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.
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.
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.
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?