take a strange amount of pride in the fact that, while we may not be mega-rich or have a massive space program, at least we have the deep-fried Mars bar! And, coincidentally, a shockingly high death rate from heart disease! Even our failings become a source of pride, a kind of country-wide coping-mechanism.

Grand Theft Auto is frequently touted as being “Scotland’s Biggest Cultural Export”, and, on the lead-up to the launch of GTA V, members of the Scottish games industry were excited to see how the next installment of the franchise that helps keep Scotland ludologically-relevant would shape up. After all, we’re following in the footsteps of brilliant innovators and inventors, we’re standing on the shoulders of the intellectuals of the Scottish Enlightenment, and Scotland’s games industry and indie games scene are growing despite the global economic downturn.

But even with the stereotypically Scottish tendency to self-deprecation, we can’t really revel in the dark humour of the situation: our most significant game series is plagued with misogyny and transphobia both inside and out. How are we meant to take pride in that?

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About Mitch Alexander

(Writer) Mitch Alexander is a Game Design student from Glasgow, Scotland. who usually talks about things you get into deep discussions about at 3am, like Silent Hill, Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, The Mothman Prophecies, The Invisibles, or how creepy monkeys are. They're so, so creepy.

23 Responses

  1. avatar bender says:

    a very good comment on the topic. personally, i really like the game and played all the previous titles but i find gta 5 really disturbing in a lot of ways. there was all this mysogyny, violence and hyper-masculine characters in previous games, but especially the first scene where trevor is introduced nearly let me turn off the console. for me the satire-argument is an excuse to go beyond all limits, to allow players to perform the most immoral actions possible. but your freedom to do so is structured by the game itself, it is a linear game, so the discrimination and violence you can perform is directed mostly on the people that have a weak stand in the gamer community: which is especially everybody who is not white, male, heterosexual and financial fluid etc. so for me this is a big problematic aspect of the merchandise: the game itself is very conservative, is based on well know stereotypes and power structures.

  2. avatar Branovices says:

    Yeah, this reminds me of when I was playing Saint’s Row III and there was a mission where you rescue women being trafficked for sex… only to force them to be sex workers anyway. The game was full of criminal stuff like this played for comedy… but I had just written a research paper on human trafficking, that included many firsthand accounts. I just turned the game off and haven’t turned it back on since. It made me really uncomfortable and drew all the joy out of the experience for me.

    Anyway, I won’t be picking up GTA V now.

  3. avatar Eugene says:

    “Post Op – No Longer Just Mail“, a joke which only works if the existence of trans* people and gender-confirmation surgery are somehow inherently funny.”

    Now, this is bullshit. It’s pretty clear that the joke is basic wordplay – ‘mail/male’ and different meanings of the word ‘post’. You are laughing at unexpected connotations. But even if the joke implies that the existence of trans* people is inherently funny – is it necessarily bad? Differences are funny – between men and women, short and tall people, etc. Straight people may find homosexuality weird and funny – and, as a gay man, I’m OK with that.

    The bulges may be a little more problematic – but it looks like they were meant to be informative. You don’t need a bulge on a regular-looking man to imply that he’s a man. Female clothes are also tighter, so the bigger bulges aren’t unrealistic.

    I think this kind of hypersensitivity is unwarranted.

    • The joke is structured like wordplay – much in the same way that the Daily Mail’s column for women is called “Femail”. But the wordplays of GTA aren’t intended to just be clever – they’re intended to be funny as well.

      And yes, if a joke implies that the existence of trans* people is inherently funny, that IS necessarily bad – or, more accurately, dehumanising and Othering. You, as a gay man, may be comfortable with the idea of straight people laughing at gay people because they think gay people are somehow inherently funny. I, as a gay man, am not, because it’s not just tacky, unclever or uninventive – it’s also fucking harrowing that straight people should ever think there’s something just hilarious about the fact that I and people like me exist.

      It follows much the same for trans* folk as well, only with more desperation and emergency, because trans* folk – either characters or people – literally are treated as though it’s hysterical that anyone could ever not be the gender they were coercively assigned at birth. Rarely do the jokes even end there – as demonstrated by BadTransJokes follow up, comparing the attitudes of people talking about GTA V’s transphobia and their treatment of a trans* woman writing about the same game:

      http://badtransjokes.tumblr.com/post/62950195516/i-thought-it-might-be-interesting-to-juxtapose

      The belief that trans* people are good to laugh at often does not crop up in isolation, but is part of a bigger cluster of beliefs about how to treat trans* people, and how to treat people from minority or oppressed groups as well.

    • avatar James says:

      I don’t know that you really get to decide who’s hypersensitive, Eugene. I think the people who something is targeted against get to decide that. Also, you’re picking a single thing and saying that it’s not transphobic, while ignoring that it resides within the context of a game that is full of transphobic content. The sight gag itself may not be much on its own, but given its place in a pattern of transphobic material, it has to be judged within that context.

      As for trans* people being portrayed as exclusively MtF, hypersexualized, portrayed yet again only in light of being sex workers and portraying them with penile bulges – to reinforce that they’re not “real” women – yes, this is all transphobia. It’s part of the bigger pattern of stereotypes that have real and actual harm in the lives of transpeople. I think this isn’t hypersensitivity – it’s the correct level of sensitivity to understand that GTA V is perpetuating injustice. If it was meant as satire, then it failed as satire, as it does nothing but reinforce negative beliefs about a group of people who already have to deal with intensely negative beliefs.

    • avatar DannyChameleon says:

      Unless you are trans*, you don’t get to decide if “this kind of hypersensitivity is unwarranted”. You are the oppressor. You are the one with the privilege. You DO NOT get to structure the conversation about what is or is not offensive to trans people.

    • avatar fillerbunny9 says:

      I was just going to go on a rant similar to this. kudos to you.

    • avatar Emily says:

      This is not Hypersensitivty, it is a very real reaction to a game which hides under a blanket of Satire to defend it’s often harmful “humour.” I have not played the game myself, merely watch my friends occasionally, and thankfully aside from the torture scene have missed most of the horrible parts of the game.

      Now, about “differences are funny,” laughing at something because it is different is not a good thing. If these were jokes that eluded to African Americans being funny we would be seeing GTA 5 being pulled from the shelves and the Rockstar facing a hefty fine for Racism.

      Why don’t we see this from Transphobic “humour?” Because they represent such a small amount of the human populace. So really, other than getting their allies to help, they can unfortunatly act on such things, and as most of the human populace like to laugh at us “Tranny, Shemale, Chicks with Dicks, Cocks in Frocks” and anything else they like to call us, we still see this blatent Transphobia.

      I have seen evidence at least one of those names is used ingame, and I won’t play it to see anymore. All the “jokes” Rockstar uses are really the same thing, but instead the say them behind sneering smiles and respond to criticism with “Och, it’s only a joke!” It is never a joke to stigmatize an already oppressed group who faces daily insults, threats, violence, sexual harrasment, rape and murder.

    • avatar jt says:

      “I think this kind of hypersensitivity is unwarranted.” I was gonna say this about your comment lol. Just because you’re gay and comfortable with GTA’s bashing the tran community, doesn’t make it okay.

      GTA is providing an interactive outlet for the transphobic community to vent their hatred for trans people, while giving the player a pat on the back because they’re practicing their hostility in a video game and not towards a real person.

      GTA’s intention of including a trans character’s ‘bulge’ is to make the player uncomfortable and disgusted at the sight of a trans person, and ultimately bring harm to the tran NPCs by incorporating negative stereotypes of trans people in order to instigate the ‘trans panic defense’ where, “a trans person hit on me and I panicked and shot their head off in self-defense”, just like the ‘gay panic defense’, both were used in court rooms to excuse murder.

      The game teaches you to be uncomfortable around trans people which gets carried over into the real world, whether the player was transphobic before or is now after playing the game.

    • avatar Emily says:

      Unfortunatly me post appears to have been removed (likely because I brought up several of the hateful term’s used against Transsexuals like myself) but I feel it is important to have some of what I said here.
      Just because something is different does not make it “funny.” You wouldn’t lach at an African American because “his skin is a different colour, LOL!” as that is racism. What GTA 5 is essentially doing is saying “that Woman is l a Man, he even still has a penis, LOL!” To leap to the defense and say that it is merely a joke is despicable. The pictures of Jewish people with big noses where defended as jokes in Nazi Germany.
      Also, I don’t know about all Trans* Woman, but certainly any I have met will hide their genitals (if they still have them) by “Tucking.” I won’t go into details but you can very effectively make it difficult to actually see it, and certainly any bulges are positioned downward, not forward as in the picture.
      All in this just helps reinforce stereotypes, and they should not be defended as “humour.”

  4. avatar Keith says:

    Kilts are not sexy. It is a rare man that can look decent while wearing a kilt.

    • avatar Ed says:

      Beg to differ. Plenty of men here in San Francisco can pull it off, and readily do. Before I saw it, I thought like you. But boy … kilts can be HOT.

  5. avatar Keith says:

    More to the point of the article, the author’s criticisms are perfectly valid but let’s be honest. This is Grand Theft Auto for shit’s sake. If you are looking to Grand Theft Auto for cultural sensitivity, or really anything other than misogynistic, hyper-violent, dudebro masturbatory power fantasy then I’d say you’re looking in the wrong place. If your point is that you would like Grand Theft Auto to change, sure, that’s a fine thing to wish and ask for. But the tone of this article and a handful of others on this subject that I’ve come across lead me to believe that the authors seem to be under the impression that Grand Theft Auto is meant to be something other than what it is. It’s not high-minded cultural commentary meant to make anybody better, or expand any minds. It is crude. It is gratuitous. It does not challenge the cultural status quo. To expect otherwise is to set yourself up for needless disappointment.

    Don’t take my words as an appeal to shut up and just accept this stuff. By all means, keep pointing it out and showing that they can do better than that. But this tone of being personally offended and disappointed strikes me as disingenuous. Grand Theft Auto was not meant for you and me.

    • avatar AaronT says:

      Keith, you are right, GTA wasn’t written for a gay audience, or a female audience, either – they do make that pretty clear. But – when it’s pointed out that the game is exclusionary through its use of stereotypes and harsh “humor”, the response from the fanboys is that it is “satire”.

      The point of THIS article, IMO, is that the justification of “satire” falls well short when it’s not actually satirical. Fine, the game is misogynistic and transphobic. Is it still fun, yes, for some people. Is it all satire and we should just have a good laugh, not even close. Mitch is just pointing that out.

  6. avatar Ragnar says:

    How is is misogynist to have a red light/green light game with a stripper? You’re two people having an illicit good time, where one of you is getting paid for it. You can complain that she’s a sex object or something (‘cuz she’s, you know, a stripper) but it’s hardly misogynistic.

    The torture scene is clearly there with the INTENT of making you uncomfortable; the guy you’re doing it to is clearly innocent and the other characters call that out.

    “Post-Op Just Mail” is wordplay, as pointed out above.

    There are reasonable complaints to be made but none of these are one of them, and when people attempt to make mountains out of molehills it only tends to obscure the actual, real issues that exist.

    Second, kilts are all kinds of sexy.

  7. avatar Agevnavi says:

    GTA is meant to be an over the top exaggeration. I thought it was one of the best titles in the series thus far. I also created a pro gay crew if anyone I interested in joining. My crew name is Extreme Pink Posse, the shortened crew tag is RPDR.

  8. Keith – As a kilt wearin’ man myself, my wife would disagree ^_^

  9. avatar Kalers says:

    On the other hand, GTA has always handled the gay subject quite well. Yeah, almost every gay character is overly stereotypical and comical, but still IV and V both had the message that it doens’t really matter whether you’re gay or not and the games make fun of conservative views and homophobia.

    In IV there’s the deputy mayor Bryce Dawkins who supports family values but who as a matter of fact is gay himself. Not to mention a whole DLC pack that has the word “gay” in it’s title. Also you get to kill a homophobe who assaulted Bernie in one of the missions.

    While in V for example Franklin states a couple of times that he doens’t care whether someone’s straight or gay.

  10. avatar Drizzit says:

    Hi Agevnavi if you have any spaces left in your crew my gamer tag is darkishDAVE666 xbox 360.

  11. avatar Alosjs says:

    That’s why I’ll never play these games, ’cause they glorify hyper masculinity as the best thing ever. It’s the perfect game for straight men to feed their insecurity that they’re never masculine enough. Funny how as a gay man, I am a man, it’s just that I don’t need to show it by how I talk, walk, dress, behave, for me that’s something apart. Being a guy just means I have a penis, but I’ve seen in the straight guy community that if you don’t talk X way or walk X way or do X stuff then you can be perceived as a “homo”. I’ve even met straight guys that every time they say something sweet or nice they follow it with a “no homo”, so many times that it’s disturbing. Anyway, this game just shows how obsessed with guns beer, drugs, sex and a “bad boy image” men can be and shows all of this as cool, also things like misogyny, homophobia and transphobia. People like these games because in real life they see these things as cool too and the game uses that to attract people. I see people defending the game saying is an exaggeration of that and it’s making fun of that, well, funny ’cause that’s how many young straight men talk and act these days, so are they an exaggeration of themselves making fun of themselves too? It’s a misogynist and homophobic world, specially in the ultra-macho straight man world, and I don’t know how playing one is making fun of it, it just makes it seem cool and ok. And putting a few ok gay characters doesn’t make everything else right. Give it to most men to feel they need guns and hookers to feel powerful and most of all to feel like “men” because now in society being a man is a behavior, when it’s not, and sadly when you are gay they see you as different and weaker, but you are a man too 100%. And I just see this game selling that behavior of guns, sex, ghetto behavior and drugs as cool and as how straight men can show how manly they are. I don’t know why, but making those things don’t make me feel more of a man, ’cause like I said being a man is you were born one and that’s it, but I see straight men that use homophobia, gun video games, cars, beer, and all that as a way to show they are men and no “homo”, when I never have to prove I’m a man or prove I’m not straight, because now in society being cool and a macho man is like a bar that goes up and down depending of what you do and how you behave. Well, sad for those people, ’cause I know I’m a guy, I don’t need to prove it, and I don’t need to behave all “macho” to prove anything, but this game shows all that as cool and funny, but at the end it shows negative stuff like misogyny and homophobia and transphobia, and the sad part is, that’s how many men are in this modern society. I know it’s just a game, but the message it shows is that you have to be an idiot with a gun playing cool and be the macho or the room or you are weak, and it ignores all the women in the world and gays and transgender people who are even stronger and more intelligent than these kind of characters. Anyway, that’s why I don’t like these games, ’cause it shows people that being X way is cool and anything different is weird and disgusting. Stupid game made about masculinity, which is something very stupid, you were born a man, you don’t need to be “masculine” to prove yourself or others, but yeah, let’s make a game about that so people can obsess even more about that! It’s made to feed on the insecurity men have of not being masculine enough, if the character you used was a gay guy or a feminine gay guy or a transgender person or even a woman, it wouldn’t have sold that many copies. Just think about that.

  12. […] She also doesn’t follow the horrible stereotypes seen in Grand Theft Auto 5 (again, check out Mitch’s stuff). Of course Zoomin.Tv Games mucks up by focusing on her genitalia, and even imposes a […]

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